The Academy Award nominations for the 2013 movie season have been announced and from my perspective the big story is the almost-total exclusion of J. C. Chandor's All is Lost, which ended up nominated only for its sound editing. From what I've seen Chandor's is just about the best American film of the past year, with only Twelve Years a Slave rivaling it. Which is number one and which number two depends on my mood. Most stunning is the exclusion of All is Lost's star Robert Redford from the Best Actor race, but I suppose I should not have been surprised. Redford has won some awards since Lost made its debut at Cannes, but even there he lost to Bruce Dern, who remains in the Oscar race for his work in Alexander Payne's Nebraska. Since Cannes it may have seemed that Dern and Redford would make this year's competition a Lifetime Achievement contest, but Dern isn't necessarily the favorite in a strong field from which another erstwhile front-runner, Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, has been bumped in favor of latecomers Christian Bale (for American Hustle) and Leonardo DiCaprio (for The Wolf of Wall Street), while Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) and Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) got the nominations everyone expected. I haven't seen Nebraska yet but I can assume safely that Dern gives a more "showy" performance than Redford by any imaginable standard, simply because Redford's work in All is Lost was masterfully minimalistic, primarily physical rather than verbal. Redford no doubt suffered more in competition because his role required no physical transformation or accent, and he did not play a real person. He had no big speeches to give, unless you count the note we hear him compose at the very start of the film, and the most emoting he did was to yell "F-F-Fuck!!!" when his character ran out of fresh water. It all goes to show that a theatrical standard for acting still prevails that underrates the committed and convincing yet understandably quiet physicality the elderly yet vigorous Redford brought to Chandor's film. It will be said, and has been said already, that Redford and the film as a whole fail to "connect" with audiences, but the real problem is that audiences don't watch certain films with sufficient attention to appreciate the work on the screen. The wisdom of Alfonso Cuaron's choice to have Sandra Bullock's astronaut talk to herself constantly throughout Gravity appears to be reconfirmed, since Bullock won a nomination and is probably the closest rival to Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) for the actual prize. But Chandor's decision (obviously seconded by Redford) to keep "Our Man" almost entirely silent throughout All is Lost is one reason why theirs is a slightly superior film to Cuaron and Bullock's, though few acknowledge the difference.
For what it's worth -- and there's little reason, really, to take the Oscars seriously as a measure of cinematic worth -- I would have left Bale and DiCaprio's good performances off the short list in favor of Redford and Oscar Isaac for Inside Llewyn Davis. I have to withhold judgment on Dern and McConaughey until I see their work, but for now I'm rooting for Chiwetel Ejiofor, though there's no nominee whose victory would disgust me. If anything, I may grow more disgruntled over the nominations after I see Joaquin Phoenix in Her this weekend. He gave the best male performance of the previous year in The Master, but the Academy judges actors by overall attitude rather than individual performances, and too many members simply don't like Phoenix. Of the actual nominees, I suppose Bale is the least worthy. While I enjoyed his work in American Hustle I get the sense that he's riding everyone else's coattails and basking in the obvious love Hollywood apparently has for David O. Russell, in collaboration with whom Bale has already won an Oscar. I suspect that Russell will win one of the big prizes, either Best Director or Best Picture, either of which will infuriate those who see Hustle as a mere entertainment compared to the harrowing history lesson of 12 Years or the innovative spectacle of Gravity. But a comparison of the films rather than the actors is a topic for another time. For now, just remember that Robert Redford was robbed.