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Oscars 2016: why Star Wars missed out, and other takeaways from this year’s nominations

The Academy Awards still struggle to honor films about LGBTQ people, too.

Where's Rey? No, really, where's Rey?
Where's Rey? No, really, where's Rey?
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Nobody is under the impression that the Oscars seriously reward the best films of the year. The awards have a spotty track record, having given their top prize to far more mediocre films than great ones.

But they're a unique window into what Hollywood thinks about itself, what it values. Every year, we get a sense of the kinds of movies Hollywood thinks it should be making. And, sure, some things never change (war movies and epics will always be Oscar favorites), but by looking at the nominees from year to year you can see trends emerge, grow, and then recede across Hollywood history.

So where's Hollywood's head at in 2016? Here are nine quick takeaways from the latest round of Oscar nominations.

1) Films about women fared better than they have in recent years...

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn.
The sweet period romance Brooklyn made it in. Yay, Brooklyn!
Fox Searchlight

Since the early 2000s, the Oscars have slowly been nominating fewer and fewer films with female protagonists, seemingly with every year. This culminated in the 2015 Best Picture slate, which contained no movies in which women pushed the story forward.

The 2016 slate, however, features both Brooklyn and Room — movies where women are at the center of the story — as well as Mad Max: Fury Road, which might have a man's name in the title but is undoubtedly the story of Furiosa, the woman and warrior Max falls into traveling with. Meanwhile, in terms of films not nominated for Best Picture, Carol landed six nominations and was almost certainly one of the last films cut from the big category.

This is not to say that we're at the start of a long-term trend or anything, but it is a welcome corrective to recent Best Picture races.

2) ...but this same progress perhaps isn't so true of LGBTQ characters

Oscar tends to like LGBTQ characters as supporting players or as characters who aren't involved in anything resembling romance; something like Dallas Buyers Club, for which Jared Leto won an Oscar as a supporting player trans woman, or The Imitation Game, which treated Alan Turing's homosexuality glancingly.

This is not to say these approaches can't work — indeed, The Imitation Game is pretty good — but it is to say that when a true LGBTQ romance, like the '50s-set lesbian love story Carol, comes along, the Oscars tend to shy away from it. Brokeback Mountain, of course, famously lost Best Picture after winning many major precursors, and Carol's Best Picture snub isn't hard to read in much the same way. LGBTQ characters shouldn't be defined exclusively by their sexuality, but they should be able to take part in one of Hollywood's most cherished (and Oscar's most beloved) genres: the love story.

There was progress down ballot, however. Trans woman Antony Hegarty was nominated for Best Original Song for "Manta Ray" from Racing Extinction.

3) Small studios and distributors joined the party...

Spotlight cast
Spotlight hailed from an unproven studio when it came to the Oscars.
Open Road Films

Going in, one of the great uncertainties of this year's Oscar nominations was whether the small studios and distributors would rise to the level of bigger players like Warner Bros., Fox Searchlight, and the Weinstein Company.

Sure, movies are ostensibly being judged for their own qualities at the Oscars, but we all know that's not really true. Movies are also judged based on their Oscar campaigns and how well their studios get them into the conversation. When you're dealing with a big studio or a known indie studio quantity like TWC, it's reasonable to assume they'll handle things relatively well (though big studios sometimes mess up). But when you're dealing with a new player, you can't assume anything.

Such was the case with Spotlight's studio, Open Road Films, as well as Room and Ex Machina's studio, A24. Both had struggled to break into the Oscar game in previous years, which led to some predictions that all three films would underperform. But the two scored six nominations apiece, and outside of Ex Machina's Visual Effects nomination, the remaining 11 of those 12 nominations were in the top eight categories.

4) ...but the Academy might not be ready to embrace streaming services

Both Netflix and Amazon made at least nominal plays for Oscar voters' attention with Beasts of No Nation and Chi-Raq, respectively. Netflix made far more noise on the awards circuit with Beasts, scoring a Screen Actors Guild ensemble nomination and several other nominations for Idris Elba as the vicious Commandant. However, the film didn't land a single Oscar nod (even though I really thought Elba had a shot at joining the Supporting Actor race).

Meanwhile, Amazon's Spike Lee film yielded that director's best reviews in ages, but also came up empty at the Oscars, even in categories like Best Original Song, where the competition is weaker.

While Netflix can brag a bit about the Documentary Feature category (where it scored two nominations), both streaming services were blanked for their more visible projects. While both have seen instant Emmy success, it will clearly take the Oscars a little more time to warm to streaming.

5) The Oscars can still enjoy a good blockbuster...

Mad Max gets into a fight.
Mad Max: Fury Road forever and ever and ever.

Warner Bros.

The Martian was somewhat expected to garner lots of nominations. It was a fall release — always advantageous in terms of Oscar scheduling — and it made lots and lots of money. In that sense, it was fairly similar to Gravity, which did very well back in 2013, except it also had the benefit of being based on a well-received book (always an Oscar plus).

But the rise of Mad Max: Fury Road has been even more surprising. Sure, it was one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, but it was also an action movie installment in a franchise that hadn't seen a new film since 1985. The Oscars don't really like action movies, but they clearly recognized the greatness of this one, showering it with 10 nominations.

This might become more and more of a reality as Hollywood moves toward focusing more heavily on blockbusters. Quite simply, if they make up more of the overall pool, the Oscars might become more and more likely to reward the best popcorn movies out there — and Mad Max definitely qualifies.

6) ...except maybe not Star Wars

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the first film to take over the No. 1 spot at the all-time US box office and not earn a Best Picture nomination. Even the now largely ignored Avatar dominated the Oscar nominations back in 2010.

Star Wars did score five nominations in lower-ballot categories — most notably for its editing (often a harbinger of a Best Picture nomination) and for John Williams's score — but it couldn't crack the top list. That probably has something to do with how late it screened for critic and industry audiences, but it also reflects the Oscars' general reticence to embrace sequels (unless they're Mad Max: Fury Road, apparently).

7) Alejandro G. Iñárritu can do no wrong

Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of The Revenant
Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of The Revenant.
20th Century Fox

I find Iñárritu hugely overrated — a facile director who creates empty films that have nothing to say. But I'm clearly not an Oscar voter, because the Birdman director followed up his 2015 triumph with that film (which won both Best Picture and Best Directing) by leading the 2016 nominations with 12 nods for his new film The Revenant.

Iñárritu has a lot of points in his favor when it comes to his films. For one thing, he makes movies with gigantic, bold images. He also tends to make films about bleak themes — always a plus with those who tend to correlate darker subject matter with deeper meaning. Finally, he tends to work with top-flight actors.

This means every single one of his movies has scored at least one Oscar nomination, even when he was making said movies in his native Mexico, without the backing of a major American studio. I'd like to say this is his high-water mark, but who knows? He might just keep rising higher and higher.

8) Overall, the 2016 nominations are pretty great

I'm sad that Carol missed Best Picture, and I wish Kristen Stewart had somehow made the list for Clouds of Sils Maria. But otherwise, this is one of the more solid Oscar slates since the Academy expanded the Best Picture category to more than five contenders. There's a nice spread of nominees across films, and there were some pleasant surprises.

The one thing I'm still baffled by, however, is that Creed — the underdog boxing movie that caps the Rocky series — didn't manage to sneak its way into more conversations. If nothing else, Michael B. Jordan's star-making performance should have joined Sylvester Stallone's in the acting races.

9) Here are some early predictions

I will almost certainly change my mind, but right now I'm expecting the following:

  • Best Picture: Spotlight
  • Best Director: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
  • Best Actress: Brie Larson, Room
  • Best Supporting Actor: Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight OR Sylvester Stallone, Creed
  • Best Supporting Actress: Rooney Mara, Carol
  • Best Original Screenplay: Spotlight
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: The Big Short

Bring on the rest of awards season.

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