Oscar Shortlists: A Big Day for Netflix Docs and Disney Songs — But Not Taylor Swift's 'Cats' Tune

'American Factory,' 'The Lion King' and 'Cats' - Publicity Stills - Split - H 2019
Courtesy of Films

The field of Oscar contenders narrowed significantly in nine different categories on Monday as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released shortlists for documentary feature, documentary short, international feature, makeup and hairstyling, original score, original song, animated short, live action short and visual effects.

Most of the projected doc feature frontrunners are among the 15 finalists — Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert's American Factory (Netflix), Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts' For Sama (PBS), Todd Douglas Miller's Apollo 11 (Neon) and Nanfu Wang's One Child Nation (Amazon) all made the cut. Notably missing are Lauren Greenfield's The Kingmaker (Showtime), Richard Ladkani's Sea of Shadows (NatGeo), Amy Oscar winner Asif Kapadia's Diego Maradona (HBO), Ryan White's Ask Dr. Ruth (Hulu), Avi Belkin's Mike Wallace Is Here (Magnolia) and Barry Avrich's Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz (Vertical).

Celebrations are likely underway at Netflix headquarters as the streamer has four out of the 15 doc features (American Factory and Petra Costa's The Edge of Democracy, which were expected to make the cut, plus Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim's The Great Hack and Rachel Lears' Knock Down the House, which were not) and four of the 10 doc shorts (probable frontrunner Fire in Paradise, plus After Maria, Ghosts of Sugar Land and Life Overtakes Me). Netflix also landed a best original song nom for Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo's "Letter to My Godfather" from the company's doc feature The Black Godfather, which was produced by Nicole Avant, the former U.S. ambassador who is also Ted Sarandos' wife, and is about her father Clarence Avant.

Comparably impressive is the fact that Neon, with far fewer resources, snagged three of the doc feature spots, thanks to Apollo 11, John Chester's The Biggest Little Farm and Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov's Honeyland — with Honeyland also delivering North Macedonia's first appearance on the international feature shortlist since Before the Rain 25 years ago. (Only one prior film, 2011's Pina, ever landed on both of those shortlists.) Sony Classics, meanwhile, accounted for two of the doc features, with Alex Holmes' Maiden and Viktor Kossakovsky's Aquarela.

Thematically, the doc features cover everything from the war in Syria (The Cave and For Sama) to politics here at home (American Factory, Knock Down the House and The Great Hack) and abroad (The Edge of Democracy and One Child Nation). There are a few escapist, feel-good options, too (Apollo 11, The Biggest Little Farm and Maiden).

The 10 finalists for best international feature — until this year known as best foreign-language film — were chosen by Academy members from all branches who volunteered and watched a significant number of titles each. Their seven choices, augmented by three additional selections that were "saved" by the Academy’s International Feature Film Award Executive Committee, encompass much of the world. Africa is represented by Senegal's Atlantics, directed by Mati Diop (the first black woman ever to direct a film in competition at Cannes, where it won the Grand Prix). From Asia comes South Korea's Parasite, the international critical and commercial phenomenon directed by Bong Joon Ho, which will probably land noms outside of the category, too. Eurasia can claim Russia's Beanpole, helmed by Kantemir Balagov. And Europe, as usual, had the strongest showing, thanks this time to Spain's Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodovar's latest; France's Les Miserables, Mali-born filmmaker Ladj Ly's new take on an old story; Poland's Corpus Christi, Jan Komasa's Venice award winner; Hungary's Those Who Remained, a Holocaust drama from Barnabás Tóth; Estonia's Truth and Justice, directed by Tanel Toom; and the aforementioned Honeyland.

Neon wins top bragging rights for this category, accounting 20 percent of the shortlist (Parasite and Honeyland), with Netflix (Atlantics), Amazon (Les Miserables), Sony Classics (Pain and Glory), Film Movement (Corpus Christi), Kino Lober (Beanpole), IFC (The Painted Bird) and Menemsha (Those Who Remained) also represented. Truth and Justice is apparently still seeking U.S. distribution.

Sheila Nevins, HBO's former docs doyenne who recently launched MTV Documentary Films, is celebrating her new operation's first shortlisting — that of the doc short St. Louis Superman. She emailed shortly after the announcement, saying, "It's very exciting in such a competitive documentary landscape for MTV, as a new player in this field, to have made it on to the Academy's documentary shortlist. An auspicious debut!" (HBO Documentaries is repped this year by the doc feature The Apollo and "Da Bronx," a song from the The Bronx, USA, which was written by veterans Charles Fox, an Oscar nominee, and Paul Williams, an Oscar winner.)

In the next round of voting for doc features and shorts, Academy members from all branches will be invited to participate, provided they view all 10 shortlisted films. 

The music branch solely decided the shortlists for best original score and best original song. One-hundred seventy scores were eligible, but just 15 advanced — and cousins Thomas Newman (1917) and Randy Newman (Marriage Story) composed two of them. They have accumulated dozens of Oscar noms between them, but have only once been nominated for best original score in the same year, 23 years ago. Randy, it should be noted, also landed on the song shortlist, for his Toy Story 4 tune "I Can't Let You Throw Yourself Away."

Most people won't see J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker until it opens Dec. 20 in theaters. While the first audiences will see it at Monday's star-studded Hollywood premiere, the music branch has presumably either seen the film or, at the very least, heard its score, as John Williams is on the shortlist for it, positioning him to land his astounding 52nd Oscar nomination. (No living person has more.) Other perennials on the shortlist include Alexandre Desplat (Little Women), Michael Giacchino (Jojo Rabbit), Alan Silvestri (Avengers: Endgame), Nicholas Britell (The King) and Alberto Iglesias (Pain and Glory).

On the song side, "Letter to My Godfather," "I Can't Let You Throw Yourself Away" and "Da Bronx" are joined by 12 other numbers (culled from 75 entrants). A very impressive five of the 15 finalists hail from Disney films. And a host of finalists were written or co-written by A-listers, including two from Elton John (Rocketman's "I'm Gonna Love Me Again" and The Lion King's "Never Too Late"), one each from Beyonce (The Lion King's "Spirit") and Thom Yorke (Motherless Brooklyn's "Daily Battles") — but not, alas, Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose Golden Globe-nominated tune from Cats (which has its premiere in New York on Monday night), "Beautiful Ghosts," is MIA here.

A number of other songwriters' songwriters are also finalists: EGOT Bobby Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Oscar winners for Frozen's "Let It Go," are back with Frozen 2's "Into the Unknown"; Diane Warren, in search of Oscar nom No. 11 and Oscar win No. 1, is back in the running for Breakthrough's "I'm Standing With You"; and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Oscar winners for La La Land and nominees for The Greatest Showman, and Alan Menken, an eight-time Oscar winner, return to the mix for Aladdin's "Speechless."

Tony and Grammy winner Cynthia Erivo could be in line for her first Oscar nomination, as well — if not for acting in the breakout hit Harriet, then perhaps for its end-credits song "Stand Up," which she wrote with Joshuah Brian Campbell. And if you want a sense of just how strong a contender Parasite is, consider that it even landed a spot on the song shortlist, thanks to "A Glass of Soju."

There were no major surprises with the makeup and hairstyling shortlist, which could echo the best actress race as Judy and Bombshell go head-to-head. As for VFX, the 10 finalists include Cats; both of 2019's major reverse-aging projects, Gemini Man and The Irishman; and a bunch of Disney properties, including The Lion King, Marvel's Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel and Lucasfilm's Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. There might be backlash from the VFX branch against The Lion King, which many other groups have classified as an animated film, but if reservations do exist, they clearly weren't numerous enough to derail the film yet.

Both the makeup and hairstyling and VFX branches will pick their five nominees (up from three for the former) following bake-offs at which those shortlisted will be invited to screen excerpts of their work for branch members.

Last but not least are the other two shorts shortlists (try saying that a few times): animated and live action. There is a glaring omission from the animated shorts list, with Pixar's Purl, one of 92 entries, not among the advancing 10, despite a heavy presence of Disney and Pixar employees in the short films and feature animation branch that determined the shortlist. And the live action 10, out of 191 entries, include The Neighbors' Window, the narrative directorial debut of Marshall Curry, who, if nominated, would join a rare group of filmmakers who have been nominated in three different categories, on the heels of his noms for best doc feature (1999's Street Fight) and best doc short (2011's If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front and 2018's A Night at the Garden).

Oscar nominations voting will take place from Jan. 2-7, and all categories' nominees will be announced Jan. 13.