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The Oscar nominees for Best Actress are announced by Chris Pine and Academy President Cheryl Boone during the Academy Awards Nominations Announcement at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, California on 15 January.It's altogether fitting that a movie called "Whiplash" was the last one named Thursday when the nominations for best picture were announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

If the 87th Academy Awards line-up reflects anything, it's an industry painfully — and occasionally exhilaratingly – torqued by social, technological and creative forces it can't quite keep up with.

As the lucky nominees were identified – first by the directors J.J. Abrams and Alfonso Cuaron, then by actor Chris Pine and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an organisation that has already been criticised for being old, white and male looked increasingly so. With such right-on exceptions as Sandra Adair in the editing category, precious few women were nominated for the top technical and creative awards.

High-profile snubs included the author Gillian Flynn, who adapted her novel Gone Girl for the screen, and Selma director Ava DuVernay, who just a few days ago was the first African-American woman ever nominated in that category at the Golden Globes. David Oyelowo also was overlooked for what most critics and viewers agree is a stunning performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in the film.

In a year when the stunning civil rights film, which chronicled the voting rights movement in 1965, dovetailed all too perfectly with current events – and when historians and former Washington officials aggressively campaigned against Selma's depiction of Lyndon Baines Johnson – the oversight seems all the more stark.

Had DuVernay been nominated for best director, she would have been the first African-American woman to have earned that honour. For now, that barrier will stand another year.

Instead, as photographs of the nominees flashed behind the announcers, what emerged was a depressingly monochrome, uni-gendered visual tableau – reflecting the statistical realities of a steadfastly un-diverse industry. On 13 January, Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, released her annual Celluloid Ceiling report tracking women's progress within the film business. Her findings were underwhelming, at best.

Female perspective

In 2014, only 17 per cent of behind-the-scenes workers on films were women, a mere 1 percent increase from 2013. Women accounted for 7 per cent of directors, up 1 percentage point from 2013, but down 2 percentage points from way back in 1998. (If the Oscars are any indication, women have a better time of it in nonfiction: both Laura Poitras and Rory Kennedy were deservedly nominated for their documentaries Citizenfour and Last Days of Vietnam.)

With the exception of Selma, which gratifyingly received a nod for best picture, the plots of the nominated movies mostly hewed to a monotonous story line, centred around great men either in fact or in the making, whether it's the Iraq war hero Chris Kyle in American Sniper, Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Alan Turing in The Imitation Game or the tortured artists played by Michael Keaton and Miles Teller in Birdman and Whiplash.

Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel, also nominated for best picture, may not be about great men, exactly, but they are about great guys – in Boyhood's case, a kid named Mason whom we see come of age over 12 years in a miraculous time-lapse exercise. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ralph Fiennes delivered a beguiling performance as a sensitive European concierge between the wars trying to do the right thing by one of the heiresses he's made a career flattering and fawning over.

Still, even within a sea of male-driven stories, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel can't be accused of giving audiences more of the same. Indeed, along with "Selma," Birdman and The Theory of Everything, they represent the kind of vision and daring that only movies are capable of, and desperately need in order to survive a culture increasingly dominated by binge-friendly series on TV and the Web.

Absorbing drama

At a time when smarts, ambition and adult-friendly subject matter have found safe purchases on network, cable and such streaming upstarts as Netflix and Amazon, cinema has to prove its relevance. Boyhood which director Richard Linklater filmed over 12 years, finally meshing real life and fiction in an absorbing coming-of-age drama, is just the kind of audacious experiment the medium needs right now. The single continuous shot with which Alejandro G. Inarritu seemed to film Birdman, reflects a similar, go-for-broke sensibility, as does Wes Anderson's meticulous design, staging and framing throughout The Grand Budapest Hotel.

With Selma and The Theory of Everything, directors DuVernay and James Marsh bring sweeping and deeply expressive emotion to biopics that would otherwise be relegated to a high-toned mini-series, giving viewers a theatrical experience all the more potent and affecting for being so gracefully compressed and choreographed for the big screen.

Whether they're working with a bold, broad canvas or in exacting miniature, these filmmakers are making the most of a cinematic medium that increasingly must prove and re-invent itself.

When the Academy nominates a feature debut like Damien Chazelle's Whiplash – a relatively conventional kid-and-tough-mentor tale graced by superb performances from Teller and J.K. Simmons, nominated for best supporting actor – it's staking a claim for the Linklaters, DuVernays and Inarritus of the future. When the Academy nominates sturdy but unremarkable fare like American Sniper and The Imitation Game – both examples of lucid, engrossing storytelling, but neither a technical or artistic knock-out — it's keeping one slow-moving foot stubbornly in its past. Even when it seems willing to swing for the fences, the risk-averse movie industry will always play it safe.

Ann Hornaday

The Washington Post
LEHTIKUVA / AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON

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