Oscar 2014 nominations reflect a sea change in academy’s attitude

<i>This post has been corrected. See note at bottom for details.</i>

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 Robert Redford and Tom Hanks give two of the best performances of their careers but don’t get Oscar nominations. On the other hand, imagine a world where the stunning “Stories We Tell,” Sarah Polley’s ground-breaking documentary that mixes re-creations with reality, is snubbed. Or where Spike Jonze, director of the subversive “Her,” can’t get a nomination either.

You don’t have to imagine those worlds. We’re living in both of them.

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The acting category is an example of that not-quite changing of the guard. Four of the five nominees — Christian Bale (“American Hustle”), Leonardo DiCaprio (“Wolf of Wall Street”), Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) — are a generation younger than Hanks (“Captain Phillips”) and Redford (“All Is Lost.)


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 Bruce Dern for his outstanding work in “Nebraska.”

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.

PHOTOS: Oscars 2014 nominee reactions

David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” topped the list with 10 nominations. On the one hand, the film’s outrageous situations and characterizations (and brilliantly off-the-cuff dialogue) are definitely not business as usual, but the film manages to bring everything back home for a satisfying and happily conventional conclusion.

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 “Roots” changed the face of television within the memory of those still living and “Django Unchained” won an Oscar last year, it is fair to say that slavery is a familiar topic. But the unblinking, unsentimental way director Steve McQueen has chosen to present it on screen is unprecedented as well as completely modern.

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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 AIDS kept this feature in development hell for what must have seemed like forever, but once it got made, “Dallas’s” tendency to hit its points harder than necessary put it squarely in the old Hollywood camp.

“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 Martin Scorsese, something that he shrewdly camouflages by the increasingly sensationalistic nature of his work: Entertainment Weekly reported that this film “breaks the record for most F-bombs in a movie with 506.” My sympathies to the person who did the counting.

“Philomena.” Judi Dench’s wrenching performance as a woman desperate to reconnect with the son she gave up for adoption would have warmed the heart of Louis B. Mayer. But having that son be gay and casting the Catholic Church in a villanous light would have given the old mogul fits.

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.

Oscars 2014: Play-at-home ballot

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 “The Hunt” and Palestine’s “Omar” — are all traditional stories done in an updated way.

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 — “The Act of Killing,” “Dirty Wars” and “The Square” — fit that bill.

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. “Saving Mr. Banks” got only one nomination (for musical score), “The Butler” didn’t get any, and the exceptional but under-publicized “The Invisible Woman” had to settle for one for costume design.

Which was one less than the nominations (for makeup and hair style and visual effects) that one of the year’s biggest bombs, “The Lone Ranger,” managed to rack up. The Academy insists on going its own way, and you have to love it for that.

[For the record, 1:45 p.m. Jan. 16, 2014: An earlier version of this post referred to “Django Unchained” as “Django Rising.”]