With Oscar nomination voting beginning on Friday, Searchlight's "Nomadland" is in a strong position. But history suggests that it's also a precarious position.
Chloé Zhao's American travelogue has won the lion's share of critics' awards this year, won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Drama and sits comfortably atop most Oscar prediction polls. But we're at a strange point in the Oscar race, one which usually arrives in early January -- a point where almost every award that's been handed out so far has come from voters who are critics or journalists or academics, and where we really haven't heard from the industry.
And it's the industry, not the critics, that votes for the Oscars. "Nomadland" might look good, but so did "The Social Network" in 2011 and "Boyhood" in 2015, before the critics stopped voting and the industry started voting. And then "The King's Speech" (in 2011) and "Birdman" (in 2015) suddenly racking up the awards, up to and including the Oscar.
That's not to say that "Nomadland" will suffer the same fate; precedents are probably meaningless in a year as strange as this one. And while Zhao's film might lack the straightforward appeal of, say, Aaron Sorkin's "The Trial of the Chicago 7," it is an exquisite piece of work that should find plenty of support within the Academy. (I watched it again this week, and its rough, elegiac lyricism has only gained in power since I first saw it last September.)
We have gotten some clues from the industry in the past few weeks, starting with the Screen Actors Guild nominations. The actors boosted "Minari" and ignored "Nomadland" in the ensemble category -- but would you expect a group of actors to honor a movie in which most of the performers are nonprofessionals without SAG cards? The Writers Guild announced its own picks, but its rules disqualified "Mank," "The Father," "Minari," "Soul" and, yes, "Nomadland," so it's hard to view them as a reliable precursor to anything.
Still, if you look at the guilds and professional organizations that have nominated so far this year -- which, in addition to SAG and the WGA, include the Art Directors Guild, Costume Designers Guild, Cinema Audio Society, Motion Picture Sound Editors, Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, Visual Effects Society and Society of Composers and Lyricists -- you do get a sense of what films are clicking with the industry professionals in those areas. It's not a comprehensive picture, but it's a start.
And it's a curious start. "Nomadland" was only nominated by one of the groups, SAG, with an individual nomination for Frances McDormand rather than an ensemble nod. "The Father" had a slightly better showing, with only a SAG best-actor nom for Anthony Hopkins and a supporting-actress one for Olivia Colman. "Minari" was only recognized by two guilds, but it was nominated in the crucial SAG ensemble category.
All three also made the BAFTA longlists for the British Academy Film Awards, which are significant in that there's substantial overlap between BAFTA and Academy membership, but suspect because a longlist of 15 is a lot more generous than a slate of five nominees.
Of the presumed Oscar contenders who did well, "News of the World" and "Mank" landed nominations from seven of the eight guilds and made the BAFTA best-film longlist; "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Da 5 Bloods" and "Promising Young Woman" received five guild noms plus BAFTA, with "Ma Rainey" and "Da 5 Bloods" landing coveted SAG ensemble spots; and "The Trial of the Chicago 7" and "Sound of Metal" were recognized by four guilds and BAFTA, with the former also getting a SAG ensemble nod.
("Tenet" and "Wonder Woman 1984" also picked up four guild nominations, but their non-appearance on the BAFTA best-film longlist suggests weakness in the Best Picture category; certainly, the latter is not a contender there.)
None of this means that "Nomadland" and "Minari" won't be in the thick of the Oscar race, or that "Mank" and "News of the World" should be considered front runners. At this point, all four are likely Best Picture nominees, part of a group of strong contenders that also includes "The Trial of the Chicago 7," "One Night in Miami," Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Promising Young Woman," "Soul" and "Da 5 Bloods."
But that list contains 10 films, and the variable system that the Academy has used to select Best Picture nominees since 2011 has never produced that many spots in the past and seems extremely unlikely to do so this year.
We won't know what's in and what's out until Oscar nominations are announced on March 15, but next week will bring a formidable slate of nominations that may put the contest into focus before Oscar voters weigh in. The Producers Guild will announce its nominations on Monday, the Directors Guild and BAFTA on Tuesday, the American Society of Cinematographers on Wednesday and American Cinema Editors on Thursday.
All are crucial, and all may help make sense of this weird year. But don't expect any real answers, because 2020 and 2021 won't give up their secrets that easily.