Lionsgate / 20th Century Fox
This was originally going to be two separate features about the current Oscar season and the Oscars in general that I’ve decided to combine into one article, so please bear with me. Some of my opinions and thoughts here might not be popular, but I like writing about trends, and I certainly have found one.
It’s already been discussed quite a bit that this might be a groundbreaking year at the Oscars due to the 1,000 or so new members that hope to bring more diversity and variety to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, hopefully to end the myth that it’s made up solely of older men. While that might be the case for the 90 years that Oscars have been given out, more women and filmmakers of color were invited to join this year, including in the tech categories. Even so, there doesn’t seem to be a vast wave of sweeping change compared to previous years based on the nominations, but one thing I noticed this season is that it seems like critics especially are trying to break away from typical Oscar fare and the Academy is following suit… mostly.
This year, we have nine Oscar Best Picture nominees fairly well divided between common “Oscar fodder” and choices that are a bit off the beaten path. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Steven Spielberg’s The Post and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour are definitely more in line with movies that have either been nominated or even won Best Picture before. Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird break away from the norm, maybe because they’re the three most “indie” films in the race.
Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread fall somewhere in between, because while they aren’t conventional Oscar fare, there’s elements to both of them that made them obvious choices. (Oddly, many Oscar predictors I know had Phantom Thread in their early predictions until people started seeing the movie, in which case it was swiftly removed, and yet, it still received a Best Picture and other nominations.)
I’m not sure where to categorize Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, but it only seems like it might be considered “Oscar fodder” because it’s a well-made evocative film full of emotions. Oh, and it’s written by multiple nominee James Ivory, who probably has the best chance of winning on Oscar night.
It’s not too uncommon for film critics to rail against what’s considered obvious “Oscar fodder” and even ultimate winners like The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire and others didn’t find that much critical support compared to other movies. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King and the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men are three rare exceptions in recent memory that fared equally well among critics group and awards voters, but they’re all over ten years old. Things have already started changing in the last five years before the new members joined, mainly due to the expanded Best Picture nominations.
It’s long been known that one can’t make their own personal Oscar predictions based solely on what critics are supporting, for reasons mentioned above, although both Get Out and Lady Bird especially have gotten a huge boost from their positive reviews. You would think that critics would be more unanimous in their praise of films like Dunkirk and The Post. Personally, I’m more shocked by how many critics downright hated Darkest Hour, which made my top 10, but it goes back to the idea of “Oscar fodder” being so flagrant that those who regularly have studios foisting awards swag on them may deliberately be railing against the obvious.
Another change I hoped to see this year was that maybe the Academy would stop being so biased against certain actors and filmmakers. Yes, two actors I’m thinking of specifically are indeed white men, but how many times can Tom Hanks and Jake Gyllenhaal give such great performances as they did in The Post and Stronger last year and be so thoroughly snubbed? This isn’t the first year either, as Hanks gave noteworthy performances in both Captain Phillips and Saving Mr. Banks one year and didn’t get nominated for either, and Gyllenhaal’s choice of roles and performances are getting better each year. His performance in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler was ignored by the Academy, and just to rub it in, Denzel Washington’s decent but non-memorable role as Roman Israel, Esq. was nominated.
Listen, Tom Hanks probably needs another Oscar like I need another hole in my head, but Gyllenhaal has only been nominated once for Brokeback Mountain, and he’s done so much better work since then.
It’s also hard to imagine there might be a bias against a filmmaker like Christopher Nolan, but it’s taken this long for him to finally receive an Oscar nomination as a director, and he’s not even thought of as the possible frontrunner that he was when Dunkirk came out last July. I’m not sure what Academy members’ dog (or dogs) was killed by Joe Wright, but he can’t get a directing nomination even when he’s doing his best work (which Darkest Hour most definitely is.)
And then there’s Roger Deakins, a cinematographer with easily one of the best photographic eyes on the planet, who has now been nominated 14 times for an Oscar without winning. It’s something that’s mentioned almost every time he’s nominated, this year for Blade Runner 2049, and if he didn’t win in 2008 for two great-looking films, including the Coens’ Best Picture No Country for Old Men, what hope is there for a science fiction sequel that received mixed reviews? Giving Oscars to Blade Runner would certainly go against the obvious (which would probably be Dunkirk) but one wonders whether Academy biases or just a desire to not be told who to vote for might spoil Deakins’ chances once again.
It’s fair enough to say that more than enough white men have won Best Actor and Supporting Actor over the years, and there have been plenty of white male directors and technicians nominated and winning Oscars as well. Unfortunately, the Oscars seem to be becoming more about “Let’s make changes and show how diverse we can be” instead of actually nominating those who are the most deserving of recognition for their accomplishments. I’m not saying that Greta Gerwig or Jordan Peele are any less deserving for their popular and entertaining movies, but this goes back to the idea of whether Oscar voters are trying to evoke change by making less conventional choices like Lady Bird and Get Out, or do they really think those are the most Oscar-worthy because they break away from the norm?
Since I’m not an Oscar voter and only have a fleeting bit of interaction with them each year, I’m not sure I can fully answer the question posed in the subject of this feature. Many movie writers, myself included, might spend their entire lives trying to figure out what voters are thinking when they fill out their ballot. I think there’s as much bias against Oscar fare and certain people in Hollywood than some Academy members might freely admit. That’s the only reason I can explain why Meryl Streep gets nominated every year whether she deserves it (as she does with The Post) or not (remember that awful movie Florence Foster Jenkins?) I should be happy that the always-wonderful Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins are recognized once again, as well as Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson for Three Billboards, but Michael Stuhlbarg was in three of the Best Picture nominees without receiving any love.
Listen, I’ll be more thrilled than anyone if one of my favorite directors Guillermo del Toro wins Best Director this year, and Gary Oldman’s performance in Darkest Hour is also a deserving fave of mine. I’m not sure I can continue to marvel and praise the exemplary work of Gyllenhaal and Hanks (and others) only for them to be completely overlooked only because they may be the most obvious choices…. You know, because they’re giving great performances. (Don’t even get me started on Melissa Leo’s snub for Novitiate. I guess I’ll have to be content with the fact that Alexander Payne’s bizarre Downsizing and its awkward Asian stereotype played by Hong Chau wasn’t nominated instead.)
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor