Do You Hear What I Hear?

And so here we are, on the morning after – well, not quite. It was only earlier (much, much earlier, if you live on the West Coast) today that the Oscar nominations were announced, although the current state of entertainment news and blogging means that by now you’ve probably read at least a minimum of five lists of the biggest “snubs” and two lengthy analyses of why, exactly, the Academy Awards don’t really matter. Or do. Or are racist. A combination of all of the above, most likely.

As someone who generally views awards-watching as an outlet, more akin to a crossword puzzle hobby than a platform for analyzing cultural trends, I find myself increasingly less interested in the latter. The Oscars are what they are, a reflection of the industry rather than the heart of it. Change Hollywood and you’ll change the awards, not the other way around. In the meantime, let’s have some fun scratching our heads over this altogether peculiar group and their choices for the best of the past year in film.

And really, what a maddeningly unpredictable slate when you get right down to it. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the pure number of contenders this time around; while there was very little revealed this morning that was shocking, there were any number of small surprises, both good and bad, depending on your point of view. Despite agonizing for many hours (and making some last-minute changes that I quite regret in hindsight), I couldn’t do much better in my predictions than three or four out of five in each category; Best Adapted Screenplay was the only one I nailed outright, although I’m rather pleased with going eight for nine in Best Picture.

My only mistake in that category was in my choice of which middlebrow piece would find the hearts of (most likely older) voters. While the Academy turned out to want none of the sentimentalized inside baseball of “Saving Mr. Banks” – rejecting not only the film itself but even, surprisingly, Emma Thompson’s acclaimed lead performance as “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers – they embraced Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” giving it not only a Best Picture slot but a Screenplay nod for star Steve Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope as well. I’m kicking myself, first because I had a hunch about the film for most of the season and only recently wavered, and second because I actually rather enjoyed the movie myself and it’s not the kind of film that usually ends up in my wheelhouse; a sure sign it would definitely register with the eager British bloc, then.

A greater personal disappointment was that my last-minute sinking feeling that “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which got mostly shut out on the guild circuit, wasn’t going to register was indeed borne out, in fairly brutal fashion. I prepared myself for the eventuality that passion votes for “Her” might take away some crucial support for the Coens’ latest in Best Picture, but not even a consolatory screenplay nomination? That hurts, and I think the Oscars will end up on the wrong side of history with that one. The other really stinging snub was of Sarah Polley’s remarkable “Stories We Tell” in Best Documentary Feature; granted, I haven’t seen all of the nominees in that category, but I have a hard time imagining Polley’s devastatingly personal film not beating out any of them. We’ll always have the EMOs, Sarah.

In terms of personal (or is it pyrrhic?) victories, though, there were certainly some. The Best Picture recognition for “Her” is richly deserved, and I had hoped/thought that Spike Jonze could even garner enough support for his unique, subtle work to slide into the Best Director slate. As it happened, that spot went instead to Alexander Payne, whose “Nebraska” I also greatly admired (more thoughts on several of these films coming soon, but I thought Payne’s work here far superior and more coherent than the inconsistent “The Descendants”). Payne also edged out Paul Greengrass, whose work on “Captain Phillips” earned a Director’s Guild nomination, but always seemed more respected than adored this season.

That attitude extended for “Phillips” through the rest of the nominations as well. While newcomer Barkhad Abdi pulled out a Best Supporting Actor nod for his wiry, intense performance as a Somali pirate captain, Tom Hanks unexpectedly missed in the lead category. Considering he at one point seemed destined for a double nomination, a goose egg for Hanks has got to be a disappointing end to the season. The severely over-crowded Best Actor race was always going to be the place to look for surprises, and indeed there were a couple. Late-season-bloomers Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale both crashed the party, pushing vets Hanks and Redford out of the picture. DiCaprio’s all-in performance is assuredly one of my favorites of the year, so his presence was another bright spot for me – in what suddenly seems a wide-open race, he might even have a shot at the win (McConaughey didn’t overly impress with his cut-off Golden Globes speech).

Bale’s nomination, along with Amy Adams pushing out Thompson in Best Actress, meant that the predictably popular “American Hustle” moves on with a nomination in all four acting categories – an astounding feat when you consider that makes two years in a row that David O. Russell has accomplished that for his cast (before “Silver Linings Playbook,” no one had done it for about 40 years). Once a highly unpopular director due to on-set fights with the likes of George Clooney and Lily Tomlin, Russell’s going to have actors beating down his door now.

Riding that love from the actor’s branch, “Hustle” tied for the field lead with “Gravity” at ten total nominations; “12 Years a Slave” right behind with nine. Those are your three contenders for the moment, and it’s really anybody’s game that I can see. Keep an eye out on the guild awards for the next month, and pay attention to the craft category victors early on Oscar night for signs of where we’ll be headed at the big finish.

A few final, random thoughts:

  • The most surprising snub of the day may have Sean Bobbitt’s exquisite cinematography for “12 Years a Slave.” Philippe Le Sourd and Phedon Papamichael both did great work as well on “The Grandmaster” and “Nebraska,” respectively, but that’s a wallop to Fox Searchlight’s campaign for McQueen’s film.
  • The masterful Roger Deakins, meanwhile, will get to lose that category yet again as the sole nominee for Denis Villeneuve”s thriller “Prisoners” (Deakins is 0 for 10 lifetime at the Oscars).
  • Deakins’ peer in futility, composer Thomas Newman (0 for 11 so far), also managed to be his film’s only nominee, for the original score of “Saving Mr. Banks.”
  • Indie animation distributor GKIDS worked its magic again to bring French charmer “Ernest and Celestine” into the fold. Particularly impressive considering it appears to have pushed out Pixar’s rote “Monsters University” (now only the studio’s second film, after “Cars 2,” to miss a nomination in Animated Feature).
  • Sally Hawkins earned her first-ever Oscar nod for her supporting turn in “Blue Jasmine.” Nice try, Academy, but it still doesn’t make up for ignoring her in “Happy-Go-Lucky.”
  • Jonah Hill is now a two-time Oscar nominee, and it’s not even really egregious. Try to figure that one out.
  • The “Jackass” franchise is now Oscar-nominated, and it also kind of makes sense. What is happening?
  • John Williams earned his 49th nomination for Original Score, because John Williams wrote something this year. Did anyone even SEE “The Book Thief?”
  • Speaking of not seeing things, this year’s winner for Best Original Song Nominee That Sends Everyone Scrambling to IMDB to Find a Movie You’re Pretty Sure Chris Hemsworth Just Made Up is “Alone Yet Not Alone” from “Alone Yet Not Alone” (no I still don’t know what it is, don’t ask me).
  • Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures became only the fourth producer ever to earn double nod in the same year, for “American Hustle” and “Her.” In the past two years, she’s carried five films to a total of twenty-four total nominations. Watch out, Hollywood.

Review: Gravity

Sandra Bullock faces the elements (of an extraterrestrial order) in Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning “Gravity.”

There are movies, and then there are movies. The former capture our attention, be they on laptop or even cell phone screen; the latter demand it, leaping out from the biggest theater possible and throttling our senses. The immersive experience alone catapults the film to rare air. Sometimes the same film can fall into both categories: no matter how much shade has been thrown its way (including, admittedly, by yours truly), “Avatar” in the theater was a movie; on a dinky flatscreen TV, it’s just a movie.

“Gravity,” the long-awaited thriller by preternaturally gifted Alfonso Cuarón, thoroughly belongs to the cinema of spectacle. See it in the theaters. See it in 3D. See it in IMAX. This is a film that relies on space, in both the literal and punny senses of the word. When it eventually drifts out of the cineplex and on to home video, it will remain, unlike it’s pulpy cousin twice removed “Avatar,” an engaging (though heavy-handed) parable of survival and struggle, an extraterrestrial take on Jack London. But it will not retain the visceral, inescapable impact of the big screen. As the image towers over the audience, we can empathize quite physically with a protagonist dwarfed by the elements.

The narrative setup is elegant in its simplicity: two astronauts, a rookie mission specialist (Sandra Bullock) and a veteran commander (George Clooney), find themselves adrift in space after their mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope encounters catastrophic damages. Their lives depend on their own ingenuity, determination and about five thousand leprechauns’ worth of luck. You could call this science-fiction, for several reasons: first, the setting in an apparently alternate universe where the US space shuttle program remains operational, and second, the story bears more than a passing resemblance to Ray Bradbury’s stunning short story “Kaleidoscope.” Perhaps it a sign that we are indeed living in the future that nothing about the film struck me as especially implausible, despite the extraordinary measures depicted (and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s twitter feed to the contrary).

The inherent tension of the situation keeps “Gravity” pulsing along even in its few quiet moments. At a breezy 91 minutes (including credits), this is a fabulous example of a film delivering on his premise, no more, no less. A less confident director might’ve felt the need to pad out the suspense with even more contrived complications, but Cuarón is savvy enough to know that one problem is enough when you’re talking about surviving the vacuum of space.

That is not to say the film doesn’t have its embellishments. The screenplay, co-written by Cuarón with his son, Jonas, is riddled with pseudo-spiritualism and emotional revelations that feel disingenuous considering its distraction from the urgent, moment to moment task of just staying alive. Sandra Bullock’s protagonist in particular is weighed down by a backstory clearly calculated to heap on unnecessary and redundant sympathy. It would be one thing if “Gravity” were actually interested in engaging with the quandaries of what motivates us to live (if it were, say, “The Grey”), but this is a film too focused on raw, sensual impact to accept much in the way of philosophical ambiguity.

The character is saved, though (in a meta sense), by Bullock’s surprising performance. “Gravity” is not the sort of film we would expect to star the likable, sharp comedienne, but the strain of such a challenging and restricted role has brought out some of the best work of her career. Other, younger actresses such as Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johannson were in the running for the lead role before Bullock proved herself a steady box office draw in middle age; we can be thankful for that, as a slightly older performer entirely changes the complexion of the Dr. Stone present in the script. Bullock is not reliant on that overburdened backstory to make her plight resonate – she has a certain world-weariness to her from the start that makes her choices along the journey that much more significant.

And with “Gravity,” it really is all about the journey, in quite an immediate way. Emmanuel Lubezki, the groundbreaking cinematographer who worked with Cuarón on “Y Tu Mamá También” and “Children of Men” (as well as with Terrence Malick on “The New World” and “The Tree of Life”) has created some of the most fluid, liberating camera movements in cinematic history, using the film’s combination of digital and practical effects to his full advantage. On the one hand, it seems disappointing that “CGI-infused epic” seems to be the automatic way to an Oscar for a cinematographer these days, but films like “Avatar” and “Hugo” were unable to exploit digital technology in the same way Lubezki does here. In extended long takes and invisible transitions from third- to first-person perspective, this is one of the first films ever that really feels like it takes place in a completely 3D, 360-degree perspective world. The camera merely floats through space, capturing images freely and recklessly.

These craft elements, which may signal the start of a new era of free play for filmmakers, belie the director’s extraordinary control and precision. No one would mistake Cuarón for Kubrick, but there’s a quiet shot here of Bullock, hovering inside a space station, looking like nothing more than a fetus, that I think is a deliberate homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Kubrick’s star-child. The ending of that sci-fi classic is troubling: the triumphant evolution of David Bowman is complicated by the cyclical callbacks to the horrors and violence of progress in the film’s famed opening sequence. As witnessed by the finale of “Children of Men” (which departed significantly from P.D. James’ source material), Cuarón is a fundamentally a much more optimistic filmmaker. “Gravity” is just another of his visually arresting, gut-punching tributes to the resilience of flawed, stubborn, beautiful hot-mess humanity.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars