Oscar Noms Analysis: Unprecedented Inclusion, Surprising Snubs Yield Wide-Open Race

The Favourite and Roma -Split-H 2019
Courtesy Photos

We will never know for sure if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' list of nominees for the 91st Oscars, announced Tuesday morning, looks the way it does because of the sweeping overhaul of the organization's membership in the years following #OscarsSoWhite — during which a huge number of women, people of color and non-Americans were invited to join Hollywood's most elite club — or if it would have looked this way anyway. But there is no denying that this is the most diverse crop of nominees ever, in just about every sense.

The co-leaders in total nominations, with 10, are Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, a black-and-white, Spanish-language film starring no one Academy members had ever heard of before and distributed via Hollywood's supposed Big Bad Wolf of the industry, Netflix, which had never previously handled a best picture nominee or, perhaps not coincidentally, released its films theatrically; and Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite, a period dramedy with three women — two in their forties — at its center. Neither film features a male actor in anything but a supporting role.

The best picture category includes a superhero movie adapted from a comic book (Marvel's Black Panther), something that has never happened before. Black Panther's Hannah Beachler became the first black artisan nominated for best production design. The iconic Spike Lee is a best director nominee (the BlacKkKlansman helmer was previously nominated for best original screenplay, for 1989's Do the Right Thing, and best documentary feature, for 1997's 4 Little Girls). And five distinguished veterans — composer Terence Blanchard (BlacKkKlansman), film editor Barry Alexander Brown (BlacKkKlansman), actor Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born), actor Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and screenwriter Paul Schrader (First Reformed) — are first-time nominees.

Also for the first time, two Mexican actresses — Roma's Yalitza Aparicio, in the lead category, and Marina de Tavira, in the supporting category, neither of whom were considered slam dunks — have been nominated in the same year; and four of the eight best picture nominees prominently feature LGBTQ characters (Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Green Book and A Star is Born).

The Oscar race is often reflective of the zeitgeist, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that, at a time when racial tensions in America are at their highest since the Civil Rights era, three films about race — BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther and Green Book — are among the eight nominated for best picture, and others, including If Beale Street Could Talk, are nominated elsewhere. Marshall Curry's nominated documentary short A Night at the Garden, which comprises footage of a 1930s Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden, offers its own form of commentary on the Trump era.

Of course, for every notable nomination, there were also shocking omissions. Green Book and A Star Is Born both received nods for picture, screenplay (the former original, the latter adapted) and acting (two for the former, three for the latter), among others — but their respective helmers, Peter Farrelly and Bradley Cooper, both DGA Award nominees, were not nominated for best director. Considering that only four films in 90 years have managed to win best picture without a corresponding best director nom, that has to be highly discouraging for their backers. On the other hand, this sort of thing can actually help a film in the best picture race — I like to call it "Afflucking" a film, in honor of the Ben Affleck snub that evoked outrage and propelled Argo to a best picture win six years ago.

Comparably shocking is the documentary branch's exclusion of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the blockbuster Fred Rogers biodoc from past Oscar winner Morgan Neville (2013's 20 Feet From Stardom) — at least as egregious a snub as Brett Morgen's Jane received last year — and, to a slightly lesser extent, Tim Wardle's Three Identical Strangers, which also sold a lot of tickets. The doc branch is one of the Academy's most diverse, and this year — for the first time, as best I can tell — not one of the doc feature category's nominees was directed by a white male.

On a personal level, I'm happy for many nominees not yet mentioned. Among them, the three best director nominees whose places were far from assured heading into Tuesday morning: Vice's Adam McKay, who is a DGA nominee (along with Cuaron, Lee, Cooper and Farrelly), and two who are not, The Favourite's Lanthimos and Cold War's Pawel Pawlikowski, who, like his close pal Cuaron, was nominated for a black-and-white, non-English-language film about his parents, the Polish-language Cold War. The on-the-bubble actors who made it in, including two who were also nominated last year — Willem Dafoe, for his soulful lead performance as Vincent van Gogh in the challenging At Eternity's Gate, and Sam Rockwell, for his spot-on supporting turn as George W. Bush in Vice — as well as first-time nominees Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman) and Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk). The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' screenwriters (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen), costume designer and songwriters (behind "When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings"), none of whom were widely expected to make the cut. Germany's Never Look Away, which is nominated not only for best foreign language film, but also for best cinematography (a sixth nom for Caleb Deschanel); prior to this year's lensing noms for Never Look Away, Cold War and Roma, only 20 non-English-language films had ever cracked that category, and only once before had three such titles done so in a single year, 14 years ago. Diane Warren, the songwriter behind "I'll Fight" (from the doc RBG) and a perennial Oscar bridesmaid who hopes her tenth nom will prove the charm. And longtime awards consultant Lisa Taback, one of the four producers of the nominated doc short Period. End of Sentence, for which director-producer Rayka Zehtabchi and one of the film's other three producers will personally become Oscar nominees.

At the same time, I'm bummed for a lot of lovely and talented people who came up short — BlacKkKlansman's lead actor John David Washington, especially on the heels of Golden Globe and SAG noms; Ethan Hawke, who did things I've never seen him do before in First Reformed; Emily Blunt and Timothee Chalamet, the best parts of Mary Poppins Returns and Beautiful Boy, respectively; Eighth Grade's writer-director Bo Burnham and lead actress Elsie Fisher; Leave No Trace's writer-director Debra Granik and supporting actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie; the South Korean film Burning; Dolly Parton and Linda Perry, who were in the running for the original song "Girl in the Movies" from Dumplin'; Mission: Impossible — Fallout, which I found to be one of the best movies of the year, and which, at the very least, deserved film editing and VFX noms; and the whole team behind First Man — including director Damien Chazelle, writer Josh Singer, lead actor Ryan Gosling, supporting actress Claire Foy, cinematographer Linus Sandgren and composer Justin Hurwitz — which never really recovered from the ridiculous American flag controversy with which it was hit over Labor Day weekend.

In any event, with just 33 days remaining until the 91st Oscars, final voting for which runs Feb. 12-19, here's what I'm thinking. Of the eight best picture nominees, many are missing nods in key categories — directing (Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book and A Star Is Born), without which, as previously mentioned, only four films have won (1927/1928's Wings, 1931/1932's Grand Hotel, 1989's Driving Miss Daisy and 2012's Argo); acting (Black Panther), without which only 11 films have won (Wings, 1929/1930's All Quiet on the Western Front, Grand Hotel, 1951's An American in Paris, 1952's The Greatest Show on Earth, 1956's Around the World in 80 Days, 1958's Gigi, 1987's The Last Emperor, 1995's Braveheart, 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and 2008's Slumdog Millionaire); screenwriting (Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody), without which only seven films have won (Wings, 1928/1929's The Broadway Melody, Grand Hotel, 1932/1933's Cavalcade, 1948's Hamlet, 1965's The Sound of Music and 1997's Titanic); and film editing (Black Panther, Roma and A Star Is Born), without which only 10 films have won (1934's It Happened One Night, 1937's The Life of Emile Zola, Hamlet, 1955's Marty, 1963's Tom Jones, 1966's A Man for All Seasons, 1974's The Godfather, Part II, 1977's Annie Hall, 1980's Ordinary People and 2014's Birdman).

Rather remarkably, the three best picture nominees that have all of these supposedly pivotal nominations — BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite and Vice — are still hard to envision as eventual winners, having won no other major precursor awards and being unlike almost any other past best picture Oscar winner.

And yet the other nominees that have long been regarded as frontrunners also face major hurdles. Green Book, as you may have heard, is highly divisive. Roma, only the 11th non-English-language film ever nominated for best picture, would be the first to win. And A Star Is Born, the fourth version of the same general story, would be only the second remake of an American film to win (1959's Ben-Hur was a remake of a 1925 film of the same name; however, 2006's The Departed was inspired by the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs). The bottom line? No one should feel confident about any prediction in this category.

One thing that could tip the scales toward Roma — which tied 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as the non-English-language film with the most overall noms — is that its director, Cuaron, is the clear frontrunner for best director. If Cuaron wins best director, that would make this the fifth year in the last six years in which one of "The Three Amigos" — close buddies Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — has won that prize. (The likeliest spoiler is Lee, who would be the first black winner in the category's history.) Cuaron, who is also nominated as a producer, screenwriter and cinematographer this year, tied the record for most noms by an individual for a single film, which is also held by Warren Beatty (1978's Heaven Can Wait and 1981's Reds), Alan Menken (1991's Beauty and the Beast) and the Coen brothers (2007's No Country for Old Men).

In the acting categories, Vice's Christian Bale, for his Dick Cheney portrayal, seems poised to join Jack Lemmon, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington and Kevin Spacey as the only men who have won both lead and supporting acting Oscars — but don't count out Bohemian Rhapsody's Rami Malek, who has a level of support in town that most people don't seem to realize, and who might well stop Bale's march to the Oscars on Sunday at the SAG Awards. The Wife's Glenn Close — already the most Oscar-nominated living performer without a win, having gone 0-for-6 in the past — is the one to beat in the best actress race, although A Star Is Born's Lady Gaga and The Favourite's Olivia Colman have many admirers, too. Green Book's Mahershala Ali looks likely to bag his second best supporting actor Oscar in just three years, even if some will advocate for Elliott to receive a gold watch award. And the best supporting actress race is probably between Vice's Amy Adams and If Beale Street Could Talk's King; King won their prior face-offs at the Golden Globe and Critics' Choice awards, but would be only the third performer who was denied even a nomination at the SAG Awards to still win an Oscar (after Marcia Gay Harden for 2000's Pollock and Christoph Waltz for 2012's Django Unchained), so the edge probably goes to Adams, whose film is also clearly more popular with the Academy.

In other major categories: Sony's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse will try to take down best animated feature Oscar titans Disney (Ralph Breaks the Internet) and Disney's Pixar (Incredibles 2), as it has done at all of the other major awards shows thus far, but it may have a harder time doing so at the Oscars, since so many people who are likely to vote in that category are current or former employees of Disney and/or Pixar (almost all past winners are invited to become members). The doc feature race is probably between the remarkable Free Solo and the inspirational RBGFree Solo is a greater cinematic achievement, but many members vote in this category (a) having not seen all of the nominated films, and (b) to make a political statement, two things that could benefit RBG. In the foreign language category, look for Roma and Cold War to duke it out, with Roma likely to prevail — but the fact that voters can recognize the Mexican film in this category will make some less inclined to vote for it in the top one, too. And, in the best original song category, it seems all but certain that the winner will be A Star Is Born's "Shallow," which is performed in the film by Cooper and Gaga, and for which Gaga is one of the nominated songwriters — although watch out for Kendrick Lamar, whose "All the Stars" is but one of his many contributions to the Black Panther soundtrack. He has a strong argument to make — if he ever elects to hit the campaign trail.

Let the games — or at least phase two of the games — begin!