Oscars: Nominations Raise a Whole New Set of Questions

The nominations for the 90th Oscars were handed down Tuesday morning, and leave pundits like myself with as many new questions as answers as we head into the 41-day homestretch of this awards season.

The general sense of the best picture contest, in recent days, had been that it had narrowed to a two-way race between The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, both Fox Searchlight films centered on female protagonists. Today, Shape was the stronger performer, exceeding most expectations by registering a field-leading 13 noms, including acknowledgment for Guillermo del Toro's direction, del Toro's and Vanessa Taylor's screenplay, three of its castmembers (lead actress Sally Hawkins, supporting actor Richard Jenkins and supporting actress Octavia Spencer) and every technical field except best visual effects.

However, while Shape won the best picture Critics' Choice Award and the top PGA Award, it did not receive a best ensemble SAG Award nom, without which no film has won the best picture Oscar in 22 years — in fact, last year, when La La Land similarly did not land a SAG ensemble nom, that was the only indicator that, in the end, it would not win the best picture Oscar. 

Three Billboards, meanwhile, landed seven noms, including three for acting (Frances McDormand for lead actress and Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell for best supporting actor) to go with one for Martin McDonagh's screenplay. But McDonagh, who landed a DGA Award nomination earlier this month, was not able to follow that with a best director nom today, and only two films in the last 85 years Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Argo (2012) — won the best picture Oscar without also being represented in the directing category.

That raises the question: could one of this year's seven other best picture nominees pull off a win? Considering that the Academy employs a preferential ballot that rewards consensus over passion — unlike any of the other awards groups except the PGA — it's certainly possible.

Dunkirk received eight noms, second only to Shape, including a best director nomd for Christopher Nolan — but it was not nominated for its screenplay or any of its performances, and the last time a film overcame that scenario to win best picture was 85 years ago (Grand Hotel won despite receiving no other nominations). Therefore, the likelier candidates are Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird and Jordan Peele's Get Out, which landed five and four noms, respectively. Gerwig and Peele both scored for directing — becoming only the fifth woman and fifth black person, respectively, ever to be nominated in the category — as well as for screenwriting, and their films each garnered at least one acting nom (Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf for the former, Daniel Kaluuya for the latter). Still, it must be noted that neither showed up in the best film editing category, which is often seen as a key indicator of strength.

It's hard to fathom any of the top category's other four nominees prevailing, but each has its own reasons to celebrate this morning. The highly divisive Phantom Thread outperformed virtually all expectations by snagging noms for not only best actor (for Daniel Day-Lewis' last performance) and best costume design (Mark Bridges' work is the heavy favorite), but also best picture, best director (Paul Thomas Anderson), best supporting actress (Lesley Manville) and best original score.

Call Me by Your Name's 22-year-old lead Timothee Chalamet becomes the youngest best actor nominee since 19-year-old Mickey Rooney was nominated for Babes in Arms 78 years ago, and its 89-year-old screenwriter James Ivory looks like the person to beat in the best adapted screenplay category (he would be its oldest winner). Still, there must be some disappointment that neither Armie Hammer nor Michael Stuhlbarg could crack into the best supporting actor field, and that Luca Guadagnino missed for best director.

And then there's Joe Wright's Darkest Hour and Steven Spielberg's The Post, which took flak in some circles for allegedly being shameless Oscar bait, but which, as good old-fashioned filmmaking, appealed to enough voters to make the cut. Each landed one acting nom, as well: for Darkest Hour, best actor nominee Gary Oldman looks well-positioned to bag his first-ever Oscar, and for The Post, Meryl Streep, with her best actress nom, extends her own all-time record of most acting noms from 20 to 21.

Other notable nominations include All the Money in the World's Christopher Plummer for best supporting actor (the veteran, who reshot Kevin Spacey's entire performance in just nine days, becomes, at 88, the oldest person ever nominated for a competitive acting award, surpassing Titanic's Gloria Stuart, who was 87); Mudbound's Rachel Morrison for best cinematography (she becomes the first female ever nominated in the category); Star Wars: The Last Jedi's John Williams for best original score (extending his record number of noms for a living person from 50 to 51); Mudbound's Mary J. Blige for best supporting actress and best original song (marking not only the first-ever acting nom for a Netflix film, but also a rare acting-music double nom); and Dear Basketball for best animated short (making Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant an Oscar nominee). It should also be noted that, with their best picture noms for Lady Bird and The Post, producers Scott Rudin and Spielberg, respectively, remain tied for the record for most best picture Oscar noms, with 10 each.

The most glaring omissions? I find the exclusion of Brett Morgen's Jane from the best documentary feature category to be utterly shocking, considering that it — along with another snubbed doc, Matthew Heineman's City of Ghosts — was the toast of the doc community all season. (On the upside, the legendary Steve James, whose Hoop Dreams was criminally snubbed 23 years ago, earned his first-ever nom in the category, for Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.) I am equally baffled by the exclusion of Israel's Foxtrot and, in particular, Germany's In the Fade from the best foreign language film category, particularly on the heels of In the Fade's Critics' Choice and Golden Globe wins. I am fairly surprised by the absence of The Disaster Artist's James Franco from the best actor category, since sexual misconduct allegations against him emerged only at the tail end of the voting period, by which point many voters had already cast their ballot. (It appears that Roman J. Israel, Esq.'s Denzel Washington bounced him.)

As for best picture, there are a number of worthy films that weren't nominated — and one easily could have been if the Academy hadn't made its silly decision, a few years ago, to back away from a guaranteed 10 slots in favor of a scale sliding between five and 10, depending on vote totals. There are always at least 10 worthy films, and nominating any fewer than that is throwing away the chance to lure more viewers to the telecast. This year, the 10th nominee could have been Wonder Woman, which instead was not nominated in a single category. In my opinion, it should have been The Florida Project (supporting actor Willem Dafoe accounts for its sole nomination), and that film's star Brooklynn Prince, who was just six when she made the film, should have received a Juvenile Award, which the Academy also inexplicably discontinued (watch Prince's speech at the Critics' Choice Award to get a sense of the potentially viral moment that the Academy is leaving on the table by not giving out this prize).

Other films that had very legitimate cases for a best picture nom include I, Tonya (for which Allison Janney is now the best supporting actress frontrunner, Tatiana Riegel was recognized for best film editing and Margot Robbie registered her first Oscar nom, in the best actress category, where she could prove a spoiler), as well as Amazon's The Big Sick and Netflix's Mudbound (the absence of which may suggest that voters are still not totally on board with films from streaming services).

In any event, these are your nominees for the 90th Oscars, and the race to March 4 begins now!