The Academy Award nominations: Oscars so woke?

No token nominations here – films like Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures are up for major prizes


Whether consciously or unconsciously, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences nominated an especially diverse slate of films, performances and artistic accomplishments for this year’s Oscars.

As the nominations were announced this morning – in a format-breaking infomercial that strained to add some edge and dazzle to the resolutely square tradition of bleary-eyed movie stars stumbling through a 5:30 am press conference – it became clear that films like Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures weren’t just receiving token recognition but contending for major prizes.

Ruth Negga was nominated for best actress for her performance as Mildred Loving in Loving – the only nomination for Jeff Nichols’s low-key but powerful drama. Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali, long considered a favourite for best supporting actor, was indeed nominated in that category, alongside Lion’s Dev Patel. (Moonlight is up for a total of eight awards, including best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay.)

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Loving

Denzel Washington pulled nominations for best picture and best actor for Fences, which he also directed the playwright August Wilson was nominated for adapted screenplay, and Viola Davis is up for best supporting actress along with two other women of colour, Moonlight’s Naomie Harris and Hidden Figures’ Octavia Spencer, who won that prize five years ago for The Help.

The documentary feature category nominated three ambitious studies of race relations in America: Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro (set to open in Toronto February 24), Ezra Edelman’s epic TV series OJ: Made In America and Ava DuVernay’s The 13th. (Also nominated: Gianfranco Rosi’s refugee study Fire At Sea and Roger Ross Williams’s Life, Animated, about a father who communicates with his autistic son through Disney cartoons.)

HIDDEN FIGURES

Hidden Figures

Still, the year’s biggest contender is La La Land, which tap-danced its way to 14 nominations – tying Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood musical with All About Eve and Titanic for that record. It seems unlikely that it’ll match the record of 11 wins shared by Ben-Hur, Titanic and The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, however there’s some fierce competition in the technical categories, and while I loved their performances I wouldn’t bet on either Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone taking home an acting prize.

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea scored six nominations, including expected nods for Lonergan’s original screenplay and for Casey Affleck as best actor, Michelle Williams as supporting actress. But it also landed in the picture and director races, and seeing Lucas Hedges nominated for best supporting actor was a really nice surprise.

Less pleasant, as surprises go, was seeing Hacksaw Ridge muscle into the conversation. Mel Gibson’s Christian-pandering war movie scored six nominations, including major nods for picture, director, and actor Andrew Garfield – whose genuinely great performance in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, as another true believer whose faith is tested, went unacknowledged. (Scorsese’s powerful meditation on belief and commitment was almost totally ignored by the Academy, which nominated Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography – and nothing else.)

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Manchester by the Sea

It’s not that surprising to see Gibson claw his way back to respectability – Hollywood loves a redemption narrative – but I’m really disappointed to see the Academy make a one-note mediocrity like Hacksaw Ridge as a major contender.

In local-interest news, Ryan Gosling was nominated for La La Land! Yay! (But not for The Nice Guys, which was his best and most thrilling performance last year, so, boo.) Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only The End Of The World, put forward as Canada’s national submission for the foreign-language feature award, didn’t make the final five – though even if it had, it would surely have lost to Maren Ade’s magnificent Toni Erdmann, which did make the cut. (Ade’s film opens in Toronto on Friday. Prepare for greatness.)

But even the fiercely loyal Quebec media won’t be wringing their hands for very long, since his fellow Montrealer Denis Villeneuve landed his first nomination for best director for Arrival – one of eight nominations for that film, including picture, adapted screenplay and cinematography.

ARRIVAL

Photo Credit: Jan Thijs

Arrival

It’s a bittersweet triumph, since star Amy Adams, whose performance vaults the film from cerebral sci-fi drama to devastating emotional experience, was snubbed in the best actress category.

Maybe it was just a really busy year. Annette Bening, who’d built some serious buzz of her own for Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women, was also excluded, while Meryl Streep racked her 20th nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins. Also nominated, alongside the aforementioned Negga and Stone, were Isabelle Huppert for Elle and Natalie Portman for Jackie it’s gonna be a tough race to call.

Best animated feature will be similarly tricky, with Kubo And The Two Strings, Moana, My Life As A Zucchini, The Red Turtle (which opens in Toronto Friday) and Zootopia forming the strongest lineup for that category in a very long time. (Is this the first year where Disney Animation scores two slots while Pixar gets none?)

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Zootopia

But for all the uncertainty, there were some very pleasant surprises – like Michael Shannon, who is literally the only good thing in Tom Ford’s ridiculous Nocturnal Animals, getting that film’s sole nomination for best supporting actor, or Nicholas Britell’s delicate, unimposing score for Moonlight being recognized alongside the showier music of Jackie or Lion … or, um, Passengers?

Yeah, La La Land will probably take the prize on awards night, but the recognition matters. Recognition always matters.

The 89th Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday February 26 at the Dolby Theater. Don’t miss: when the Oscars gets it wrong

normw@nowtoronto.com | @normwilner

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