The day the Oscar nominations were announced used to be a personal holiday to me. I would greet the day with the excitement sports fans would view Super Bowl Sunday or the NCAA Final Four tournament. I knew when they would be announced ahead of time, requested the day off from work, so I could be in front of the TV that Tuesday at 8:30 am EST to watch them live.
But in the last several years, all of that changed. Last year, I forgot about the announcements until I stumbled upon them as they were being announced. This year, I forgot about them completely. I didn’t know they were announced until I logged onto social media and saw that people were complaining about this year’s snubs.
This caused me to reevaluate my relationship with the Oscars. Because I was a fan of the whole experience, not just the nomination announcements, From 2012 to 2018. I wrote a breakdown of the nominees for this site. And from 2011 to 2022 (skipping 2019 and 2020), I did a post-mortem on each year’s ceremony. And if you search for Oscars in that search box to the right, you’ll find a lot of Oscar-based articles written by me on everything from rule changes to predictions.
But one of the things I’ve noticed by reading my commentary on the Oscars through the years is that my disenchantment happened slowly over a number of years. There is no one smoking gun that caused my love for the Oscars to go away, it was a death by a thousand cuts. Problems that I had with the process that never went away or even got worse.
First off, all awards shows are problematic. They all present themselves as rewarding the best their particular medium has to offer, but they never reward the best their mediums have to offer. Any awards program for arts and entertainment aren’t and never can be as definitive as they claim. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Different people experience art in different way. Some people might look at Poor Things as an audacious work of genius. Others might see it as an indulgent display of off-putting weirdness. Others, as I have seen someone say in my social media travels, consider it a rip-off of Frankenhooker. None of these takes are right, nor are they wrong. They are just the ways the artwork affects these people.
However, the Academy has been trying to quantify good and bad films through its Oscars for almost 100 years. If that wasn’t problem enough, the methods they use to decide what they consider best are flawed to say the least. It is full of classist and prejudicial gatekeeping that never fully mirrors what is liked by audiences or by critics. It is an idea of “The Best” that exists only in the minds of Academy members, if that idea overlaps what everyone else considers the best, that is a bonus.
By now, you should know this year’s Best Picture nominees: American Fiction, Anatomy of a Fall, Barbie, The Holdovers, Killers of the Flower Moon, Maestro, Oppenheimer, Past Lives, Poor Things, and The Zone of Interest. These are the ten best movies of 2023 according to the Academy. No need to question it, right? Wrong.
Rotten Tomatoes put out curated list of the 30 best movies of 2023. It’s not just a list of the best reviewed films on the site, they have one of those too where foreign-language films dominate, but an actual list of what they think are the best films of the year using their Tomatometer as a springboard. As I said, it is nigh impossible to quantify quality cinema, but if I am going to, I’ll go with what critics who have studied, and love, films say for my quantification.
Only five of the Oscar nominated films appear in the top ten of RT’s list: Barbie, The Holdovers, Killers of the Flower Moon, Oppenheimer, and Past Lives. What films took up the other five spaces? Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, John Wick: Chapter 4, Air, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. All the above films were as well, if not better, reviewed films than the ones that were nominated. So, why were they snubbed?
Well, for Mission Impossible and John Wick, it was because they were action films. While the Academy has been more lenient with nominating thoughtful horror like Get Out and rewarding inventive sci-fi like Shape of Water or Everything Everywhere All At Once, genre films, especially those that fall into the blockbuster action category, are usually willfully ignored by the Academy. It doesn’t matter how good they are or how many good reviews they get, they aren’t even getting nominated. The Academy deems them unworthy.
As for Across the Spider-Verse, it’s an animated film and it has its own category, and the Academy prefers that it stay in its own ghetto. No matter how good the animated film is, even if it a consensus pick for one of the ten best films of the year, it will have a hard time getting a Best Picture Nomination. Only three animated films have received a Best Picture nomination, and only one, Beauty and the Beast, occurred before they started the Best Animated Feature Category and before they expanded the potential Best Picture nominees to up to ten. The other two, Up in 2010 and Toy Story 3 in 2011, both lost Best Picture but eventually won Best Animated Feature. In the more than a decade since, no other film has cracked the Best Picture glass ceiling, even though worthy candidates such as Frozen, Coco and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse have come out since then.
Air probably got snubbed because the Academy hates Ben Affleck. You may laugh, or even scoff, considering he has two Oscar victories under his belt, but the circumstantial evidence seems to bear that out. One of those two Oscars came when Argo won Best Picture in 2013. Affleck was a producer on the film, but he was also one of its stars and the director of the film and he didn’t even get nominated in either category, even after campaigning for a nomination. The snub was especially egregious in the Best Director category because he already won Best Director for the film at the Golden Globes and the Director’s Guild Award, which would lead you to believe he deserved at least a nomination. His snub for Best Director that year seems personal. The Academy plays favorites and it seems like Affleck isn’t one of theirs.
And Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret probably didn’t get noticed because it committed the crime of being released in April and not mounting much of an Oscar campaign to remind voters that it existed. The film has an astounding 99% fresh rating against 222 reviews. So, critical consensus is that it is far and away one of the best movies of the year. But it was ignored by the Academy. It used to be that if you wanted your film to get an Oscar nomination, it would have to be released in late November or in December. The Academy has gotten better in the regard over the years (Three of this year’s films were released in June or July! Progress!). But their short memories make any film released in the early part of the year that gets a nomination a rare occurrence.
Campaigning would have been one way to raise awareness for the film, but outside of an interview or two with Rachel McAdams in the trade trying to get her a Best Supporting Actress nomination, not much was done. I didn’t see many ads for it in the month’s worth of digital issues of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter I read. Maybe the powers that be were afraid of violating the vague rules the Academy has regarding campaigning. Spending hundreds of dollars in “For Your Consideration Ads”? That’s fine. E-mailing the members of your branch to remind them of your song? That’s bad. Having your famous friends throw viewing parties and go on social media singing your praises? That’s okay as long as it is paid for by the studio and they don’t bad mouth any other potential nominees. The fact films and nominees have to campaign is odious in and of itself, but it is a necessary evil. Having to go through hypocritical rules is demeaning.
I know I have just pointed out the flaws in the Best Picture by showing films that did not get nominated, but what about those other five films that were nominated. Yes, they were not in RT’s Top Ten, but surely, they appear later on in the Top 30? Well, two of them do: Anatomy of a Fall and Poor Things. American Fiction, The Zone of Interest, and Maestro do not.
Let’s talk about Maestro, shall we? With 80% Fresh, it has the lowest Tomatometer rating of all the Best Picture nominees. On that big listing or RT’s best reviewed movies, there are more that 140 (140!!!!) films that received better reviews than Maestro.
Then why did it get nominated instead of all those other films that were far better than it? Well, like I said, the Academy plays favorites. It loves biopics, which Maestro is. They especially like biopics about entertainers, and Leonard Bernstein is the subject of the film. They love films where the main characters struggle with weighty, real-world problems like drug addiction and wrestling with their sexual identity, which, you guessed it, are major plotlines in Maestro. And they do play favorites with celebrities too. As much as the Academy hates Ben Affleck, they love Bradley Cooper. With his three nominations this year, Cooper has 12 nominations over the last 11 years. Meryl Streep doesn’t even have that many over the same period of time (In all fairness, she is only nominated in the acting category while a number of Cooper’s nominations have come from his roles as a producer and screenwriter on his films. but still…).
Maestro’s inclusion isn’t as bad as the 2012 ceremony, when Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the film adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about an autistic boy dealing with death of his father in 9/11, got a Best Picture nomination. The film, which owns an incredibly bad 45% fresh Tomatometer rating, took the place of other, more deserving, better reviewed films from that year such as Drive, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Take Shelter, and even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, which appeared Roger Ebert‘s and Rolling Stone‘s Year’s Best lists. The inclusion of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close told you everything you need to know about the flawed Best Picture category–you don’t need to be good; you just need to be “important”–and that being one of the best pictures of the year is not a requirement for the Best Picture category.
The Academy realized their error in snubbing popular movies and came up with a solution–coming up with a Best Popular Movie category. Yes, the easy way would be stop putting on airs and letting quality blockbusters in the Best Picture race. Instead, the Academy proposed to add a new category to a ceremony that is already criticized for being too long. The new category was planned to be included in the 2019 ceremony before negative backlash caused them to scrap the idea.
Let’s now address the 800lb. pink plastic playhouse in the room, the snub of Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig for Barbie. I will focus on Gerwig’s snub, which is the more egregious of the two. Should Robbie have received a nomination? Yes. But the Best Actress field is a full one, filled with nominees who have received nominations from other award organizations. Her not getting nominated makes more sense.
Gerwig’s snub sticks out more. She took a toy property, made an entertaining film out of it, and one that addresses many of real-world issues the Academy loves. Her being ignored by the Academy seems to be a personal slight.
The snub has caused many people on social media to blame misogyny for Gerwig not getting a nomination. Oscar apologists, both inside and out of the Academy, would likely point to Justine Triet’s nomination for Anatomy of a Fall as proof the claims of misogyny are unfounded. After all, she has lady parts! And there she is, nominated! It’s all good!
But the Academy’s treatment of female director should not be discounted. The forthcoming telecast will be the 96th time the awards have been given out. Over almost a century of ceremonies, women have been nominated for Best Director only nine times. It gets slightly worse than that, because Jane Campion has been nominated twice, which means that that only eight different women have been nominated (The other seven are Lina Wertmüller, Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow, Gerwig, Emerald Fennell, Chloé Zhao and Triet). And over those 95 ceremonies, a woman has won best director only three times, with two of the wins coming in the last five years (Bigelow in 2009 for The Hurt Locker, Zhao in 2020 for Nomadland, and Campion in 2021 for The Power of the Dog.)
But this year, the Academy had the chance to make history. There was the possibility that this would be the year where we would get more than just one female Best Director nominee. But while three films directed by women were nominated for Best Picture (Gerwig’s Barbie, Triet’s After the Fall, and Celine Song’s Past Lives), only Triet got a Best Director nod and Song and the supposed lock for the nomination Gerwig were left out.
It is important to note that while the Best Picture nominees are determined by the entire Academy, the individual branches vote for their peers. The nomination process is incredibly convoluted. Basically, to sum up, each member of the director’s branch is asked to list five choices for Best Director. They then divide the ballots according to first place votes. If a director doesn’t get any first-place votes, they are eliminated. There is a “magic number” to earn a nomination, determined by dividing the total number of ballots by 6 (the five available spots plus one). If you have more than this magic number in first place votes, you are automatically in. If not, then begins a process of attrition. The director remaining with the least amount of first place votes is eliminated. All of their ballots are distributed among the directors who are left using the remaining four directors on the eliminated ballot (say, if their second-place director listed is still alive in the balloting, this ballot then goes in their pile). The ballots are counted again and either the directors who now have reached the magic number with the new additions or the highest vote getter of the group gets nominated and then the process is repeated until all five spots are filled.
Confusing right? Needlessly so. But it was designed to be a fairer, more inclusive nomination process. However, it is rife with the possibility of abuse. You think only Christopher Nolan deserves to win and only Martin Scorsese deserves to get one of the other nominations? Only list them and leave the other three spots blank. Hate a particular director? Leave them off your list entirely and convince your director friends to do the same.
Could Gerwig have not been nominated because they thought she was not one of the top five directors of the year? Maybe. Barbie has a lower Tomatometer score than any of the other directors’ films. Could it also because the director branch thought there was only room for one woman to be nominated and they decided that it would be Triet? Yes. Or it could be thought that since Gerwig already was nominated (in 2017 for Lady Bird), she should make way for someone else? Sure. Or maybe since she was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, that could be her consolation prize and they could nominate someone else for Best Director in her place? Maybe. Could Gerwig have offend some of the members of the director’s branch since her Lady Bird nomination and they snubbed her as a form of revenge? Ha, yes. Or maybe they recognize her talent but think that she needs a little more seasoning under her belt before her next nomination? That’s a possibility. All of these are possibilities, because nominees are not purely selected on merit, but more on the whims and prejudices of the people doing the nominating.
The directorial branch has made a number of interesting, head scratching decisions in the past. Here’s a quick trivia question for you: where does Steven Spielberg keep his Best Director Oscar for Jaws and where does Martin Scorsese keep his Oscar for Taxi Driver? It’s a trick question. Nowhere. Why? Because they didn’t win Best Director for those films. Why not? Because THEY WEREN’T EVEN NOMINATED FOR THOSE FILMS! Two of the most important films in movie history, two films that made both men’s names in the world of cinema, and they didn’t even get nominated for those films. Spielberg would have to wait until his next film, 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for his first nomination. He wouldn’t win the award for another 17 years when he won for 1994’s Schindler’s List. Scorsese had a rougher go of it. He wouldn’t get a nomination until 1981 for Raging Bull and then would have to wait another 26 before he won his first and only Oscar in 2007 for The Departed.
Then there’s the case of Spike Lee. Arguably one of the most important directors of his generation. He should have Best Director nods for Do the Right Thing, Malcom X and Inside Man, at the very least. He didn’t. He got his first and only Best Director nomination, 36 years into his career, in 2018 for BlacKKKlansman.
Let’s consider some of the most exciting directors of the recent past. Quentin Tarantino? Three Best Director nominations with no wins. Christopher Nolan? He might be the front runner for Best Director this year but it’s only his second nomination in the category. Kevin Smith? No nominations. Edgar Wright? No nominations. Sam Raimi? No nominations.
I’m not pointing this out to diminish the absolutely horrid treatment of women in this category. I am saying that there is a history of self-entitled gatekeeping in this category that, at best, keeps some of the best directors from being recognized and at worst comes off as racist and sexist.
And you don’t have to look hard to find similar examples in other categories. Heck, the way the Best Documentary Feature category has become a joke is legendary. And the joke continues on as they decided to snub Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, the best reviewed and most talked about documentary of the year. It didn’t even get a nomination. For the longest time, I had overlooked or downplayed these negative aspects of the Oscars, getting caught up in the glitz and the glamour, lost in the nostalgia of good times watching the ceremonies with my family. But not anymore. Instead of exemplifying the best in the world of film, the Oscars are an example of everything that is wrong with Hollywood. And its problems are so ingrained, such a part of its very makeup, that they can never be fixed.