Movies

Oscar anoints ’Hugo,’ ’The Artist’—and ’Monsieur Lazhar’

Silent film homages lead the race, while Canadians score 2.5 nominations

Silence is golden, and this year silence may lead to Oscar gold. The Academy Awards nominations were announced today, at an early morning press conference in Los Angeles hosted by actress Jennifer Lawrence. The two pictures that topped the list of  nominees announced both pay loving homage to the vanished art of silent film. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which leads the pack with 11 nominations, is a 3D children’s fable wrapped around a tribute to French silent film pioneer Georges Méliès. Just behind it with 10 nominations is The Artist, the year’s breakout phenomenon, a French black-and-white silent film set in Hollywood at the advent of talkies. Riding a tide of critical acclaim, and already winning a key best picture award from the Producers Guild of America, it remains the favorite to win Best Picture at the Oscars, which take place Feb. 26.

It’s a good year for Canada, as Monsieur Lazhar, a gem by Quebec writer-director Philippe Falardeau, secured a nomination for best foreign-language film—though even Falardeau admits he’ll have an uphill battle beating Iran’s widely-acclaimed A Separation, which won the Golden Globe and has also received an Oscar nod for best screenplay. Falardeau will also be competing with a Canadian co-production in the foreign-language category—In Darkness, a gripping Holocaust drama by Polish veteran Agnieszka Holland, set in the sewers of Lvov, Poland.  Canada, meanwhile, has two of the five animated short film nominees—Patrick Doyon’s Sunday and Wild Life by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby. These are the NFB’s 71st and 72nd Oscar nominations, and you can view them on the NFB’s website.

The Canadian nominee who seems most likely to bring home gold is Christopher Plummer, nominated for his supporting role in Beginners as a gay man dying of cancer who finally comes out of the closet. Plummer is up against a wildly eclectic field—a theatrical Kenneth Branagh (My Week With Marilyn), a deadpan Jonah Hill (Moneyball), a stolid Nick Nolte (Warrior) and a silent Max Von Sydow (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). I’d  love to see someone try to cast them all in the same movie.

The Best Actor choices are fairly predictable, although Leonardo Di Caprio must be surprised that he failed to get a nod for playing a closeted Hoover in J. Edgar (a big movie that few people loved) while Demián Bichir, already recognized by the Actors Guild, was nominated in A Better Life (a small movie that few people saw). Bichir plays an illegal Mexican gardener tending mansions in L.A., a character that must have struck close to home for many Academy members. Ryan Gosling (Drive) and Michael Fassbender (Shame), two of the years hottest names, were snubbed. Expect George Clooney to win Best Actor for The Descendants—he gives the most agile and vulnerable performance of his career. Also it feels like King George is due—unless a sweep by The Artist pulls in Jean Dujardin. Don’t count out Brad Pitt for Moneyball. And  forget about Gary Oldman for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, whose performance is too sublimely subtle for the Academy.

Speaking of unsubtle, Meryl Streep should have a lock on Best Actress for being Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, in a field that includes Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Viola Davis (The Help), Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Michelle Williams (My Life with Marilyn). Nice to see Mara squeeze in there. Personally, I’d vote for Williams, who plays Marilyn with her heart, while Streep played Thatcher with her head. Curious to note that none of these films is among the nine Best Picture nominees, aside from The Help. This is a year of great performances in not-great movies.

The Best Supporting Actress category includes two roles from The Help, Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer—along with Bérénice Bejo (The Artist), Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) and Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs). Chastain almost deserves it as a one-year lifetime achievement award, having spread her career breakout over six movies. But the award will likely go to Spencer. That Vanessa Redgrave was ignored for her incendiary performance in Coriolanus is a crime against nature.

The list of snubbed actors and movies makes quite the motley crew: Di Caprio, Redgrave, Gosling, Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen (A Dangerous Method), Melancholia, Take Shelter—and Steven Spielberg’s Tintin! With five animated features nominated, two more than last year, it’s very weird that Tintin didn’t get nominated. I mean, it was a half-hour too long, and rather humourless for a cartoon, but the motion capture animation was dazzling. Spielberg, who’s also stuck in the bum end of Best Picture nominees with War Horse (because he didn’t get named in the Best Director club), must be thinking: “You hate me, you really hate me!”

The corollary to the snub is the WTF-is-that-nominated-for movie. The consensus is that this year’s imposter is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, or as I call it, Extremely Tedious and Incredibly Contrived. But it’s an American holocaust movie in Oscar’s favorite genre, Triumph of the Human Spirit (not to be confused with Triumph of the Will), and Tom Hanks is in it, even if he plays a dead guy.

Finally, it’s gratifying to see Terrence Malick recognized in both Director and Picture categories for his  experimental epic The Tree of Life—hailed best picture by the oh-so-savvy Toronto Film Critics Association after being ignored by various awards, including the Globes. Of course, no one expects Malick or his movie to win.

For the full slate of Oscar nominees, go to the official website: http://oscar.go.com/nominees.

Follow Brian D. Johnson on Twitter: @briandjohnson