Perspective | This year’s Oscar nominations featured a unicorn: Genuine surprise


When nominations for the 95th Academy Awards were announced Tuesday, most of the names called out had been handicapped for months. Few were shocked that such theatrical hits as “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Elvis” made the cut. Ditto Cate Blanchett’s ferocious lead performance in “Tár,” or Brendan Fraser’s heart-rending comeback turn in “The Whale.”

Even this year’s little-movie-that-could, the kaleidoscopic martial-arts-meets-existential-dread adventure “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” met the expectations of conventional wisdom. With the day’s most nominations (11), the art house sensation continued its stealth campaign of world domination, launched by the Midas-touch indie studio A24 last April and turned into a cult phenomenon over the summer by way of you’ve-gotta-see-this word of mouth and obsessive repeat viewings.

The devotion of “Everything Everywhere All at Once’s” fans helped turn it into a huge hit: The movie — directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known as “the Daniels” to the cognoscenti — became the first A24 movie to clear $100 million at the box office. And the sheer likability of its creative team has made it awards season catnip. Even viewers who find the movie overly arcane, repetitive and undisciplined have found it difficult to resist the Daniels’ earnestness and go-for-broke vision. And no one is immune to the charms and compelling narratives of its stars: martial arts doyenne and lead actress nominee Michelle Yeoh, and Ke Huy Quan, best known for playing “Short Round” in 1984’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” now nominated for best supporting actor after a mostly quiet career.

So far, so predictable. But just as seasoned Oscar watchers were thinking up new ways to say “usual suspects,” they were blindsided by genuine surprises. Although Tom Cruise fans were disappointed that the “Top Gun” star failed to receive a nod for carrying the movie credited with bringing audiences back into theaters last year, Bill Nighy fans were rapturous that the consistently alert, subtle actor finally received his due, for his characteristically understated lead performance in “Living.” And admirers of Paul Mescal — until now best known for co-starring in the Hulu series “Normal People” — were positively over the moon that he was recognized for “Aftersun,” an impressionistic coming-of-age drama in which he plays a troubled father taking his young daughter on a Turkish vacation. Ditto Brian Tyree Henry, whose supporting turn in “Causeway,” opposite Jennifer Lawrence, has been widely praised for its soulful self-assurance.

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“Living,” “Aftersun” and “Causeway” are precisely the kind of small, little-seen movies that are poised to get a boost from filmgoers curious to see what the fuss is all about (“Living” and “Aftersun” are still in theaters; “Causeway” can be seen on Apple TV Plus). They also exemplify how important constituency-building can be in an Oscar campaign, even when it’s relatively late in the game.

Whereas a designated dark horse such as “Everything Everywhere All at Once” developed its constituency over the better part of a year, at least two latecomers have proven that finding your people and bringing them out can still work on the fly. Andrea Riseborough, who delivers a searing, vanity-free turn as a bottom-hitting alcoholic in the naturalistic drama “To Leslie,” was virtually nowhere to be found in the official Oscar conversation in October, when the film was released in a few theaters and video-on-demand. But Riseborough had been earning support for her performance in powerful precincts since “To Leslie” premiered at South by Southwest the previous spring.

According to recent reports in Variety and IndieWire, the film’s first-time writer-director Michael Morris and his wife, the actor Mary McCormack, began recruiting advocates over the summer. Their friend Howard Stern raved about Riseborough and the movie on his Sirius XM radio show, as did powerful allies including Charlize Theron and Edward Norton. (Morris has directed episodes of such television series as “Better Call Saul,” “Shameless” and “Bloodline.”) Once Riseborough received an Independent Spirit Award nomination in November, organic momentum among her fellow actors — the largest branch in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — began to build, with such head-turners as Gwyneth Paltrow, Jane Fonda, Kate Winslet and Mia Farrow boarding her grass-roots campaign, shouting her out on social media and hosting tastemaker screenings.

The last time an actor waged anything remotely similar was in 2011, when Melissa Leo took out her own trade ads for her supporting turn in “The Fighter.” (Let the record reflect that it worked.) But Riseborough’s campaign, although doubtlessly facilitated by her management and PR team, is the product of her colleagues seeing her performance and advocating for it — kind of how the system is supposed to work. The same could be said for “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which received a surprising nine Oscar nominations, including for best picture.

Edward Berger’s adaptation — the first German-language version of Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel — is a Netflix film, but its nomination wasn’t the result of one of the streamer’s notoriously aggressive awards campaigns. It built on the thoughtful and strategic leveraging of steady support the film has earned with viewers, especially in craft guilds, where it has been recognized for its superb cinematography, sound design and visual effects.

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“All Quiet on the Western Front” also surely benefited from changes in the Academy over the past five years, which have seen a dramatic increase in the organization’s non-American members. The results of the internationalization of the Academy have already been seen in such groundbreaking victories as “Parasite’s” best-picture win in 2020. (“All Quiet on the Western Front” received 14 BAFTA nominations.)

This year, strong showings from “All Quiet on the Western Front” and the contemporary class satire “Triangle of Sadness” — nominated for best picture, director and screenplay — suggest that the Oscars’ constituencies are mighty and global in their reach. And the success of actors such as Nighy, Mescal, Henry and Riseborough raise the heartening prospect that inevitability lies not in huge corporate spends but in something as nuanced and fundamental as a great performance, full stop.

“The idea that you need endless resources, I don’t think that’s necessarily true,” Riseborough told Variety’s Marc Malkin on Tuesday. “The people who made sure of that is our community.”

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