The 10 craft categories of the Oscars should be somewhat predictable: Branches vote on their own kind, and guild nominations traditionally serve as a trusted barometer. However, sometimes the Academy doesn’t agree — and when that happens, it’s worth diving into the reasons why.
To say “Joker” overperformed is an understatement, which makes snubbing its production design — its most effective storytelling element — that much more bizarre. What does production designer Mark Friedberg — invaluable for the films of Ang Lee, Barry Jenkins, Todd Haynes, Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, along with “Selma” and “Across the Universe” — need to do to earn his first nomination?
With “Joker,” Friedberg bridged the gap between the historically accurate down-and-out, garbage-strike days of New York City in 1981 and Gotham. Virtually every frame visualized a world in which you could feel how Gotham weighs on Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). While some can question the film’s ideas and deeper meanings, their most sophisticated rendering was in how Friedberg crafted a decaying world on the edge of exploding.
And yet there’s beauty to be found in the crumbling make-believe city Friedberg sculpted from the real one. The therapist’s office filled with stacks of paper too overwhelming to manage, the raw energy of good graffiti, the way cinematographer Lawrence Sher’s period-accurate and intentionally ugly practical lighting is built into the locations, sets, and color palette. Each frame textured, layered detail upon detail deep into the background, captured how Arthur’s world was coming apart at the seams. In a way, that told his story better than the film’s nominated screenplay.
The fifth nomination slot should never really surprise anyone, not in this category. Robert Richardson (“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”), Roger Deakins (“1917”), and Lawrence Sher (“Joker”) were locks, and the assumption was their fellow ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) nominees and well-respected vets Rodrigo Prieto (“The Irishman”) and Phedon Papamichael (“Ford v. Ferrari”), who both shot handsome Best Picture nominees, were the best bet to be the other two.
The ASC can be fairly predictive guild awards-wise, but the guild membership differs from the Academy’s in subtle ways. The larger the guild membership, the more likely you’ll see consolidation around big titles; the branches, by comparison, can be smaller and more international. In the case of the cinematographers branch, it’s not surprising they would reach for a beautifully shot black-and-white arthouse film like “The Lighthouse.”
At the yearly gathering of international cinematographers at Camerimage, there was a sense that the highly respected and previously nominated Papamichael’s work was solid, but the American car racing film didn’t fit what was expected from a competition film. When it comes to the branch, their taste for genre is less likely to favor straightforward American films and more toward the eccentric and arty: “Arrival,” “Blade Runner 2049,” “Fury Road,” and “The Grandmaster.”
Look, when the Costume Designers Guild failed to nominate legendary designers Mark Bridges for “Joker,” Sandy Powell (along with co-designer Christopher Peterson) for “The Irishman,” and Jacqueline Durran for “Little Women,” no one was dumb enough to think these perennial Oscar nominees were out of the running for an Academy Awards nomination. That they all received Oscar nominations was a surprise.
The CDG recognition of Julian Day (“Rocketman”) and Ruth Carter (“Dolemite Is My Name”) pointed to both as being poised for Oscar nominations for work that checked off all the boxes of big flashy period costuming showcased by a dynamic leading performance. That was not the case.
Carter’s lack of an Oscar nomination was really the biggest surprise. With “Black Panther,” Carter solidified her position as a well-respected, groundbreaking, innovative legend. Netflix put a healthy campaign behind its all-star costumer. The ’70s costumes were big, fun, funky — and most of all, they told a story.
The self-invention of Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) was an act of creative exploration, and Carter mirrored the arc of Moore expanding that persona in a way that was as brash and full of life as the man himself. What’s more, watching Murphy’s big-screen return to his raunchy R-rated persona that made him a star, via his idol and friend Moore, was compelling largely because his long-time costumer, and the 75 outfits she provided, perfectly bridged the gap between Murphy and Moore. Furthermore, in a film that didn’t (thankfully) wade too far into historical exposition, the “Dolemite” costumes allowed the audience to understand who the people were in those basement clubs, and in the B-movie film world Moore tried to penetrate.
The Academy didn’t fall in love with “Dolemite” as a whole. But unlike editing or cinematography, costume design is not a category that tends to mirror Best-Picture nominees. It’s often an oddball category that can accommodate films that don’t get other nominations.
I don’t love the fact the same handful of costume designers get the prestige period jobs and become automatic nominees year-in-and-year-out, but it really seemed like Carter had finally reached that pinnacle and it’s a real head-scratcher why she was left out.
In 40 of the last 41 years, the eventual Best Picture winner has been nominated for best editing. So what to make of the fact that this year best-picture frontrunners “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” and “1917” didn’t receive editing nominations?
In the last four decades, “Birdman” was the only Best Picture winner not to be nominated for best editing. That film featured director Alejandro Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s long-take, virtuoso moving camera shots. This, of course, is not dissimilar to “1917,” which is why the film’s editor Lee Smith being excluded should not be taken as foreboding. Rather, the fact that Smith’s exclusion is being considered a “snub” — for a film that masks the existence of editing — only speaks to how strong a candidate this film is across the board, including best picture.
But what to make of the fact that “Once Upon a Time” editor Fred Raskin was excluded? There’s a few ways to look at this:
The film is extremely well represented in other craft categories, and certainly the other five editing nominees, all of which are also Best Picture nominees, are more traditional picks: the visceral car racing of “Ford vs. Ferrari,” the weaving time structure (and absolute mastery of Thelma Schoonmaker) of “The Irishman;” the peppy pace of “Jojo Rabbit;” the psychological violence of “Joker;” or that playful rhythm, narrative propulsion, and twisty turns of “Parasite.”
Tarantino’s ninth film, by its very nature, is laid back. While it does balance three interweaving storylines, it is hardly “Dunkirk,” or even “Pulp Fiction.” That said, last year’s Best Picture winner “Green Book” — not a particularly big editing showcase — did get nominated for editing.
In this sense, I think Raskin’s exclusion is a bigger problem for Tarantino’s best directing chances than for Best Picture. In the last 10 years, the overlap between editing and direction nominations has grown, with the Academy often seeing the two as part and parcel. The world building of Tarantino’s film is being more closely associated with the art department, Richardson’s luminous cinematography, his script, the KHJ radio station, and the cast, rather than a bold directing presence behind the camera (a limited way of looking at the role of director, I know). Conversely, the nomination of the largely unknown (in the U.S.) South Korean editor Jinmo Yang, for “Parasite,” should be taken as an extremely good sign for Bong Joon Ho’s chances at best director.
In talking to other editors, there is also the feeling that Raskin is still (unfairly) living in the shadow of his mentor, and the editor on Tarantino’s his first six films, Sally Menke. Menke, who died tragically, was not only Tarantino’s most important collaborator (according to the director himself), but also reverence for her work has only increased in the years since she passed. While he was Menke’s former assistant, Raskin has become a great editor in his own right, and not just on Tarantino films. However, salty veterans are sometimes hesitant to welcome a new kid up to the grown-ups’ table.
We don’t always know how to separate editing from the vision of the director. Complicated narrative structure, visceral action, psychological violence are hallmarks of best editing nominees, but few filmmakers worth their salt actually believe those element represent great editing.
For the last few years, many cinephiles and filmmakers have come to believe that Jennifer Lame has become one of Hollywood’s next great editors by not working on films that traditionally get editing nominations, yet she has been recognized by her guild with nominations for “Manchester By the Sea” and “Marriage Story,” as well as being tapped by sharp-eyed Christopher Nolan to handle the apparently massive and predictably complicated “Tenet.” So, it’s disappointing Lame didn’t get an Oscar nod for “Marriage Story.”
Films usually oscillate between opposing values: Freedom/repression, victory/defeat, will they/won’t they. Noah Baumbach’s film about a divorce, like divorce itself, swings between a seemingly endless array of erratic emotions, as Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) try to figure out how best to separate their lives. The truth Baumbach finds in their nominated performances only works because Lame’s cutting balances the complex tones and emotions. (If you rewatch “Marriage Story” with this in mind, it’s easy to see how quickly this film could have crumbled into a jagged, uneven mess.)
When Baumbach was on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, he talked about how Lame helps him modulate tone, pacing, transitions, even shot selection, in a collaboration that starts months before post production. She “edits” his early screenplay drafts, and is who he calls on the way to set in the morning to talk through his plans for the shoot day.
In the end, “Marriage Story,” in the Academy’s eyes, has become more of a screenplay and performance candidate, falling behind a handful of other frontrunners for best picture. Along those lines, it’s not surprising that Lame, like Baumbach, was not nominated. I really hope it’s not because of the concept that there was already a female editor (Schoonmaker) who was a lock for a nomination.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated “Roma” was nominated for Best Editing last year. While it did receive a guild (ACE) nomination for Best Edited Feature Film (Dramatic), it did not get an Oscar nomination for Best Editing.