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Shining a Spotlight on Oscar contenders

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WHEN THE nominations for the 88th Academy Awards were announced, it was easy to imagine those snagging nods to quote Mad Max: Fury Road by declaring, "Oh, what a day. What a lovely day!" Those who were skipped over, however, probably felt more like Leonardo DiCaprio's character getting mauled by that bear in The Revenant.

Here, then, are the highlights, low points and other notes of interest associated with this year’s crop.

Highlights

The 10 nominations for Mad Max: Fury Road. Unless James Cameron or Orcs are involved, the Academy generally tends to overlook horror, science fiction and fantasy films in the major categories. And while director George Miller’s apocalyptic beauty racked up the accolades from the critics’ groups and the industry guilds, there was always a chance the Academy would ignore it for Best Picture as they did The Dark Knight. Happily, the film snagged an impressive 10 nominations, among them Best Picture and Best Director.

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The first Oscar nomination for Carter Burwell. Burwell has spent three decades creating wonderful scores for the Coen brothers, particularly those featured in Raising Arizona and Fargo. He also composed the music for Velvet Goldmine, Being John Malkovich, Twilight, Mr. Holmes and many more. So it’s gratifying to see him finally land a Best Original Score nomination for his exquisite work in Carol.

The Best Original Screenplay nominations for Ex Machina and Inside Out. Were there any 2015 releases as imaginative as this pair? I think not, and the nods for Alex Garland (Ex Machina) and Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley and Ronnie del Carmen (Inside Out) were richly deserved.* The technical nods for Sicario. While I’m disappointed that Benicio Del Toro didn’t earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the film, it was nice to see one of the year’s most visually dynamic pictures recognized in three other spots: Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins’ 13th nomination, and he has yet to win), Best Original Score (Jóhann Jóhannsson’s mood music is appropriately nerve-wracking) and Best Sound Editing.

Low Points

No Best Picture or Best Director nominations for Carol. This was easily the biggest disappointment of the day and cast a pall over the rest of the celebrations. It’s déjà vu for director Todd Haynes, whose 2002 masterpiece Far From Heaven dazzled the critics but only earned four nominations from the Academy. Carol fared a bit better—it earned nominations in the same four categories as Heaven and then managed two more for a total of six – but it still was snubbed for the top prize and for its openly gay director. Clearly, the same strain of homophobia that led to the whole Brokeback Mountain-Crash debacle still exists, as the predominantly male membership still shies away from works featuring LGBT characters.

The field-leading 12 nominations for The Revenant. It figures that the worst-reviewed of the eight Best Picture candidates—81% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with all but one of the other nominees in the 90s—garnered the most nominations. A sweep mentality seemed to be in effect, as the film picked up dubious nods for Best Production Design (as fellow critic Ken Hanke stated on my Facebook page, “How does a movie that takes place almost entirely in the woods get a Production Design nomination?”) and Best Costume Design (over the more opulent and imaginative threads seen in Macbeth, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Crimson Peak).

The Best Supporting Actress nominations for Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander. Carol’s Mara and The Danish Girl’s Vikander absolutely deserved their nominations—but in the Best Actress category. Instead of refusing to take the bait, the Academy mindlessly went along with the studio’s efforts at category fraud, a ridiculous development considering Mara has more screen time than co-star (and Best Actress nominee) Cate Blanchett and Vikander at least runs even with co-star (and Best Actor nominee) Eddie Redmayne. The Academy’s blunder will continue to allow the studios to get away with such nonsense.

Only one nomination for Trumbo. The year’s best movie earned some nods here and there from various industry guilds (including the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild), but it never was expected to earn any Oscar nominations aside from lead actor Bryan Cranston (who made it in) and supporting player Helen Mirren (who did not). Still, it would have been nice to see it pop up in a few more places.

The return of #OscarsSoWhite. Last year’s race, which featured an all-white-all-the-time roster of actors and actresses, gave birth to this popular hashtag, and it’s being brought back for an encore run. Despite the opportunity to recognize actors and directors of color from such films as Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation, Creed, Chi-raq and Tangerine, the (94% white) members of the Academy ignored them all. Creed only received one nomination for (white) actor Sylvester Stallone while Compton likewise only snagged a solitary bid for (white) screenwriters Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus. Perhaps anticipating this, the organization is having Chris Rock host the ceremony and recently gave Spike Lee an honorary award. Nice try, but #OscarsStillWhite.

Other Thoughts

For the most part, all Meryl Streep has to do is show up on the set and she receives an Oscar nomination. Not this year, though: Despite being eligible for both Best Actress (Ricki and the Flash) and Best Supporting Actress (Suffragette), she was sensibly overlooked for both.

On the other hand, all John Williams has to do is whistle a few notes on the set and he receives an Oscar nomination. That’s also the case this year, with Williams earning his 50th— yes, 5-0 —nomination. He’s up in the Best Original Score category for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Sicario cinematographer Roger Deakins isn’t the only person in the running who’s 0-for-13 with the Academy. Composer Thomas Newman is similarly hoping for a lucky 13 as he’s up for Best Original Score for Bridge of Spies.

In addition to her newly anointed status as a Golden Globe winner (for her performance on TV’s American Horror Story), Lady Gaga is now also an Academy Award nominee, up for Best Original Song (with Diane Warren) for “Til It Happens to You” from the documentary The Hunting Ground. While it’s the pop superstar’s first nomination, it marks the eighth for Warren—despite landing nods for tunes from such films as Mannequin, Armageddon and Beyond the Lights, she has yet to win.

OSCAR'S 8 BEST

These were the films nominated by the Academy for Best Picture. 1. The Revenant (12 nominations) 2. Mad Max: Fury Road (10) 3. The Martian (7) 4. Bridge of Spies (6) 5. Spotlight (6) 6. The Big Short (5) 7. Room (4) 8. Brooklyn (3)

BRUNSON'S 10 BEST

These were my picks for the year's best movies. 1. Trumbo 2. Inside Out 3. Carol 4. Mad Max: Fury Road 5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens 6. Spotlight 7. Ex Machina 8. The Big Short 9. Brooklyn 10. Chi-raq

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