Welcome to my annual column, "I read too much into the Oscar nominations list, so you don't have to!" As I write this on Thursday in the aftermath of the announcement, many people are swilling champagne (American Hustle and Gravity lead the pack, with 10 nominations apiece), some are wiping their foreheads with relief (uberproducer Harvey Weinstein, always an aggressive campaigner, was pushing two films this year, August: Osage County and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom; both were nearly shut out, but Osage County managed to eke out acting nominations for Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts), and others are crying into their beer. I will parse the winners and also-rans, and tell you what it means to me.
Winner: Gravity. Ten Oscar nominations, including actress (Sandra Bullock), director (Alfonso Cuaron, a near-lock to win) and cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki, also a near-lock). It's the highest-grossing best picture nominee, raking in $257-million (U.S.) domestic so far; and it's the only best-pic nominee in the top 10 box office performers of 2013. (It's number seven; you have to go way down to nos. 29 and 30 to find the next highest, Captain Phillips and American Hustle). I predict it will also take home a handful of technical awards.
Loser: Gravity. It's the only best picture nominee that isn't also nominated for its screenplay. You would think those things would go hand in hand, right? There are 10 screenplay nominations every year (five original and five adapted), and it only makes sense that a great picture would have a great screenplay. But I checked the rosters back to 2000, and there's an interesting pattern. Most of the time, the best picture contenders are nominated with their screenplays. The exceptions tend to be big box office performers that aren't especially brainy, including Moulin Rouge in 2001, Avatar and The Blind Side in 2009, The Help in 2011, and Les Misérables in 2012. Gravity's script is widely acknowledged as its weakest component.
And here's something interesting: Gravity is the only best picture nominee that's also nominated for visual effects. The other four nominees in that category are The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger and Star Trek Into Darkness. In a Hollywood that's increasingly divided into, one the one hand, effects-heavy, big-ticket pictures that earn money but not awards; and on the other hand, script-driven movies that win awards but aren't huge earners, Gravity is the one colossus that straddles both.
Winner: Writer/director Spike Jonze, Her. His original screenplay for the wistful, sci-fi flavoured drama is truly that – original – and feels destined to win its category. As well, his film is nominated for four other awards, including best picture.
Loser: Spike Jonze. Unfortunately, he didn't get a director nomination, and his leading man, Joaquin Phoenix, did not score a best actor nod – to me, the most criminal oversight of the list.
Winner: Hollywood studios. Back in 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, terrified that independent pictures were stealing all the glory, bent the best picture nomination procedure into a pretzel in order to accommodate more films. Every year since, more and more studio films have been finding their way back onto the list. This year, many of the best picture contenders are splashy, expensive affairs: real U.S. Navy warships in Captain Phillips, purpose-built technology in Gravity, wretched excess for three solid hours in The Wolf of Wall Street.
Loser: Indie films. Nebraska may be in black and white and Philomena has a "little film that could" feel, but they're still more pretty than gritty. The onslaught of Sundance-style edginess seems to have halted this year; buzzed-about movies such as Fruitvale Station and The Spectacular Now did not make the cut.
Winners: Many acting nominees had banner years. Amy Adams got a best actress nod for American Hustle and could easily have been nominated for best supporting actress for Her. Jennifer Lawrence, supporting actress nominee for American Hustle, steals that film, and also rules the box office: her Hunger Games: Catching Fire was the highest-grossing movie of 2013. Matthew McConaughey scored a best actor nod for Dallas Buyers Club, but also dazzled in Mud and his brief but indelible cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street. Christian Bale, a best actor nominee for American Hustle, could easily have earned a nod in the same category for the overlooked Out of the Furnace. And Leonardo DiCaprio, best actor nominee for throwing cash around in The Wolf of Wall Street, also threw it around in The Great Gatsby.
Losers: With only 20 acting slots, a lot of big names are disappointed. Robert Redford (All Is Lost), Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said – I would have loved to see her name or her co-star's, the late James Gandolfini, on the lists), Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels' The Butler), the two leads from both Blue is the Warmest Color and Before Midnight, and Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) have been bandied about as potential nominees for months. They can exit the party circuit now.
Other surprise non-nominees include the Coen brothers for directing Inside Llewyn Davis, Nicole Holofcener for writing Enough Said, and the films World War Z, Lone Survivor (which is excellent but unseen) and Labor Day (in any other year, Kate Winslet would have been on the list). I would have loved to have seen the raunchy comedy This is the End on the writing list, but it would have been a shock. And speaking of shocks, the biggest flop of the year, The Lone Ranger, scored two nominations, for makeup and hairstyling, and for visual effects.
Losers (it pains me to say this): Canadians. Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell seemed like a sure bet for a best documentary nod, but didn't make the cut. Director Jean-Marc Vallée is no doubt thrilled that his Dallas Buyers Club earned six nominations, and that McConaughey and Jared Leto are the men to beat in the best actor and best supporting actor categories, respectively. But it must sting a little that Vallée isn't on the best director list. Director Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners has to content itself with only one nomination, for cinematographer Roger Deakins. Best animated short is usually a Canadian stronghold; not this year. Arcade Fire's William Butler and Owen Pallett (nominated for best score for Her) will have to wave the Maple Leaf for everyone else.
Most overrated: The so-called Golden Globes effect. I'm going to keep repeating this until people hear me: The Golden Globes have nothing whatsoever do with the Oscars. There is no voter overlap. The Golden Globes are a mere marketing tool, a three-hour free commercial for movies in a crowded season. That's the only reason stars put out, and why their employers hope they win. This year, the Golden Globes had no impact on the Oscars, because Oscar voting closed five days before the Globes. This explains why everybody at the Globes got so loopy drunk this year: They were enjoying a brief pocket of safety. Now, no matter how thrilled, shocked or blasé the Oscar nominees are, all have one thing in common: It's time to go back out there and work it.