Every film critic and film buff gripes about the Oscars, but it's really pointless. This year's nominations were no different than most years': Mostly safe, middle-of-the-road prestige pictures, with a few notable surprises and a few notable snubs. The Oscars are never going to turn into a film snob's paradise, nor are they ever going to recognize off-beat, challenging critics' darlings in more than token fashion. So I'm not going to bother airing my grievances, which are obvious (Finding Neverland is ridiculously overrated, Giamatti was robbed, Eternal Sunshine got almost none of the recognition it deserved, the Best Original Song nominations all suck, etc.) and instead, for once, focus on the positive. These are a few of the pleasant surprises, as far as I'm concerned:
Catalina Sandino Moreno for Best Actress in Maria Full of Grace: This was a really well-made but little-seen film, a look at the consequences of the drug trade that didn't moralize either for or against drugs, just told a focused and character-based story about one girl's dreams to make something better of her life and what she would do to achieve them. Moreno perfectly captured that girl and her journey, and it's wonderful to see her get some recognition, which hopefully will in turn drive more people to see this movie.
Mike Leigh for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director for Vera Drake: It seemed like a given that Imelda Staunton would get an acting nomination (and it's great that she did), but Leigh's two nominations were a nice surprise, even though he's been nominated in the past. This is another movie that takes on a complex social issue through the eyes of a single character and focuses on how it affects her life and the lives of those around her more than on its broader social implications. It's a heartbreaking film that deserves to be seen (it still hasn't opened here in Vegas), and again I hope that the nominations inspire more people to seek it out.
Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for Best Adapted Screenplay for Before Sunset: I'm not quite sure why this is considered adapted (I guess because it's a sequel), but if being in that category allowed it the nomination, I'm happy. This is a film that should easily have been in the Best Picture category, maddeningly overlooked by other awards shows and critics' groups as well, and any recognition it gets makes me very happy. Almost more than any other movie released in 2004, this is one I want to convince people to see (my pick for best film of the year, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is much more widely known). I don't know how much momentum a single nomination in a writing category can give a film, but it deserves anything it can get.
Brad Bird for Best Original Screenplay for The Incredibles: Nice to see an animated film get recognized in a general category, and it couldn't go to a more deserving film. It's a joke to see this in the Animated Feature category with such weightless crap as Shrek 2 and Shark Tale; if it doesn't win that award, Academy members really must be morons.
No nominations for Fahrenheit 9/11: Not so much a surprise, since Moore taking it out of the documentary category virtually guaranteed a lock-out, but I'm still glad that the Academy didn't fall for the same trick that the Cannes jury did last year and think that it's a brilliant film. It's a relatively well-made polemic, and undoubtedly it would have won the documentary category had it been entered, but I'm happy to see that the show, which is about a celebration of movie-making, won't get overshadowed by divisive politics (whether I agree with them or not).
Full list of nominees