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This year’s Oscar nominations: surprises, snubs, and room to grow

La La Land is “positioned to dominate” at this year's Academy Awards. Photo via iStock.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last week announced its nominees for the 89th Oscar Awards.

La La Land received 14 nominations, tying it with Titanic and All About Eve for the most in Academy Award history, and Meryl Streep snagged her 20th nomination for her performance in Florence Foster Jenkins, a new record.

Six black actors were nominated, and the best picture race includes diverse films like Fences and Moonlight, reflecting a pivot from the academy’s dismal history of minority representation that prompted #OscarsSoWhite protests the past two years.

We asked Nathan Blake, associate professor of media and screen studies, to weigh in on the upcoming awards ceremony, which will take place on Feb. 26.

Were you surprised by any nominations or snubs?

There was some expectation that Martin Scorsese’s Silence—a long-term passion project from an “auteur”—would receive much more recognition. Given Pixar’s track record, it is also surprising that Finding Dory didn’t pick up a nomination, although a few of the animated feature films from the list I’ve seen are more memorable.

To be honest, I tend to find Oscar nominations and “Oscar bait” films relatively middling and safe, and I am not particularly interested in the brand of “quality” on display with “Best Picture.” In that regard, and on the whole, I’m not surprised by the selections, although the number of nominations for La La Land is unusual, and the greater diversity is certainly welcome. The nominations for “Best Documentary” are remarkable, both in their subject matter—with three on the African American experience, one on autism, and one on refugees in the Mediterranean—and in terms of distribution and exhibition; 13th was released through Netflix, while O.J.: Made in America is an ESPN series.

Over the past two years in particular, the Oscars have been criticized for their lack of minority representation. Do you think this year’s nominees reflect a change for the better?

It would have been difficult to be worse. Yes, the number of nominations for on-screen performances by African Americans is a welcome sign, but it is too early to say if this is a substantial shift or an anomaly.

I’m most interested in how Moonlight fares, as so few directors or writers of color receive recognition—and diversity should entail more than those representations we see. On the other hand, Kubo and the Two Strings has been criticized for its “color blind” casting of many white stars to voice Japanese characters. I would also like to see greater diversity in terms of other ethnic groups, greater gender equality, and more films that don’t sentimentalize and thus domesticate social and political problems by placing the emphasis on the individual or family.

Are there any common themes you’ve noticed among the movies nominated for best film this year?

Among the “Best Picture” nominations, many seem to attempt to get to the heart of a particular region, identity, value, or belief. Hell or High Water, a Western and thriller sleeper hit, for instance, is Hollywood’s lens upon what was to be the disenfranchised white working class Trump voter. Even the cerebral science fiction film Arrival is about trying to understand the most alien culture imaginable. Perhaps the populist critique of Hollywood’s “bubble” should burst.

What are your Oscar predictions?

Clearly, La La Land is positioned to dominate. To hedge on my challenge to the “bubble” critique, Hollywood loves to celebrate movies about Hollywood. I’m sure it is a charming and deserving film, but I would be disappointed if it sweeps up the majority of the categories, as there are so many other compelling and original nominees.

Mel Gibson and Casey Affleck were both nominated this year, despite their checkered pasts outside the film industry. How much do you think individuals’ personal lives should impact their eligibility for industry awards?

What a sticky question. After Sundance, The Birth of a Nation was poised to help resolve the “Oscars so white” issue. I suspect revelations about Nate Parker’s rape charges put an end to that. There were clearly a range of other factors at play as well—that Parker is so prominently the film’s “auteur,” that the narrative hinges upon sexual violence, and the apparent racial anxieties around black male sexuality, to name a few—and perhaps other films of greater merit, such as Moonlight, resolved this.

In general, I tend to weigh the work over the individual, but I also don’t have the burden of a vote in the academy, and absolutely understand why many people would not lean that way. Mel Gibson is an interesting case, as much of his work seems to reflect his inner demons and worldview, and, like Woody Allen (with so many films about neurotic New Yorkers and very young women), it is difficult to disconnect the two.

I would be reluctant to award Gibson personally, but I find the spectacular brutality and masochism on display oddly fascinating. An interesting example of this is the rather cool reception of director Elia Kazan when he received an honorary award in 1999. Kazan was a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Communist influences in Hollywood, and many writers were blacklisted because of this. If Gibson or Affleck win, you’ll likely see many in the theater sit on their hands.


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