It’s a La La world and we’re just living in it.
With its record-tying 14 nominations, the big story about the 89th annual Oscar nominations is clearly the complete triumph of this Damien Chazelle musical that managed to get nominated in every single category that it possibly could. There are many other stories on this Oscar morning (yes, diversity is one of them), but this one is a bit overwhelming. This kind of across the board support through all branches of the Academy puts La La Land in line to become the first original movie musical to win Best Picture in nearly 60 years, the last being Gigi which swept nine Oscars out of nine nominations in 1958. That La La Land is in part in the spirit of those classic MGM musicals is certainly all the sweeter.
The big question now for Oscar’s unquestioned frontrunner is how high is high. West Side Story with 10 wins in 1961 holds the record for most victories ever for a musical. Can La La go to those heights?
When Chazelle called me this morning from China where La La Land is going to be opening soon, he was understandably in a daze. “I feel so humbled and so thankful. If feels so amazing to be nominated with this group of people that I made the movie with,” he said, effusively praising his team from the other side of the world — where it was around midnight local time. He didn’t watch the presentation unfold because his phone wasn’t working that well, but he certainly heard about it in short order from his producer Fred Berger.
Chazelle has been down this road before, when his “little movie that could” Whiplash got six nominations including Best Picture and won three Oscars. “It was as equally surreal as this to get any attention from the Academy for Whiplash and so unexpected. I’ve been through this gauntlet before, but to get this kind of attention is well, surreal.”
Surreal was also a good way to describe the new way the Academy decided to unveil all of this news, which has traditionally been done with a live press conference and breakfast at the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters. Not this time, as everything was pre-taped with a diverse (to say the least) list of past winners and nominees sharing Oscar anecdotes before throwing to a robotic-sounding announcer reading nominee names.
I get this was a way to show the diversity of the Academy, but where’s the excitement? It may have been the most lifeless and weird nominations announcement I have seen of any kind. In fact, with her official reaction statement, sent by her PR Firm, now 20-time Oscar nominee Meryl Streep put more genuine joy and energy in this morning’s reveal than the Academy did in their entire, very odd presentation. Since Streep continues to make history with her mounting number of nominations, it is appropriate that she also did with her reaction to the latest by simply sending a wordless video showing her dancing with delight. This is a first for these kinds of obligatory PR statements from nominees, and it spoke volumes about what an Oscar nomination can mean even if you have 20 of them. Clever, Meryl. It had the kind of spirit and freshness missing from the Academy’s moribund announcement. Hopefully this will be a one-time experiment — it certainly did nothing to build anticipation for the show itself.
We will have to leave that to the movies themselves, and fortunately the Academy did a great job in letting the cream rise to the top. The Academy told me over the weekend it was a record voting turnout, by the way, but they won’t release numbers of just how many of the 7000-ish members actually cast ballots.
As for that actual list of nominees, it held no real shockers, no stunning upsets. I thought there would be nine Best Picture nominees. There were. The nine I thought would be nominated — Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell Or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester By The SeaandMoonlight — were the movies that were nominated (if there were a 10th, I guessed it might be Deadpool , but the complete shutout of that DGA/PGA/WGA nominee continues the Academy’s snubs of comic book movies). The Academy’s list was virtually identical to the PGA list. Mel Gibson, grabbing a well-deserved Directing nomination for Hacksaw Ridge, will make headlines for obvious reasons and was the only directing nominee to differ from the DGA list, but it proves the Academy can look beyond personal issues and celebrate the work. In this case that work was exceptional. Mel is indeed back.
There were bound to be omissions in the impossibly crowded Best Actress race. Amy Adams for the otherwise richly nominated Arrival, and Annette Bening for 20th Century Women (which did land a surprise and nicely deserved Original Screenplay nod for Mike Mills) went missing for possibly career-best performances on a list that included Isabelle Huppert, Natalie Portman, Emma Stone, Ruth Negga and Streep.
Like Bening, neither Elle’s Huppert or Loving’s Negga were nominated for the usually predictive SAG Awards, but they both did extensive campaigning on the circuit and it clearly paid off for those now first-time nominees out of Europe — perhaps also reflecting the Academy’s drive to be more global in their membership and thinking. It is interesting to note that the Actors Branch passed over two of their representatives on the Board Of Governors with both Bening and Sully’s Tom Hanks missing from the list — and both should have been included. In the case of Hanks, it is getting to be an embarrassment as the Academy just can’t seen to recognize the subtlety and dignity of his recent work in movies like Captain Phillips, Bridge Of Spies and now Sully. Of course he has two Oscars at home so we shouldn’t shed too many tears I guess.
Clint Eastwood’s hit Sully in fact got only a single nomination for its Sound Editing, joining Makeup nominee Suicide Squad, and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them with a couple of technical nods as Warner Bros’ only nominations. Sony, with just two technical nods for Passengers , and Universal with zero had to be content with their specialty divisions doing a bit better. Disney got their usual animated feature love and a couple of below-the-line mentions for Rogue One. Paramount with Best Picture nods for both Fences and Arrival, and 20th Century Fox with one for Hidden Figures, were the only two majors to make the Best Picture lineup.
Meanwhile, mini-major Lionsgate taking the lion’s share of Best Picture glory with three films (La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge, and Hell Or High Water with CBS Films) landing slots and overall a leading 26 nominations. Not bad, eh? Lionsgate has just one previous Best Picture win with their 2005 stunner of a victory for Crash, but they have never had this kind of across-the- board success on an Oscar morning.
Another Lion in the game, The Weinstein Company’s Lion, puts that perennial Oscar player back in the Best Picture race after being MIA last year in the category. And welcome to the age of streaming with Amazon (and distrib Roadside Attractions) becoming the first to break that Oscar taboo with six nominations for Manchester By The Sea. A24, repeating its Room success of last year, saw Moonlight — a true indie made for under $2 million — reaping a very impressive eight nominations including below the line categories like Cinematography, Editing and Music where these kinds of tiny films don’t usually get attention. That shows real strength for Moonlight coming down the stretch in the spoiler position against La La Land.
Amazon’s streaming arch rival Netflix had to make due with a couple of docu shorts and a single feature nomination for Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary 13th, which managed to make some sort of history on its own as DuVernay became the first African American woman to earn a nomination as a director in any feature category. One of the films nominated opposite 13th for Documentary Feature was OJ: Made In America, which the Academy notes that with a running time of 7 hours and 47 minutes is the longest film ever nominated for an Academy Award. It is extraordinary, but also controversial in that it was essentially a miniseries on ABC and ESPN shortly after its Sundance debut. One group’s record breaking longest movie might be another’s documentary series nominee when the Emmys roll around. Perhaps it is time for the Motion Picture Academy to further define what really is a Feature Documentary in this ever-changing age of exhibition.
With loads of first-timers gaining recognition today, it is always interesting to see those who are clearly members of their club adding more nominations to their total including people like Hacksaw Ridge sound mixer Kevin O’Connell earning his 21st nomination, and Passengers Original Score nominee Thomas Newman getting his 14th. Neither has yet to win. Composer J. Ralph continues his unique streak of Best Song nominations for documentaries with his third “The Empty Chair” (shared with Sting, which probably helped) for the HBO docu Jim: The James Foley Story. It is the fifth song from a docu to be nominated in the past five years alone. I hear Ralph is a fixture on the campaign trail and knows how to work this game well. It’s obvious since he is back and names like Alicia Keys, Pharrell Williams and Stevie Wonder aren’t (though Pharrell is nominated as a producer of Best Pic nominee Hidden Figures).
Overall it is clear the Academy did their homework, even if it essentially followed the lead of the campaigns and other awards-giving groups. It would have been nice to see a great film like Eye In The Sky break through with something, but that film’s biggest crime is that it was released in March. Other than August release Hell Or High Water (so great to see that one in there), all the Best Picture nominees were Oscar-friendly fall releases, with seven of them in either November or December.
The much talked about strong diversity showing this year was quite frankly expected — a record 18 nominations for people of color according to the count by Gil Robertson of the African American Film Critics Association. The media in my opinion has over-hyped this aspect of the Academy Awards. This happened to be a very good year for diversity, at least for African Americans, in movies and Oscar voters coming to the table, as they have in the past when there were other similar movies worthy of nominations. I don’t think it has anything to do — yet, at least — with membership drives . It has to do with what is on screen. It is always about the movies. In that regard, in most ways this year the Academy did themselves proud in honoring these nominees, if not in the strange way they chose to announce them to the world.