What Does It Mean To Be a Best Picture Oscar Nominee?

by Ryan Swen

First things first: yes, the cultural bonanza known as the Academy Awards are by and large a fairly silly enterprise, more accustomed to a certain kind of back-patting than to even acknowledging the best films of the year, let alone rewarding them. The 89th Oscars are no exception, neglecting to give more than a paltry single nomination (if that) to such movies as Silence, Cameraperson, Sully, and Certain Women, and that’s not even including the myriad deserving foreign films. But there is a noticeable difference this year – a larger amount of films that seems to come from the margins in form if not content – mixed in with the standard awards bait.

Before I proceed further, I feel like I should provide my view on the Best Picture nominees, all of which I had somehow seen before the nominations were announced, as both a statement of intent and a viewing guide for those who are thinking of catching up. In descending order of quality:

Thought-provoking labors of love: Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight

More-or-less solid films that I’m mildly happy to see in the conversation: Hell or High Water, Arrival

Interesting films with equal parts flaws and virtues: Hacksaw Ridge, Fences

The great divider: La La Land

See them I guess: Lion, Hidden Figures

As per the usual, the best picture nominees run the gamut of quality (Manchester by the Sea is one of the best films I’ve seen this decade, while I heavily dislike Hidden Figures) but there seems to be a greater breadth of genre and subject matter than before. Even though Oscar prognosticators and the like had basically sewed up the contenders, lobbying for various films is a very real and powerful influencer, and the fact that there is a good chance that only a handful of Academy voters actually saw more than half of the eventual nominees, it still doesn’t entirely account for just how inexplicable (mostly in a good way) virtually all of the nominations are.

For one, the frontrunners of this particular Oscar race (La La Land, Moonlight, and Manchester by the Sea) are also among the most acclaimed films of the year by the critical establishment at large. Just from looking at the “Big Three” of critic’s polls, they form the top 3 of the Indiewire poll, all place within the top ten of the Village Voice poll, and the latter two are in the top ten of the Film Comment poll (the anticipated winner did not, due to a well-deserving backlash). This anomaly is strange enough–of the three frontrunners last year, only Spotlight came even close in critical support to any of these three–but, as hinted before, it seems even stranger when considering the content and overall mood of the films.

La La Land is, as many have repeated over and over, an original musical (a rarity nowadays, though I’d argue that Popstar from this year is a far superior example) that functions almost entirely as a two-hander and is made with no small pizzazz; it does fall into that easy category of being a film that celebrates Hollywood, but it does possess some emotion and genuine care for its central couple (if not for anyone else). Moonlight, perhaps the most daring nominee this year, is a purposefully elliptical but emotionally wrenching triptych following the life of a gay black man living in Miami. And Manchester by the Sea feels at once like it would be well suited for the Best Picture slate and not; it is a drama about men and women (but primarily men) living in Massachusetts, but the skill and love with which Kenneth Lonergan constructs his tale could be seen as almost too abstruse, too devastating for the Academy.

The argument of irregularity could be made for every film on this list, something that can’t be said for the Best Picture nominee slates of the past 4 or 5 years. It does feel like some sort of triumph for the margins, regardless of quality, especially in light of the #OscarsSoWhite outrage that has been answered implicitly by no less than three nominees that deal explicitly with race from the perspectives of ordinary black people. Whatever wins this year (all signs point to La La Land), there is something oddly satisfying about seeing a unified set of films, even if one or two of them are “Oscar bait”, that take risks, no matter how small.


Ryan Swen is a freelance film critic and a volunteer at Scarecrow. He writes at TaipeiMansions and tweets at @swen_ryan, and his work can be found at Seattle Screen Scene and the Brooklyn Magazine Film Section.

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