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Oscar Voters Go Big and Go Weird to Make Sense of a Big, Weird Year

In a year beset by strikes, a lingering pandemic and rocky times at the box office, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did what it could with Tuesday’s Oscar nominations.

It went big, showering nominations on the blockbuster “Oppenheimer” and on prestige projects like “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Maestro.”

It went little, finding room in the top category for “Past Lives” and “American Fiction.”

It went global, putting three movies entirely or partially not in English into its Best Picture lineup for the first time ever with “The Zone of Interest” (German), “Anatomy of a Fall” (French and English) and “Past Lives” (English and Korean).

It went weird, embracing the kooky kinkiness of “Poor Things” to the tune of 11 nominations, second only to the 13 for “Oppenheimer.”

And it threw in some surprises, giving “Barbie” eight nominations, including Best Picture, but leaving out director Greta Gerwig and star Margot Robbie.

The 9,797 Oscar voters (or at least however many of them voted) zigged and zagged on their way to producing a varied and reasonably predictable slate of nominees that were announced by Jack Quaid and Zazie Beetz on Tuesday morning. (Is it nitpicking to point out that both of them are better known for their work on TV than in film?)

But 2023 was a year that was highlighted in film by a former mumblecore actress turning a movie about a toy into the most subversive hunk of cinematic cotton candy ever, and by a cerebral British director making a three-hour blockbuster about the development of the atomic bomb that explodes the bomb at the two-hour mark and spends the final hour on a procedural hearing. To give that year its due, of course you have to go big and go weird.

On first glance, it may feel like the voters didn’t embrace “Barbie” as fully as they might have, though eight noms is a substantial haul for a project that seemed crazy until Gerwig pulled it off and became the first director to have her first three solo directorial projects nominated for Best Picture. And her film did score at least one mildly unexpected nomination with America Ferrera’s Best Supporting Actress nom, which likely edged out Julianne Moore for “May December.”

That pattern was repeated for “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Martin Scorsese’s epic missed out on nominations for its adapted screenplay and for star Leonardo DiCaprio, but it landed an unexpected nom for the song “Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People),” giving the movie two music nods with Robbie Robertson’s posthumous nomination for his score.

For the record, the competition in the music categories will include Diane Warren, who landed her 15th (!) nomination, and John Williams, who received his 54th (!!).

In a way, the most stubbornly individualistic category was Best Documentary Feature, which found the Academy’s doc branch bypassing two of the biggest mainstream films, the U.S.-made “American Symphony” and “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” in favor of international movies from Chile, Ukraine, Uganda, Tunisia and India.

Categories like that one gave the nominations a perverse air to them, an inconsistency as the voters gave with one hand and took away with the other (except with “Oppenheimer,” which didn’t fall short anywhere). But that perhaps made sense after a perverse year in which the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes put a huge dent in the usual campaigning.

By the midway point of the year, most of the Oscar movies had already been seen: “Past Lives” premiered at Sundance in January; “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Anatomy of a Fall” and “The Zone of Interest” came out of the Cannes Film Festival in May; “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” were released on the same day, July 21; “Poor Things” and “Maestro” came out of the Venice Film Festival at the end of August, “The Holdovers” out of Telluride and “American Fiction” out of Toronto in early September.

And that was it. Still to come were “Napoleon,” “The Color Purple,” “The Boys in the Boat,” “Wonka,” “Origin” and more, but they couldn’t get Best Picture traction. The actors’ strike in particular made it impossible for performers to do anything that could be seen as promotion from July 14 through Nov. 9, taking a huge chunk out of prime campaigning time. In the meantime, those Cannes movies stayed in the conversation – and more than that, the monolith that was Barbenheimer kept drawing people into theaters and had no competition as the film event of 2023.

In that landscape, Oscar voters grappled with what they saw, went in a lot of different directions and left “Oppenheimer” as its clear frontrunner. But recent years have been perilous times for clear frontrunners, as “The Power of the Dog” can attest, and there’s a full month before final voting begins. That’s plenty of time to shake things up even more.

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