As a friend wisely reminded me earlier this awards season: Never assume that just because someone or something didn’t win an award, earn a nomination or land on a year-end list, the person or organization didn’t see the work in question. Having been on the receiving end of such assumptions myself — why yes, indignant Twitter user, I did in fact see “Jojo Rabbit” (twice!) — I know the folly of questioning other people’s expertise, let alone expecting them to share or reflect my own unimpeachable taste.
And yet early on Oscar nominations morning, my judgment clearly impaired by a mix of reflexive anger and insufficient caffeine, I couldn’t help but ask the forbidden questions: Did enough members of the motion picture academy actually see “Us”? Or “Hustlers”? Or “The Farewell”? Or “Uncut Gems”?
The lack of recognition for four of the smartest American movies released last year — all of them well reviewed by critics and well attended by audiences — may not answer that question definitively, but it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. At the very least, some of us were hoping for acting nominations for Lupita Nyong’o’s staggering dual turn in “Us,” or Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen’s touching granddaughter-grandmother act in “The Farewell,” or Adam Sandler’s thrilling psychological implosion in “Uncut Gems.” As for Jennifer Lopez in “Hustlers,” most of us assumed she was not just a shoo-in but, in a sane world, a legitimate threat to win.
But as this year’s overall roster attests, it can be hard if not impossible for a politically charged horror movie with black actors — or an independent drama whose pedigree doesn’t scream capital-“P” prestige — to be taken seriously. That’s especially true in a field dominated by noisy zeitgeist favorites like “Joker,” a movie I admired more than most of my colleagues, and auteur-driven magnum opuses like “The Irishman” and “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” neither of which I begrudge their outsized acclaim. But standout individual achievements in underhyped titles require a level of patience and discernment generally lost on the academy, which mostly likes to nominate movies the way you or I might buy toilet paper: in bulk.
Including Nyong’o, Awkwafina, Zhao and/or Lopez — or, for that matter, Alfre Woodard and Aldis Hodge in “Clemency” or Eddie Murphy and Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Wesley Snipes in “Dolemite Is My Name” — would have certainly improved a slate of acting nominees that, Cynthia Erivo’s lead actress nomination for “Harriet” aside, is rightly being taken to task for its dearth of diversity. And if you consider diversity to be the cause of the politically correct scold, I can only respond that it is, in fact, the perfectly natural outcome of any broad, intelligent survey of the year’s most notable achievements in filmmaking. Any organization that didn’t short-list at least three or four (or eight or nine) actors of color this year is either not watching enough movies or watching them with an awfully selective filter.
Which is not to suggest that there were no happy or heartening surprises. While disappointment with the academy has become an annual headache, I have always found consolation in those occasional Oscar-morning silver linings, those nominations that, for whatever reason, couldn’t help but bring a smile to my face. Finding them took a bit more strain this year, but if anything that makes them all the more worth celebrating.
1. “Parasite” earned six nominations, including picture and director
It was hardly a shock to see the academy follow critics, audiences and industry guilds in showering love on Bong Joon Ho’s darkly comic domestic thriller, but that doesn’t make it any less gratifying. It just goes to show that breathless hype, placed in service of a genuinely great movie, really can move a hidebound organization in the direction of progress. The academy’s ongoing efforts to diversify its voting body, especially in terms of members overseas, surely help.
That South Korea finally scored its first nomination in the international feature category (formerly foreign-language film) would already be cause for celebration; that “Parasite” also cracked the picture, director, original screenplay, editing and production design categories is nothing short of marvelous. It would have been even more marvelous had it also earned nominations for supporting actor (Song Kang Ho), supporting actress (Cho Yeo Jeong) and cinematography (Hong Kyung Pyo), but you can’t have everything.
2. “Honeyland” made Oscar history
Believe the buzz (sorry): No movie until now has ever managed to score nominations for both documentary feature and international feature, and it would be hard to think of a worthier exception than Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s luminous portrait of a Macedonian beekeeper struggling to preserve her traditional way of life. As the winner of three prizes in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival’s world cinema competition, it’s one of the few Sundance titles to score Oscar attention this year. Also nice to see a documentary that doesn’t overdo the drone shots (sorry again).
3. And speaking of documentaries …
That the stirring “Apollo 11” didn’t score a nomination for documentary feature was a sad surprise, one that oddly echoed last year’s omission of the similarly nostalgic, warm-spirited “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” The nonfiction branch is clearly in a more pessimistic mood these days: Taken together, its final five nominees — “American Factory,” “The Cave,” “The Edge of Democracy,” “For Sama,” “Honeyland” — add up to a stunning global panorama of social, political and environmental unrest. It’s hard to imagine a grimmer slate of nominees, or a better one.
4. Antonio Banderas, an actor nominee for “Pain and Glory”
This year’s lead actor race was so ridiculously competitive, you could have filled out an excellent list of nominees with the presumed also-rans alone (Sandler, Murphy, Robert De Niro for “The Irishman,” Taron Egerton for “Rocketman” and Christian Bale for “Ford v Ferrari,” to name a few). In a field this crowded, a first-ever nomination for Banderas was far from assured, even after he handily won best actor from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the National Society of Film Critics. It’s a pleasure too, to see the academy recognize a Spanish-language performance directed by the great Pedro Almodóvar, whose “Pain and Glory” also landed a nomination for international feature.
5. Florence Pugh, a supporting actress nominee for “Little Women”
The 24-year-old English actress had a remarkable breakthrough year with not only “Little Women” but also “Midsommar” and “Fighting With My Family.” She was excellent in all three — her physically and emotionally robust work in “Fighting With My Family” might be the best of the lot — but since WWE fisticuffs and Scandinavian death cults are clearly not the academy’s cup of hallucinogen-spiked tea, I’m more than pleased to see Pugh acknowledged for giving us, among many other things, an Amy March for the ages.
6. Tom Hanks, a supporting actor nominee for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
It was around the time he was overlooked for his revelatory work in 2013’s “Captain Phillips” that I realized that Hanks was actually in danger of being underrated. His nomination may have everything to do with the synergy of a beloved American actor playing a beloved American icon (Fred Rogers), but it’s a relief to see his 19-year Oscar drought come to an end, and for a movie that, as directed with sly intelligence by Marielle Heller, deserved recognition beyond its biggest marquee name.
7. Rian Johnson, an original screenplay nominee for “Knives Out”
The year’s most ingeniously plotted movie was also the first Hollywood release in years to pay homage to Agatha Christie while actually understanding the honest-to-God pleasures of Agatha Christie. And it was a trenchant rebuke of racism and classism to boot; more cinematic bonbons should be laced with this much sociopolitical acid.
8. “The Lighthouse” scored a cinematography nomination
As past mentions in this category for “Roma,” “Cold War,” “Ida” and “The White Ribbon” have reminded us, the cinematography branch loves to recognize black-and-white imagery when it can. Of course it recognized Jarin Blaschke’s stunning 35-millimeter photography in Robert Eggers’ cabin-fever horror picture, which brilliantly deployed antiquarian camera lenses and a square aspect ratio to salute a bygone era of Hollywood filmmaking. A nomination for Willem Dafoe from the actors branch would have been no less welcome.
9. “A Hidden Life” is still in theaters
No, Terrence Malick’s stunningly beautiful, politically and spiritually galvanizing drama didn’t get a single nomination. But in a year when the academy saw fit to nominate the wrong Fox Searchlight release about rejecting Nazism (“Jojo Rabbit”) — as well as a toothless crowd-pleaser about Catholicism at an ideological impasse (“The Two Popes”) — I am choosing to view the mere existence of “A Hidden Life” as its own hard-won triumph. Did the academy see it? Maybe not — but that’s no reason for you to follow suit.