95th Academy Awards Nominations: Hastily Scribbled Thoughts

Riz Ahmed looked really comfy while he was presenting these nominations. Allison Williams also looked comfy, for sure, but I’m so jealous of how cozy his fit was. I wish I could watch these from bed like all you Californians.

1) Oscars nominations and the College Football Playoff are getting more and more like each other.

So on November 1st of last year, after about ten weeks of college football, the College Football Playoff released their top four teams. They picked Tennessee, Ohio State, Georgia, and Clemson. The next four: Michigan, Alabama, TCU, Oregon. The final four teams in the CFP, which were announced in December, were Georgia, Michigan, TCU, and Ohio State. Tennessee, once first, was sixth. Clemson, once fourth, was thirteenth. Alabama, amusingly, crept up to fifth. Oregon was fifteenth, going from the top-ranked Pac-12 team to the fourth-ranked Pac-12 team. By now you may be saying things like “Please don’t talk about college football anymore, do you hate me.”

More charitably, you might point out the obvious difference between the Oscar nominations and the initial College Football Playoff: they have games between the initial CFP rankings and the final CFP rankings. Things are expected to change. Heck, if things don’t change, then we get bored and complain about too much Roll Tide. There’s not an Oscars shortlist here that’s going to change in a few weeks so we can get The Whale a Best Picture nomination and Diego Calva a Best Actor nomination instead of like, Women Talking and Bill Nighy. This is the one and only CFP ranking the Oscars get. After this it’s all the championship game, a giant free-for-all that everyone will hate watching until Michelle Yeoh bodyslams Glen Powell through the roof of the Dolby Theater and into low earth orbit. But…as any half-decent Oscar prognosticator knows, there are games between the nominations and the ceremony. The guild awards are waiting. The BAFTAs are waiting. These provide something like box scores for us as we move forward and try to guess who will win on the night when it matters most. When CODA won the SAG Award for Best Ensemble, the guild’s top prize, then the prognosticators had the evidence they needed that despite the seeming obviousness of impending victory for The Power of the Dog on February 8th, on March 27th things would be totally different. I mentioned CODA three times when I did my hastily scribbled thoughts last year. The lesson I’m taking from last year is that it’s not about what people liked when they voted for nominations. I’ve been close to that point of view for years at this point; the idea of from the 1960s or 1990s where the Oscar winner gets a huge number of nominations and then blows away the competition on the night of simply doesn’t happen anymore. (Remember “Moonlight. You guys won Best Picture.” Fourteen nominations for La La Land, six wins, no Best Picture.) In the years of the five-picture field, CODA wouldn’t even have been nominated for Best Picture on February 8th. I can imagine it getting, and even winning, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay in the years of the five-picture field. I still can’t believe that it was a top-five movie on February 8th. All the same, it won on March 27th.

The lesson we can take from college football is that it’s not really about being the top-ranked team on November 1st. Even if you’re not a college football fan, you’ll notice that all four of the teams that ultimately made the playoff were included in the top eight. It’s about the ridiculous momentum in the final ten days, not the long stretch of preparation and success that comes for the vast majority of the production, post-production, releases, theatrical runs, campaigns. I think we could be fooled into believing that Oscar season was long-distance running because of how long the period of time was between nominations and awards, or because you could never run out of podcasts to listen to during that time. I was fooled. It’s a sprint, it’s always been a sprint, and right now I have my eyes open for whatever the next CODA is. Which movie that I simply didn’t believe in will actually turn out to be the favorite in the final week? Ballots will be accepted beginning March 2nd and will be taken until March 7th. There are more days given for the real Oscars nominations to happen than Satan got to tempt Jesus. I’m not making predictions about Best Picture anymore, at least not until we’re in that two-week window where we find out that the Triangle of Sadness campaign is an unstoppable force being funded by IKEA money.

2) The international contingent of the AMPAS voting body ain’t getting any weaker.

Oscar history began again with 2009 films, at the 82nd Academy Awards, when the Best Picture field was expanded beyond five movies for the first time since the 1940s. Since then, the voting body has become more diverse in several important ways (race, sex, gender, age, etc.). The preferential ballot exists. In other words, where a ’90s Oscar freak could conceivably do a pretty good job of predicting who would win year in and year out, a ’20s Oscar freak really doesn’t have much good data to work with. While all of these elements are important and have been commented on, the one that the average Oscar watcher isn’t paying enough attention to is the way that the Academy Awards have been internationalized to include more people from the realm of world cinema.

I maintain, as I have for years, that this is not a good idea because all it does is make the Oscars look stupider for not including way more films which aren’t in English. Take the 91st Academy Awards, the year that Roma was the Oscar front-runner until Green Book happened. You’re telling me that the people voting on Oscars could figure out that Roma was one of the eight best movies of the year but couldn’t figure out that Cold War, Zama, Shoplifters, Happy as Lazzaro, and Burning might have also been quality choices? You’re telling me that they knew Roma was one of the best movies of the year but they couldn’t figure out that Green Book was bad and Bohemian Rhapsody one of the worst movies of the decade? When you make this a competition of Anglophone cinema, then you can allow for some bad taste without getting too worked up about it. When you show that you know that they do, in fact, make movies in other countries, then you have set a precedent. When one of those films wins, like Parasite, you’ve set another one. Given the quality of films that have won the big prize versus the qualities of those that could reasonably be nominated now, the Oscars, which have always been at least a little embarrassing even at the best of times, are embarrassing in new, “Oh my god I forgot to wear my pants to school and I have an oral exam I didn’t prepare for!” levels.

In the past few years, the internationalization of AMPAS has probably been most notable in the nominations for Director. Here’s a chart that I didn’t really want to make but didn’t feel like I could not make, y’know?

The x-axis is years, the y-axis is how many director nominees in each year were nominated for their work on a movie not made in English. (Movies made in English by directors whose first language isn’t English don’t count here; neither does a movie like Minari, which is made almost entirely in Korean but by an Anglophone director.) I grew up caring about the Oscars in one of the biggest dead zones for this trend since the days of Lawrence of Arabia. In 2018, when Alfonso Cuaron and Pawel Pawlikowski were both nominated for Best Director, that was the first time that two non-Anglophone directors were nominated for non-Anglophone movies since 1976, a better time when we still had Ingmar Bergman and Lina Wertmuller. This year, for the first time since the 90th Oscars we don’t have a foreign director directing a foreign movie in a foreign language in the Best Director field. But, as we did for 2017, we do have a director from another country who grew up speaking another language but nominated for a film in English. That’s Ruben Östlund, whose Triangle of Sadness won the Palme d’Or back in May of last year and who now has an opportunity to win Best Picture and Best Director. Bong Joon-ho did this for Parasite, but before that you have to go back to 1955, when Delbert Mann and Marty won top prizes in Cannes and Hollywood alike. Part of me isn’t quite sure what to make of Östlund, who has won the Palme d’Or twice before his fiftieth birthday and who also leaves me colder than I think he means to. I liked Force Majeure well enough, and I admire any attempt to make a Journey to Italy-style movie, but it’s neither as funny nor as scathing as most of the movies in that subgenre. His other work I am basically immune to. Östlund is an odd duck, the kind of director who makes movies that impress other moviemakers but don’t seem to have critics eating out of his hand. He doesn’t have the knack for it that, say, Bong has, but the critics aren’t voting on the Oscars. Östlund, with his international co-production behind him, is the face of Triangle of Sadness, nominated for Director and Screenplay just like fellow Scandinavian Thomas Vinterberg was a couple years ago. My guess is that it’s not the domestic contingent that sprung for Östlund, but the international contingent.

However, All Quiet on the Western Front is worth talking about because it’s pretty firmly in the same model as Roma. Another film you watch on Netflix, another film in another language, but, interestingly, not made by one of those brand-name auteurs. Edward Berger is not someone whose work I know because his work is primarily German television. Yet All Quiet has marched its way to nine nominations despite virtually nothing above the line. It’s one of three Best Picture nominees with a Cinematography nod; it’s got more consistent below the line nominations than stuff like Top Gun: Maverick, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, or Avatar: The Way of Water. Granted, there’s still a chance that this thing could go out like Frank Sheeran and go oh-fer at the ceremony. Netflix is down to a single Best Picture nominee after having at least two at each of the last four Oscars. You can say that maybe they just decided to put all their marketing chips down on a single film and hope to rack up some numbers. Even if that’s the way you’re inclined to read this German-language film’s presence in the Best Picture field, that still says something about the way the Oscars are now. You can still place your bet for your streaming service on a movie like All Quiet on the Western Front and have as many nominations as any film except Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Again, the international body hasn’t taken over quite yet. I know that there were a lot of people who were hoping, and even some who were predicting, some combination of RRR and S.S. Rajamouli in the field. Those people are going to have content themselves with “Naatu Naatu” in the Best Original Song category. I guess it’ll just to have live on as the most popular Indian movie outside of India since, what, Lagaan?

3) I have no clue what the voting baskets are this year.

I haven’t been doing this long enough to know if this is actually a good idea, but in recent years I’ve been trying to imagine voting baskets. Take last year. Three feel-good dramas about families in CODA, King Richard, and Belfast. It seems like forever ago, but there was a time when Belfast was not merely a credible Best Picture winner but potentially poised to steal the whole shebang from The Power of the Dog. It was one of those feel-good family dramas that ended up stealing said shebang. Ever since Dunkirk didn’t win Best Picture, I’ve come off the idea that aiming for what feels like the most inoffensively recognizable movie is the best plan. The Shape of Water was weird and Nomadland was artsy-fartsy and there doesn’t seem to have been a penalty for those quirks. And I understand that just because someone likes one feel-good family movie doesn’t mean that they’re going to like three of them. For lack of real insider knowledge, though, I’m stuck with this strategy because of the preferential ballot system.

So one voting basket this year is the giant nostalgia blockbuster basket. I mean, that sounds great, but consider that the nostalgiabuster basket includes two movies that are incredibly different. There’s Top Gun: Maverick, which is playing many of the same notes about the great heroism of fighter jocks, especially the ones who are still Cold Warriors at heart. And there’s Avatar: The Way of Water, which continues its tacit critique of American foreign policy with a more cogent line on the connection between American military intervention and the interests of capital than its predecessor. (This is what I meant when I said that just because you like one feel-good family drama doesn’t mean you’ll like three. I liked The Way of Water and though Top Gun: Maverick couldn’t even steal Star Wars‘s homework convincingly.) And I suppose we have the basket of talky screenplay dramas with The Banshees of Inisherin, Women Talking. I guess Tár and Triangle of Sadness fill a basket of provocative screenplay dramas? Unless Elvis is a better fit with Tár because they’re both interpreted as powerhouse acting performance dramas? Unless you think that there’s some kind of parallel between The Fabelmans and Elvis as showbiz stories, or Elvis and Everything Everywhere All at Once as percussive, loud movies in the “you’re damn well going to know my fingerprints are on this movie” basket?

I don’t have any idea if I’m right about this or not, so feel free to completely ignore this hypothesis, but my guess is that Green Book, Nomadland, and CODA are both preferential ballot winners. They are similar movies, focused on some socially meaningful issue that never really gets in the way of the kind of interpersonal drama handled with all the subtlety and nuance that Weekend at Bernie’s brought to the idea of grief. They go down pretty easy. They’re anchored with big, charismatic performances, which is necessary because they’re not shot or designed in any way that would keep your interest. It’s the kind of stuff that makes people who say things like “This is the movie we need right now” or “I just want to feel warm inside when I watch a movie.” This kind of stuff has been winning Academy Awards for ages, and as we’ve expanded the number of movies that are nominated for Best Picture, I think knowing that something like CODA will probably not be lower than fifth or sixth on most ballots is important. My guess is also that The Shape of Water and Parasite won because they were rated highly on many ballots even if they might have been polarizing in some other way. I don’t really like my voting baskets right now, and that’s probably going to influence how I approach my picks in…a month. (Why do we need this much time, guys, seriously.)

4) I’m absolutely not predicting anything (see above), but count out The Banshees of Inisherin at your own peril.

The movie I say this about every year doesn’t win anything more interesting than like, Director or Screenplay, so if you want to think of this as a reverse jinx you can. Mostly I think this has a really nice combination of elements that typically spell at least some Oscar success.

So this is every movie that’s got multiple nominations. Movies with a gray background are not Best Picture nominees. If you think Everything Everywhere has a good shot to win Best Picture, and of course you do, you have to reckon with the fact that Banshees of Inisherin has the exact same number of above the line/predictive nominations as Everything Everywhere. (The two categories where Everything Everywhere got up to eleven: Original Song and Costume Design. Not backbreakers!) The Letterboxd normies surely like that Everything Everywhere has that A24 stamp on it, like Moonlight did, but it’s worth pointing out that The Banshees of Inisherin is a Searchlight movie, and they’ve picked up two Best Picture winners since that first and only win for A24 back in 2016. A24 is the film studio with the most total nominations; do they have the resources to do a full-court press for all of them? I also think that there’s room for a really compelling narrative about Martin McDonagh, who made the incredibly polarizing (and, incidentally, quite bad) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDonagh’s gone home to Ireland! He’s made this actor-forward film about broken friendship! There are donkeys! It’s easier to like The Banshees of Inisherin, and I think the redemption arc writes itself if you’re in PR for Searchlight and you’re trying to make your FYCs stand out. With all that said, I don’t even know what to make of its chances in Original Screenplay, which is the loaded half of that category.

5) I’m absolutely not predicting anything (no, really, see above), but the Everything Everywhere All at Once profile is incredibly similar to the The Shape of Water profile.

And it’s not just because I think both of those movies were not particularly good!

Here are the awards The Shape of Water was nominated for. I’ve put winners in bold:

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director
  • Best Actress
  • Best Supporting Actor
  • Best Supporting Actress
  • Best Original Screenplay
  • Best Original Score
  • Best Sound (Editing and Mixing)
  • Best Production Design
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Editing

And here are the ones that Everything Everywhere All at Once is nominated for:

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director
  • Best Actress
  • Best Supporting Actor
  • Best Supporting Actress (x2)
  • Best Original Screenplay
  • Best Original Score
  • Best Sound
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Editing

Both films have this sci-fi aspect going, as well as the facade of elevated sci-fi. It’s not just a take on The Creature from the Black Lagoon, it’s about the excesses and prejudices of Cold War America. It’s not just a multiverse story like what you’re getting from the MCU, it’s a multiverse story about an immigrant family. One has fish sex that made people go “Ew!” in cheerful ways, the other has a scene with buttplugs that made people go “Ew!” in cheerful ways. I’m not predicting anything!

6) Famous underdog Steven Spielberg is still kicking.

Let’s go play in that Best Director sandbox again, same time period as before, 1962-2022. Here’s a list of all the people who were nominated for Best Director two Oscars in a row. Bold means a win.

  1. Mike Nichols, 1966-67 — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate
  2. Woody Allen, 1977-1978 — Annie Hall, Interiors
  3. Steven Spielberg, 1981-1982 — Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
  4. James Ivory, 1992-1993 — Howards End, The Remains of the Day
  5. Ridley Scott, 2000-2001 — Gladiator, Black Hawk Down
  6. Clint Eastwood, 2003-2004 — Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby
  7. David O. Russell, 2012-2013 — Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle
  8. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014-2015 — Birdman, The Revenant
  9. Steven Spielberg, 2021-2022 — West Side Story, The Fabelmans

This list really takes a nosedive once you get to the 21st Century—Iñárritu appears to have been the only thing more antic and popular in Hollywood than cocaine in the mid-’10s—but Spielberg is now just the first person in this group to have two such back-to-backs. As far as I can tell, it’s a feat that’s only been accomplished more often in in the history of the Oscars by Billy Wilder, who did so on three separate occasions (1944-1945, 1953-1954, and 1959-1960). Frank Capra also has two back-to-backs. William Wyler and John Ford both picked up three in a row; Ford was previously the only person to win the award back-to-back before his obvious cinematic equivalent Iñárritu did it. What a world we live in.

Obviously I’m kidding when I call Spielberg an underdog, but I think it’s fascinating how much he’s being taken for granted right now. What Spielberg just accomplished has happened just seven times in sixty years for people other than him. At no time was he ever the favorite to win for West Side Story, and while it’s obviously early yet, I don’t know that he’s the betting favorite now, and I don’t know that he’ll be the betting favorite in a few weeks. It feels like this accomplishment ought to come with some more pomp than it’s currently coming with, especially when it’s fair to wonder how many more movies the guy even has in him at this point. It is definitely worth pointing out that Spielberg has won Best Director twice. Winning a third time would put him in extremely rare company. Only Capra and Wyler have won three times, although the GOAT took home four and, hilariously, pretended he didn’t care.

Also, it’s very funny to me that Spielberg has been nominated for a movie interpreting his childhood given his history with the Oscars and movies about reflecting on childhood. After all, back before the 48th Oscars, Spielberg was crushed when he saw that the Academy had given the slot in the Best Director race he assumed would belong to him to Federico Fellini. Fellini, of course, was nominated for Amarcord. You think Joseph Kosinski was sitting at home moaning, “They gave it to Spielberg!” this morning?

7) How much weight should we give Best Cinematography?

This is one of the categories I think about a lot. It’s good for a weirdo nomination pretty often, and it’s practically the last holdout of the black-and-white film; this is the first Oscars since the 91st where all the nominees are for color photography. Cinematography has some of the same energy as Original Score, which is to say they seem to rotate through the same eight guys a lot but a couple of them never seem to win. And of course, it’s a category where I think everyone has pretty strong opinions about which movie they favor. This year, the category nominated three Best Picture nominees, which isn’t low, exactly—for the 2014 ceremony they only nominated two Best Picture nominees, which I would not be surprised to see is a record low by percentage—and yet it doesn’t feel like the the real favorites are in play. Ask me to bet on All Quiet on the Western Front, Elvis, and Tár against Everything Everywhere or Banshees of Inisherin and I’d take either of the latter over all three of the former. It’s not just that they didn’t nominate a real favorite, but that two of the movies that got a nomination via Cinematography (Bardo and Empire of Light) didn’t get any nominations except Cinematography. The last time that happened, as far as I can tell, was the 79th Academy Awards. Dick Pope and Vilmos Zsigmond, a couple of absolute legends, roped nods for The Illusionist and The Black Dahlia. Given that Darius Khondji and Roger Deakins (up to fifteen nominations now, tied for third all-time with Robert Surtees) are also absolute legends, I guess that makes sense. Shine on, Best Cinematography, where even if I think the decisions are bizarre more often than not, the people voting on it appear to really care about the craft in ways that I can’t see the evidence for in, like, most of the other categories.

8) Say, guess what Nope and The Woman King have in common. (Hint: Both of them have something in common with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.)

According to Box Office Mojo, here’s where each of the Best Picture nominees rate at the international box office in 2022:

1. Avatar: The Way of Water

2. Top Gun: Maverick (flip these for international, btw)

16. Elvis

36. Everything Everywhere All at Once

80. The Banshees of Inisherin

95. Triangle of Sadness

97. The Fabelmans

189. Tár

???. All Quiet on the Western Front, Women Talking

So, so often, when we’re talking about the Oscars, we’re also talking about box office performance. At least, that’s been a focus in recent years because people are really mad that the monoculture is dead and thus they’ve no longer seen or heard of a number of Best Picture nominees. (You don’t have a newspaper subscription! You don’t watch TV with commercials anymore! You don’t go to movie theaters! It’s not that deep!) Anyway, Nope was 26th, The Woman King was 41st, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was 3rd. Presumably that helped it get to six nominations a little bit, although I think Angela Bassett is kind of the frontrunner for Supporting Actress and that doesn’t hurt? It’s not that the movies weren’t popular enough, and it’s certainly not that they lacked the craft compared to the movies that did get, well, any nominations. I don’t know a lot about the movies of 2022 yet, because I decided I was going to wait a little to get the full blast of whatever the heck this year was after the Oscar nods. What I can say confidently, even through my ignorance, is that one of the films that you could reasonably argue is among the ten best of the year is about Black people. One of the five best-directed films of the year was directed by a woman. I don’t know what those are yet, but if 2022 is like 2021, or 2020, or 2019, you get the picture, I feel pretty certain that I’m right. Maybe it’s a blip, just sort of a random happening that won’t happen again in the near future. That’s what I’m going to hope for, anyway, because movies about Black people haven’t exactly filled the Best Picture slate throughout Oscars history, and the fact that two women won Best Director consecutively means that we’re now looking at like, 97% male winners throughout the history of the awards show.

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