If, as has been said, the movie business is like a giant tanker ship that can't change course on a dime, this year's Oscar nominations show an organization in the midst of making that kind of adjustment in direction, moving slowly but steadily from the past to the future.
Imagine a world where movie stars of the pedigree of
You don't have to imagine those worlds. We're living in both of them.
The acting category is an example of that not-quite changing of the guard. Four of the five nominees —
But, as if to demonstrate that the past is not quite gone, the acting branch found room for another member of that older generation, nominating
Looking at Oscar nominations category by category, however, can be deceptive. Different branches have different memberships, which leads to situations like Wong Kar Wai's stunning "The Grandmaster" being good enough to get nominations in both cinematography and costume design but not being good enough to get a best foreign language nomination. Go figure.
The best way to see the Academy's tendencies, however, is to look across all categories and examine the three films that got the most nominations. Each of them succeeded, it could be argued, because they perfectly captured the current zeitgeist by being partially in the future and partially in the past.
Close behind with nine nominations each are "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave," each of which does that same balancing act its own way.
With "Gravity," the split between future and past is most obvious. The film's astonishing visuals are the most forward-looking element in any of this year's films, but "Gravity's" lost-in-space, desperate-for-home plot is, in broad outline, nothing if not recognizable.
Seeing this dynamic in "12 Years a Slave" is a bit more difficult, but it is there. On the one hand, given that
Though this kind of argument could be made about almost every film on the best picture list, the dynamic is more visible in some films than others. For example:
"Dallas Buyers Club." The subject matter of
"Wolf of Wall Street." Though he started in the independent world and lives in New York, no one is a more old-school traditional studio filmmaker these days than
It's interesting to note that same split between then and now is also visible, albeit in different ways, within the foreign language and documentary categories.
While two of the foreign language nominees — "The Great Beauty" from Italy and "The Missing Picture" from Cambodia — are indisputably, even brilliantly, modern, the remaining three — Belgium's "Broken Circle Breakdown," Denmark's
As far as the documentary nominations go, this year's picks underscore the tradition that films with political agendas have a leg up. Three of the five nominees —
Given how resistant this branch is to nonpolitical subject matter, perhaps the wonder is not that "Stories We Tell" and Alan Berliner's exceptional "First Cousin Once Removed" didn't make the cut but that "Cutie and the Boxer" and "Twenty Feet From Stardom" did.
It goes without saying that films that are too out there don't get Oscar nominations, but this year's nominations also showed that you can be too conventional as well.
Which was one less than the nominations (for makeup and hair style and visual effects) that one of the year's biggest bombs, "The
[For the record, 1:45 p.m. Jan. 16, 2014: An earlier version of this post referred to "Django Unchained" as "Django Rising."]