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‘Honeyland,’ Netflix, Williams and ‘Joker’ Are Oscar Nominee Breakthroughs

As far as the Academy’s concerned, “Honeyland” is the bee’s knees.

A Macedonian beekeeper’s struggle to sustain an ancient way of life picked up three jury prizes at 2019’s Sundance Film Festival. Now it’s the first-ever dual nominee for documentary feature and international feature.

Honeyland” thrives on elements traditionally revered in each category. Nature docs have been Academy catnip since 1948, when “Seal Island” kicked off a string of Disney-produced wins for true-life adventures, down to latter-day triumphs of “March of the Penguins” (2005) and “Free Solo” last year. “Honeyland” probes forbidding hillsides outside Skopje at breathtaking distance, then zooms in on a life-and-death battle between rival beekeepers spelling disaster for implacable heroine Hatidze Muratova.

Recipients of what was formerly best foreign-language film are generally strongly humanistic and politically aware, from 1948’s “Shoeshine” to last year’s “Roma.” Praised by Variety’s Guy Lodge for its “unexpectedly rich seam of moral tension,” “Honeyland” depicts the clash between Hatidze and Turkish migrant newcomers, whose rapaciousness destroys the balance of an endangered cottage industry. Arguments with a dying mother crackle with “Grey Gardens”-like banter. There’s sadness, too, in the inevitable passing of a sole relative.

Small wonder this bittersweet human story, with strong geopolitical resonance and visual splendor, would appeal to the Academy. Throw in extra points for degree of difficulty — filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov tell their lucid tale without narration, “talking heads” or onscreen text — and you have a rare film that would be a strong contender in either category, in any year.

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Bob Verini

‘Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker’ Fuels Record for Williams

At 87, John Williams is the oldest composer ever to be Oscar-nominated for original score.

But that’s no real surprise. After all, he also holds the record for the most nominations of any living person: 52 in all, starting with “Valley of the Dolls” in 1967, and ending — for now — with the current “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”

Over nine films and 42 years, the Hollywood maestro has written more than 20 hours of music for the “Star Wars” franchise, some of the most lavish and memorable symphonic accompaniment in the history of movies.
Williams already has five Oscars, including for the 1977 “Star Wars” and others for such classics as “Jaws” and “E.T.” He is among the most respected and revered composers in American films.

Says director J.J. Abrams: “It’s probably impossible to describe the impact that he has had on those movies. Had anyone else tried to do what he did, I don’t know if we would be talking about ‘Star Wars’ today. John Williams is as responsible for what ‘Star Wars’ is, and has always been, as anyone.”

Jon Burlingame

Joker’ Could take It All

Though it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and made a billion dollars at the box office, Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is also a comic-book spin-off made by a director best known for gross-out comedies “Road Trip” and “The Hangover.” In other words, not exactly Oscar bait. But the unsettling character study earned 11 nominations, besting much-ballyhooed contenders like “The Irishman,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “1917.”

The gritty, violent villain origin story arrived cloaked in controversy, and it received polarizing reviews – Variety’s Owen Gleiberman called it a “hypnotically perverse, ghoulishly grippingly urban-nightmare comic fantasia,” while the New York Times’ A.O. Scott saw only “an empty, foggy exercise in second-hand style and second-rate philosophizing.” But Joaquin Phoenix’s commanding, nervy lead performance – an instant frontrunner for the best actor prize — and the film’s Scorsese-inspired Gotham atmosphere have a struck a chord with audiences well beyond the “Batman” fan base.

While Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for playing the Joker in  Christopher Nolan’s widely praised “The Dark Knight” (2008), the film itself was overlooked for a best picture nomination.

Last year, Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” earned a best picture nomination, and if “Joker” wins the category, it would be the first comic book movie to do so, signaling the Academy’s increasing willingness to take superhero fare seriously.

James Linhardt

Netflix’s Big Campaigns Earn Payoffs

Last year, Netflix made its debut in the Oscars’ best picture category with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma.” This year, in another sign that Netflix’s threat to the Hollywood order is no longer theoretical, the heavy-spending streaming service earned a whopping 24 Oscar noms, the most of any studio.

The brand’s heaviest hitters are Martin Scorsese’s mournful mob epic “The Irishman,” which earned 10 noms, and Noah Baumbach’s acerbic breakup saga “Marriage Story,” which earned six. Fernando Meirelles’ Vatican-set drama “The Two Popes” earned three nominations, including one for Jonathan Pryce in the lead actor category. As part of its awards push, Netflix gave all three films a limited theatrical release before debuting them on the streaming service.

Netflix might have been hoping for an even bigger nomination tally, but another contender, the rollicking, Eddie Murphy-starring biopic “Dolemite Is My Name,” was left out.

Other nominations testified to the breadth of Netflix’s holdings. The streamer has two films each competing in both the animated (“Klaus” and “I Lost My Body”) and documentary feature (the Barack and Michelle Obama-produced “American Factory” and Petra Costa’s “The Edge of Democracy”) categories. Another doc, “Life Overtakes Me,” will compete in the documentary short category.

But it certainly isn’t celebration time yet. At last month’s Golden Globes, Netflix’s 34 nominations translated into just two wins, with “The Irishman” getting not a single trophy. Though “Roma” earned Cuarón a director trophy last year, and “Icarus” took home the documentary feature prize in 2018, Netflix is still seeking its first best picture win. If “The Irishman,” a 3½-hour slow-burn that cost a reported $160 million to make, comes up short, one can expect Netflix to continue exercising its spending muscle until it wins Hollywood’s biggest symbolic honor.

— James Linhardt

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