6 quick takeaways from this year’s Oscar nominations
No, the Oscars arenot a true measure of merit; they never have been. Yes, they’re a popularity contest, thanks to a system that can and does get gamed by expensive media campaigns. And yes, they’re just an excuse for an industry teeming with self-congratulatory personalities to lavishly congratulate itself.
Given all that, at the end of the day — yes, they’re fun. They’re fun to gawk at, fun to argue over and capable, under the right circumstances, or doing some actual good: A nomination can help audiences find a smaller movie they might have otherwise overlooked.
Some of you might object to treating the Oscars like a horserace. Some of you are wrong; that’s all the Oscars are. And with this morning’s nominations, the race is on. Here’s six things that leapt out:
1. More Oscar voters = more diversity
Nearly 9,500 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are eligible to cast votes this year — that’s a more than 30% increase in voting membership since the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite movement drove AMPAS to take efforts to make its voting pool younger and more diverse.
This year, of the acting categories, only supporting actor remains #Sowhite, with Ciarán Hinds (Belfast), Troy Kotsur (CODA), Jesse Plemmons (The Power of the Dog), Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Power of the Dog) and J.K. Simmons (Being the Ricardos) nudging out, among others, the blistering, unpredictable performance of Colman Domingo in Zola.
Simmons has won in this category before, for Whiplash, but this is the first nomination for the other four. Smart money’s on Smit-McPhee, whose performance is an extended act of stealth warfare.
The lead actor category is dominated by people of color, including a surprising nomination for Javier Bardem (Being the Ricardos), and much-less-surprising nods for Will Smith (King Richard) and Denzel Washington (The Tragedy of Macbeth). And although Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog) seemed an early lock-on favorite, and Andrew Garfield’s nomination for Tick, Tick … Boom! warms the hearts of musical-lovers, this is Denzel’s category to lose.
The actress categories are all over the map, and generated some of the true surprises of the morning.
For supporting actress, everyone has been talking about Ariana DeBose for West Side Story and Kirsten Dunst for The Power of the Dog. The Judi Dench nomination for Belfast — making her the oldest woman ever nominated in the supporting actress category — testifies to the fact that the Oscar voting pool still contains some of the old guard. Jessie Buckley’s nomination for The Lost Daughter hadn’t been seriously tossed around among Oscar watchers, but her performance as Olivia Colman’s younger self in that film is crucial to understanding how Colman’s character became as damaged as she is. And that sound you heard when Aunjanue Ellis’ name was announced for King Richard was a vast number of people who’ve been watching this excellent actress putting in the work for decades shouting, “Finally!”
The lead actress category was full of previous nominees — Jessica Chastain for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Olivia Colman for The Lost Daughter, Nicole Kidman for Being the Ricardos, and Penelope Cruz for Parallel Mothers. But while the Cruz nod wasn’t widely predicted, she does provide Almodovar’s baby-switching melodrama with a grounded quality it otherwise lacks. Maybe the biggest surprise of the morning, (besides Ruth Negga’s snub for Passing), came from the category’s sole never-before-nominated actress: Kristen Stewart for Spencer.
Stewart’s (literally) haunted performance in Pablo Larrain’s Diana biopic had a lot of buzz early on, but when she got overlooked by the BAFTAs, which generally act as a kind of Oscars bellwether, all that buzz faded away. Turns out she got counted out too early. Nevertheless, look for Kidman to stomp on the competition like they’re so many grapes under Lucy Ricardo’s bare feet.
As for best picture, the Japanese film Drive My Car made it into the running, in addition to its nominations for best international feature, best directing and best adapted screenplay — just as Parasite did, two years ago. Though beloved by critics, its moody, introspective tone and three-hour running time will likely combine to preclude a repeat of Parasite‘s singular success.
2. The dog? Is powerful!
Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog was the morning’s big winner, with 12 nominations, beating out Dune (10 nominations), West Side Story (8), Belfast (7) and King Richard (6).
Campion’s nomination for best director makes her the first woman who’s been nominated twice in that category. Should she win, as she is heavily favored to do, she will only be the third woman to do so.
It would also represent the first best picture win for Netflix — a major battle victory in the ongoing war between streaming and theaters.
3. The big battle: Feelgood vs. Feeldark
In the race for best picture, it’s likely going to come down to a fight between two very different movies: Kenneth Branagh’s warmly nostalgic Belfast, and Campion’s not-at-all-warm, acidic The Power of the Dog.
Both Branagh’s semi-autobiographical, poignant remembrance of his youth during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and Campion’s dispassionate autopsy of festering masculinity, prove deeply satisfying, albeit in widely divergent ways. Belfast provides comfort, while The Power of the Dog provides cathartic, steel-trap plotting.
Five years ago, Belfast’s strong performances, young narrator and feelgood quality would have combined to make it a shoe-in; the less generous among us would’ve tagged it as “Oscar bait.” But the love for The Power of the Dog has proven consistently strong and hasn’t yet flagged.
4. Could Flee go three for three?
The moving Danish film Flee is both a documentary and an animated feature. It’s the tale of a young man who fled Afghanistan with his family as a boy, and who has spent his life guarding various secrets ever since. This morning it received nods for best doc, best animated feature and best international feature.
While a sweep is unlikely, given the competition, the trifecta of noms at least means that more people will get to see this excellent film. The best shot its got of a win is in best documentary, but it’s up against the beautiful Summer of Soul.
5. How to get better Oscars ceremony ratings? Two words: Be. ‘Yoncé.
It’s no secret that the Oscars telecast has gotten lousy viewership over the past few years. The nomination of “Be Alive” from King Richard for best original song, however, raises the possibility of a live performance by Beyoncé. If even a small percentage of the Hive tunes in for that, and/or for a performance of “No Time to Die” by Billie Eilish — ratings will get a bump. (The other best song nominees include tunes by okay-boomer favorites like Diane Warren and Van Morrison.)
Encanto‘s “Dos Oruguitas” got a nod, as well. While it’s a beautiful song, it likely won’t send the droves of TikTokers who’ve been lip-syncing to the movie’s other, earwormier songs to their TV sets on Oscar night. (Justice for “Surface Pressure”!)
6. Don’t look now, but Don’t Look Up did well
Critics split on Adam McKay’s broad, scattershot, omnidirectional satire that attempted to turn a meteor speeding toward Earth into a metaphor for the slow, inexorable and devastating cost of human-caused climate change. But the Academy ate it up, and lavished it with 4 nominations, including best picture, best original screenplay, best editing and best original score. And while it joins the ranks of films nominated for best picture but not best director, the film’s makers and its fans will always be able to point to these nominations.
(See above, in re: Oscars’ status as measure of merit.)
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In a year when Hollywood largely failed to jump-start theatrical moviegoing, streaming services solidified their hold on viewers. And on Tuesday, Oscar voters rewarded Netflix, Apple TV+ and Amazon films with nearly 40 Oscar nominations — 27 for Netflix alone, with Jane Campion’s western “The Power of the Dog” recognized in an impressive 12 categories, including best picture.
Campion became the first woman in the 94-year history of the Academy Awards to receive two directing nominations. (Her first was for “The Piano” in 1994.) Another Netflix film, the divisive climate-change satire “Don’t Look Up,” will also compete for moviedom’s top prize. ABC will broadcast the Oscars on March 27.
“We set out to build a great film studio by empowering great filmmakers to tell great stories, and I’m proud that we’re doing it across many areas with our film teams, including animation, international films and documentaries,” Scott Stuber, Netflix’s film chief, said by phone, noting that Netflix received more nominations than any other company for the third year in a row.
Apple TV+ made significant inroads with Oscar voters, with “CODA,” a romantic drama about the only hearing member of a deaf family, giving the tech giant its first best picture nomination. “CODA” also received nominations for Troy Kotsur’s supporting performance and Sian Heder’s adapted screenplay. Another Apple TV+ movie, “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” was recognized for lead acting (Denzel Washington), cinematography and production design.
“The Power of the Dog,” “Don’t Look Up” and “CODA” were joined in the best picture category by two movies that were released simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters (“Dune” and “King Richard,” both from Warner Bros.); four traditional movies that were box office duds (“Belfast,” “West Side Story,” “Licorice Pizza,” “Nightmare Alley”); and the little-seen but critically beloved Japanese film “Drive My Car.”
“Dune,” directed by Denis Villeneuve, received 10 nominations in total. It was the second-most-nominated film behind “The Power of the Dog” — although, in a shock, Villeneuve did not receive a nod for best director. Instead, in another sign of an evolving movie academy, which has tried to become less of a club for white men by expanding its overseas membership, voters recognized Ryusuke Hamaguchi for “Drive My Car,” an introspective drama about a widowed theater director and the young woman who drives him to rehearsals.
Steven Spielberg (“West Side Story”), Kenneth Branagh (“Belfast”) and Paul Thomas Anderson (“Licorice Pizza”) rounded out the directing field. Notably, all three pushed for exclusive theatrical runs for their movies.
No streaming service has ever won a best picture Oscar; despite inroads, the traditional studios have fended them off. (Last year’s winner, “Nomadland” from Searchlight Pictures, was mostly seen on Hulu, but only because most theaters were closed.) But streaming companies are now in the dominant position, in part because the pandemic accelerated a consumer shift away from theaters, at least where highbrow films are concerned. The economics of streaming also make it easier to spend freely in pursuit of Oscars.
One heavily campaigned film, Amazon Prime Video’s “Being the Ricardos,” received three nominations, with Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman among the lead acting nominees and — in a surprise — J.K. Simmons recognized for his role as the “I Love Lucy” actor William Frawley. (In total, streaming services accounted for 12 of the 20 acting slots.)
Still, the academy’s 9,500 voters showed that campaigning only goes so far. “Being the Ricardos” failed to land among the 10 best picture nominees; Aaron Sorkin, its writer-director, was also snubbed. In contrast, an independent distributor with limited campaign funds, Neon, found success with the Afghan refugee story “Flee,” which garnered nominations for best international film, animated film and documentary. A tiny comedic drama, also from Neon, “The Worst Person in the World,” drew nods in the international and original screenplay categories.
“Streaming has carved its place,” said Stephen Gilula, who retired as co-chairman of Searchlight Pictures last year. (“Nightmare Alley” got its start under his reign.) “But they haven’t shown that you can buy awards yet.”
Consensus in Hollywood about who and what would get nominated was unusually slow to build in recent months, perhaps because the diminished Golden Globes went off the air and the Critics Choice Awards was pushed back to March because of the Omicron variant. But the movie capital was immediately aflutter over some perceived snubs.
Awards prognosticators had expected Lady Gaga to be among the best actress nominees, for instance, for her gonzo performance in “House of Gucci.” Nominations instead went to Kristen Stewart (“Spencer”), Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”), Olivia Colman (“The Lost Daughter”), Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers”) and Kidman.
In the documentary feature category, “The Rescue,” from the previous Oscar winners Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (“Free Solo”), was notably left out.