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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Tuesday announcement of 15 finalists in 10 Oscar categories — documentary feature, documentary short, international feature, makeup/hairstyling, original score, original song, animated short, live action short, sound and visual effects — offers us some clues about how the organization’s roughly 10,000 members are thinking heading into the Jan. 27 to Feb. 1 nomination voting window.
True, each of these shortlists was chosen by members of different branches, whereas all branches will ultimately get to weigh in on the best picture race; plus, many of these shortlists, by nature, tend to highlight larger-scale films over smaller-scale ones, whereas the reverse is often the case in the top category. But it is still striking that, say, the Bond film No Time to Die showed up on all five lists for which it was eligible, and Dune did so on four, whereas, say, Licorice Pizza and C’mon C’mon were totally MIA.
It was not unexpected, but is still impressive, that the Danish film Flee registered on both the documentary feature and international feature lists — the powerful portrait of an Afghan refugee’s journey might well become the first film ever to land noms in those two categories and animated feature (for which there is no shortlist).
Speaking of the international feature contest, it’s certainly notable that this year’s Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner, Julia Ducournau’s Titane (France), didn’t make the final 15. The graphic film is incredibly divisive, but most thought it would advance at least to the second round, even without executive committee “saves” this year, and I wonder if its snub might actually boost the prospects of Ducournau in the best director race. Meanwhile, the two films that tied for second place at the fest, two-time Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero (Iran) and Juho Kuosmanen’s Compartment No. 6 (Finland), both made the cut. That’s disappointing news for Neon, but welcome news for Amazon and Sony Classics, the films’ respective U.S. distributors.
Their competition will include Drive My Car (Japan), the Janus release which was the best picture choice of both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association; The Hand of God (Italy), which Netflix is pushing hard (the streamer also has Mexico’s Prayers for the Stolen moving on); Norway’s The Worst Person in the World; and three vehicles for actors well-known in Hollywood, Oscar winner Javier Bardem (Spain’s The Good Boss, which was controversially entered over Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers, which stars Bardem’s wife Penélope Cruz), Downton Abbey alum Dan Stevens (Germany’s I’m Your Man) and Prometheus leading lady Noomi Rapace (Iceland’s Lamb).
I was sorry that several other very good entries — including Zatopek (Czech Republic), which opened this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, and Unclenching the Fists (Russia), which won the Un Certain Regard prize at this year’s Cannes — came up short.
This year’s original song shortlist is certainly the most star-studded in history, with tunes by Billie Eilish and Finneas (“No Time to Die” from No Time to Die), Beyoncé (“Be Alive” from King Richard), Jay-Z (“Guns Go Bang” from The Harder They Fall), U2 (“Your Song Saved My Life” from Sing 2), Carole King and Jennifer Hudson (“Here I Am” from Respect), Ariana Grande (“Just Look Up” from Don’t Look Up), Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Dos Oruguitas” from Encanto), Brian Wilson (“Right Where I Belong” from Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road), Van Morrison (“Down to Joy” from Belfast), H.E.R. (“Automatic Woman” from Bruised), Pasek & Paul and Amandla Stenberg (“The Anonymous Ones” from Dear Evan Hansen) and Kid Cudi (a writer on two aforementioned songs, “Guns Go Bang” and “Just Look Up”) among those vying for just five spots. If the Academy feels entrepreneurial, it should rent out the Hollywood Bowl and invite all of the finalists to perform their songs — I bet most would show up, and it would be a hell of a concert!
Inevitably, the list also brought bad news for several other notable artists — among them, Camila Cabello (“Million to One,” was bounced by another tune from Cinderella, Idina Menzel and Laura Veltz’s “Dream Girl”), Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars (“Fire in the Sky” from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), Jon Batiste (“Breathe” from The First Wave), Eddie Vedder (“My Father’s Daughter” from Flag Day), Florence + The Machine (“Call Me Cruella” from Cruella) and The National (who had several songs in the running for the musical Cyrano).
Particular kudos to two long-shots who are advancing: Sian Heder, the writer/director of CODA, who also co-wrote an original song for the film’s end credits — having never previously written a song in her life — only because she had run out of money and could no longer afford the rights to an existing song, resulting in the lovely “Beyond the Shore”; and the legendary Diane Warren, who has lost all 12 times she has been Oscar-nominated across five decades, but never gives up, and whose inspirational “Somehow You Do,” from the low-profile Four Good Days, remains in the race. (Check out the music video for the spoken-word cover of the song that Warren recruited friend William Shatner to record — it’s pretty great.)
As for scores, Jonny Greenwood, with both The Power of the Dog and Spencer, and Hans Zimmer, with both Dune and No Time to Die, have the most to celebrate. Other usual suspects given a green light include Alexandre Desplat (The French Dispatch), Alberto Iglesias (Parallel Mothers) and Carter Burwell (The Tragedy of Macbeth). And there was a nice showing, too, by rising stars, such as Nicholas Britell (Don’t Look Up), Kris Bowers (King Richard) and Jeymes Samuel (The Harder They Fall).
Left outside looking in, though, were Marco Beltrami (A Quiet Place Part II), Steven Price (Last Night in Soho), Nathan Johnson (Nightmare Alley), Dickon Hinchliffe (The Lost Daughter) and the aforementioned The National (C’mon C’mon).
The super-competitive documentary feature race, for which 138 titles were eligible, ended up with a varied group of finalists — powerful films covering everything from Syrian refugees (Megan Mylan’s Simple as Water) to the pandemic (Matthew Heineman’s The First Wave) to Zimbabwe elections (Camilla Nielsson’s President) — but few surprises. One-fifth of those advancing center on music: RJ Cutler’s Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s prohibitive frontrunner Summer of Soul (which, based on what I’m hearing from voters, could even become the first documentary ever to crack into the best picture category).
The most notable doc feature omissions were Oscar winner Morgan Neville’s Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, a commercially successful doc which became controversial within the branch after it was revealed that it had manipulated its late subject’s voice; Francesco, for which Oscar nominee Evgeny Afineevsky was granted unprecedented access to Pope Francis; Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler’s Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America; Oscar nominee Liz Garbus‘ Becoming Cousteau; and two portraits of ailing actors, Ting Poo and Leo Scott’s Val (actor Val Kilmer) and Rachel Fleit’s Introducing, Selma Blair (actress Selma Blair).
Titles that struck me as MIA from the makeup/hairstyling list were Spencer, The Power of the Dog, Being the Ricardos and Last Night in Soho; from the sound list were The Last Duel, Nightmare Alley and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings; and from the VFX list were Swan Song, Don’t Look Up, The Suicide Squad, The Tomorrow War and Jungle Cruise.
I can’t claim to be familiar with many of the shorts which were picked (or weren’t), but I do note with pleasure the inclusion of the Shaquille O’Neal-supported doc short The Queen of Basketball; the live action short When the Sun Sets, the deeply personal Chapman University MFA thesis film of Phumi Morare, for which the South African was previously recognized with a Student Academy Award; and the Pixar animated short Us Again, which played in theaters ahead of Raya and the Last Dragon.
Rather surprisingly, given the heavy presence of Disney and Pixar employees in the short films and feature animation branch, Disney’s Far from the Tree, which played in theaters ahead of Encanto, and Pixar’s Twenty Something and Nona, which are on Disney+, all missed.
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