After months of uncertainty, this year’s wide-open awards season appeared to come into focus Monday morning with the nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards, with the dark comic-book smash “Joker” leading the field with 11 nominations followed closely by the World War I drama “1917,” Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic “The Irishman” and Quentin Tarantino’s 1960s fantasia “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” with 10 nods apiece.
But if you look closer, the academy’s choices brought as many questions as they did answers, revealing an organization — and an industry — caught between competing crosscurrents when it comes to thorny issues of inclusion and the future of moviegoing itself.
At a time when old formulas are being upended and Hollywood is reevaluating where to place its biggest bets, the best picture nominees span a wide range of genres and scales. The nine movies in contention range from outside-the-box films like the Nazi satire “Jojo Rabbit,” the violent, hot-button “Joker” and Bong Joon Ho’s genre-scrambling thriller “Parasite” — the first South Korean film ever to earn a shot at the academy’s top prize — to more traditional studio Oscar fare like Sam Mendes’ “1917" and the car-racing drama “Ford v Ferrari,” to intimate stories like the literary adaptation “Little Women” and the divorce drama “Marriage Story.”
Powered by “The Irishman,” “Marriage Story” and the drama “The Two Popes,” which earned acting nominations for stars Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins as well as its screenplay, Netflix made a strong showing with 24 nominations in total, easily outpacing the competition. The most disruptive force to hit Hollywood since the advent of television, the streaming giant has made steady gains recently in its pursuit of Oscar glory; last year it earned 15 nominations, and in 2018 it earned eight.
Resistance to streaming is still stubborn in some quarters of the film business, however, and it’s unclear whether Netflix will be able to go the distance and take home the best picture trophy it has long coveted. At this year’s Golden Globes, the company led the film categories with 17 nominations but in the end only managed a single win.
Even as A-list directors like Scorsese have been brought into the streaming fold, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, a double nominee for producing “The Irishman” and “Joker,” says the jury is still out on whether the industry at large has finally accepted the arrival of Netflix. “I think that’s yet to be seen,” she said. “I think that it’s certainly getting there and I’m so happy for them. They are extraordinary partners. I hope that everybody continues to embrace Netflix and the art that they’re making.”
The directing category featured familiar faces — including Scorsese, who has eight previous nominations and one win, Tarantino, who earned his third nod in the category, and Mendes, who won for his 1999 debut feature “American Beauty” — as well as first-time nominees Bong and Todd Phillips (“Joker”).
But even as many in Hollywood have been working to bring more gender equality behind the camera — in 2019, for the first time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences invited more women to join the directing branch than men — no female directors made this year’s cut, with potential contenders Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”), Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”) and Marielle Heller (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) among those left out.
Reactions on social media decried the all-male directing nominees, but the academy noted that, when tallied across all categories, a record 62 women were nominated this year. In the feature documentary category, four of the five nominated films were either directed or co-directed by women.
In the fiercely competitive lead actor category, Antonio Banderas (“Pain and Glory”), Leonardo DiCaprio (“Once Upon a Time”), Adam Driver (“Marriage Story”), Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”) and Jonathan Pryce (“The Two Popes”) all scored nominations, while nominees for lead actress are Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”), Scarlett Johansson (“Marriage Story”), Saoirse Ronan (“Little Women”), Charlize Theron (“Bombshell”) and Renée Zellweger (“Judy”).
For DiCaprio, who won the lead actor Oscar in 2016 for “The Revenant,” there was a certain delicious irony in earning his sixth acting nomination for playing Rick Dalton, a onetime TV star clinging to the last shreds of his relevance in a changing Hollywood, in “Once Upon a Time.”
“I think Rick Dalton would be ecstatic,” DiCaprio said of his nomination. “Rick was becoming obsolete and embodied that major cultural transition in the industry. This film, in a lot of ways, was Quentin’s love letter to Los Angeles and this entire industry — so many of the actors before me that built the foundation of this entire town.”
On the inclusion front, despite its aggressive push to diversify its historically white-male-dominated membership, the academy just barely avoided a reprise of the #OscarsSoWhite firestorm that had dogged it in recent years.
With supporting actress contender and “Hustlers” star Jennifer Lopez left off the list, along with such other contenders as Awkafina (“The Farewell”), Eddie Murphy (“Dolemite Is My Name”), Lupita Nyong’o (“Us”) and Jamie Foxx (“Just Mercy”), Erivo was the only person of color among this year’s acting nominees.
To director Rian Johnson, who received his first-ever Oscar nomination for his original screenplay for the sleeper hit whodunit “Knives Out,” this year’s relatively homogenous slate of nominees demonstrate that the industry still has work to do to showcase more diverse voices.
“I think just kind of letting the tide take its course is not good enough,” Johnson said. “For example, there being no female directors nominated is — I hope it’s just going to stoke the conversation and hopefully spur some activity. We’ve got to figure something out.”
At the same time, as its membership has expanded rapidly in recent years, the academy has become a far more international organization; last year’s class of invitees represented 59 countries and swelled the group’s ranks to nearly 9,800. That influx of new foreign members may have helped boost “Parasite” to its six nominations, following in the path of last year’s Spanish-language drama “Roma,” which earned 10 nominations including best picture.
“Usually foreign-language films tend to be trapped in this framework of art-house films from distant countries,” said Bong. “So it’s been such a great joy to see the entire team being acknowledged for their great work in various ways.”
The 11 nominations for “Joker” capped a wild awards-season roller-coaster ride for the film, which earned rapturous reviews following its premiere in August at the Venice Film Festival only to be greeted with sharply divided reactions and a tide of pre-release controversy in the U.S. as many feared it would incite violence. In the end, its $1 billion-plus global box office haul, a record for an R-rated film, showed that gambling on a different and edgier kind of franchise film could pay off handsomely for Warner Bros.
That said, with the major studios and Netflix sucking up so much of the industry’s oxygen, a number of other smaller films that took big creative swings failed to break through with Oscar voters. Despite a slate of acclaimed releases like “Uncut Gems,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Waves” and “The Farewell,” the indie distributor A24, which released best picture winner “Moonlight” in 2016, pulled in just a single nomination this year, a cinematography nod for “The Lighthouse.”
The acting categories included a number of industry vets who’ve been around the Oscar block several times before, though for some of them their last nomination was quite a while back. The supporting actor category, for example, brought Tom Hanks his first nod in 19 years for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” while Al Pacino (“The Irishman”), Anthony Hopkins (“The Two Popes”) and Joe Pesci (“The Irishman”) earned their first nods in 27, 22 and 29 years, respectively.
With the Oscars set for Feb. 9, the earliest date ever, the next month will be a blur of screenings, interviews, red carpets and cocktail parties. But for those who received the early-morning call that they had received their first Oscar nomination, this dizzying moment will take some time to fully process.
“This is the first time that we’re going through this and all the Korean team members were all very happy but at the same time perplexed,” said Bong, who was celebrating the news with ice cream. “It feels like if I take the wrong step I’ll wake up from my dream.”
Times staff writers Amy Kaufman, Mark Olsen and Jen Yamato contributed to this report.