Early on in the awards season, I joined other Academy Award pundits in fearing that after last year’s record seven nominees of color in the acting categories as well as four Best-Picture contenders with mostly non-white casts – including winner “Moonlight” - this year’s contest might be a reprise of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Diversity didn’t seem to be quite within reach.
How wrong we were. Judging from the roster of nominations in 24 categories that were announced on Tuesday morning, Hollywood’s most esteemed award also is now among its coolest. Not bad for a 90-year-old tradition.
The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences still has its share of 60-ish white men onboard making the picks – after all, change takes time. But the recent and much-needed injections of people of color in front and in back of the camera, youthfulness and female talent among its voting ranks after upping its membership from 6,261 in 2016 to its current 8,500, seems to have provided a much-needed shot of currency to its annual ritual. A hip injection rather than a hip replacement, as it were.
Consider that “The Shape of Water,” the brainchild of Mexican marvel Guillermo del Toro, whose imagination is as driven by B-movies such as 1954’s “Creature From the Black Lagoon” as it is by old-school musicals and Cold War paranoia for his romantic fairy tale, topped all competitors with 13 nominations, including picture and director. That’s just one short from equaling the record of 14 shared by “All About Eve,” “Titanic” and “La La Land.”
Yes, “Dunkirk” (in second place with eight nods) and “Darkest Hour” (in fourth with six ballot spots) are sterling examples of one of Oscar’s favorite genres, the war drama. Not that it helped “Wonder Woman,” the first major superhero film directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins), that got shut out despite being set during World War I. Alas, the Academy still isn’t open-minded enough yet to allow a comic-book thriller to duke it out for Best Picture.
Oldies but goodies were well-represented still. At 68, Meryl Streep – yes, her again - is back, increasing her never-topped nomination total to 21 for her portrayal of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham in “The Post,” which also gave a 10th Best Picture nomination for Steven Spielberg and extending his record. And here comes 63-year-old two-time winner Denzel Washington, too, gifted with his ninth stab at Oscar for his legal geek in "Roman J. Israel Esq." At age 88, Christopher Plummer – who became the oldest acting winner when he won a supporting prize for his role in 2011’s “Beginners” at age 82 – is now the oldest acting nominee at 88 for “All the Money in the World.”
Of course, the back story behind Plummer being cast in the movie – reshooting scenes in mere weeks that originally featured Kevin Spacey, currently mired in sexual harassment allegations – can be seen as a reward for pitching in to save Ridley Scott’s movie about the kidnapping of John Paul Getty. Washington's nomination might have come at the expense of a berth for James Franco, who won a Golden Globe for his performance in his self-directed comical ode to bad filmmaking, “The Disaster Artist.” But he has since been smeared with his own allegations of sexual misconduct, just in time to affect his Oscar chances. If voters wanted to make a “Time’s Up” statement, that is the way to do it.
But as much as the old guard is being paid homage this year, there is a sense that a new generation is breaking through and tearing down walls. James Ivory, the 89-year-old whose Oscar-nominated body of work as a director includes such classics as “A Room With a View,” “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day,” appears to be the frontrunner in the adapted screenplay category for his “Call Me By Your Name” script. On the other hand, the film’s breakthrough star, 22-year-old newcomer Timothée Chalamet, is the third youngest actor to compete as a lead and would be the youngest to win, beating out Adrien Brody’s 2002 triumph in “The Pianist” when he was 29.
But the generational quake was truly seismic in the directing, original screenplay and best-pic races, where many walls came a-tumbling down as a pair of two 30-something first-time solo directors convinced the Academy to pay respects to two of the least-respected genres when it comes to film awards – horror and comedy. With his scary satire “Get Out,” Jordan Peele, 38, is just the third true fright fest besides 1973’s “The Exorcist” and 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs” to compete. He is also just the fifth black helmer to be nominated, following John Singleton for 1991’s “Boyz n the Hood,” Lee Daniels for 2009’s “Precious,” 2012’s Steve McQueen for “12 Years a Slave” and Barry Jenkins for 2016’s “Moonlight.” No black winners yet but if a release that came out a year ago lingers this long on the minds of voters, it is a good sign. Also a plus is the recognition for male lead Daniel Kaluuya, who seemingly bumped “The Post’s” Tom Hanks out of the competition this year.
Joining Peele in breaking down barriers is Greta Gerwig, 34, the Mumblecore indie actress who becomes the 13th woman director to score a best-pic spot with “Lady Bird” and the fifth female filmmaker to slug it out in the directing category after Lina Wertmuller for 1976’s “Seven Beauties,” Jane Campion for 1993’s “The Piano,” Sofia Coppola for 2003’s “Lost in Translation” and Kathryn Bigelow, who won for 2009’s “The Hurt Locker.” Depending on how you define comedy – some think “Birdman” qualifies – only two other real comedies found their way into the Best Picture category this decade: 2010’s “The Kids Are All Right” and 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.”
One must not forget Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which ranks No. 2 with nine nominations – three of them for acting. Leading lady Frances McDormand and her supporting cohorts Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson seemed to capture the free-form anger, hate and fear that has been in the air after last year’s presidential election and detonate it in relatable fashion. It had an advantage in winning best ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild awards this past weekend, since actors are the biggest voting body.
Of course, some predicted nominees got lost in the dust while others suddenly came on strong. “The Post,” admired but not exactly groundbreaking, had to make do with actress and best picture. Hong Chau, who is of Vietnamese descent and was considered the one bright spot in “Downsizing,” got caught in an unexpected surge of support for Paul Thomas Anderson’s fashion designer fandango “Phantom Thread,” which tied “Darkest Hour” with six nominations. British actress Lesley Manville as fellow contender and soon-to-be-retired Daniel Day-Lewis’ imperious sister had the fifth slot sewn up instead.
But let’s applaud the ballot squad considering that, despite the backlash against streaming service pioneer Netflix's decision to show “Mudbound” online and in limited theater release simultaneously, the racially charged drama set in the Jim Crow South in World War II earned four nominations. That includes a groundbreaking nod for cinematographer Rachel Morrison, the first woman to be recognized in that category. Others up for honors include Mary J. Blige, competing for both supporting actress and song, and adapted screenplay by filmmaker Dee Rees. Meanwhile, Amazon’s “The Big Sick,” which opened in theaters before streaming, only has an original screenplay nom for writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon while Holly Hunter was skipped over in the supporting category.
Given that the March 4 ceremony is later than usual, thanks to the Winter Olympics monopolizing the airwaves, there are plenty of hours until then to fully digest what strides have been made in Oscarville. Yes, we will see many of the usual suspects at such swank events. But, at least this year, you will also witness the future of cinema as well. And woe to those in the prognosticating business who usually are able to whittle the field of best pictures down to two or three. This is and continues to be an anything-goes year – the kind where the apparent front-runner, “The Shape of Water,” failed to earn a chance at a SAG ensemble trophy. The last and only time a film won without one was 1995’s “Braveheart.” Another befuddlement: What is seen as its main rival, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” missed out on the directors category. If McDonagh takes home the Directors Guild award on Feb. 3, he might be able to pull off a Ben Affleck. Although he was similarly left out of the directing category in the 2012 contest, his “Argo” went claim best picture anyway. Since 1950, the DGA and Oscars have only disagreed seven times.
But for now, there is only one certainty: The night will be a nail-biter.
In closing, here is the full list of nominees...
“Call Me by Your Name”
“The Shape of Water”
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”
Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom Thread”
Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”
Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”
Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”
Woody Harrelson, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of Water”
Christopher Plummer, “All the Money in the World”
Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
“Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan
“Get Out,” Jordan Peele
“Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig
“Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro
“The Boss Baby,” Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito
“The Breadwinner,” Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo
“Coco,” Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson
“Ferdinand,” Carlos Saldanha
“Loving Vincent,” Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman
“Dear Basketball,” Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant
“Garden Party,” Victor Caire, Gabriel Grapperon
“Lou,” Dave Mullins, Dana Murray
“Negative Space,” Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata
“Revolting Rhymes,” Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer
“Call Me by Your Name,” James Ivory
“The Disaster Artist,” Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
“Logan,” Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green
“Molly’s Game,” Aaron Sorkin
“Mudbound,” Virgil Williams and Dee Rees
“The Big Sick,” Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
“Get Out,” Jordan Peele
“Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig
“The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Martin McDonagh
Best Documentary Feature:
“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” Steve James, Mark Mitten, Julie Goldman
“Faces Places,” JR, Agnès Varda, Rosalie Varda
“Icarus,” Bryan Fogel, Dan Cogan
“Last Men in Aleppo,” Feras Fayyad, Kareem Abeed, Soren Steen Jepersen
“Strong Island,” Yance Ford, Joslyn Barnes
Best Documentary Short Subject:
“Edith+Eddie,” Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lee Wright
“Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” Frank Stiefel
“Heroin(e),” Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Kerrin Sheldon
“Knife Skills,” Thomas Lennon
“Traffic Stop,” Kate Davis, David Heilbroner
Best Live Action Short Film:
“DeKalb Elementary,” Reed Van Dyk
“The Eleven O’Clock,” Derin Seale, Josh Lawson
“My Nephew Emmett,” Kevin Wilson, Jr.
“The Silent Child,” Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton
“Watu Wote/All of Us,” Katja Benrath, Tobias Rosen
Best Foreign Language Film:
“Baby Driver,” Julian Slater
“Blade Runner 2049,” Mark Mangini, Theo Green
“Dunkirk,” Alex Gibson, Richard King
“The Shape of Water,” Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood
“Baby Driver,” Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin
“Blade Runner 2049,” Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hephill
“Dunkirk,” Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo
“The Shape of Water,” Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick
“Beauty and the Beast,” Sarah Greenwood; Katie Spencer
“Blade Runner 2049,” Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola
“Darkest Hour,” Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
“Dunkirk,” Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis
“The Shape of Water,” Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau
“Mighty River” from “Mudbound,” Mary J. Blige
“Mystery of Love” from “Call Me by Your Name,” Sufjan Stevens
“Remember Me” from “Coco,” Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
“Stand Up for Something” from “Marshall,” Diane Warren, Common
“This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Makeup and Hair:
“Blade Runner 2049,” John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, Dan Sudick
“Kong: Skull Island,” Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza, Mike Meinardus
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Chris Corbould, Neal Scanlan
“War for the Planet of the Apes,” Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Joel Whist
Click here to read Chaz Ebert's article congratulating "Life Itself" director Steve James on his first Best Documentary Oscar nomination.