Marion Cotillard has received a surprise Best Actress nomination for Two Days, One Night. Photo: Getty
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The 2015 Oscar nominations: no surprises, but a few oddities

There is little to surprise a seasoned awards-watcher in this year’s nominations – Ryan Gilbey gives his verdict.

Radiohead said it best: No surprises, please. This year’s Oscar nominations were announced earlier today. Boyhood attracted six, of which Best Picture and Best Director (Richard Linklater) should be in the bag; it will be a disappointment also if Patricia Arquette doesn’t win Best Supporting Actress. It’s no risk to say that Michael Keaton will win Best Actor for Birdman, which got nine nominations. He certainly has no competition from this year’s other most deserving performer, Ralph Fiennes, who was overlooked in the same category for his impeccable comic tour-de-force in The Grand Budapest Hotel despite that movie matching Birdman’s tally of nominations.

I would be rooting for Birdman also to take Best Cinematography (for Emmanuel Lubezki) if it wouldn’t be altogether sweeter to see Dick Pope snatch the prize instead for his work on Mr Turner. That might go some way toward ameliorating the short shrift given to Mike Leigh’s stunning film by both the Oscars and the Baftas. And to making up for the mispronunciation of the cinematographer’s surname as “Poop”. Let’s just hope that Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who made the slip-up, never has to introduce the leader of the Catholic Church.

Any deviations from the widely-circulated predictions have been minor and unlikely to have much impact on the final results. Still, it gave the seasoned awards-watcher a minor fillip to find Marion Cotillard elbowing her way into a category (Best Actress) on which few “experts” had anticipated she would make an impression. I wasn’t a fan of the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night, but what strengths it possesses are mostly attributable to Cotillard’s dogged but never defeated performance as a woman fighting for her job and her dignity. It seems unlikely she will take the Oscar; Julianne Moore, who is subtle and compelling in Still Alice as a professor with early-onset Alzeheimer’s, would do well to start clearing a space now on her mantelpiece for the statuette. But, as with Cotillard’s character in Two Days, One Night, winning is immaterial. It’s just good to see her in the fight.

Cotillard aside, here are my Top Five oddities and anomalies in this year’s Oscar voting:

Best Supporting Actor in a Film That No One Liked But Everyone Will at Some Point Watch on an In-Flight Entertainment System: Robert Duvall in The Judge.

The “We Can’t Quite Follow What’s Going On But, Hey, Hats Off For Trying” Award for Most Foolhardy Screenplay Adaptation: Paul Thomas Anderson for adapting Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.

Best Adapted Screenplay That Makes a Mockery of the Term “Adapted”: Damian Chazelle for Whiplash, which was judged to be “adapted” because Chazelle made a short film including one scene from the movie in order to raise funding for the feature-length version. So even though the screenplay existed first, it was “adapted from” the short that came after. It’s time-travel conundrum worthy of Interstellar.

Best Picture Ignored in Other Categories and Therefore Standing Less Chance of Winning Than If It Hadn’t Been Nominated: the civil rights drama Selma. (Also nominated in the Liberal Guilt category.)

Best Supporting Actress named Meryl Streep: Meryl Streep for Into the Woods.

The Academy Awards ceremony takes place on 22 February.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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