93rd Academy Awards: Hastily Scribbled Thoughts

Another year of Oscars, another year of “I have a day job and I have to do this after everyone else’s takes have already filled the marketplace of takes.”

1) Several months ago, when I thought AMPAS would keep the 93rd Academy Awards to 2020 releases, I was really excited about what we might get in the field. AMPAS had the exact opposite reaction. Paradoxically, I am thrilled that Judas and the Black Messiah did as well as it did, but I am missing a number of movies from last year which I thought were really wonderful. As much as people are excited about Nomadland and Promising Young Woman carrying the banner for movies directed by movies, I am aching that other titles directed by women aren’t here. I haven’t seen Promising Young Woman, but I have seen Nomadland. In my opinion, these movies are so much more powerful than the Happy Meal Malick which is leading the pack for multiple prizes: First CowThe Assistant, Never Rarely Sometimes AlwaysEmma. Only Emma could snare any attention from the Academy Awards, and it’s done so in two below the line categories (where I think it firmly deserves credit!) where period pieces about women are so often placed. As much as I admire Emma, it is probably the least of those four; the other three already deserve to be in the conversations we have in November and December 2029 about the best movies of this decade, and I hate that the Academy has robbed us of a singular opportunity to credit them with little gold men.

2) Let’s talk about Mank, which leads all comers with ten nods. (There are six movies with six nominations, which ties them all for second, and that has to be unprecedented.) Since expanding to the ten picture field for 2009, fifteen movies have either had the most nominations of any movie in the field outright, or have tied for that honor. (We had ties for 2009, 2013, 2014, and 2018.) This is also the preferential ballot era, for those of you still trying to parse out what that might signify from year to year.

One thing to note before we get to this chart is that this year we have one fewer nomination available than before due to the Sound Mixing/Editing unification. Honestly, it’d take less time to list the movies that didn’t benefit from that extra nomination, and I’m willing to bet under the old system Mank, which got that nod for Sound, would have gotten Mixing and Editing nods and raised its total number of nominations to eleven.

The first thing I notice (after reflecting, with weary eyes, on this bizarre addiction I’ve developed to making charts in Google Sheets since that MCU thing I did) is the trendlines. Over the past decade or so, you can expect your most nominated movies to get between nine and fourteen nominations, although La La Land is famous for being one of the three most nominated movies in Oscar history, and out of the four movies with nine nods, two won Best Picture. It also really seems like being the most nominated movie is not necessarily a way to be a movie that gets a whole bunch of wins. I could hardly have been the only person in 2019 who thought that The Favourite would be shut out when they got to Best Actress. Roma is famous for being Parasite‘s John the Baptist. Joker was never expected to sweep the field or anything, but two out of eleven nominations is a little bit of an underperformance. We’re a long way from six wins for The Hurt Locker and La La Land, I think. Even The Shape of Water couldn’t scare up wins in any above the line categories besides Picture and Director; clearly those are the two you’d want, and yet tacking on Score and Production Design while other movies take Editing, Cinematography, Screenplay, and multiple acting prizes is no show of strength.

That brings me back to Mank. Out of these fifteen movies, three won Best Picture: The Hurt Locker, Birdman, and The Shape of Water. I came back to the Oscars for that 2017 slate, and what stands out to me in that season was this creeping feeling that no one was really that interested in seeing Shape of Water win. Yet for whatever reason, there was no movie that could really challenge it. Get Out and Lady Bird had partisans, and it doesn’t seem like Dunkirk really scratched anyone’s itch despite that being presented as a popular itch-scratcher. As for the other two, they were both tied for most nominations, and there was a real this-or-that flavor to the Oscars those years. I was very much around for Hurt Locker versus Avatar and completely absent for Birdman versus Boyhood, but the fact that I can characterize those Oscar years thusly is a sign of competition. Right now, Mank is in the enviable-unenviable position of being the most nominated movie of the year, no ties or draws, full stop. I think it’s most like The Shape of Water in a few ways. For one thing, I think its most obvious win is in Production Design (and if it’s thwarted in Score, that’s probably because Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross beat themselves!). I also think it’s a movie that scratches a similar itch for homage, though I know I’m much more sympathetic to The Shape of Water reinterpreting Universal monsters than I am interested in Mank reinterpreting Pauline Kael. (I like Pauline Kael. She helped me think about many movies in a new way, and I am indebted to her particularly about West Side Story and Hud. But we can all agree that the Gill-man is orders of magnitude more charming than Pauline Kael.) Most importantly, perhaps, both films are backed by two of the most fearless self-promoters in our present Oscar age, Fox Searchlight and Netflix. One way in which I think Mank is unlike Shape of Water, and this is most important of all; I don’t think it’s Mank contra mundum, and I think that’s why it will have a haul more like the ones The Favourite or Roma got than the one Shape of Water stepped away with. We’re going to talk about why Mank is not a movie I foresee winning Best Picture later on.

3) Nomadland is one of those six movies with six nominations, a crew which makes up seventy-five percent of the Best Picture field (Mank we spoke for, while Promising Young Woman has five heavy-duty nominations: Picture, Director, Actress, Screenplay, Editing. Not too shabby!) I think we have to talk about Nomadland first, which is generally seen as the presumptive favorite here on the afternoon of nomination day. Green is for yes, red is for no, blue is for multiple nominations:

Nomadland, while sitting on four fewer nods than Mank, is missing only one of the six important categories, and it’s probably the least important and the one they had the fewest options for. I am a little surprised that David Strathairn couldn’t get a nomination, but they weren’t going to give any of the nomads, who I do not think are SAG members, a shot at the supporting prizes. (I think the discourse around Nomadland is already enough about the real people playing versions of themselves that acting outside of Frances McDormand was sort of a moot point. No other BP contender has just one hole in its résumé: advantage Nomadland. Everyone seems to be falling over themselves to give Chloe Zhao Best Director for this movie, and at this early stage that’s one of the five or six awards I feel most confident predicting. I am still nervous for this movie’s chances at Best Picture. Something about the small crew, the absence from SAG (which I think is fine in the nominations stage while being potentially troublesome in the voting stage), the aggressively artsy, indie approach…I just wonder if this is going to rope in Academy members the way it roped in critics. You can say Moonlight all you want to me, but the electoral college just voted in Joe Biden, not Donald Trump. Will a movie which wants to feel urgent, which draws power from that seeming urgency, be able to maintain it when the limousine liberals of the AMPAS electorate is ready to go back to brunch?

4) The five editing nominees this year: The Father, Nomadland, Promising Young WomanSound of MetalThe Trial of the Chicago 7. I’d name all the screenplay nominees, but the only BP nominee without a screenplay nod is Mank, a film written by the director’s late father which could not squeeze into the field. Since the expansion to the ten-picture field, nothing matters more than nominations for those two awards when we’re looking for a Best Picture winner. Director is now third.

The only film to win Best Picture without an editing nod in this era is Birdman, which, of course, was famous for the fake one-shot thing and thus the editing was not that important. We haven’t had a movie win Best Picture and Best Editing since Argo, which did not garner Ben Affleck a nomination for Best Director. Every movie which has won Best Picture since the 1997 slate has had a screenplay nod, and the vast majority have won. (Titanic didn’t get nominated, but like, haha, that movie was Titanic and this one is Mank.) There are other reasons I would eliminate some other movies from the BP victory conversation, but Mank is the only one that I can eliminate based on these two categories. More importantly, a movie really ought to win its Screenplay award if it wants the big prize. The Shape of Water lost Original Screenplay to Get Out, which I think everyone recognized as this superlative, maybe even unique effort; The Artist lost Screenplay, and you can tell me if you think I’m onto something here, because Academy voters were more likely to give that award to a movie where people talked.

On Oscar night, Nomadland is a fairly strong bet to win Adapted Screenplay, although I think One Night in Miami… has a pretty good chance at that prize. Original Screenplay, I think, is a little more open, but I think between the three solo writer-directors in that group—Sorkin, Fennell, and Chung—one of them has to stand out.

5) Take this all with a grain of salt, because I’m only going on vibes here for two movies that I’ve been too cheap to pay to see thus far, but I just have a hard time seeing either Minari or Promising Young Woman as candidates which are much stronger than Mank in the BP race. I think their indicators are much better, but you don’t usually go wrong predicting that the Academy will fail to stay woke for more than one year at a time, and the signifiers alone on these movies are enough to kind of drop them down a little. I just don’t think the Academy will widely award a Korean movie and then a Korean-American movie in succession! And if there are, as Anne Thompson says, three men for every one woman in the Academy, I simply don’t think Promising Young Woman is likely to get the Oscar for Best Picture because of its subject matter. If we’re talking about movies that feel important years down the road, my guess is that we’ll want to refer back to these. (Again, haven’t seen either of them, not making a quality judgment.) If we’re talking about movies that are more likely to appeal to a broad swath of AMPAS voters who run to easily digestible feelgood fare even before there was a global pandemic, I think Sound of Metal is a better bet.

6) This is not a pro-Sorkin blog. This is, I like to think, a pretty anti-Sorkin blog. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is bad and it should feel bad, and it’s incredible that this movie is being talked about as a “movie for adults” or a “movie for the moment” and Judas and the Black Messiah is fielding criticism for not putting sticking a Post-It note on Lakeith Stanfield’s back that says I AM PERSONALLY CAPTIVATED BY FRED HAMPTON BUT THE FBI KNOWS EVERYTHING I DO AND I AM ALSO TERRIFIED OF GOING TO JAIL and calling it “characterization.” Whatever. But there’s a list of weird circumstances that go into making Trial the Best Picture favorite. I’ve been wrong about this a lot recently, so I am begging you to grab your salt shaker and do a little dance with it when you read all this, but here’s what I see:

  • The Academy frequently goes for actor-driven movies for its top prizes. (If you want to explain to someone, in a sentence, why your average Best Picture winner sucks a little bit, you can use that one.) Even though Trial is missing that Best Actor candidate this year, it’s sort of ludicrous to say this movie is not about the actors. Sacha Baron Cohen has a significantly better chance against a potentially split Daniel Kaluuya/Lakeith Stanfield ticket than he does against the literal ghost of Chadwick Boseman in Best Actor, which makes the decision to run him basically alone in Supporting look slightly brilliant. At different times, you’d hear about, deep breath, Eddie Redmayne, Frank Langella, Mark Rylance, or even Jeremy Strong as potential candidates. But the movie is more or less about Sacha Baron Cohen’s if it’s about any of them, and while this is robbing Langella or Strong of a chance to “compete” for one of these awards, it is also clearing the field for Baron Cohen in a very real way. In any event, I think we’d be hard-pressed to ignore the potential power of an actor-driven film in an actor-driven group. The Academy has fewer actors in it than it used to have, but they still make up an enormous bloc.
  • It all comes down to Screenplay for this movie, but it does have Sorkin, who goes without saying as one of those people who every upper-middle-aged mother’s son of the Academy loves. He’s been nominated three times for Adapted, winning for The Social Network, and this makes his first nomination for Original. Insofar as Editing goes, it’s got the hard part done already. I have no idea if this is likely, but given that Editing has so frequently gone to movies which are both edited LOUDLY and miss on winning Best Picture, I can more easily see that prize going to Sound of Metal or Promising Young Woman. And heck, if it wins that’s hardly a bad sign.
  • Trial is, for me, on that Argo pace. Both were released in mid-October (the 12th for Argo, the 16th for Trial). Both were directed by name-brand Hollywood figures whose visual styles and previous work will just never make them seem as artistic as David Fincher or Ang Lee, let alone as European as Thomas Vinterberg or Michael Haneke. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone expected them to get a Director nod, so it’s not disappointing that they don’t have one. Both of them made movies with good-sized ensemble casts with popular actors, both of them plumbed the past for cloudy days which turned into silver linings, and to be clear, both of those movies are bad. But quality, as we all know, is not really what matters here.
  • In short: I think Trial is likely to hit the right notes for enough people in the Academy to put it over the top despite the presence of obviously better movies in the field, the Netflix of it all, the dearth of directing nomination. Ask me again in a month, I suppose, but today Trial sets off enough of my alarms for me to think it’s the true frontrunner.

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