Mythic history vs. magic realism: Oscar loves Lincoln and Life of Pi

Canadians can celebrate a foreign-language nomination for ‘War Witch’ and music nods for ‘Life of Pi’ composer Michael Danna

by Brian D. Johnson

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty

With today’s announcement of the Oscar nominees, it came as no surprise that Steven Spielberg is back in the Academy’s good graces.  Lincoln leads the pack with a landslide of 12 nominations, including Best Picture, Director and three acting nods.  (Expect Spielberg’s smart, dignified epic to sweep many categories—and at least Best Picture, Best Actor for Daniel-Day Lewis and Best Adapted Screenplay for Tony Kushner.) But it was more surprising, and heartening, to see Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, based on the novel by Canadian Yann Martel, so amply rewarded with 11 nominations, including Original Score and Original Song for Canadian composer Michael Danna. Life of Pi is, in a sense, this year’s Hugo, a conjuring of old-fashioned movie magic through the lens of the latest 3D visual technology.

Somehow, however, the Academy failed to recognize the remarkable performance by Life of Pi‘s novice lead, Suraj Sharma, who carried the entire film. Yet it did anoint another novice, nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, making her the youngest Best Actress nominee in history for her bravura performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild. This year’s designated Little Movie That Could, it received four nominations, including Best Director for Benh Zeitlin, a New Yorker making his feature-film debut with a magic realist fable set in the Louisiana flood-waters of Hurricane Katrina.

Quvenzhané Wallis will be competing with a veteran eight decades her senior —Amour‘s Emmanuelle Riva. Michael Haneke’s palliative love story is the first foreign language film to break into the Best Picture category since Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Amour‘s nominations also include Best Director, which makes it a plausible dark-horse Best Picture Winner. And it will most definitely win Best Foreign-Language Film. But those who treat the Oscars as a national sporting event can cheer on Canada’s War Witch (Rebelle), which was justifiably honoured in the fiercely competitive foreign-language field.

The Best Picture contest features three historic “true” stories (Lincoln, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty) and two magic realist fables (Life of Pi, Beasts of the Southern Wild). Zero Dark Thirty‘s chances have no doubt been weakened by the political backlash over the film’s pretext that torture played a crucial role in the capture of Osama bin Laden. And that may help explain why Zero director Katherine Bigelow, a previous winner for The Hurt Locker, was snubbed. (Ben Affleck also messed with history in Argo by demoting Ken Taylor’s role in rescuing U.S. diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis. I’m not sure American would give a damn, but the Academy has a lot of Canadian members, and that might have affected Affleck’s failure to win a directing nomination.)

Among other snubs, it’s a crime that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master didn’t make the Best Picture or Director lists, although its stars, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman were nominated in the lead and supporting actor categories respectively. Rust and Bone was strangely ignored: all the buzz suggested its star, previous Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, would be recognized for her role as a woman who loses both legs to a killer whale. Deep Blue Sea‘s Rachel Weisz, a favorite among critics’ groups, was ignored. And frankly, I felt Skyfall deserved nominations beyond cinematography, sound editing/mixing, and Best Original Song (which Adele will surely win). Javier Bardem deserved the supporting actor nomination that went to Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), and Judy Dench deserved the slot given to Helen Hunt for her brittle performance in The Sessions. But I would have given Sessions lead John Hawkes a Best Actor nod instead of Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook.

Aside from Skyfall, the blockbusters that grease Hollywood’s economy were left out in the cold. The Dark Knight didn’t get a single nomination. And The Hobbit was ignored (thankfully). As for movies that have no business being nominated, I’d single out Les Misérables. Its Best Picture slot seemed inevitable, because it’s the kind of big honking, humourless production with an all-star cast and a Broadway pedigree that automatically gets nominated, even though you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who actually likes it.

With nine Best Picture nominations, we tend to look to the Best Director category to see who the “real” contenders are. That whittles the field down to five favorites, which I’d rank according to their odds of winning: Lincoln, Life of Pi, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour and Silver Linings Playbook. This year, however, there’s a weird anomaly. Only two of the director candidates, Lincoln‘s Steven Spielberg and Pi‘s Ang Lee, appear on the Director’s Guild list of nominees. What makes this bizarre is that directors nominate directors for the Oscar, so the voting groups in the Academy and the Directors Guild should largely overlap.

Recognized by the Guild but snubbed by the Oscars are directors Katherine Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), Ben Affleck (Argo) and Tom Hooper (Les Misérables)—though I still maintain the most serious omission by both voting blocks is Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master (which my own Toronto Film Critics Association awarded in four categories, including Best Picture and Director).

For an alternate vision of the past year’s movies, check out my TFCA Awards montage:

 

 

 

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