This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Mad Mel. Meryl. Music, music, music.
And, most importantly, diversity.
As expected, Oscar voters were singing “La La Land”’s song on Tuesday morning when the contenders for the 89th Academy Awards were announced. The musical salute to Hollywood hopes and dreams claimed a record-tying 14 nominations, a feat previously achieved by 1950’s “All About Eve” and 1997’s “Titanic.”
But monopolizing the ballot is one thing. Winning is another. No musical has taken home a Best Picture trophy since 2002’s “Chicago,” which earned 13 nods and led to a revival of the genre that was a staple in the Golden Age of film. What sets “La La Land” apart, however, is that it is an original story with all new songs and not based on a Broadway show or other source. The last time that a musical written just for the big screen was up for Oscar’s biggest prize was 2001's “Moulin Rouge!”
On a more serious note, after two years of only white performers making the cut, the list of 20 actors nominated boasts the most nominees of color ever with seven making the cut: Denzel Washington (“Fences”), Ruth Negga (“Loving”), Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”), Viola Davis (“Fences”), Octavia Spencer (“Hidden Figures”) and Dev Patel (“Lion”). That tops 2004’s roster of five, including Jamie Foxx doubling up as both a lead (“Ray”) and a supporting actor (“Collateral”).
Then there is Barry Jenkins, whose “Moonlight” claimed eight nominations. He is just the fourth black filmmaker to be nominated for Best Director. And, as Chazelle’s biggest competition, he could become the first to win. The documentary category also did its part to put #OscarsSoWhite on the shelf at least for this year with such racially-themed selections as “I Am Not Your Negro,” “O.J.: Made in America” and “13th.”
For those who believe no Oscar competition is complete without the presence of Meryl Streep, the grand dame of Tinseltown, who has three statuettes already, adds to her acting nods record with number 20 for her pitch-impaired opera diva in “Florence Foster Jenkins.”
Anyone looking for a comeback story to carry Hollywood’s longest evening of self congratulations on Feb. 26 will find it with the embattled Mel Gibson and his war movie “Hacksaw Ridge,” which claimed six spots on the ballot. Many thought the graphic World War II film about a real-life medic and conscientious objector who won the Medal of Honor would find room in the Best Picture race. But Gibson, whose only other Oscar bids were his two for the 1996 battlefield epic “Braveheart” that turned into wins for picture and director, managed to squeeze into the director’s category again while bumping “Fences'" Washington, “Lion"'s Garth Davis (who is up for a Directors Guild award) and “Silence"'s Martin Scorsese out of contention.
Then there were the snubs. The good news was that so many of last year’s most-acclaimed releases offered rich roles for women, including “Arrival,” “La La Land,” “Hidden Figures,” “Fences,” “ Elle” and “Jackie,” that it turned the Best Actress race into the most crowded field. But such an abundance means some worthy performances just won’t make the final five. That includes two especially overdue-for-a-win actresses: Five-time nominee Amy Adams, whose meditative sci-fi thriller “Arrival” tied “Moonlight'"s eight nods, and Annette Bening of the late-‘70s dramedy “20th Century Women.”
But it is hard to complain when French legend and “Elle” star Isabelle Huppert—whose career spans nearly 50 years—has never been recognized by the Academy. Just like Charlotte Rampling in “45 Years” last year, she has earned this spotlight.
Speaking of being taken for granted, Tom Hanks—a two-time winner whose last nomination was 16 long years ago for 2001’s “Cast Away”—didn’t achieve lead actor takeoff with his lauded work in the cockpit of “Sully.” And what does Hugh Grant, who was perfection as a sympathetic gigolo in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” have to do to finally catch Oscar’s eye? Given that he has shown a certain flair for song and dance over the years, I’d say the next male lead in an awards-worthy musical should be him.
While the nine-nominee Best Picture race mostly followed the script that has been in place since early fall—except perhaps the inclusion of the late-arriving crowd-pleaser "Hidden Figures"—there always are a few surprises when it comes to Oscar:
1. The “Nocturnal Animals” supporting conundrum. Early word was that Michael Shannon was the one to watch in filmmaker Tom Ford’s dark-hearted thriller. But then co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson took home a Golden Globe and was chosen to compete for a BAFTA. But Oscar went with Shannon, who previously was nominated for 2008’s “Revolutionary Road.”
2. Oscar’s choice, not the critics’. Obviously, the voters who qualify to fill out the technical categories can keep an objective eye since somehow the unloved sci-fi romance “Passengers” claimed two spots on the ballot for production design and original score. At least composter Thomas Newman’s 14th nomination has allowed the entire Newman musical clan (Alfred, Lionel, Emil, David and Randy) to a shared total of 90 nods, more than any other family. Meanwhile, the twisted superhero blockbuster “Suicide Squad” that took a beating from many a reviewer, was admired for its hair and makeup.
3. What is “Tanna”? This Down-Under foreign-language sleeper—a true-life Romeo and Juliet story set on the South Pacific island of Tanna—quietly slipped into the race, giving Australia its first nomination in this category. It most likely took the place of the stop-motion-animated “My Life as a Zucchini,” Switzerland’s official entry, which instead found a place among the titles competing for Best Animated Feature.
4. What’s up, docs? Few if any designated awards experts predicted that “The Empty Chair” from “Jim: The James Foley Story,” a documentary about a journalist who was killed by ISIS, would fill the fifth Best Original Song opening. But perhaps they didn’t realize that this is the seventh time a song from a doc feature has competed and the fifth in the past five years.
The 89th Academy Awards will be broadcast on Sunday, February 26th, on ABC. For the a printable ballot of the full nominees list, click here.
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