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Oscars: The Academy rewards 

Fine films lead the slate, although Llewyn Davis is left outside

Fine films lead the Oscar slate, although Inside Llewyn Davis is left outside

When the nominations for the 86th Annual Academy Awards were announced last week, the results were, for the most part, pretty predictable. And because of that, we're guaranteed to have an Oscar race that should prove to be wholly unpredictable.

As expected, the three films that have been the presumed frontrunners over the course of the last several weeks managed to lead the pack of contenders, with American Hustle and Gravity nabbing 10 nominations apiece and 12 Years a Slave breathing down their necks with nine nods.

And with no film completely monopolizing the conversation -- all have proven successful with various guilds and critics' groups -- which one will win Best Picture on March 2 is anybody's guess. 12 Years a Slave is the sort of significant film voters often favor, but many might find it too depressing. American Hustle provides a great time at the movies, but many might find it too comparatively lightweight. And Gravity runs the risk of being dismissed by many as merely a special effects extravaganza. Opinions will tighten as we get closer to showtime, but for now, the race is an exciting one.

Still, that's not to say that the nomination roster is a complete success. Here, then, are some other musings about this year's slate.

Low Points

• The near-shutout of Inside Llewyn Davis. It was always going to be an uphill battle for the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen, since it's a film that has almost as many detractors as supporters -- and its divisiveness isn't the enviably attention-grabbing sort that garnered more awareness for fellow contender The Wolf of Wall Street. And let's not be too hard on the Academy, which generally has demonstrated a fondness for Coen flicks: Fargo, No Country for Old Men and True Grit nabbed an impressive six awards and 25 nominations between them, and even the barely seen A Serious Man managed to snag a well-deserved Best Picture nomination. Nevertheless, it's depressing to see that the best film of 2013, which by my count should have landed seven nominations, ended up with only two: Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing.

• The five nominations for The Wolf of Wall Street, all in major categories. The fanboy fave among this year's prestige pictures -- over at IMDb, users have ranked it the 50th best movie of all time, slightly ahead of Welles' Citizen Kane, Hitchcock's North by Northwest and Kubrick's Paths of Glory -- this finds director Martin Scorsese largely spinning his wheels with a movie that doesn't have anything particular new to say about American excess. Nevertheless, its controversy -- to say nothing of Scorsese's elder statesman status -- helped it pick up nods for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay (Terence Winter), Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill). DiCaprio fully deserves his salute -- it's a great performance -- but the other nominees should have been given the heave for more worthy efforts.

• No Goodman or Gandolfini. Speaking of Hill, there were plenty of supporting turns this year that deserved the nod over his amusing but hardly spectacular work. John Goodman was a longshot in the first place, so the fact that he wasn't nominated for Inside Llewyn Davis hardly comes as a shock. But there appeared to be popular sentiment for James Gandolfini, not only because he passed away last year but because he was excellent in Enough Said. Sadly, he didn't make the cut, meaning he'll be relegated to just a slide in the broadcast's In Memoriam segment.

• No nominations for Rush. Continuing the train of thought regarding the Best Supporting Actor category, Daniel Bruhl deservedly landed nods from the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild and the BAFTAs for his excellent work as Formula One driver Niki Lauda. So why the snub, Oscar? Bruhl wasn't the only one involved with Ron Howard's underappreciated movie to be ignobly tossed aside, as it should also have been cited for Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing.

• No Best Documentary nod for Blackfish. This was a particularly strong year for documentaries: Ask any 10 critics to name the best one and you might get 10 different answers. Ask me, and I'll answer Blackfish, a mesmerizing and important piece about SeaWorld's shoddy treatment of its killer whales, treatment that led to the death of a trainer in 2010. It's heartbreaking that it was left off the Academy's list, since its inclusion would have continued to bring attention to the matter. Instead, just hours after the nominations were announced, the New York Times ran an article titled, "Oscar Snub Is Applauded by SeaWorld Investors." Sickening.

Highlights

• The four acting nods for American Hustle. It was just weeks ago when prognosticators were predicting that only Jennifer Lawrence would get a nomination, and yet when the smoke cleared, Lawrence had been joined in the nominees' circle by co-stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper. Actually, that all four scored didn't come as a surprise to me (and I have the Oscar pool ballot to prove it!): Director David O. Russell had already managed the impressive feat with his cast the previous year for Silver Linings Playbook, and considering the tightness of this ensemble, it seemed only proper that this quartet should be all honored (sorry, Jeremy Renner). Further props to the Academy for showering this film with 10 nods. With Inside Llewyn Davis relegated to the sidelines, I'll be pulling for this and 12 Years a Slave to split up the awards.

• The strong showing of Dallas Buyers Club. Few contenders suffered as much immediate backlash as this affecting drama, which didn't play out in exactly the PC fashion its detractors wanted (as I noted in my review, one writer even called it an AIDS film that the Tea Party would embrace, about as ridiculous a statement I heard this entire past year). Fortunately, the Academy ignored the haters and handed it six nominations, including one for Best Picture.

• The pair of nominations for Steve Coogan. Just as it was obvious that Judi Dench would be nominated for Best Actress for Philomena, it was equally obvious that her co-star, the very talented Coogan, had no chance of nabbing a Best Actor nod, not only because the competition was impossible to crack but because he made sure the screenplay he wrote with Jeff Pope kept its focus on the emotional journey of Dench's character. His charity was rewarded by the Academy, which handed him nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and (as producer) Best Picture.

• The Best Cinematography nomination for Roger Deakins. For all its excellence, Prisoners was never able to gain a foothold during the award season, only receiving mention here and there for Deakins' camerawork. This shout-out wasn't exactly a surprise -- the Academy appreciates Deakins (11 nominations, though no wins) -- but as long as he continues to excel, he deserves to keep racking up the accolades, and maybe one day he'll actually take home the prize.

• The Best Makeup and Hairstyling category. OK, so this isn't a highlight as much as an opportunity to laugh at the bizarre juxtaposition of titles. The Makeup category was renamed last year to Makeup and Hairstyling, placing greater emphasis on the hairpieces and thus explaining something like The Iron Lady (with its pedestrian efforts) winning on the strength of Margaret Thatcher's hardened hair. This year, that change would seem to benefit American Hustle -- or Explosion at the Wig Factory, as Tina and Amy quipped on the Golden Globes -- but while the film made the short list, it failed to get nominated, losing out to Dallas Buyers Club, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger. So the category is surreally pitting AIDS victims against Johnny Knoxville in geezer makeup against a chalk-faced Johnny Depp sporting a dead bird on his head.

Other Thoughts

• It was certainly a roller coaster year for Ethan Hawke, who co-wrote and starred in Before Midnight, one of the year's most acclaimed movies, and Getaway, the year's most widely panned film (see sidebars). In addition to this pair of extremes, he also headlined The Purge, which was commercially successful but critically panned. In the end, though, Hawke came out on top, avoiding a Worst Actor Razzie Award nomination for Getaway (unlike co-star Selena Gomez) but nabbing a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nod for Before Midnight.

• Another John Williams score, another automatic nomination. Honestly, do the members of the Academy's music branch expect us to believe that they even listen to his pieces anymore before marking him down on their ballots? This year, he's repped with his work on The Book Thief -- it marks his 49th nomination.

• Williams isn't the only one to extend a record streak. With Blue Jasmine, Allen earns his 16th nod in the Best Original Screenplay category, and his 24th overall when one adds in his seven directing citations and his solitary acting bid (for Annie Hall). And with her Best Actress mention for August: Osage County, Streep extends her record number of acting nominations to 18.

• When the nominations were announced, even the most knowledgeable of critics were scratching their heads over something called Alone Yet Not Alone (nominated in the category of Best Original Song for its title tune). Although it opened in September, there are no reviews for it on either Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb, and box office appears almost nonexistent. Turns out it's a faith-based film set during the French and Indian War, as the two daughters of a family of peaceful settlers are kidnapped by fearsome Native American savages (the cheesy trailer brings to mind Cleavon Little's classic line from Blazing Saddles: "Where the white women at?"). The song was co-written by Bruce Broughton, a former Oscar nominee (Silverado) and recent head of the Academy's music branch, so there ya go.

• Not surprisingly, most of the year's biggest bombs -- After Earth, R.I.P.D., Jack the Giant Slayer, 47 Ronin -- were shut out of the race, but one of them managed to make its presence known. The Lone Ranger snagged a pair of nominations for Best Visual Effects and, as mentioned above, Best Makeup and Hairstyling. The movie's inclusion led to one of my favorite online quips on announcement day: "Inside Llewyn Davis and The Lone Ranger each received two Oscar nominations. Yes, that is the world we live in."

Oscar's 9 best

These were the films nominated by the Academy for Best Picture.

1. American Hustle (10 nominations)

2. Gravity (10)

3. 12 Years a Slave (9)

4. Captain Phillips (6)

5. Dallas Buyers Club (6)

6. Nebraska (6)

7. Her (5)

8. The Wolf of Wall Street (5)

9. Philomena (4)

Critics' 5 best

Based on a national sampling of 825 critics, these were the films that appeared the most frequently on 10 Best lists.

1. 12 Years a Slave

2. Gravity

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

4. Her

5. Before Midnight

(Source: www.criticstop10.com)

Brunson's 5 best

These were my picks for the year's best movies.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis

2. American Hustle

3. 12 Years a Slave

4. Stoker

5. The Past

Moviegoers' 5 best

These were the year's biggest moneymaking releases.

1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

2. Iron Man 3

3. Despicable Me 2

4. Frozen

5. Man of Steel

(Source: www.boxofficemojo.com)

.... And the worst

OK, we now have a sense of which films reigned as the biggest and/or best of 2013. But what about the worst? Glad you asked. Based on cumulative scores at Rotten Tomatoes, these were the year's biggest turkeys:

1. Getaway

2. Paranoia

3. Movie 43

4. Scary Movie 5

5. Battle of the Year

(Source: www.rottentomatoes.com)

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  • Fine films lead the slate, although Llewyn Davis is left outside

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