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Top 5 Oscar Nomination Mysteries Solved

Christopher Nolan
Melissa Moseley/Warner Bros.

Why did Christopher Nolan, Lesley Manville, Marion Cotillard, Tron, and Waiting for Superman lose, and teensy upstarts win? Here's why:

1. Why did Christopher Nolan get snubbed? Twitter is aflutter with outrage over the most startling Oscar nomination omission, Inception director Christopher Nolan. 48% of Fandango poll respondents rated it the biggest Oscar snub of all. Though Inception got 8 noms,including noms for best picture and Nolan’s screenplay (his second writing nom, after 2000’s Memento), the Academy has a mysterious aversion to Nolan. The Dark Knight’s 2008 snub for best picture was a main cause for the switch from five to ten noms. The Directors Guild nominated him for Memento, Dark Knight, and Inception, but the more elitist Academy directors branch, about 1/38th as big as DGA, has what one Academy member terms “a hardon against him.”

Why it happened: Inception composer (and nine-time Oscar nom) Hans Zimmer bitterly told AP, “because it was a commercial success, suddenly they took the idea of artfulness away from him.” Inception is a mind-bending, Borges-like art film, but it’s perceived as a summer blockbuster. “It wasn’t the year for rollercoaster blockbusters,” says an Academy member. Nolan’s gargantuan achievement was out of season. Tiny, arty films like The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone got best picture noms, the relatively cheap Black Swan hit big, the Coens renounced their flashy directorial magic and made $138 million with the restrained, austere True Grit. In animation, says Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker, “The Illusionist won against those big studio pictures. Not one pundit predicted it. This is animation done the old-fashioned way, without CGI, like Disney did.”

Remote Arkansas projectionists accustomed to what Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik calls “deafening, crackling, sizzling blockbuster soundtracks” took calls from Roadside Attractions to learn how to turn their Dolby up from 5.1 to 7.5 to play her quiet film, which Granik calls “the soul food of cinema.”

Inception has soul, but even Marion Cottilard’s haunting performance as Leonardo DiCaprio’s lost love got overlooked. The film was seen as a tech exercise, a heartless head trip during a year when top contenders fight tooth and nail to be seen as having “heart.” “People’s empathy buttons were pushed,” says Granik of her film. It would appear that Academy people unfairly thought Nolan was just punching buttons on a machine.

2. Why was Lesley Manville snubbed? Though director Mike Leigh got a best original screenplay nom for Another Year (ironic, since his films are actually composed in improvisational sessions with actors, and the dialog written down later), Manville’s star turn as a heartbreaking drunk heartbreakingly missed the nom many predicted. “Really upsetting to me,” says Sony Pictures Classics' Barker, who thought it “a sure thing.” London film critics gave Another Year more acting noms than local hero The King’s Speech, and Manville beat Annette Bening, Nicole Kidman, and Michelle Williams on the LA Weekly/Village Voice film poll. Oscar ignored her.

Why it happened: Leigh makes ensemble films, and Manville isn’t as central as the average lead actress. The Rope of Silicon pundit site floated the meme that Manville belonged in the less-competitive supporting actress category, where she might well have beaten Jacki Weaver. Debate raged on how wise SPC was to push her as best actress. Pundit Pete Hammond said pitching her as supporting “would only confuse the situation and kill her chances." She won best actress from National Board of Review and Chicago critics; BAFTA, British Independent Film Awards, and San Diego critics nominated her as supporting. The confusion of categories may indeed have killed her chances for the best actress slot Michelle Williams took.

Yet a comparable controversy over Hailee Steinfeld’s status in True Grit failed to thwart her nom as supporting actress.  Producer Scott Rudin said to put a 14-year-old first-timer in best actress would be “brazen.” But BAFTA and the Globes defied Paramount and classified her as best actress. The Coens told THR, “She’s driving the truck.” Why did Steinfeld get away with category confusion and Manville didn’t? Because few saw Another Year, and Steinfeld arrived like Cinderella on a rocket sled crashing into a $138 million mountain.

3. Why is Toy Story 3 nominated as best adapted screenplay?
Every word of the screenplay is original. Unlike the other noms, it exists in no previous book or screenplay.

Why it happened: “Because it’s based on characters from the first two films,” says screenwriter Michael Arndt. “Half the battle of writing is figuring out who your characters are, so I had a great advantage starting out with well-developed characters with such strong voices. Frankly, it was four years of anxiety and creative agony and barely suppressed panic, because all we were trying to do was live up to the first two Toy Storys, which it turns out is not as easy as it looks.”

To Arndt, the real mystery is why animated films don’t get Oscars for more than writing, animation and music. “I wish cinematography and production design were recognized. DP Sharon Calahan in Ratatouille was a game changer in animation. She used shadows and darkness more than any other animated film ever made, I think. She used refracted light, very sophisticated techniques like Robert Richardson, using a single beam of light to bounce off a surface to give yourself a fill.  Obviously you’re not having to lug 10Ks around the set, but there’s the same level of artistry and thought that goes into those decisions as goes into lighting a live action film. Avatar was the Jackie Robinson of cinematography. With Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, you’re seeing a hybrid film that mixes both live action and animation in a way that feels seamless. That’s blurring the distinctions between live and animation.”

4. Why was Tron: Legacy snubbed for visual special effects?

The film had VFX nerds slavering. The snub had them foaming at the mouth.

Why it happened: Though some VFX illuminati were as amazed as us pundits that Tron got dissed, others felt the digital character Clue, the 20-ish young version of Jeff Bridges, was not equal to, let alone an improvement on, the breakthrough digital aging work on Benjamin Button. Since the original Tron, however laughable it looks today, was a game changer in its time, VFX connoisseurs hold the sequel to a high standard -- a demanding legacy to live up to.  It also wasn't auspicious that top critics on Rottentomatoes rated it a stinky 29 percent.  

5. Why did Waiting for Superman get snubbed and Exit Through the Gift Shop get nommed?
Davis Guggenheim’s doc about poor kids and charter schools got 11 major film award nominations and won four, including the National Board of Review and Sundance Audience Prize. Most pundits thought it a shoo-in. He won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, and had major help from Bill Gates, Oprah and Obama. Some fear prankster Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop is all a hoax.

Why it happened: Guggenheim’s big backers may have actually irked independent-minded Academy members. Worse, his teacher’s union-bashing film was embraced by conservatives, one of whom said his Oscar snub is “the price a political apostate pays in Hollywood for straying off the liberal plantation.” Education expert Diane Ravitch trashed it as inaccurate. A more dispassionate expert says, “The first response to the movie was that it’s about poor black kids, and it’s from the Gore guy, so it must be liberal and good-hearted. And then Ravitch and others portrayed it as basically right-wing propaganda, which unsettled the liberal members of the Academy. I don’t think the movie is as reactionary as Ravitch portrayed it, but I also don’t think it’s very good.” An Oscar doc voter agrees. “It was a great deal of hype. I felt like I’d seen the story before.”  “It also tanked at the box office, relative to what was spent on promoting it,” adds the education expert. “The true unforgivable sin in Hollywood!”

Banksy’s movie got 13 big film award noms before Oscar’s, including BAFTA, and won most of them. His peekaboo style makes Guggenheim look flatfooted. Everybody hopes he’ll show his famously unknown face at the Oscars. He said in a statement to pundit Anne Thompson he would come in hopes of a trophy: “The last time there was a naked man covered in gold paint in my house, it was me.”

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