As a friend wisely reminded me earlier this awards season: Never assume that just because someone or something didn't win an award, earn a nomination or land on a year-end list, the person or organization didn't see the work in question. Having been on the receiving end of such assumptions myself -- why yes, indignant Twitter user, I did in fact see "Jojo Rabbit" (twice!) -- I know the folly of questioning other people's expertise, let alone expecting them to share or reflect my own unimpeachable taste.
And yet early on Oscar nominations morning, my judgment clearly impaired by a mix of reflexive anger and insufficient caffeine, I couldn't help but ask the forbidden questions: Did enough members of the motion picture academy actually see "Us"? Or "Hustlers"? Or "The Farewell"? Or "Uncut Gems"?
The lack of recognition for four of the smartest American movies released last year -- all of them well reviewed by critics and well attended by audiences -- may not answer that question definitively, but it doesn't exactly inspire confidence. At the very least, some of us were hoping for acting nominations for Lupita Nyong'o's staggering dual turn in "Us," or Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen's touching granddaughter-grandmother act in "The Farewell," or Adam Sandler's thrilling psychological implosion in "Uncut Gems." As for Jennifer Lopez in "Hustlers," most of us assumed she was not just a shoo-in but, in a sane world, a legitimate threat to win.
But as this year's overall roster attests, it can be hard if not impossible for a politically charged horror movie with black actors -- or an independent drama whose pedigree doesn't scream capital-"P" prestige -- to be taken seriously. That's especially true in a field dominated by noisy zeitgeist favorites like "Joker," a movie I admired more than most of my colleagues, and auteur-driven magnum opuses like "The Irishman" and "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood," neither of which I begrudge their outsized acclaim. But standout individual achievements in underhyped titles require a level of patience and discernment generally lost on the academy, which mostly likes to nominate movies the way you or I might buy toilet paper: in bulk.
Including Nyong'o, Awkwafina, Zhao and/or Lopez -- or, for that matter, Alfre Woodard and Aldis Hodge in "Clemency" or Eddie Murphy and Da'Vine Joy Randolph and Wesley Snipes in "Dolemite Is My Name" -- would have certainly improved a slate of acting nominees that, Cynthia Erivo's lead actress nomination for "Harriet" aside, is rightly being taken to task for its dearth of diversity. And if you consider diversity to be the cause of the politically correct scold, I can only respond that it is, in fact, the perfectly natural outcome of any broad, intelligent survey of the year's most notable achievements in filmmaking. Any organization that didn't short-list at least three or four (or eight or nine) actors of color this year is either not watching enough movies or watching them with an awfully selective filter.
Which is not to suggest that there were no happy or heartening surprises. While disappointment with the academy has become an annual headache, I have always found consolation in those occasional Oscar-morning silver linings, those nominations that, for whatever reason, couldn't help but bring a smile to my face. Finding them took a bit more strain this year, but if anything that makes them all the more worth celebrating.
1. "Parasite" earned six nominations, including picture and director
It was hardly a shock to see the academy follow critics, audiences and industry guilds in showering love on Bong Joon Ho's darkly comic domestic thriller, but that doesn't make it any less gratifying. It just goes to show that breathless hype, placed in service of a genuinely great movie, really can move a hidebound organization in the direction of progress. The academy's ongoing efforts to diversify its voting body, especially in terms of members overseas, surely help.
That South Korea finally scored its first nomination in the international feature category (formerly foreign-language film) would already be cause for celebration; that "Parasite" also cracked the picture, director, original screenplay, editing and production design categories is nothing short of marvelous. It would have been even more marvelous had it also earned nominations for supporting actor (Song Kang Ho), supporting actress (Cho Yeo Jeong) and cinematography (Hong Kyung Pyo), but you can't have everything.
2. "Honeyland" made Oscar history