Oscar Noms: A Lot to Celebrate, Mourn and Ponder (Analysis)

Boyhood Ethan Hawke Still - H 2014
Courtesy of IFC Films

Boyhood Ethan Hawke Still - H 2014

I was at the announcement of the 87th Oscar nominations, bright and early on Thursday morning, and as the hosts announced the categories — all 24, for the first time — I quickly filled up page after page with notes about things to celebrate, mourn and ponder.

The eight films that landed best picture noms — Warner Bros.' American Sniper, Fox Searchlight's Birdman, IFC Films' Boyhood, Searchlight's The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Weinstein Co.'s The Imitation Game, Paramount's Selma, Focus Features' The Theory of Everything and Sony Pictures Classics' Whiplash — were my top eight picks. None were really shockers. If there had been two more, I think they would have been Nightcrawler and Foxcatcher, but there were not. Many are disappointed that Gone Girl and Unbrokenone about a woman, the other directed by a woman — were left off the list; had either of those films or Interstellar made the cut, they would have been the only ones on the list to have grossed more than $100 million. Foxcatcher and Interstellar, meanwhile, become the films with the most nominations but no best picture nom (five) since, you guessed it, another film by the enigmatic Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight, the snub of which led to the expansion of the best picture Oscar category in the hope of increasing the diversity of the nominees. Alas, even with the option of nominating as many as 10 films, the Academy continues to gravitate toward certain genres and subject matters and not others. And Budapest, which came out on March 7, becomes the earliest-released best pic nominee since The Silence of the Lambs 23 years ago.

For point of reference, the BFCA's 10 best picture Critics' Choice nominees included seven of the eight (not American Sniper); the HFPA's 10 best picture Golden Globe nominees (five drama and five musical/comedy) included six of the eight (not American Sniper and Whiplash); the AFI's top 11 films included six of the eight (not The Theory of Everything and Whiplash); the PGA's top 10 films included seven of the eight (not Selma); and the National Board of Review's top 10 films included four of the eight (not The Grand Budapest Hotel, Selma, The Theory of Everything and Whiplash), and their best film (A Most Violent Year) was not nominated for best picture for the first time in 14 years (since Quills).

Read more Oscar Reactions: What the Nominees Are Saying

In the best director race, it was largely expected that nominations would go to Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman), a nominee eight years ago for Babel, as well as Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Weinstein Co. special Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), all first-timers in the category and DGA nominees on Wednesday. Many suspected that American Sniper's Clint Eastwood, long an Academy favorite and also a DGA nominee yesterday, would grab the fifth spot and, at 84, become the oldest best director nominee in history by more than five years. I suspected that the fifth spot would go to Whiplash's 29-year-old filmmaker Damien Chazelle, a "boy wonder" in the order of Beasts of the Southern Wild's Benh Zeitlin, who was nominated two years ago. And I hoped that it might go to Selma's Ava DuVernay, a wonderful up-and-coming filmmaker who would have been the first black female ever nominated for this prize. In the end, however, the members of the directors branch went with Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher — Cannes' choice, as well — whose film was not nominated by the full Academy (the last film to receive a directing nom without a picture nom was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly seven years ago), unlike his previous two films, Capote (for which Miller was also nominated) and Moneyball (for which he was not). DuVernay, meanwhile, becomes the eighth woman to direct a film that received a best picture nom but not a best director nom.

The best actor category was easily the most competitive this year, but slots were always thought to be sewn up by Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything (my projected frontrunner since Toronto), Michael Keaton for Birdman (the comeback kid) and Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game (the anchor of a very popular movie). Most thought that the fourth spot would go to Selma's David Oyelowo for his towering portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but he was excluded altogether (all 20 acting noms went to white actors). Alas, the final two slots went not to Nightcrawler's Jake Gyllenhaal or The Grand Budapest Hotel's Ralph Fiennes, whom some were picking, but to American Sniper's Bradley Cooper, who I predicted, and Foxcatcher's Steve Carell — two men whom nobody would have dreamed of as Oscar nominees a decade ago when they were the stars of Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, respectively. It's the first Oscar nom for Carell, but the third consecutive year in which Cooper has received one, something only nine other male actors have ever done: Spencer Tracy (1936-38), Gary Cooper (1941-43), Gregory Peck (1945-47), Marlon Brando (1951-54), Richard Burton (1964-66), Al Pacino (1972-75), Jack Nicholson (1973-75), William Hurt (1985-87) and Russell Crowe (1999-2001). Not bad company.

The best actress race was always thought to be a lot easier to predict, if only because there were so few viable options. The slam-dunks were always Still Alice's Julianne Moore (now a five-time nominee still seeking her first win), Wild's Reese Witherspoon (who won this category nine years ago), The Theory of Everything's Felicity Jones and Gone Girl's Rosamund Pike (both first-time nominees), all of whom received the three major precursor noms — Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and SAG — which collectively almost always guarantee an Oscar nom. So, too, however, did Cake's Jennifer Aniston, who, alas, was bounced on Thursday morning by Marion Cotillard for a remarkable, Critics' Choice-nominated performance in the Belgian film Two Days, One Night, marking the second time that the Frenchwoman has been nominated in this category for a performance in a foreign language. (The last time, seven years ago for La Vie en Rose, she won.) I feel sorry for Aniston and just as much for her awards consultant Lisa Taback, who mounted one of the most impressive awards campaigns in history — which succeeded in changing the way people look at the former Friends star, if not quite getting her to the big show. It's also semi-noteworthy that the Academy resisted replacing Aniston with Big Eyes' Amy Adams, who won a Golden Globe over the weekend, and who has accrued more acting Oscar noms over the past decade than anyone else except Meryl Streep.

Best supporting actor went exactly as expected, with noms going to Whiplash's veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, a first-time nominee and the presumptive frontrunner, as well as Birdman's Edward Norton (whose two prior noms came back in the 1990s), Boyhood's Ethan Hawke (whose prior nom came, appropriately enough, 13 years ago, just before he started filming Boyhood), Foxcatcher's Mark Ruffalo (nominated four years ago) and The Judge's Robert Duvall (an Oscar winner in the lead category 31 years ago and now, at 84, the oldest person ever nominated in this category, surpassing Hal Holbrook, who was 82 when he was nominated for Into the Wild).

Best supporting actress, however, had one surprise — for most people. Everyone assumed Boyhood's Patricia Arquette and Birdman's Emma Stone (both first-time nominees), The Imitation Game's Keira Knightley (last nominated nine years ago) and Into the Woods' Meryl Streep (extending her record number of acting Oscar noms to 19) were in good shape, but that fifth spot was a nagging question. Would it go to Jessica Chastain, the Globes' pick for A Most Violent Year, or perhaps for Interstellar? Would it go to St. Vincent's Naomi Watts, SAG's pick? How about Rene Russo, a BAFTA nominee for her first film in years, Nightcrawler? Or Snowpiercer's Tilda Swinton, whose screener reached voters before most others? In the end, it went — as I'm pleased to say I was the only one to predict — to Wild's Laura Dern, the actors' actor, who was last Oscar-nominated 23 years ago for Rambling Rose. My rationale for picking her is the she's a beloved vet who has worked all the time and with just about everybody, and this year, despite having only a few minutes of screen time in Wild, gave a great and emotionally provocative performance and benefited from making the rounds with her co-star Witherspoon, according her both attention and a partner with whom to discuss the issue of spousal abuse that the film highlights.

The screenplay noms went pretty much as expected. On the original side, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Nightcrawler and Foxcatcher — the five that I and most others expected to get in — got in. (Selma was left out, perhaps because of the controversy that has been raised over its depiction of former President Lyndon B. Johnson.) On the adapted side, Whiplash, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything and American Sniper earned noms but, in the fifth slot, one highly divisive film edged out another: Paul Thomas Anderson's take on Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice was picked over Gone Girl, which was adapted for the screen by the woman who wrote the best-selling novel of the same title, Gillian Flynn. (Flynn would have been the first woman ever to earn an Oscar nom for adapting her own novel into a script. Still Alice and Wild, two films adapted by men from books by women, were also overlooked.)

Read more Oscar Nominations 2015: The Complete List

One of the biggest shockers of the morning came when the critical and commercial hit The Lego Movie, which I and many others regarded as the best bet to win the best animated feature category, wasn't even nominated for it, clearing the way for another two-horse race between DreamWorks Animation (How to Train Your Dragon 2) and Disney (Big Hero 6), with Focus Features' 3D stop-motion pic The Boxtrolls — the third film in the last six years from the specialty production company Laika to earn a nom in this category, after Coraline and ParaNorman — potentially playing the spoiler. It's also noteworthy that GKIDS, a small distributor of Japanese films in America, received multiple noms for the second time in four years with both of its hand-drawn hopefuls, Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, earning noms. How could Lego have missed and these much lower-profile films have made it? I'm told reliably that the members of the animation branch are largely older, European and hate seeing traditional animation slip away, so in some ways this may have been a protest vote.

Two of the biggest outrages of the morning came in the best documentary feature category with the snubs of Life Itself, the Roger Ebert pic directed by Steve James — who was famously screwed out of another "sure-thing" Oscar nom 20 years ago with Hoop Dreams — and Al Hicks' deeply moving music doc Keep On Keepin' On, an audience favorite since its premiere at Tribeca last spring. (It won the audience award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival just yesterday.) The five docs that did make the cut were Laura Poitras' controversial Edward Snowden portrait Citizenfour, which will now coast to an Oscar victory, as well as Orlando von Einsiedel's harrowing Virunga (which makes this the second year in a row in which a Netflix-distributed doc is nominated, following last year's The Square, and also, believe it or not, becomes the second doc about the Congo's Virunga National Park to be nominated in this category, following 1966's Le Volcan interdit), Rory Kennedy's archival footage assemblage Last Days in Vietnam and two photography-centric pics, Charlie Siskel and John Maloof's mystery Finding Vivian Maier and Wim Wenders (now a three-time nominee in the category) and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado's profile of the photographer Sebastiao Salgado, The Salt of the Earth.

The foreign-language film category was less surprising, with the four heaviest hitters emerging from the shortlist of nine — Poland's stark Ida (the critics' choice and also a nominee this morning for best cinematography), Argentina's hilarious Wild Tales (the people's choice), Russia's ballsy Leviathan (which won the Golden Globe last weekend) and Mauritania's frightening Timbuktu (the first film ever submitted for Oscar consideration by its country) — along with the Golden Globe-nominated Tangerines, the first Estonian film ever nominated, which held off Sweden's Force Majeure and three others. Four of the five nominees were among those who joined me earlier this month for a Palm Springs International Film Festival panel discussion, which you can watch here.

The cinematography category featured Birdman (Emmanuel Lubezki, last year's winner for Gravity, could repeat for this film's simulation of a single shot), Unbroken (by branch favorite Roger Deakins), the aforementioned Ida (these guys love black-and-white), The Grand Budapest Hotel and Mr. Turner. I thought a spot might go to Interstellar, a massive-scale undertaking by Hoyte van Hoytema; meanwhile, the highly respected Robert Elswit (Nightcrawler and Inherent Vice) and Bradford Young (Selma and A Most Violent Year) may well have canceled themselves out.

Widely expected costume design noms went to Into the Woods (marking the fourth time Colleen Atwood has been nominated for her work on a Rob Marshall film — she's won for two), Maleficent, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Mr. Turner. Inherent Vice, a '70s period piece costumed by The Artist Oscar winner Mark Bridges, held off the likes of The Immigrant, a '20s period piece costumed by the legendary Patricia Norris, and Interstellar, costumed by Mary Zophres.

Film editing noms went, as expected, to Boyhood (12 years of material cut together into one mind-freakingly flowing film), Whiplash (when else has drum-playing ever set your heart racing?), The Grand Budapest Hotel, American Sniper and The Imitation Game. (It was probably foolhardy of me to think that Birdman might sneak in here, considering how little editing is actually featured in the long-take film!)

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Foxcatcher and Guardians of the Galaxy claimed the three makeup and hairstyling slots. Maleficent and The Theory of Everything were among those left out.

For The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel, the great French composer Alexandre Desplat landed his seventh and eighth best original score noms in the last nine years — a remarkable feat, all the more remarkable because he has yet to win. He's joined in the category by Johann Johannsson for The Theory of Everything (which won the Golden Globe), perennial nominee Hans Zimmer for Interstellar and Gary Yershon, a first-time nominee, for Mr. Turner. No luck this year for Gone Girl's Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won five years ago for The Social Network, or the eminently worthy two-time nominee Marco Beltrami for The Homesman.

Best original song, a category I was thrilled to go five-for-five predicting, is hard to argue with. The nom for "Lost Stars" from Begin Again brings former New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois their first Oscar noms. "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" from Glen Campbell … I'll Be Me is the poignant final song from the Alzheimer's-afflicted Glen Campbell and brings that legend his first-ever nom. "Glory" is Common and John Legend's rousing anthem from Selma, "Everything Is Awesome" is the theme song for The Lego Movie (at least the film got something) and "Grateful," from Beyond the Lights, increases the great Diane Warren's nomination tally to seven (it's her first in 13 years) — and somehow or other she's still seeking her first win. This category is gonna be a nail-biter.

The production design nom for The Grand Budapest Hotel is, if you can believe it, the first ever accorded to a Wes Anderson-directed film — I mean, what is more front-and-center in Wes Anderson films than production design?! — and the second nom in a row for Adam Stockhausen, who was up for 12 Years a Slave last year. He will compete this time with Into the Woods' Dennis Gassner, a winner 23 years ago for Bugsy — interestingly, set decorator Anna Pinnock is co-nominated on both projects — as well as Interstellar's Nathan Crowley and Gary Fettis, The Imitation Game's Maria Djurkovic and Tatiana Macdonald and Mr. Turner's Suzie Davies and Charlotte Watts. I thought Birdman might pick up another nom here, but it was not to be.

Birdman did, however, show up in both sound categories, editing and mixing, as did American Sniper, Interstellar and Unbroken. The fifth editing nom went to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, while the fifth mixing nom went to Whiplash. (It's somewhat surprising that Into the Woods, a musical, missed on the latter, and that Interstellar, which has been much-maligned for its sound quality, landed noms in both.)

And the visual effects category's slam-dunks Interstellar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy were joined by Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past (whatever that title means), rather than The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (a rare snubbing of a WETA project, which, nevertheless, has its Dawn nom to comfort it) and Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Congratulations to all of the nominees — and also to Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics and Sundance Selects/IFC Films, which landed unprecedented numbers of noms for their companies: 20 (more than any major studio), 18 and eight, respectively.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg