Oscar nominations reward the broken American dream

Train-wreck tales of scam artists dominate

Golden Globe nominee American Hustle (Columbia Pictures)

Oscar just can’t get enough of seeing the American Dream go south. That’s my take-away from this morning’s announcement of the Academy Awards slate. Two stories of shambolic con men, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, received 10 and six nominations each, respectively. Both are train-wreck tales of scam artists amassing a fortune on a bubble of lies. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, the saga of an American dreamer who is literally dragged south, into bondage, emerged with nine nominations. And no sky-high dream plummeted with more vertiginous force than Gravity, which matched Hustle with 10 Oscar nods. But the Academy’s failure to recognize the Coen brothers’ critically acclaimed Inside Lewyn Davis—a portrait of a beautiful loser on the wrong side of an American winter—came as a massive and mystifying snub.

Then again, Oscar doesn’t like to award the best acting, directing and writing so much as the most acting, directing and writing. Inside Lewyn Davis, which shows the Coens at the top of their game—and thawing their cynicism with more heart than ever before—is wry, compact watercolour amid a Hollywood gallery of expansive, raging oils. The exception is Alexander Payne’s black-and-white Nebraska, which got six nominations, but then its comedy is of a broader, more crowd-pleasing variety than the Coens’.

This was such a good year for movies, it was inevitable some fine work would get lost in the Oscar hustle. But if you look at the other snubs, a trend emerges. Spike Jonze’s wonderfully restrained romance Her joined the crowd of Best Picture nominees, yet failed to register in the directing and acting categories—the fact that Scarlett Johansson never appears onscreen may have disqualified her in Oscar’s eyes, but it made her performance that much more remarkable. Robert Redford’s virtually wordless one-man performance in All is Lost, a triumph of taut, minimalist filmmaking, was also overlooked. And although Captain Phillips got six nominations, including Best Picture, Academy favourite Tom Hanks was bypassed, although his remarkably precise, contained and un-showy performance was his best work in ages. Yet another perennial nominee, Meryl Streep, was recognized for her wildly over-the-top turn in August: Osage County

Meanwhile, it was a shock to see Blue is the Warmest Colour, the landmark lesbian romance that won the Palme D’Or in Cannes, missing from the Best Foreign Language Film category. Again, maybe there was just not enough going on for Oscar’s taste: it’s a three-hour movie devoted entirely to the intimate details of a single relationship. Or maybe those old Academy voters aren’t ready for full-on sapphic sex. By contrast, despite some moral controversy around Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, the Academy had plenty of appetite for the carnal excess of its three-hour testosterone pageant.

Wolf and Hustle seem joined at the hip. Wolf is all-you-can-eat Scorsese, with more sex, drugs and script than ever, as nominee Leonardo DiCaprio, channelling Ray Liotta from Goodfellas, wolfs down mounds of cocaine and Quaaludes while spitting out wads of narration and speechifying. Elegant by comparison, David O. Russell’s Hustle plays like faux old-school Scorsese, and it too owes a considerable debt to Goodfellas.

While we’re discussing snubs, which seem a bigger story than the nominations, it was sad to see Sarah Polley’s acclaimed Stories We Tell overlooked in the documentary feature category, and not just because she’s Canada’s sweetheart. Critics around the globe have championed this highly original tale of family secrets. I suspect Polley’s sly use of re-enactments may have hurt her chances—that and the fact that hers is another film on a small canvas, a personal memoir, not a documentary devoted to big issues. That said, The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s brilliant expose of Indonesia’s genocide,  should and likely will win in that division.

As for the major categories, I expect 12 Years a Slave to win Best Picture, as it should. Its star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, will have to fight Dallas Buyers Club‘s Matthew McConaughey for Best Actor—or the Most Suffering by an Actor. Blanchett should and probably will win Best Actress for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. And it’s great to see Dallas Buyers Club, this year’s Little Movie That Could, get six nominations—even if supporting actor nominee Jared Leto waxed eloquent about waxing when accepting his Golden Globe, but failed to mention his Quebec director, Jean-Marc Valleé.

For the complete list of nominees, go to

Check out  my top 10 list of 2013 movies.

And for a fast-forward spin through the 26 films honoured by the Toronto Film Critics Association, watch my 2013 TFCA Awards Montage.

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