Oscar Shut-Outs and Silver Linings

Jeong Ji-so in Parasite (2019)

Snubbed women, threatened men, surprising shut-outs, and an encouragingly strong showing for Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite have emerged as the primary topics of debate, celebration, and general kvetching since the nominations for the ninety-second Academy Awards were announced yesterday. This year’s Oscars will be presented on February 9, and like last year, there will be no host. That makes for a breezier, swifter show, and 2019’s televised ceremony actually reversed the overall trend of declining ratings.

The Best Picture Race

Academy rules allow for no fewer than five but no more than ten contenders for the best picture Oscar, and this year, nine have made the grade. Joker leads the race with eleven nominations, followed closely by 1917, The Irishman, and Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood with ten each. As Brooks Barnes and Nicole Sperling were quick to point out in the New York Times yesterday, all four are “very male, very white movies.” Mark Harris, who’s covering the Oscars for Vanity Fair, points out that three of four—The Irishman, Joker, and Once Upon a Time—“are stories about white men who feel culturally imperiled. The fourth, 1917, is about white men who are literally imperiled. It is no accident that those movies have arrived at this particular cultural moment, and while Academy voters don’t necessarily have to eat whatever the industry is feeding them, they usually don’t look too far afield for alternatives, and this year, what the industry was not feeding them was Black Panther or BlacKkKlansman.

Barnes and Sperling note in passing that Joker “portrays the DC Comics villain as sharing the psychological traits of real-life mass shooters,” and Slate’s Dan Kois has blasted Todd Phillips’s movie on all fronts, calling it simply “dumb as hell.” But Guy Lodge, a frequent reviewer for Variety and the Observer, argues that as “a billion-grossing blockbuster that won the top prize at a major film festival”—the Golden Lion at Venice—“and inspired more Film Twitter ‘discourse’ than anything else last year kind of covers all the bases,” Joker “makes sense as a top nominee.”

Having scored best drama and director awards at the Golden Globes last week, 1917 and Sam Mendes would seem to have momentum behind them. As for The Irishman, if you’re up for reading one more piece about the decades-spanning, three-and-a-half-hour tale of crime and betrayal, do make it Niles Schwartz’s notes on the movie’s sprawl, state-of-the-art de-aging technology, and Martin Scorsese, “a filmmaker for whom form is function.” Meantime, Deadline’s Mike Fleming has spoken with Quentin Tarantino, who’s still dead serious about his intention to direct all five episodes he’s written of Bounty Law, the fictional half-hour television series he created for Once Upon a Time.

Scoring six nominations each are Little Women and Parasite, both of which we’ll get to in a moment, and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, both featuring Scarlett Johansson. She plays Nicole, whose amicable divorce from Adam Driver’s Charlie turns ugly in Marriage Story, and Rosie Betzler, a single mother secretly hiding a Jewish girl from the Nazis, in Jojo Rabbit, and she’s been nominated for both performances. The ninth film to qualify for this race with four nominations is James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari, which the NYT’s A. O. Scott has called a “nimble and crafty reconstruction of a storied moment in the annals of auto racing,” the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.

No Women, But Also Four Women

Five men—Bong, Mendes, Phillips, Scorsese, and Tarantino—have been nominated for best director, making this the category that’s sparked the greatest uproar. In ninety-two years, only five women have made this list, and only one, Kathryn Bigelow, has won—for The Hurt Locker back in 2008. “2019 was a year in which the number of mainstream films made by women started to reach critical mass,” writes Slate’s Dana Stevens, adding that “Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet, Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Claire Denis’s High Life, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Mati Diop’s Atlantics were all either well-reviewed, successful at the box office, or both, and several of them were recognized in Monday morning’s nominations in categories other than directing. To respond to a year like that with the studious exclusion of anyone female from the award that above all others confers authorship and authority, the one that attributes a film’s success to the unifying vision of an individual, starts to look like nothing else but rank condescending sexism.”

Of all the overlooked female potential contenders, Greta Gerwig is the one commentators have rallied around most fervently. She’s been nominated for best adapted screenplay, and Little Women has also scored nominations for best picture, actress (Saoirse Ronan), supporting actress (Florence Pugh), and costume design (Jacqueline Durran), but as Time’s Stephanie Zacharek puts it, “It’s as if this thoughtful, confident picture, one that has also struck a chord with audiences, had somehow directed itself.” For her part, Gerwig has released a gracious statement of thanks to the Academy, noting that she’s “brimming with happiness” over what has been “the most sincerely heart-warming journey.”

In a helpful explainer for Time, Eliana Dockterman reminds us that, while all nine thousand or so Academy members will be eligible to vote for the winners, nominees are selected by the branches of the Academy representing each category. Editors, for example, nominate editors, cinematographers nominate cinematographers, and so on. Dockterman breaks down the rules for becoming a member of the directors’ branch and finds that they “might limit the number women directors who are able to gain entry.”

One branch that just about everyone is more than pleased with this year is the documentary branch. Of the five best documentary feature nominees—and most would argue that all five are excellent selections—four have been directed or codirected by women. Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s Honeyland, a portrait of a beekeeper in Macedonia, is the first film to be nominated both in this category and for best international film.

Waad Al-Khateab and Edward Watts’s For Sama, a harrowing chronicle of surviving Syria’s ongoing civil war, has been picking up awards around the world. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory, which depicts workers’ struggles in a globalized economy, is the first doc rolled out by Barack and Michelle Obama in partnership with Netflix. Petra Costa’s The Edge of Democracy is another Netflix release, this one tracking the rise and fall of left-leaning governments in Brazil. And while Feras Fayyad is the sole solo male director here, his protagonist in The Cave is a woman. Amani Ballor is a doctor managing a hospital in Syria. “Acute sociological tension mingles with the physical and psychological terror of bombings and chemical attack,” writes Ela Bittencourt in her review for Sight & Sound.

The Actors: All White But One

In the Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang goes looking for more silver linings, and he’s found nine. Three of them are nominations for performances he’s appreciated this year: Antonio Banderas, for his turn as a Pedro Almodóvar–like director in Pain and Glory, which is also a best international film contender; Florence Pugh, who’s had a terrific year (Midsommar, Fighting with My Family) and gave us a feisty Amy in Little Women; and Tom Hanks, for playing “beloved American icon” Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

Eddie Murphy, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Wesley Snipes in Craig Brewer’s Dolemite Is My Name, Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers, Awkwafina in The Farewell, Alfre Woodard in Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency, and most certainly Lupita Nyong’o, who, as E. Alex Jung notes at Vulture, “created two fully realized performances in Jordan Peele’s horror film Us,” might well have been nominated as well, but as Mark Harris writes, “in terms of diversity, the actors branch in particular missed no opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo is the only person of color to be nominated. She plays, of course, Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist who helped rescue dozens escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad. NPR’s Linda Holmes argues that this is “precisely the kind of role the Academy seems most inclined to reward black actors (and especially black women) for playing: noble, in pain, and comfortably set back in history.” In the Guardian, Beatrice Loayza adds that the “observation that people of color are only ever recognized for playing slaves and criminals, that their stories are only ever seen as important when they deal with tragedy and suffering, does not strictly belong to the unenlightened past.”

Parasite Makes History

Back on the upside, the thrilling, funny, and wildly unpredictable Parasite, in which a poor family in Seoul infiltrates a rich one, is the first South Korean film to be nominated for best picture, and for that matter, the first to be nominated for best international film as well. Talking to Reggie Ugwu in the NYT, Bong notes that the press back home is going wild. “It’s almost like a national celebration,” he says.

Bong also talks with Deadline’s Joe Utichi about his plans to work with Adam McKay (The Big Short) on an adaptation of Parasite as a series for HBO. “While I was writing the script, I had so many more ideas I couldn’t convey into the two-hour running time of the film,” Bong explains. “I knew that if I had a longer running time, I would be able to tell these stories, and that’s what I plan to talk about with Adam pretty soon.”

Shut Out

We’ve mentioned several films directed by women that have been completely shut out of this year’s nominations—Atlantics, The Farewell, Hustlers, and so on—but some Oscar watchers would like to have seen a little recognition, too, for Us, James Gray’s Ad Astra, or Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11. Way, way up at the top of most missing-in-action lists, though, is Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems. 

That this adrenaline-pumped ride through New York’s Diamond District has been overlooked is particularly peculiar in that its distributor is A24, the company that has racked up twenty-five nominations since its founding in 2012. “I really think A24 went through two Oscar cycles in a row with [best picture winner] Moonlight and [multiple nominee] Lady Bird,” tweets filmmaker Chad Hartigan, “playing the game and spending the money, only to see what you get back when you win and when you lose, and they haven’t deemed either worth the cost since. And I respect it.”

Whether or not that theory holds water, for the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, the “complete repudiation” of Uncut Gems “represents the industry closing ranks against the one prominent movie that doesn’t merely push the art ahead but does so derisively, with a gleeful and exuberant defiance of familiar modes of movie composition. The most surprising omissions are of Adam Sandler from a best actor nomination, for a performance that alters the very notion of cinematic performance, and of the mind-bending score by Daniel Lopatin, which departs definitively from the orchestral blare-and-tinkle of other scores.”

In a video for the Ringer, Adam Nayman argues that not only should Sandler have been nominated, he’s long overdue for an actual win. But Sandler himself seems to be taking the snub well enough. “Bad news: Sandman gets no love from the Academy,” he tweeted yesterday. “Good news: Sandman can stop wearing suits.”

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