By: Sam Weinberg  | 

Arts & Culture: What To Make of This Year’s Oscar Nominations

With another year comes another set of Oscar nominations generating both controversy and surprise. At first glance, most notable is the widespread love the industry continues to have for “Oppenheimer,” and rightfully so: its deserved 13 nominations led the pack, and its potentially record-tying 14th was snatched with a bizarre omission from the Visual Effects shortlist, an award I’d argue it should be in contention to win (or, at least, compete with “The Creator”.) Equally noticeable is some “Poor Things” dominance, taking an astonishing 11 nominations, including Picture, Director, Actress and in loads of technical categories. Yet, per usual, there remains a handful of questionable nominations worth exploring.

The unsurprising Best Picture nominations

None of those questionable nominations, however, were for the Academy’s top prize. For those who have followed the season, the list of ten became glaringly obvious over the last few weeks, especially following the Producers Guild of America’s exact same list of ten nominated films for its top prize. If that guild, which historically has a large tilt toward traditional Hollywood blockbuster fare (this is the group, mind you, that nominated “Wonder Woman” in 2017), nominated “The Zone of Interest” over “The Color Purple”, the latter’s Academy hopes seemed dashed. Similar logic can be applied to “May December”, a film that finds great strength in the strong performances of its central trio of actors, Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore and particularly Charles Melton: the Screen Actors Guild nominations entirely snubbed the movie, implying that love for the film in the acting branch of the Academy was slimmer than Netflix, who released the film, would have hoped. Particularly with the rise of the standing of “The Zone of Interest” in the season, along with the failure of “The Boy and the Heron” and “Spiderman: Across the Spider-Verse” to break the stigma against animated films with the Academy, it became pretty clear that this would be the lineup weeks in advance.

Gerwig missing out on Best Director

Less clear was who was going to take the fifth spot in the Best Director nominations. Lanthimos, Nolan, and Scorsese were clear picks, and as more people watched “The Zone of Interest,” it became clear there was much appreciation for its singular and unsparing vision, crafted by its much-lauded yet previously uncelebrated filmmaker, Jonathan Glazer. It was a battle for that fifth pick, where Greta Gerwig felt like the obvious yet uncertain choice; however, there was growing concern that the Academy, particularly the directing branch, had grown snobbish and European compared with the rest of the Academy. (This is the body that nominated Pawel Pawilkowski for his “Cold War” direction over Ryan Coogler for “Black Panther” or Bradley Cooper for “A Star is Born”). The mix between the sentiments of the branch and the growing esteem “Anatomy of a Fall” seemed to be gaining, particularly following multiple Golden Globes wins, makes this nomination not altogether surprising. Many, justifiably at first glance, felt Gerwig’s omission was an indicator of the Academy’s largely male and old-guard focuses; ironically, if one were to remove Triet from the list, there’s just as likely a possibility that Alexander Payne (who, mind you, has been accused of statutory rape) would have taken the fifth spot for “The Holdovers” over Gerwig, leaving an entirely male lineup.

Leading category snubs for A-Listers and some supporting surprises

Perhaps more surprising is Margot Robbie’s omission from the Best Actress race, although this too seems less of a shock once one looks at the Academy’s tendencies. The SAG nominations cemented Annette Bening as a legitimate contender in the race, and Sandra Hüller’s omission for her exceptional work in “Anatomy of a Fall” from that group is explainable by its largely American voting body. (SAG is, after all, an American union.) Yet, while Gerwig was replaced by an equally deserving Triet, one struggles to seriously explain Bening’s nomination in terms of raw quality. “NYAD” features Bening doing physical yet largely one-note work; the Academy loves it when a performer expresses themselves in athletic ways, and Bening’s intense swimming sequences, as well as her long-standing in the industry and an expensive Netflix campaign, seem to have helped her here. I’ve found Robbie continuously underrated in the season, and this snub is another example of frustrating Academy tendencies. The same can be said for Greta Lee in “Past Lives.”

Equally bizarre is a snub for Leonardo DiCaprio for the highly-nominated “Killers of the Flower Moon.” The Netflix machine, along with a wonderful awards season presence, seems to have propelled Colman Domingo to a nomination for the little-seen (and, frankly, not very good) “Rustin”; add in some accent work and the advantage of playing a recognizable and noble historical figure and this nomination starts becoming clearer. “Killers” focus on Lily Gladstone over DiCaprio, along with a tendency to avoid voting for wicked characters for a leading nomination, implies Apple, who distributed “Killers”, might have been expecting such a snub. Passion behind Andrew Scott for “All of Us Strangers” didn’t have the same weight as it did for Paul Mescal last year for his “Aftersun” nomination.

The first category announced, Supporting Actor, featured an unexpected and well-deserved nomination: Sterling K. Brown for his wonderful work in “American Fiction.” While I was at first disappointed that Charles Melton, who at points felt like the biggest competitor to Robert Downey Jr. in “Oppenheimer,” failed to get in, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly who he’d replace. More questionable was America Ferrera’s nomination for “Barbie,” which can largely be attributed to her particularly memorable monologue in the movie itself and a perfectly timed Critic’s Choice Award speech, which took place in the heart of nomination voting. This was by no means an obvious nomination, and performers like Julianne Moore for “May December” and Penelope Cruz for “Ferrari” (or even, perhaps, Sandra Hüller again for “The Zone of Interest”) would have been more interesting and more deserving nominations; that being said, it’s exciting to see Ferrera have her first notice from the Academy.

Surprises in other categories

While it’s a category that earns less time in the limelight, the most shocking nomination of the day was certainly “American Symphony” being left out of Documentary Feature, a category many expected it to win. The Netflix documentary about Jon Batiste and his partner Suleika Jaouad’s cancer diagnosis was certainly more discussed than many of the non-American films that did get the nomination, with the exception of “20 Days in Mariupol.” (A Michael J. Fox documentary, titled “Still” and put out by Apple, was similarly surprising an omission.) International Feature was also shocking, with wild nominations for Italy’s “Io Capitano” and, to a lesser extent, Japan’s “Perfect Days” over more expected fare like France’s “The Taste of Things” and Finland’s “Fallen Leaves,” the latter of whom I feel particularly strongly toward. Animated Feature had no Disney’s “Wish” but did include “Robot Dreams,” a film many pundits hadn’t even heard of when announced.

One of the day's big winners was “The Zone of Interest,” not just for its twin nominations in Picture and Director but for its surprising appearances in Adapted Screenplay and, most deserved of all, Sound. There was a version of nominations morning where “Zone” ended up with just International Feature; its recognition in such major categories, especially considering that its screenplay nod nudged out “Killers of the Flower Moon,” showed the modern Academy’s willingness to embrace international and deeply non-commercial projects. Its snub for Best Cinematography does little to rebut this, as “El Conde,” another very strange international picture, seems to have taken its place. 

Lastly, a few notes on other technical categories. The “Mission: Impossible” franchise broke its streak at the Oscars, receiving its (somehow) first nomination in Sound. (The latest John Wick film, equally deserving of technical love, was empty-handed.) A bizarre nomination for the latest “Indiana Jones” film in Original Score seems bound to continue John Williams’ borderline mastery of losing Oscars, while “Napoleon,” a movie that spends much time being actively bad, got some recognition for its production, costumes and visual effects. No matter what one’s feelings are for these films, it appears that they function at most like cars on a highway going the speed limit as the “Oppenheimer” machine zooms past them in the speed lane. Time will tell whether the industry will crown “Oppenheimer” as its darling achievement of 2023, but it certainly looks the most in position to take that title.


Photo Caption: The Academy Awards unveiled their list of nominees honoring the movies of 2023.

Photo Credit: analogicus / Pixabay