The biggest surprise for me in this morning’s nominations for the 92nd Annual Academy Awards is how few surprises there were. There was no jaw-dropping name in the major categories that came in from left field — so much so that I was able to predict all nine of the Best Picture nominees and most of the acting. Most pundits probably are surprised at the omission of Jennifer Lopez in Supporting Actress since she had been nominated at SAG, Globes and Critics’ Choice and even won at LA Film Critics, but I thought she would not be on this list, and she wasn’t. She won the reviews of her career but her film, Hustlers was a box office hit but not particularly popular with the Academy members I canvassed. One top exec Oscar voter I talked to this morning had just gotten around to watching it last night and called it “cheesy.” It didn’t pass the Oscar snob factor, I am afraid, and neither did Beyoncé for her The Lion King song “Spirit,” meaning that the Super Bowl halftime-performing superstars also won’t be on the Oscar stage this year as ratings draws ABC probably wishes were on the list.
What these nominations really confirm is something we already know: This year is wide open and highly competitive. Even though it is not on the official Academy fact sheet of new records, I counted it all up and this is the first year ever that four films have gone into double digits by receiving a total of 10 nominations: Joker with 11 (the second comic book-oriented property to gain a Best Pic nom in as many years, breaking an Oscar taboo) and The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and 1917 with a whopping 10 noms apiece. That indicates to me an extremely competitive race, and with the Academy’s complicated way of voting for Best Picture — in which voters must rank their favorites (unlike a straight up-and-down vote in the 23 other categories — this is just about anybody’s ballgame for the big prize. When you have this high a number of movies scoring across the board with the Academy’s membership, it means we are headed into the final weeks of this shortened season with no clear front-runner but really several. And further down the list, with six nominations, I would add Parasite to those other four as a real possibility to pull off a history-making upset for Best Picture.
In case you are curious, there have been occasional years in the past when we have had three movies in the race with double-digit nominations, but it was rare even at that number. In 1964 My Fair Lady and Becket each had 12 nominations and Mary Poppins got 13, and in 1977 Julia and The Turning Point each had 11, with Star Wars grabbing 10. In the case of the latter year, Best Picture was won by Annie Hall, which had only five noms but cashed in four of them to upset the odds. So don’t just look at the leaderboard and discount Parasite, which also has all-important writing and directing nominations and also is nominated for Editing, a key category pundits look to in determining the ultimate Best Picture winner. Only 10 films since the Editing category was established in 1934 have gone on to a Best Picture victory without an editing nomination, the most recent being Birdman in 2014, which had broken a 34-year streak of correlation between at least an editing nomination and Best Pic win (Ordinary People did it in 1980). Of course Birdman was sold as a “one shot” movie that appeared not to be edited, so there is an asterisk even with that one. Of this year’s leading Best Picture nominees, neither Once Upon a Time in Hollywood nor 1917 got an editing nomination, putting a little bit of a dark cloud on an otherwise stellar showing for both. In the case of 1917, which also is being sold as a “one shot” movie, the omission is probably not that surprising and likely won’t hurt its chances overall.
Much will be made, as it was at the Golden Globes, that again no woman was nominated for Best Director. But this is not surprising at all, especially considering the DGA didn’t nominate a woman for its top award either but managed to dodge that bullet by nominating three women in its First- Time Director category. Greta Gerwig did land an adapted Adapted Screenplay nomination for Little Women and can take solace that hers is only the third film to get a Best Picture nomination that was solely written, directed and produced by women (it is also only the second of the many Little Women film adaptations to be Best Picture-nominated following the 1933 version). You can tell the Academy is very sensitive about this subject because its led the press release on Sidebars with the fact that a “record 62 women” were nominated, nearly one-third of this year’s nominees. Interestingly, Gerwig competes in Best Picture with her significant other Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, and he too was snubbed for Best Director. I am not sure who you would knock out on the Academy’s Best Director list, though, since the five men chosen are directors of the films considered to be leading the race in both nominations and buzz. Perhaps it is time to expand the directing category, just like AMPAS did with Best Picture, and allow from as many as 10 nominees depending on the year.
As for the Netflix factor, there can be no question the streamer is here to stay, with 24 nominations to lead the pack narrowly over Disney’s and Sony’s combined entities. Warner Bros and Universal also did well, with the latter gaining its third Best Picture nom in a row with Uni/DreamWorks 1917 after 2017’s Get Out, and last year’s winner Green Book. The impressive recognition for The Irishman, Marriage Story, and The Two Popes is not surprising, but the fact that it landed two of the five nominees for Best Animated Film was a stunner. With the French toon I Lost My Body and Klaus making the list, it was quite an achievement. I Lost My Body, which won Critics’ Week at Cannes was a pickup, but Klaus represents Netflix’s first in-house production, and you can’t deny that the presence of these films in a category where Disney’s Frozen 2 is AWOL has not got to sit well with the Mouse House, the dominant force in animation, which landed only Toy Story 4 in the competition that also includes Laika’s Golden Globe winner Missing Link and DreamWorks Animation’s sequel How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. Voters balked at the large number of sequels in the mix and handed the majority of nominations to the originals, all three of which are done with traditional animation, not CGI. But Netflix knocking off Frozen 2 has to sting for Disney, considering the take-no-prisoners approach the Burbank studio has been imposing on Netflix directly lately in the streaming wars.
In the acting categories, it was nice to see Antonio Banderas land his first nomination ever for Pain and Glory, as well as Jonathan Pryce his first for The Two Popes. The Supporting Actor category is quite intriguing in that all of the nominees — Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Brad Pitt — already have at least one Oscar. Pitt’s came as a producer on 12 Years a Slave, and I would guess he will join his other four fellow nominees with an acting Oscar by taking the category — one that some think is unfairly knocking out true supporting players in favor of leading stars being placed here so as to avoid direct competition with their equally billed co-stars in the Best Actor category. Regarding the latter, it was inevitable that a lot of worthy performances would be cut out of the mix due to the density of topnotch work, but it is playing out pretty close to what was expected. Cynthia Erivo for her excellent performance in Harriet holds the lonely flag for diversity not just in Lead Actress but also for the original song, “Stand Up,” which she co-wrote. It would have been nice to see The Farewell’s Awkwafina or Dolemite Is My Name’s Eddie Murphy on the lists, but it was not to be. Both those films were completely shut out, and that is a real blow for diversity in a year that isn’t quite an #OscarsSoWhite redux but still a little too close to it for comfort. Expect SAG next Sunday to follow suit with the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards in cementing Joaquin Phoenix, Renee Zellweger, Laura Dern and Pitt as front-runners to take the acting Oscars this year.
One more note. The Cannes Film Festival, which often has studios fearful of premiering major contenders since it takes place in May, really made a tremendous showing among the nominees, landing 21 overall nominations for films that debuted there. That includes two of the Best Picture nominees and three of the International Film contenders along with Cannes Best Actor Banderas. Should Palme d’Or winner Parasite prevail and win the Oscar for Best Picture, it would be the first time that has happened since 1955, when Marty won both in the first year it was possible to do so.
Finally, the biggest winner at today’s announcements might have been the Academy itself — Internet arguments about diversity and female directors aside — which managed to nominate worthy contenders but also smartly had President David Rubin, and presenters John Cho and Issa Rae doing the honors, in a surprise unveiling, from the long-delayed and yet-to-open Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Coming live from the stunning-looking new theater there, it showed that all that money being poured into the project just might finally be about to pay off.
Meanwhile, this promises to be a hell of a horse race that is going to get to the finish line much faster than usual. Believe it or not, there are just 17 days before final voting starts on January 30 as the 92nd Oscars comes right down to the wire and it could be anyone’s to win – or lose – at this point.