If last year's awards season was dominated by smaller films such as "Birdman" and "Boyhood," this year the Oscars are going big.
The nominations for the 88th Academy Awards announced Thursday morning included lots of love for the kind of large-scale, crowd-pleasing studio fare that, even with the expansion of the best picture category to include as many as 10 nominees, has often been shunned in the Oscar race.
As the industry comes off its strongest box office year of all time with more than $11 billion in receipts, the nominations gave the major studios — which have weathered criticism for a long time that they are interested in only lowest-common-denominator tentpole fare — even more to crow about.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu's big-budget western revenge thriller "The Revenant" led the field with 12 nominations, including best picture and director. George Miller's gonzo dystopian action film "Mad Max: Fury Road" — a film that had been considered an awards season dark horse — followed closely behind with 10 nods. The sci-fi adventure film "The Martian" earned seven nominations, while Steven Spielberg's Cold War thriller "Bridge of Spies" drew six.
Collectively, those four films, each of which earned best picture nods, have earned more than $500 million at the domestic box office — a marked contrast from last year, when only one best picture nominee, "American Sniper," crossed the $100-million mark. The inclusion of such populist fare may bode well for the ratings for this year's Oscar telecast, which last year sank to their lowest level in six years.
Smaller movies received their share of recognition as well, of course. The fact-based newspaper procedural "Spotlight" and the period romance "Carol" earned six nods each, while the gut-punching drama "Room" earned nods for best picture, director Lenny Abrahamson and actress Brie Larson and the tender 1950s-era romance "Brooklyn" won nominations for actress Saoirse Ronan and screenwriter Nick Horby.
But at a time when conventional wisdom holds that Hollywood is averse to creative risk-taking and more interested in box office returns than quality, the strong showing for big-budget studio fare was noteworthy.
The year's biggest box office juggernaut, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," earned five nominations, including one for editing and another for composer John Williams. Though in the end the film was not the best picture nominee some fans were looking for, "The Martian" producer Simon Kinberg still sees this year as something of a watershed in terms of the academy's acceptance of mainstream genre fare.
"There's an interesting thing that happened this year, where 'Mad Max' and us and 'Star Wars' — three science fiction movies that are completely different — all get major nominations," Kinberg said. "That feels like a sign of the times."
In an era when the major studios have largely cut back on complex, mid-range adult fare, two such films — "Bridge of Spies" and the financial crisis dramedy "The Big Short" — received several nominations apiece. In perhaps the year's most surprising career makeover, Adam McKay, previously best known for broad comedies such as "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights," earned a directing nod for "The Big Short," which also earned nominations for picture, editing, adapted screenplay and supporting actor Christian Bale.
The nominations finally brought clarity to an awards season that has been unusually wide open while still including a number of major surprises. Though "The Martian" received a best picture nomination, its director, Ridley Scott, who had been considered by many a favorite to win the best director award, failed to even get a nomination.
"Carol" and the N.W.A biopic, "Straight Outta Compton," each of which had been considered best picture contenders, didn't make the cut, while "Room" — a film some had speculated may be too disturbing for academy voters to stomach — did. (With "Carol" not in the mix, this marks the first time in eight years that perennial Oscar rainmaker Harvey Weinstein doesn't have a film in the best picture race.)
Despite efforts in recent years to diversify the voting ranks of the academy, not a single actor of color was nominated in any of the acting categories, ensuring a return of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag that trended on social media heading into last year's Oscars. Several black actors who had been hailed for their performances this year, including Michael B. Jordan ("Creed"), Will Smith ("Concussion") and Idris Elba ("Beasts of No Nation"), failed to score nominations. With comedian Chris Rock set to host this year's Oscar telecast, the subject of race in Hollywood is sure to come in for some sharp barbs.
In a more positive sign of the industry's efforts to boost diversity, several films that had strong showings — such as "Brooklyn," "Carol," "Room" and even "Mad Max: Fury Road," which featured a ferocious turn by Charlize Theron — were anchored by strong female characters, while five of the films nominated for best picture had at least one woman as a producer.
The actors who did make the Oscars cut included longtime industry stalwarts and relative newcomers. "Room" star Brie Larson was in Australia, where she is shooting "Kong: Skull Island," when she learned of her first-ever Oscar nomination for the film. "It's been this sort of snowball which is picking up momentum," she said of the film's awards season buzz. "Seeing Lenny's [director Lenny Abrahamson's] nomination is a really big surprise and so exciting and well deserved. I'm completely over the moon and speechless."
Alicia Vikander was another first-time nominee, for supporting actress for the drama "The Danish Girl." Seeing herself nominated alongside veterans such as Kate Winslet, who earned a nomination for "Steve Jobs," was thrilling, she said.
"You can never expect it," Vikander told The Times by phone from Las Vegas, where she is shooting the next film in the "Bourne" series alongside fellow nominee Matt Damon, who received a lead actor nod for "The Martian." "But then I saw a photo on TV with the other actresses — these other actresses, these grown-ups, that I had looked up to for so long — and I had a hard time to get my head around it. I watched Kate Winslet since I was very, very young. It's just amazing."
Several actors with far longer resumes were also rewarded with their first Oscar nominations, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, who earned a supporting actress nod for Quentin Tarantino's western "The Hateful Eight," Charlotte Rampling, who was recognized in the lead actress category for the drama "45 Years," and Bryan Cranston, who earned a best actor nod for "Trumbo."
On the flip side, Jennifer Lawrence earned her fourth Oscar nomination, for "Joy," making her, at 25, the youngest actor ever to hit that milestone, while Leonardo DiCaprio earned his sixth nomination, for "The Revenant." He's still awaiting his first win — something most pundits feel he will get for this role.
"The whole endeavor was unique," DiCaprio said of the notoriously grueling shoot. "Some days, I thought it would be a walk in the park and it turned out to be more difficult than any of the battle scenes. The tough part was that we were fighting such insane weather scenarios. We all kind of knew what we were signing up for. We're not complaining about it!"
Proving yet again that the academy loves a great comeback story, Sylvester Stallone — who brought the world the cinematic paragon of the comeback, boxer Rocky Balboa — earned a supporting actor nomination for his understated return to the role in "Creed."
"You think about these things happening, and they usually don't, and now it is happening, so I'm really enjoying it," Stallone said, noting the four decades that have passed since the original 1976 "Rocky," which earned him nominations for lead actor and original screenplay. "How many peaks and valleys and how difficult it is to maintain any sense of longevity, and then to have bridged that gap back to where I started in drama — it is really amazing to me."
And what would Rocky himself think to be back on the Oscar stage?
"He's thrilled, though he doesn't know what to wear. He hasn't bought a tux in 40 years!"