2020 Oscar Nominations: A Deep Dive into the The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

After months of punditry around release dates, controversies, and the choices other awards shows made, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences released their nominations for the 2020 Academy Awards yesterday morning. On the heels of last week’s Golden Globes and last nights Critic’s Choice Awards, the Oscar nominations constitute the final push of awards season, elevating some movies to a new level of contention, while cutting short other hopefuls. 

As is the case every year, the 2020 nominations are a mixed bag of exciting recognition, shocking omission, and more than a little abject confusion. For a full list of nominees click here, and read on for my take on all things good, bad, and ugly from the Academy’s decisions. This is a deep but incomplete look into the implications and storylines running through this year’s awards season, and I will be honest, there was a lot more I found to be disappointed by than excited about. But, without further ado, here we go:


The Good

I Lost My Body (2019) 

What happens when a novel by Guillaume Laurant, the screenwriter behind Amélie (2001), about a hand separated from its body is adapted into a French-language animated film for Netflix? Why, you end up with one of the most moving and inventive pieces of narrative animation from the last decade. I Lost My Body (2019) is the kind of movie that reminds me why I fell in love with filmmaking to begin with: it moves beyond the constraints of any standard method of storytelling to foreground the power of images. In telling the story of a young man named Naoufel (voiced in French by Hakim Faris) and his hand, whom is trying desperately to locate his eponymous body, director Jérémy Claplin and his animation unit uncover the ways in which lived experience is filtered through the fundamental concept of what we can feel in our hands. The film plays with time and perception to blend together the disparate narratives of Naoufel’s memories, the hand’s pursuit of locating its missing body, and Naoufel’s experiences leading up to his separation from his hand with impressive ease. Though, the greatest achievement of this film may be that it makes an animated hand expressive and dynamic enough to be the lead character in a movie. 


Jarin Blaschke nominated for The Lighthouse cinematography

Robert Egger’s The Lighthouse (2019) is equal parts neo-expressionist horror movie, twisted buddy movie, and study in claustrophobia. It is a bold filmmaking statement that expands on Egger’s expressed thematic and stylistic interests, which were on display in his previous directorial effort The Witch (2016). There are many ways that it could have gone wrong and strayed too far into the realm of ‘weird for the sake of being weird’ instead of remaining squarely in the camp of ‘artistically bold.’ Egger’s directorial might paired with the commitment of performances from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are no doubt instrumental to the film’s ability to stay on this track, but I personally found that Jarin Blaschke’s luscious and unsettling cinematography is what held it all together. Working with a black and white palette somewhere between Ansel Adams and Nosferatu (1922), Blaschke captures the twisted events in a wash of shadow that would make Gordon Willis proud. It’s a shame that The Lighthouse couldn’t garner more Academy support, but Blaschke’s work is a true highlight from the piece, and well worth the nomination.


Florence Pugh and Saoirse Ronan recognized for Little Women

Let there be no question: as far as I’m concerned, Little Women (2019) is one of the best films of the year by any metric (more on that later). One of the cornerstones of this fact is that each of the March sisters and the many supporting characters around them are brought to life by a breathtakingly talented ensemble of performances. Standing at the front of this are Florence Pugh and Saoirse Ronan, whose work playing Amy and Jo March, respectively, is captivating. Pugh, who has had an incredible run of movies of which Little Women is just the latest entry, imbues the much-derided youngest March sister with a wounded vulnerability and panache that does what no other performance has ever done: make me empathize with Amy March. Pugh’s performance would be the crowning gem of the movie if it wasn’t for Ronan, who enlivens Jo with such ternacity and contagious passion that she blows everyone else off the screen whenever she arrives. I have long argued Ronan is shaping up to be one of the most formidable performers of her generation, and this performance solidifies that fact. Both women deserve all the recognition they can get.


Antonio Banderas nominated for Pain & Glory

At this point, it’s fair to say that Antonio Banderas is deeply underappreciated and underrecognized. In a career spanning nearly 40 years that has shown him slip comfortably into roles as diverse as action heroes, loving fathers, and tortured minds, Banderas has consistently shown an ability to command the screen. This can be effectively encapsulated by his decades-spanning friendship and creative partnership with Pedro Almodóvar, one that has finally secured Banderas his first-ever Oscar nomination for his work in Almodóvar’s most recent film, Pain & Glory (2019). The film has garnered many comparisons to Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) due to the two films’ shared focus on a director late in life contemplating his legacy and if he will ever make a movie again, and I would argue that the comparisons should extend beyond content into form because Almodóvar delivers a searingly vulnerable piece of art that contends with the shadow Fellini left. At the heart of it is Banderas’ performance, one that is equal parts shattered, warm, and comical. He captures the existential dread of the movie, but never loses the flash and charisma that has made him such a longstanding star. It is gifted work, and it’s about time he earned some recognition for it.


The Bad

*I have so many feelings about The Farewell  and Uncut Gems getting snubbed all over the place that I am saving that for The Ugly. It is too awful to be kept in The Bad.

Snubbing Lupita Nyong’o 

Whatever you have to say about Jordan Peele’s sophomore directorial effort Us (2019), I will fight you if you are to even lightly imply that anything about Lupita Nyong’o’s central performance is even a hair short of showstopping. Us showed an expansion of Peele’s directorial style from Get Out (2017) that was at times breathtaking, and, at others, slightly ungainly. As I wrote for this site, I’m a big fan of the film, but I also recognize the shortcomings that come with linked to trying to do so much in one film. Nonetheless, the one thing that worked in every scene was Nyong’o’s dual performance as both Adelaide Wilson and her doppelganger Red. The way that she switched between inspiring feelings of dread as Red, and echoing the beats of a classical scream queen mixed with an action hero badass as Adelaida was gloriously unsettling. One of Nyong’o’s greatest assets through her whole career has been the way that she can manipulate her face, and to capture Adelaide’s nerviness in one shot and then transform into Red’s bone-chilling visage in the next remains one of the most impressive acting feats I saw last year. The fact that she was left out of the nominees when less-deserving performances won out (more on that in a second) is deeply upsetting.


No acting nominations for Parasite

Not that anyone asked, but if it were up to me, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019) would win all of the awards. Ho’s searing satire of class relationships in South Korea is the best movie I saw all year, if not one of the best movies I’ve seen in the last five years. Now, I should recognize the fact that Parasite is nominated for six Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture, so it is not as if the Academy has decided to wholesale ignore the artistry. However, not a single one of those six nominations comes for a performance delivered in the movie, which is truly a crime. Kang-ho Son, Yeo-jong Jo, So-dam Park, and Sun-kyun Lee all do work more than worthy of recognition in portraying the parallel Kim and Park families as they rise and fall in conjunction with one another. Parasite is as much psychological horror as it is a twisted comedy of manners, and no aspect of that works without a cast made up of performers who can successfully modulate between the tones and stances of the film. Kang-ho Son and So-dam Park are particularly balletic in the ways they inspire empathy and elicit disgust from moment to moment as we wonder who we should be rooting for. It is a great shame that one inch of screen most likely stopped the Academy from recognizing their work. 


Nominations for a reputation and not a performance

The Academy loves celebrities. This may be an obvious statement seeing as the Academy is in large part made up of said celebrities, but I point it out because the direct result of this fact is that performers often score nominations not because their work was particularly accomplished, but rather because they are someone that people like and want to see at the Academy Awards. The result of this feeling is the inclusion of a number of nominations each year that seem to exist solely because the performer has a reputation of being liked, and a history with the Academy. Those spots this year belong to, in my mind, Anthony Hopkins, Kathy Bates, and Scarlett Johansson. I love each of these performers, but I cannot justify their inclusion in their respective categories when it means leaving great work unrecognized. Hopkins does a fine job as Pope Benedict in The Two Popes (2019), but it carries little of the intensity of Silence of the Lambs (1991), or the quiet desperation of Howard’s End (1992). Bates is equally fine in Richard Jewell (2019), but she never rises above the fact that her character is a classic ‘concerned mother’ trope and not a real person. This isn’t Bates’ fault, rather the writing, but it also doesn’t mean she does any inspired acting. With Johansson, I am quite happy with her inclusion in Best Actress for Marriage Story (2019), but did we really need to nominate her in Best Supporting Actress for Jojo Rabbit (2019) as well? She was fine and had a couple good scenes, but her and Bates’ inclusion means truly moving work from someone like Shuzshen Zhao in The Farewell (2019) was excluded. Unacceptable. 


Todd Phillips nominated for deeply uninspired directing

I’ll save most of this rant for a slot in the next section, but I would be remiss not to point out the fact Todd Phillips secured an Oscar nomination for doing a feature length bad impression of a Martin Scorsese movie. Joker (2019) wants so badly to be a hybrid of King of Comedy (1982) and Taxi Driver (1976) that it never leaves room for any directorial originality. The only thing that makes the movie watchable is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. Phillip’s inclusion in this category when so many deserving filmmakers were ignored is tantamount to a cinematic felony. More on that momentarily. 


The Ugly

There are no female directing nominees

It comes as no surprise that the Academy has an issue with recognizing women. That in a year when Greta Gerwig, Lorene Scafaria, Marielle Heller, Lulu Wang, and Mati Dop all delivered awards-worthy directorial efforts, the Academy still chose to elevate middling male directorial work over recognizing even one woman is truly, well, fucked up. This is not to say that the Best Director category is made up entirely of undeserving nominees. Quentin Tarantino did some of the best work of his career with Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019), and Bong Joon Ho made the best movie of the year in Parasite. Yet, while I do not disagree that Martin Scorsese is a national treasure and The Irishman (2019) is a superb film, I find it hard to argue that anything he did within the confines of that movie was better than Gerwig’s work on Little Women. Furthermore, Todd Phillips has no business being included in the category for his steaming heap of trash when Lulu Wang orchestrated a visual feast in The Farewell. The Directing wing of the Academy needs to take a hard look at the way that they reward old guard male directors without recognizing the visionary work of younger women because their continued inability to self-reflect is ruining any spot of validity they have left. 


The Farewell and Uncut Gems being shut out….

The Farewell and Uncut Gems (2019) are supremely well-constructed films. The Farewell melds arthouse impressionism with a tender portrait of a family that is filtered through an impressive balance of grief and humor. Awkwafina and Shuzshen Zhao give performances on par with anything nominated this year, and Lulu Wang effectively announces herself as a bold cinematic voice. Similarly, Uncut Gems is a filmmaking masterclass in how to build a tone and commit to it in every minute and every shot. The sound design is abrasive in a way that matches the feverish resolve of Adam Sandler’s virtuoso performance, and the Safdie brothers direct it in a way that captures the kinetic reality of the New York City Diamond District. These two movies, shining examples of what filmmaking should be about, were shut out of the Oscars. How this happened is a mystery to me. Both films showed strong awards season pedigree, scoring important prerequisite nominations, and both Wang and Sandler were consistent presences on the awards trail. If that paired with the supreme quality of the movies wasn’t enough to push them over the line, then I don’t know what is.


….while Joker scores 11 nominations

The number of things I would like to say about this is many, but the number of them that can be printed on this website are few, so I will leave it at this; less than a year removed from Green Book (2018) winning Best Picture, the fact that I may have to get used to the idea that Joker could sweep this year is a travesty. This film is morally bankrupt, intellectually desolate, and does not deserve to be in the conversation. 


The Academy failing to properly represent one of the most exciting years in recent movie history

At the end of the day, this was one of my favorite years of movie-going in a long time. There were more movies released this year that I deeply loved than any year in recent memory. Many of these, such as Parasite, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, I Lost my Body, Little Women, and Marriage Story are well represented. Yet, many others are inexplicably left out in the cold. What this says to me is that the continued struggles for the Academy to modernize go beyond even their massive failings on the diversity, equity, and inclusion front to reveal that they are resistant to update their definition of what impressive filmmaking is. The Farewell, Uncut Gems, Knives Out (2019), and Atlantics (2019) represent a group of young, visionary filmmakers showing off what they can do, and hopefully giving us a taste of what will come. If the Academy fails to upgrade, they risk falling so far out of touch that soon no one will care what they have to say.

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