The Oscar “snub” is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s a product of the Internet, and in particular the asymmetry it cultivates between the almost year-long prognostication aimed at guessing which films the Academy will reward, and the simple brute fact of the Academy’s opinion on the matter. The resulting pinch of expectation and result is what we call a “snub”, or to put it another way: we guessed wrong. Pity the poor actor or film that happens to get caught up in this swirl of anticipation and disappointment, although it does lend the announcement of this year’s nominations, which happened this morning, the excitement of good slapstick: what happened to Ridley Scott? Where’s “Carol”? Or Michael Keaton? Or Tarantino? And there they were, just trying to enjoy their breakfast.
There are several types of snub, the first being the Honest-to-Goodness Head Scratcher, where a prediction made in good faith turns out to be simply inaccurate. Many, myself included, thought that Best Director would be a gold watch given to Ridley Scott for lightening up with “The Martian”, and more particularly for past services rendered (“Alien”, “Blade Runner”, “Gladiator”). He wasn’t even nominated. Nor was Spielberg for “Bridge of Spies”, his best film in years. Best Director now becomes a much more interesting face-off between two bearish auteurs: Alejandro González Iñárritu for “The Revenant”, going for a back-to-back win after last year’s “Birdman”, and George Miller for his high-speed apocalypse, “Mad Max: Fury Road”, which lead the pack with 12 and nine nominations respectively.
The best thing about this type of snub is that it opens up races long thought to be over. Many believed Best Supporting Actor was Michael Keaton’s to lose for “Spotlight”. It turns out it’s not even his to win. That award now looks like a contest between Mark Rylance for “Bridge of Spies” and Sly Stallone for “Creed”. The same with Aaron Sorkin’s adapted screenplay for “Steve Jobs”, another front-runner now gone, opening up the race for Nick Hornby (“Brooklyn”), Emma Donoghue (“Room”) and Adam McKay (“The Big Short”). The omission of Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” in the Original Screenplay category leaves this in the hands of Tom McCarthy for “Spotlight”.
The second category of snub is the How Could They? This is more disingenuous, involves a certain amount of faked surprised, and is secretly a way of slapping the Academy’s wrist for having bad taste. I bow to no-one in my admiration for Todd Haynes’s “Carol” – it’s the most exquisite cinematic objet d’art of last year – and yet I can see that it won’t win over the crowd who vote for films like “Braveheart”. Haynes’s film now scores the much more valuable moral-victory award, given to the year’s most exceptional absentee. Previous recipients include Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. Not bad company.
What about the opposite: surprise inclusions which give a boost to the deserving and lend the Academy a little cred? At the top of my list are the nominations for Hornby and Alex Garland, whose “Ex Machina” is up for Best Original Screenplay; the Best Actress nominations for Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”) and Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”); and the better-than-expected showing for “Sicario”, whose cinematographer Roger Deakins, squaring off against Emmanuel Lubezki (“The Revenant”), makes that category the most exciting. It is closely followed by Animated Feature, whose line-up — including Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa”, Alê Abreu’s “Boy & the World” and Pixar’s “Inside Out” – is the most talented in many a moon.
Could Best Picture go to “The Revenant”? It would be a piece of Oscar history, involving consecutive wins for both Iñárritu and Lubezki, and now looks like a distinct possibility, while all season long it looked as though it belonged to “Spotlight”. And while we’re getting used to these sneaky, low-yield Best Picture winners now – that is to say, films that fail to sweep the awards but somehow reach in at evening’s end and snag the top trophy – the wild card here is the growing box office for “The Revenant”. Iñárritu’s shaggy bruiser of a film has just begun to take off in America ($60m and counting) and could give the Academy the confidence it needs to make his film undeniable. Let’s check in again in a month.
Oscars Dolby Theatre, Los Angeles, February 28th