For film geeks, if there's one thing better than watching the Oscars, it's bitching about the Oscars—a hallowed ritual now greatly enhanced by Twitter and the Web. Next month, when the awards are bestowed, laptops and smartphones will be buzzing with irate comments. And last Thursday's nominations have already provided plenty of ammo for our ire and indignation. After curating their precious top-10 lists with such care, critics wail, "Why didn't they listen to me?" The fanboys grouse: Where was Looper, The Hobbit, or Skyfall—and what about The Master? Even if the final nine entries in the Oscar derby aren't entirely objectionable, it's fun to object. That's why there's more mock outrage about the Oscar noms than at a Senate confirmation hearing.
THE 85th ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS ABC, 4 p.m. Sun., Feb. 24.
Where to begin? Let's start with the math. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently expanded the Best Picture field to a possible 10, while Best Director remains locked at five. This means that while their Argo, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, and Zero Dark Thirty got the nod, respectively, Ben Affleck, Quentin Tarantino, Tom Hooper, and Kathryn Bigelow got the snub. (The twofers were David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook, Ang Lee for Life of Pi, Steven Spielberg for Lincoln, Michael Haneke for Amour, and Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild.) Bigelow, whose hunt-for-bin Laden thriller topped many critics' polls and 10-best lists, is the biggest casualty. Sure, she previously won for The Hurt Locker, but Zero Dark Thirty is a much larger enterprise—compressing about a decade of painstaking U.S. intelligence work into 157 thrilling minutes. (By contrast, Lincoln was eight minutes shorter, but felt a decade longer.) And while I have many reservations about Tarantino's haute-trash approach to slavery, Django Unchained is in every sense a director's movie; you couldn't imagine anyone else making it.
The solution? Director and picture should be a combined category: Vote for one, and the other is automatically nominated. Two statues are awarded, and no one gets overlooked.
Then there are the morality issues. Because Academy members tend to be established, older figures (hence the disaster with online voting), they reward what they know and honor the uplifting. Slavery was bad (Lincoln, Django); religious pluralism is good (Life of Pi); love makes old age or mental illness bearable (Amour, Silver Linings); Anne Hathaway sure can sing (Les Mis); and how about Alan Arkin and John Goodman in Argo? Hollywood patriots helped free the hostages in Iran!
As a result, unvarnished heroes and heroines generally rule the acting categories. While Daniel Day-Lewis is magisterial in Lincoln, he also benefits from the historical/presidential halo. Hugh Jackman is no less noble in Les Mis. And while Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings) and Denzel Washington (Flight) start with flaws, they march inexorably toward redemption. This leaves no room for Jack Black's mincing murderer in Bernie or Denis Lavant's one-man freak show in Holy Motors or Sean Penn's Goth-rocker Nazi hunter in This Must Be the Place or Matthew McConaughey's Killer Joe? The same holds for actresses: Where is the place for Rachel Weisz's adulteress in The Deep Blue Sea or Nicole Kidman's slut in The Paperboy? The acting categories ought to be divided into heroes and villains; otherwise Oscar night becomes smothered in self- congratulatory virtue.
Now let's correct what we might call the Streep/De Niro Conundrum—the problem of the overdue. Let me propose a rule that a certain cumulative number of lifetime nominations automatically gets you an award, e.g., Silver Linings' Robert De Niro (seven lifetime nominations, but now three decades past his Raging Bull prize) and Skyfall cinematographer Roger Deakins (10 nominations, never a win). I will arbitrarily set the number at five. Amy Adams, one more and you're golden.
And my biggest Oscar-nomination outrage? The Academy's failure to recognize Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike, meaning we'll be deprived of a televised musical striptease number with Channing Tatum.