BAFTA: What the Brits' Surprising Picks Could Mean for the Oscar Race (Analysis)

Steve Carell in supporting, not lead? No 'Selma' or Timothy Spall? Rene Russo over Meryl Streep? THR's awards analyst tries to decipher what it all means

When award nominations aren't being announced at an ungodly hour in the morning L.A. time, as was the case with the recent Golden Globe and SAG noms, then they're being announced at an ungodly hour late at night, as was the case on Thursday when the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (basically the British version of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) revealed its nominees for the 68th BAFTA Awards (the British equivalent of the Oscars).

The group is composed of roughly 6,500 people — 5,000 or so are located across the pond, including most of the 250 Academy members who live in the U.K., and most of the rest are on one coast or the other of America, and many of them are also Oscar voters. Now, if the BAFTA voters had just rubber-stamped the lists of nominations announced recently by other groups, then I might complain even more. But they actually made some pretty eye-opening picks and snubs.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film that came out in the spring, leading the field with 11 noms? Selma, Unbroken and A Most Violent Year not nominated in any category? Foxcatcher's Steve Carell nominated in the supporting — not lead — category? Only three movies nominated for best animated film, and one of them is not How to Train Your Dragon 2? Birdman, which was disqualified from the best original score Oscar race for not being original enough, and Into the Woods, which was not even shortlisted by the Academy for the best makeup and hairstyling Oscar, landing noms in the corresponding BAFTA categories? Last year's best doc Oscar winner, 20 Feet From Stardom, pitted against this year's frontrunner, Citizenfour? Whiplash landing an original screenplay nom, even though the Academy deemed it an adapted screenplay, and Paddington, which had virtually no buzz around it apart from its Pharrell-Gwen Stefani song, getting an adapted screenplay nom? I could go on.

Many of those choices can probably be chalked up to BAFTA eccentricities. Remember, last year, the group didn't even nominate Dallas Buyers Club's Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto and they went on to win Oscars. And it gave its best supporting actress prize to American Hustle's Jennifer Lawrence (whom it had snubbed the year before when the Academy recognized her for Silver Linings Playbook) over 12 Years a Slave's Lupita Nyong'o, the eventual Oscar winner. Those bizarre decisions were pored over endlessly by folks like me but, in the final assessment, were false-alarms. In other words, they signified nothing.

One way that BAFTA nominations can be helpful is by alerting us to films and people whose Oscar prospects we may be underestimating. For instance, while I wouldn't read anything into Imelda Staunton's best supporting actress nom for Pride, a film that the Brits (and the HFPA) saw and loved a lot more than most others, I would make a mental note that Nightcrawler's Rene Russo joined her co-star Jake Gyllenhaal among the nominees, claiming a spot many expected would go to Into the Woods' Meryl Streep since, well, she's Meryl Streep. (Perhaps that won't be enough this year.) Similarly, I think the best director BAFTA nom for Whiplash's Damien Chazelle validates the faith that I've put in his appeal by predicting him for quite some time — people just love this movie and cannot get over the fact that it was made a by a guy who is only 29.

One other wild card possibility highlighted by BAFTA: the Polish film Ida, which was shot in beautiful black and white, could compete in not just the foreign-language film category but cinematography, as well. (It might be tempting to interpret the best actress nom for Big Eyes' Amy Adams as indicating something, but the fact is that Cake, the film for which Jennifer Aniston has edged her out at every other major awards show, was not eligible here, having not yet been screened in the U.K. by its tiny distributor.)

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Another BAFTA trend that does seem to consistently mean something is the degree to which the Brits embrace — or don't — homegrown product. This year, for instance, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything both went over very well; if one or both hadn't, it would have set off some real alarms, since the Brits are thought to be the base of support for those period piece biopics that take place largely in England. However, the fact that Mr. Turner, another British period piece biopic, performed relatively poorly — in particular, Timothy Spall was denied a best actor nom, while Grand Budapest's Ralph Fiennes, a fellow long shot, got one — should be very worrying to those associated with its campaign, because if BAFTA won't  get on board for it, I wouldn't hold my breath that others will.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg