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2021 Oscar nominations: Snubs and surprises

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VIDEO | 09:32
Los Angeles Times reporters discuss the snubs and surprises of Oscar nominations

Entertainment columnist Glenn Whipp and film reporter Jen Yamato talk about the 2021 Oscar nominations.

How do you complain about an Oscar year that gave us, for the first time, two women nominated for director (Chloé Zhao for “Nomadland” and Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman”), two Black actors nominated from the same movie (LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya for “Judas and the Black Messiah”) and an anthem about screaming seagulls and gentle whales nominated for original song?

Short answer: You don’t complain. You rejoice. Sure, you can look at the eight movies nominated for best picture and wish that the strange, mysterious math that the motion picture academy uses to determine the nominees could have somehow included a ninth film, perhaps either “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” or “One Night in Miami ...” — excellent adaptations of plays looking at Black artists fighting for their place in the world.

But voters did deliver the most diverse group of acting nominees ever — including Steven Yeun, the first Asian American actor to land a lead actor nomination, and Riz Ahmed, the first Muslim nominated in a lead category and first performer of Pakistani descent to land in any acting race. They’re both in a category that, for the first time, is not mostly white.

I’m disappointed that “Soul” somehow wasn’t nominated for original screenplay (much less best picture, where it should have landed too), but I can get over that. The movies, performances and craftsmanship celebrated this year reflect a wealth of considered, thoughtful choices and again confirm that this is no asterisk year for the Oscars.

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Which brings us to the inevitable list of “snubs” and surprises. By now, you know the drill. It’s all about the alliteration. “Snubs” aren’t really rebukes or manifestations of contempt. More like omissions. (Except when it comes to Aaron Sorkin and the directors branch. Then it seems it might be a little more personal.)

Even with a reduced number of obvious Oscar contenders in a pandemic year that confined moviegoing to our living rooms (and maybe the occasional drive-in), this morning’s nominations still had their share of lapses. A few happy revelations too.

Let’s do the rundown.

SURPRISE: LaKeith Stanfield, “Judas and the Black Messiah

Warner Bros. had campaigned Stanfield in the lead category for his portrayal of FBI informant William O’Neal, the man who betrayed Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. But actors branch voters decided to reward him — and Daniel Kaluuya, who played Hampton — in the supporting category, part of a great morning for Shaka King’s sensational biopic drama. How did this happen? And, if the two actors playing the title characters are supporting, who exactly is the lead of this movie? Awards consultants working on the film are as stumped as everyone else. But they aren’t objecting, that’s for sure.

SNUB: “One Night in Miami ...” (best picture)

It was a wonderful morning for actor Leslie Odom Jr., who earned a supporting actor nomination for his superb portrayal of singer Sam Cooke and an original song nod for his stirring “Speak Now.” But “One Night in Miami ...” earned just one other nomination, for Kemp Powers’ adaptation of his own play. That was a disappointment for a movie that, after its successful Toronto Film Festival premiere, had positioned itself as an early best picture candidate.

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SNUB: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (best picture)

This shattering adaptation of August Wilson’s play earned five nominations, including the expected nods for leads Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis. But voters seemed to hold its theatrical origins against it, omitting it from the adapted screenplay and, more surprisingly, best picture categories.

SNUB: Aaron Sorkin (director)

Sorkin is a screenwriting brand, but the academy’s directors branch clearly isn’t ready to give its approval to his stylized, snappy, theatrical vision of filmmaking. I could go into further detail, but I need to walk-and-talk my way to the next subject …

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SURPRISE: Thomas Vinterberg, “Another Round” (director)

Vinterberg’s wild and wonderful friendship drama earned the expected international film nomination and also this shocker for its director. The movie was one of the season’s strongest word-of-mouth sensations, an exhilarating film about a middle-aged man awakening from years spent on autopilot.

SURPRISE: Ramin Bahrani, “The White Tiger” (adapted screenplay)

Bahrani’s excellent adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel had a high degree of difficulty, and writers branch voters rewarded him for his witty, ambitious, grand entertainment.

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SNUB: “Mank” (original screenplay)
Mank” earned 10 Oscar nominations, the most of any movie this year. But it failed to earn a nod in the one category in which its subject matter, “Citizen Kane,” actually won. Without that screenplay nomination (the movie was written by director David Fincher’s father, Jack), the film’s chances to win best picture are iffy, at best.

SNUB: “Soul” (original screenplay)

Writer Kemp Powers earned a nomination for adapting his play “One Night in Miami ,,,” but couldn’t make it a double for his “Soul” collaboration with Pete Docter and Mike Jones. “Soul” was one of the year’s best movies, an ambitious and joyful film that dared to ponder all sorts of existential questions in ways both profound and silly. But voters remain indifferent to animated work, even when it’s as special as this Pixar offering.

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SNUB: “Da 5 Bloods”

Spike Lee’s action-adventure following four Black veterans returning to Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen squad leader — and maybe a fortune in hidden gold — arrived in June to great reviews and a sense of urgency in a summer of Black Lives Matter protests. But if “Da 5 Bloods” was a movie for the moment, that moment seems to have passed for Oscar voters, who largely ignored the film, Lee and Delroy Lindo’s fiery lead turn as a disaffected, immigrant-hating Trump voter. It did land an original score nomination, but not even Chadwick Boseman made it in for his brief, powerful turn as the group’s mythologized leader.

SURPRISE: “The Father” (best picture)

There’s never been any doubt about the quality of this devastating drama starring Anthony Hopkins as a man confronting the loss of his mind. “The Father” moved audiences to tears when it premiered at Sundance … though that was more than 14 months ago. The question was whether enough voters would commit to watching this brutally difficult film in the interim. Judging by its multiple nominations, there were plenty of people willing to give it a look. Call it “Amour” for a new generation of academy members.

SURPRISE: Maria Bakalova, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” (supporting actress)

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Masking terror and revulsion when 76-year-old Rudy Giuliani invites you to a hotel room for a drink deserves the highest recognition.

SURPRISE: “Pinocchio” (costume design / makeup and hair)

Actually, the surprise might be that a new “Pinocchio” movie arrived around Christmas and it was pretty weird and good, and it earned the same number of Oscar nominations as “Tenet” and “Mulan.”

SNUB: Zendaya, “Malcolm & Marie” (lead actress)

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Pundits might have been a little quick on the draw in handing Zendaya a nomination without anticipating just how much most critics would loathe Sam Levinson’s empty-headed vanity project. The dialogue surrounding the movie wound up overshadowing the young actress’ intense, committed work.

SNUB: “The Human Voice” (live action short)

Is it possible to have a “snub” in one of the shorts categories? When one of those shorts is made by one of the world’s greatest auteurs, Pedro Almodóvar, and stars Tilda Swinton in a near-perfect 30-minute movie that highlights the filmmaker’s flair for visual and emotional extravagance, the answer is an emphatic yes.

Steven Yeun’s first Oscar nomination also makes Oscars history for his work in Lee Isaac Chung’s ‘Minari.’

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