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Oscar Analysis: ‘Dune’ Is Epic and ‘Belfast’ Is Heartfelt, but Netflix Leads the Way with ‘The Power of the Dog’

Netflix dominated the field with 27 noms, followed by Disney with 23, including Best Picture contender "Nightmare Alley."

THE POWER OF THE DOG (L to R): KODI SMIT-McPHEE as PETER, BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

“The Power of the Dog”

KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX

With the pandemic wreaking havoc over theatergoing and in-person events, this year’s Oscar season was bound to bring surprises. Among this year’s guaranteed 10 Best Picture nominees, “Dune” landed 10 nominations along with its $398.7 million in box office; ticket sales for “Belfast,” “King Richard,” and “West Side Story” were soft. Even so, a record number of eligible Academy voters from 82 countries voted for these films as well as nominations leader “The Power of the Dog” — and most saw them on streaming platforms.

That show of Academy support buttresses Jane Campion’s Western noir as the Oscar frontrunner. Can Netflix finally score a Best Picture win? The streamer has come a long way since its last best shot for a Best Picture statuette, “Roma.” Last year another craft-friendly film, David Fincher’s “Mank,” scored mentions in 10 categories and wound up with just two craft wins. “The Power of the Dog” will perform far better, but its fate depends on how its rivals fare in the next five weeks of campaigning. The Critics Choice, guilds, and BAFTA awards can shift momentum before final voting begins March 17, ahead of the 94th Oscars ceremony March 27.

There is nowhere to go but up for the Academy Awards on ABC after last year’s anemic pandemic Oscar show, but the network will have to forge on without “Spider-Man: No Way Home” ($1.69 billion worldwide) and “No Time to Die” ($768 million). Neither made it into the Best Picture contenders.

“House of Gucci” (MGM/UA) stars Jared Leto and Lady Gaga whiffed with Oscar voters. (Gaga, who arguably campaigned a tad too aggressively, can take solace that her contributions were recognized via one Hair and Makeup nod.) Along with “Don’t Look Up” (Netflix) star Leonardo DiCaprio and “Belfast” (Focus) Supporting Actress snub Caitriona Balfe, Gaga still has a chance to score at the BAFTAs, while she, Leto, Balfe, and overlooked “The Tender Bar” (Amazon) star Ben Affleck have shots at a (more mainstream) SAG award.

A grateful Kristen Stewart (“I am SO happy”) finally landed her first Oscar nomination for playing Princess Diana in “Spencer” (Neon), one of two openly queer actors nominated this year, along with Supporting Actress frontrunner Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”). (Before that, Ian McKellen was the only openly gay nominee, for “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”)

SPENCER, Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, 2021. © Neon / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Spencer”

Courtesy Everett Collection

Spain’s movie-star married duo Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem each celebrated their fourth nominations, for Pedro Almodovar’s switched-at-birth tale “Parallel Mothers” (Sony Pictures Classics) and Aaron Sorkin’s showbiz fable “Being the Ricardos,” respectively, which also delivered a surprise Supporting Actor slot for “Whiplash” Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons, while missing Best Picture. (Sorkin did not land writing or directing nods after scoring six nominations for “The Trial of the Chicago 7” last year.)

Another romantic couple, “Fargo” partners Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst, landed their first respective Oscar nominations for collaborating again as a hitched pair in “The Power of the Dog.”

Thus Amazon settled for just three Oscar mentions, down from last year’s 12. The International committee voters decided not to give Asghar Farhadi a shot at a third win with “A Hero.” Other streamers performed better. Netflix led the field for the third year in a row — with 27 nominations (down from last year’s 35), beating Disney/Pixar/Searchlight’s 23 — as Jane Campion’s gorgeously mounted “The Power of the Dog” received 12 nominations. That beat Denis Villeneuve’s visually spectacular “Dune” (Warner Bros./HBO Max), which saw 10.

It was Netflix’s fourth year in a row with more than 10 nominations. “Don’t Look Up” accrued four nods, including writer-director Adam McKay’s second Best Picture and third writing nominations.

“The Lost Daughter” landed three, including writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal for Best Adapted Screenplay (her second nomination, having received a Best Supporting Actress nod for “Crazy Heart”), Best Supporting Actress nominee Jessie Buckley (it’s her first), and Olivia Colman, who could play catch-up with Frances McDormand’s three wins by taking home her second Oscar after “The Favourite.”

Musical “Tick, Tick, Boom” landed two, including second-time nominee Andrew Garfield, who learned to sing and mounted a charm offensive on the campaign trail. Sony Pictures Animation pickup “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” could give producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller their second Oscar win after “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse.” And Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino could score his second Oscar win for his personal story “The Hand of God.”

AppleTV+ notched its first Best Picture nomination for Sundance pickup “CODA,” which also landed Adapted Screenplay for director Sian Heder and a Supporting Actor slot for Theater of the Deaf veteran Troy Kotsur, whose deaf costar Marlee Matlin won the Oscar back in 1987 for “Children of a Lesser God.” Joel Coen’s stunning black-and-white Shakespeare drama “The Tragedy of Macbeth” also scored three slots for two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington, Cinematography, and Production Design.

Denis Villeneuve, Timothee Chalamet on "Dune" set

Denis Villeneuve and Timothee Chalamet on “Dune” set

Chiabella James / © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

A quartet of films about families under duress, “Dune,” “Belfast,” “King Richard,” and musical “West Side Story” have the right emotional stuff to unseat the more cerebral “The Power of the Dog.” “Dune” is hugely popular and leads the crafts categories with eight nods (composer Hans Zimmer could win his second Oscar), but like other sci-fi/fantasy entries such as “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the space epic isn’t scoring with actors.

Both Kenneth Branagh’s 1969 memoir “Belfast” (seven nominations, including beloved supporting veterans Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds) and Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard” (six, including Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis) are heart-tugging portraits of families as they face disruptive change, while Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of the 1957 stage musical “West Side Story” (seven, three shy of the 1961 film) brings Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet romantic tragedy back to life with a vibrant Latinx cast led by breakout DeBose. Spielberg has been nominated as producer or director 19 times over six decades, starting with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1978.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s slight but delightful ’70s comedy “Licorice Pizza” (MGM/UA), a Best Picture and directing and writing nominee whose film played exclusively in theaters, landed just three key nominations and did not score acting nods. Ditto Guillermo del Toro’s elegant noir remake “Nightmare Alley” (Searchlight), which squeezed into Best Picture with four craft nominations.

“The Power of the Dog” director Campion is a lock to win her first directing Oscar after a record two nominations in the category (she won for Best Original Screenplay for “The Piano” in 1994). She would be the third woman director to win, following Kathryn Bigelow and last year’s Chloe Zhao. Benedict Cumberbatch, with his second Best Actor nomination, could challenge overdue first-time producing nominee Will Smith for Best Actor.

Along with”Belfast” auteur Branagh, Villeneuve also received a producing nomination, but the biggest Oscar shocker was the French-Canadian DGA nominee’s lack of a directing nod. Spielberg and Affleck know the feeling: the directors branch snubbed each of them on “The Color Purple” (11 nominations, no wins) and “Argo,” respectively. “Argo” (seven nominations, three wins) rode the sympathy vote toward an eventual Best Picture win. This could happen to Villeneuve: He has goodwill not only for the closest thing to a blockbuster in the Best Picture field but also for the upcoming “Dune Part Two.”

Driven by critical acclaim, Japan’s Ryusuke Hamaguchi took Villeneuve’s directing spot for the three-hour “Drive My Car” (Janus), which also landed nominations for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and International Feature Film. It will duke it out with Norway’s just-opened “The Worst Person in the World” (Neon), which also landed a surprise Original Screenplay slot. Last year, Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round” won International after scoring a Directing nomination. But “Drive My Car” scored the rare foreign-language Best Picture slot (earned recently by “Roma” and won for the first time by “Parasite”) on top of Director and Adapted Screenplay.

While some would like to see “Drive My Car” follow “Parasite” into the winner’s column, Bong Joon Ho’s movie was an accessible genre thriller. “Drive My Car” is an admired art film that would have to pull in votes from the mainstream factions in the Academy.

"West Side Story"

“West Side Story”

Niko Tavernise

With almost a third of the Academy now international (even if they don’t vote in a bloc), the most intensely competitive documentary and international feature races ever yielded a few surprises, including Denmark’s Jonas Rasmussen (“Flee”) landing in both — but the movie also scored a first: it also notched Best Animated Feature.

Overlooked in the documentary race were Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s thrilling cave disaster film “The Rescue” (NatGeo), which relied heavily on re-enactments; the filmmakers won before with “Free Solo.” Two lauded Covid documentaries, Nanfu Wang’s daring China Covid expose “In the Same Breath” (HBO) and Matthew Heineman’s “The First Wave” (NatGeo), failed to make the cut. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s popular concert film “Summer of Soul” (Searchlight) will challenge “Flee” for the win.

Now comes the next stage of the campaigns, as canny streamers try to hold their own with late-breaking theatrical marketers in what looks to be the most competitive Best Picture field in years.

Winners will be announced at the 94th Oscars, which will take place on Sunday, March 27 live from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, airing on ABC. While a host for the annual show has not yet been announced, AMPAS has promised that the event will indeed have a host this year. Check out the full list of this morning’s nominations right here.

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