The nominations for the 88th Academy Awards that were announced Thursday in many ways captured the cognitive dissonance of the past year in movies, a best-of-times, worst-of-times period when a panoply of diverse, vibrant characters and stories burst forth, while cinematic representation, on and off the screen, seemed to be stuck in a demographic rut.
Just as issues of gender parity were reaching critical mass in Hollywood, the movies on offer featured encouragingly diverse and potent leading roles for women, a fact acknowledged in the nominations for best actress. Charlotte Rampling, Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Lawrence were nominated for work in female-centric movies that varied widely in tone — the superbly crafted dramas “45 Years,” “Room,” “Brooklyn” and “Carol” and the anarchically high-spirited “Joy.”
“Brooklyn” and “Room” were also nominated for best picture, as was “Mad Max: Fury Road,” dominated by another commanding female character played by Charlize Theron; “Sicario,” which featured Emily Blunt in the kind of tough, sensitive performance she has recently excelled at, received three nominations.
But if the Oscar nominations recognized the good news of 2015, they also betrayed some glaring blind spots, both in what academy members deemed worthy of note and the pool they had to choose from. With the exception of standouts such as Teyonah Parris in “Chi-Raq,” Gugu Mbatha-Raw in “Concussion” and Tessa Thompson in “Creed,” 2015 was a distressingly thin year for women of color (especially compared with their rich possibilities on television). The most likely black-themed Oscar nominees — “Beasts of No Nation,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “Creed,” about an African warlord, the rap group N.W.A. and a young boxer, respectively — were almost entirely male in subject and sensibility.
Although both “Compton” and “Creed” received a nod — for best original screenplay and Sylvester Stallone’s warm supporting performance, respectively — neither managed a nomination for director or best picture. Nor did the director Todd Haynes or his movie “Carol,” which counted for one of the day’s most notable snubs: Its story of a lesbian love affair in 1950s New York was considered by many to be the most likely standard-bearer at the Oscars for a number of films this year that dealt with sexual orientation and self-identification, from the exhilaratingly ribald, spontaneous “Tangerine” to the far more staid “Freeheld” and “The Danish Girl.”
Unsurprisingly, “The Danish Girl,” about real-life transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, garnered nominations for production design and for the supporting and lead performances of Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne, respectively. The film, by Tom Hooper (who won best director in 2011 for “The King’s Speech”), epitomizes the kind of historical import, sensitivity and careful good taste — graced by a whiff of present-day topicality — that often defines the classic Academy Award contender, more derisively known as “Oscar bait.”
In recent years, the typical Oscar-bait movie has emanated from independent distributors (such as the Weinstein Co.) or boutique divisions of Hollywood’s Big Six (Fox Searchlight or Sony Pictures Classics, for example). This year, though, the tables were turned in a way that acknowledged 2015 as a strong year for films that spanned genres, budgets and audiences. “The Revenant,” Alejandro González Iñárritu’s wintry survival story that stars Leonardo DiCaprio and that led the Oscar pack with 12 nominations, isn’t part of the Fox Searchlight stable but of its parent company.
Fans of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” may complain that the serviceable but unremarkable reboot of the beloved franchise failed to make the best-picture list. (It did far better in such technical categories as visual effects and sound.) But it bodes well for the industry in general that popcorn blockbusters such as “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Martian” were artful and sophisticated enough to merit Oscar recognition, just as it bodes well that such adult-oriented dramas as Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” are still getting made and, more important, getting seen.
Still, there’s no doubt that the six weeks between nominations and the awards ceremony is most crucial for smaller companies, who can leverage the ensuing social media chatter and red-carpet moments to turn little engines that could into bona fide juggernauts — even if they don’t take home major hardware on Oscar night.
Last year, “The Imitation Game,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as World War II encryption expert Alan Turing, won only one Academy Award, for best adapted screenplay; the $14 million period piece wound up making a stunning $216 million globally on the strength of the story’s interest in Britain and Cumberbatch’s dedicated fan following.
The movies most likely to experience an Oscar-season bump this year are similarly modest in their roots and execution: “Room” (from the scrappy indie distributor A24), “Brooklyn” and especially “Spotlight,” which received six nominations Thursday, including for best picture, best director and supporting performances from Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams. “Spotlight’s” distributor, Open Road, is poised to take the film from 350 theaters to 973 this weekend, a move that analyst Shawn Robbins, with BoxOffice.com, predicts could make “Spotlight” this year’s “Imitation Game.” Having opened last November, Robbins says, “Spotlight” has enjoyed “a slow burn and a slow build. The big payoff comes with nominations because that momentum will keep growing at the box office leading up to, and possibly after, Oscar Sunday. That’s especially true for a best-picture front-runner like ‘Spotlight.’ ”
That momentum can lead to a box-office bonanza, whether a film wins or loses.
Winning may feel better, but Thursday’s other big movie story stands as an object lesson to all the filmmakers who woke up early that day, just to be disappointed when their names weren’t called. An hour before the nominations were announced, it was revealed that actor Alan Rickman had died at age 69. It bears remembering that Rickman — he of “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Harry Potter,” who was just as convincingly villainous in “Die Hard” as he was hilariously deadpan in “Galaxy Quest,” he who so recently offered a tutorial in film acting in a viral YouTube video — was nominated for an Oscar only once. He didn’t win and, judging from the span, range and virtuosity on display throughout his career, it couldn’t have mattered less.