The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Wednesday announcement of shortlists for 10 Oscar categories reveals an organization in which some branches are markedly more open to giving the public what it wants than others.
A performance of the 15 tunes shortlisted by the music branch for the best original song Oscar would make for the concert of the year, with selections written or co-written and performed by the likes of Taylor Swift (“Carolina” from “Where the Crawdads Sing”), Rihanna (“Lift Me Up” from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever), Lady Gaga (“Hold My Hand” from Top Gun: Maverick), Selena Gomez (“My Mind and Me” from Selena Gomez: My Mind and Me), Drake (“Time” from Amsterdam), The Weeknd (“Nothing Is Lost (You Give Me Strength)” from Avatar: The Way of Water) and David Byrne (“This Is a Life” from Everything Everywhere All at Once), not to mention the number that has had people literally dancing in the aisles in movie theaters around the world, “Naatu Naatu” from the Indian blockbuster RRR. Sadly, the category’s defending winners, Billie Eilish and Finneas, were not included for “Nobody Like U” from Turning Red.
(Free idea: If I were the Academy, I would rent out the Hollywood Bowl ahead of the next round of voting and invite the folks behind each shortlisted song to perform it in front of footage of their film — I bet you that the vast majority would show up, provided the performances were filmed for the Academy’s members-only streaming service, and it could become a huge way of raising awareness for the telecast of the 95th Oscars on March 12, 2023.)
However, the documentary branch, as has become an annual tradition, rejected the biggest crowd-pleasers they were asked to consider — Ryan White’s real-life WALL-E Good Night Oppy, which Amazon is distributing, and Chris Smith’s Netflix-distributed Sr., in which Robert Downey Jr. examines his relationship with his late father — just like it did in recent years to Life Itself, Jane and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, among others, only this time not even bothering to shortlist them. (If I were Amazon and Netflix, I would immediately pivot and campaign hard for those two films to receive best picture nominations — it’s a weird year and, with the narrative that those films cannot be recognized in the documentary category, I really think the full Academy might strongly consider one or both to become the first doc(s) ever to crack the top category.)
I can’t prove it, but I think that a chunk of the doc branch is averse to advancing a movie that would appeal to the masses, because they know that should it get nominated, the full Academy, which gets to determine the winner, would always choose that title over a film that the doc community would prefer (which this year include Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes, Laura Poitras’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Margaret Brown’s Descendant, Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love, Ondi Timoner’s Last Flight Home and Matthew Heineman’s Retrograde). Not that there’s anything wrong with tiny gems — and I must give the branch credit for including one, in particular, first-time filmmaker David Siev’s timely and deeply moving Bad Axe.
The international feature shortlist, however — as determined by members from across the branches who opted to participate, and, for the first time, using the same sort of preferential ballot that the Academy employs for the best picture race — includes every high-profile contender that was in the mix: Cannes winners Close (Belgium), Corsage (Austria), Decision to Leave (South Korea), EO (Poland) and Holy Spider (Denmark); Venice honorees Saint Omer (France) and Argentina, 1985 (Argentina); The Quiet Girl (Ireland) and All Quiet on the Western Front (Germany), which launched at Berlin and Toronto, respectively (the latter was the most watched film on Netflix for a time); and yes, even Alejandro González Iñárritu’s widely polarizing Bardo (Mexico), which becomes the third consecutive Mexican entry, and fourth in five years, to be shortlisted, all of which have been handled by Netflix. Also noteworthy: The 15 foreign finalists hail from five different continents. And India, which was widely criticized for submitting Last Film Show over RRR, nevertheless advanced to the next round.
The quirkiness of the Academy is nowhere clearer than on the shortlist leaderboard. The two films that showed up on the most lists, five each, are Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, a giant Marvel sequel recognized on the makeup/hairstyling, original score, original song, sound and VFX lists, and the aforementioned All Quiet on the Western Front, the first German-made film adaptation of the classic novel, which punched way above expectations by showing up not only on the international feature list, but also makeup/hairstyling, original score, sound and VFX. (Given that tremendous showing by All Quiet, as well as the fact that Close distributor A24 will have its hands very full with Everything Everywhere All at Once and The Whale and that Decision to Leave distributor MUBI has limited resources for and experience in Oscar campaigning, I think All Quiet is the new frontrunner for best international feature.)
Other titles performing strongly include Avatar: The Way of Water, Babylon, The Batman, Everything Everywhere All at Once, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and Top Gun: Maverick, which each landed on three shortlists, while Amsterdam, Elvis and Nope showed up on two each.
The short films and feature animation branch, joined by members of the directors, producers and writers branches, determines the shortlistees for the live action short category, and they passed over the two highest-profile entries, both from singer/songwriters making their directorial debuts: Kendrick Lamar’s We Cry Together and the aforementioned Taylor Swift’s All Too Well: The Short Film. My sense is that, rightly or wrongly, they regarded these as glorified music videos, and did not want to open the door to those.
A few other things that caught my eye: The VFX shortlist does not include Everything Everywhere All at Once (the rather impressive effects of which were apparently done by just a half-dozen guys from Orange County) or RRR (the tiger sequence alone merited a serious look). Top Gun: Maverick is absent from the original score shortlist (it may not have been eligible). 38 at the Garden, the excellent HBO-distributed documentary short about the Jeremy Lin-sanity craze and the surge of anti-Asian hate in America over the decade since, will deservedly move forward in its category. And the newly-minted honorary Oscar recipient Diane Warren remains in the hunt for her first competitive Oscar (she’s currently 0-for-13), advancing for the tune “Applause” from the little-seen film Tell It Like a Woman. As one Academy member once told me, Diane might truly be the most popular woman in Hollywood, or at least in its music community!