The good, the bad and the Joker: Surprises and snubs of the 2020 Oscar nominations

click to enlarge Joker is the year's most Oscar-nominated film, and star Joaquin Phoenix is the frontrunner for Best Actor.
Joker is the year's most Oscar-nominated film, and star Joaquin Phoenix is the frontrunner for Best Actor.
This morning's announcement of the 2020 Oscar nominations featured a lot of the usual suspects... and a whole lot of disappointments. Todd Phillips' Joker, the Martin Scorsese-inspired super-villain origin story that grossed $1 billion, leads the pack with a whopping 11 nominations, followed closely by an actual Scorsese film — The Irishman — and Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.

You can see the full list of the nominees here.

No one should be surprised that Joaquin Phoenix's acclaimed central performance as the Joker was highlighted — he remains the frontrunner in the category — but the most nominated film? Give me a break. And I actually liked the movie: I found it queasily effective in its more horrifying moments, and I admired the animalistic physicality of Phoenix's work. But it falls apart before it's over, and it didn't leave much of an impression of me.

But hey, them's the breaks. You can either take this morning's nominations as proof that the Oscars are as clueless as ever, or as validation that you were right all along. For such a rich and exciting year for movies, a lot of these categories show a real lack of imagination and variety: I mean, movies like Bombshell and The Two Popes (three nominations apiece) are so middle-of-the-road that I'm tempted to think no one actually watched them before voting for them.

Amongst the biggest slights: No women were recognized for directing... again. Robert De Niro wasn't nominated for The Irishman, despite being the Irishman. Movies like Booksmart, Her Smell, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Lighthouse and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — all either thrown a single nomination or ignored completely.

This is nothing new. But there were some pleasant surprises mixed in with the eye-rollers, starting with:

The good: Florence Pugh nominated for Little Women
This rising star had a real breakout year, delivering three performances that revealed a complete, well-rounded actor: She mastered pure physicality as an aspiring wrestler in Fighting with My Family, and mental anguish in the horror freakout Midsommar. Hers is my favorite performance in Greta Gerwig's Little Women because she takes a character we thought we understood and finds new, unexpected complexities in her. And if you haven't seen Pugh in 2017's Lady Macbeth, get thee to a digital platform and rent it.

The bad: Jennifer Lopez snubbed for Hustlers
Remember all those grassroots "Jennifer Lopez deserves an Oscar" campaigns that happened when Hustlers opened in September? Well, apparently they didn't take. That's a shame, because it was a really terrific performance — earthy and grounded, but also physical and magnetic and commanding. Lopez made you believe she could be just as comforting as calculating, a surrogate mother who's also an opportunistic, well, hustler. So what happened? Is it because the movie came out too long ago? Is it because the Academy avoids women's stories (save for Little Women)? Was Lopez ignored because of some stigma surrounding pop stars acting (never mind the fact that she's been in movies for 25 years)? I'm gonna guess it's a little bit of all three.

The good: Antonio Banderas nominated for Pain & Glory
It's rare that the Academy goes for a non-English language performance, not to mention a non-English language performance that's so subtle and ruminative. Banderas has been collaborating with writer-director Pedro Almodovar since the 1980s, and in Pain & Glory he plays a fictionalized version of the great filmmaker, who's now in the twilight years of his life and begins reflecting on his childhood, his career, his failed relationships and his deteriorating body.

The bad: Adam Sandler snubbed for Uncut Gems
In fact, Uncut Gems, my favorite movie of 2019, wasn't nominated for a thing. I know it's a divisive film — I've talked to as many people who embraced it as people who recoiled from it — but how could you not recognize the intensity of its swirling sound design and cinematography, or the pulsating insistence of the musical score? I thought Sandler might've had a chance: Despite all the terrible comedies he has made, he's generally beloved in Hollywood, and his work in Uncut Gems reveals a side of him we haven't seen in years. I guess this wasn't a bet I should've taken.

The bad: Lupita Nyong'o snubbed for Us
Horror movies: Add it to the long list of things that the Academy doesn't have much patience for. Every once in a while, they make an exception — Get Out a couple years ago, for instance — but Jordan Peele's follow-up to that great film was totally forgotten. In particular, it's the lack of a nomination for star Lupita Nyong'o that sticks out most egregiously. Like Toni Collette's performance in 2018's horror hit Hereditary, hers was a raw, risky, put-it-all-out-there performance that the Academy inexplicably didn't go for.

The good: Parasite!
Bong Joon-ho's ingenious satirical thriller got six nominations (although not in the acting categories), something of a surprise considering the Academy's general anathema for anything not in English. It's only the sixth film in Oscars history to be nominated as both Best Picture and the newly renamed Best International Film, and it will for sure win in the latter category. But considering its nearly universal acclaim — and the way Best Picture votes are tallied by numbered preference — I think it totally has a shot at the night's biggest award. What a delightful twist that would be.

The bad: The Farewell?
But the same love wasn't extended to another acclaimed foreign-language hit. Lulu Wang's funny and melancholic The Farewell was completely ignored by Oscar voters, despite its staying power at the box office and star Awkwafina winning a well-deserved Golden Globe last weekend. Perhaps the movie seemed too modest or indie for them, which is really too bad, because it has more to say about society and cultural differences than, say, Joker. Seek it out — it's worth it.

We'll see what happens on Sun, Feb. 9, when the Oscars air on ABC at 5 pm.