The nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards have finally arrived and, with them, a host of equally compelling and frustrating storylines. Will Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker continue to divide the critical and fan communities? Can Sam Mendes’ late-arriving war film 1917 ride a wave of last-minute support? Will the Academy’s selections reflect the growing diversity of the cinematic landscape or will the Oscars remain a one-note palate?
This year’s Oscar nominations provide a brief glimpse into the mind of the Academy and the cultural conversation of today—and it isn’t pretty.
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The Oscars unfortunately followed in the Golden Globes’ footsteps with an all-male class of directorial nominees. This came despite the fact that some of the year’s most critically acclaimed films—Little Women, Honey Boy, The Farewell, Booksmart, etc.—were helmed by women.
Greta Gerwig erupted through the cinematic conversation as a feature filmmaker with 2017’s Lady Bird, for which she received a nod at the Oscars. Somehow, Little Women is even better than her debut (and a more complicated picture to direct), and yet the Academy failed to honor her achievement this time around. The greatest testament to her skill behind the camera is that she made the seventh (!) screen adaptation of this iconic novel feel fresh and emotionally gutting. (Little Women recently surpassed $100 million worldwide.)
Among this year’s most egregious affronts from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is the lack of love for Jennifer Lopez’s performance in Hustlers. The actress, 50, has been drawing career-best reviews since the film opened in September (and has since earned more than $150 million worldwide overall). She has parlayed that good will into nominations at the Golden Globes, SAG Awards and Critics’ Choice Awards, becoming a staple of the current awards season. The black comedy saw Lopez star as Romana Vega, a veteran stripper who resorts to illegal means to extract what she believes is owed to her and her friends. The role enabled Lopez to tap into a well of misguided altruism and dangerous ambition—angles of the world-famous pop star we don’t normally get to see. Many fans were hoping to see both her and Zhao Shuzhen (The Farewell) in the Best Supporting Actress category comes Oscars night. *Sigh*
Only two non-white actors, Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) and Antonio Banderas (Pain & Glory), were nominated in the acting categories. Other worthy non-white contenders such as Eddie Murphy (Dolemite is My Name), Kang-Ho Song (Parasite), Lupita Nyong’o (Us) and Awkwafina (The Farewell) missed out in favor of more familiar names.
Scarlett Johansson, who has previously never been nominated for an Academy Award, earned two nominations for a career-best year with Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit. Yet it’s difficult to reconcile her double honors with a diluted reality. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, which prompted a wave of new invitations to the Academy voting body in the hopes of getting younger and more diverse after the all-white 2016 ceremony, is still prevalent today. One wouldn’t think progress would inch along this slowly in a seemingly progressive industry, yet representation still seems to be more of a buzz word than mission statement to the Academy.
The controversial Joker, the first R-rated film to gross $1 billion at the worldwide box office, led all movies with 11 total nominations—the most of any comic book film in Academy history. (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman and 1917 came in right behind this year with 10 nominations apiece). That includes a Best Director nod for Todd Phillips, who did not garner nominations from the Golden Globes, Critics Choice or Directors Guild Awards. Joker is an immaculately realized world with a fully textured environment, but it is largely driven by Joaquin Phoenix’s scintillating performance. To see Phillips make the final cut here was a surprise to say the least, especially given the deep field of competitors.
Kathy Bates is one of the finest working actresses we have today and has enjoyed a stellar career that spans multiple decades. Yet Clint Eastwood’s little-seen Richard Jewell wasn’t much of a conversation-generator upon release. While Bates’ performance is a clear standout, it did not resonate with the industry in the same way as Lopez or Shuzhen’s. Throughout awards season, Bates’ candidacy has been on the bubble of contention yet never perceived to be a direct competitor among the established favorites. She claimed honors at the National Board of Review, yet Lopez has 13 total awards to her name this season.
Another shocker this year came in the Best Animated Feature Film category. Frozen 2, which is now the highest-grossing animated film of all time since Disney insists on categorizing The Lion King as live-action (LOL), was not nominated. Instead, Netflix’s Christmas tale Klaus surprised industry observers with a nod. We’re not necessarily arguing in favor of the entertaining yet unnecessary mega sequel. We just assumed the combined might of Disney and the box office would push Frozen 2 into pole position. (It’s worth noting that Disney’s two Best Picture nominees—Ford v Ferrari and Jojo Rabbit—came from Fox).
Elsewhere, The Farewell was completely shut out after faring relatively well throughout awards season; Awkwafina became the first performer of Asian descent to win a Golden Globe award in a lead actress film category. Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s funny bone-tickling, Jenga-tower murder mystery, failed to earn a Best Picture nomination though it did snag a Best Original Screenplay honor. Adam Sandler, who was always an outside contender at Best Actor for his anxiety-inducing turn in Uncut Gems, was not recognized by the Oscars. Sorry, Sandman.