Film News

Oscars 2020: Making Sense of the Nominations

The 2020 Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and, as a certain former President of the United States might say, that was some crazy shit. No Frozen 2 for Best Animated Feature. No The Farewell for, well, anything. No women in the Best Directing category…again. Only two non-white acting nominees – Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) and Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory). No comeback nods for either Eddie Murphy (Dolemite is My Name), Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems), or Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers). No Taron Egerton for Rocketman even though he started his Oscar campaign literally the night of last year’s ceremony when he performed “Tiny Dancer” with Elton John at the singer’s annual post-Oscars party. Joker led the field with 11 total nominations, making it the first comic book movie to ever do that. (It was just 2 years ago that Black Panther receiving seven nominations, including one for Best Picture, was considered such a breakthrough.) And…

Actually, it wasn’t entirely shocking. The Oscars live to disappoint, the awards season was always heading for something like this, and love it or hate it, Joker has been undeniable this awards season.

The compressed voting window rears its ugly head

For this year and this year only, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences opted to air the Oscars earlier than ever before. In 2021 and 2022, the Oscars will return to airing at the end of February; here in 2020, the ceremony takes place at the start of February. As a result, the voting window for the Oscars closed two weeks earlier than usual, and many of the Academy’s nearly 9,000 voting members weren’t coping well with the change.

Three days before the deadline closed, The LA Times reported many Oscars voters still had no idea the window was shorter this year even though the Academy – pulling a page from the MoveOn.org playbook – had been drowning members with reminder emails for months. As awards pundit/film journalist Mark Harris tweeted, “I can’t imagine that isn’t going to affect this year’s nominations — I just don’t know how.”

The lead opinion: the compressed voting window – and shocking lack of preparation on the part of some Oscar voters – would equate to a batch of nominations heavily tilted toward the most obvious choices and prejudiced against late-breaking arrivals, mostly because voters already overwhelmed with stacks of screeners wouldn’t have time to see everything. There would be no Phantom Thread this year, no Christmas Day release that fails to land on the radar of other awards bodies but ends up a surprise multi-Oscar nominees. And those Golden Globes acceptance speeches which so often hold sway simply would not matter this year.

So, of course the Oscars rallied around Once Upon a Time In Hollywood (10 nominations), The Irishman (also 10), and Joker and only had enough room left in its heart for a few disruptors, like Parasite (6 nominations) and Jojo Rabbit (also 6, though not for Best Director as some had predicted). Is this because of the voting window or a reflection of 2019 being top-heavy and front-loaded with obvious favorites?

Or did it?

The notion that the Oscars would snub all late-arriving films out of “we can’t watch everything” necessity proved to be both right and wrong. 1917Sam Mendes’ simulated single-take, adrenaline rush of a WWI drama that just conquered the weekend box office – was a Christmas Day release, yet here it is on the receiving end of 10 Oscar nominations, including one for Original Screenplay despite being one of the least screenplay-dependent war movies you’ll ever see. However, a war movie from a prior Oscar winner (Mendes won for American Beauty) deploying a technically impressive Birdman gimmick and shot by one of the most celebrated cinematographers in film history (Roger Deakins) is about as Oscar bait as you can get. (Little Women, another Christmas Day release, earned 6 nominations, including Best Picture.)

Then again, Egerton and Awkwafina, Golden Globe winners for Rocketman and The Farewell, don’t have a single Oscar nomination between them today. Uncut Gems A24’s Christmas Day indie that led to many “I dragged my family to Uncut Gems, they all hated it, so I now I hate them” stories from especially militant cinephiles – failed to break through the Independent Spirit Award ceiling. Hey, at least we’ll always have Sandler’s lovely acceptance speech at the National Board of Review where he won for Best Actor.

(This was in contrast to the more jokey tone he took on The Howard Stern Show in December when he said the following about what he’d do if he was snubbed by the Academy: “If I don’t get it, I’m going to f-cking come back and do one again that is so bad on purpose just to make you all pay.” We’ve been warned. More Sandler Netflix Originals await us, I’m sure.)

Sorry, smaller films – Tarantino and Scorsese made their masterpieces this year, and Netflix throws the best parties

Similar late-arriving films like Just Mercy and Clemency found themselves almost completely kneecapped by the compressed window, mostly snubbed just about everywhere (Jaimie Fox did earn a SAG nomination) and completely ignored by the Academy. It’s not just the late-arrivers that struggled, though.

“I feel smaller films are definitely suffering from the rush and slipping through the cracks,” Eva Orner, director of 2007 Oscar Winner Taxi to the Dark Side, told the LA Times. After being completely snubbed, the filmmakers behind Booksmart, Her Smell, The Farewell, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Midsommar would be inclined to agree. Yet, even in a normal year those films might have still gone snubbed, particularly Last Black Man and Midsommar since they each went ignored by most of the precursor awards. Booksmart at least earned a surprise WGA nomination.

Screenplay – home to the hip nominees, no more?

Historically, when you make a smaller movie, your best bet for an Oscar nomination is almost always the screenplay category, long home to the best films the Academy is too scared to nominate for Best Picture. Ever since the Academy expanded the Best Picture category to include up to 10 films, however, the screenplay category doesn’t quite have the exclusive on the cool kids. Among this year’s 10 nominated screenplays – Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, and Two Popes for Adapted, 1917, Knives Out, Marriage Story, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Parasite for Original – only Knives Out and Two Popes failed to also earn a Best Picture nomination. (Ford v Ferrari is the only Best Picture nominee not also nominated for its screenplay).

Justice for J-Lo

What I find more vexing, actually, is Kathy Bates nominated for a perfectly fine, TV Movie of the Week performance in Richard Jewell – a Thanksgiving release which bombed – versus Jennifer Lopez being snubbed in the same category for Hustlers, a September release which went on to become one of the only female-directed films of 2019 to gross over $100 million domestic. If the compressed window should have tilted voting toward the more obvious choice, Lopez – a Golden Globe and SAG nominee from a movie a lot of people actually paid to see – trumps Bates, even though she’s a prior Oscar winner, yet this is such a classic Oscars move.

This kind of surprise happens every year, particularly in the Supporting Actor categories. In this case, it’s not even Bates who likely stole Lopez’s spot. After all, Bates was a Globe nominee as well and might have made SAG if the idiot studio hadn’t submitted her in the wrong category. No, the real (pleasant) surprise is Florence Pugh for Little Women, a rich performance as Louisa May Alcott’s most problematic character, but a performance snubbed by the Globes and SAG but not the Oscars. Good for her, bad for Lopez. I wonder what Jenny from Block has going on right before the Oscars ceremony.

Oh, yeah. Right, right. Right. What was shaping up to be one of the most unique 1-2 punches in pop culture history – Super Bowl Half Time Show performance one weekend, a possible Oscar win the next – is now just a Half Time Show. Still, when the consolation prize is performing in front of millions around the world opposite Shakira you’re already living your best life.

My Wild Rose rant

There is a very solid case that the Oscars need to retire the Best Original Song category, add it to the same historical dustbin as prior discarded categories like Best Dance Direction and Best Title Writing. There was a time – particularly during the musicals era – when Hollywood made the kind of movies routinely elevated by the perfect moment for a killer original song, either through soundtrack needle-drop or on-screen performance. That era, however, has given way to rampant category fraud (so many pop stars vying for their EGOT) and original songs nominees no one remembers, likely because the song only played over the closing credits.

The counterargument is if you look at the most recent winners – “Shallow” (A Star is Born), “Remember Me” (Coco), “City of Stars” (La La Land) – you see a collection of songs that are integral to the emotional journey being told in in their respective films. Plus, I’ve already forgotten most of last year’s acceptance speeches, but I still remember Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper performing “Shallow” together live during the telecast.

2019 was a down year for that kind of thing, though. The nominees include a Disney musical (Frozen II’s “Into the Unknown”), a couple of over-the-closing-credits bangers (Rocketman’s “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again”, Harriet’s “Stand Up”), and – as per Oscar tradition whenever these particular songwriters submit anything for nomination – a Randy Newman song (“I’m Gonna Throw Myself Away” from Toy Story 4, Newman’s 12th total nomination in this category) and a Diane Warren song (Breakthrough’s “I’m Standing With You,” Warren’s 11th total nomination, though she has yet to win).

Be honest, though: have you ever heard of Breakthrough? Was this Christian drama about that time a kid fell through the ice and almost died but was saved by the power of prayer on your radar for Best Original Song? (I’m being bitchy about it, I know. I haven’t seen Breakthrough and shouldn’t really comment.) This, too, is a recent Oscar tradition, the out-of-left-field Original Song nomination. See also: “The Empty Chair” from Jim: The James Foley Story (2016), “Manta Ray” from Racing Extinction (2015), and “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me (2014).

Clearly, the music branch might just be the quirkiest of the bunch or most inclined to suss out less-obvious choices. Why, however, they decided to snub Wild Rose’s “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” is beyond me. This song – delivered to such heart-breaking effect by Jessie Buckley in the film’s final sequence – is precisely the kind of thing this category was created to acknowledge: a piece of music that is not only a smarty-written song but also a dramatic asset the filmmakers could not have done without. It’s an entire film about an aspiring singer learning what it truly means to be an adult before you become a star, and she puts all of that into a perfect song.

“Glasgow” is 2019’s “Shallow” in that it is equally integral to the story of its film. Beyond that, Buckley would have brought the house down during the ceremony. So, take a look, music branch. You could have had this woman singing this song at the Dolby Theater on February 9th.

The fact that she won’t be there means we all lose out. This speaks to the legitimacy of the category and – by extension – the whole rotten awards show.

Accentuating the positive.

Except I said all of that as someone who hasn’t even seen the film, Breakthrough, which likely took Wild Rose’s place in the category. It’s an argument made on behalf of something I loved against something I know next to nothing about, which feels like a perfectly Oscars thing to do. We twist ourselves into pretzels on behalf of our particular passions (The Lighthouse for Best Cinematography!) and roll our eyes at the boring and traditional Academy being so old white guy about everything while deep down realizing none of this matters, it’s all so stupid, we should just forget about it. (Thank you, Ricky Gervais for that bit of nihilism.)

Yet, when I look at an Oscar Best Picture field that includes Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Marriage Story, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood AND Parasite – the first South Korean film nominated in any Oscar category, let alone Best Picture – I have some slight quibbles, some why not The Farewell or Knives Out instead of Jojo Rabbit thoughts, but mostly I’m pleased. That’s not just a good group of films; it’s an entirely respectable list of the top 9 films of 2019. Not too long ago, Parasite’s reward would have been ending up on critics’ top ten lists; now, it has 6 nominations, including Best Picture. Progress – always so glacial with the Academy – is happening right in front of us, but it’s always a game of whack-a-mole, with progress in one area being met with regression in another.


What’s your take on nominations? What’s your “Glasgow” – the snub that’s left you stuck in a fit of rage? What do you think is going to win Best Picture? Or are you the cheeky sort, just dying to joke “The Oscars? That still happens? Like I care” in the comments? If so, now’s your time to shine.

Source: THR

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