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Oscars: As ‘La La Land’ Joins the History Books, #OscarsSoWhite Takes a Breather

Variety logo Variety 1/24/2017 Kristopher Tapley

A record tied. That’s the lead no matter how you slice it. A first-ever sound editing nomination for a live-action musical was what it took to bring “La La Land” into Oscar history alongside “All About Eve” and “Titanic,” as Damien Chazelle’s musical landed 14 Oscar nominations, the most ever amassed by a single film.

You think this film is beloved? I think this film is beloved.

Chazelle’s head must be spinning. Here is a guy who a few years ago was listening to Oscar podcasts (ahem) and dreaming big. His mind was already blown when his previous film, “Whiplash,” became the Oscar Cinderella story that it did. Today, I can’t even imagine. And he celebrated his birthday last week. At 32 years old, he’s primed to become the youngest filmmaker to ever win the Academy Award for best director.

After that, you have to look to diversity, particularly a year after the Academy endured its most pointed criticism yet about a lack of inclusion in its nominees. A person of color is present in every single acting category this time around. And it’s such a vibrant list: Denzel Washington, Ruth Negga, Mahershala Ali, Dev Patel, Viola Davis, Naomie Harris, Octavia Spencer.

There are stats to chew on, but a few that come to mind: Bradford Young (“Arrival”) became the second black cinematographer to receive a nomination. Joi McMillon (“Moonlight”) became the first black woman nominated for best film editing. Ava DuVernay became the first black female director nominated for best documentary feature. Kimberly Steward became the second black female producer nominated for best picture.

There is still work to be done. We’re still waiting on a female cinematographer to be nominated. Female directors continue to be woefully underrepresented; DuVernay is joined by doc short helmers Daphne Matziaraki (“4.1 Miles”) and Kahane Cooperman (“Joe’s Violin”) as the only women represented in the field this year. But the rest will do a lot to keep criticism at bay, for now.

That having been said, all of these movies were in the pipeline when last year’s #OscarsSoWhite dust-up hit. The focus needs to remain on the industry, not facile hashtags. When the industry produces the content, the Academy reacts.

Looking out across the nominations, a few things are striking. I, for one, would have expected “Hacksaw Ridge” helmer Mel Gibson to have fared much better with the vast Directors Guild than the more tight-knit directors branch of the Academy. But he supplanted “Lion” and Garth Davis for a nomination this morning, his comeback after a decade in the dog house finally complete.

After Aaron Taylor-Johnson made such a splash with Golden Globe and BAFTA recognition, it was Michael Shannon who scored the acting nomination for “Nocturnal Animals.” That was certainly the direction many of us expected the season to take way back in September when the film bowed at the Venice Film Festival, but he seemed to fade away. Let this be a lesson, not unlike his previous nomination for “Revolutionary Road” — never count this guy out. And you have to wonder if there was a lot of goodwill left over for his work in “99 Homes” last year, which was seemingly nominated by everyone but the Academy.

One exclusion of note was “Weiner” in the documentary feature category. It appears the film’s subject, Anthony Weiner, may have done it in, despite the fact that it was one of the best docs of the year. Many in the branch were simply put off by the guy (not that that should matter — and that complexity is sort of the point). And I’m sure his role in Hillary Clinton’s downfall during the election did the movie no favors, either. Pity.

And finally, the “Deadpool” thing was just a fantasy, but of course it was. The film reaped a number of impressive guild nominations down the stretch, allowing for some fun media coverage, but hopefully no one got their hopes up too much there. The nine best picture nominees were the nine Producers Guild nominees that were not Fox’s comic-book adaptation. And eight years after the Academy expanded the best picture field largely in response to “The Dark Knight” getting the shaft, fans are still waiting for the first superhero best picture nominee. Keep waiting.

That’s just skipping a stone across things, though. I’m sure other peculiarities and curiosities will bubble up, but everything really just sits in the shadow of “La La Land.” This movie has been primed for Oscar glory since it came out to play on the Lido in Venice five months ago. There have been very few shifts in the race along the way, but the real excitement comes in matching Oscar history, as Chazelle and company have done.

You have to assume the film is the frontrunner in nearly every single one of these races, too. It will lose one of its two song nominations, of course, and Casey Affleck is primed for best actor. It could also drop sound editing to “Hacksaw Ridge.” But tying the all-time record for most wins (11) is very much within grasp.

So buckle up. The 89th Oscars are roughly five weeks away. Is there history still left to be made?

(Oh, and one other note: regarding predictions, it is a part of this racket so here’s a postmortem. I went 99/122 across all 24 categories, 89/107 in the 21 feature fields.)

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