LOS ANGELES — In the midst of a pandemic that has crushed Hollywood’s spirits along with its business models, Monday morning’s nominations for the 93rd Academy Awards provided a shot in the arm for the film industry and cinephiles alike, with David Fincher’s black-and-white period film “Mank” leading the pack with 10 nominations including best picture, and the intimate, humane dramas “Nomadland” and “Minari” also earning top nods.
For the movie business, as for the rest of the world, 2020 was a year of unprecedented challenges and existential terrors. Cineplexes were shuttered. Release calendars were scrambled. Distribution practices stretching back decades were upended. And Oscar season itself was pushed back two months, with this year’s Academy Awards delayed until April 25.
Yet despite it all, the motion picture academy still found plenty of films and performances worth celebrating, turning the annual ritual of the Oscar nominations announcement into a kind of collective pep talk for a weary industry.
With moviegoing largely reduced for the past year to what you could watch on your couch, the academy altered its eligibility rules to enable films for the first time to qualify for Oscar consideration without a theatrical release. And not surprisingly, streaming services have dominated the awards derby, with three out of the eight best picture nominations going to Netflix (“Mank” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7″) and Amazon Studios (“Sound of Metal”), and two more going to films that premiered on Hulu (“Nomadland”) and HBO Max (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) the same day they opened in theaters.
For the second year in a row, Netflix — which is still in pursuit of its first best picture win — led the pack with 35 total nominations, powered by “Mank,” which recounts the story behind Herman Mankiewicz’s screenplay for “Citizen Kane” as well as “Chicago 7″ and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
The major studios were largely relegated to also-ran status, having postponed many of their biggest awards prospects — like Steven Spielberg’s take on “West Side Story” and the sci-fi epic “Dune” — to avoid box office doom, giving smaller releases more room to shine.
Still, while big-budget spectacles were nowhere to be found among this year’s best picture nominees, the eight films in contention span a range of tones, scales and subject matters, including emotional dramas like “The Father” and “Minari,” the darkly comic thriller “Promising Young Woman” as well as politically charged period pieces like “Judas” and “Chicago 7.”
As difficult as the past year has been, “Nomadland” producer Dan Janvey said the nominations illustrate the resilience of the movie business. “I don’t come from the studio world, I come from independent film, and I’m just so thrilled with the whole batch of nominees,” said Janvey, who also coproduced this year’s feature documentary nominee “Time,” released by Amazon. “American film culture has been really exciting, and I think this is a great moment for that.”
For the nominees, though, this has clearly been no normal Oscar season. “The most beautiful part of the Oscars is that we can shine lights on stories that move us and connect us,” said Steven Yeun, who made history as the first Asian American ever nominated as lead actor for his turn in the tender immigrant tale “Minari.” “But with this pandemic, I’m still figuring out what’s happened to us and where we’re at. It’s torn a veil off for all of us. A lot of institutions got seen for the brokenness for what they were. I’m thrilled and so blessed that I get to experience this. But I’m trying to hold both things at once, and it’s difficult.”
As a first-time nominee, “Judas” director Shaka King has no basis of comparison for the oddness of this year. “I’ve never been nominated for an Oscar and never even thought I’d be nominated for an Oscar, so it’s all kind of part and parcel with the year we’ve had,” said King, who also produced the best picture nominee and shared an original screenplay nod for the feature about Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. “It’s one of those things where the one who comprehends water the least is the fish, as they say.”
As in recent years, issues of inclusion have once again loomed large this awards season. Last month’s Golden Globes were held under a cloud of controversy after a Los Angeles Times investigation highlighted the fact that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which hands out the awards, has no Black members. (In the wake of the Times’ report, the group has pledged to add Black and other underrepresented members, along with other reforms.)
A number of actors of color were recognized for their work, including Leslie Odom Jr. for “One Night in Miami … ” alongside fellow supporting actor nominees LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya of “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Riz Ahmed became the first Muslim to earn a lead actor nod and first performer of Pakistani descent recognized in any acting category, for his performance as a rock drummer who loses his hearing in “Sound of Metal,” while Chadwick Boseman drew a posthumous nomination in the same category for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” In the lead actress category, Andra Day followed her Globes win with a nod for “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” while Viola Davis earned her fourth Oscar nod for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” becoming the most-nominated Black actress ever.
For the first time, the directing category included two women, Chloé Zhao for “Nomadland” and Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman.” Zhao, also nominated as a producer, editor and writer, is the first woman of color nominated for directing.
Speaking to the Times, Ahmed said he hopes milestones like his nomination allow people from underrepresented backgrounds to see themselves reflected by Hollywood. “However people can find a connection to this moment is beautiful to me,” said the actor. “Some people may connect to the fact that it’s the first Muslim, some people might say British-Pakistani, some people might say first person from Wembley in London. What matters to me is that these moments of celebration are moments where as many people as possible can recognize themselves in it.”
Even as the academy continued to make progress toward greater inclusion, though, two Black-led films that recently earned best picture nods from the Producers Guild — “One Night in Miami … ” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — failed to land in contention for the Oscars’ top award, while Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” received just a single nomination for its score, suggesting that cracking the biggest category can still be a struggle for films with predominantly Black casts.
Given the dearth of blockbuster fare and the likelihood that the usual star-studded telecast will be held virtually, it remains to be seen how much interest there will be in this year’s Oscars, which the academy announced will be broadcast from the Dolby Theatre and L.A.’s Union Station. But with awards shows across the board already struggling with shrinking audiences, early indications are not encouraging. Last month’s Golden Globe Awards saw its ratings take a nosedive, dropping a whopping 63% from 2020′s telecast.
Still, for this year’s nominees, nothing could dim the excitement of seeing themselves honored among cinema’s best of 2020.
Speaking with the Times over Zoom, veteran Korean actress Yuh-Jung Youn had a glass of champagne at the ready to celebrate her supporting actress nomination for playing the feisty grandmother in “Minari”: “I am way over 70, so I can do whatever I want in my house,” she said.
“After we got a warm reception from the audience for ‘Minari,’ they kept telling me, ‘You’re going to be in the Oscars’ but I tried not to listen to that,” she went on. “For me, it’s an other-side-of-the-world story, so I wasn’t in it at all. Me being nominated? It’s still not real to me.”
(Times staff writers Amy Kaufman, Sonaiya Kelley and Mark Olsen contributed to this report.)