Oscars: no shocks, but a good return for the Brits

Steve McQueen is the first black British filmmaker ever to be nominated for the Oscar for best director. Not a bad innings for the UK in a year that also sees multiple nods for Gravity and Philomena.

Ashley Clark
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Philomena (2013)

Philomena (2013)

The nominations for the 86th annual Academy Awards were announced today at a formal ceremony in Hollywood, and were notable for how much they conformed to expectation. In place of last year’s awkward comedy double-act featuring Ted director Seth McFarlane and actor Emma Stone, Thor star Chris Hemsworth was on low-key form alongside Academy president Cheryl Boone-Isaacs to read out the roll call.

Surprises were generally limited to omissions rather than inclusions (unless you count a best makeup nomination for Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa as a surprise), while the big-hitters – American Hustle, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave – cleaned up across the major categories.

The general consensus is that it’s been a strong year for cinema, and the nine films nominated for best picture perhaps constitute the most impressively consistent set since the field was expanded from five films in 2009. However, as is often the case, the ubiquity of the same films across so many categories suggests a uniformity of thought, rather than diversity, and a reminder of how narrow a slice of cinema the Oscars represent.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave (2013)

It is customary for the British to view the Oscars through a nationalistic lens (“The Brits are coming!” is a familiar tabloid cry), but one nomination for a Brit carried some wider significance. For 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen became, as expected, the first black British director to be nominated for an Oscar. He also stands a chance of becoming the first black director ever to win the award, with only John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood) and Lee Daniels (Precious) being selected for the category before.

The outsider perspective that McQueen brought to this tale of one man’s hellish immersion in American slavery might be the key to the film’s unflinching impact, and might also have been the slap around the face that the Academy needed. It’s to be hoped that the Academy will continue to broaden its horizons in the future, and consider black cinema more seriously. After all, whatever stock one holds in the Oscars as a barometer of genuine quality, it’s a given that Academy recognition increases a film’s profile and acts as a legitimate cultural signifier.

In other Brit-related news, 12 Years a Slave’s leading man, Forest Gate-born Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has now come to widespread prominence after a decade or so in smaller roles, was also nominated, and may consider this his genuine breakthrough moment. McQueen’s film garnered nine nominations in total. Alfonso Cuaron’s part-British space thriller Gravity went one better, with 10, while Stephen Frears’s Philomena took four.

Director Steve McQueen attends the 12 Years a Slave (2013) press conference during the 57th BFI London Film Festival.

Director Steve McQueen attends the 12 Years a Slave (2013) press conference during the 57th BFI London Film Festival.

Steve Coogan will be a happy man this evening, having snagged both producing and screenwriting nominations for Philomena. Coogan has been champing at the bit to break into Hollywood for a while now, and back in 2003, even satirised his own burning ambition with a self-effacing turn in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. It’s somewhat ironic, however, that his first taste of Oscar love doesn’t recognise him for his acting. His co-star Judi Dench is nominated for best actress, while Sally Hawkins’ best supporting actress nomination for Blue Jasmine should make up for her 2008 snub for Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (a turn for which she was widely expected to receive a nod.)

One of the more surprising snubs was for Emma Thompson, whose entertaining turn as P.L. Travers in John Lee Hancock’s Disney drama Saving Mr. Banks was arguably the best thing about it. Her Banks co-star, Tom Hanks, was another surprise shut-out for his turn in Captain Phillips. Pride of Hackney Idris Elba was overlooked for his turn as the late Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, although Bono will be happy: U2’s ‘Ordinary Love’ took home a nomination for best song.

Gravity (2013)

Gravity (2013)

There was good news, too, in the live action short film category. There’s a nomination for Mark Gill’s The Voorman Problem, a drama about a psychiatrist who is called to a prison to examine an inmate named Voorman, who is convinced he is a god. It stars Martin Freeman, whose own star has been steadily rising in recent times, with high-profile roles in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, and BBC’s Sherlock. Such is the glamour and star wattage of an event like the Oscars it’s easy to forget the smaller categories, but success here can lead to careers really being launched.

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