2019 Oscars Nominations Debrief: The Things I’m Excited, Surprised, Outraged, and Relieved About

I really thought I could do it this year. With traditional bellwethers for the Academy Awards seeming to go out of their way to hint at a “throwback” year by awarding middle-brow and historically revisionistic movies like Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Vice it seemed like this could be a year that I might sit out, cudmudgeonly throwing shade at the ceremony from afar. But then out of muscle memory I found myself sitting in front of my computer today at 8:20 am (to those of you on the West Coast who bothered to wake up at 5:20 am, I salute you) to hear Kumail Nanjiani and Tracee Ellis Ross announce the nominees for the 91st Academy Awards, and I was hooked once again like the stupid awards-season junkie that I am.

As always the announcement of the nominees come with surprises to be celebrated and the predictable outburst of outrage over the enormous multitude of movies and performances that get snubbed. And what better thing is there for me to do, as the writer of a relatively minuscule movie blog, than simply to add to the noise?

Let me clarify one thing when I’m talking about snubs I’m outraged about. While there are a ridiculously large amount of great movies (seriously, this was a great year) that received zero nominations this year, realistically they never had a shot of winning. So it seems pointless for me to waste too much hot air harping on why those narrow-minded buffoons at the Academy couldn’t see the overwhelming artistry that was on display in Paddington 2,and how egregious it was that Hugh Grant wasn’t considered the presumptive Best Supporting Actor winner, and how biased the Academy is against children’s movies even though it is quite possibly the hardest genre to get right, and that in a fair world we would also not be biased against voice performances and instead reward Ben Winshaw for being perfect as Paddington, and that any production designer who looked at Paddington 2 and didn’t see its impeccable craft obviously should be looking for another job, and… I digress. The point is that we are in an age of a phenomenally high amount of good-to-great movies being made on a variety of platforms and available to us in more ways than ever before. Most of these movies are going to be snubbed. So if I’m going to get mad about something, it should be for a movie that had a realistic to outside shot of being nominated in the first place.

RELIEVED: #oscarssowhite is made a thing of the past for one more year.

Looking at the slate of nominees this year, it is hard to believe we are merely three years removed from the #oscarssowhite controversy in which for two years in a row all the acting nominees failed to feature a single non-white actor.

This year finds minorities and international faces being featured and at all levels. Five of the eight Best Picture nominees (Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book, Roma) feature non-white actors in significant roles and at least three of those movies have the issue of race at its centre. In the acting categories Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) became the second Egyptian after Omar Sharif to be nominated. Yalitza Aparacio (Roma) became the second Mexican woman to be nominated and the first indigenous woman ever to be nominated for Best Actress. Yalitza is joined by her fellow Mexican co-star Marina de Tavira in the Best Supporting Actress category which also includes a nomination for Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk). Finally former winner Mahershala Ali finds himself the presumptive favorite again in the Best Supporting Actor category for his turn in Green Book.

Behind the camera Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) got nominated for his first Best Director award (more on him later) and he is joined by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (Roma). Both of them are joined by Barry Jenkins in the screenplay categories for his If Beale Street Could TalkSpider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the first superhero movie to feature an Afro-Latino superhero and joins Mamoru Hosada’s Mirai in the Best Animated Feature category. And the documentary features Bing Lui’s Minding the Gap and the surprise inclusion of RaMell Ross’ Hale County: This Morning, This Evening.

This does not mean that there weren’t still some notable diversity exclusions. Crazy Rich Asians (full disclosure: I liked, but did not love the movie) found itself and its actors shut out completely. If Beale Streets Could Talk inexplicably could not gather any awards momentum, despite being a worthy follow-up to Jenkin’s Moonlight (more on that later) and only garnered a handful of nominations. Steve McQueen’s excellent Widows similarly could not garner awards attention, leaving both director Steve McQueen and lead actress Viola Davis out in the cold. But thanks to the level of diversity in the rest of the awards field, these movies’ exclusion felt more like traditional snubs rather than an egregious and systematic ignorance of diversity in filmmaking. And while the increased diversity of the last few years are no guarantor that the #oscarssowhite controversy won’t flare up again in the future, we can at least put those worries to bed this year.

EXCITED: Superheroes finally break through!

Ten years ago The Dark Knightarguably still the greatest superhero movie ever made, found itself painfully on the outside looking in as it was snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. That movie, along with WALL-E which was similarly snubbed, prompted the Academy to adopt wholesale changes to the nomination process of Best Picture movies, expanding the nominees from five to up to ten, presumably to allow more popular fare to get in. In the intervening years however, the expansion of the Best Picture nominees has seen the inclusion of much more indie and art-film fare and superhero movies have continued to be on the outside looking in (with Guardians of the Galaxy, Logan, Deadpool, The Avengers, and Wonder Woman among the most egregious snubs).

But no longer. With Wakanda answering the call, Black Panther crashes into the awards ceremony with aplomb. Ryan Coogler’s movie is perfectly balanced between being conventionally entertaining while keeping one foot firmly in the real world and one eye on the specific issues of race and power that currently occupy public discourse, and it seems the Academy has noticed. Meanwhile the excellent (and for my money better) superhero movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse got a well-deserved Best Animated Feature award and, unlike Black Panther, should be considered a favorite to actually win its category.

OUTRAGED: If Beale Street Could Talk cannot overcome two simultaneous traditional Academy problems.

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight winning the Best Picture two years ago was a minor miracle, not least because of the whole snafu surrounding how its win was announced. But as a result of its win and the fact that it happened a mere two years ago, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that Jenkins’ follow-up, the adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, did not garner much major awards consideration. It is common, especially when considering younger filmmakers and minority filmmakers, for the Academy to feel like an already honored filmmaker doesn’t necessarily need to be honored again, and especially so soon. This recency bias meant that it was always going to be an uphill battle for Jenkins’ latest to be a serious awards contender.

But apart from the recency bias there is another long-standing Academy undercurrent that I think kept If Beale Street Could Talk from the Best Picture race. Twenty-nine years ago Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, an absolute masterclass of an American movie that brazenly tackled racism and American culture, found itself completely shut out of the major awards while Driving Miss Daisy, a genteel movie about race in America in which a black driver dispenses wisdom and develops a friendship with an elderly and at least slight racist white woman, won Best Picture instead. When confronted with a stark choice between a crowd-pleasing feel-good movie about racial reconciliation and a movie that forces us the audience to confront racism’s deep hold on all of us, the Academy tends to favor the crowd-pleaser. And in a depressing case of history repeating itself, it seems that Green Book, with it palatable mix of middle-brow sensibilities and a facade of racial reconciliation, has won out against a movie that forces us to sit and dwell with our complicity in an unjust system.

EXCITED AND RELIEVED: No “Anti-Netflix” Bias.

When Icarus, Netflix’s documentary about doping in sports, won for Best Documentary Feature last year it represented a banner moment for steaming services in general. It meant that the Academy had little anti-streaming bias, at least in the mid-major categories like documentaries. But this year there was every chance for the Academy to show us that there was in fact a ceiling of respectability for streaming platforms like Netflix by ignoring the awards season push for Roma.

But this did not turn out to be the case as not only did Roma snag a Best Picture nomination, but it also garnered the most nominations with ten nominations. And this represents an important milestone for the future of movies because, while there is much hemming and hawing in the film and film criticism industry about the importance of the theatrical viewing experience, Roma could have only succeeded as a movie on a streaming service. The market for a black-and-white foreign art-house film is abysmally small in a traditional theatrical distribution model and there is no doubt a movie like Roma in the past would have existed as a film festival season darling that got forgotten come the end of the year. But Netflix’s model of a simultaneous global release (and a qualifying theatrical run) undoubtedly raised the profile of Roma, turning it from a movie only cinephiles like me will seek to a movie a larger amount of people might check out; I am generally of the opinion that the more ways the general public might be able to view great cinema the better. And even if Roma doesn’t win the Best Picture award, the fact is that its ten nominations mean that this kind of movie is possible, and in the copycat league that is Hollywood, might mean a slew of similar movies will hit the market and hopefully be available on multiple platforms when they are released. And that is simply, to this homebody viewer, exciting.

DOUBLY EXCITED: Here Comes Art-House!

I’ve already talked about Roma above so let me focus on the movie that’s tied with Roma for the most nominations, namely Yorgos Lanthimos’ fever dream of a period drama, The FavouriteLike Roma, this movie’s awards are spread out (and is the only one to bag nominations in the quintuplet of Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Film Editing, and Cinematography). And like Roma, the movie has clear art-house sensibilities. While I am generally prone to despair that movies as conventional and boring like Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book find themselves at the centre of awards season, I cannot forget that there is also space at these awards for a movie as weird and acerbic and oft-putting and wonderful as The Favourite. And that, rightly, fills my heart with joy.

OUTRAGED: Won’t You Be My Neighbor and Shirkers snubbed.

Shirkers, a documentary that chronicles the emotional and existential journey of three young female Singaporean filmmakers who have their debut experimental indie film stolen by their older male producer, is equal parts heartbreaking and exhilarating. More importantly it is a hauntingly beautiful documentary that pushes the form into new and exciting directions. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised then that it finds itself snubbed.

But the exclusion of Won’t You Be My Neighbor is nothing short of baffling. The documentary of the life of Fred Rogers and his children’s program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which stood as a revolutionary treatise for the power of gentility, kindness, and civility could not be more in keeping with our current zeitgeist. Additionally in a category often characterized as “the section that makes you lose your office Oscar pool”, Won’t You Be My Neighbor was as close to mainstream crossover hit as you could get (it grossed $22 million dollars, which for a documentary is basically a “Marvel movie”-level gross). Why they would choose to ignore something like that is beyond me.

SURPRISED: “Rest-of-the-world” breaks through

Sometimes it getting a regular moviegoer to watch anything in a language other than English feels like a Sisyphean task of pulling teeth. And yet this year we seem to actually have an Oscar season that acknowledges that movies are made in places that don’t speak English. Roma is of course the prime example as the nominations leader. But joining Alfonso Cuarón in the Best Director’s race (and knocking out one of the Best Picture nominations’) is Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski for his black and white romance Cold War and Yorgos Lanthimos, who though his nominated movie is in English got his career started in Greece. Meanwhile in the Best Foreign Movies race, the amazing Hirokazu Kore-eda (who I have raved about here and here) finally gets an Academy Award nomination for Shoplifters.

Of course, being the Academy, they still got things wrong and nowhere more so than in inexplicably finding no place at the table for Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning. But at least that is par for the course.

OUTRAGED: All male director slate again

Speaking of par for the course, once again the Academy depressingly reverted back to status quo by nominating a slate of all-male directors one year after finding room for Greta Gerwig and her perfect movie Lady Bird. Now I am willing to grant that given the slate of potential candidates this wasn’t necessarily the strongest year and there wasn’t an obvious candidate that the Academy had missed (as they did when they snubbed Ava DuVernay for Selma). Debra Granik (Leave No Trace), Lynne Ramsey (You Were Never Really Here), Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Chloe Zhao (The Rider) and Tamara Jenkins (Private Life) were perhaps the ones with the best shot of snagging a nomination, and far be it for me to suggest they couldn’t have knocked out one of the actual nominees, but they would have been very pleasant shocks had they been nominated.

But as is always the case with female directors the issue is hardly about the quality of their talent and rather about the opportunities that are handed to them. Alfonso Cuarón basically got to make an intimate and highly personal portrait of his childhood filming in black and white and in Spanish because he has also made a Harry Potter and already has a Best Director trophy. Studios green-light the projects of men like Spike Lee and Adam McKay on the basis of their name alone. Bradley Cooper gets the chance to direct a movie because he’s a movie star! And for some reason, given both the heinous allegations surrounding his sexual conduct AND his unprofessional behavior on set, Bryan Singer got to direct Bohemian Rhapsody. In most of these cases (except the Bryan Singer case obviously) you can certainly argue that it wasn’t unfair to give these opportunities to those men. But Hollywood today doesn’t look much different than the Hollywood that saw Elaine May, easily the most successful female director up to that point, be jettisoned from Hollywood for her first and only flop Ishthar. With The Celluloid Report showing that the percentage of female directors is shrinking, it is clear that the problem is a systemic one that Hollywood needs to intentionally address.

EXCITED: But Spike Lee finally gets a nomination!

But let us not let that take away from the fact that Spike Lee, America’s auteur provocateur, has finally gotten a nomination for Best Director. Twenty-nine years ago he was egregiously snubbed for Do The Right Thing, one of the all-time great American films. And though he is a director who only takes big swings and often misses, the fact is that his entire body of work easily shows that he is one of the great directors. We can argue is BlacKkKlansman, his best film in a decade, represents a “right person, wrong film” situation for the snubs of Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, or 25th Hour, the fact remains that his nomination is long overdue and well deserved. So hooray!

*UPDATE* OVERLOOKED OUTRAGE: Ethan Hawke.

Seriously, what does the man need to do to get an Oscar? First Reformed getting snubbed for Best Picture was something I more or less expected, but Ethan Hawke gives a performance here that not only establishes him as a great actor who is only getting greater but is also easily better than any of the Best Actor nominees for the last five years. I will fight you on that.

STATE OF THE RACE

I won’t lie, Green Book winning the Producer’s Guild Award sent shudders down my spine. It seemed that after years of choosing daring (or at least not boring) movies as Best Picture, the Academy was gearing itself up for a Driving Miss Daisy-level travesty, rewarding yet another movie about race that uses the minority characters to help the majority culture learn a lesson (that, at least according to family members of Don Shirley, is a fictitious account).

While the nominations didn’t necessarily assuage all my fears that the latter might still happen, there was at least enough evidence here that Green Book’s path to Oscar glory may not be so clear-cut. First off, two critical darlings Roma and The Favourite not only garnered the most nominations (10 each), they also gathered them in extremely important categories and not “below-the-line” technical nominations. The Favourite was the only movie to get  Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Film Editing, and Cinematography nominations. Roma meanwhile got all of those except for Film Editing, probably because most of the movie consists on incredibly long takes without cuts (although not giving the movie a nomination for that seems a little bit misguided). That would make those movies the *ahem* slight presumptive favourites, at least until the other guilds have weighed in.

As for the other dark horses, only Blackkklansman and Vice (ugh) got the traditionally all important Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Film Editing quartet so they have to be in the mix. Theoretically Green Book should still be in the mix but given that Peter Farrelly got shut out of the Best Director list and only four movies have ever won Best Picture without a Best Director nod we should consider them as outsiders (unless the Director’s Guild awards Farrelly, in which case we can presume a “Ben Affleck snubbed for Argo“-type campaign is in full force). All the other nominees (Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born) should be in the “honoured to be there” category.

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