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Five Oscar nominations that surprised — and how they happened

Five Oscar nominations that surprised — and how they happened
"Roma" actresses Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira arriving at the 76th Golden Globes. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Parsing the Oscar nominations, everyone loves to focus on the “snubs,” even though these omissions aren’t really pointed slights but just the inevitable outcomes when you have too many worthy candidates for too few spots.

So instead, let’s focus on the surprises, nominations we didn’t see coming — or if we did, they felt like an exercise in optimism. Here are my favorite five.

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Yalitza Aparicio / lead actress

Aparicio is just the second Mexican actress and the first indigenous woman to be nominated in the lead actress category. Her soulful portrayal of Cleo, a young Mixtec woman who serves a white, middle-class family in Mexico City, conveyed the character’s buoyant spirit and weary burdens with delicate stoicism. It was one of the year’s finest performances.

Then there was also Aparicio’s own “A Star Is Born” story. The 25-year-old auditioned for “Roma” only at the behest of her sister, who was pregnant and insisted that Aparicio try out in her place. Aparicio had never heard of “Roma” filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. When he told her she had won the role, she was happy but also a little sad because she had just earned her teaching credential and would have to delay pursuing her vocation.

Aparicio has spent the last several months attending film festivals, including Venice and Telluride, walking the red carpet at splashy movie premieres and awards ceremonies and posing for the cover of Vogue Mexico.

“In this process, I have tried to live it as I am — I have stayed the same,” Aparicio told The Times following her Oscar nomination. “I’ve never forgotten where I am from, because it’s that that has brought me to where I am.”

Aparicio’s compelling personal journey, combined with her remarkable work in “Roma,” made her irresistible to Oscar voters. Hearing the name of “Roma” co-star Marina de Tavira in the first category announced Tuesday morning gave a clear signal that she’d be nominated as well.

Marina de Tavira / supporting actress

So let’s talk about De Tavira. Most “Roma” coverage focused on Cuarón and newcomer Aparicio, but De Tavira’s supporting turn as Sophia, the family’s frustrated mother dealing with an absent husband and demanding children, was another highlight of the film. Based on Cuarón’s own mother, De Tavira conveyed a strength and resilience that was essential to the filmmaker’s tribute to women, and she did so without glossing over the pain and conflicting emotions Sophia felt.

De Tavira, 44, has been a working actress, primarily in Mexican theater, for decades. “This is a dream, something I never thought, never imagined would happen,” she told me in November. “I’m enjoying every waking moment of it.”

Tim Blake Nelson in "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs."
Tim Blake Nelson in "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." (Netflix)

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” / adapted screenplay, original song, costume design

Joel and Ethan Coen’s six-part western anthology, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” premiered at the Venice Film Festival in late August, where it won the Golden Osella award for best screenplay. As with “Roma," Netflix gave the movie a limited theatrical release, though smaller than that for Cuarón’s film. In fact, everything about the campaign for “Buster Scruggs” felt minuscule when compared with the massive outpouring of money and resources the streamer devoted to “Roma.” To put it simply: Unlike “Roma,” there was no $175 coffee table book for “Scruggs.”

But the writers branch loves the Coen brothers, and “Scruggs” is an excellent movie, one, like so many of their classics, that just gets better upon repeated viewings. The Coens now have seven screenwriting Oscar nominations. And nearly two decades after contributing music to the brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, Gillian Welch has her first Oscar nomination (along with co-writer David Rawlings) for the delightful “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” a classic singing-cowboy song.

Plus Mary Zophres, first nominated for costuming the Coens’ last western, “True Grit,” earned her third nod for her extensive efforts on “Scruggs,” essentially designing outfits for six different movies.

The trio’s deserved nominations are another sign that reports of Oscar voters’ resistance to Netflix movies is overblown.

"BlacKkKlansman" composer Terence Blanchard earned his first Oscar nomination for the film.
"BlacKkKlansman" composer Terence Blanchard earned his first Oscar nomination for the film. (Henry Adebonojo / For The Times)

“BlacKkKlansman” / score and editing

Lost a bit in the excitement over Spike Lee’s first Oscar nomination as a director was the fact that his longtime collaborators — composer Terence Blanchard and editor Barry Alexander Brown — joined him as inaugural nominees. Voters in the music and editing branches often make odd choices, sometimes rubber-stamping past nominees when they should be looking to reward the work in front of them. Blanchard and Brown delivered the goods with “BlacKkKlansman,” and one of the best parts of Oscar noms morning came when voters finally gave them their due.

Pawel Pawlikowski, Oscar-nominated director of "Cold War."
Pawel Pawlikowski, Oscar-nominated director of "Cold War." (Rick Loomis / For The Times)

Pawel Pawlikowski / director

In adding nearly 2,400 new members over the last three years, the motion picture academy has cast a wide net, inviting hundreds of international industry professionals. The directors branch has been particularly active in this regard; 2018’s class included the likes of Hong Sang-soo, Lee Chang-dong, Chloé Zhao, Luca Guadagnino and Béla Tarr.

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So the nomination of Polish filmmaker Pawlikowski doesn’t rate as a shocker when you consider that inclusiveness, along with the branch’s discerning history and, of course, the artful craftsmanship on display in “Cold War.”

Bonus note for “snub” aficionados: If you want to consider Bradley Cooper’s omission from the director’s race for “A Star Is Born” a snub, I won’t hate you. It feels a little like Ben Affleck and “Argo” all over again, a photogenic leading man overlooked for an auteur little known to mainstream audiences. (Still hoping to someday see Benh Zeitlin’s follow-up to “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”)

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