You know the drill. Winners in bold, then we break it down.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
Should have won: The Tree of Life
Not even nominated: Take Shelter
There’s a long-running joke that no one remembers or cares about Avatar, the highest-grossing movie of all time. The same humorous logic could be applied to The Artist. No Best Picture winner since has won more Oscars (5), yet not a single winner has even been nominated again by the Academy, save costume designer Mark Bridges. It’s easy to see why voters went nuts: It’s a charming movie about making movies, with no spoken dialogue but plenty of lush filmmaking and strong performances. But it feels like a trifle compared to some of these other nominees.
In comparison, The Tree of Life is about as heavy as it gets, grappling with aging, family relationships and the divine. Everything else from this year pales in comparison.
Exploring similar themes, but in a much more intense way, Take Shelter deserved a nomination here (and for lead actor Michael Shannon and Jeff Nichols’ script). That this acclaimed film blanked at the Oscars while Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – a film I have never heard anyone discuss favorably, if at all – is baffling.
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Should have won: Terrence Malick
Not even nominated: Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive
If you’re going to go nuts for The Artist, it only makes sense to similarly reward its creator. But there were a lot more imaginative films, including Drive. It was the coolest movie of 2011, but managed only one measly Sound Editing nod.
Demián Bichir, A Better Life
George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball
Should have won: Brad Pitt
Not even nominated: Michael Fassbender, Shame
Brad Pitt had a phenomenal 12 months between The Tree of Life and Killing Them Softly premiering at Cannes. But this was his only acting nomination in that rich period. As Billy Beane, he’s superstitious and anxious, but doggedly determined to change the way baseball teams are managed. But he somehow manages to make a man putting in a ton of effort feel effortless. It’s a true movie star performance.
And while there aren’t any duds in this category, it’s still shocking Michael Fassbender didn’t make it in with his astonishing performance as a sex addict in Shame. The explicit film may not work entirely, but Fassbender is riveting from first frame to last.
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
Should have won: Viola Davis
Not even nominated: Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia
Oof. Yes, Meryl Streep is one of our greatest actresses. But holy fucking shit was this a bad call. It’s another imitation of a famous person with little in the way of embodiment. It also doesn’t help that The Iron Lady presents Margaret Thatcher – one of the worst politicians of the 20th Century – mostly as a hero. Anyone else would have been a better choice. The best of these is Viola Davis, whose performance is by far the strongest part of The Help, going well beyond a sometimes surface-level movie.
Let’s kick Streep out entirely and replace her with Kirsten Dunst, earning her first Oscar nomination a decade earlier. Lars von Trier’s end-of-the-world drama isn’t “enjoyable” in any traditional sense, but her performance as a deeply depressed woman who’s all to ready for Armageddon might be the finest of anyone this year, regardless of category.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Should have won: No complaints here
Not even nominated: Alan Rickman, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2
All I have to say about Plummer’s win is that it’s one of my favorites of all time. So let’s use this space to talk about the Academy never nominated Alan Rickman. Not once! Die Hard was his feature film debut, if you can believe it, and he definitely should have been acknowledged then (even if a victory would have been a toss-up between him and Kevin Kline). But in the 23 years between that and his final turn as Professor Severus Snape, he only managed to win a Golden Globe, an Emmy and a SAG Award (all for his work in the TV movie Rasputin). While there are fine performances throughout the Harry Potter franchise, Rickman’s the only one who rises to the level of award-worthy, playing the duplicitous professor. In this final chapter, he’s revealed as a deeply wounded man forced to be reminded of his unrequited love and bearing the responsibility of killing his closest friend.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Bérénice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Should have won: Melissa McCarthy
Not even nominated: J. Smith-Cameron, Margaret
Octavia Spencer had this sewn up the moment she told her boss (Bryce Dallas Howard) “Eat. My. Shit.” Spencer is always an enjoyable presence, but she’s not the best performance in the film, and not even the best of the performances in The Help nominated in this category. So I’m going with the mainstream debut of Melissa McCarthy. While she’s omnipresent now (and prone to pick mediocre projects directed by her husband), it’s easy to forget how explosive this performance is. Fans of Gilmore Girls knew her as Sookie, the neurotic chef and BFF of Lorelai. But I doubt even they anticipated her shitting in a sink or sexually harassing an air marshal.
Bejo is a blatant case of category fraud, so I’m swapping her with J. Smith-Cameron, the mother of troubled student Lisa (Anna Paquin). Where Lisa is all selfish desire and anger, Joan is bewildered but trying. She struggles in her career and her love life. When both take an upswing, it drives the pair further apart. It would have been a perfect encapsulation of a movie that never got a fair shake.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Midnight in Paris
Should have won: A Separation
Not even nominated: 50/50
Midnight in Paris is easily Woody Allen’s best film of the 21st Century. But it doesn’t come close to Asghar Farhadi’s bleak divorce drama. A Separation is easily the toughest film in this comedy-dominated category, but it’s one of the best movies of the 2010s, full stop. It deserved more than just a win for Foreign Language Film.
And while Margin Call is a slick, mostly strong dramatization of the early days of the Great Recession, it’s not as good as 50/50, a romantic dramedy based on Will Reiser’s struggles with cancer.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The Ides of March
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Should have won: Hugo
Not even nominated: The Skin I Live In
The Academy really loves Alexander Payne, understandably so. But while I like The Descendants and I’m glad a Community cast member (Jim Rash) has an Oscar, I’d rank it fourth of these nominees. Moneyball has the rapid-fire Sorkin polish and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy manages (though some would say struggles) to make sense of a labyrinthine spy novel. But it’s Hugo, which adapts its award-winning kids’ story into a rich, melancholy film about death and deferred dreams.
The only dud here is The Ides of March, which features one of the best casts of all time working through an absurd plot. Let’s swap it out with Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. It’s no less seedy or explicit than the much-nominated The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but it’s even better. There’s one plot twist after another, but the emotional beats land. (That’s also a tribute to its stars and director, but this is a solid consolation prize.)
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
A Cat in Paris
Chico and Rita
Kung Fu Panda 2
Puss in Boots
Should have won: No complaints here
Not even nominated: The Adventures of Tintin
Only the third time this category had five nominees (which it has ever since), and one of the rare wins for a non-Disney movie. Even more rare: Disney wasn’t even nominated here. That allowed the delightful Western Rango to gallop to victory. But it’s a little ridiculous in a category with a sequel, a spin-off and two forgotten indies that the Academy intentionally ignored Steven Spielberg’s wildly inventive The Adventures of Tintin. Their disdain of motion capture is a consistent irritant of mine (as evidenced by my defenses of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly). Tintin was one of the biggest achievements of the year, regardless of medium.