I like lists better than awards, so I look forward to the Academy Award nominations more than the Oscars ceremony itself. The process of whittling down countless contenders to a handful of nominees is more interesting than the process of picking one nominee as the winner — and this year is no exception.
This year — for the first time since the 1960s — a family film led the pack in more nominations, including Best Picture. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo racked up 11 nominations, followed by a nostalgic ode to silent film, The Artist, with 10.
Other Best Picture contenders with multiple nominations included the old-fashioned, family-friendly Steven Spielberg epic War Horse and the crowd-pleasing Civil Rights-era drama The Help, with six nominations apiece, and the charming Woody Allen comedy Midnight in Paris and the popular Brad Pitt baseball movie Moneyball, with four.
Among notable snubs cited by Oscar watchers were a number of critically acclaimed films and performances involving disturbing, envelope-pushing sexual and/or violent content — Shame, Drive, Bridesmaids, and We Need to Talk About Kevin among them. Even The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, with five noms, didn’t make the Best Picture or Director races.
Unlike past years with darkly edgy films like No Country for Old Men, The Departed, and Million Dollar Baby dominating the Oscar scene, this year Hollywood seemed to be in a more traditional mood (not unlike last year, when the Academy crowned The King’s Speech, one of the best recent Hollywood treatments of marriage). There was even a Best Picture nod for the sentimental, critically unloved 9/11 family drama Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Emblematic of the Academy’s mood was its choice between two films that debuted at Cannes and were widely seen as contrasting, antithetical works: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Both are difficult, divisive art films on a scale both cosmic and intimate, and both deal with the end of the world — but where The Tree of Life embraces hope, grace, and divine mystery, Melancholia is profoundly nihilistic. The Academy tapped The Tree of Life for three noms, including Best Picture, but it ignored Melancholia.
This year’s most family-friendly film, The Muppets, was deservedly nominated for Best Song (“Man or Muppet?”). Alas, Pixar — which has done more to raise the bar for family entertainment than anyone else — stumbled with the mediocre Cars 2, its first feature not nominated for best animated film since the category was created.
Not all my favorite films on American screens in 2011 were nominated (including some eligible in last year’s Oscars based on international release dates). A number of notable documentaries were snubbed: The outstanding and inspiring Buck was short-listed but not nominated, and both The Interrupters and Cave of Forgotten Dreams were ignored.
The sublime French drama Of Gods and Men, a 2010 film that was easily my favorite American release of 20111, wasn’t short-listed, let alone nominated, for best foreign-language film. The beauty of the Christian ideal has not been better honored in a film in at least the last quarter century. If you see only one film this year that the Academy should have recognized and didn’t, see this one.
The Way (2011) Martin Sheen stars as a lapsed American Catholic who reconnects with his faith while dealing with the death of his son, who died at the outset of the Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James, an important Spanish pilgrimage route. Written and directed by Sheen’s son Emilio Estevez, The Way thoughtfully explores how the accoutrements of religion can enrich us in ways that “spirituality” can’t. (Teens and up)
A Night to Remember (1958) Newly available from Criterion (in anticipation of the 3-D rerelease of James Cameron’s Titanic), Roy Baker’s British-made docudrama remains the classiest cinematic depiction of the disaster. Not only is it clearer than Cameron’s film on the physics of the sinking, it also highlights the drama of two other ships in the vicinity: the Carpathia, steaming to the rescue but too far away, and the Californian, much closer but oblivious to the Titanic’s plight. (Kids and up)
Senna (2011) An intriguing documentary about a fascinating sports hero whose devout Catholic faith was an inseparable part of his legend, Senna recounts the life and untimely death of Brazilian Formula 1 racing icon Ayrton Senna da Silva, who was killed in a crash in 1994. Working entirely from archival footage, director Asif Kapadia and his editors assemble a portrait of Senna as a symbol of hope and pride to impoverished Brazilians, while also acknowledging his personal failings and foibles. (Teens and up)
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