Oscar Nominations Analysis: Cause for Concern and Celebration

oscar statuettes - Getty - H 2018
Christopher Polk/Getty Images

We have entered into uncharted territory, folks. Not only are we in the middle of a global pandemic and the longest awards season ever, but we are now looking at a set of Oscar nominations — announced on Monday morning, less than six weeks ahead of the 93rd Academy Awards on April 25 — unlike any we have seen before.

On the one hand ...

The sole leader for most nominated film of the year — Mank, with 10 noms, four more than the six films tied for second place — is in black-and-white, something that has been true only one other time in the last 60 years (Schindler's List). The best picture category, though boasting eight nominees, contains only a single film from one of Hollywood's major studios — Judas and the Black Messiah from Warner Bros. (although The Trial of the Chicago 7 originated at Paramount) — an unprecedented low (streamers Netflix and Amazon have two and one, respectively, and A24, Focus, Searchlight and Sony Classics have one each). And the collective box office gross of the best picture nominees, as of today, is a paltry $14.1 million within North America, with just $4.8 million more added to the bottom line if you count worldwide ticket sales.

In other words, good luck getting people to tune in to the telecast on April 25.

On the other hand ...

This is a pretty formidable field, in terms of the quality of the films and the diversity of the nominees. Nomadland, the clear frontrunner for best picture, is as impressive as any recent winner. It is, along with Promising Young Woman, also one of two best picture nominees directed by a woman (Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell, respectively), something we've never seen before, just like having two women (those same two) nominated in one year for best director. And lest anyone accuse the Academy of disingenuously trying to appear woke in its top category, please note that those two are the only films nominated for not only picture but also for directing, screenwriting, acting and film editing prizes, each of which are chosen by different branches, and that Zhao tied the record for most noms by an individual not named Walt Disney in a single year with four.

Moreover, five years after #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy also nominated for best picture, for the first time, a film solely produced by Black artists, Judas and the Black Messiah, and, for the second year in a row (after Parasite last year), a film with a central cast comprised entirely of performers of Asian descent, Minari. (Had they been wise enough to implement their mandate of 10 best picture nominees — as opposed to anywhere from five to 10, depending on weird math — this year instead of next, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and One Night in Miami probably would have made the cut too.)

I think we can retire the annual question about whether the Academy is willing to "accept" Netflix, given that homebound voters were quite happy to recognize an astounding 16 of the streamer's films with 35 nominations, a total not seen since Harvey Weinstein's Miramax racked up 40 in 2003. (The record belongs to United Artists with 45 in 1940.) And if any best picture nominee has the potential to benefit from Nomadland fatigue and/or the Academy's unusual preferential ballot, it is probably Netflix's Trial, even if Aaron Sorkin got Argo'd out of the best director race. (A Trial win would mark a full-circle moment for Trial producer Marc Platt, who, you may recall, had an Oscar placed in, and then taken out of, his hands the night of the La La Land/Moonlight screwup four years ago.)

The Academy's diversity push has not been limited to race, gender and age, but has also included a concerted effort to become a more international body, which may help to explain the best director nomination for the great Danish auteur Thomas Vinterberg for Another Round (which was nominated for best international feature as well) over the likes of Sorkin, Da 5 Bloods' Spike LeeOne Night in Miami's Regina KingSound of Metal's Darius Marder and News of the World's Paul Greengrass.

Vinterberg's nom wasn't totally out of the blue, given that the directors branch has always been the organization's most worldly — see its nomination of Hiroshi Teshigahara for Woman in the Dunes 55 years ago — and recognized several other filmmakers for work not in the English language over the last few years, including Bong Joon Ho for Parasite (2019), Alfonso Cuarón for Roma and Pawel Pawlikowski for Cold War (both 2018) and Michael Haneke for Amour (2012).

Vinterberg and Mank's helmer, David Fincher, are this year's only two directing nominees who are not also nominated as writers. The three who are: Zhao, Fennell and Minari's Lee Isaac Chung.

The best actor and best actress fields played out entirely according to the odds.

In the former, Ma Rainey's Chadwick Boseman, who tragically succumbed to colon cancer last August, becomes only the seventh posthumous acting nominee and the first since Heath Ledger 12 years ago, and it seems all but certain that his sweep of this awards season will continue through Oscar night. In any other year, the winner might well have been Sound of Metal's Riz Ahmed, who, like Minari's Steven Yeun, is nominated for the first time and for a powerful performance featuring minimal dialogue. Filling out the category are two returning champions, Anthony Hopkins (this is his sixth nom, and he won for The Silence of the Lambs 29 years ago) and Gary Oldman (this is his third nom, and he won for Darkest Hour three years ago).

I do feel sorry for Da 5 Bloods' Delroy Lindo, who was vying for the first nom of his distinguished career. Unfortunately, his prospects were probably sunk when a decision was made to push him as a lead rather than a supporting actor for a film that is a true ensemble, as even its title suggests. I believe he would have been nominated, and probably would have won, in the other acting category.

Meanwhile, on the distaff side, the finalists are Nomadland's Frances McDormand (the first woman ever nominated for acting in and producing the same film, she is also angling to become only the second woman, after Katharine Hepburn, to have won a third lead actress Oscar, just three years after she picked up No. 2), Promising's Carey Mulligan (an overdue 11 years after her first nom), Ma Rainey's Viola Davis (whose fourth acting nom makes her the most nominated Black female performer ever) and two breakthrough artists who gave tour-de-force turns, Pieces of a Woman's Vanessa Kirby and The United States vs. Billie Holiday's Andra Day.

I have to admit, I'm bummed for Sophia Loren, who was as great as she has been in decades in Edoardo Ponti's The Life Ahead. But fortunately she has her Oscar from 59 years ago to comfort her.

The supporting acting nominations were a bit more dramatic.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, predicted both Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield getting nominated in this category for Judas. Stanfield was being pushed as a lead and Kaluuya as a supporting actor — but, unlike with the SAG Awards (where a studio's category preference is automatically accepted) or the Golden Globes (where a studio's category preference is either approved or overturned before nomination voting), members of the Academy's acting branch decide for themselves which category a performer belongs in. (See: Kate Winslet with The Reader 12 years ago.)

In this case, Kaluuya was top-billed, but had already been recognized with best supporting actor Critics Choice and Golden Globe awards, which probably confused matters; and Stanfield had received no precursor attention at all. I would bet that both actors received plenty of votes in both categories — in fact, one or both may have even made the top five in both categories, but, ever since Barry Fitzgerald was nominated as a lead and a supporting actor for the same performance in 1944's Going My Way, it has been the rule that a performer can only be nominated in the category in which he or she receives more votes.

Competing Judas actors could result in a split that would benefit one of the category's other three nominees. They include a single member from two large ensembles, Sacha Baron Cohen for Trial (he's also a screenplay nominee for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm) and Leslie Odom Jr. for One Night in Miami (he's also an original song nominee for the film's "Speak Now," making him only the fourth person nominated for both of those awards for the same film, after Mary J. Blige for Mudbound, Lady Gaga for A Star Is Born and Cynthia Erivo for Harriet). The fifth spot, meanwhile, went not to Golden Globe and SAG nominee Jared Leto of The Little Things, or Boseman for Da 5 Bloods, but to Sound of Metal's Paul Raci, the hearing son of deaf parents, who couldn't be more deserving.

And then we come to perhaps the weirdest category, best supporting actress. It presents a rematch of the best actress race from two years ago in which Olivia Colman for The Favourite shockingly upset Glenn Close for The Wife. Once again, Colman is up for a film that is nominated for best picture, whereas Close is not. This time, though, Close is nominated for one of the most critically derided movies of the year, for which she has also been nominated for a Razzie — and yet she is probably the slight favorite to win, if only because she is now on her eighth nom without having won, a record for a living performer, and because the rest of the nominees in the category are not easy to imagine in the winner's circle either.

They are Borat Subsequent Moviefilm's Bulgarian breakout Maria Bakalova, who won the Critics Choice Award; Minari's Youn Yuh-jung, who is "the Meryl Streep of Korea," but who faces an uphill climb as someone whose performance is not in English; and Mank's Amanda Seyfried, for her first "serious" role.

Sadly, The Mauritanian's Jodie Foster got the Aaron Taylor-Johnson/Taron Egerton treatment: she won a Golden Globe and then wasn't even nominated for the corresponding Oscar.

The Academy's contingent of writers always marches to its own beat. For their original screenplay award, they were one of the few branches to pass over Mank, a film about a writer; instead, they nominated Golden Globe winner Trial, Critics Choice winner PromisingJudas, Minari and Sound of Metal. And for their adapted prize, they nominated, as expected, Nomadland, One Night in Miami and The Father — but then, rather than Ma RaineyThe Mauritanian or News of the World, they filled out the category with The White Tiger and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a particularly eccentric choice for the branch, not only because it features a lot of improv, but also because the branch tends to resist films that have many writers credited; this one has eight. If it wins, that would result in an onstage pileup the likes of which hasn't been seen since Shakespeare in Love won best picture.

Moving on to the categories for specialized films, the big winner is muckraking Collective, which becomes not only the first Romanian film ever nominated for best international feature, but also only the second film ever nominated for both best international feature and best documentary feature, after Honeyland last year. This doesn't guarantee that it will take home a prize in even one of those categories — Honeyland did not — but it certainly will make it a lot easier to convince voters to check it out.

The doc feature prize is most likely up for grabs between Amazon's Time, about the impact of harsh prison sentencing on Black families, and Netflix's Crip Camp, about a generation of disability activists who emerged from the same summer camp. The latter hails from Barack Obama and Michelle Obama's production company Higher Ground, just like the category's defending champion American Factory, and is one of two Netflix titles that were nominated this year, the other being the cult-favorite My Octopus Teacher, about an underwater diver in South Africa. The fifth nominee, The Mole Agent, about an elderly man hired to go undercover in a nursing home to investigate possible elder abuse, is a personal favorite.

The international race also includes the aforementioned Another Round, which marks Denmark's 13th nom (placing it behind only France, Italy, Spain, Japan and Sweden), as well as the first-ever nominee from Tunisia, The Man Who Sold His Skin. And don't count out Bosnia/Herzegovina's Quo Vadis, Aida? or Hong Kong's Better Days. Another Round has to be considered the favorite.

Animated feature, meanwhile, filled out as expected, with powerhouse Pixar represented by Soul (with director Pete Docter picking up a record fourth nom in the category), which is in the pole position, and Onward; Netflix landing noms for both Over the Moon (animator Glen Keane was previously nominated — and won — with the late Kobe Bryant in the animated short category three years ago) and A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon; and Wolfwalkers, which, along with a sound nom for Greyhound, represents the first-ever Oscar noms for Apple.

In the below-the-line categories, films receiving multiple noms were Mank (cinematography, costume design, makeup/hairstyling, original score, production design, sound); News of the World (cinematography, original score, production design, sound); Ma Rainey (costume design, makeup/hairstyling, production design); Soul (original score, sound); Sound of Metal (film editing, sound); Nomadland (cinematography, film editing); Judas (cinematography, original song); Trial (cinematography, film editing, song); Mulan (costume design, VFX); Emma (costume design, makeup/hairstyling); Pinocchio (costume design, makeup/hairstyling); The Father (film editing, production design); and Tenet (production design, VFX).

Could this finally be the year for Diane Warren in the original song category? The most nominated woman in history to not have won an Oscar — she has gone 0 for 11 in the category in years past — received nom No. 12 for "Io Si (Seen)" from The Life Ahead, for which she already picked up a Golden Globe. Warren never makes things easy for herself — many Academy members resist watching blockbusters, documentaries or films not in English, which presents hurdles for songs featured therein — and this year she will face stiff competition from Odom for "Speak Now" from One Night in Miami, the Critics Choice winner; Judas' "Fight for You" from H.E.R., who picked up a song of the year Grammy last night; Trial's "Hear My Voice"; and "Husavik" from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, which star Will Ferrell promised me he would perform on the Oscars if it got nominated. But, at long last, it really could happen for Warren, and that would be something to cheer.

Finally, in the shorts categories, buzz is everything, as more than a few members vote without having seen all — or, in some cases, any — of the nominees. In the case of the live-action short Two Distant Strangers, a powerful portrait of police brutality, and the animated short If Anything Happens I Love You, about parents grieving the loss of a child in a school shooting, the buzz — and concomitant frontrunner status — is very well merited. The hardest to call of the three shorts categories, though, is documentary short, nominees for which include multiple titles that are viable and would be worthy winners, among them A Concerto Is a Conversation, A Love Song for Latasha and Colette.

The 93rd Oscars are in less than a month and a half — let the (socially distanced) games of phase two of the race to the finish begin!