The Oscar nominations arrive, signalling almost the final iteration of that strange awardsthink consensus: at once exasperating and eerie, choices which somehow emerge as if from a single head. The raucous box-office smash Joker, the origins story for Batman’s arch-villain, leads the field with 11 nominations, and 10 each for Sam Mendes’s first world war spectacular 1917, Martin Scorsese’s wintry mob drama The Irishman and Quentin Tarantino’s LA black comedy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Once again, we have an all-male directing shortlist (with nothing for Greta Gerwig’s superlative Little Women or Marielle Heller for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), and only Cynthia Erivo making the list as a non-white actor, with nothing for Lupita Nyong’o’s much-admired performance in Jordan Peele’s Us.
It is infuriating, too, that the Safdie brothers’ glorious crime drama Uncut Gems did not make the cut; Taron Egerton must be disappointed to get nothing for his game impersonation of Elton John in Rocketman (although it was always a better singing than acting performance) and Awkwafina certainly should have been included. This Academy Awards list is duller without her.
There is a lot to feel good about in #Oscars2020: Cats didn’t figure, and all three films in the silver medal “10 nominations” position, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman are absolutely superb. Each in their various ways sparkle with ingenuity, flair, thrills, audacity and humanity. It is very good to see Bong Joon Ho’s smart satire Parasite from South Korea doing so well, though here again – at the risk of heresy – I have to raise an eyebrow at the way this film, like Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite last year, has snared the excitable “connoisseur talking point” vote. Other international films like Wang Xiaoshwai’s So Long, My Son and Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole simply haven’t shown up on the Oscar radar.
But squatting on everything is Joker: in my view, a mediocre and overrated film which runs out of story ideas after the first act and which has less interest than the viral video of the Portsmouth kebab shop fight. It certainly deserves its cinematography nomination for Laurence Sher (but bizarrely, it got nothing for the excellent production design by Mark Friedberg). But almost everything else about it is meagre and shallow, and the strident lead performance from Joaquin Phoenix is much less interesting than similar portrayals in You Were Never Really Here and The Master.
Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, for all that it is arguably self-indulgent and provocative, at least has the courage of its bizarre counter-factual convictions; it maintains a story momentum up to and including its delirious and stomach-turning finale and it is passionately engaged with its time and place, and with cinema itself. Mendes’s amazingly bold single-shot rendering of a story on the western front has now been out long enough for its technical expertise to be somehow held against it in some quarters; the fact that at key moments the screen fades to black is held somehow to invalidate the single-shot effect. For me the going down into darkness and then up into light is a vital part of its vision. It is a shattering experience.
There has also been a backlash of sorts to The Irishman, to the effect that we shouldn’t take Frank Sheeran claims about his role in the disappearance of Teamsters’ boss Jimmy Hoffa at face value. I agree. We shouldn’t. But that doesn’t detract from the personal story that it has to tell, and the power and substance of this late-period, minor-key symphony of a movie, with its great alpha-performances from Joe Pesci and Al Pacino – though, again, I am a bit surprised to see nothing for De Niro himself as Sheeran.
There are some notable acting nominations here: a double for Scarlett Johansson, who gets a thoroughly deserved best actress nomination for her appearance in Noah Baumbach’s utterly delectable divorce tragicomedy Marriage Story. But worryingly, she gets a best supporting actress nod for her middling performance in the awful second world war romp Jojo Rabbit – and again, I have to restate my refusenik status for this fatuous, misjudged, tone-deaf piece of work which is all the more baffling as its creator Taika Waititi has done such genuinely great stuff in the past. As with Joker, however, I have to say it is a lot more more intelligent than its Twitter fantrolls.
I’m hoping that Gerwig’s rich, warm, generous Little Women will upset the apple-cart and win the best picture Oscar, but it’s a long shot. In the best actor list, perhaps Antonio Banderas will sneak through the middle and get it for his wonderfully witty and mature performance in Almodovar’s Pain and Glory. In the best supporting actor category, I think Joe Pesci will pinch it for his subtle portrayal of mob fixer Russell Bufalino — although fellow nominee Tom Hanks has a huge fanbase for his appearance in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.