A cold and bright full moon shone over Los Angeles at 5:20 a.m. Tuesday when the 91st Oscar nominations were announced, a moon as pitiless and implacable as a police spotlight.
And when that spotlight shone on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ choices for the best the movie world had to offer in 2018, especially the eight-film best picture list, what it revealed was a borderline irrational split vision as to what represents quality in film.
On the one hand, there were the critic-group favorites, Alfonso Cuarón’s quietly hopeful “Roma” and Yorgos Lanthimos’ gleefully misanthropic “The Favourite,” topping the list with 10 nominations each, with Cuarón’s film being the first foreign-language entry to get that many since the great “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000.
But present here too, jostling with the big boys, was “Bohemian Rhapsody,” almost unwatchable except for Rami Malek’s Oscar-nominated performance. Could the same group plausibly like all three films? The academy did.
The same kind of split personality was visible in the multiple nominations for two very different examinations of America’s racial divide.
On the one hand was Spike Lee’s edgy, unexpected “BlacKkKlansman,” which got six nominations, including supporting actor Adam Driver (though not star John David Washington) and a long overdue first-ever nomination for Lee as director.
But right behind that was the way more traditional “Green Book,” its predictable take on black-white relations elevated by the acting of stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, both of whom were nominated.
And the academy’s treatment of the mega-hit “Black Panther” was in and of itself troubling. Yes, the film did get seven nominations, including a well-deserved first-ever best picture nod for a film inspired by a comic book.
Yet except for best picture, all of “Black Panther’s” nominations were for below-the-line achievements. Neither exceptional director Ryan Coogler nor stars like Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan made the cut, which is a shame.
Even though the academy’s directors branch has a history of going its own way, it outdid itself this year by unexpectedly neglecting Bradley Cooper, who directed “A Star Is Born” to eight nominations, including best picture. (That tied it with “Vice,” whose director Adam McKay, was nominated.)
Yet it is hard to argue with the unexpected outlier who took the spot pundits had predicted for Cooper: Poland’s gifted Pawel Pawlikowski.
Pawlikowski’s “Ida” took home the foreign-language trophy in 2015 and it was expected that his impeccably made “Cold War,” inspired by the complex relationship between his mother and father, would get a foreign-language nod.
But the directing nomination for Pawlikowski, plus a cinematography nomination for Lukasz Zal, underlined the fact that this film would have been the likely foreign-language winner if “Roma” was not in the picture.
In fact, having “Roma” and “Cold War” in the same year proved historic. This turned out to be the first time that two films with foreign-language nominations got directing nods as well.
And it was also the first time since 1966 that two black-and-white films were nominated in the same year. If this encourages cinematographers and directors to try their hand at B&W, that would be swell.
In addition to being unsettling, what this year’s nominations showed, as they do every year, is that the academy is a body with very pronounced preferences. It likes what it likes and it likes that again and again.
The acting branch likes Willem Dafoe and Sam Rockwell. Though both men were not considered heavyweight contenders, both got nominated for the second year in a row, Dafoe for “At Eternity’s Gate” following “The Florida Project,” and Rockwell for “Vice” following his win for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
The writers branch is crazy about the Coen brothers. It’s not just that the nomination for “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is their seventh for writing, it’s that it came for adapted screenplay, a choice that is so unlikely I thought I was possibly still asleep and dreaming when I heard it announced. It turns out that two of the six “Scruggs” vignettes were based on short stories. Given how little actual adapting was done here, why the writers passed over exceptional work such as the Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini adaptation “Leave No Trace” to go with the Coens is frankly baffling.
The academy is partial to “A Star Is Born.” The indefatigable statisticians that parse the awards have totaled up 26 nominations for all four versions of the venerable story. Cooper and Lady Gaga’s nods mark the third time that both leads have gotten nominations, following Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in 1937 and Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954.
The academy is partial to films released in late fall. Of the eight best-picture nominations, five were released in November/December and a sixth in October. That is one fact those of us hoping that quality movies could be spread out over the entire calendar year will not be cheering.