Note: for those unfamiliar with the 2012 Oscar Nominations, click HERE for Dan Coxon’s succinct listing.

The 2012 Academy Award Nominations feel like a dismissal of Oscar Years 2007 – 2010.  Look, I’m the first to acknowledge that, at their best, the Oscars are wildly unsatisfying (they generally favor mainstream cinema, they tend to arbitrate between apples and oranges—take your pick), but the aforementioned four-year period gave the proceedings a modicum of grit.

The Best Picture Winners, in order: The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker.  There’s some edge there (or, in Slumdog‘s case, the illusion of edge); you could sense the Academy wrestling with themes of violence, cruelty, and despair and deciding that a little psychic turmoil wasn’t bad for the soul.  Maybe it was a ruse, a means of staving off irrelevancy, but who cares?  Three very good, very tough movies won Best Picture (or, in Slumdog‘s case, gave the illusion of being very good and very tough).  Considering that former Best Picture recipients skew more towards Titanic or The Greatest Show on Earth, I’d call consider the films’ accolades achievements, indeed.

Well, we’re back to the drawing board.  Were I to give form to the 2012 Oscar Nominations (other than, y’know, a way-too-early telecast hosted by Jennifer Lawrence), they would look like a downy, plush, and infinitely accommodating Snuggie, complete with a straw that provides hot chocolate whenever you want it, and a detachable flap on the butt so you can take a s**t without sacrificing comfort.

I understand the need for cinematic comfort food, especially in days of such economic and political unrest, but the Academy isn’t so much offering reassuring hugs as it is administering morphine and sending us off to Anesthetized Slumberland.

Now, before I come off as an irredeemable grouch (my guess is, that ship has long sailed), let me clarify: there is nothing wrong with an affirmative, positive film experience, and this year’s Oscars have nominated some top-shelf examples.  Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is as delightful and visually ravishing a fantasy as I have ever seen; I couldn’t be happier with its eleven nominations.  I know many people thought War Horse too sappy, but I found Steven Spielberg’s widescreen homage to the cinema of yesteryear transporting and sweet and pragmatic in all the right ways, and one of the Beard’s five or six best films.

I loved Midnight in Paris and enjoyed Moneyball and thought that The Descendants captured the pain of losing a loved one without resorting to kitchen-sink bleakness.  I even think the Oscars’ two or three attempts to pay lip service to the Dark Side resulted in positive nomination coverage; yay to J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call screenplay nomination; double yay to Rooney Mara’s Best Actress nod for her bruising Girl with the Dragon Tattoo work; and a big ole Lifetime Achievement yay to Gary Oldman’s career-best performance as British intelligence agent George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  And while I’m not the biggest fan of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, I appreciate its density (to a certain degree), and I’m heartened that the Academy does, too (or wants to pretend it does), and rewarded it with Best Picture and Best Director nominations.

In almost every other regard, the Academy dropped the ball.

The Artist is a delightful little trifle, a winning recreation of silent cinema, and it did nothing that Singin’ in the Rain didn’t do better sixty years ago.  So, naturally, the film garnered ten Academy Award nominations.  And why stop there?  The Help, which updated Driving Miss Daisy for the 21st Century, got four nominations, with Jessica Chastain’s Best Supporting Actress nod the sole merit-based one (Chastain, who had a phenomenal 2011, gives the film’s best, most nuanced performance, while Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer excel in largely one-note parts).

The upside is, The Artist and The Help are good (if forgettable) pictures.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close offered the kids’ movie about 9/11 that America wasn’t exactly clamoring for (current favorability rating on Metacritic: 46%), yet super-producer Scott Rudin finagled a Best Picture nomination out of it.  Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher impersonation won a Best Actress nomination for The Iron Lady, and its Metacritic score hit the ceiling at 54%.  That’s failing!  If The Iron Lady were a kid in public school, it would have screwed the pooch on its SOLs, but with Meryl Streep on-board, how the positive reinforcement floweth.

Bridesmaids—freaking Bridesmaids!—got two nominations, and while I get one of them (Supporting Actress nominee Melissa McCarthy is the best thing in this stridently unfunny comedy), the Best Original Screenplay nomination makes me want to stick a gun in my mouth; it implies that actual writing was done.  I defy even fans of the film to tell me that Bridesmaids‘ “script” wasn’t the end result of hours of improvisatory footage.

The Oscars even gerried some of their good choices.  The much-loved Hugo didn’t receive any acting nominations, which wouldn’t be an issue if the great Ben Kingsley hadn’t given one of his best performances as dejected cinema pioneer Georges Méliès.  War Horse‘s Best Picture nomination didn’t come with an accompanying Best Director nomination, so it’s dead in the water.  Worst of all, Jessica Chastain is guaranteed to lose the Best Supporting Actress award because she’ll split the vote with Help-co-star Spencer.

And then, there are those forgotten.  These next poor souls delivered 2011’s most indelible thrills, so—natch—Oscar gave them jack-all (these craftsmen are thus resigned to crying perfect tears all over their beautiful faces, pausing occasionally to blow their noses in tissues made of money).  The work here is ambiguous, moving, disturbing, exciting, funny, naked (in all senses of that word); if you ever needed concrete proof that the Academy has defanged itself, look no further.

Hymn to the fallen…

  • Albert Brooks and Ryan Gosling for Drive.  It hurts to live in a world where Brooks and Jonah Hill are tied for career Oscar nominations.  Regarding Gosling, a conciliation note: DeNiro didn’t win for Taxi Driver, either.

  • Actors Charlize Theron & Patton Oswalt and screenwriter Diablo Cody for Young Adult.  Cody’s best script, Theron’s best performance, and the element that makes this twisted, deeply perverse piece of work watchable?  Oswalt’s sensitive, hilarious support.

  • The Adventures of Tintin.  A real head-scratcher: this funny, sweet, and exciting romp doesn’t get a Best Animated Film nod, but the digital equivalent of a “Meh”—Puss in Boots—does?  And they say cultural xenophobia doesn’t exist…

  • Jeremy Irons for Margin Call.  He descends on the movie like a vampire; it’s the reason the film is as scary as it is.

  • Contagion for Best Picture.  This is how you do a disaster movie: no-.b.s. and uncompromising, with the best ensemble of the year.  Maybe the Academy didn’t like its pandemic perspective, that there are no super cures or last-minute reprieves, just dogged government officials and a whole lot of dead people.

  • Elizabeth Olsen for Martha Marcy May Marlene.  Her ethereal, wonderfully modulated leading turn single-handedly transforms this stylish horror film into a tragedy.

  • Michael Fassbender for Shame.  The performance of the year—no one else comes close.  If this were Daniel Day-Lewis, the Oscar race for Best Actor would be over.  One small comfort: Fassbender’s time will come.

And the list could go on, my friends.  Happy New Year.

Culture Oscar Rant 2012: Why the Oscar Nominations Got Things So Wrong