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Controversy, triumph, and snubs: What to watch for in the 2019 Oscar nominations

By Adam Epstein

The nominees for the 91st annual Academy Awards will be announced live on Tuesday, Jan. 22, by actors Kumail Nanjiani and Tracee Ellis Ross. After an awards season filled with controversyanger, and weirdness, the nominations announcement is sure to send social media into a tizzy, no matter what ends up happening.

We’ve got you covered for all scenarios. Here are the major story lines to keep in mind when the big names are announced on Tuesday morning:

Will controversies hurt the chances of Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody?

Every year, at least one Oscar best picture contender is beset by controversy, but this year has been nastier (figuratively and literally) than usual.

Much of the furor has been over the 1960s-set dramedy Green Book and director Peter Farrelly, who recently apologized for his old, bizarre habit of flashing his penis on film sets. That same day, an old tweet by one of the film’s screenwriters, Nick Vallelonga, was unearthed, which agreed with Donald Trump’s racist, debunked claim that Muslims celebrated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Add those debacles to the ongoing criticism of Green Book‘s racial dynamics, and the film has been mired in controversy since it debuted in November.

Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody each won major Golden Globe awards, but the Oscars are voted on by a very different set of people, and it’d be a very bad look for the Academy if either ultimately won best picture. But there’s still probably enough momentum for them to get nominations in the category, especially if defenders of the film use the controversies as an opportunity to entrench themselves even further into fandom.

Fresh off its Golden Globes successes, Green Book has been a favorite to garner a best picture nomination. So if it doesn’t, we’ll know that all this controversy actually did have an effect on Oscar voters, who were voting just as the Farrelly and Vallelonga stories resurfaced earlier this month. (Perhaps a publicist at a rival film studio had something to do with the timing of those stories… We’ll never know.)

The other of this year’s problematic best picture contenders is Bohemian Rhapsody, the Freddie Mercury biopic directed by Bryan Singer, who was fired during production but still kept a directing credit on the film. In addition to his unceremonious dismissal, Singer has been accused by multiple people of sexual misconduct. So there’s that. There’s also the fact that many critics (including this one) did not like Bohemian Rhapsody—though it has performed well at the box office around the world.

Will Spike Lee finally get his first best director nomination?

Yes, you’re reading that correctly. Somehow, Spike Lee—one of our greatest living filmmakers—has never been nominated for an Academy Award for best director (or best picture). But after conquering Cannes last year, Lee is now here to claim the elusive Oscar. BlacKkKlansman represents his best ever chance at a nomination in the category.

The clever, searing, righteously didactic drama is considered one of the top three or four contenders for best picture, which gives Lee a good shot at landing his own nomination for director. According to awards predictor Gold Derby, only two directors (Bradley Cooper and Alfonso Cuarón) have better odds of being named among the five directing nominees. If Lee finally does get the nod, it’d be a long, long time coming.

Will Black Panther break through?

The Marvel crowd-pleaser became the first superhero movie to earn a Golden Globe nomination for best drama picture this month, putting it in a good spot to do the same at the Oscars. It seems inevitable that a superhero movie will eventually get nominated for the best picture Oscar (and, perhaps, win it altogether) and it’s only fitting that Black Panther, the groundbreaking, culturally resonant film by director Ryan Coogler, appears likely to be the first to do it.

The bigger question could be just how many nominations it manages, as it’s a serious contender in best score, production design, costumes, and several others.

And what of the other popular movies?

Black Panther isn’t the only blockbuster that’s appeared on this year’s awards circuit. A Quiet Place, Crazy Rich Asians, and Mary Poppins Returns are all within the top 20 highest-grossing films of 2018 (as is Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born), and they’ve all picked up nominations at Oscar precursors.

Those three are probably longshots for best picture nominations, but stranger things have happened, and in a year without a clear-cut favorite, don’t be shocked if one of these three sneaks in. If not best picture, all three are likely to pick up minor nominations elsewhere: A Quiet Place is a lock for a best sound editing nomination for instance.

Will women be shut out of the directing category again?

Before Greta Gerwig was nominated for directing Lady Bird last year, the Oscars’ best director category had gone seven years without a single woman nominated. Only five women have ever been nominated, and Kathryn Bigelow remains the only one to win (in 2009, for The Hurt Locker). Unfortunately, this year’s Directors Guild of America awards, considered an Oscars precursor, don’t bode well for women nominees this year.

And that’s a total shame, considering how many superb films were directed by women in 2018. Between Debra Granik (Leave No Trace), Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here), Chloe Zhao (The Rider), and Tamara Jenkins (Private Life), you could convincingly fill out a directing category comprised entirely of women. So it will be inexcusable if none of them are nominated—and especially insulting if someone like Green Book‘s Peter Farrelly gets a nod.

Will Netflix’s enormous campaign for Roma pay off?

Netflix desperately wants an Oscar. And the streaming giant has been pretty transparent about that, rolling out one of the most elaborate and expensive Oscar campaigns of all time for the film Roma. The stunning Alfonso Cuarón film is likely to get at least a best picture nomination, but we’ll get an indication of how strong its case for winning is based on how it performs elsewhere on the ballot, including best director, best actress (Yalitza Aparicio), best cinematography, best editing, and more.

As a whole, the Academy, though younger and more diverse than it used to be, is still pretty hesitant to view Netflix as a serious film distributor, despite the impressive array of films it has put out in recent years. Roma could be the film to change all that. Its power is that undeniable.

Other story lines to watch for:

  • Will the black-and-white Polish film Cold War sneak into the best picture race? Some pundits are saying it’s got a chance.
  • Will this be the rare year when Disney-Pixar doesn’t win best animated film? The last time that happened was Rango in 2011. But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a Sony production, is not only going to get a nomination, but it’s probably the favorite to win.
  • Could this be the strongest documentary category ever? The expected nominees—Won’t You Be My Neighbor, RBG, Free Solo, Three Identical Strangers, and Minding the Gap—are all wonderful.
  • How will the studios stack up? This year’s best picture favorites are spread pretty evenly among the usual suspects (Universal, Fox, Warner Bros, and Disney). One studio that might surprise is Annapurna Pictures, which only started distributing movies in 2017 and stands to land two best picture nominations in Vice and If Beale Street Could Talk. Unless the critically acclaimed Eighth Grade, First Reformed, or Hereditary do much better than expected, indie distributor A24, which won best picture in 2016 for Moonlight, is unlikely to make waves this time around.