How ‘Bout Them Oscars?

And the copyright infringement goes to ...Salma Hayek must have been up at three in order to look as good as she did for the press conference announcing the Oscar nominations, which is held at 5:30 PST in order to dominate the day’s news on the East Coast … and even so, she looked kind of groggy, like she’d nodded off in the makeup chair just moments earlier.

Hell, maybe she thought she was still dreaming, being present at the biggest rally of Mexican talent in the history of the Academy Awards. With the not-so-curious excision of “Dreamgirls” from most of the major categories — clearly, it was supplanted in Oscar’s kitsch slot by “Little Miss Sunshine”, though it still managed to pick up a total of eight nominations — Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel” became this year’s dominant force, with nominations for Picture, Director, Screenplay and two Supporting Actress nods, for Adriano Barazza and Rinko Kikuchi.

Meanwhile, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” — probably the two best films of 2006, each of them far superior to Inarritu’s festival of artfully lit misery porn — had to settle for consolation prizes. But those prizes are still fairly impressive: “Pan’s Labyrinth” is up for no less than six statuettes, including Best Foreign-Language Film and Best Original Screenplay; that’s more than just the pat on the head the Academy has offered to most critical favorites in the past, that’s genuine recognition.

(More discourse after the jump.)

“Children of Men”, on the other hand, got the pat, with nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing — all of which are richly deserved, but which suggest the Academy missed out on its stirring emotional core … or saw it too late to benefit from the film’s curious staying power. Weeks or months after you see it, it’s still in the back of your mind, picking at you; I wonder if the ballots might have looked different if Universal had got screeners out sooner, and whether this might not be the first demonstrable casualty of the shortened window between nominations and awards.

And even Hayek’s buddy Penelope Cruz scored an acting nomination for “Volver”, proving that other people have also noticed how much more interesting and moving she is when she’s not trying to speak English. Sadly, this is Hollywood, so now she’ll be deluged with English-language offers. Which means Matthew McConaughey can count on a green light for “Sahara II: Desert Boogaloo”.

Meanwhile, “The Departed” seemed to lose a little momentum, with its powerhouse cast going mostly unrecognized; only Mark Wahlberg was nominated for his outstanding supporting role, while Leonardo DiCaprio — foolishly promoted as a lead, when the film is neatly balanced between his character and Matt Damon’s — was instead recognized for his tic-ridden turn in “Blood Diamond”. Fair enough, I guess, although it would have been nice to see Martin Sheen or Alec Baldwin get a little love. Or Damon, even. And what happened to Vera Farmiga? Gone without a trace.

Another actorly controversy was produced in the snubbing of Sacha Baron Cohen for “Borat” while still throwing him a bone with a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. The irony, of course, is that “Borat” didn’t have a script, per se; most of what we see occurs because of, or in reaction to, Cohen’s incredible improvisational performance. You know, the acting.

Speaking of acting, I can’t deny I was happy to see Eddie Murphy remain the front-runner for the Best Supporting Actor award; “Dreamgirls” may be an empty box of froth, but he’s terrific in it, turning that “James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub” bit into a fully felt character right before our eyes. It doesn’t even matter that Jimmy “Thunder” Early is a walking “Behind the Music” cliche, and the movie’s sacrificial lamb; thanks to Murphy, well, Jimmy got soul, and soul is enough.

Jennifer Hudson, though? I don’t get it. I’m pulling for a Cate Blanchett upset. And while it’d be nice if Helen Mirren won Best Actress for “The Queen”, Judi Dench is pretty damned incredible in “Notes on a Scandal”, and the awards can always do with a bit of upset. Like, say, Peter O’Toole and Forest Whitaker splitting the Actor vote, and Ryan Gosling scraping through with the win. (Will Smith? Please.)

And then there is Best Picture. I’m extremely impressed to see “Letters from Iwo Jima” up there in the final five; if the Academy was reflexively putting Eastwood up there, they’d have gone with “Flags of Our Fathers”, a much more accessible effort that was just as eligible for recognition. But it wasn’t anywhere near as good, and people seem to have noticed that; I don’t expect “Iwo Jima” will win any of its four categories, but it’s very good that it’s up there. It balances “Babel” or “Little Miss Sunshine”, two of last year’s most cynically calculated films, all on its own.

Also nominated, as you may have heard, are “The Departed” and “The Queen”. A quick scan of the Director nominations suggests that “United 93” was the other strong contender for the big prize, but lost out to “Little Miss Sunshine”; I suspect it’s really “The Queen” that stole its thunder. It’s a well-made movie, but without Mirren and Michael Sheen it’d just be a clever TV drama — and the lack of recognition for Sheen’s equally essential turn suggests it just squeaked in to most of the categories it holds. (If Mirren had been the movie’s only nomination, I wouldn’t argue this quite so strongly, but throw in Picture, Director and Original Screenplay, and you’ve got a movement. Sheen surely made the Supporting Actor short list.)

Me, I’d go with “The Departed” in a walk. Of the five nominees, it’s the only one that truly thrilled me as a cinematic experience; “The Queen” operates on a much more modest scale, and “Letters from Iwo Jima” — while very, very good — doesn’t really transcend the war genre. “The Departed”, on the other hand, is genuinely alive in every frame; Scorsese’s back at his peak, getting great performances from every single member of his cast (yes, even Jack Nicholson) and directing sequences as though he actually cared about telling a story, rather than winning awards. Even if it’s “just a cop picture”, as I’ve heard it described, it’s the best cop picture I’ve seen in a decade. And it comes by its cynicism honestly, instead of affecting it for cheap laughs or artificial tension.

I have a sick feeling that the everybody-hurts posturing of “Babel” will wind up snowing the voters — just look at its out-of-nowhere triumph at the Golden Globes — and Marty will get screwed again, but I choose to believe there’s still hope.

Hope is nice.

3 thoughts on “How ‘Bout Them Oscars?”

  1. Ack, Children of Men got robbed! It’s the most powerful movie I’ve seen in years.

    At least they got the Ryan Gosling nomination right.

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