For film buffs, Oscar nomination day can be a bit of a roller coaster. Coming on the heels of the frequently wacky Golden Globes there is always a flicker of hope that the Academy will make good choices. Far more often than that though, the nominees are exactly what everyone pessimistically predicted plus a few surprises that are also usually bad.
2020 was no exception as beloved films such as ‘Knives Out’ and ‘Little Women’ underperformed while ‘The Farewell’ and ‘Uncut Gems’ were excluded entirely. Conversely the film that led all others in total nominations was the highly divisive ‘Joker.’ It wasn’t all bad news though, the Documentary branch nominated 4 women and 4 foreign language films in their category and ‘I Lost My Body’ found its way into the animated feature nominees after being snubbed by the Golden Globes.
Just like last year, I’m breaking down the nominations in the major categories. If you’re interested in how I did last year, check it out here. Without further ado, the nominees are:
Ford v Ferrari (Disney/Fox)
The Irishman (Netflix)
Jojo Rabbit (Fox Searchlight)
Joker (Warner Bros.)
Little Women (Sony)
Marriage Story (Netflix)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Sony)
The Favorite: 1917
This year’s Best Picture race feels especially close. Any one of ‘1917,’ ‘Marriage Story,’ ‘The Irishman,’ ‘Parasite,’ ‘Joker,’ and ‘Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood’ seem to have a chance at the big prize. But only one can win and right now 1917 feels like the presumptive favorite. Sam Medes’s film is a technical achievement in the showy sort of way that the Academy loves to reward. Add to the mix that its a visceral war movie by an acclaimed director and you’ve got a Best Picture front runner.
The Dark Horse: Joker
If last year’s ‘Green Book’ win taught us anything, its that the Academy will take any opportunity to make the worst decision possible. ‘Joker’ is easily the worst of the 9 films nominated but it’s a billion dollar grossing superhero film that, at surface level, seems a lot smarter than it is. Todd Phillips’s supervillain flick also netted the most nominations of any film (11) so a Best Picture win would just be further proof that we live in a society.
The Surprise: Ford v Ferrari
A classic piece of Americana that is sneakily about the creative process of filmmaking shouldn’t feel like a surprise when it gets a Best Picture nomination, but here we are. James Mangold’s recounting of the 1966 24 hours of Le Mans was generally well liked by critics but the film came and went without making much of an impact culturally. Not as universally beloved as Parasite nor as conversation inducing as ‘Joker,’ ‘Ford v Ferrari’ just didn’t make enough of an impact.
The Snub: The Farewell
As with most years, there are a number of great films that went overlooked in the big race. ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,’ ‘Ad Astra,’ ‘Knives Out,’ ‘Just Mercy,’ to name a few. But for me no snub was greater than Lulu Wang’s ‘The Farewell.’ Perhaps it was the subtitles that accompanied 75% of the film, maybe it was the intimate story, whatever the reason ‘The Farewell’ deserved more recognition than it received.
Best Actress in a Lead Role:
Cynthia Erivo (Harriet)
Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)
Saoirse Ronan (Little Women)
Charlize Theron (Bombshell)
Renee Zellweger (Judy)
The Favorite: Renee Zellweger
A beloved actress transforms herself to embody a beloved Hollywood icon. Thats the one sentence rational for a Zellweger win. She also just won a Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice award for the performance so there is no reason to think her front runner momentum has lost any steam since she was crowned the favorite months ago.
The Dark Horse: Charlize Theron
A beloved actress transforms herself to embody a much maligned cable news host. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. I was tempted to go Scarlett Johansson here, she and Saoirse Ronan give the best performances of the bunch, but history is too strong. The Academy loves a physical transformation and until given reason to believe otherwise the two actresses that made those transformations remain the frontrunners.
The Surprise: Cynthia Erivo
For better or worse, the other 4 were absolute locks leaving one spot open in the Lead Actress category. Cynthia Erivo grabs that spot with a performance that was pretty good and mostly unremarkable. (she faints a lot?) Erivo is a great emerging talent — great in last year’s ‘Widows’ and the crucial piece of ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ — this just isn’t a performance to justify her nomination over the biggest snubs.
The Snubs: Awkwafina (The Farewell) and Lupita Nyong’o (Us)
With two absolutely phenomenal performances and films that went entirely overlooked by the Academy I couldn’t pick just one. Awkwafina gives one of the most subtly emotional performances of the year, one that is crucial to her film. Lupita’s double performance is the other end of the spectrum, eerie and big both bringing the scares and reflecting the fear. If these two had replaced the two presumptive frontrunners this field would have been stronger for it.
Best Actor in a Lead Role:
Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory)
Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood)
Adam Driver (Marriage Story)
Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)
Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes)
The Favorite: Joaquin Phoenix
For as much as I dislike ‘Joker’ as a film, even I can admit that Joaquin is quite good in it. Was it a better performance than any other nominee in this category? Probably not, but it is by far the showiest performance and that matters a lot when it comes to the Oscars. Losing over 50 pounds, laughing maniacally and stair dancing is the kind of ACTING that gets awards.
The Dark Horse: Adam Driver
It’s tough to pick a dark horse in a category that feels entirely like a foregone conclusion so I’ll just go with the best performance. Driver is so great in ‘Marriage Story’ playing Charlie with the perfect combination of desperation, frustration and obliviousness needed to make that film feel as balanced as it does.
The Surprise: Antonio Banderas
This one is a really pleasant surprise. Banderas gives an extremely subdued and reflective performance in the Spanish language ‘Pain and Glory.’ That’s a lot working against him given the history of the Oscars, so it’s good to see him rewarded for what is genuinely a great piece of acting. Jonathan Pryce is also a little surprising but his role in ‘The Two Popes’ is much more the type that catches Oscar buzz.
The Snub: Robert DeNiro (The Irishman)
If we’re being honest the Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems) nomination was always a long shot. The bigger surprise to me is DeNiro being the odd man out of ‘The Irishman’ acting nominations. I wouldn’t say he’s great in the film but that film got a lot of love in other categories and with two somewhat surprising nominees getting in, the DeNiro snub is unexpected.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role:
Kathy Bates (Richard Jewell)
Laura Dern (Marriage Story)
Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit)
Florence Pugh (Little Women)
Margot Robbie (Bombshell)
The Favorite: Laura Dern
A lot like Joaquin Phoenix, Laura Dern is a heavy favorite in her category. Dern certainly imbues her character with life and energy, despite that it’s a performance that felt disparate to the rest of ‘Marriage Story.’ Even if I wasn’t enamored with this particular performance — shes better in ‘Little Women’ — I love Laura Dern and can’t be too upset with this seemingly inevitable result.
The Dark Horse: Florence Pugh
With such a strong favorite in the Supporting Actress category let’s use the dark horse pick to highlight the category’s most outstanding performance. Florence Pugh had an incredible 2019. Relatively unknown before the calendar turned, Pugh this year led the underrated ‘Fighting With My Family,’ had a star making turn in ‘Midsommar’ and stole every scene she was in with her supporting turn in ‘Little Women.’ 2019 really was her year and her performance as Amy March finished it off at a high.
The Surprise: Kathy Bates
She’s been nominated sporadically throughout the season but for some reason Kathy Bates’s nomination at the Oscars is still surprising. She gives a solid performance in a film that itself never manages a portion of that quality. Ultimately it’s not Bates that makes this nomination surprising, rather its a deep bench of great supporting turns that were overlooked to put her here.
The Snub: Jennifer Lopez
So ends the 2020 Oscars JLo hype. Lopez is the most glaring result of ‘Hustlers’ total lack of recognition by the Academy. The energy she brings to her film, a fiery but still love-able intensity, is so essential to making ‘Hustlers’ as searing, and as fun, as it is. JLo’s snub is also a reminder that, in a year of record diversity in film, the Academy managed to only nominate one actor of color in any category.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role:
Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood)
Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes)
Al Pacino (The Irishman)
Joe Pesci (The Irishman)
Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood)
The Favorite: Brad Pitt
Brad Pitt, one of the most admired and talented actors of his generation, has never won an Oscar for acting. Look for that to change this year as Pitt is a fairly heavy favorite here. Its well deserved to as ‘Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood’ is certainly one of his best. Sure there is a ton of competition in his filmography, but Cliff Booth allows Pitt to explore his own career had it not panned out. His performance is subtle and filled with repressed remorse in ways that previous ones haven’t managed to tap into.
The Dark Horse: Tom Hanks
Unlike Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks has won at the Oscars before. Twice actually, in back to back years for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. The latter was 25 years ago and Hanks has been looking to claim another little gold statue ever since. Playing beloved children’s TV host Fred Rogers gives him his best shot at a win in a long time. Hank’s doesn't make much of a transformation for the role, instead doing something more impressive. Hank’s captures the kindred spirit of Rogers perfectly and opens him up by displaying some of the pain Rogers hid away while the cameras were rolling.
The Surprise: Anthony Hopkins
Sir Anthony Hopkins is an Academy Award winner and has been an esteemed actor for many years so it shouldn’t really be a huge surprise to see him recognized once more by his peers. His nomination however comes from a film that has not received the same sort of hype or acclaim as those featuring his competitors. That said, ‘The Two Popes’ is very good and Hopkins is quite good in it. If this nomination brings more eyes to the Netflix drama that is a great.
The Snub: Song Kang-ho (Parasite)
The Supporting Actor category went about as chalk as any this year so that means there isn't a glaring snub this time around. That doesn’t mean there weren’t deserving performances that went overlooked. Jonathan Majors delivered a delightful breakthrough in ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco,’ Wesley Snipes was scene stealing in ‘Dolemite is My Name,’ but for our purposes let go with Song Kang-ho since ‘Parasite’ was shockingly overlooked for acting altogether. Song’s patriarch was crucial to ‘Parasite’ and stood out in a film that is extremely well acted all around.
His omission, as well as Majors and Snipes, is just another example of the Academy failing to recognize performers of color and more generally films about the experience of persons of color. It is absolutely shameful that only one of the 20 performances recognized at the 2020 Oscars was performed by an actor of color.
Martin Scorsese (The Irishman)
Todd Phillips (Joker)
Sam Mendes (1917)
Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
Bong Joon-ho (Parasite)
The Favorite: Sam Mendes
Some of the very best films are the ones that sneak up on you. The ones that build up to an emotional release that, by the time it comes around, catches the viewer by surprise. When it comes to the Oscars, and specifically the directing award, subtlety is rarely rewarded. ‘1917’ does not have that problem. It’s a flashy film with a very noticeable directorial flourish. The Academy will likely be unable to ignore Mendes’s accomplishment in creating a visceral film by shooting from a first person perspective.
The Dark Horse: Bong Joon-ho
‘Parasite’ is the best directed film of the year. Unfortunately for director Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar hopes, its also a film that hits you over the head with it’s themes and imagery rather than its camera placement or movement. Not because those decisions aren’t good, they’re perfect, so perfect in fact that they blend right into the viewing experience that director Bong has so masterfully created. In a more just world we would be talking about Bong Joon-ho as the runaway favorite in this category.
The Surprise: Todd Phillips
Todd Phillips made a film about one of the most sinister villains in comic book history, turned him into an anti-hero and then bungled the film so badly that his Joker ends up looking like the victim and is treated as a truly heroic. Doing a mediocre Scorsese impersonation doesn’t make you an auteur. You don’t get extra credit for slapping a dark, somber tone on beloved IP and claiming it’s high art. The greatest trick that ‘Joker’ has played was convincing a slew of industry people that the film is smarter than it really is. Todd Phillips does not belong among the best directors of the year and now the film community has to spend 5 weeks re-litigating the value of one of the year’s worst movies.
The Snub: Women
What makes the Phillips nomination worse is all the deserving directors who missed out, partially as a result of his nomination. For the second year in a row no women were deemed worthy of a directing nomination by the Academy. The most glaring omission, Greta Gerwig (Little Women), remains the last woman nominated in the category. For the Academy to say that Joker was a more significant directorial achievement than; ‘Little Women,’ ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ (Marielle Heller), ‘Honey Boy’ (Alma Har’el), ‘High Life’ (Claire Denis), ‘Hustlers’ (Lorene Scafaria) or ‘Booksmart’ (Olivia Wilde), is not only wrong, its offensive.
Every year we have this conversation and every year the Academy decides that the 5 best directed films of the year were directed by men — and mostly white men at that. People can scream all they want about “recognizing quality regardless of gender” but — as long as films like Joker are being recognized over those mentioned above — we aren’t even doing that. If this was truly about quality, not only would Gerwig be competing for a Best Director Oscar this year, she’d have a really good shot of winning one.