For an Oscar season many insiders have been describing as the weirdest in decades, the nominations announced on Tuesday were decidedly un-weird.
The 91st Academy Awards ceremony, which will be televised on Feb. 24, promises to be a something-for-everyone celebration, from edgy indies (“Vice,” “The Favourite”) to adamantly personal statements (“BlacKkKlansman,” “Roma”). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences even found room for the kind of middlebrow crowd-pleaser for which it has been roundly criticized for honoring in the past, not just with the warmhearted road picture “Green Book” but the wildly uneven but undeniably rousing Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
This year’s shortlists contained the usual complement of snubs and surprises: Even though “A Star Is Born” received eight nods, Bradley Cooper was overlooked for his directing in that movie (his “slot” went to the eminently deserving Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski for “Cold War”). And “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” one of the most beloved films of 2018 — a year when four nonfiction movies earned more than $10 million — didn’t make the cut for best feature documentary.
But for the most part, this year’s crop of nominees reflects a movie industry and gatekeeping culture that on the surface might be suffering from anxieties about disruptive distribution models, waning popularity with audiences and criticisms about inclusion and representation, but feels just as comfortable sticking to familiar safe spaces as in embracing the inevitability — and invigoration — of change.
Observers might remember a brief period last year when the academy announced a plan to introduce a new Oscar category of “best popular film,” a notion that was quickly derided as a sop to accusations of elitism and sagging TV ratings. As the strong showing of the box office hits “Black Panther” and “A Star Is Born” attests, such pandering isn’t just offensive but supremely unnecessary at a time when entertaining, audience-friendly movies are proving just as well-executed and thematically complex as the toniest art house film. When voters see fit to lift up “Bohemian Rhapsody” — whose cringeworthy dialogue, dreary biopic structure and corny uplift couldn’t stop a showstopping performance from best-actor nominee Rami Malek — a separate category is superfluous, to say the least.
This was also supposed to be a year when the academy would deliver a verdict on Netflix, the streaming subscription service that has thoroughly upended the film industry by seeking to eradicate theatrical distribution, while throwing unheard-of amounts of money at established auteurs to earn cachet and, presumably, discerning eyeballs. When the Netflix film “Mudbound” received four nominations last year, that indicated that the Hollywood establishment wasn’t nearly as resistant to the Netflix model as many assumed. This year, “Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white, Spanish-language impressionistic memoir of his Mexico City childhood, earned 10 nominations, including for its lead and supporting actresses and best picture — effectively putting to rest the notion of a Netflix stigma.
There are plenty of old-school motion pictures in the hunt this year, including the remake of the remake of the remake of the classic showbiz melodrama “A Star Is Born,” and “Green Book,” a warmhearted buddy picture set in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s. Even “The Favourite” and “Vice,” one a cheekily revisionist portrait of the court of Queen Anne, the other a cheekily revisionist portrait of former vice president Dick Cheney, check a number of Oscar-friendly boxes as pointedly period pieces addressing the vicissitudes of power, and as sharp-elbowed renegades from boutique studios.
But multiple nominations for Cuarón and Pawlikowski, as well as for the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Favourite”), suggest that the influx of new members in recent years has resulted in a vision of film that’s far more global, platform-agnostic and elastic than in the past.
It’s almost incomprehensible that Spike Lee, whose “BlacKkKlansman” received six nominations, is just now receiving the first best-director nod of his 36-year career, just as it’s unbelievable that, if best-picture front-runner “Roma” wins, it will be the first foreign-language film to earn that honor in the academy’s history. Between them, “Black Panther,” “Roma” and “BlacKkKlansman” have made history as the first superhero spectacle, Netflix film and Spike Lee joint to earn a best-picture nomination, respectively.
If those milestones represent baby steps forward, the complete absence of female filmmakers — including Rachel Morrison’s spectacular cinematography in “Black Panther” — surely qualifies as two steps back in a fitful but unmistakable march toward the loosening up of canonical strictures regarding ethnicity, gender and genre.
And what to make of the infectiously joyful — and irresistibly nicknamed — “BoRhap”?
It’s no surprise, and it’s altogether fitting, that the film was honored for sound mixing and editing, and for Malek’s uncanny portrayal of Mercury. But the consideration of this flawed, if insistently enjoyable, exercise in “Behind the Music” cliches (and box office domination) as one of the finest movies of the year proves another rule: Academy voters aren’t the hidebound graybeards or tetchy aesthetic purists their organizational title suggests. Like the audiences they’re so desperate to please, the films they value most are those that simply make them feel good — whether about their art form, their industry or their most undemanding and commercially self-interested tastes. Times may be changing, but some fundamentals stay reliably the same.