Out of the 321 feature films eligible for this year’s Oscars, five have dominated awards season so far, and they all made a good showing in the Oscar nominations announced today. Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s portrait of the troubled physicist who helped to create the hydrogen bomb, is in the lead with 13 nominations. Playful steampunk feminist adventure tale Poor Things, adapted from the novel by Alasdair Gray, is tied with Martin Scorsese’s chilling historical drama Killers of the Flower Moon on ten. Barbie has nine and The Holdovers is on a more modest seven, but is the favourite in two of the acting categories.
2024 Oscar nominations
All five of these titles are in the running for Best Picture, along with American Fiction, Anatomy of a Fall, Maestro, Past Lives and The Zone of Interest. That means three of the top contenders are directed by women – a little better than usual, and roughly proportionate to the number actually eligible – and two by people of colour.
Killers of the Flower Moon may have been made by a white man but it tells the story of the Osage people of what is now California, and he worked closely with the Osage community to develop it after they spent decades trying to bring that story to wider attention. Its star, Lily Gladstone, is of mixed descent and grew up on a Blackfeet reservation, but the community could not be happier about their casting, and there’s a strong chance that they will win Best Actress.
Despite this gradual progress, Maestro’s place on the list – and its six other nominations – is likely to attract controversy. Playing composer Leonard Bernstein, director/writer/star Bradley Cooper donned prosthetics to make himself look Jewish, which has not gone down well with parts of the Jewish community.
As such, the film makes an awkward companion for English director Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, which looks at the way life went on as normal for families living beside Auschwitz during the Holocaust, even though they had a fair idea of what was happening in the camp. The most consciously artistic of this year’s selections and a festival favourite across Europe, this film opens in the UK on 2 February.
Why does all this matter? Because contrary to popular opinion, most people in the film industry – even if they’re well known – don’t make a lot of money. Getting an award at this level can be life-changing for the individuals involved, opening up all sorts of new opportunities. It also has a significant effect on what sort of films investors will take an interest in over the next few years. This means that it helps to determine which stories ordinary people engage with en masse. In other words, it has enormous cultural influence.
Nominations for best short film
At an individual level, this is felt nowhere more strongly than in the short film categories. Although these tend to be overlooked by more people and are not a big part of the excitement on the night, they often launch careers, and they’re a place where new potential story ideas and subjects are tested out. This year’s short film contenders – distributed across three categories – include several interesting choices.
Documentary Island In Between applies a critical perspective to life on Kinmen, which is situated between Taiwan and China and thus between the military forces and competing ideologies of East and West. The After, which writer/director Misan Harriman managed to create despite suffering from severe dyslexia, is an exploration of grief which feels extremely timely. Invincible reflects on the true story of a teenager who ended his life because he couldn’t endure being cooped up in a youth detention centre, whilst Pachyderme uses animation to explore child abuse from the perspective of a girl whose voice goes unheard. If all that sounds a bit grim, there’s also The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Wes Anderson’s delightful take on the Roald Dahl short story, which is available to watch on Netflix.
Barbie and co
Then there’s Barbie, a film which has shattered box office records and given quite a wake-up call to producers who didn’t see the potential in combining femininity, feminism and fun. It seems unlikely to win the top prize at this point, but it has certainly made its presence felt, its box office rivalry with the much more traditional, male-focused Oppenheimer the talk of the summer.
Poor Things arguably has a similar spirit, but is nothing like as pink, and is much more willing to depict the seamier side of life, along with human cruelty. Emma Stone is terrific in the role of its heroine who, due an accident of circumstance, has escaped all social conditioning and has no patience with social constraints – she’s just unlucky to be running for Best Actress in such a strong year.
Outsiders in the running for an Oscar
Alongside all this, The Holdovers feels like an outsider, old fashioned in a lot of ways but incredibly well made. It’s the story of an unpopular teacher who, over Christmas, unexpectedly bonds with a teenage boy who has nowhere else to go. There’s a warm, human quality to it, thanks in large part to the actors, who include Da’Vine Joy Randolph as a cook who has recently lost her son in Vietnam.
The real outsiders which might yet produce an upset, however, are Justine Triet’s mystery Anatomy of a Fall, which just won Best Film at the Lumières in France; Celine Song’s tale of migration and reunion, Past Lives; and Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction, an adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, which wittily dissects the publishing industry as it takes a look at the money to be made selling pseudo-authentic Black stories of the sort that white people like to read.
The Oscars will be presented on 10 March and the ceremony is starting an hour earlier this year, making it easier for UK viewers to stay tuned until the end. There will be fabulous gowns and feeble jokes and a lot of people thanking their mums, but just remember that there’s more going on under the surface.