Oscar on the Oscars – Episode I: Unsung Gems

Breaking down the big snubs from the Academy’s nominations

Oscar Kim Bauman, Living Arts Editor

As we approach the 92nd Academy Awards, I’ll be sharing my thoughts in this trilogy of articles on the last year of films and the awards show with which I share my name. For the first installment, I want to highlight some of the year’s best films which were overlooked by the Academy’s nominations. As to not get bogged down in negativity, I won’t propose who ought to not have been nominated; instead I will argue that these five exceptional films were at least equally deserving.

At the top of my list of snubs is “Booksmart,” the directorial debut from Olivia Wilde. It’s a tale of two high school seniors (Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein) attempting to escape their antisocial image by attending a series of increasingly wild parties the night before graduation. The film successfully threaded the needle between being emotionally resonant and laugh-out-loud funny. A teenage-focused comedy released in the spring, “Booksmart” was always a long shot for awards season, even with its critical acclaim. 

Despite this, it is disheartening to see such a well-crafted film go entirely ignored. Additionally, nominations for “Booksmart” could have injected a needed dose of female talent into the overwhelmingly male field of nominees. Despite this lack of recognition, “Booksmart”s Dever and Feldstein, with any luck, have promising careers ahead of them following their star turns in “Booksmart,” and I look forward to seeing more films from Wilde.

Another film which has received a shocking lack of recognition from the Academy is “Uncut Gems,” a tense crime thriller from directorial duo and brothers Josh and Benny Safdie. The film tells the tale of Howard Ratner, a gambling-addicted jeweler in New York City whose attempts to pay off his debts to loan sharks end up getting him in increasingly dire straits. Beyond elevating the Safdie brothers into the cinematic mainstream, “Uncut Gems” marked a return to critical success for Sandler for his engrossing portrayal of the slimy, charismatic Ratner. 

Ultimately, everything that made “Uncut Gems” a success — its chaotic, grimy, nail-bitingly tense mood, and its casting of the critically-reviled Sandler in the lead role — may have been its downfall, making it too unusual to be considered an “Oscar movie.” According to a recent New York Post article, at least one anonymous Academy member refused to vote for Sandler, saying he lacked “respect” for the Academy due to a joke Sandler made that he would make a movie that was “so bad on purpose just to make you all pay” were he to be snubbed. For ignoring a film as exciting as “Uncut Gems,” the Academy just might really deserve Sandler’s punishment. 

“Ad Astra,” which I reviewed in greater detail for the Scarlet back in October, actually did receive one nomination for sound mixing. While the film undeniably features an engrossing soundscape, director James Gray’s emotional tale of discovering the deepest parts of oneself at the edge of our solar system is deserving of much more. Brad Pitt has been nominated for his role as Cliff Booth in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” but his subtle, emotionally isolated turn as Roy McBride in “Ad Astra” — a far cry from the gregarious, hotheaded Booth — is equally powerful, and shows Pitt’s range. 

While “Ad Astra” was one of the year’s best; its lack of nominations may be chalked up to multiple factors. While well-received by critics, it faced a lukewarm audience reception, likely due to expectations for an action-packed space adventure rather than a slow, moody drama. Director James Gray, while a known name, also lacks the instant recognition of competitors like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. Beyond this, “Ad Astra”’s September release date may have simply been too early, as it was overshadowed by later released in the minds of voters.

Given the success of director Jordan Peele’s previous film, 2017’s “Get Out,” his ambitious follow-up, “Us,” seemed like a likely contender for this year’s Oscars, but ended up with nary a single nomination. “Us,” the story of a family’s attempts to evade death at the hands of mysterious doppelgangers, packed in thrills alongside high-minded, thought-provoking social commentary. At the film’s center is Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o turning in a stunning dual performance as both the meek, traumatized Adelaide Wilson and her sinister, commanding double, Red. 

The Academy’s complete snub of “Us” must be viewed in the context of its larger problems with race. The voting membership of the Academy, despite diversity efforts in recent years, is still 84% Caucasian, and was, for many years, even less diverse. This makeup is reflected in the Oscar’s treatment of filmmakers of color, particularly their frequent overlooking of films featuring black talent that aren’t about racial topics, such as the Civil Rights movement or the horrors of slavery. It’s all too plausible that the Academy would be fine with awarding Nyong’o for playing an enslaved woman in “12 Years a Slave,” but not a modern-day horror heroine in “Us.” Or that they awarded Peele for his explicit racial allegory in “Get Out,” but won’t for his new film’s economic culture critique. 

“The Farewell,” Lulu Wang’s touching familial drama, was another apparent victim of the Academy’s racial insensitivity. The film, which stars Awkwafina, navigates familial dynamics and cultural tensions. It tells the real-life story of a family who stage a wedding in order to bring together their relatives to see off their terminally ill grandmother, who is unaware of her condition. Such a film would be an Oscars favorite had it featured white protagonists, but its centering of a Chinese family, and Wang’s choice to have the majority of the dialogue be in Mandarin likely rendered it too “foreign” for the Academy. 

Wang’s delicate direction brings out touching, nuanced performances from its ensemble. Awkwafina, previously known for her comedic work, shows great versatility in an understated, but emotional performance as Billi. Tzi Ma displays great depth and inner conflict as Billi’s father, Haiyan, and the breakout star of “The Farewell” may very well be Zhao Shuzhen, whose portrayal of Nai Nai serves as the film’s emotional center. 

Ultimately, an underlying theme of all these snubbed films is that they are all from less established filmmakers. “Booksmart” was Olivia Wilde’s first film, “Us” and “The Farewell” are sophomore efforts, and while James Gray and the Safdie brothers are more prolific, they remain less familiar names to the Academy. While these five excellent films going overlooked is frustrating, the realization that the creatives behind them, with any luck, have many years of work ahead remains a silver lining. 

For next week’s Oscar on the Oscars: a look at the films that actually were nominated.