Commentary: Oscar nominations 2020: Kenneth Turan says the academy looks both forward and backward

Ford v. Ferrari
Matt Damon, left, and Christian Bale in the movie “Ford v. Ferrari.”
(Merrick Morton / 20th Century Fox)

In its Oscar nominations and even in the awards themselves, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is inevitably and irrevocably a Janus-headed organization, looking simultaneously, as did the Roman god, to the future and the past.

With this year’s nominations, however, the contrast between those points of view is startling in its intensity, marking 2020 as a bellwether whether we want it to be or not.

The aspect of the vote that is looking forward is the great number of nominations that the streaming giant Netflix took home. Twenty-four, to be exact, more than mighty Disney — 23 noms including all its subsidiaries — and Sony with 20, embarrassing once-powerful entities like Paramount that ended up with none.

These 24 include more or less expected tallies like 10 for “The Irishman” and six for “Marriage Story” but extended to farther afield items like a trio for “The Two Popes” and a documentary nod for “American Factory.”


More than that, there were categories that Netflix absolutely dominated, for example having three of the five supporting actor nominees (Al Pacino and Joe Pesci for “Irishman” and Anthony Hopkins for “Two Popes”) and getting two of the five nods for feature animation (“Klaus” and the marvelous “I Lost My Body”).

A scene from the film “I Lost My Body.” Credit: Netflix

And although the film wasn’t nominated, when you add in the cultural and likely financial impact of the engaging Eddie Murphy comedy “Dolemite Is My Name,” it’s clear that Netflix’s loss-leader strategy of paying top dollar for top-of-the-line filmmaking talent has passed the point of no return for the movie business.

There are, of course, good aspects to Netflix’s increasing dominance. Films get made that otherwise would not, and people in far-flung communities that are theatrical deserts get to see them lickety-split.

But while Netflix attempts to disguise it with adroit awards-season theatrical bookings, like putting “Irishman” into Broadway’s Belasco Theater, the reality is harsher. For the simple truth is that Netflix is dedicated to the end of the theatrical experience, and today’s nominations make me fearful that the time when superb films like “Marriage Story” or groundbreaking animation like “I Lost My Body” or exceptional docs like “American Factory” get no movie theater exposure at all is closer than we think. It may be inevitable, but those who do not see this as a loss are fooling themselves.

Despite ease of access, something is lost in that scenario. People who saw “The Irishman” at home did not see it under peak conditions, any more than people who’ve looked at reproductions of paintings by Mark Rothko or photographs of the Zen rock garden at Kyoto’s Ryoanji temple have really seen them.

Yet one of the great ironies of today’s pro-Netflix nominations pointing toward the future is that when you look past that to film subject matter, the focus could not be more resolutely on the past. It’s almost as if the voters had a nostalgic urge to pay tribute to a world they know is ending.

I’m not just talking about how many of the best picture nominees were set in the historical past, though that number is surprisingly large, including as it does “Ford v. Ferrari,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Little Women” and “1917,” a film whose very title insists on what has gone before.

Only two of the nine best picture nominees, “Marriage Story” and the South Korean phenomenon “Parasite,” could be said to be set in the present day.

The most poignant of the nominated films from this shout-out-to-the-past point of view are two that hark back specifically to movies that came before.

Though Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” has a lot on its mind, much of its impact depends on our familiarity with the movie past of its stars and director. Thanks to its much-written-about de-aging technology, we even get to see younger versions of them to jog our memories.

Much more unambiguously a movie memory piece is Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” which tied with “Irishman” and “1917” with 10 nominations. An unapologetic love letter, both elegiac and unexpectedly emotional, to the Hollywood of the 1960s and the films it produced, “Once Upon a Time” has clearly struck a chord with academy voters and has to be considered one of the favorites for the best picture trophy.

Yes, we get it, academy voters seem to be saying, Netflix is the future and we are not pretending otherwise, but the past, oh the past was grand and we miss it, we really do.