The State of the Oscar

Forget the Dreamgirls snub, what about Volver?

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It’s somehow perfect that this year’s Oscar nominations coincide with George Bush’s sixth State of the Union address. The Oscars and the State of the Union are like the senior proms of their respective spheres of influence: overhyped, meaningless, self-congratulatory shams that somehow matter anyway, if only to give us a common target at which to hurl invective, opinions, and wisecracks. They’re as close as our huge, technologized, alienated country gets to a national conversation, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to be left out.

Predictions of the likely winners are both dull and, in my case, pointless—I’m not enough of an L.A. insider to know what the industry favorites are, and this is my first Oscar season as a pro film critic. But here’s an overview of some of the most egregious disses on the list, a few surprises that are a pleasure to see there, and at least one legitimate, head-scratching, “Huh?”

The pouting about Dreamgirls’ supposed cold shoulder from the academy seems a little divaesque, like an onstage hissy fit thrown by one of the movie’s heroines, Effie White. The film still got more nominations than any other, even if they were largely spread out among the tech categories that are unjustly ignored every year. (Screw those people who toil away behind the scenes at crafts that take a lifetime to master! They’re obscuring my view of Brangelina!) Dreamgirls truly did have some of the best costume design I saw onscreen this year, with those witty period montages and matching ‘60s frocks. It certainly didn’t have the best directing or writing, and even the swooniest fans admit that the movie doesn’t cohere as a whole. I love the fact that Dreamgirls is a fan favorite. Jennifer Hudson is a great populist Cinderella, and the moment she takes best supporting actress (or tries to look noble as Abigail Breslin steals it from her) will be the high point of the ceremony. But Dreamgirls is a big, lumbering filmed play without a single hummable number, and its absence from the big lists (best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay) seems defensible to me.

As a longtime Mark Wahlberg nut (I got teased for comparing him to Brando when Boogie Nights came out), I was all atwitter to see him up for best supporting actor for The Departed. And Leo DiCaprio got the Best Actor nomination he deserved—I’m impressed that academy voters bothered to distinguish between his showier turn in the Scorsese film and his deeper, darker work in Blood Diamond. The neglect shown for Catherine O’Hara’s amazing performance in the otherwise lackluster Chris Guest comedy For Your Consideration is an eerie echo of the movie itself, in which she plays an actress overlooked for an Academy Award! I hope she’s out right now reliving the bender her character went on in the movie, and enjoying every minute of it.

Pedro Almodóvar’s near-perfect Volver got nary a nod for best foreign language film, best director, or even best score (Alberto Iglesias’ rich, string-heavy soundtrack was the perfect aural equivalent for all those heaving bosoms and crimson mop buckets of blood). Just last week, I was mentioning, in a discussion of Notes on a Scandal, the maddening, ubiquitous drone of Philip Glass’ awful music score for that film—and damned if it doesn’t get a nomination! Glass also wrote one of my favorite soundtracks this year, the mysterious, swirling music for The Illusionist—but it went unrecognized. The Illusionist’sonly moment of glory was a cinematography nomination for Dick Pope. Pope’s work on that film is a marvel of technical precision and historical rigor—every frame looks exactly like an early photograph. But if there’s any justice (which of course there isn’t—bemoaning that obvious truth is just another part of the yearly Oscar ritual), Emmanuel Lubezki will win the cinematography prize for his innovative lensing of Children of Men. Not only because it truly is groundbreaking camerawork—DPs will be copying the device he invented for that car-chase scene for years to come—but because that nomination and two others (one for editing, the other for best adapted screenplay) are the only crumbs being thrown to what was, to my mind, the single finest film of the year.

Listen to Dana Stevens discuss the Oscars on NPR’s Day to Day.