The Academy Takes Two Steps Forward and One Step Back with the 2019 Oscar Nominations
Any batch of Oscar nominations can both delight and confound. Those this year were no exception. For every milestone like Black Panther that became the first superhero movie to receive a Best Picture nomination, there are the failures of the Academy to recognize smaller, indie fare like the heralded Eighth Grade, women directors, or actors like Ethan Hawke who has won virtually every critics’ award for First Reformed. At least, that film’s director/screenwriter Paul Schrader was remembered for his searing script. It’s unbelievable when one realizes it’s his first nomination from the Academy. Can you believe he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for Taxi Driver or Raging Bull?
Despite the usual snubs and SNAFUs, there are many signs that the Academy’s invitations to younger filmmakers and acting talent the last few years is affecting more informed voting. Such evidence is true most notably in the two most Oscar-nominated films this year. Roma received ten nominations, even though it’s a foreign language film, is shot in black and white, and was produced by an online streaming service (Netflix). The other movie that scored ten nods was The Favourite, the darkest of dark comedies. Not only does the Academy rarely embrace that genre, they often ignore films with stories centered wholly around women. Roma is centered around women too. Perhaps feminism and the #MeToo movement are helping to finally shift away from the male myopia that has dominated too much of Tinsel Town for far too long.
Additionally, how encouraging is it to see how thoroughly the Academy embraced stories centered around people of color this year? Blackkklansman, Black Panther, and Green Book all received multiple Oscar nominations and made the list of eight Best Picture nominations. Maverick filmmaker Spike Lee was nominated for three himself for Blackkklansman – Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay – and that makes him just the second African-American to score such a trifecta. (Jordan Peele did it just last year for his Oscar-winning horror film Get Out.)
Additionally, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk scored significant nominations in three categories, and arguably could’ve made the Best Picture list if it had been released sooner so more voters could have seen it.
And even though many pundits have already picked Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma as the picture to beat, it’s an extraordinary position for Mexico’s Foreign Film entry to find itself in this month. Not only did it win Academy acknowledgment across the board, including nominations from the cinematographer’s block as well as the sound editors, but both lead actresses were acknowledged by the actors’ branch. Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira, virtual unknowns, scored nods for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, and their inclusion helped to halt any controversies like #OscarsSoWhite this year.
It’s also encouraging the Academy is starting to embrace genre more and more. A Quiet Place, this year’s big frightener, was remembered with a nomination for Best Sound Editing. Oscar gave Marvel Studio’s Black Panther seven nominations in total, giving the 10-year-old production company a lot to celebrate. It also scored a nomination for Best Animated Feature with their entry Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse. (It was a co-production with Sony.)
Two of the five directors nominated for Best Director this year are from foreign language films, and that’s quite a milestone, considering that the last time that happened was 42 years ago. Cuaron was expected to score a nomination for directing Roma, but Pawel Pawlikowski’s nod for Cold War was a surprise. And even though players like Steven Spielberg lobbied against films that hail from streaming platforms, such discrimination did not hold as Netflix’s Roma took the day, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, also launched on Netflix, received three Oscar nominations.
As good as all that is, the Academy still remains frustrating in their reluctance to wholly embrace independent cinema. Hawke’s snubbing is a horrible oversight, and one could make similar cases for the voters’ failure to acknowledge standout indies this year like Eighth Grade, The Rider, Stan & Ollie, and Searching.
There were much better films that could’ve and should’ve been nominated for Best Film other than the fair-to-middling Vice and Green Book. Also, the Academy continues to cling to box office results nominating the megahit Bohemian Rhapsody in five categories despite a mixed critical reception at best. (It even received an editing nomination – – for what, the way the film excised the more truthful parts of Freddie Mercury’s life?) And the Academy still loves actors doing imitations of real people, even if performances like Sam Rockwell’s George W. Bush in Vice stands as little more than a Xerox of what Will Ferrell did years ago on Saturday Night Live. That performance was chosen over what Timothy Chalamet did in Beautiful Boy? How unfortunate.
Despite such missteps, the Academy deserves some distinct applause this season. The five nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay are all compelling adaptations. There were so many sterling documentaries in 2018 that even though the Academy snubbed Won’t You Be My Neighbor and Three Identical Strangers, they still nominated five excellent ones. And Rockwell aside, there are no cringe-worthy performances listed amongst the acting nominees this year.
Granted, the Academy should be crucified for passing over of Hawke’s stellar performance, but maybe they can be forgiven if they finally honor Schrader with Oscar gold.
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