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Joke’s on us: The biggest (and most disappointing) surprises from the 2020 Oscar nominations

From left: Parasite (Photo: Neon + CJ Entertainment), Joker (Photo: Warner Bros.), Little Women (Photo: Wilson Webb/CTMG)
From left: Parasite (Photo: Neon + CJ Entertainment), Joker (Photo: Warner Bros.), Little Women (Photo: Wilson Webb/CTMG)
Graphic: Allison Corr
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A.A. Dowd

They rule the box office and dominate the cultural conversation. Now, superheroes have come for award season, too. One year after Black Panther racked up a bunch of Oscar nods in categories major and technical, any lingering genre bias against cape-and-cowl fare appears to have disappeared on the wind like the ashen remains of a blipped-from-reality Avenger. This morning, it was not Marvel but cross-town rival DC that had reason to celebrate, as the superhero-adjacent Joker—a self-serious origin story for maybe the most famous of comic book adversaries—scored a whopping 11 Academy Award nominations, more than any other movie. If you thought we were all finally done talking about this lightning rod of a multiplex sensation, joke’s on you.

It’s on us, too, for entertaining the thought that Joker’s divisiveness—it popped up on our worst-of list, and on some others’—might cost it some ground this award season. The film appears just about everywhere the Academy could conceivably honor it (almost—poor Robert De Niro couldn’t ride the wave of either of his big awards players), including in Best Director. I’m more of an agnostic on the movie than many of my peers and colleagues, but in a year with such a wide breadth of remarkable films by women, couldn’t at least one of the five slots in this category have gone to a female filmmaker instead of a glorified Martin Scorsese cosplayer? Especially when the real Scorsese is there, too.

The list of worthy and viable Best Director candidates who aren’t dudes would be a long one—I’d personally stump for Jennifer Kent, though movies as soul-crushingly brutal as The Nightingale don’t tend to go over so hot on Oscar night. The obvious oversight here is Greta Gerwig, whose Little Women (which did score a Best Picture nomination) is a critical and commercial smash, in no small part because of the nimble wonders she does with oft-adapted material. The Academy, reliably immune to shame even in the aftermath of #OscarsSoWhite, continued to exhibit a preference for only marginally diverse lineups on both sides of the camera. The acting nominations were only a hair less universally white than the ones offered by BAFTA. Two conspicuous absences: Jennifer Lopez, whose excellent turn as the queen bee of an exotic-dancer criminal operation in Hustlers was widely considered to be a lock for Best Supporting Actress; and Lupita Nyong’o, who couldn’t do what Daniel Kaluuya did two years ago and score a lead acting nomination in a Jordan Peele thriller, even though her dual Us performance is blatantly terrific.

There were a few other shocks. The Academy continued its occasional habit of overlooking nonfiction phenomena by declining to nominate the breathtaking Apollo 11, probably the year’s most widely acclaimed documentary. Frozen II didn’t make the cut for Animated Feature (though its one show-stopper, “Into The Unknown,” will compete for Best Original Song). And The Two Popes, a movie that looked kind of DOA this award season, scored nominations for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

As far as pleasant surprises go, I was very pleased to see Jarin Blaschke’s stark and primal black-and-white imagery from The Lighthousepossibly the weirdest film up for an Oscar this yearmake the Best Cinematography cut. And it’s nice that a James Gray movie is finally part of the Oscar race, even if Ad Astra hasn’t a snowball’s chance on the sun of winning Best Sound Mixing.

What surprised you, Katie, pleasantly or otherwise? Any notable snubs you’d like to single out here?

Image for article titled Joke’s on us: The biggest (and most disappointing) surprises from the 2020 Oscar nominations
Photo: Sony Pictures

Katie Rife

In terms of the once again all-male Best Director category, Gerwig is the obvious slight. Florence Pugh even noted her disappointment in her reaction to her nomination for Best Supporting Actress, saying in a statement that Gerwig “made a film about women working and their relationship with money and their relationship with working in a man’s world. That’s literally what Little Women is about, so [the snub] only underlines how important it is—because it’s happening.” But I would have also liked to see nominations for Lulu Wang and The Farewell, which successfully found the universal emotional truth in an autobiographical story, as well as Celine Sciamma and Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, a film whose commentary on subjectivity was both subtle and profound. And as long as we’re lavishing praise on Scorsese pastiches, why not the better directed of this year’s, Lorene Scafaria and Hustlers?

On the acting side, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Antonio Banderas was nominated for Best Actor for Pain And Glory, another film whose meta text—director Pedro Almodóvar played a key role in launching Banderas’ career back in the ’80s—enhanced what we see on the screen. I didn’t think the Academy would give it to him, though, for the same reason Parasite was shut out of the acting categories. To put it politely, Academy voters seem to struggle with evaluating the merits of performances in languages other than English, making Parasite director Bong Joon Ho’s continuing campaign to shame Americans into reading subtitles all the more relevant. I do wonder if that shaming played a role in Parasite receiving the six nominations it did get, which was way more than I expected. The film’s a masterpiece, but one can never be too cynical when it comes to Academy voters’ fear of the unknown—i.e., anything besides middlebrow studio films starring white men.

The Academy’s longstanding bias against comedic performances also hurt Adam Sandler—and he didn’t even deliver a comedic performance! Despite my affection for the film, I wasn’t especially surprised to see Eddie Murphy snubbed for Dolemite Is My Name, given that the film has been a relatively quiet presence on the awards circuit this year. (In terms of below-the-line credits, though, it’s shameful that the Academy passed over last year’s Best Costume Design winner, Ruth E. Carter, for her work on Dolemite. This is the one nomination I thought that film was likely to get, especially given how much the Academy loves repeat nominees.) But I was more surprised to see Sandler, and Uncut Gems in general, shut out, given the buzz around his frenzied performance in that very frenzied film. When Sandler follows through on his threat to make an especially terrible movie after being shut out of the Oscars, we will deserve whatever we get.