Taking a Deeper Look at the Oscar Nominations

The brutal historical epic The Revenant, with 12 Academy Award nominations, is now the frontrunner to win best picture, best actor and possibly a few more statues when the Academy Awards are broadcast live on ABC on Feb. 28.

The Revenant’s director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, could also snag a win as he did at the Golden Globes, though he won last year for Birdman and is up against sentimental favorite George Miller, the 70-year-old creator of the series, for Mad Max: Fury Road. That film netted a surprising 10 nominations, including one for best picture.

The absence of egregious snubs or upsets, in fact, made up much of the post-announcement reaction to the 88th annual Academy Award nominations, announced Jan. 14. Most of the nominees were pretty expected, although many were surprised by how much Oscar love there turned out to be for The Revenant with its 12 nominations; Mad Max: Fury Road (10 nominations) and The Martian (seven).

Once of the big winners was Room. A small movie by any standard, Room, a powerhouse drama about captivity and rebirth, received nominations for best picture, director (Lenny Abrahamson), actress (Brie Larson), and adapted screenplay for Emma Donoghue, the author of the bestseller of the same title.

Since its release in the fall, Room has been hailed by critics but didn’t win many precursor awards, save for Larson’s Golden Globe win, making her the frontrunner in the best actress category. Abrahamson’s nomination was a bit of a shocker, nudging out favorites Ridley Scott (who has never won a directing Oscar), even though the popular and critically acclaimed The Martian got a best picture nod.

Even more surprising than Scott’s omission was the absence of Todd Haynes, whose well-regarded Carol didn’t make the best picture list even though it earned best film honors from the New York Film Critics and acting nods for its two stars, Cate Blanchett (her sixth best actress nomination) and Rooney Mara (strategically put into the supporting category even though she shares equal screen time with Blanchett). But with Iñárritu and Tom McCarthy for Spotlight all but guaranteed nominations, the three remaining best director slots were highly-prized. Few can argue with recognizing the veteran Miller, or Adam McKay for his audaciously original The Big Short, or for how Abrahamson managed to create a world in the tiny space of Room.

Spotlight, the acclaimed ensemble drama about the Boston Globe’s reporting of the Catholic Church clergy abuse scandal, received six nominations — for best picture, director, original screenplay, editing, and for the supporting performances by Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams (but not the popular Michael Keaton). Despite this, Spotlight’s star seems to have dimmed a bit as The Revenant and The Big Short, another strong ensemble film about a topical issue (the housing and economic crisis), have gained momentum. The Big Short came up large with five Oscar nominations.

There was some speculation early on that the animated gem Inside Out, which got some of the strongest reviews of any film last year, could land a best picture nod. That didn’t happen, though Inside Out was honored for its original screenplay (by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley and Ronnie del Carmen) as was Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus for Straight Outta Compton (its sole nomination) even though there was some speculation that it, too, might make the best picture list. Although it had its admirers and it did well at the box office, Straight Outta Compton didn’t garner the near-universal critical acclaim of Inside Out — or Carol, for that matter.

Alex Garland also deservedly made the original screenplay cut with his imaginative science fiction, Ex Machina.

For adapted screenplay, many were surprised by the absence of Aaron Sorkin for Steve Jobs since Sorkin had just won the Golden Globe in this category. But who of the five deserving nominees should have been left out? Certainly not Nick Hornby for his elegant Brooklyn. Drew Goddard for The Martian; Donoghue for her taut and tender Room; Charles Randolph and Adam McKay for intricate but entertaining The Big Short; and Phyllis Nagy for the spare, heartbreaking Carol all should be in this category. Perhaps because Sorkin has a recent win (in 2011 for The Social Network) he was simply the odd man out.

In the acting categories, Leonardo DiCaprio’s nod for The Revenant was no surprise after he won the Golden Globe and most observers agree his time has finally come. The surprises in the best actor category were the absence of Johnny Depp for his spooky turn as notorious gangster Whitey Bulger and for Michael B. Jordan as the rising fighter of Creed or Will Smith as a crusading doctor in Concussion (the later two would have made it less easy for Oscar host Chris Rock to skew the lack of color in the Oscar telecast).  Eddie Redmayne, last year’s best actor, managed to sneak in with The Danish Girl alongside the welcome return of Matt Damon for The Martian and for first-time Oscar nominee Bryan Cranston for Trumbo.

Jennifer Lawrence netted her fourth Oscar nomination for Joy — it was no sure bet but the popular actress managed to set a record for the most Oscar nominations for an actor just 25 years old. (Katharine Hepburn didn’t win her first Oscar until she was 26; Meryl Streep, the most-nominated actor of all time, was 29 by the time she got her first nomination for The Deer Hunter). Still, Lawrence isn’t the kid in the competition: frontrunner Brie Larson (Room) is just 26 and Saoirse Ronan, widely beloved for her breakout performance in Brooklyn, is just 21. Giving this stellar lineup some balance is the surprising but welcome inclusion of Charlotte Rampling, getting her first nomination at 69 for her searing work the small indie 45 Years.

Usually the supporting categories have a few upsets. Not so much this year except for the nod to Sylvester Stallone for Creed, making him the sentimental favorite: that’s a 40-year, award-less gap since the first time Stallone played Rocky Balboa, one of the most iconic characters in Hollywood history. The other deserving surprise here was British actor Tom Hardy’s recognition for his sinister turn in The Revenant. Nice to see the gifted Mark Rylance get his first nomination for Bridge of Spies but with so many critics’ awards already, it was a given.

On the women’s side, Mara was the only one with a lock. it was nice to see Alicia Vikander snag a nomination in such a competitive field for her terrific work (in a huge part) in The Danish Girl. Although I was disappointed that Kristen Stewart didn’t land a nomination for her solid work opposite Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria (she’d been picked as best supporting actress by several key critics’ groups), none of the other three nominees — Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight); Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs) or Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) got a free ride.

This is one of several categories sure to give Oscar prognosticators the jitters right up until the envelopes are ripped open on the big night.


Loren King

Loren King is an entertainment journalist whose features and reviews appear regularly in various publications and online. She is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics and lives in Southeastern Massachusetts. You can follow her on Twitter: @lorenkingwriter