The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences fulfilled its annual duty and announced this year’s slate of Oscar nominees earlier this month. The nominees are a diverse crop, with the Best Picture lineup finding room for films as seemingly different as “Drive My Car,” an critically-acclaimed and lengthy Japanese drama about grief, and “Don’t Look Up,” a star-studded comedy about environmental destruction that was greeted with decidedly mixed reviews.
In fact, there is likely no greater illustration of the evolving sensibilities residing within the Academy than these two nominees.
Following the announcement of the nominees in 2015 and 2016, meant to honor the most impressive cinematic achievements of the previous year, there was a public outcry at the lack of racial diversity in the list of nominations. Given the lack of Black acting nominees in 2015 and 2016, industry heavyweights and casual film fans seemed to agree that change was necessary.
Dubbed “#OscarsSoWhite,” this controversy resulted in swift changes to the Academy’s membership, with the racial diversity of the voting bloc rising in little time. While it is impossible to know what the following years’ awards ceremonies would have looked like with an unchanged Academy, the reforms seem to have paid off. For example, four of the acting nominees this year are people of color — in addition to this, eight Black actors or actresses were in contention last year.
On top of the increased racial diversity, the Academy’s taste seems to be getting more adventurous. Suddenly, foreign-language films seem to be acquiring a consistent foothold in the list of nominees — “Roma,” “Cold War,” “Parasite,” and the aforementioned “Drive My Car” have all garnered major nominations over the last several years.
Still, one can see plenty of remnants of the older Academy in this year’s crop of nominees. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in some respects. “West Side Story” — director Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of the 1957 stage musical — seems tailor-made for the Academy of 10 years ago. Not only is it a splashy and romantic film made to be seen on the big screen, it is also incredibly well-crafted, earning its handful of nominations through the sheer skill of Spielberg’s directorial technique. With this in mind, it is exciting to see an awards body equally willing to recognize both a lavish musical and a foreign arthouse film.
This mixture of sensibilities has produced some impressive results — there are a handful of truly excellent films in contention this year.
“The Power of the Dog” — a psychosexual Western which collected 12 nominations — is a slow-burn gem, steadily accumulating power as it builds towards its haunting final scene. Right now, it is being widely touted as the Best Picture frontrunner. If it ends up collecting the award, the film would make for a terrific winner.
“Licorice Pizza” — the newest film from esteemed director Paul Thomas Anderson — is also excellent. With only three nominations, though, it is unlikely to walk away with the top prize. The same is likely true of the brilliant “Drive My Car,” which may prove too meditative and deliberately paced to garner the support needed for a win. Whatever the outcome may be, however, both films demand to be seen.
“Dune” and “West Side Story,” two enormously impressive large-scale spectacles, also seem unlikely to eke out a win, due to the former’s omission from the Best Director category and the latter’s underperformance at the box office. Truth be told, if any film manages to upset “The Power of the Dog,” it is likely to be “Belfast,” a coming-of-age drama that has racked up seven nominations. The remaining contenders — “CODA,” “Don’t Look Up,” “King Richard” and “Nightmare Alley” — are all long shots.
Still, whichever movie ends up on top, the current lineup holds several films to celebrate. Some excellent movies missed the cut — the extent to which “The Card Counter” has been ignored this awards season is a shame — but an awards bloc that celebrates movies as different as “Dune” and “Drive My Car” must have their fingers at least partly on the pulse of the industry.