A superhero movie in the Best Picture category? A Polish director instead of Bradley? (L-R) Nyong'o and Wright in Black Panther; Schilling and Beer in Never Look Away. Photographs from IMDb
Culture Movies

A new age for Oscar: what this year's roster of surprise nominees really means

The Oscar nominations announced Tuesday show an Academy internationalizing its ranks and finally coming to terms with digital competitors
Andrew Paredes | Jan 23 2019

First, an assessment of how I did with my first stab at predicting this year’s Oscar nominees: pretty good, if I do say so myself. Okay, sure, I gave in to the cushion of spoilers. But it’s not what I got right that’s so remarkable about any exercise in Oscar prognostication—it’s what I got wrong.

Marina de Tavira in Roma. Photograph from IMDb

There were two instances where even my spoilers were way off: Roma’s Marina de Tavira unseated First Man’s Claire Foy to get a seat at the Supporting Actress table, while Pawel Pawlikowski upped Cold War’s profile by snagging the spot that was widely believed to be Bradley Cooper’s in the race for best director. Marina de Tavira’s nomination came out of nowhere, catching even the Golden Globes flat-footed—so accustomed was the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and its global voting members to rewarding mainstream Hollywood in the major categories.

Pawlikowski’s citation is remarkable too in that the last time two foreigners were up for the directing prize was 1976, and there’s a caveat to that: Even though Federico Fellini was cited for directing a foreign-language film (Amarcord), the Czech-born Miloš Forman was nominated for a Hollywood production, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This year, not only do we have Pawlikowski and Alfonso Cuarón vying for best director, we also have a Greek—Yorgos Lanthimos—up for directing the English-language historical farce The Favourite.

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig in Cold War. Photograph from IMDb

Other examples abound. Three foreign-language titles (Roma, Cold War and Never Look Away)—as well as Filipino-American Matthew Libatique for A Star Is Born!—are up for best cinematography. The German documentary Of Fathers and Sons knocked out favorites such as Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Three Identical Strangers to gain a foothold in the documentary feature category. Roma and The Favourite are tied for the most number of nominations at 10. It is very apparent that the move to internationalize the ranks of the Academy is starting to bear fruit. (Our very own Brillante Mendoza and Lav Diaz are now Academy members.) Oscar’s understanding of what true diversity can only deepen; real inclusiveness not only means rewarding the likes of BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther, but welcoming Mexicans and Poles and Greeks—and soon, many other races and ethnicities—into the major races.

John David Washington and Laura Harrier in BlacKkKlansman. Photograph from Focus Features LLC.

Adapted screenplay is another area where my spoilers couldn’t save me. Here, the spot I had reserved for Black Panther was snagged by Ethan and Joel Coen for the Netflix entry The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Last year, the streaming giant made headway in the Oscars by snagging nominations for Mudbound and a documentary feature win for the doping exposé Icarus. This year, Netflix not only dominated the nominations, but streaming competitor Hulu joined the documentary fray with Minding the Gap, a coming-of-age story about a trio of white, black, and Asian skateboarders in the Rust Belt. It is a signal that Hollywood, aided no doubt by a banner year in theatrical ticket sales, is coming to terms with the idea that its digital competitors are here to stay—even if the Old White Guards (with Steven Spielberg as their most visible emissary) are still squeamish.

Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody. Photograph from IMDb

And what of the Old White Guards? Their influence is still apparent in the presence of Green Book and its on-both-sides approach to race relations. You can also say it’s in the surprisingly lucrative showing of Bohemian Rhapsody (five nominations). Never mind the straight-washing of Freddie Mercury’s thorny sexuality, just let me groove to those Baby Boomer hits, man.

You can say that Oscar is a shrewd businessman, too: After a stinging ratings rebuke last year, the Academy saw fit to include its first superhero movie in the best picture roster—Black Panther, the highest-grossing movie in the U.S. last year and a cultural touchstone—as well as A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody, two music-based dramas that just crossed the 200 million-dollar mark in the U.S. box office.

Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright in Black Panther. Photograph from Marvel Studios

International versus American. Theatrical versus streaming. Old guard versus new blood. What to make of the cacophony of opposing viewpoints within Oscar’s choice of nominees? The main takeaway is that the demographics of the Academy voting population are finally starting to resemble the demographics of the American population. (And just like America at large, it seems women are still finding it hard to get a fair shake with Oscar when it comes to those high-profile jobs, like directing.) Whose voice will finally win out? We’ll have to wait a month to hear the answer to that question.