Oscars So Safe

Joker / Courtesy Warner Bros.

The 92nd Academy Award nominations were announced this morning. Or perhaps in 1996.

After a few years of steadily increasing numbers of exciting, diverse nominees, Oscar voters returned to depressing, conventional form this morning.

I’ve spent all day thinking about the 53 films nominated, and despite some heartening inclusions here and there, I can’t think of a year I’ve been more disappointed.

Eleven nominations for subpar Scorsese ripoff Joker? And Robert De Niro himself can’t even get a nod for one of his deepest performances?

2019 was a particularly exciting year for film, especially for new talent, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at these nominees. Take, for instance, Best Supporting Actor: Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Brad Pitt. Hanks? Sure! He made a saint feel human in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and besides, he hasn’t been nominated in about 20 years. Pitt? Yeah, no argument that he deserves to be nominated, but how on earth is he a supporting actor in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? He’s a co-lead, at least — hell, I’d argue he’s the real lead of the film and Leonardo DiCaprio is the support. Pesci’s worthy, but Hopkins has had better material, and Pacino (while thankfully toned down somewhat) is past his better days.

What’s disheartening about this category and so many others is that the names are all so damn familiar. Where was Awkwafina? Jennifer Lopez? Song Kang Ho? Zhao Shuzhen? Park So-dam? Lee Jeong-eun?

How about past winner Lupita Nyong’o, given the dual role of her career in Jordan Peele’s spectacular Us? Or past nominee Alfre Woodard for her engrossing work in Clemency?

Of course, what all of these actors have in common is that they’re not white and, apparently, not as valued by Oscar voters. Think about the pre-nomination chatter, where it seemed that Nyong’o, Cynthia Erivo and Awkwafina were jockeying for one slot in the Best Actress field instead of dominating the conversation.

That Erivo came out on top for a mighty fine performance in only a moderately successful film (Harriet)K, unfortunately, isn’t too surprising. As Vulture‘s Angelica Jade Bastién put it, “It legitimizes this idea that black stories must revolve around sorrow and loss in order to be seen as important. Mostly, this shows a failure of imagination in a year in which the most moving, technically marvelous, emotionally fascinating acting performances were by people of color in a variety of storytelling formats.”

And, of course, it’s not just racial diversity where Oscars fell short this morning. For a second year running, and for most of the Academy’s history, no female director was nominated. Little Women apparently directed itself. Hustlers and The Farewell did, too. Like I said yesterday, an adventurous Academy could have nominated an all-female slate and recognized some of the year’s strongest films. But no, we get Todd Phillips’ faux-insightful Joker, which got its jollies through exploiting the alienated and settling for shock value instead of thoughtfulness.

Random thoughts:

  • For all the moaning above, I couldn’t be happier that Antonio Banderas got his first nomination today for his incredibly soulful work in Pain and Glory. I’m thrilled that Parasite got six nominations (though it should have led the whole field). Jojo Rabbit‘s nominations are fairly heartening, too; it’s certainly a more adventurous choice than The Two Popes.
  • Florence Pugh’s nomination for Little Women was also a rare bit of joy. She’s spectacular and surprisingly sympathetic as Amy March. But you know what? She’s just as good as the lead character in Midsommar, but like fellow horror film Us, it got overlooked. And don’t give me that bullshit about Oscar not appreciating genre films when Joker got more nominations than any other this year.
  • The disheartening lack of diversity trickled all the way down to categories like Best Costume Design, where last year’s winner Ruth E. Carter was snubbed for her delicious work in Dolemite Is My Name.
  • I know lots of folks were upset that Beyonce didn’t get a nomination for her Lion King song, but for me, the real heartbreak in the Original Song category was that Mary Steenburgen’s “Glasgow” for Wild Rose was overlooked. I mean, really: Just read this incredible story.
  • Cool to see that Honeyland scored nominations in both Best Documentary and Best International Film: It’s still on my list to see, but I’ll be breaking out my screener soon.
  • Speaking of, as of this evening (I’m writing this while watching Richard Jewell), I’ve seen 29 of the 53 nominees, leaving me nine features and 15 short films to go before the ceremony on Feb. 9. In coming days, I’ll be writing about each of the nominated films, as I hope to see them all for a third year running.

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