After 2021 brought way too many films to the table, Oscar season is once again here to try and narrow it all down!
Last year, my excitement was largely tempered due to the still-infancy of the pandemic, the expanded voting period and just overall fatigue with 2020 as a year. 2021 was different because, for as overwhelming as it could feel, there was still a sense that tastes in movies (and the discourse surrounding them) was shifting, the Academy being no different. So, imagine my pleasant surprise where, after going over the nominees for about a few hours after the initial announcements, I came to a conclusion I haven't had in a few years: The Oscar nominations this year are (overall) really good!
Sure, I wasn't as high on 'The Power of the Dog' as everyone else and I think the acclaim for 'Don't Look Up' is misguided at best, but take that out for a minute: the rest of the choices are artists, teams, and films I'm genuinely excited to see get recognized, even if it is only for that weird month-long period before the ceremony when casual movie fans are interested (and if you're one of those casual fans, welcome, thanks for hearing me out!).
Just like last year, I've narrowed down the categories to a few key snubs, genuine satisfactions, and befuddling surprises from the Academy voters. Spoilers, it's going to be me giving the Oscars the benefit of the doubt a lot which I know isn't the cool thing, but I also recognize that that level of respect only goes so far, take it for what you will.
Let's get to it, shall we?
SNUB: Denis Villeneuve ('Dune') for Best Director
Denis Villeneuve directs Rebecca Ferguson in 'Dune' from Warner Bros. Pictures
Photo Credit: TheThings – YouTube https://youtu.be/UvtiiuyO-gU
Alongside 'The Power of the Dog,' 'Dune' was the overachiever with the Academy this year. Nearly every major category giving some love to the Frank Herbert adaptation, including Greig Fraser's cinematography, Hans Zimmer's score and even in the coveted Best Picture category (a stern reminder that Academy can and will recognize "commercially successful" projects if the acclaim is there). Yet the mastermind behind it all, director Denis Villeneuve, wasn't included in the Best Directing category.
It's not like Villeneuve hasn't been a heavy contender during awards season, having garnered Golden Globe, Critics' Choice and Directors Guild of America nominations. Although that last one is interesting to note as the Academy basically went with that list of nominees, minus Villeneuve who lost the nomination to 'Drive My Car's Ryusuke Hamaguchi. It's tough for me to argue swapping out any of these directors, but maybe you keep Kenneth Branagh solely in Original Screenplay? Simply put, Villeneuve's coordination and vision on 'Dune' still feels unparalleled, and I think warranted attention as much as the film's other nominations.
SATISFACTION: 'The Mitchells vs. The Machines' for Best Animated Feature
Abbi Jacobson voices Katie Mitchell in 'The Mitchells vs. The Machines' from Netflix
"Satisfaction" doesn't seem like an ample word to describe how happy I was to see 'The Mitchells vs. The Machines' included amongst the Best Animated Feature nominees. The predictions I saw for Animated Feature basically boiled down to 'Sing 2' taking the fifth spot alongside 'Flee' (which also performed really well with the Academy) and Disney/Pixar's trio of offerings ('Raya and the Last Dragon,' 'Luca' and 'Encanto'). But I suppose I forgot Netflix nominations like 'Klaus' and 'Over the Moon' from the past few years when I heard 'The Mitchells vs. The Machines' name called, and literally started jumping with joy.
I've been banging the gong for this weird, lovely, hilarious movie since it came out last April, to the point where it wound up as my personal favorite animated movie of the year (and apparently Guillermo del Toro and Bong Joon-ho share my sentiments). It's a genuine blast of a movie, filled to the brim with animation tied intrinsically and perfectly to its characters and ideas. Michael Rianda and co. made a new classic and it's incredible to see a movie like this get recognized.
*side note: check out Michael Rianda's letter reacting to nomination, it's absolutely wonderful and I didn't think I could respect this team more.
SURPRISE: Germaine Franco ('Encanto') for Best Original Score
Germaine Franco composes the score for 'Encanto' from Walt Disney Animation Studios
Photo Credit: Mr Lucas – YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1AF3r5NVLmU
'Encanto' getting recognized by the Academy for its music was a no-brainer. But whereas most eyes were turned to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Sebastian Yatras' nomination in "Dos Oruguitas" (or the question of "why didn't Disney submit 'We Don't Talk About Bruno' in its place"), I had my jaw on the floor seeing Germaine Franco's score nominated as well.
For those unaware, Franco is best known for her work on 'Dora and the Lost City of Gold,' Nickelodeon's 'The Casagrandes,' and collaborating with Michael Giacchino on Pixar's 'Coco.' Following Hildur Guðnadóttir's nomination (and later win) for '2019's 'Joker,' Franco becomes the 10th female composer (and first Latina woman) to ever be nominated in the category. As a score junkie, seeing composers be recognized as much as the songs Disney often pushes feels really rewarding, and I'm genuinely happy to see her be part of the nominees.
SNUB: "So May We Start" (Sparks) for Best Original Song
Ron and Russell Mael appear in 'Annette' from Amazon Studios
Photo Credit: Sparks – YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWb3KpvAz8s
If you checked out my review of Edgar Wright's 'The Sparks Brothers' last summer, I pointed out how Sparks' Ron and Russell Mael were having a bit of a renaissance in 2021. Aside from the documentary and the acclaim that came with it, they were also set to score Leos Carax's then-upcoming musical, 'Annette,' a movie that I have complicated feelings on. But there's one thing I've been sure of since I saw it: "So May We Start" absolutely rules!
The film's opening number was a fantastic way to set the mood: fourth-wall breaking lyrics, that killer piano melody, and cast members Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helbig joining in on the madness. Plus, if it had been nominated, what better way to kick off this year's Oscar ceremony than with a song LITERALLY about getting ready to start an event? Of any year for Sparks to be recognized, the fact that neither the documentary, nor the band's musical achievements, got love from the Academy is heartbreaking, especially as a new fan.
SATISFACTION: Penelope Cruz ('Parallel Mothers') AND Kristen Stewart ('Spencer') for Best Actress
Kristen Stewart ('Spencer') and Penelope Cruz ('Parallel Mothers') are nominated for Best Actress
Photo Credits: Movieclips Trailers - YouTube https://youtu.be/ORvPh_gdD_M
// Sony Pictures Classics – YouTube https://youtu.be/cL6JDYkRa2g
Oh, this was satisfying on so many levels. I'm looping these two together because I they're both picks that were getting mixed odds in a lot of betting pools. As the Best Actress lineup was announced, Jessica Chastain and Olivia Colman were surprises to no one. Then Penelope Cruz's name showed up and I wanted to reprimand every Oscar predictor I follow. Without recognition from the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, or SAG awards, Cruz's performance as a complicated woman going through new motherhood managed to strike enough of a chord with voters, and any love for 'Parallel Mothers' is frankly a good thing.
But then the last nominee popped up and instead of favorites like 'House of Gucci's Lady Gaga or 'The Worst Person in the World's Renate Reinsve, the Academy defied every expectation and went with Kristen Stewart for 'Spencer.' In the best way, I screamed. The lack of awards consideration for 'Spencer' has baffled me for months (*cough cough, no Claire Mathon for cinematography*), and yet seeing Kristen Stewart's ethereal, tangled portrayal of Princess Diana is just so great to see, let alone for longtime fans of hers who've seen her talent since the 'Twilight' era. Needless to say, she's got my vote.
SURPRISE: Multiple nominations for 'Drive My Car'
Hidetoshi Nishijima and Tōko Miura star in 'Drive My Car' from Bitters End
Photo Credit: The Match Factory - YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygd7rVkiM-c
I remember in 2020 the shift that took place around Oscar conversations, specifically with 'Parasite's win for Best Picture. The cynic in a lot of pundits looked to decades of excluding international cinema as reason enough, but just look at what one film could do, right? Well, as it turns out, 2021 saw some pretty major blows to those norms. Denmark (and others') 'Flee' became the first film to be nominated for Best Documentary, International Film and Animated Film in the same year and Norway's 'The Worst Person in the World' snagged an Original Screenplay nod in a packed year.
Then came 'Drive My Car,' the latest from Japan's Ryusuke Hamaguchi that critics absolutely adored (and I include myself among them), but whose three-hour runtime and meditative pacing could be a challenge for voters. Yeah, forget that, because 'Drive My Car' not only garnered an International Film nomination, but nominations for Adapted Screenplay, Best Director for Hamaguchi and Best Picture. Again, for a year as packed with noteworthy movies as 2021 was, for a film like 'Drive My Car' to succeed on the level it did isn't just representative of its quality, but the Academy and the film world as a whole.
'Drive My Car's nominations, along with 'Flee' and 'The Worst Person in the World,' feel like the next moving of the dial: more diversity and expansions to the Academy voting body, more ways for voters to see more movies, and more movies being advocated for by those who know voters. It's not nearly enough to make the Oscars the institution they so desperately want to be, but 'Drive My Car's success on this level is worth noting, and I'm certainly rooting for it all the way.
What were your reactions to the recent Oscar announcements? What got snubbed? Are 'Belfast' and 'The Power of the Dog' sure things this year, or is the Academy more split than we realize?
Want to follow me on social media? Follow me on Twitter and IG @TheMovieKing45, and check out my podcast, 'Plot Devices,' on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.