Academy Award nominations were announced Monday. Todd Phillips' “Joker” received 11 nods, the most of any film. Three other films tied for second place with 10: “The Irishman,” “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” and “1917.”
Notable omissions included Greta Gerwig for best director (although her fantastic “Little Woman” enjoyed nominations for best picture, for Gerwig’s adapted screenplay and two acting categories) and Jennifer Lopez for best supporting actress as a criminal stripper in “Hustlers.”
The Discourse among film connoisseurs was two-fold: (1) the Academy’s efforts to reward more diverse nominees has flopped and (2) nominating “Joker” — a comic-book movie with studio-approved grittiness — for so many awards signifies the Oscars' irrelevance.
Let’s talk diversity first. In recent years, the Academy has made efforts to adjust its membership guidelines and qualifying rules to be more inclusive of artists other than white guys. Some years have been better than others. Last year, three foreign-based filmmakers were nominated for best director.
There were notable omissions this year outside Gerwig and Lopez. Eddie Murphy should have been a shoo-in for best actor. Perhaps older viewers found “Dolemite is my Name” too coarse. It was coarse, but some of us didn’t use that as a disqualifier. Many (like me) predicted wins for cast members of Lulu Wang's Chinese-American family tale “The Farewell.” Perhaps voters decided the film wasn't very good. They would be correct, by the way.
Consider this: a record 64 women were nominated throughout all categories. This includes technical awards most people don’t think about. Also, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” becomes the first South Korean film to be nominated for best picture. Progress was made, but perhaps not visibly. Diversity is a path and not a destination, we must remind ourselves. Structural institutions need time to re-align.
What to make of Gerwig’s omission, after pulling off a tricky task — remaining true to a classic like “Little Women” yet making it fresh and relevant? Well, she was nominated just two years ago for directing “Lady Bird.” Only a handful of directors have ever been nominated for back-to-back directing projects, let along their first two films. Disappointing, but I bet we see her again in the near future.
Then there’s J-Lo. Legitimately robbed. I wonder if her performance played up her stardom too much. The Academy likes to reward "glamorous" actresses who take off their make-up, wear ratty clothes, and overcome hardship. “Pretty” performers often have to do this as some sort of twisted mea culpa. In “Hustlers,” Lopez uses her star wattage and sexuality to get what she wants. Too dangerous for Oscar.
Spanish actor Antonio Banderas was nominated for “Pain and Glory.” Some who decried the lack of diversity among nominees were also mad that Adam Sandler or Robert DeNiro weren’t nominated for best actor. Would those have been more diverse picks than Banderas?
Speaking of Sandler, his “Uncut Gems” got zero nominations; this omission enraged film critics who chastise the Academy for failing to celebrate risk. Sure, the Safdie Brothers captured the spirit of Martin Scorsese’s earlier work better than the cynical co-opting of the director’s classics in “Joker.” But this doesn’t make “Joker” a bad film — far from it. It’s wondrously ugly and eye-catching. Phoenix gives a performance unlike what audiences are used to seeing in a blockbuster. Even if the nods to Scorsese are calculated to make this comic-book film feel more artsy than it really is, those references still work.
One can argue “Joker” doesn’t actually have anything coherent to say about the social desperation it portrays. Phoenix's Arthur Fleck is mentally ill and beaten down. But does that connect to the class warfare he incites? Phillips doesn’t want to invest much into the issue, lest it be too off-putting. Sure, Thomas Wayne is portrayed as a bullying oligarch, but how that infects the masses of Gotham City is never clear.
In some ways, this makes “Joker” an ideal best picture candidate. As I said in my initial review, this will be a film that defines 2019. Flailing in frustration. Chaotically troubled with no guiding principles for relief. Sounds like everything we’ve just lived through.
Phillips, in his exquisite way, simply wants to document the chaos without illumination. After watching “Joker” three times, I admire this approach even if I hate him for doing it. “Joker” is the movie our culture deserves, for better or worse. We don’t want to understand each other; we just want to be angry.
People always complain about the Oscars — that’s part of the fun. Many deserving artists should have been nominated; many deserving artists did. Progress is being made, even if this year is a setback. Plus, “Joker” isn’t as bad as everyone else says. It’s just the miserable, nasty film that speaks to our country in its current state. I say give it all the Oscars just to watch the world burn.
In real life, James Owen is a lawyer and executive director of energy policy group Renew Missouri. He created/wrote for Filmsnobs.com from 2001-2007 before an extended stint as an on-air film critic for KY3, the NBC affiliate in Springfield. He was named a Top 20 Artist under the Age of 30 by The Kansas City Star when he was much younger than he is now.