If Thursday's Oscar nominations are any indication, the best Hollywood movies aren’t being made by Hollywood anymore. Following the lead of many major industries, the movie business has in effect outsourced what used to be its bread and butter.
For if the Academy Awards have traditionally represented anything, it's what the industry values: what the thousands of professionals, the insiders who make up the academy membership, think is the best cinematic work of the year.
But if you look at the nominations for the year 2014, both across the board and category by category, what is striking is how many of the big winners came from either the independent world, overseas or both. This is not a new development, but this year’s results spelled it out in big, bold letters.
Thursday’s two big winners, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Birdman” with nine nominations each, were independent films released by Fox’s specialty division, Fox Searchlight.
“Grand Budapest’s” director, Wes Anderson, is a longtime stalwart of the independent world, and “Birdman’s” guiding spirit is Mexico’s Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
When you go further down the most-nominations list, that trend continues. “The Imitation Game,” released by the Weinstein Co. and directed by Norway’s Morten Tyldum, got eight nominations, including a well deserved one for Tyldum himself.
Next came independent darling “Boyhood” with six nominations. The group that got five included “The Theory of Everything,” directed by the British James Marsh and distributed by Focus Features, and Sundance winner “Whiplash,” a film whose five nominations perhaps reflect the fact that its plot is easy to imagine as a 1930s or 1940s feature, maybe with John Garfield in the Miles Teller role.
Then there was Bennett Miller’s difficult but expertly made “Foxcatcher,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, which wouldn’t have existed if not for the belief of independent financier Megan Ellison. It ended up with five nominations, including prestigious ones for actor, supporting actor, director and screenplay.
The irony in this situation, of course, is that many of these films, “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything” being the most prominent, tell classic stories in the traditional way that used to be Hollywood’s exclusive domain. Now, with the studios focusing on games, comic book superheroes and putative tent poles, that business has gone elsewhere.
Almost alone in carrying the flag for traditional studio filmmaking was “American Sniper” and its six nominations, though director Clint Eastwood was bypassed for a best directing nod as that branch gave all five slots to non-major-studio helmers.
“Sniper” is also the only thorough-going studio film to land one of the eight best picture nominations. Missing from that list were the likely candidates “Interstellar” (which got five mostly below-the-line nods), “Unbroken” and “Gone Girl,” the last of which managed only a nomination for star Rosamund Pike. It’s almost as if voters fled from anything with a big-studio imprimatur on it.
Perhaps most inexplicable was what happened, or didn’t happen, with “Selma.” Though independent in spirit, it was released by Paramount. It did get a nomination for best picture, but the spectacular work by star David Oyelowo was bypassed, as were director Ava DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young. Perhaps the delay in getting screeners to voters took its toll; we will never know.
Looking outside the Hollywood box for nominees was a factor in many individual categories as well. Films by Belgium’s Dardenne brothers are not usually thought of as Oscar bait, but “Two Days, One Night” snared a nomination for Marion Cotillard that pundits thought would go to Jennifer Aniston.
And, in one of the morning’s biggest surprises, the animation branch bypassed the hugely successful computer-generated “The Lego Movie” and, in a satisfying nod to cartoons past, selected two gorgeous hand-drawn gems, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” and “Song of the Sea.”
Speaking of surprises, the two categories that can be counted on to provide them, the foreign language and documentary group, did not disappoint.
Sweden’s “Force Majure,” directed by Ruben Ostlund and considered by most observers to be one of the two or three best foreign films of the year, unaccountably did not make the final five.
And, on the documentary side, while it was good to see smaller deserving films like “Last Days in Vietnam” and “The Salt of the Earth,” included, it was sad to see “Hoop Dreams” documentarian Steve James continue his streak of never being nominated in this category. His highly regarded “Life Itself,” a look at the life of Roger Ebert, was not picked.
Even in an outside-the-box year, a film about a critic was apparently a bridge too far.