The Oscars tend to latch on to specific films and focus all attention on them. There are 17 categories a feature film can be nominated in (since it can’t be nominated for both adapted and original screenplay). Of course, certain categories can see two nominations, such as two supporting actors for the same film. There are 18 possible if you’re an animated film, but at that point several of the other categories are realistically shut off to you.
This year, “The Power of the Dog” has 12 nominations, “Dune” has 10. They’re both extremely good films, but I’m not so sure that both excel past so many other films this year in the vast majority of categories. The record for nominations is held in a tie by “All About Eve”, “Titanic”, and “La La Land”. “All About Eve” saw nominations in 14 of the 16 categories for which it qualified. “Titanic and “La La Land” saw nominations in 14 of 17 categories. That tendency to boil the industry down to only a few films is counterproductive – not because of the quality of the films, which are very good, but because it necessarily overlooks technical, writing, and acting achievements in smaller films, genre films, and sometimes otherwise average films.
A movie that’s good-but-not-great might have superb editing that deserves a nomination. An intentionally cheesy horror film could deserve a nod for its jaw-dropping production design. A black-and-white film might deserve a costume nom, and there might be a whole host of brilliant smaller films that simply got overlooked (this entire paragraph is foreshadowing).
More than any other awards show, the Oscars are built as an advertisement. The Academy harnesses the preferences of its membership to create zeitgeist around a limited number of films. If dozens of films each have a few nominations apiece, the ad doesn’t work because audiences aren’t really pushed in a specific direction. There’s too much choice for the advertisement to direct you. If a very few films have a mountain of nominations, then those movies become must-see.
I’d argue that this is counter-productive because it sells to a limited section of your audience. Horror and science-fiction films that break new technological ground get ignored; independent films and non-English language movies compete for a limited range of nominations; and many of the bravest directors taking the most chances are overlooked. While the recognition for Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” this year, Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” last year, and the films of Asian and Hispanic directors the last several years is long overdue, this limited focus in nominations is a big part of the narrowing that barred entry for including these perspectives in the first place.
There are ways to celebrate the entire industry without losing focus – especially when you’ve got three hours to do it – but hammering a few films into mind over and over again is a more risk-averse strategy. Again, these films deserve it; they’re just not the only ones that do. I’d suggest the repetition and lack of focus on the accomplishments of the industry at large is a big part of the reason the Oscars keep losing viewers. Audiences have the entire world of filmmaking at their fingertips now; their nominations still don’t consistently reflect that.
I don’t mean to treat this in a cynical way. You can still like watching an ad. Hell, I’m writing this whole article about one. I’ve enjoyed the Oscars a number of times, though I think it took a wrong turn when it shifted away from Hugh Jackman, Neil Patrick Harris, and song-and-dance numbers and instead pursued James Franco and – at least an improvement from him – no host at all.
And while I’m excited for Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes hosting, I’m also wary of host Amy Schumer given her history of racist jokes. That includes some that are basically Trump lines about Latines. Yes, she apologized in 2016. It must’ve been difficult to write that single Tweet before she went straight back to making even more racist jokes, including the racist cluster of clusterfucks that is “Snatched”. And…actually, you know what, I just wrote nearly the same intro about Ellen Rapoport last week. Maybe let’s find comedians who don’t build their careers off of posing Latines as inhuman, untrustworthy animals. You have no idea how tiring it is and, if you do, wouldn’t it be nice to write and talk about what we love without having to feel that hatred sucking away our soul when we come to these parts of it?
Let’s circle back. The Oscars offer a well-recognized lens through which to look at which nominations struck and what movies and accomplishments were overlooked in the past year:
Best Costume Design
Nominated: Cruella, Cyrano, Dune, Nightmare Alley, West Side Story
Forgotten: Marci Rodgers, Passing
A black-and-white film can have trouble standing out in this category, but the costume design in “Passing” is astounding. What’s most remarkable are the places where it isn’t flashy, where we see the clothes people dressed in on a daily basis. Our central characters are socialites to a degree, but they’re not ridiculously wealthy. What they wear is nice, but unlike so many period films, it looks like the clothing that characters from that period would actually wear more than one time.
There was a focus on avoiding flapper fashion tropes, which didn’t define that era yet is routinely recognized for doing so on film. As Costume Designer Marci Rodgers says, the film’s characters were “more likely to adhere to respectability politics than to flout sartorial strictures of that era”. After all, part of passing as white is fitting in without calling too much attention to yourself.
In other words, the costume choices make the period film feel lived-in instead of simply giving us idealized examples that look nicest being worn once for the camera. That alone should put Marci Rodgers’s work in “Passing” ahead of certain other films that prioritize cinematic showiness over period accuracy and practicality. You may’ve seen Rodgers’s work before in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and Steven Soderbergh’s “High Flying Bird”.
Best Make-up and Hairstyling
Nominated: Coming 2 America, Cruella, Dune, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, House of Gucci
Forgotten: Eldo Ray Estes (makeup head), Cliona Furey (hair designer), Mike Hill (special makeup effects designer), Nightmare Alley
The exclusion of “Nightmare Alley” from this category is astounding, especially when you consider that the film tracks across several years and shifts characters through different social classes and styles. To my mind, only two of the nominations approach the sheer amount of work that “Nightmare Alley” accomplishes, representing a carnival in the 30s, high society in the 40s, shifting characters in and out of hairstyling, wigs, wigs on top of wigs. I’d even say the hallmark accomplishment of the film – making Bradley Cooper unrecognizable in two wildly opposite directions – stands alongside the best individual make-up jobs of the year.
Best Production Design
Nominated: Dune, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, The Tragedy of Macbeth, West Side Story
Forgotten: Desma Murphy, Malignant
The Academy has a habit of overlooking stellar technical achievements in films that aren’t otherwise great. “Malignant” is more complex because it’s actively created to be ambitiously, consciously…I don’t want to use the word “bad”, but it has a serious investment in schlock horror and why we connect to it. “Malignant” succeeds so wildly at evoking shocking slasher films because it’s so knowledgeable and precise about their history. I didn’t imagine “Malignant” had a chance to be nominated for anything, but it does some remarkable things with its production design, and how that design is purpose-built for so many other elements of the film – such as its cinematography, special effects, and choreography.
For its production design, “Malignant” draws from 60s/70s giallo and pop art, the wide gamut of 80s horror, more specific sci-fi like “Blade Runner”, and especially 90s gothic action movies like “The Crow”. It also pulls from much more recent horror films, although this is harder to separate from director James Wan’s own style considering he’s created so much of this newer aesthetic himself.
“Malignant” introduces a surprising amount that’s fresh in horror filmmaking from a technical standpoint. The production design is outstanding, even if the rest of the film’s ambitions lie in giving us a grisly creature feature that doesn’t really care how good or bad it is, so long as it keeps your attention.
Best Visual Effects
Nominated: Dune, Free Guy, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, No Time to Die, Spider-Man: No Way Home
Forgotten: The Suicide Squad
(clip contains major spoilers)
I’ve long hated this category because it prizes the greatest amount and fidelity of visual effects. It tends to lean away from how those effects are actually used in an artistic sense. I’m not sure we’ve seen an action movie that so effectively translates comic book sensibilities through visual effects, and that’s saying something considering how competitive and well-funded the genre is right now.
It’s tough to see “The Suicide Squad” snubbed here when it introduced a more playful and character-focused use of visual effects than superhero movies think we deserve. If I name my 10 favorite moments of visual effects this year, at least four come from “The Suicide Squad”. From Harley Quinn’s Disneyfied vision of violence and Polka-Dot Man’s lo-fi powers and high-strung anxieties, to King Shark’s entire existence and the cartoonish horror and beauty of the film’s dementedly heartfelt climax, no other movie’s visual effects this year actually served the characters inside of the film better than in “The Suicide Squad”.
Nominated: Belfast, Dune, No Time to Die, The Power of the Dog, West Side Story
Forgotten: Jill Purdy, Nathan Robitaille, Nightmare Alley
The ticking of a watch as it passes by the camera. The strike of high heeled shoes on marble. The lively bustle of a carnival. The empty white noise of a city. The strange sound absorption of snow, a sensation rarely captured so well in a film. I loved the sound design of “Nightmare Alley”. It has a number of nominations, so it’s not exactly lacking, but I would have loved a nomination here.
Best Original Score
Nominated: Don’t Look Up, Dune, Encanto, Parallel Mothers, The Power of the Dog
Forgotten: Natalie Holt, Fever Dream
Natalie Holt garnered a lot of attention this past year for composing the music for “Loki” (and years before that for hurling eggs at Simon Cowell). Her work in Claudia Llosa’s “Fever Dream” is a pulsing thing centered on breathing strings and a sense of profound isolation. Magical realism on film is extremely reliant on its music because it’s the element that can most immediately mirror a character’s emotional state. The score connects the inner experience of being in that moment to a form that’s defined by a far more abstract and disordered sense of time and place.
Holt’s score is yearning and lonely. It reflects the finality and fatalism of this particular kind of magical realist storytelling. It’s consequential and dramatic without ever feeling overbearing. It’s quiet and lurking, but sympathetic at the same time, just like the threat of tragedy that’s understood too late even though it begins and concludes “Fever Dream”.
Nominated: Dune, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, The Tragedy of Macbeth, West Side Story
Forgotten: Oscar Faura, Fever Dream
As a piece of magical realism, “Fever Dream” needs to blend the suggestive and abstract to the everyday. Landscapes themselves become animist, and homes that interrupt the farmland create a progressive layering of what’s perceived as safe giving way to field and copse and finally wood.
There’s a consistent use of backlighting, natural evening light, and shallow focus that is generally avoided in film but here highlights the woman at the center of its story as unable to see the full picture even as the audience recognizes it. That’s a central tenet of magical realism: that the audience already knows the what, but we need to learn the why and how. To find ways that evoke this through cinematography is remarkable, and this is all before taking into account the film’s shades of horror and beautifully filmed hallucinatory elements.
I’d also strongly push “Titane” and “Passing” here because I can do so and quickly move on to the next category without explaining how I’d still get it down to five nominations:
Best Film Editing
Nominated: Don’t Look Up, Dune, King Richard, The Power of the Dog, tick, tick…BOOM!
Forgotten: Fred Raskin, Christian Wagner, The Suicide Squad
This shouldn’t come out of left field if you’ve seen the film. Every bit of personality, comedy, and emotional resonance in “The Suicide Squad” is underlined by its extraordinary editing. What’s most impressive is the sheer range on display here: action movie, comedy montage, noir, drama. There’s a full rotation of different editing rhythms that James Gunn’s film cycles through for its various characters and their different emotional states.
It fuses title screens into the environment, flashbacks within literal windows, and a host of stunning tricks that you’d expect to see in something far more experimental than this genre usually gives us. I’d place this as one of the most difficult jobs for an editor out of all the superhero movies we’ve seen, but it doesn’t just hit that mark – it excels beyond it on every front.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Nominated: Coda, Drive My Car, Dune, The Lost Daughter, The Power of the Dog
Forgotten: Rebecca Hall, Passing
Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novel brilliantly discusses the co-optation of culture and identity. I’ve seen a lot of reads on the film that talk about how it rejects a Black woman who’s long passed as white and is trying to return to being Black, but I think this risks overlooking a central conversation in the film.
Clare isn’t someone returning to being Black, she’s someone who’s still passing as white, returning to a Black community as a white tourist in the fashion protagonist Irene and novelist Hugh discuss mid-film. This redefines “Passing” into a far more complex consideration of privilege, co-optation, and whether someone can embrace who they are while still hating it. It’s one of the most wrenching discussions of race I’ve seen in narrative filmmaking.
Best Original Screenplay
Nominated: Belfast, Don’t Look Up, Licorice Pizza, King Richard, The Worst Person in the World
Forgotten: Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby
Emma Seligman’s debut film lands an audacious number of risks. It tells the story of Danielle, a college student who bumps into her sugar daddy at a Jewish funeral service. She navigates her parents’ expectations, a passive-aggressive ex, and a number of realizations about the lies her sugar daddy’s told her. As it touches on feminism, sexual empowerment, Millennial and Gen Z angst, and generational lies, “Shiva Baby” becomes an unflinchingly tense navigation of both personal and cultural truths that still aren’t wholly deciphered.
The screenplay is equal parts funny and horrifying, and manages to make us laugh even as things grow more uncomfortable. At times, I even found myself comparing the quickfire theatrical pacing and claustrophobic use of a single location in “Shiva Baby” to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Best Supporting Actress
Nominated: Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter), Ariana Debose (West Side Story), Judi Dench (Belfast), Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog), Aunjanue Ellis (King Richard)
Forgotten: Ruth Negga, Passing
(CW: clip contains racism, use of the N-word)
This is one of the biggest oversights of the year. One of the most complex roles in recent years asks Negga to portray a Black woman passing for white. Through a friend, she returns to the Black community – but not as someone re-embracing or relearning who she is or the violence she’s done to her identity.
Instead, she returns as white, entering this sphere as a tourist, assuming centrality in a community she still rejects from her own identity. She does this in a way that’s outwardly kind, soft-spoken, and often plaintive, but also reads as manipulative, in full use of the white privilege she’s learned. Rarely has someone portrayed the insidiousness of cultural co-optation so completely.
Best Supporting Actor
Nominated: Ciaran Hinds (Belfast), Troy Kotsur (Coda), Jesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog), JK Simmons (Being the Ricardos), Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Power of the Dog)
Forgotten: Willem Dafoe, Nightmare Alley
The Oscars have a way of overlooking some of the best genre performances. Unless someone’s playing the Joker, the most precise and chilling performances in genre work go without a nomination. Dafoe’s carnival boss Clem Hoatley sticks in your brain as a hideously abusive, yet nonetheless chummy man. He’d love talking to you and showing you the ropes, but he’d just as soon stab you in the back if it served his purposes. What communicates for all his toothy, slithering presentation is just how banal and workaday he makes abuse, how he can discuss it like any other work procedure over drinks and a meal. As housed within horror fantasy as Clem Hoatley is, we’ve all met many managers and supervisors who are just like him.
Nominated: Javier Bardem (Being the Ricardos), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog), Andrew Garfield (tick, tick…BOOM!), Will Smith (King Richard), Denzel Washington (The Tragedy of Macbeth)
Forgotten: Nicolas Cage, Pig
Nicolas Cage movies are often B-grade flights of nonsense, but you can’t dismiss all of them. That risks overlooking some of the most interesting independent work of the last several years. None stand out as strongly as “Pig”, a quiet and understated testament to gentleness housed within the framework of what would be a revenge film with any other script.
Cage plays Rob, a man whose truffle pig is stolen. Truffles go for thousands apiece, and he seeks the pig out amid Portland’s cutthroat restaurant scene. Cage delivers the performance of his career. Rob is an aggressively guarded misanthrope, shut off because he remembers every bit of empathy throughout his life. A towering, bearded, bloodied hermit, he navigates confrontation through a gentle understanding of others. Rarely have characters so overwhelmed by their empathy and desperate to shut it off been portrayed with such human nuance.
Nominated: Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye), Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter), Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers), Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos), Kristen Stewart (Spencer)
Forgotten: Agathe Rousselle, Titane
(CW: clip contains violence, blood)
Agathe Rousselle in “Titane” stands out as one of the most chilling and soul-emptying performances of a psychopath in cinema. As Alexia, she goes through every emotion there is as if performing a shell of expectations for others. She spends most of the film hiding in a guise that begins to accept elements of her psychopathy – under that of a man among other men. The male privilege that accepts and prizes aggression is one she can find a comfort in, and the ability to create such a cold character who still evokes our empathy – not because she’s changed but because her environment has – is a performance that challenges our understanding of the norms we use to demarcate gender and its privileges.
Many times, the best performance in a year is something you’ve seen done before in an exceptional, unparalleled way. This year, it’s something exceptional and unparalleled that I’ve just never seen done before.
(I want to be specific – hers is not a performance of a trans character. She is hiding out, disguising herself as a young man because it prevents police from finding her. She remains a woman throughout, even if she hides this from others. This allows writer-director Julia Ducournau to investigate the masculine tendencies that are discouraged among women, and the feminine aspects in men that we’re trained to psychologically self-mutilate out of ourselves).
Nominated: Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza), Kenneth Branagh (Belfast), Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog), Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car), Steven Spielberg (West Side Story)
Forgotten: Julia Ducournau, Titane and Rebecca Hall, Passing
Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” and Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” both leap toward the front of my list of the best films of the past decade. “Passing” requires a precise realization of its smallest moments and gestures, whereas “Titane” is a visually evocative tour-de-force. Both feature an exquisite pairing of actors directed with purpose: Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in “Passing” and Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon in “Titane”.
Both directors fit stories into worlds both recognizable and related to our own, yet at the same time stylistically removed so that story can bite deep when the time comes. Both films had me thinking for days, falling asleep in a fog of their implications and waking up with a deep desire to tackle them anew. Both offer questions and challenges to my perceptions that I’m not sure I have the answers to, and that’s exciting art that I know I’ll return to again and again.
Ask me whether Hall or Ducournau did a better job and the answer will change day by day, depending on which one I’m thinking about. They’re my 1-2 for best film of the year, and neither saw a single Oscar nomination.
Nominated: Belfast, Coda, Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Dune, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, West Side Story
So why choose “Passing” over “Titane”? There’s a precise answer, and it’s that the screenplay for “Passing” elevates it above “Titane” in how it speaks to me. Even if both are precise creations, “Passing” cuts into me where “Titane” extrudes something from me. Nine times out of 10, I’d choose what’s more evocative, but I’m not sure I’ve met a film that cuts so deep as “Passing”.
The Black and Hispanic experiences for those who aren’t both can be very different, but both face some similarities in the systemic constructs that ask us to internalize racism against ourselves. That separates us from our communities, and even makes us reject them or repeat to them the very same racism practiced on us. I spent much of my childhood learning from my environment to hate the Hispanic half of who I am, and much of my adulthood learning to accept it. That requires coping with the trauma that was inflicted on me and that I was taught to inflict on myself.
At the same time, as Rebecca Hall says in the clip above, I have to reckon with the aspects of privilege I have embodied or used. What benefits have I enjoyed that others who can’t pass haven’t? What aspects of that system have I propagated?
Oh, but that’s all subjective? How else would we watch film? Saying the best film of the year is any film says that it speaks to us in some subjective way. Few films have bothered with concepts of passing and internalized racism, despite racism against oneself being one of the most widely repeated messages in the history of American media. There needs to be more that speaks to this section of the audience, and frankly, there needs to be more that speaks like “Titane” as well. The reason it’s right next to “Passing” is because it speaks to vicious and hateful reinforcements of binary gender constructs. I think we all could’ve used a bit less of that growing up, too.
Frankly, the difference between what I’d call the best and second-best film of the year, or even fifth-best film of the year isn’t really that much. They’re all worth seeing. The nominated films are all worth seeing. I just don’t want to let the moment pass without highlighting so much else of what made last year special in film.
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