What the Oscar Nominations Mean and Why You Should Care

Did you notice all the female filmmakers up for directing honors? Neither did we.

January 22, 2019 11:30 am
black panther
Black Panther/T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ©Marvel Studios 2018

It’s an honor just to be nominated. And, often, a surprise.

The final lap of the 91st Oscar race began on Tuesday morning, and the list of nominees included a number of unexpected names – as well as a few people and films conspicuous by their absence. 

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma may have been the biggest winner, pulling in not only 10 nominations but a rare twofer – with nods for both best foreign-language film and best picture. It also won acknowledgment for Cuarón’s original screenplay and cinematography, its lead actress Yalitza Aparicio and, in a surprise, supporting actress, Marina de Tavira. A first best-picture nominee for Netflix, it’s confirmation that the upstart streaming company has elbowed its way into the Hollywood establishment.

The challenging The Favourite did well too, also getting 10 nominations, including ones for all three of its stars – with Olivia Colman acknowledged in the lead actress category, and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone going head-to-head for best-supporting actress  (even though all three roles are, arguably, leads). It also got best picture and best original screenplay nods, and a slightly unexpected one for its edgy director, Yorgos Lanthimos.

Another surprise may have been the solid showing for Green Book, which – despite some critical swipes on its release and recent bad press – saw major nods for best picture, best original screenplay, best actor Viggo Mortensen and best supporting actor Mahershala Ali. Only director Peter Farrelly had to go back to bed slightly disappointed, settling for a shared credit for best original screenplay.

And while its buzz has quieted since autumn, A Star Is Born continues to keep its Oscar chances alive, with attention in the best picture, best adapted screenplay and best song categories, and acting honors for leads Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, as well as a welcome one for veteran supporting actor Sam Elliott. Like Farrelly, though, Cooper had to settle for a screenplay nod, rather than direction.

Closing out the front-runners? Vice, which, in addition to best picture, won acclaim for Adam McKay’s original screenplay and direction, star Christian Bale, supporting actor Sam Rockwell and, in her sixth-nomination, supporting actress Amy Adams.

The biggest winner this year, though, may have been diversity – a cause helped along by a rapidly expanding Academy membership, with voters now including more international filmmakers and people of color.

The public announcements themselves promised a new look from the start – with a giddy Tracee Ellis Ross and Kumail Nanjiani handling the honors – and the actual nominations delivered. From  Egyptian-American Rami Malek, nominated for best actor for his stunning work as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, to the African-American Regina King, saluted for playing the desperate mother in If Beale Street Could Talk, this year’s nominees included a wider range of performers in every acting division, as well as in the directing and screenplay categories.

There was a bit of genre equality, too, as Black Panther notched a best-picture nomination – the first superhero movie to win one.

Other small surprises? The supporting-actor nods for Adam Driver in BlacKkKlansman and Sam Rockwell in Vice weren’t widely assumed. Neither was Willem Dafoe’s best-actor attention for the little-seen Van Gogh film, At Eternity’s Gate, or a best directing spot for Poland’s Pawel Pawlikowski, for the foreign-language nominee Cold War. And the best-actress nomination for Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? while less of a shock, is already a win for her, finally liberating the actress from the just-a-comedian tag.

Other news was less surprising – if a little depressing.

Once again, the screenplay categories stand as a sort of consolation prize for filmmakers whose work  is just too smart, sarcastic or plain New York-y for voters; First Reformed, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Can You Ever Forgive Me? and If Beale Street Could Talk all had to settle for script nods instead of best picture or best directing ones.

Also largely missing-in-action were the sort of films that the Oscars had recently begun to make room for. There was no mention of critical favorites like the indie feature Eighth Grade, or Ethan Hawke’s astounding performance in First Reformed, for example. While genre fans hoped that smart shockers like Hereditary and A Quiet Place would finally win some respect, at least for lead actresses Toni Collette and Emily Blunt, they went unnoticed, too.  

And diversity only went so far. Despite its groundbreaking achievements, the rom-com Crazy Rich Asians was completely overlooked. Poor actor Michael B. Jordan got passed over twice, for both Creed II and Black Panther, while filmmakers Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) and Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk) just missed making history by joining Spike Lee as rare African-American directing nominees.

And did you notice all the female filmmakers among that list of directing honorees? Yeah, me neither.

Still, the current class of Oscar nominees is a fairly accurate snapshot of where we, and the movies, are right now – and what the Academy is always all about.

Saluting old-timers like Elliott for their history, and rewarding stars like McCarthy for taking risks. Honoring themselves with stories like A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody that weep over show business, and comforting audiences with pictures like Green Book that insist that racism was something that happened in the South, a long time ago.

Really, despite the surprises, it already feels a little bit like an Oscar show you’ve seen before. And whether anyone will watch again, when the gold gets handed out on February 24th – last year’s ratings were the worst ever, and less than half of what the show drew at its peak – remains to be seen.

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