94th Academy Awards Nominations: Hastily Scribbled Thoughts

Another year of Oscar nominations, another year where I can’t do this as it’s happening because no one pays me to do this at my day job. So it goes. Thank you for reading me anyway!

1) The Power of the Dog is the front-runner for Best Picture, full stop.

Many of your favorite movie personalities have received awards for work that was not their best but which at least made sure they got a statuette. The Power of the Dog is heading for a makeup award for Brokeback Mountain getting leveled, unjustly, by Crash. I’m not sure if I believe this take, but if it turns out I’m right I am absolutely saying I meant this seriously.

Last year, I put together a chart, which was basically needless at the moment and which is especially pointless now, explaining why Mank was not going to win Best Picture. The correlation between “most nominations” and “winning Best Picture” has been super weak in recent years. Since the 84th Academy Awards (for 2011 films), the movies with the most nominations were: Hugo (11), Lincoln (12), American Hustle and Gravity (10 each), Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel (9 each), The Revenant (12), La La Land (a record-tying 14), The Shape of Water (13), The Favourite and Roma (10 each), Joker (11), and Mank (10). Sharp-eyed readers will find only two Best Picture winners on that list. This isn’t to say that these films were unpopular, because I’d say about half of them were genuinely the front-runners for a significant stretch of their seasons: Lincoln, American Hustle or Gravity, The Revenant, Roma, and especially La La Land. But for the most-nominated winners, plus Power of the Dog, see if you can spot a pattern. Green means nominated once, teal means multiple nominations, and red means not nominated.

The only major category where one of them wasn’t nominated? Editing, for Birdman, otherwise best remembered as the movie which tried to appear like a one-shot and thus not exactly a top contender for an editing award. Here’s how this looks if you add in those other sometime front-runners.

Lincoln stands out; based on that résumé, it should have won Best Picture. Then again, it probably would have if not for Argo making one of the most unlikely charges to the top prize in living memory. You can see the holes, however small, in the résumés of other films. La La Land losing to Moonlight was a major upset on its own merits, but it just didn’t cover the entire field in the same way that winners did, or that Power of the Dog currently does.

So what does this mean for the people who have actually been nominated? My guess is that Jane Campion should be considered the heavy favorite now, if she wasn’t already; no director has failed to win with his or her film so nominated since American Hustle (where Alfonso Cuaron of Gravity topped David O. Russell) and Spielberg was edged by Ang Lee, who directed Life of Pi to ten other nominations besides. If Denis Villeneuve was in the field with her, we could talk more about it, but at present I don’t think there’s a challenger. On the other hand, I don’t know that I believe this is the year for Benedict Cumberbatch. The record for lead actors in most-nominated movies is not that good in recent years—it’s 30% thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, and Emma Stone in La La Land—and the competition from the rest of Cumberbatch’s field is probably strong enough to knock him down a peg. (By this I mostly mean Will Smith in an “it’s time” role like we saw for Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.) I don’t think Kirsten Dunst is the favorite in her category, and while Kodi Smit-McPhee probably is the favorite in Supporting Actor, I can’t help but think that two of these people are strong challengers based on recent Oscar history. Ciaran Hinds has a pretty similar role in Belfast that Alan Arkin had for his winning part in Little Miss Sunshine; Troy Kotsur might benefit for his part in CODA that bears a mild similarity to Paul Raci’s part in Sound of Metal. There’s stiff competition the rest of the way down, too. Editing is always hilarious in a bad way, Jonny Greenwood’s got some tough sledding in Score, and the beautiful outdoor austerity of Nomadland which bears some vague similarity to Power of the Dog didn’t triumph in Cinematography. The short version is that I think Power of the Dog is the favorite in Best Picture, and Jane Campion is an even bigger favorite than her film in Director, and I really don’t know where else I’d say it has a better than 50% chance here on Oscar nominations day. This too would fit the overall trend of Best Picture winners who came in with the highest nomination haul. The Shape of Water went 4-13; something like four or five wins seems pretty likely for Power of the Dog.

2) …but on the other hand not so fast.

I’m not talking myself out of Power of the Dog for Best Picture. I believe it is the top contender, and I think barring any weird digressions in the next month and a half, it is very likely to win that top prize. It would just be a serious outlier in the past decade of Best Picture winners, because as we’ve noted already, if your most-nominated film isn’t winning, that opens up the field for the rest of the crew. The peripherals are good for The Power of the Dog, far better than they are for something like Belfast or Don’t Look Up. It’s just that the Oscars haven’t played this game all that often in the past decade.

Since the great calamity of The Artist at the 84th Academy Awards, the number of Oscars the Best Picture winner walks away with has stayed fairly static, at about 3.5 per. However, the average number of nominations (about eight) is, historically speaking, a fairly low number. The most likely outcome remains, like I said, a 4-12 showing for The Power of the Dog. But the past few years tell us that a 3-7 result for Belfast is more in keeping with recent tradition.

3) Netflix might get its Best Picture just as it stops pretending to care about movies.

Since Roma was nominated for Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards, it’s felt like an inevitability that they would produce a Best Picture winner at some time or another. Roma was a year early, perhaps, given that Parasite buzzed its way to the top the year later…over The Irishman and Marriage Story. Last year, Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7 did well in terms of nominations but were generally understood to be DOA in terms of actual competitiveness. But now it’s two years in a row that Netflix has sent the most-nominated movie to the Oscars, and they continue a streak of sending a film with ten or more nominations. The Power of the Dog has more nominations than any Netflix film has before, and while the service could not land Tick Tick Boom or The Lost Daughter in the ten-picture field, Don’t Look Up slid in with three other nominations in significant categories besides. If this is the year for Netflix to achieve this grand ambition, less than a decade after getting into the Oscars discussion with the documentary The Square, then it’s a heck of a time for that to happen.

It seems eminently clear that the streaming service is far more interested in limited series that can be turned into second seasons as necessary; call it the Squid Game model. There may not be another production company on the planet which is as transparent in its guiding principle that it doesn’t care what crap you watch as long as it’s the crap on their platform. As the math continues to be goofy for Netflix—and old-fashioned as I am, I sort of believe a company has to have made money at some point in the recent past for it to be worth its stock valuation—I wonder how much longer they’ll keep deficit spending at this rate. Will they eventually put more effort into being choosy about their projects? Will they have to pass on some of these auteur projects that they’ve funding? And will they finally just say they aren’t going to try quite so hard to go for prestige film and television when they have proven they’ve done it? Life moves pretty fast anymore. Just as it seems the Academy is warming up to the idea, thanks to the pandemic, that movies are at home too, the movies-at-home company might be ready to alter its strategy to go away from this kind of picture. Let’s face it: are they getting more people in because they have The Kissing Booth, which couldn’t have cost them $20 million to make and which is sequel fodder, or are they getting more people because they have The Power of the Dog, which must have cost twice as much and far more on an awards campaign?

4) Drive My Car has as many nominations as Don’t Look Up and Nightmare Alley, both early favorites to win the whole shebang. (That’s also more than Being the Ricardos, Licorice Pizza, or CODA.)

I have yet to see Drive My Car, which I intend to remedy as soon as I can, but it continues that internationalizing trend we’re seeing at the Oscars. As much as I complain about how the Academy Awards ought to be focused primarily on English-language cinema (for as noted Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho has said, the Academy Awards are “very local“), it’s interesting that the directors have continued to nominate the director of the leader for International Film in their category. Since Alfonso Cuaron and Pawel Pawlikowski both took richly deserved nominations in 2018 (and Cuaron the win), they have nominated Bong in 2019 (who won as well), Thomas Vinterberg in 2020, and now Hamaguchi in 2021. The internationalization of the directors’ branch specifically and the Academy generally has been much remarked on, but what I don’t think many prognosticators are really grappling with is that this is the new normal. The last time we had a streak this long in that category was the 1970s. From 1972 through 1976, the 45th to 49th Oscars, there was at least one foreign language film by a director who worked primarily in a language other than English: Jan Troell’s The Emigrants in 1972, Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers in 1973, Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night in 1974, Federico Fellini’s Amarcord in 1975, and Bergman’s Face to Face and Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties in 1976. Our times don’t quite stack up to this group of legends, but the late ’60s through the 1970s kept returning us to foreign films in this category. No one should be surprised when next year’s best-reviewed film is first off, not American, but also manages to get a Best Picture nod to go with Best Director and probably a Screenplay or Cinematography nod as well. Somewhere Denis Villeneuve is channeling a young Spielberg: “I wasn’t nominated! I got beaten out by Hamaguchi!”

5) This isn’t going to be Paul Thomas Anderson’s year, again, but at least he’s not Ridley Scott.

When I woke up this morning, I thought this was going to be the year for a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. It’s one of the weakest movie years I’ve ever lived through in Anglophone countries, I didn’t think there’d be all that much passion for The Power of the Dog or Belfast, and Anderson has a good recent history of getting more Oscar love than people anticipate. Three nominations ain’t gonna cut it, though, and while Bradley Cooper was always a long shot, I had hoped that Alana Haim’s performance, the best of the year, might sneak into Best Actress. It didn’t—for some reason the actors of AMPAS appear to adore Nicole Kidman’s bloodless Halloween party tricks—and that’s all you need to know to understand that this movie is probably going to strike out. It’s a shame. Suffice it to say that if this movie could have added even Haim and an Editing nod, I would be here telling you to ignore the low nominations count and just believe, baby. Ah well.

As disappointing as I think this is for Anderson, at least he wasn’t outright repudiated. Ridley Scott entered this year with two of the buzziest films going, The Last Duel and House of Gucci. These movies were flush with big names. He’s gotten his people nominated for far worse stuff than this in the recent past. But after The Last Duel seemed like a reasonable BP possibility six months back and House of Gucci was supposed to land Jared Leto and definitely Lady Gaga…nope. Between those two movies, House of Gucci has a hair/makeup nomination, and that’s it. How the strangely wigged and weirdly accented have fallen. It’s a little interesting to me that while West Side Story and Nightmare Alley disappointed in terms of their theatrical gross, they still managed to get in here. Meanwhile, House of Gucci did okay and The Last Duel kind of tanked on its own. Suffice it to say that Spielberg and del Toro’s crafts team are more popular in AMPAS than the perpetually cheesed off Scott.

6) It seems like we really dodged a bullet in terms of what wasn’t nominated.

As I’ve intimated already, I think 2021 was just a really terrible movie year here in the states. Are there any movies as good as Minari in this year’s field? There isn’t one as good as The Assistant or Never Rarely Sometimes Always; maybe you could convince me to put Licorice Pizza ahead of First Cow. All the same I am fairly grateful that if the majority of these movies are going to be middlebrow schmaltz, at least they managed to nominate some of the better representatives of it. Being the Ricardos was just godawful, a movie that looked like garbage and smelled even worse. It got three acting nominations, blocking out some people who would have been more interesting in all three of those categories (Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor), but I’m okay with this damage being contained. Similarly, Jared Leto and Lady Gaga were just not good at all in a movie where it felt like Adam Driver, Al Pacino, and Jeremy Irons were at least trying. (Jack Huston gave the best performance in House of Gucci, but we don’t have to talk about that yet if you don’t want to.) The nominees in Editing aren’t good, but at least there’s not a Bohemian Rhapsody-level failure of the system lying around. None of the Cinematography nominations seem like real mistakes; the Screenplay categories are almost pretty solid, though I could have done without CODA or Don’t Look Up. (I haven’t seen Belfast yet, so I’ll reserve judgment, but I’m not like…hyped.) Maybe it’s just that if the movies weren’t that good to begin with, it’s hard to get mad about what isn’t there. That’s a cheerful thought!

7) Out of ten Lead acting nominees, two of them were in Best Picture nominees. Half the Supporting nominees come from The Power of the Dog and Belfast.

One of the things I try to remind myself as I do Oscars predictions is that AMPAS’s largest constituency is the actors’ branch. Once you combine that with the predilection this group has for stories primarily about men, you rarely go wrong in positing that an acting-heavy movie about guys is going to come out on top. Nomadland is a testament to Frances McDormand more than it is to Chloe Zhao, I’d imagine; it’s hard to come up with another rationale for giving Green Book Best Picture; I honestly think that the actors of Moonlight are the second-biggest reason, after the election of Donald Trump, that that film won Best Picture; Spotlight made the grade with two total wins primarily from the strength of a great ensemble cast. You can go on. The Power of the Dog and Belfast have to be considered the two leaders in the clubhouse because they have the acting nominations along with Screenplay and Director nods. It should be more concerning for those of you out there who love DESERT POWER that Dune doesn’t have acting nominations more than it worries you that Villeneuve was left out of Best Director.

I think this year signifies a new faultline in the Academy, one that has been talked about less than Washington Consensus vs. International, White vs. People of Color, Men vs. Women, Old vs. Young. It’s Actors vs. Everyone Else in the Academy right now. Here’s a chart comparing, by year, the number of Lead acting nominees in Best Picture nominees.

Because we believe in context here, here are the previous thirteen ceremonies so we can get an equivalently sized sample. Remember that these numbers reflect five Best Picture nominees, not eight to ten.

And yes, here’s how all this looks if you put it on a line graph together.

As you’d expect, that’s a positive trendline; the more Best Picture nominees you have, the more likely it is you’ll have more Lead acting nominees among them. But that 2021 number stands out like a sore thumb, the lowest proportionally since 2006, when only Helen Mirren came from a Best Picture nominee and the other nine did not. This is a low number, though, and right now it’s a blip. I’d love to see how this number changes over the years, because right now it really seems like the other branches were just not on the same page as the actors, who overwhelmingly chose more performances based on real people. Four of the nominees in the Lead group are playing made up people: Benedict Cumberbatch, Denzel Washington, Olivia Colman, and Penelope Cruz. This feels like a relief because of how many acting movies are just biopics anymore, but given that the only one of that group who’s in a BP movie is Cumberbatch, that seems like the rest of the guilds are on a different page. Nightmare Alley, which scored three crafts nominations on top of Best Picture, feels like a rejoinder; so too does Dune, with its Best Picture nod and a host of meat and potatoes nominations. I don’t want to draw conclusions yet, as much as I’d like to, but…we’ll see!

8) It sure seems like the Oscars backlash this year was against the Oscars.

It’s not the Oscars anymore without a backlash cycle, which has been aimed, with some level of success and vitriol, at movies like Nomadland and Joker and The Irishman and Green Book and Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri and La La Land and Selma and you get the picture. There’s still time! We might yet uncover something that makes people decide that one of our nominees is problematic enough to shellack it, which…I dunno, looking at that track record it sure seems like Green Book and Nomadland got along fine. All the same I’m not really sure what major contender is going to get yelled at for something problematic. If Being the Ricardos got that Best Picture nod we could talk about J. Edgar Hoover, or if Licorice Pizza had a stronger showing maybe we’d get the relationship thing, or maybe everyone just hates David Sirota so much that Don’t Look Up already had a backlash cycle. Around the same time we got the Selma cycle and the Three Billboards cycle and the La La Land cycle—that is to say, around Christmas and New Year’s—we got the “they have to nominate Spider-Man: No Way Home or the Oscars will burn to the ground like Atlanta in Gone with the Wind” cycle. I can’t tell if this is funny in the way that if you have nothing left to burn you have to set yourself on fire is funny. But a few weeks out and a single No Way Home nomination later, that terrific mewling seems to be basically forgotten.

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