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Surprises and Snubs: An Expert Responds to the Oscar Nominations

As a reflection of the state of American film culture, the Academy Awards nominations giveth and yet they also taketh away, as supported by Thursday’s announcement of who and what could win golden glory when the 88th Oscar ceremony takes place on February 28.

After last year, when each of the eight nominees in the Best Picture category revolved around a male lead, let’s applaud the inclusion of two celebrations of female fortitude, “Brooklyn” and “Room." (Both films received Best Actress nominations—Saoirse Ronan for "Brooklyn" and Brie Larson for "Room.") But let us express our regret that “Carol,” an elegantly passionate tale of forbidden love between two women (played by Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, both nominated for their performances), did not make the cut. Yet again, the voters opted to stick with eight nominees when they could have gone with 10. Also out in the cold: the film’s director, Todd Haynes.

We can be happy that smart, well-made blockbusters are being encouraged by the appearance of “The Martian” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” among the Best Picture candidates. But be sympathetic to those who were rooting for 2015’s box-office juggernaut “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens” to join them, although it did get five other nominations.

Do give a cheer for the appearance of the brutally honest and timely rap biopic “Straight Outta Compton” in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. But decry the lack of diversity for the second year in a row in the acting categories, especially when such talents as Idris Elba (“Beasts of No Nation”), Will Smith ("Concussion"), Michael B. Jordan (“Creed”) and the cast of “Straight Outta Compton” were in the running. At least Chris Rock, hosting the Oscar show for the second time, can pretty much be counted on to address this issue during his opening monologue with appropriate indignation. 

And let’s give a big “Yo!” to “Creed’s” Sylvester Stallone, 69, who snagged a Best Supporting Actor bid for his reprisal of boxer Rocky Balboa, the character he created 39 years ago that earned him his only other Oscar nod for acting. But feel for Ridley Scott, 78, who lost out on a fourth chance to finally win a directing Oscar for “The Martian” when his expected spot went to first-timer Lenny Abrahamson of “Room” instead.

Meanwhile, “Spotlight,” the thought-provoking account of how the Boston Globe covered the Catholic Church’s pedophile-priest scandal, had been the anointed one to beat by critics ever since it premiered at early fall film festivals. But even though it collected six nominations, the drama now stands in the shadow of three other particularly notable, multi-nominated Best Picture contenders: "The Revenant," "The Big Short" and "The Martian." 

“The Revenant,” which won big at the Golden Globes recently, leads the pack with 12 nominations. This includes a Best Actor bid for star Leonardio DiCaprio, who is the surest nominee to win this year after missing out on an acting Oscar four other times. But director Alejandro G. Iñárritu's violent wilderness adventure will have strong competition from “Mad Max: Fury Road” with 10 nominations.

It might be difficult for a sequel like “Mad Max: Fury Road” to take Best Picture, considering only two have ever won—1974’s “The Godfather, Part II” and 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” But 70-year-old “Mad Max” helmer George Miller, whose diverse resume includes “Babe: Pig in the City” and “Lorenzo’s Oil,” has a good chance to grab the gold in the directing category on his first try, given that Iñárritu won last year for “Birdman.” The last director to triumph two years in a row was 65 years ago, when Joseph L. Mankiewicz won back-to-back trophies for 1949’s “A Letter to Three Wives” and 1950’s “All About Eve.”

But don’t sell “The Big Short” short. The housing-crisis dramedy that is up for Best Picture along with four other nominations, including an all-important Best Director spot for Adam McKay, has risen steadily in popularity during awards season and could be a spoiler.

And don’t totally discount “The Martian,” either, despite its lack of attention for Scott’s efforts. Not only does the space rescue drama rank third in total nominations with seven, it is the only other Best Picture title besides “The Revenant” that has a nomination for Best Actor, with Matt Damon receiving his third shot in the category (he shared a Best Original Screenplay win with Ben Affleck for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting”). Statistically speaking, few movies win Best Picture without a male lead in contention, too.

Other races of interest:

Two Big Write-offs: Celebrated scribe Aaron Sorkin was skipped over for his adapted screenplay for “Steve Jobs.” His possible replacement: Nick Hornby for “Brooklyn.” And comic breakout Amy Schumer was skipped over for her original script for “Trainwreck.” Instead, the Academy continued its love affair with sci-fi this year by selecting Alex Garland for “Ex Machina.”

Outsider Animation: As expected, Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion “Anomalisa,” Pixar’s “Inside Out” and Liongate’s “Shaun the Sheep Movie” are on the list for Best Animated Feature Film. But voters opted to ignore such Hollywood product as “The Peanuts Movie,” “The Good Dinosaur” and “Minions” for two foreign entries: Braziliian filmmaker Alê Abreu’s “Boy and the World,” a near-silent film whose language is backwards Portuguese, and Japan’s “When Marnie Is There.” Both movies are distributed by GKIDS, whose run of a total eight nods in the category—second only to Disney—began with 2010’s “The Secret of Kells.”

The Big 5-0: That is how many Oscar nominations that 83-year-old composer John Williams now has after being recognized for his “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens” score. He hasn’t won in the category since 1993’s “Schindler’s List.”

Razzies-Schmazzies: While the S&M romance “Fifty Shades of Grey” tied with the dreaded "Jupiter Ascending," “Pixels” and “Paul Blart Mall Cop 2” for the most Razzie nominations this year with six, it is the only scorned title to receive Oscar recognition. Its lone nomination? Best Original Song for “Earned It," performed by The Weeknd.

And the Award for the Most Unanticipated Nomination: That goes to “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared,” a 2013 Swedish comedy that opened here in May, now up for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Its rivals? “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Revenant.” Somewhere, “Cinderella” weeps.

A complete list of nominees for the 88th Academy Awards can be found here.
Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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