By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jan 16, 2015 at 9:26 AM

Every January, like a late, rude and often incorrect Santa, the Academy wakes the film-obsessed nation bright and early to present its picks for the best movies of the past year.  And every year, it’s a three-way tie for headlines between the expected, the exciting and the excrement (literally in this year’s case, thanks to an unfortunate verbal typo of "Mr. Turner" cinematography nominee Dick Pope by Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs that briefly turned everyone watching into a giggly middle schooler).

Let’s let the anger stew for a bit and start with the easiest stuff first – and the stuff that actually matters to all of this well-dressed, self-fueling rigmarole – that being the expected.

The Best Picture Race

Judging from this morning’s nominations and the already announced guild finalists, it’s all lined up for a "Birdman" versus "Boyhood" battle to take place over the next month.

Mexican director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s showbiz satire scored nine Oscar nominations – tied for the most – and it’s in line to win many of them. Keaton’s close to a lock to win an otherwise tight Best Actor race, and unless there’s a sudden sentimental swing for Roger Deakins (nominated 12 times with not one win) and his predictably beautiful but unremarkable work in "Unbroken," cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is likely looking at winning back-to-back Oscars for his one-take wizardry.

Inarritu also has a solid chance of taking home some trophies for direction and original screenplay. The problem is who and what would be standing in his way: Richard Linklater and "Boyhood."

Despite coming out in the dead of summer (a rare time for an Oscar nominee, much less the frontrunner) and its limited campaigning, the little 12-year family epic has become the favorite, with one lock in Patricia Arquette as Best Supporting Actress. These two movies will be duking it out for the next month, basically battling for who is more innovative: "Boyhood" with its 12-year filming or "Birdman" with its one long take.

As of right now, "Boyhood" has the lead, but things will certainly shift and change in the next few weeks. Both have ardent defenders; both have ardent haters. For everybody who finds "Boyhood" to be an emotionally rich and evocative journey, one less about capturing drama than about simply capturing life, there’s another who finds it a meandering bore with no story. The critical craze over the film possibly hurt more than helped as well, all that praise setting viewers up for a dramatic experience it most certainly is not.

It’s a modest, quiet, subtle movie … words that will never be put in the same sentence as "Birdman." Some love the audacious theatricality of it; others find it pretentious and not half as clever as it thinks. Its brand of entertainment navel-gazing, however, is certain to appeal to Academy voters, who tend to predictably gravitate toward movies about, well, itself (see "Argo" and "The Artist" most recently). 

Meanwhile, yelling and hollering from the sidelines, eager to enter the race, is "The Imitation Game." It’s exactly the kind of fine, Great Man biopic that the Academy loves, and Harvey Weinstein is a campaign legend, so there’s a good chance the Alan Turing movie butts its way into the conversation – and significantly so. They’ve already begun with ads celebrating the movie’s homosexual rights angle (bold since Turing’s story is a tragedy, not a celebration, and the movie was too decent to show anything homosexual), which seems like epic pandering. But if there’s one group that likes being pandered to …

It still may have to overcome playing to a similar audience as "The Theory of Everything," but the buzz on the Hawking melodrama has dissipated significantly. Plus, it’s never a bad idea to count out a Weinstein movie. After all, he beat "Saving Private Ryan" and almost made "Philomania" happen. Still, there’s a good chance "The Imitation Game" ends Oscar night empty handed. A Best Adapted Screenplay win is its best bet.

Incredibly, tied for the most nominations is the little confection that could, Wes Anderson’s "The Grand Budapest Hotel." The coolest part is that Anderson did it his way, scoring nine nominations with the most Wes Anderson-y movie one could imagine. The Academy came to him, not the other way around, and that’s awesome.

There’s a chance, however, that it also comes away with nothing. "Birdman" and "Boyhood" are still the favorites in many of its categories, but the bigger issue is that it has the same distributor – Fox Searchlight – as the former. Seeing the promise there, it likely puts more effort pushing "Birdman" than Anderson’s quirky little oddball. Its best bet is a very deserving Best Production Design, but the fact that such a quirky, uncompromisingly auteurist movie released all the way back last March has won so many nominations is a pretty wonderful victory of its own.


For all the Internet negativity focused on snubs and overrated complaints (we’ll get to those, so guilty as charged), there are actually a lot of really positive things to find in this batch of nominations. "Whiplash" fans had no need to toss chairs yesterday, as it scored an impressive five nominations – including much deserved nods for Editing, Supporting Actor and Best Picture. It also survived some mild category controversy, as its seemingly original screenplay was quietly moved into adapted. No matter; it got into the oddly weaker of the two categories this year.

Will it win much? Other than Simmons for Best Supporting Actor, not likely. But the Best Picture nomination likely means a wide re-release for awards season purposes, which means more people get the chance to see the best movie of the past year. Once again, I’d call that a victory.

Other victories? Laura Dern thankfully snuck into Best Supporting Actress for her heart-breaking turn in "Wild," while Marion Cotillard’s actress nomination for the tiny "Two Days, One Night" shows a nice willingness on the part of the Academy really look for worthy nominees rather than go with the predictable, heavily campaigned ones (fake cough, "Cake," additional fake cough).

The gorgeous "Ida" was predictably nominated for Best Foreign Film, but it also snagged a spot in Best Cinematography for its beautiful black-and-white work. Joaquin Phoenix was ignored – as were many great actors this year – but "Inherent Vice" at least scored an Adapted Screenplay nomination for PTA, who was the first person to dare bring the dense tangle of Pynchon’s work to the screen. Best of all, none of us have to say the phrase "Oscar-nominated ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction.’"


And while we’re on the topic of huge piles of dung, we now get to the excrement portion of the Oscar nominations. And there’s plenty to go around this year.

Despite word of some late surging, "Nightcrawler" was left with only one nomination, and it wasn’t for Jake Gyllenhaal’s eerily gaunt turn. Jennifer Aniston was denied a nomination for "Cake," though since nobody’s really seen that, nobody’s particularly upset – save for the marketing department for "Cake," who was banking entirely on a nomination to sell the tiny film.

"Foxcatcher" was likely the ninth Best Picture nominee, but it’s stuck looking in rather than competing. It’s not much of a surprise; buzz was low on the movie, mainly because it’s a tremendously awkward and uncomfortable watch. Still, it’s odd that the nominations say "Foxcatcher" had two great performances, a great screenplay and a great director, but apparently that doesn’t equal a great movie. It’s limited overall enthusiasm likely hurt.

Best Documentary featured two snubs: "Life Itself" and "The Overnighters," both worthy candidates. "Life Itself" director Steve James has a turbulent history with the documentary branch going back to "Hoop Dreams," and it appears the branch has not gotten over it yet (in case you needed more reason to think awards season was petty). Plus, perhaps a movie about a critic – even the most beloved critic of all – did not connect.

The omission that had Twitter all … well, all a twitter was "The Lego Movie." Its earworm theme "Everything Is Awesome" received a nomination for Best Original Song, but the movie itself was oddly left out of the animated category. There are rumors of trouble and favoritism inside the animation branch – the same group that gave "Brave" the award two years ago despite being tremendously weak Pixar. Perhaps they didn’t like the overall CGI/live-action mix. No matter the case, I guess "The Lego Movie" will simply have to dry its tears with the millions of dollars it made at the box office.

Yellow block people weren’t the only ones left out of the Oscar nominations. All 20 acting nominees are white, something not seen since 1995. And at the tip of the outrage spear was "Selma."

The night before the nominations came out, I told my roommates that it wouldn’t surprise me at all if "Selma" was left out entirely. Predictably and disappointingly, I woke up the next day to see I wasn’t far off. The MLK biopic scored a total of two nominations, one for Best Song (likely a win too) and one for Best Picture. But it’s a Best Picture nomination that feels like a snub, like a sympathy compliment.

David Oyelowo, whose performance in "Selma" captures the towering presence of MLK and the humanity? Left out. Director Ava DuVernay – who artfully captures the pain and triumph of the Civil Rights Movement with clear eyes, while leaving the audience with watery ones – would’ve been the first female black director to receive a nomination. She's nowhere to be found. Bradford Young would’ve been the second black cinematography nominee ever, for "Selma" or "A Most Violent Year." Absent.

As I’ve said previously, "Selma" is a terrific film, the kind of complex and emotional Great Man biopic others think they are making. It has a 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and an A+ Cinemascore, meaning critics and audiences are on the same page. Yet the Academy is apparently not – even more odd since "Selma" is right down its alley. It’s set up on a tee for the voters, and they didn’t even bother to swing.

There are plenty of potential reasons for its absence. Paramount notoriously mishandled the campaign, not getting its screeners out until late and not building much buzz within the guilds. Writer and Academy member Michael H. Weber ("The Spectacular Now," "500 Days of Summer") tweeted that "Selma" was the last screener to arrive. After digesting the glut of dramatic Oscar films, perhaps few wanted to end it and unwind with a look into an unpleasant chapter of our nation's history with race. 

The late release didn’t get much stirring in regular audiences before the votes came in too. In the hectic Oscar season push, buzz is big, and despite its quality, "Selma" simply didn’t have it – or at least enough time to build it. 

There were also the widely published complaints of misrepresenting LBJ, essentially coming down to people being upset a powerful white man didn’t get enough credit for the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a midguided argument – and one that misrepresents the movie. LBJ is not a racist; he’s an exhausted realist with other stuff to do – and one apparently not levied at the equally, if not more so, inaccurate "American Sniper" and "The Imitation Game."

Racism is the hot, sexy, outraged hot take ready reason, but it’s hard to make that claim when "12 Years a Slave" just won last year. As with most racial issues, it's more complex than that. Perhaps Academy voters were exhausted about the issue from last year’s "12 Years a Slave." Perhaps there was a feeling of "we’ve already covered this." Perhaps they had a hard time connecting with a movie about a black struggle told through black eyes by black people without the usual white savior character to soften the blow of past sins (sins many in the Academy are old enough to have lived through).

Whatever the reason, it only returns the spotlight to the Academy’s reputation as old white dudes, one backed up by its notoriously miserable diversity numbers – 94 percent white, 76 percent men and an average age of 63. Add in the low nomination results for women across the board and female-led movies – with stuff like "Wild" and "Gone Girl" ghettoed in their according acting categories, apparently not worthy of Best Picture – and the Academy paints a very small view of a growingly diverse cinematic landscape.

If Paramount is smart, they parlay this snubbing into buzz and perhaps move "Selma" somehow into the Best Picture conversation (think "Argo" and the Affleck snub). Movies very rarely win with such little support in other categories. Only two other films since 1944 – "Decision Before Dawn" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral" – have been nominated for Best Picture and one other award. But "Selma" is a great enough film – and obviously timely enough – to perhaps pull it off.

Then again, the opening moments of "Selma" kept coming to me during yesterday’s huffing and puffing. In those scenes, Martin Luther King Jr. prepares to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, a hollow and empty award considering the fight is far from over. In fact, the following scene is the horrifying murder of four little girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Awards are nice; recognition is nice. But real victories happen elsewhere. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.