It’s altogether fitting that a movie called “Whiplash” was the last one named Thursday when the nominations for best picture were announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
If the 87th Academy Awards lineup reflects anything, it’s an industry painfully — and occasionally exhilaratingly — torqued by social, technological and creative forces it can’t quite keep up with.
As the lucky nominees were identified — first by the directors J.J. Abrams and Alfonso Cuarón, then by actor Chris Pine and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs — an organization that has already been criticized for being old, white and male looked increasingly so. With such right-on exceptions as Sandra Adair in the editing category, precious few women were nominated for the top technical and creative awards. High-profile snubs included the author Gillian Flynn, who adapted her novel “Gone Girl” for the screen, and “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, who just a few weeks ago became the first African American woman ever nominated in that category at the Golden Globes. And David Oyelowo was overlooked for what most critics and viewers agree is an electrifying performance as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the film.
In a year when the stunning civil rights film, which chronicles the voting rights movement in 1965, dovetailed all too perfectly with current events — and when historians and former Washington officials aggressively campaigned against “Selma’s” depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson — the oversight seems all the more stark.
Had DuVernay been nominated for best director, she would have been the first African American woman to have earned that honor. For now, that barrier will stand another year.
Instead, as photographs of the nominees flashed behind the announcers, what emerged was a depressingly monochrome, uni-gendered visual tableau — reflecting the statistical realities of a steadfastly un-diverse industry. On Tuesday, Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, released her annual “Celluloid Ceiling” report tracking women’s progress within the film business. The gains she documented were underwhelming at best.
In 2014, only 17 percent of behind-the-scenes workers on films were women, a mere one percentage point increase from 2013. Women accounted for 7 percent of directors, up one percentage point from 2013, but down two percentage points from way back in 1998. (If the Oscars are any indication, women have a better time of it in nonfiction: Laura Poitras and Rory Kennedy were deservedly nominated for their documentaries “Citizenfour” and “Last Days of Vietnam.”)
With the exception of “Selma,” which gratifyingly received a nod for best picture, the plots of the nominated movies mostly hewed to a monotonous story line, centered on great men either in fact or in the making, whether it’s the Iraq war hero Chris Kyle in “American Sniper,” Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” or the tortured artists played by Michael Keaton and Miles Teller in “Birdman” and “Whiplash.”
“Boyhood” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” also nominated for best picture, may not be about great men, exactly, but they are about great guys — in the case of “Boyhood,” a kid named Mason whom we see come of age over 12 years in a miraculous time-lapse exercise. In “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Ralph Fiennes delivered a beguiling performance as a sensitive European concierge between the wars trying to do the right thing by one of the heiresses he’s made a career flattering and fawning over.
Still, even within a sea of male-driven stories, “Boyhood” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” can’t be accused of giving audiences more of the same. Indeed, along with “Selma,” “Birdman” and “The Theory of Everything,” they represent the kind of vision and daring that only movies are capable of, and desperately need to survive in a culture increasingly dominated by bingeable series on TV and the Web.
At a time when smarts, ambition and adult-friendly subject matter have found a safe grip on network TV, cable and such streaming upstarts as Netflix and Amazon, cinema has to prove its relevance. “Boyhood,” which director Richard Linklater filmed over 12 years, finally meshing real life and fiction in an absorbing coming-of-age drama, is just the kind of audacious experiment the medium needs right now. The single continuous shot with which Alejandro González Iñárritu seemed to film “Birdman” reflects a similar, go-for-broke sensibility, as does Wes Anderson’s meticulous design, staging and framing throughout “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
Although not one of these films has set the box office on fire, each has been among the most successful of its director’s career. Oscar recognition — and the earned marketing awareness that goes with it — suggests that, within a business driven by blockbusters, sequels and “pre-sold” adaptations, forward-thinking filmmakers can still find space for risk-taking and genuine originality.
With “Selma” and “The Theory of Everything,” directors DuVernay and James Marsh bring sweep and deeply expressive emotion to biopics that would otherwise be relegated to a high-toned miniseries, giving viewers a theatrical experience all the more potent and affecting for being so gracefully compressed and choreographed for the big screen.
Whether they’re working with a bold, broad canvas or in exacting miniature, these filmmakers are making the most of a cinematic medium that increasingly must prove and reinvent itself.
When the Academy nominates a feature debut such as Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” — a relatively conventional kid-and-tough-mentor tale graced by superb performances from Teller and J.K. Simmons, nominated for best supporting actor — it’s staking a claim for the Linklaters, DuVernays and Iñárritus of the future. When the Academy nominates sturdy but unremarkable fare such as “American Sniper” and “The Imitation Game” — both examples of lucid, engrossing storytelling, but neither a technical nor artistic knockout — it’s keeping one slow-moving foot stubbornly in its past. Even when it seems willing to swing for the fences, the risk-averse movie industry will always play it safe.
The 87th Academy Awards will air Sunday, Feb. 22, at 7 p.m. on ABC.