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Oscars 2016: Nominations favored chest-beating action pictures, but there's more to it

Oscars 2016: Nominations favored chest-beating action pictures, but there's more to it
Jacob Tremblay, left, and Brie Larson star in "Room." (Caitlin Cronenberg / A24)

It was Boys' Night Out Thursday morning at the Oscars, as the two films that got the most nominations — Alejandro G. Iñárritu's "The Revenant" with 12 and George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road" with 10 — were decidedly masculine, action-heavy affairs.

Or was it that kind of a morning after all?

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On the one hand, it's true that the prime lure of both of these pictures was their visceral scenes of combat and survival, the kind of chest-beating stuff that has been a favorite of the red-meat contingent of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters at least since "Braveheart" won best picture back in 1996 and likely much longer.

It's also true that both of these well-made films tend to be strongest in the below-the-line categories where the level of craft skills on display is truly remarkable and leads to those hard-earned double-digit nomination totals.

On the other hand, you can point out that not only was the unstoppable action hero of "Mad Max" played by Charlize Theron, but also that the Oscar nominators went out of their way to include more thoughtful and even sensitive films that depended on subtler emotions and more nuanced relationships for their impact.

So, though it was inexplicably denied best picture and director nominations, Todd Haynes' "Carol" ended up with six nods, including actress nominations for co-equal stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, a result that validated the Weinstein Co.'s controversial decision to put Mara in the supporting category.

And "Brooklyn," this year's Little Engine That Could, took off from its Sundance premiere a year ago to take three top-drawer nominations, including lead actress for Saoirse Ronan, adapted screenplay for the veteran Nick Hornby (working from Colm Tóibín's novel) and even best picture.

Also getting a best picture nomination (as well as nods for star Brie Larson, adapted screenplay by Emma Donoghue from her novel and director Lenny Abrahamson) was the singular "Room," an emotional roller coaster whose success led to perhaps the biggest surprise of the morning.

That was the inclusion of Irish director Abrahamson (previously best known for the singular "Frank," which featured Michael Fassbender inside a papier-mâché head), an inclusion that likely came at the expense of the man who'd been the odds-on favorite to not only be nominated but also to take home the Oscar itself — "The Martian's" canny veteran, Ridley Scott.

Scott's fall from grace likely was due to multiple factors. He was such a favorite that directors branch voters may have felt that so many others would vote for him that they were free to cast their ballots for any lesser known, equally worthy projects they feared might otherwise be neglected.

"Room" was very much that film, and a film that had enormous directorial challenges, including working with a young (albeit exceptional) child actor in Jacob Tremblay, having to spend a big chunk of the film in a terribly confined space, and creating and maintaining an involving tone with very difficult material. (This willingness to connect with "Room" stood in contrast to the reluctance of movie audiences to embrace the film, a situation that this quartet of nominations could change.)

The fact that the directors branch saw "Room" and paid attention is indicative of one of the other key take-aways from Thursday's nominations.

Despite the mysterious exclusions, despite the perplexing and continually disturbing absence of people of color from the acting nominations, the voters in the specific branches gave indications of taking their jobs seriously, of looking past the obvious films to make their choices.

This was especially true with the writers branch in the original screenplay category. While "Bridge of Spies" and "Spotlight" may have been unsurprising choices, the other three were not.

Especially good to see were screenplay nominations for two of the year's most inventive and original films, the science-fiction brain twister "Ex Machina" and the inside-the-brain animated triumph "Inside Out." And original screenplay was the only category where the much promoted "Straight Outta Compton" managed a nomination.

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It was also heartening that the actors branch acknowledged and embraced the wonderful "45 Years," a small film that came out very late in the year, by nominating star Charlotte Rampling for what has to be the role of her career.

The animation branch was equally adventurous, including, besides the expected "Inside Out" and "Anomalisa," small gems such as the beautifully melancholy "When Marnie Was There" from Japan's Studio Ghibli, and the riotous stop-motion extravaganza that is "Shaun the Sheep Movie" from Britain's Aardman Animation.

"Life's a treat with Shaun the Sheep," goes the film's Rizzle Kicks closing song, and never more so than on Oscar nomination morning.

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