Each year's Oscar nominations provoke both cheers and eye rolls, and 2018 is no exception. Directing and Original Screenplay nods to Jordan Peele for Get Out, and Best Picture plus Best Actor nominations for Daniel Kaluuya? Cool. A Best Picture slot for The Post despite zero recognition in the technical categories, or anywhere other than Meryl Streep’s expected nomination? Weird. Best Director nods for two first-timers (Peele and Greta Gerwig)? A terrific boost for their careers. A Best Actor nomination for Denzel Washington? Clearly, given Roman J. Israel, Esq.'s low box office numbers, more Academy members saw his performance than did paying customers.
The most encouraging news to be gleaned from this year’s nominations is that the industry appears to have turned a corner after the #OscarsSoWhite debacle. With Mary J. Blige (Mudbound) and Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) in the Supporting Actress category (along with Kaluuya and Washington in Best Actor), a fifth of the 20 nominated actors are black. Nominations don’t tell the whole story, of course, but you can’t get nominated if you don’t get cast. If the visibility and heat brought to bear by #OscarsSoWhite is resulting in more roles for actors of color, well, keep the pressure on.
From a gender-equality perspective, the nomination of Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) in the Cinematography category -- the first woman to be so recognized -- is a huge development. Director Dee Rees (along with co-writer and producer Virgil Williams) was recognized for the adapted screenplay for Mudbound, while Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) and Emily V. Gordon (The Big Sick, co-written with Kumail Najiani) were, as expected, nominated for Original Screenplay.
Last year’s movies were made in 2016 and don’t address the Trump effect, but the voting took place amid the ongoing #MeToo revelations. It’s conceivable that some Academy members didn’t watch perennial fave Kate Winslet’s performance in Wonder Wheel because there was no way they were going to endorse a Woody Allen movie. (To be clear, the charges leveled against him remain allegations.) But the nominations include an implicit acknowledgement of Hollywood’s sexual abuse scandals.
Christopher Plummer, who received a surprise nomination in the Supporting Actor category, was hired to replace the disgraced Kevin Spacey after All the Money in the World was finished, and to reshoot numerous scenes. Even if not a single presenter or winner mentions sexual harassment on Oscar Night -- an unlikely scenario -- we’ll be reminded of Spacey’s (and Weinstein’s) transgressions every time the camera focuses on Plummer.
Several other Academy Award-nominated films feature explorations of sexuality that would upset Mike Pence: the coming-of-age romance Call Me by Your Name (Best Picture, Actor: Timothee Chalemet; Adapted Screenplay: James Ivory, and Original Song) and the Chilean drama about a grieving transgender woman, A Fantastic Woman (Foreign Language).
Meanwhile, the aforementioned Mudbound (Netflix) and The Big Sick (Amazon) represent the Oscars’ highest-profile feature films from the major streaming services, who increasingly fancy themselves as mini-studios (with mammoth budgets). Netflix also scored with Icarus and Strong Island (both Documentary Feature) and Heroin(e) (Documentary Short), three prestigious nominations that should bolster the company’s longstanding embrace of quality nonfiction. (While offsetting Netflix’s bottomless inventory of lackluster true-crime series and docs.)
Speaking of docs, Bay Area filmmakers were shut out in categories where they frequently contend. Indeed, the only locals who will need to rent tuxedos are the sound artists and visual effects experts who worked on Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
It is customary, at this point, to expertly and decisively handicap the nominees and predict the winners. Actually, that’s sport for every moviegoer. I will just say that this year feels a lot like the last few, with several films attracting devoted constituencies -- with each film’s fans lukewarm toward the others. We can only count on two things for certain: a few new faces stepping into the spotlight and seizing their moment, and every star of any stature denouncing the current administration’s policies.