Grading the Oscar Nominations

The Oscars are notably some bullshit, but they happen to be some bullshit I just can’t quit. Mired in problematic snubs and an outdated attraction to specific genres and themes, the Academy hasn’t always rewarded films based on meritocracy alone. Yeah, art is subjective and it’s all a matter of opinion anyway. But are we really going to pretend Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was legitimately one of the best films of 2011? If you think that, you’re probably one of the Academy’s overwhelmingly old and male members who are being slowly weeded out to make the organisation more diverse and inclusive in reflecting America today.

The nominees for the 90th Academy Awards were announced (very) early this morning in a ceremony that continues to be awkwardly-designed and poorly executed. Between the oddly elaborate interstitial videos and Tiffany Haddish mispronouncing almost everyone’s name, they would have done better just to announce the nominees via the Oscars website. But the Academy isn’t one to pass up an excuse for unneeded pomp.

I’ve gone through all of the categories this year to grade each group of nominees on how well the Academy did in avoiding snubs, making surprising choices, and/or just not making nonsense nominations that heap praise on mediocre movies.

The 90th Oscar Nominees

The period setting of the cinema, the laboratory, and Sally Hawkins’ apartment went a long way into creating a believable fairy tale world in The Shape of Water, but let’s be real: Blade Runner 2049 looks unlike any film that has been made before or will ever be made again. It could carry this category if it was the only thing nominated.

Grade: A+

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Like King Solomon I want to crack the statue in half and give it to both Hoyte van Hoytema and Roger Deakins, who created two of the most immersive cinema experiences I’ve had in years. Deakins is the one to beat here, as he has scored his whopping 14th nomination in this category and never won. Rachel Morrison’s nomination is welcome and well-deserved, not only because she is the first woman to be nominated in the category (wtf, Academy?) but because her work is a key part of what made Mudbound feel so sweeping and intimate at the same time.

Grade: A+

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There has always been an issue in this category of favouring the look of lavish period pieces over other types of costuming. Where is Thor: Ragnarok, with its space gladiator outfits and Hela’s slinky green bodysuit? Where is Star Wars: The Last Jedi, with its regal dresses, leather resistance jackets, and bold red guard armour? None of that really matters because despite Jacqueline Durran’s dual nomination for Beauty and the Beast and Darkest Hour, there is no clearer winner here than Phantom Thread, a movie about a dressmaker that luxuriates in the craft of making dresses. It would have been nice to at least give a nod to some different styles of costuming, though.

Grade: B+

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These two categories unsurprisingly overlap a lot—in this case, 100%. And the choices are predictable but also deserving? Baby Driver‘s use of music and The Last Jedi‘s careful use of silence in a key scene were some of the most memorable sound in the movies of 2017, and it’s nice to see them both recognised. Blade Runner and Dunkirk‘s use of sound was the loudest, but not in a bad way. There’s a lot of good options here.

Grade: A-

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Look. These are the little guys, so let’s not shit on them. Congratulations to all of the shorts nominees. It’s a pass/fail class, and you all passed.

Grade: N/A

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This is a mostly-predictable slate of nominees, with songs like Remember Me and This Is Me representing the emotional centres of their respective films. Pasek and Paul are looking to repeat their win for last year’s La La Land song, “City of Stars.” Diane Warren is a mainstay in this category, though she has never won, and Anderson-Lopez and Lopez wrote the Oscar-winning smash hit “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen. Who might win is anyone’s guess, but of all the eligible pop/rock stars who could have scored a nomination this year from Taylor Swift, Nick Jonas, Elvis Costello, and Mariah Carey to the late Chris Cornell, seeing first-timers Mary J. Blige (an obvious choice) and Sufjan Stevens (a less obvious choice) nominated is exciting to see.

Grade: B

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While there aren’t any nominees here I’d call undeserving per se, the lack of a nomination for Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch for Blade Runner 2049 is a notable snub. The atmospheric, submersive score, which managed to both channel and expand on Vangelis’ score for the original Blade Runner, was crucial in creating the mood of that film. Zimmer’s work on Dunkirk continued to define the experience of a Christopher Nolan film, as John Williams’ nominated score did the same for Star Wars. It isn’t a surprise that Williams was nominated; he is the all-time leader in this category. But it is a bit of a surprise that he was nominated for The Last Jedi rather than The Post. Jonny Greenwood’s nominated score for Phantom Thread makes up for his notable snub/disqualification for 2007’s score for There Will Be Blood. I’m not surprised to see Desplat’s score for The Shape of Water here. It’s very good, and very safe.

Grade: B

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There was a lot of visual effects work this year that went beyond just CGI monsters and superheroes: Blade Runner 2049‘s stunning use of miniatures to create a post-apocalyptic shell of a world, Downsizing‘s clever blend of large and small humans, and The Shape of Water‘s stunning views of an apartment as an aquarium. So it’s surprising to see only one of those three nominated. Not to take anything away from the effects in Guardians, Star Wars, or either of those ape films, but it’s always good to see the Academy recognize different kind of effects.

Grade: B-

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Dunkirk, I, Tonya, and Baby Driver are master classes in editing. The fact that Baby Driver was recognized as such is pretty wonderful. The rest of this category is just happy to be invited.

Grade: B+

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I’m not sure if it’s logistical rules or just an unimaginative voting block that limits this category only to three nominees. Where is Thor: Ragnarok, or It, or Guardians of the Galaxy? Makeup and hairstyling are essential to creating a world in film, yet the Academy only saw fit to recognize worlds that look like our own. To be fair, making Gary Oldman look like Winston Churchill, or Jacob Tremblay look like a child with Treacher Collins Syndrome is an accomplishment worth recognizing. But why not both?

Grade: D

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It’s hard to call 2017 a really good year for women in film, given the public revelations of Hollywood (and the world) as a toxic environment. But at the same time it was a year in which interesting and rich roles for women onscreen were plentiful and complex. That this category is as stacked as it is with deserving nominees and still feels like people (like Holly Hunter, Tiffany Haddish, and Dafne Keen) were excluded suggests that supporting roles for women were among the best they’ve been. Laurie Metcalf and Allison Janney are probably the ones to beat here, but Leslie Manville’s squeaking in under the wire without the benefits of a prior nomination from the Golden Globes, SAG, or Critics’ Choice Awards firmly positions her as a formidable dark horse. The nominations of two black women in Mary J. Blige and Octavia Spencer gives hope that maybe the Oscars are heading away from the so white complaints that have been so fairly leveled against them in recent years. Then again … Asians are still more or less invisible among these nominees, despite Hong Chau being the best thing about Downsizing.

Grade: A-

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Christopher Plummer got this nomination for a role he shot in ten days as a hasty replacement for a disgraced Kevin Spacey. Boy, Spacey must be red right now. Haha, fuck that guy!

I have no problem with Three Billboards being recognized for its performances, including the two here, as they were by far the strongest aspect of that movie. I don’t have a problem with Willem Dafoe getting a well-deserved nomination for The Florida Project, even if that movie should have gotten more than just one nom. I do have a problem with snubbing Ray Romano for his stellar work in The Big Sick. I have an even bigger problem with snubbing Michael Stuhlbarg for delivering the single best scene of the year in Call Me by Your Name. This is an actor who appeared in not one, but three of the year’s Best Picture nominees. With any luck, the boys from Ebbing, Missouri will split the vote and end up handing the trophy to Dafoe.

Grade: C+

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It will be an upset if Palm d’Or winner The Square doesn’t walk away with this one, so the rest of the nominees are essentially also rans. It’s a surprise to see that Golden Globe winner In the Fade (from Germany) wasn’t nominated here, but less of a surprise to see that Berlin Golden Bear winner On Body and Soul and Cannes Jury Prize winner Loveless were.

The Oscars have a history of awkwardly trying to recognize stories about transgender characters while never actually honouring any real transgender people. Chilean actress Daniela Vega was a hopeful to be the first trans woman nominated for Best Actress. It didn’t happen, but it’s nice to see A Fantastic Woman score a nomination here, as it will help drive interest in that film.

Grade: B+

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In this crop of highly-regarded docs led by presumed front-runner Faces Places, there is no one film that stands out as not belonging. There is, however, one noticeable snub, the PGA Award-winning Jane. What is it with the Academy and apes? They snubbed Project Nim in this category in 2012 too.

Grade: B-

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I like seeing The Breadwinner and Loving Vincent here, as it’s always good to see the Academy looking outside the Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks machine to recognize lesser-known animated films. That’s not to say those films don’t belong: Coco is Pixar’s best film in years. But their continued overlooking of critically-praised Lego movies—marked here by the absence of The Lego Batman Movie—smacks of some kind of weird elitism.

Grade: C-

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James Ivory and Aaron Sorkin are no surprise to see here. It’s also not surprising to see recognition for the way Virgil Williams and Dee Rees adapted a sprawling novel of two families into a 2-hour movie in Mudbound. It’s even unsurprising to see The Disaster Artist nominated—it’s a movie about making movies and this is the one nomination they could give to that film that maintains the furthest distance from James Franco. What is very surprising, and very exciting, is to see a nomination for Logan, as the Oscars rarely pay much attention to superhero movies outside of the technical categories. I’m hesitant to call this a sea change in welcoming well-made superhero flicks—after all, Wonder Woman was completely shut out—rather than them seeing Logan as an outlier and more of a western than an X-Men sequel. But it’s very nice to see nonetheless.

Grade: B+

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I don’t want to make it out to seem like I hated Three Billboards, but if there is any category where it doesn’t deserve a nomination, screenplay is that category. Its clunky handling of race and overwritten and confused messaging make its writing Three Billboards‘ weakest link. To see it nominated over movies like The Florida Project and especially the exquisitely unique and twisted love story Phantom Thread is exactly the thing the Oscars so often get piled on for: heaping praise on heavy-handed or simplistic movies that ultimately say less than they want to be. Buuut Get Out and Lady Bird were also nominated, giving Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig the trifecta of big nominations: screenplay, director, and best picture. And I couldn’t be more happy to see the surprise nomination for wife/husband duo Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani for writing The Big Sick.

Grade: B+

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James Franco’s expected nomination for playing Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist sends a message that the Academy would like to avoid awarding those dogged by sexual harassment allegations, preventing a repeat of last year’s ceremony where Casey Affleck was awarded. It’s hard to imagine Affleck winning post #MeToo, and I’ll even be surprised if they let him hand out the Best Actress award given the current climate. Then again, if we rewind up to the Best Animated Short category you’ll notice former NBA champion and alleged rapist Kobe Bryant is also nominated for an Oscar, so…

Denzel Washington feels like he was nominated in Franco’s place for what is, by all accounts, a critical and commercial misfire. Would it have been exciting to see someone like Hugh Jackman nominated for Logan? Absolutely. Is it surprising that Denzel would fill that last spot instead, even for a middling movie? Not at all, and that’s one of the problems with the Oscars.

Grade: B

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That the Supporting Actress category is 40% women of colour to this category’s 0% probably speaks more to issues endemic to the industry itself—where women of colour are rarely given the opportunity to headline a movie—rather than the Academy specifically, but this is bound to be a bit of a chicken/egg scenario. I can’t fault any of the wonderful actresses nominated here who all gave stellar performances. However, given these issues it does feel kind of gross to laud Frances McDormand for her performance in a movie that so clumsily handles racism in rural America while sidelining its own black characters. I’d like to see any of the other actresses win, but more than that I would have liked to see a nomination for Vicky Krieps, whose performance had every bit as much to do with the success of Phantom Thread as anything else, but has somehow failed to get the Academy’s attention like other aspects of the movie did. And where is seven-year-old Brooklynn Prince, whose performance in The Florida Project felt so naturalistic it felt like that movie was a documentary at times?

Meryl Streep is the greatest actress of her generation, maybe the greatest actress of all time, but she has won this award twice and been nominated sixteen times before. At some point can we just start calling this the Meryl Streep award and make her ineligible?

Grade: B

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After both being snubbed at the Golden Globes in the Best Director category, Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele scored well-deserved nominations for two films that were both critical and commercial hits, making them the fifth female and fifth Black director nominated for this award. That they made it into this tight category of five—to Best Picture’s possible ten—a welcome sign of a possible sea change that doesn’t favour stalwarts like Spielberg just for releasing another movie. Lady Bird and Get Out were both phenomenally well-crafted, confident first features, and it’s great to see that achievement recognized. Surprisingly—in a good way—, best picture frontrunner Three Billboards (and its director Martin McDonagh) is notably absent from this category, perhaps signalling it might be losing favour with voters. Christopher Nolan also picked up his first nomination for Dunkirk, which, on the surface, feels like his safest picture but is actually a much more technically- and thematically-unique kind of war film than one might expect. I could stand to have seen Patty Jenkins or Denis Villeneuve nominated in place of Guillermo del Toro, whose The Shape of Water scored the most nominations despite not wowing me as much as I had hoped. But it’s hard to feel strongly about that when this category had so many other welcome recognitions. On the other hand, no one worked better with actors this year than The Florida Project‘s Sean Baker, and his omission feels criminal enough to knock the grade down a peg.

Grade: A-

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The Shape of Water leads all the nominations with thirteen, so of course one of those is for Best Picture. And while I don’t genuinely think it’s one of the year’s best films, it is a very good one, a very likable one, and one that loudly condemns our current era’s dearth of empathy.

I’m thrilled to see some of my favourite movies of the year here, including Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, and Dunkirk. But I’m also feeling the absence of Coco and Blade Runner 2049, the latter especially after how gung ho the Academy went for Villeneuve’s last film, Arrival.

Darkest Hour has picked up steam and scored several nominations, but like Three Billboards, Call Me by Your Name, and The Post, it is limited in this category by its failure to score a nomination for Best Director. Recent years have seen the Oscars more frequently award the Best Picture and Best Director statues to different films. However, in Oscar history, only four times has a film been awarded Best Picture without also having its director nominated: Wings (which won ‘Outstanding Picture’ in 1929), Grand Hotel (in 1932), Driving Miss Daisy (in 1990), and Argo (in 2013). Stranger things have happened, but I hope Three Billboards doesn’t become the next Argo. It is both the most predictable Oscar choice and the least deserving film in this category.

Grade: B+

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Final Tally: B-

The nominations are surprisingly solid this year, while still containing few surprises and some notable snubs. There are encouraging trends that signal that the Oscars are starting to recognize films they might have previously overlooked. These changes still feel like they’re coming slowly, but they’re coming.

The Oscars will be handed out on March 4th.

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