The Oscars may represent the pinnacle of success in the film industry, a red-carpet convergence of quality and clout, but that formula doesn’t always play into its favor. As Hollywood struggles to diversify its ranks, Oscar nominees continue to reflect the glacial progress of an industry that fails to practice what it preaches. Much of the media surrounding this year’s race has fixated on the negatives: The lack of women directors among the nominees, and the absence of people of color in almost every major category, overwhelm any positive attributes.
These shortcomings make it hard to embrace any constructive outcomes of Oscar season, but they don’t capture the whole story. Bleary-eyed campaigners want to win at all costs, but several of this year’s nominees already won no matter what happens Sunday, simply because of the strides they’ve made over the last several months. Here are those highlights.
“Parasite”Already Made History
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A week before “Parasite” premiered in Official Competition at the Cannes Film Festival, an industry colleague who saw the movie early shared his positive reaction. “It’s brilliant,” he said. “But it won’t win the Palme d’Or. It’s a genre film!”
If only I had staked money on that claim. Bong Joon Ho’s dark class warfare satire actually transcended its genre foundation to deliver a unique blend of escapism and social commentary. “Parasite” went on to become the first Korean movie to win the Palme, catalyzing its box office success in its home country — and then it just kept going, ending up as the top-grossing non-English language U.S. release of 2019, and scoring a historic range of Oscar nominations. Yes, it’s the first Korean nominee ever, a frontrunner for Best International Feature, and a stronger contender for Best Picture than any of its non-English predecessors in this category. However, whether it wins there or not matters little for the solidification of a legacy that has bolstered Bong’s global auteur status while introducing new viewers to his robust 20-year filmography in America.
“Parasite” captures the zeitgeist with striking insight into the invisibility of lower-class struggles, and what happens when they decide to fight their way to power at all costs. In an election year, it resonates for U.S. viewers no matter where it hails from, and it’s no wonder that HBO already has a series adaptation planned: “Parasite” is a historic phenomenon no matter what happens next, and its story has only begun.
“Honeyland” Did, Too
A year ago, “Honeyland” premiered in the World Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival (where it almost didn’t make the cut). The visually expressive tale of a Macedonian beekeeper living on the outskirts of civilization was the epitome of an under-the-radar discovery. The festival circuit worked overtime to elevate “Honeyland,” from its Sundance Grand Jury Prize win to a slot in New Directors/New Films, but it took a long-term investment in the movie to arrive at its current historic status. While rising boutique distributor Neon has received plenty of credit for pushing “Parasite” to a commercial hit, the company pulled off an even more impressive feat with “Honeyland,” considering the odds.
Directors Tamara Kotevska and Llubo Stefanov’s understated cinema-verite achievement isn’t your garden-variety Oscar bait: It’s a slow-burn look at the gradual decline of provincial life, explored through the experiences of a tragicomic protagonist whose ritualistic routine is threatened when a new family moves onto her turf. Yet word of mouth built around “Honeyland” as the movie gathered critical acclaim and support across the film community, resulting in the first-ever movie to score nominations for both Best Documentary and Best International Feature (as well as the first documentary to ever score a nomination in this category). “Honeyland” might not be the frontrunner in either slot, but it’s so rare to see this kind of subtle cinematic artistry celebrated in awards season that its double-category achievement makes it a whole new kind of winner.
“Little Women” Made the Cut
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Even “Lady Bird” fans were getting nervous about “Little Women” as the movie remained in limbo throughout the year. Gerwig’s second solo directing effort was a major studio production with stars, but like many of this year’s contenders it was finished too late to receive the festival launch that would have helped establish its bonafides. Once it did screen, questions arose about just how much the movie might resonate beyond the critical acclaim. Gerwig’s clever update to the Louisa May Alcott classic operates under the guise of a traditional period piece and follows many of the details from its source, but her screenplay takes its time unfurling new structural pathways that offer wry commentary on the storytelling process itself.
It was a shrewd gambit held together by an extraordinary ensemble and Gerwig’s confident eye, all of which paid off when the movie crossed the $100 million mark with ease. Gerwig was snubbed by the Academy and the HFPA, though her ambitious script scored a nomination and is a Best Picture nominee no matter what else has more momentum. Overall, the success of “Little Women” made Gerwig a vital presence throughout the season, and cemented her as a genuine auteur of the moment.
As Did “Ad Astra”
James Grey’s film faced an uphill battle from the outset. It was a mopey space opera made on a grand scale, but produced by a studio that no longer had real investment in its success (the Fox production carried over to the new Disney regime, just like “Jojo Rabbit”). Unlike “Joker,” Grey’s visionary futuristic tale only got one festival bump — a Venice competition slot — before sliding into theaters where it landed meager box office returns. Despite a vivid Brad Pitt performance at its center as a lonely astronaut roaming the universe in search of his missing dad, the movie seemed destined to get lost in the fray — especially since Pitt already had plenty on his hands with his Best Supporting Actor frontrunner status for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
But the success of “Ad Astra” goes far beyond Pitt. Ace sound editor Gary Rydstrom (one of IndieWire’s Influencers) injected a remarkable blend of interstellar eerieness and firepower to the sound mix, which scored a well-earned nomination that also speaks to the unusual visceral energy of Grey’s intimate psychodrama. The filmmaker consulted with avant-garde film scholars and scientists alike when constructing the movie’s dazzling cosmic visuals and delivered an otherworldly vision that’s so unlike anything else made by Hollywood in 2019 it’s a small miracle it exists. The Oscar nomination is a welcome reminder that it absolutely belongs in the history books alongside last year’s other gems.
“The Irishman” Exists!
Enough with the Netflix backlash: No one else would enable Martin Scorsese to make one of the great gangster epics in ages on his own terms. “The Irishman” is pure, unbridled Scorsese, the kind of tough-guy energy that has pulsated through his movies for generations, and this was the right vessel to distill its power. Look beyond those reports of a costly “Irishman” campaign or the possibility that the movie might not win at all on Sunday; for years, it almost didn’t exist.
Netflix’s desire to greenlight auteur passion projects and — whatever its business motives may be — do everything to push this tough sell resulted in one of the most original American moviegoing experiences of last year. It’s a movie built on some of the most endearing faces (De Niro-Pesci-Pacino, for crying out loud!) and familiar storytelling tropes that also expands them into new emotional terrain. OK, maybe it deserved a wider theatrical release, but this movie works on screens of any size. At its core, “The Irishman” digs deep into the aging process and the deterioration of white male power in American culture through the sheer power of film language. Oscar season tends to ostracize the movies that lose momentum, and while “The Irishman” may have suffered that fate, its appeal will last much longer than these few hectic months.
White Male Directors Aren’t the Whole Story
Of course, “The Irishman” is a white male movie in a year of many white male nominees. Though the Best Director nomination for Bong Joon Ho diversified that category to some extent, the lack of female nominees sends a terrible message about the Academy’s interests. In a year that gave us top-shelf work by Lulu Wang, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Kent, and more, the absence of women in the Best Director category suggests voters don’t care to do the legwork and consider their options. Similarly, the minimal nominations for people of color reinforces the sense that, five years after #OscarsSoWhite, the industry still struggles to escape its ugliest biases.
However, the fixation on these shortcomings risks marginalizing the actual work done by filmmakers of color and women who scored nominations this year in other categories. In Best Documentary, 50-year filmmaking veteran Julia Reichardt scored a worthy nod for co-directing “American Factory,” as did Syrian refugee Waad al-Kataeb for her harrowing diary film “For Sama,” and Kotevska wound up with two nominations for “Honeyland” in Best Documentary and Best International Feature. That category also includes the first nomination for a black man from France (“Les Miserables” breakout Ladj Ly) as well as the ubiquitous Bong.
The list continues into rather diverse short film nominees. The animated short film category includes one black filmmaker, “Hair Love” filmmaker Matthew Cherry, and two women — Siqi Song for her devastating “Sister” and Rosana Sullivan for the charming “Kitbull.” The live-action nominees include two women: Delphine Girard for “A Sister,” and Meryan Joobeur, whose riveting story about a Tunisian family wrestling with the impact of ISIS has enough twists to merit a feature (and could win the category).
Among the documentary shorts, Yi Seung-Jun joins Bong Joon Ho as the first Korean filmmaker in his respective category for the wrenching “In the Absence,” while three women directors compete for the prize: Carol Dysinger for the ebullient “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)”, Smiriti Mundhra for the galvanizing activist portrait “St. Louis Superman,” and Laura Nix for the affecting romantic two-hander “Walk Run Cha-Cha.”
Celebrating these nominations doesn’t negate the appalling homogeneity of other categories this year, but it would be just as egregious to characterize any of them as somehow lesser in value. Instead, these categories are closer to what somebody with sophisticated cinematic interests should want the Oscars to look like — a global range of subject matters and styles, from a diverse crop of filmmakers, and produced for reasons that often go far beyond the bottom line.
ScarJo Finally Got Her Due…
You don’t have to be a fan of “Jojo Rabbit” to root for Scarlett Johansson this year, since she’s also nominated for a much better performance in “Marriage Story.” Johansson may not be the favorite to the win the category, but her presence here marks an occasion where the Academy got it right. The Johansson talent so evident in early work like “Ghost World” may have been obscured in recent years by Marvel, but “Marriage Story” provided firm evidence that she’d been maturing as a performer all along, as she delivers a rich, complex turn as an actress seeking to take back control of her life — which seems on some level to mirror what she’s achieved in this past year, reminding viewers that actors in giant blockbusters don’t have to give up their talent in the process. Here’s hoping that she keeps that momentum going beyond whatever explosive revelations come with “Black Widow” this year.
…And So Did Antonio Banderas
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At the age of 60, Banderas delivered his greatest role ever at the center of Pedro Almodovar’s moving semi-fictionalized drama. As the conflicted, physically uncomfortable auteur Salvador Mallo, Banderas exudes a remarkable degree of melancholy and yearning with passing glances and somber asides; every closeup telegraphs new information about his damaged soul.
It’s a wonder that the actor has been so present in both American and Spanish cinema over the years yet taken for granted all the same, and in a competitive year for Best Actor, this understated turn could easily have gone unheralded. But sometimes talent is just too good to go ignored. No matter what happens on Sunday, Banderas’ nomination makes up for a lot of missed opportunities over the years.
Rian Johnson Got the Last Laugh
Many innovative filmmakers graduate to the studio big leagues and struggle to maintain their autonomy. Rian Johnson delivered a remarkable exception to that rule with “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” an original and surprising entry in a franchise with diminishing returns that suggested fresh pathways for rejuvenating its mythology. But short-sighted fans decided to rebel against Johnson’s bold storytelling choices, a discouraging sign that “Star Wars” diehards wanted fidelity to old ideas over new ones.
Rather than recede from view, Johnson continued to find ways of reenergizing stale narrative tropes. “Knives Out” took the outmoded whodunit model and turned it into a spiky riff on virtually every cultural battle of the 2019, from corrupt one-percenters to xenophobia, and his Best Original Screenplay nomination attests to just how well he managed to pull it off. With a “Knives Out” sequel in the works and some $156.6 million in box office, Johnson got the last laugh on any naysayers wary of storytelling that takes some ambitious swings. Thank god he’s still swinging.
“The Lighthouse” Was Worth the Effort
When this year’s nominations were announced, pundits noted that boutique distributor A24 only scored a single nomination. Worthy contenders “Uncut Gems” and “The Farewell” got zilch. What gives? But that attitude does a disservice to unique nature of the nominee that an A24 movie did receive. “The Lighthouse,” a rascally psychological thriller about two 19th century men losing their minds in the middle of nowhere, showcased some of the most daring filmmaking energy of the year. Robert Eggers and his crew spent weeks battling the elements in a remote region of Nova Scotia, surviving rain, wind, mud, and a mounting exhaustion as they crafted a poetic mishmash of Melvillian horror that never breaks its enveloping spell. Much of the movie’s hypnotic power comes from cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s 1.19:1 aspect ratio and exquisite frames that often look as though they’ve emerged from a distant past. Watching “The Lighthouse” stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe wrestle through the demented finale, one can feel the dirt and grime practically pouring out of the screen, to a large degree because Blaschke got so close to the messy action. His recognition for this innovative vision — a far cry from the safer maneuvers of any studio nominee — suggests it was worth the effort.