Netflix, ‘Power of the Dog,’ New Frontrunners – The Hollywood Reporter

As we approach the second COVID-era Oscars on March 27 — which, pandemic-permitting, will be the first one back at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, with people other than nominees and their guests in attendance — we finally have our first real sense of how members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences feel about this year’s crop of contenders. Here are my five main takeaways from Tuesday morning’s announcement of the 94th Oscar nominations.

1. It’s Netflix’s world and we’re all just living in it.

A year after landing a field-leading 36 nominations, the world’s top streaming service registered “just” 27 this year — still far and away the most of any studio/distributor — spread all across the 23 categories, including two for best picture (Don’t Look Up and The Power of the Dog); seven of the 20 acting noms (including far from certain appreciation for Jess and Jess, as in The Power of the Dog‘s Jesse Plemons and The Lost Daughter‘s Jessie Buckley); three in the screenplay categories (Don’t Look Up, The Lost Daughter and The Power of the Dog); one for international feature (The Hand of God); and even three of the five documentary shorts.

The Power of the Dog, which most expected to register about 10 noms and finish behind Warners’ Dune for the most overall, instead led the field with a highly impressive 12. The only 10 films which have ever received more? With 14 each, All About Eve (1950), Titanic (1997) and La La Land (2016); and with 13 each, Gone with the Wind (1939), From Here to Eternity (1953), Forrest Gump (1994), Shakespeare in Love (1998), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Chicago (2002) and The Shape of Water (2017). Eight of those went on to win best picture.

Netflix — which, it must be acknowledged, has more campaign staff and resources at its disposal than any of its competitors — is thought to have come close to winning the best picture Oscar with Roma (2018) and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), but has never been better positioned to do so than it is now with Power of the Dog. It would become only the fourth Western ever — and first in 29 years — to win the Academy’s top honor, following in the footsteps of Cimarron (1931), Dances with Wolves (1990) and Unforgiven (1992).

2. The precursors no longer mean much.

As I wrote in a Jan. 27 column, the Oscars have become harder than ever to predict because a significant portion of the Academy — the 20 percent to 25 percent who are based outside of the United States, up from 12 percent in 2015 — are largely not represented in the groups which give out nominations and awards before the Oscars, and which we used to turn to for clues about what the Academy would do. This includes Hollywood’s guilds (e.g., SAG-AFTRA’s SAG Awards), trade associations (e.g., the Producers Guild of America’s PGA Awards) and honorary professional societies (e.g., the American Cinema Editors’ ACE Eddie Awards), as well as the British Academy’s BAFTA Awards.

Beyond the fact that the Academy has flooded its membership with people in non-English-speaking countries, the groups which precede the Oscars have also considerably changed the way they do business. SAG-AFTRA now includes TV meteorologists, radio personalities and TikTokers, while the majority of BAFTA’s acting and directing slots are determined by small juries tasked with guaranteeing diverse categories. The Academy, meanwhile, votes differently, with all members invited to weigh in on the best picture race but other categories selected by entire branches of members who specialize in the relevant field(s).

A few cases in point: BAFTA and SAG-AFTRA nominated House of Gucci‘s Lady Gaga and ignored Spencer‘s Kristen Stewart — and then the Academy did the exact opposite. (I guess the Academy only reserved space for one strong performance from a movie they otherwise despise; at least Spencer received good reviews.) Dune‘s Denis Villeneuve was nominated for the best director Directors Guild, Critics Choice and Golden Globe awards, but was bounced by Drive My Car‘s Ryusuke Hamaguchi, whose only noteworthy precursor recognition was a BAFTA nomination. (Both men are nominated for best adapted screenplay.)

In the best supporting actress competition, two actresses who received almost every precursor nod possible — Belfast‘s Caitriona Balfe and Passing‘s Ruth Negga — were left out, while The Lost Daughter‘s Jessie Buckley and Belfast‘s Judi Dench, who received no precursor nominations of note (save for Buckley’s BAFTA nom), were included. (In hindsight, Balfe probably should have campaigned for best actress, not supporting actress. For Dench, this nom is even more impressive than winning the same category’s Oscar for just eight minutes of screen time in Shakespeare in Love.)

Similarly, The Power of the Dog‘s Jesse Plemons and Being the RicardosJ.K. Simmons landed best supporting actor Oscar noms having been virtually ignored up to that point — while Aaron Sorkin, the writer of Simmons’ film, received Writers Guild, BAFTA, Critics Choice and Golden Globe screenplay noms, but no Oscar nom.

All that being said, one has to assume that the tremendous recognition given by the major critics groups to Drive My Car — including best picture prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics — played a not inconsiderable role in convincing Academy members to check out the three-hour-long Japanese-language film, which wound up with a best picture Oscar nomination, as well.

3. The Academy is increasingly international

Speaking of which, there is evidence of the Academy’s increased openness to non-English-language films all across the board. Not only did Drive My Car become just the 14th non-English-language film to land a best picture nomination (and the fourth in the last four years, after 2018’s Roma, 2019’s Parasite and 2020’s Minari), but it also showed up in the best director category (marking the fourth consecutive year in which at least one helmer of a non-English-language film was nominated by the Academy’s directing branch).

Drive My Car and the Norwegian film The Worst Person in the World also landed screenplay noms (the former for adapted and the latter for original). Penélope Cruz garnered a best actress nom for the Spanish film Parallel Mothers (and Worst Person‘s Renate Reinsve probably didn’t miss one by much). And the Danish film Flee became the first film in any language to land a hat-trick of best animated feature, best documentary feature and best international feature noms.

4. Who are the frontrunners moving forward?

The film with the most overall Oscar nominations often does not win best picture. The Power of the Dog certainly looks very strong — it is the only best picture nominee which landed noms in all of the categories which are usually important, namely directing, writing, acting and film editing — but there is also a very real chance that voters will opt to recognize its trailblazing helmer Jane Campion for best director and some other film for best picture. There have been 26 splits in 94 years, including five in the last decade — the Academy’s “preferential” ballot makes them more common.

So if not The Power of the Dog, then what?

Belfast missed noms that it really could have snagged for Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan and Balfe, as well as cinematography, film editing and production design, but it is up for directing, writing and two acting awards, plus original song (will “Down to Joy” singer Van Morrison, who recently made headlines for his opinions about vaccines, be able to attend the ceremony?) and sound. Also going for it: Unlike a lot of its rivals, Belfast is actually funny and uplifting (the “Everlasting Love” scene is pure joy); it’s not a slog (just 98 minutes); and it has a great “narrative” (it’s the story of director Kenneth Branagh‘s own family) and ambassador to deliver that narrative (nobody is more eloquent or charming than Branagh).

King Richard, meanwhile, outperformed expectations, landing not just two acting noms but also noms for writing, film editing and original song. And with its inspirational story, it could do very well on a ranked ballot — particularly if producer-star Will Smith (the best actor Oscar frontrunner), sisters and executive producers Serena Williams and Venus Williams (who can vouch for its accuracy) and “Be Alive” singer Beyoncé Knowles (who cannot hide from the press if she wants to win an Oscar) hit the trail on behalf of the film. The star-power of that quartet could really make a difference — if Warners can mobilize it.

Don’t count out Dune just because the directors branch inexplicably overlooked its director, Denis Villeneuve. True, only five films have won best picture without a best director nom, but two did so in the last decade — Argo (2012) and Green Book (2018) — suggesting that the rest of the Academy sometimes likes to make up for egregious snubs. While this one, unlike the two aforementioned examples, comes in to the Oscars with no acting noms, it does possess, unlike the two aforementioned examples, noms in virtually every below-the-line category. And those nominees are likely to argue that they wouldn’t be there without Villeneuve, who also happens to be a lovely, understated guy.

CODA, with its heart-tugging story, could play well on this sort of a ballot — but its only other nominations are for writing (Siân Heder) and supporting actor (Troy Kotsur). My suspicion is that the Academy will feel that they can sufficiently honor the film by honoring Kotsur, who would be only the second deaf performer ever to take home the gold (35 years after his CODA wife Marlee Matlin did so for Children of a Lesser God). It would be well deserved acknowledgment and a special moment at the ceremony.

The original West Side Story won the best picture Oscar 60 years ago, and this remake could certainly follow in its footsteps given that it has noms for directing and acting (Ariana DeBose, who I think is the best supporting actress frontrunner, meaning she would win the same award for the same part for which her costar Rita Moreno won 60 years ago). But it missed writing, film editing and make-up and hair styling noms that it probably would have had if people felt considerable passion for it. And only seven films — including only one in the last 56 years, Titanic — has won best picture without a writing nomination.

Drive My Car is, again, also nominated for directing and writing, plus international feature (which it is going to be heavily favored to win). Parasite, which two years ago became the first non-English-language film ever to win the best picture Oscar, came in with those same nominations — plus film editing and production design. I’m skeptical that Drive My Car, with no other noms, will be able to achieve the same feat.

Licorice Pizza has directing and writing noms but nothing else. Had it landed an acting nom for lead actress Alana Haim or supporting actor Bradley Cooper, or something in a below-the-line category, it would be easier to argue that it has a real shot. But the absence of those noms — and the presence of scenes in which a character mocks other characters’ Japanese accents, which really add nothing to the story — make doing so much harder, as does writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson‘s aversion to doing press.

Then there’s Don’t Look Up, which certainly speaks to the zeitgeist as much as any 2021 film, but it can boast only a writing nomination and two below-the-line mentions, no directing or acting acknowledgment; its Rotten Tomatoes score is abysmal (56 percent, lower than every best picture Oscar winner except 1928/1929’s The Broadway Melody, 1930/1931’s Cimarron and 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth); and it will certainly be Netflix’s second-highest priority.

And last, and probably least, is Nightmare Alley. It has three other noms, all in below-the-line categories. The only two films which won best picture without directing, writing and acting mentions were Wings (1927/1928) and Grand Hotel (1931/1932), some 80 years ago.

5. Nobody in the real world saw or cares about these nominees.

For officials at the Academy and at its longtime Oscars broadcasting partner ABC, who are coming off of the lowest-rated Oscars telecast since the ceremony began airing on TV in 1953, this morning’s nominations must be causing serious heartburn.

2021’s biggest box-office hits, Spider-Man: No Way Home and No Time to Die, were almost entirely MIA — both are up for best visual effects (which they will almost certainly lose to Dune), while the latter is also up for best sound (which it will probably lose to Dune) and best original song (Billie Eilish and Finneas‘ “No Time to Die” will probably win).

Dune, having grossed $107.7 million domestically and $399 million worldwide, is the only box-office hit among the 10 best picture nominees. Netflix does not disclose viewership figures but claims that Don’t Look Up and The Power of the Dog did extremely well on its service, while Apple is in a similar boat with CODA, which it released in only a few theaters in Mexico.

West Side Story bombed, grossing just $36.7 million domestically. King Richard is also seen as a box office disappointment, with just $14.9 million in domestic ticket sales, although it can at least argue that its box office numbers do not fully reflect its popularity because it was simultaneously released on HBO Max.

And then there’s the highly underwhelming showings of Licorice Pizza ($12.7 million domestically), Nightmare Alley ($10.8 million domestically), Belfast ($7.4 million domestically) and Drive My Car ($944,796 domestically).

These figures are obviously not a reflection on the quality of these films but rather on the general public’s interest — or lack thereof — in them. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that the Nielsen score of the Oscars telecast is primarily reflective not of the ceremony’s host or runtime, but of the popularity of the nominees.

I know many Academy members who, despite having a special streaming service which pipes all of these movies right into their homes, had little interest in committing three hours to Drive My Car, or getting involved with the black-and-white Shakespearean adaptation The Tragedy of Macbeth, or watching Flee, a film about a closeted Afghan refugee fighting to be reunited with his family. Real life is bleak enough these days.

All I can say is that the Academy and ABC had better find more exciting and relevant hosts for the Oscars than it did for the Oscar nominations. Tracee Ellis Ross is a very fine comedian who has worked almost exclusively in television, not films. And I had to Google Leslie Jordan to figure out who he is; in case you’re interested, it turns out he was last seen on screen in D.W. Griffith‘s 1916 masterpiece Intolerance.

That is not going to cut it on March 27.

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