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Oscar Nominations: The Academy Often Sings to Its Own Tune

You know the annual Oscar nominations announcement is going to be a lively one when things begin to enter a lull just before they drop, and that’s what it felt like ahead of Tuesday morning’s reveal. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, ever evolving and growing as a voting body, was sure to mix things up.

The biggest jaw-dropper was one some of us had lurking in the back of our heads: Bradley Cooper’s snub as director of “A Star Is Born.” The Academy’s directors branch has unceremoniously put actors-turned-directors in their place before, whether Ron Howard for “Apollo 13” or Ben Affleck for “Argo.” Cooper took the blow this year, for a film that came into the season strong, but has come up shy in recent weeks, from the Golden Globes to the Critics’ Choice Awards.

The other movie that came into the season strong was Netflix’s “Roma,” which made good on expectations to lead the field with 10 nominations (a designation shared with Fox Searchlight’s “The Favourite”). But Alfonso Cuaron’s drama still had a surprise in store, as supporting actress Marina de Tavira ended up in the lineup, despite having a muted presence in precursor announcements. That, and Yalitza Aparicio’s lead nomination, are a testament to a strong ground game: Both actresses were mainstays on the circuit, putting in face time with voters at countless events.

That wasn’t the end of the line for Netflix, though, as the Coen brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” turned up in a few unexpected places. Most striking was the sibling filmmakers’ bid in adapted screenplay, after the film was submitted in original (and competed thusly with the Writers Guild). The Academy’s writers branch made the switch just before ballots went out, owing to one chapter of the anthology film (“All Gold Canyon”) being adapted from a Jack London story and another (“The Gal Who Got Rattled”) being inspired by a Stewart Edward White story. The Western is also up for costume design and original song, and the screenplay bid marks the Coens’ seventh Oscar nomination for writing to date.

Along with two nominations for documentary short, that made it 15 noms for the streaming giant. Suffice it to say, they’re ecstatic over there. (And while we’re on the subject of “Roma,” those nominations plus a combined seven for “Green Book” and “RBG” made it 17 total for production company Participant Media.)

The biggest gut punch came for Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” which looked to show signs of life with the British Academy’s nominations announcement and, frankly, could have been better positioned overall this season. It was sort of left in the dust by Universal’s “Green Book” focus down the stretch. Misses for cinematography, film editing, and original score are honestly flabbergasting, though. A movie like this, daringly intimate in its approach to such a massive global moment, slammed with a bogus controversy as soon as it got out of the starting gate, needed to be better nurtured.

Timothee Chalamet’s miss for “Beautiful Boy” was also quite unexpected, especially after the 23-year-old actor was such a presence on the circuit. Perhaps the film trailed off after a lackluster Toronto Film Festival premiere, or perhaps voters in the actors branch felt a need to put the brakes on the star’s meteoric rise after all that attention for “Call Me by Your Name” last year. Who can say?

If there was anything else truly stunning, it had to be “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” finding itself left out of the documentary feature mix. The film received some 30 critics prizes and was the clear favorite to win the Oscar, but branch members either opted out or, what can often be the case, too many felt it was strong enough without their vote.

A few other notes:

Paul Schrader is finally an Oscar nominee, tapped for writing “First Reformed.” It’s a shame that it came at the expense of his A24 stablemate, Bo Burnham (“Eighth Grade”), however.

DreamWorks Animation had a shot at two animated short nominations, with “Bilby” and “Bird Karma,” but was shut out of the field. That’s gotta hurt, but let’s just use it as an excuse to start the drumbeat for “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” now, as the studio’s rousing final entry in the trilogy could be in the thick of next year’s feature race.

And give it up for Willem Dafoe, who seized what appeared to be a soft spot in the lead actor category (while no doubt packing some leftover “Florida Project” goodwill). That’s his first nomination as a leading man after a career that has lasted more than three decades.

So, who is our frontrunner for the big prize? After the Producers Guild Awards, it appeared to be “Green Book,” and frankly — despite a not-entirely-unexpected miss in the director lineup — it’s probably still the one to beat. But obviously field leaders “The Favourite” and “Roma” are strong, and watch out for “BlacKkKlansman,” an overall favorite this season that could finally be director Spike Lee’s ticket to the Dolby Theatre stage.

We’ll continue to suss it all out over the next several weeks. For now, here are the nominations for the 91st annual Academy Awards.

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