Oscars 2020: J.Lo's Miss, ScarJo's Big Day and What the Noms Mean Going Forward

1917, the irishman, joker, once upon a time and parasite - Publicity - Split - H 2020
Courtesy of Films

The Oscar nominations landed bright and early on Monday, and it has taken a few hours to sift through the debris, but here we are.

You know the headlines: Joker landed the most noms. J. Lo is MIA. Cynthia Erivo is the only person standing between this year's 20 acting noms and another #OscarsSoWhite. And Maleficent: Mistress of Evil will go down in history as an Oscar-nominated film, while The Farewell, Uncut Gems, Honey Boy and Dolemite Is My Name will not.

But why did this happen and what does it mean as we enter the homestretch with less than a month to go until the 92nd Oscars on Feb. 9?

Three best picture nominees have all three of the key ingredients possessed by the vast majority of best picture Oscar winners, specifically acting, directing and writing noms: Sony's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the best picture Critics' Choice and Golden Globe winner; Netflix's The Irishman, which would become the first film from a streamer to win a best picture Oscar; and Warner Bros.' Joker.

But the old rules may not apply anymore because, for better or worse, we live in the era of the best picture preferential ballot, which rewards films that most Academy members at least like, spanning the spectrum from Moonlight to Green Book.

This could benefit two other best picture nominees that have directing and writing mentions, but none for acting: Universal's 1917, the other best pic Golden Globe winner, from the distributor behind last year's best picture Oscar winner Green Book; and Neon's Parasite, only the 11th predominantly non-English-language film ever nominated for best pic, and its three-year-old distributor's first best pic Oscar nom, after coming close two years ago with I, Tonya.

The preferential ballot theoretically makes a path to victory harder for deeply polarizing nominees like Joker and Fox Searchlight's Jojo Rabbit (which is also missing a directing nom), and respected but familiar nominees, like Netflix's Marriage Story (no directing nom), Sony's Little Women (no directing nom) and Fox's Ford v Ferrari (no directing or acting noms).

Netflix's distributor-leading 24 nominations — including two of the nine picture noms, seven of the 20 acting noms, one of the five directing noms, two of the five animated feature noms and two of the five documentary features noms — ought to put to rest, if Roma's 10 noms last year did not, the notion that Academy members have widespread reservations about the streamer. The last albatross around Netflix's neck is the question of whether it can finally win a best picture award, and it seems only a matter of time before that happens.

Once again, we have nine best picture nominees, if only because it is virtually mathematically impossible, under the Academy's convoluted fluctuating five-to-10 system, to actually wind up with 10. This is a system that benefits no one, created because a few people griped that in some years there may not be 10 films worthy of a best pic nom. However, there always are, and the Oscars, which were partly created to boost the film industry, should guarantee that many nominees, just as it did with the noms announced in 2010 and 2011. Nobody should be madder about this than A24, which had a host of well-reviewed movies — The Farewell, Uncut Gems, Waves, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Lighthouse and Midsommar — and wound up with none nominated for best pic.

Marriage Story's Noah Baumbach and Little Women's Greta Gerwig became the first couple (as opposed to former couple) to each have films nominated for best picture in the same year. Neither, however, landed a best director nom. Yes, that category is all male again, but this year's crop of female filmmakers were left off most other awards groups' shortlists and were always unlikely to get an Oscar nom this year, and not because of gender. (Gerwig was nominated two years ago for Lady Bird.)

Four veteran auteurs were slam dunks for films the Academy widely responded to: 1917's Sam Mendes (Golden Globe winner and Critics' Choice co-winner), exactly 20 years after his last nom for his directorial debut American Beauty, which resulted in a win; Parasite's Bong Joon Ho (Critics' Choice co-winner); Once Upon a Time's Quentin Tarantino, seeking his first directing win; and past winner Martin Scorsese for The Irishman. The fifth spot was always likely to be a toss-up between people recognized by other groups: Joker's Todd Phillips (a Golden Globe nominee), who wound up claiming it; Jojo Rabbit's Taika Waititi (the only DGA nominee passed over by the Academy); or Uncut Gems' Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie, Baumbach or Gerwig (nominees at the Critics' Choice Awards, which, it must be noted, nominate seven individuals or teams, not five like the Academy).

The lead actor category is led by the anchors of three best pic nominees: Joker's Joaquin Phoenix, the frontrunner after Globe and Critics' Choice wins; Marriage Story's Adam Driver, nominated for the second consecutive year, after his BlacKkKlansman supporting nom in 2019; and Once Upon a Time's Leonardo DiCaprio. And two beloved veterans finally landed their first Oscar noms, Pain and Glory's Antonio Banderas (a rare acting nom for a non-English-language turn) and 72-year-old Jonathan Pryce (now the seventh-oldest person ever nominated in the category).

It is somewhat surprising, a year after Bohemian Rhapsody's Rami Malek won this award, that Rocketman's Taron Egerton wasn't even nominated for it, especially after landing Globe, SAG and BAFTA noms (he won one of the two lead acting Globes), joining a small club of performances — including Arrival's Amy Adams and Captain Phillips' Tom Hanks — to miss an Oscar nom after that trio of precursor noms. And it's also notable, despite snubs from all three of those groups, that the star of The Irishman, Robert De Niro, was also left out of the lead actor race, (reminiscent of Titanic's DiCaprio being snubbed when virtually everyone else associated with that film was nominated). A consolation: De Niro is nominated as a producer of The Irishman. (And Bradley Cooper is nominated as a producer of Joker!)

The lead actress field was always going to include Judy's comeback kid Renee Zellweger (who won Globe and Critics' Choice awards) and Bombshell's Charlize Theron, both past Oscar winners who gave showy performances in films that are also nominated for the makeup and hairstyling that helped to transform them into real people. (The rest of that category is filled out by 1917, Joker and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.)

It was also all but certain that Marriage Story's Scarlett Johansson would get in — she's a rarity as a female anchoring or co-anchoring a top-tier best pic contender, as is Saoirse Ronan, who is nominated for Little Women and joins Jennifer Lawrence as the only performer to land four acting noms by the age of 25 (J.Law was a few days younger). The final slot was up for grabs, with contenders including The Farewell's Awkwafina (the other Globe winner), Us's Lupita Nyong'o (a SAG and Critics' Choice nominee), Midsommar's Florence Pugh or Clemency's Alfre Woodard — but it wound up going to Erivo, whose first star-turn on a big screen helped to propel her film to huge commercial success.

Supporting actor went exactly as expected: Once Upon a Time's Brad Pitt, who has never won an acting Oscar, is joined by four people who have, but who haven't been invited back to the ceremony as a nominee in many years: two Irishmen, Joe Pesci (first nom in 29 years) and Al Pacino (first nom in 27 years); The Two Popes' Anthony Hopkins (first nom in 22 years); and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood's Hanks (first nom in 19 years). It's interesting how Just Mercy fell off the face of the earth after popping at the Toronto International Film Festival — partly a reflection of a limited campaign by Warners.

And now back to Lopez: As I forecasted, but few others did, the Academy's acting branch took a pass on her in the best supporting actress race. With her Super Bowl halftime performance coming up on Feb. 2, she has been largely out of pocket at rehearsals — but, beyond that, her movie was not particularly promoted or well-received by other awards groups, especially outside of America, where an increasingly large number of Academy members are based. The miss of a BAFTA nom was an early bellwether.

At this point, Marriage Story's Laura Dern, who has already won Globe and Critics' Choice awards and is likely to win a SAG Award on Sunday, appears to have a clear path to her first Oscar. Her strongest challenge will probably come from the aforementioned Johansson, who is now only the 12th performer ever to receive two acting noms in one year, and the first in 12 years. (None of those 12 performers won both awards, but a majority — seven — won at least one.) The rest of the category's nominees are probably just happy to have made the cut: Margot Robbie, nominated for Bombshell over Once Upon a Time (marking her second acting nom in three years); Little Women's Pugh, one of the industry's top young talents; and past winner Kathy Bates, who battled back from very serious health troubles to land her first nom in 17 years.

The screenplay categories went exactly as projected. On the adapted side, best pic nominees The Irishman, Jojo, Joker and Little Women are joined by The Two Popes. And on the original side, best pic nominees Once Upon a Time (winner of the Globe and Critics' Choice awards' unified screenplay prizes), Marriage Story, Parasite and 1917 are joined by Knives Out. (It's a particular bummer that The Farewell and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, two of the most truly original scripts of the year, were crowded out.)

The animated feature category is interesting this year. There is no question that a massive bloc of Disney/Pixar voters exists in the Academy's short films and feature animation branch — after all, each time one of those companies' films win an Oscar, their filmmakers get invited to join, which can become a self-perpetuating cycle. But one has to question how prevalent bloc voting really is — or how big a difference it makes that the nomination selection process has been opened up to include people outside of branch, too — in light of Frozen 2's surprising exclusion on Monday. Yes, Toy Story 4 got in, and remains the likely winner, but that's still a bad miss for the Mouse House. Challenging Pixar for the win will be the final installment of a popular DreamWorks Animation franchise, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World; Laika's Golden Globe winner Missing Link; and Netflix's first animated features, I Lost My Body and Klaus.

Doc feature is probably a done deal with Netflix's American Factory getting nominated and two populist found-footage films that would have appealed to the wider Academy — Neon's Apollo 11 and Sony Classics' Maiden — left out, the former rather shockingly. The category is instead filled out by two gritty Syria docs, For Sama and The Cave; a film about a Macedonian beekeeper, Honeyland (which becomes the first film ever to land noms for both doc feature and international feature); and another Netflix title, Edge of Democracy — none of which is likely to pose much of a challenge to an Obamas-backed film about America and China's relationship. 

In addition to Honeyland, the international feature film category — formerly best foreign language film — is filled out with three slam-dunks: Parasite, which marks the first-ever nom for South Korea and only the sixth time a movie has been nominated for both best pic and best international feature; Spain's Pain and Glory, from the great Pedro Almodovar, which is the category's only entry with an acting nom; and France's Les Miserables. The fifth nominee is Poland's Corpus Christi. (The highest-profile omission: Sengal's Atlantics, a miss for Netflix.)

The legendary lenser Roger Deakins, who waited decades to win his first Oscar, looks poised to win his second in just three years, for 1917. He is joined in the category, as expected, by three-time winner Robert Richardson (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Rodrigo Prieto (The Irishman) and Lawrence Sher (Joker, the Camerimage winner) — plus Jarin Blaschke for The Lighthouse (marking A24's sole nom), a reminder of how much the Academy's cinematographers branch loves black-and-white films.

The costume design category also includes Once Upon a Time (this is nom No. 3 for Arianne Phillips, seeking her first win), The Irishman (three-time winner Sandy Powell, plus Christopher Peterson) and Joker (two-time winner Mark Bridges) — plus Little Women (past winner Jacqueline Durran) and Jojo (first-time nominee Mayes C. Rubeo). Ruth E. Carter, last year's Oscar winner for Black Panther and Sunday night's Critics' Choice winner for Dolemite Is My Name, didn't make the cut, but this is probably more a reflection of members' feelings about her film than her work.

Production design also includes Once Upon a Time and Irishman, but not Joker, which was boxed out by Jojo, 1917 and Parasite. And film editing, which often correlates with best picture, includes The Irishman (cut by the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker, though not cut enough in the minds of many who feel the film is too long) and Joker, but not Once Upon a Time, which was surprising. Instead, Jojo, Parasite and Ford v Ferrari round out the category. (1917 won the corresponding Critics' Choice Award on Sunday, but it seems Academy members were less willing than critics to embrace the notion that a film made to look like a single-shot production required award-worthy editing.)

Ford v Ferrari could do very well in not only the film editing race, but also in the two sound categories. For sound editing, it will have to hold off fellow best pic nominees Once Upon a Time, 1917 and Joker, plus Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. And for best sound mixing, its challengers are Once Upon a Time, 1917 and Joker, plus Ad Astra. (As you may have noticed, the two sound categories' lineups are almost entirely the same, as has happened quite a lot in recent years, which is part of why many inside and outside of the Academy want the sound branch to have only one award in the future.)

Netflix seems likely to pick up a win for The Irishman in the VFX category, where its reverse-aging technology will probably outshine fellow best pic nominee 1917, plus The Lion King, The Rise of Skywalker and Avengers: Endgame. 1917 and Marriage Story will also face off in the original score category, pitting cousins Thomas Newman and Randy Newman against one another (for the second time in their illustrious careers) and the godfather of film scores, John Williams, whose 52nd nom, for The Rise of Skywalker, extends his record for most mentions for a living person; Joker's Golden Globe and Critics' Choice winner, Hildur Guonadottir; and Little Women's Alexandre Desplat, a two-time Oscar winner.

Randy Newman is also nominated for best original song, Toy Story 4's "I Can't Let You Throw Yourself Away," making him one of only 63 people to have landed score and song noms in the same year — this is actually the fifth time that he has done it! Diane Warren registered her 11th nom — spread across five different decades — and is hoping for her first win, though it isn't likely to come for "I'm Standing With You" from Breakthrough, a film with virtually no profile.

The song winner will instead likely be one of the other three nominees: Rocketman's "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again," the Golden Globe and Critics' Choice winner which marks the first-ever joint Oscar nom for Elton John and Bernie Taupin; Frozen 2's "Into the Unknown" by the couple Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who previously won for Frozen's "Let It Go"; or "Stand Up" from Harriet, sung by the film's star Erivo, who is nominated for writing it (with Joshuah Brian Campbell). Erivo joins Mary J. Blige (2017's Mudbound) and Lady Gaga (2018's A Star Is Born) as the only people to garner acting and songwriting noms in the same year. Erivo could also become, like Robert Lopez, an eGOT — the e is lower-case because her Emmy is a Daytime Emmy, not a Primetime Emmy, but that is still quite an achievement for a woman who only just turned 33 last week.

Finally, there are the shorts categories. Animated short pits Pixar (Kitbull) against Sony Animation (Hair Love). As for doc short, Netflix had four of the 10 titles that were shortlisted, but only one, Life Overtakes Me, made the final five, which may actually be a good thing for the streamer, which will now make a concerted push to win with that one — although the Sheila Nevins-run MTV docs division, with its first-ever Oscar nom for St. Louis Superman, should not be discounted. The most interesting thing about the live action race is the inclusion of The Neighbors' Window, a film by Marshall Curry: this recognition for his narrative directorial debut, on the heels of noms for best doc feature (1999's Street Fight and 2011's If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front) and best doc short (2018's A Night at the Garden), means that he has now been nominated in three different categories, something that very few people who have never made a narrative feature can assert.