Movies

The Best and Worst Academy Award Nominees of 2020

Parasite made history, and we narrowly escaped another #OscarsSoWhite.

The family in Parasite eating dinner together. Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker.
From Parasite to Joker. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Madman Films and Warner Bros.

The table has been set for Hollywood’s biggest night, but how did the academy do this year? The Oscars showered love on Joker, narrowly avoided an all-white acting field, and even made a little bit of history. Here’s the good and the bad of what the 2020 Oscar nominations have to offer.

Good

Parasite’s six nominations, including Best Picture

Let’s start with the good! Parasite became the first South Korean movie ever to be nominated for Best Picture and the renamed Best International Feature. (A South Korean movie had never even made the foreign-language film shortlist until Burning did last year, but Burning didn’t ultimately earn a nomination.) The thriller’s six nominations fall short of the 10 for Roma and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and its shutout in the acting categories is irksome at best, but the movie is all but guaranteed at least one historic win on Oscar night, and it has a legitimate shot at the night’s biggest award.

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s tie

Gerwig’s omission in Best Director continues the academy’s long, nearly unvarying history of ignoring women in the category, but at least she and her partner, Noah Baumbach, can commiserate on their snubs. Little Women and Baumbach’s Marriage Story both notched six nominations apiece—going head to head in picture, actress, and supporting actress—and if the stars align, the couple might go home with a pair of statuettes as well.

Knives Out’s screenplay nod

The academy loves to turn up its nose at genre movies—Us’ Lupita Nyong’o could have overcome institutional racism or the idea that great acting in horror movies doesn’t count, but not both—but Rian Johnson’s ingenious murder mystery pulled off the perfect crime.

Cynthia Erivo’s Best Actress nomination for Harriet

Erivo’s nomination prevented an #OscarsSoWhite redux, and one nomination is indeed literally better than none. But nominating Erivo for playing Harriett Tubman while gliding past Nyong’o and the heavily favored Jennifer Lopez—both in movies that trounced Harriet at the box office—makes it clear which roles the academy’s voters are comfortable seeing people of color in, and which they’re not.

Florence Pugh and Saoirse Ronan for Little Women

Little Women fans may still argue over whether to side with Jo or Amy, but the academy picked both Ronan’s headstrong heroine and Pugh’s sullen spoilsport.

Antonio Banderas’ Best Actor nomination for Pain and Glory

There are certainly showier performances by lead actors this year, but none with this much soul. Banderas found a new gear playing a version of his longtime collaborator Pedro Almodóvar and showed that even after nearly four decades on screen, we haven’t seen all he has to offer.

The Best Documentary Feature lineup

For years the documentary category was the academy’s Achilles’ heel, but it’s made huge strides in recent years, and despite the absence of the favored (and great) Apollo 11, this year’s nominees—including Honeyland, For Sama, The Edge of Democracy, The Cave, and American Factory—continue that proud tradition of non-embarrassment. Now fix Best International Film.

Bad

Joker’s screenplay nomination

The academy’s affection for Joker is no surprise, but singling out Todd Phillips and Scott Silver’s script is especially baffling. Love Joaquin Phoenix’s performance and the movie’s moody visuals all you want, but scribbling notes in the margins of Taxi Driver should not earn you an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay, especially when Hustlers is right there.

Sam Mendes’ Best Director nomination for 1917

The perennial joke is that the award for best directing is really the award for most directing, and looking at this year’s nominees, it’s not hard to come up with fresh examples. But directing isn’t just about technical achievement. It’s about judgment. Framing a movie about a war that mainly consisted of troops sitting in trenches waiting to be gassed as a thrilling race across no man’s land shows an extreme lack thereof.

Margot Robbie in Bombshell over Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Robbie gave a great supporting performance this year, but it was in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Favoring her colorless Bombshell ingénue over her lively, if often wordless, turn as Sharon Tate feels like a perverse rebuke to the latter’s proof that great acting doesn’t always require great, or any, dialogue.

Charlize Theron’s nominations for Bombshell

Theron is virtually unrecognizable as Bombshell’s Megyn Kelly, her face transformed by prosthetics and her voice dropped to a bass rumble—but that’s not the same as giving a great performance. The acting branch’s fondness for impersonating public figures is well-established, but even Judy’s Renée Zellweger creates a character along the way. Theron just makes a Fox anchor sound like The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill.