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EW's awards experts debate the 2020 Oscar nominations

January 13, 2020

EW’s awards experts David Canfield and Joey Nolfi have spent the past few months tracking the Oscar race. As we enter the second phase of awards season, they discuss the biggest surprises, snubs, and everything in-between of Monday’s nominations — and get in some early picks on who might win it all.

THE SNUBS

Barbara Nitke/STXfilms

DAVID CANFIELD: Joey! Let’s get into this mess. We’ll need to talk about this Joker clownery and the Kathy Bates renaissance, but I think you know where we need to start: On Friday, as we sat down to make our final Oscar nomination predictions, you told me — and I quote — “as the minutes go on I am getting more and more terrified for Jennifer.” Jennifer Lopez has now been snubbed. I think we both agree this is wrong. What happened?

JOEY NOLFI: Way to clock the doubt for my queen! I’m devastated, and let it be known: I stan Jenny now and forever. I think what happened was a combination of frontrunner fatigue, Bates’ relentless campaigning, and, unfortunately, antiquated notions about Lopez’s career. I think a lot of people — especially those in the Academy — don’t respect her work and write her off as the rom-com queen she was in the early 2000s (despite, even back then, having given brilliant performances in movies like Selena, Out of Sight, and The Cell). There’s something about her that the industry just doesn’t take seriously, and I’m not sure if she can ever overcome that. In hindsight, she was tracking well with the critics groups and the Screen Actors Guild, though SAG represents arguably the most general taste among any precursor voting base (their nominating committee is around 2,000-strong from over 100,000 total members). It just goes to show that, as evidenced year after year, stats are increasingly meaningless in the Oscar race. Agree?

DAVID: I do. I also think her omission speaks to a larger issue about what the Academy deemed worthy and unworthy this year. Hustlers got no nominations, after all; same goes for Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, which was such a special movie, and such a strong presence on the awards circuit for months. Little Women had also been struggling to gain traction early on, but hit at the perfect moment: Its box-office surge and wave of critical support arrived just as voting commenced. If not for that timing, though, who knows — it too may have underperformed.

JOEY: I think we have to separate things that were doing well with critics and things that were doing well with the industry. It’s asking ourselves the question: Were these movies doing well because the industry guilds were supporting them, or were they doing well because we were lifting them up in our own minds and putting more stock in critical support than industry votes? Fabulous films like The Farewell and Uncut Gems showed up very little in actual industry guilds, so they were never going to be part of the above-the-line conversation.

IS TIMING EVERYTHING?

Claire Folger/Warner Bros.

DAVID: I agree with you to a point about the stats, but there are always a couple of actors who do very well with the precursors before missing the big one. (Another moment of silence for Jennifer Aniston/Cake.) This year, the other actor who showed up most everywhere before missing out today was Taron Egerton. Rocketman in general really underperformed, only snagging an Original Song nod. Like Hustlers and The Farewell, Rocketman hit before fall. In this condensed, extra intense awards season, did earlier theatrical runs prove fatal? (How else to explain Kathy Bates?!)

JOEY: I’m also not sure that timing is an issue anymore. Traditionally, across the last two decades, Christmas Day has been a death sentence for Oscar contenders (Little Women disproved that this year). I’m not sure I buy the argument against early releases, either, as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood dominated the summer and still came out with multiple nominations (and seems poised to potentially win the Best Picture race). The problem with Rocketman is… it’s just not a very good movie. Taron worked the circuit hard but the film built around him is a little hollow and featherweight, and doesn’t have the weighty staying power of something like Once Upon a Time or even Joker, which dug their claws in hard and didn’t let go.

The only explanation for Kathy Bates is her dedication to a campaign. She worked the circuit and it paid off. We can’t fault her for that. Who can blame her? The performance is decent and she did give us that fabulous image of her crying in a wig behind those microphones. It’s legendary in its own right (but not better than Lopez’s performance).

DAVID: Both of the supporting categories, when it came down to it, had one open slot: SAG’s dismissal of Little Women was a little nerve-wracking, but in retrospect, Florence Pugh was pretty well-positioned in Best Supporting Actress. I think Kathy Bates snuck into a spot that had a lot of different candidates actively in the running: Nicole Kidman, nominated by SAG; Zhao Shuzhen, a valiant and endearing campaigner for The Farewell; and of course JLo, who had critical and popular support. But this remains perplexing to me: Richard Jewell was a box office bomb, and outside of her (admittedly iconic) scene, Bates doesn’t leave you with much, especially in comparison to her superb costar Paul Walter Hauser, who should have figured more into the Best Actor conversation.

JOEY: I agree re: Hauser and good ol’ Dick Jewell’s box office floppage. Logically, it makes sense, but also exposes the silliness of the Oscar race: Kathy campaigned like hell, and that’s why she got in. It’s not about the performance and, at the end of the day, never really is.

WHAT WILL WIN BEST PICTURE?

Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

JOEY: Outside of performances, who do you think is out front in terms of winning Best Picture and Best Director? Do we have another split year on our hands?

DAVID: You made a great point about Once Upon a Time‘s staying power, and it’s why I feel like it’s out front to take Best Picture right now. But I don’t feel especially confident; it’s a tight race with a lot of possibilities, and Tarantino’s film did miss out on a key editing nod. And Tarantino doesn’t have the heat for Best Director, anyway. Sam Mendes is the strongest bet there. The Academy loves capital-D Directing, and the fact that 1917 figured into less likely races like Original Screenplay and Makeup/Hairstyling shows support runs deep. But I wouldn’t rule out Bong Joon Ho, who will get a lot of passion votes thrown his way. And 11 nominations for Joker? It’d be foolish to rule it out for either of these at this point.

JOEY: In the chaos of this morning I completely missed that Once Upon a Time is sitting Best Editing out. What a surprise. An interesting parallel: The last movie to win Best Picture without an Best Editing nomination was Birdman, which, like 1917 — which didn’t get a Best Editing nod, either — was edited to look like it was filmed in one continuous take. For that reason alone, I’m not putting too much thought into the lack of an editing nomination this year. Birdman proved it was possible to overcome (in a recent year, no less).

DAVID: Quite right. And Tarantino is getting on that stage, one way or another; I’d be shocked if he lost Original Screenplay, even if… once upon a time (sorry), that looked like Noah Baumbach’s to lose.

JOEY: I also think Bong has a legitimate shot at the win, especially as the backlash against the mostly white nominees intensifies in the weeks ahead. The film is a directorial masterpiece and he’s been the most charming soul on the campaign trailer, and people are living for him, in a way that feels fresh, exciting, and passionate in a way that doesn’t feel like old, stuffy respect for the legends he’s nominated against. Joker breaking into as many technical categories as it did was definitely a surprise. I knew it was an industry favorite (Cate Blanchett stanning during her Golden Globes appearance!) and it’s a great film, but I didn’t think it would storm the techs like it did.

But, in the end, I can absolutely see a split between Once Upon a Time/Mendes for the top two categories: We can’t deny the old tradition of Hollywood loving movies about itself, right? Even a revisionist tale like Tarantino’s?

LURKING SURPRISES

Wilson Webb/Columbia

DAVID: I’m looking at these acting categories right now and, frankly, feel pretty bummed out about how boring this year is turning out be, predictively. Last year, at least we had Regina King missing SAG and BAFTA nominations before going on to that lovely Oscar win, and of course Olivia Colman overtaking Glenn Close. We’ve already seen Renee Zellweger, Joaquin Phoenix, Brad Pitt, and Laura Dern win both the Golden Globes and the Critics’ Choice. They’re the overwhelming SAG frontrunners. Is there any hope for a little chaos among the actors…. anywhere?

JOEY: With our beloved Parasite Ladies (plus one gentleman) and Lopez sitting this year out, I feel like there are no chances at an Olivia Colman-style upset (poor Glenn Close). The acting categories are all locked, I think. Boring indeed! But, with Lopez out of the race, I can feel good about stanning Dern once again (though the performance still isn’t her best).

If there’s going to be chaos anywhere in this year’s race, it’s going to be something crazy in below-the-line categories, like what doesn’t win a single thing. Right now, to me, it’s looking like The Irishman is going to walk away completely empty-handed. What a fall from grace!

DAVID: The one big category we haven’t discussed yet is Best Adapted Screenplay, and at this point, Greta Gerwig feels like the favorite there over Irishman‘s Steve Zaillian, with Jojo and Joker circling. There’s so much talk around her and her innovative adaptation, and I think she really benefits as a very public, very adored writer-director.

JOEY: I’m not the biggest Little Women fan and I definitely don’t think Gerwig deserved a nomination over A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (a much better screenplay than Little Women‘s), but I think the (somewhat misguided) outrage over her “snub” (it wasn’t a snub, at least statistically) will indeed propel her to a victory here. The race works in strange ways.

DAVID: The Little Women disrespect! But yes, Irishman: No De Niro in Best Actor, either. We’re at the point where even Joker feels out ahead of it in most every category, which we would not have said a month ago. But so it goes with the Oscars! Who knows, maybe Kathy Bates will take the whole thing and show us all!

WISH LISTS

Courtesy Everett Collection

DAVID: To wrap, Joey: Biggest hope for Oscar night? Even if it’s totally unlikely?

JOEY: My biggest hope for Oscar night (that will never happen in a million years) is Tom Hanks winning for Beautiful Day. In my view, that was the best film of 2019 (so brilliantly directed by the genius, oft-overlooked Marielle Heller) and Hanks’ performance brims with such genuine passion. I was so moved! I’d also love to see the makeup team for Maleficent: Mistress of Evil win because it’s not easy to make Angelina Jolie into a cast member of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but they did so! What about you? What’s your dream scenario for Oscars night?

DAVID: I could go Greta or Florence or Saoirse — I love this movie, sorry! — but my favorite nomination of the day by far is Antonio Banderas, who fully wrecked me in Pain and Glory, the best performance of his career. Best Actor is packed, but I’d really love to see him win there, for such honest, personal work. And he’s been such a delight on the campaign trail — certainly more than his, erm, less personable competition, Joaquin Phoenix and Adam Driver. And really, as we’re learning more every day this cycle, isn’t that what Oscar season is all about?