Nice Guys Finish Last: Thoughts on the Oscar Nominations

The Academy's documentary branch blows it again and snubs Mr. Rogers
Pardon the late commentary but it’s been a crazy day and I don’t simply mean because of the Oscar nominations. This morning’s spectacularly pleasing and infuriating announcement of the Academy Award nominations yielded a mix of outrageous snubs and wonderful surprises. It’s hard to be mad about what went down with the list of contenders rhymed off by announcers Kumail Nanjiani and Tracee Ellis Ross, but it’s tough to be completely satisfied. Any way one looks at it though, this morning’s live stream had about one upset per category, yielded myriad formulae for possible outcomes, and made a case that every category emphatically deserves to be in the ceremony broadcast. We need to see every win if the Oscars are going to be as engagingly unpredictable as their early morning nomination announcement. Every category matters.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. My heart absolutely sank when they rhymed off the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature and ended with RBG. This news meant that Morgan Neville’s Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? missed the cut. As readers know, Neighbor? was my pick for best movie of2018. It’s an outrageous snub, because it is an impeccably crafted documentary with an accessible and actionable message to make sense of divisive times, and it had a huge level of support behind it. The film accumulated numerous wins from festivals and film critics groups, and netted the industry honour of the Producers Guild of America Award this past weekend. It was also a massive box office success with a haul of over $20 million, so it’s a curious omission given that the Academy is placing increasing emphasis on rewarding popular films, especially since this is a case where a popular film’s…actually good! The snub bizarrely mirrors the shaft that the doc branch gave to Brett Morgen’s Jane last year after it was left off the final ballot despite steamrolling the precursor awards and being considered the one to beat by virtually every pundit.

It’s hard to speculate about the snub. Perhaps the doc branch, notorious for passing over previous winners, simply didn’t feel like giving Neville another trophy when 20 Feet From Stardom won only five years ago. They also have a reputation for giving the cold shoulder to box office hits with a bizarre pattern that essentially punishes documentaries for being successful. Maybe even the political winds influenced voters to an extent – even colloquially speaking, a colleague I share an office with made a point of praising the Academy for “thankfully not nominating yet another film about a white guy.” My response to her was that’s a very narrow-minded way of looking at this specific film. Won’t You Be My Neighbour? invites audiences to recall Rogers’ message for empathy, inclusion, tolerance, and love when being a toxic parasite is now the knee-jerk response too often for far too many people. Why the aversion to kindness, Oscar voters? 

I say the same to the members of the documentary branch: you missed the point. I think it’s incredibly sad if one overlooks superior filmmaking simply because it is “isn’t woke enough” on a superficial level. (Doubly so when when a film explicitly engages with such concerns.) I say the same if one diminishes a film’s artistic merits if it is also accessible and connects with audiences. Perhaps it’s worth revisiting an article that Adam Benzine contributed to The Hollywood Reporter last year that did a fair bit of digging and proposed that the Jane snub was reflective of something rotten in the documentary branch with members leaving it off the ballot to prevent it from netting a win. One can argue a win for Neighbor might have been inevitable if a nomination served it up to the greater membership in the final round of voting. But vote as a group to bolster a potential contender, not to take one down.

With that being said, I do really like the five documentaries that are nominated: Free Solo, Of Fathers and Sons, RBG, Minding the Gap (woo hoo!), and Hale County This Morning, This Evening. I find it a bit silly to see RBG there in lieu of Mr. Rogers in that it is far more simplified as a straightforward, borderline hagiographic portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but there’s no denying that it’s one of the movies of the moment that made a major contribution to documentary in 2018. But why the double standard?

Other snubs that stung included the shafting of nice guy Bradley Cooper in the Best Director category for his impressive debut A Star is Born. But boohoo to Bradley: he has to settle for nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Hopefully this snub gives him some momentum to win the Best Actor prize he deserves. I'm also bummed, but not surprised, that Destroyer's Karyn Kusama missed out for her riveting direction, while Nicole Kidman came up empty for her two contenders, Boy Erased and Destroyer, my favourite performance of 2018.

Cooper’s omission made room for one of the morning’s best surprises: a Best Director nomination for Cold War’s Pawel Pawlikowski. Don’t miss this exceptionally crafted and heartbreaking film when it opens Friday. In a war, it’s A Star is Born set in post-war Poland with two tragic alcoholics for the price of one.

On the foreign language film front, I was sad to see Birds of Passage miss the cut, but not entirely surprised. The film had virtually no campaign. The team behind the film just didn’t make it available to critics’ group and other players throwing support, exposure, and momentum to the contenders. I lobbied for the film’s inclusion at both the Toronto Film Critics Association awards and the Online Film Critics Society awards, but we were told a flat-out ‘no’ in both cases. If you don’t make a film available to people, they can’t vote for it.

The good news, however, is that this year probably has the best field of foreign contenders in a very long time. Poland’s Cold War faces off against Japan’s Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; Germany’s Never Look Away, which also scooped at out-of-nowhere cinematography nomination that it completely deserved; Nadine Labaki’s devastating and impeccably crafted Capernaum; and Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning Roma, which scored a whopping 10 nominations and might make history with a Best Picture win for Netflix. All in all, this might be the most internationally-oriented field of overall nominees in years with two foreign films in the director category, three in cinematography (two of which are black and white), and Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira scoring surprise acting nominations. 

Roma doesn’t have the perfect formula for a win, though. The film missed a key nomination, Best Film Editing, which traditionally is essential for a Best Picture win. Since 1981, only one film has won Best Picture without landing a film editing nomination: Birdman, the long take wonder by Cuarón’s amigo Alejandro González Iñárritu. However, the nominations in the acting categories indicate a strong show of support for Roma and the 10 nominations suggest that the perceived aversion to Netflix is all but over. The streaming site also scooped four surprise nominations for the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to make for a very good morning. After putting my money on A Star is Born since September, I’m inclined to shift my bet to Roma.

Like Roma, no Best Picture nominee has all the boxes checked for a win. Green Book, dubbed the frontrunner by many pundits after scoring the People’s Choice Award at TIFF, three Golden Globes, and the PGA win, missed a Best Director nomination for Peter Farrelly. The consoling point for Farrelly might be that one of the only films to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination is Driving Miss Daisy, to which Green Book is frequently compared. To add historical parallels, Spike Lee is finally in the running, but seems destined to lose to Driving Miss Daisy again.

The Favourite, on the other hand, ties Roma with the most nominations, but it doesn’t have the all-important Directors Guild of America nomination behind it. You have to back again to Driving Miss Daisy to find a film that won Best Picture without a DGA nom. But it’s spectacular to see Yorgos Lanthimos’s darkly funny romp receive so much support, especially for the performances by Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Olivia Colman, the latter having a fair chance to upset Glenn Close or Lady Gaga in a fairly tight Best Actress race.

It’s also hard to be completely cheesed about the nominations when Canadian filmmakers received lots of love. Canuck talent cleaned up in the shorts category. Alison Snowden and David Fine’s Animal Behvaiour (the NFB's 75th nominee) faces off against Hamilton’s Trevor Jimenez with Weekends and Toronto’s Domee Shi with Bao in the animated category, while Jeremy Comte and Maria Gracia Turgeon’s Fauve joins Marianne Farley and Marie-Hélène Panisset’s Marguerite in the live action race. Unfortunately, Charlie Tyrell’s My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes missed in the documentary short category, but hopefully a title like that (and a film that great) will find more love from the Canadian Screen Awards when the nominations are announced in two weeks.

What nominations or snubs surprised you?