Youth Served, and the Other Oscar Storylines to Know

The movie business, I think it's safe to say, is in a supremely awkward position heading in to its big moment of the year. The Academy Awards will turn 90 in March, but that big round number - and all the films that will be celebrated during this year's show - feel almost completely eclipsed by the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal - from #MeToo and #TimesUp and the waves of sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations that have rocked the film industry more than any other.

Something is happening - still - and it's at once bigger than the movies and - still - to a large degree, about the people who make movies. All of that has a way of making the art itself seem quite secondary.

Sure, now that the nominees have been announced, it's time to celebrate The Shape of Water and to carry on the fascinating debate about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

But ... aren't we all a bit distracted? Aren't we all wondering at least a little if one (or more) of this year's nominees might be accused of some sort of misconduct before the ceremony? Given what's happened to James Franco and Aziz Ansari since the Golden Globes, aren't we wondering if an ill-considered Time's Up pin could lead to another round of icky accusations?

I would certainly prefer to talk about the movies. As conflicted as we feel about the Oscars around these parts, this is our big chance to do just that on a bigger platform. But, rightfully so, this doesn't seem like the year for it - it doesn't even seem like it can be. So that is where this year's Oscar story begins - with the context of something far more Earth-shaking than a few golden statues.

Here are a few other things to keep your eyes on as we look ahead to the ceremony on March 4.

As much as anything else, the Oscars got young

Over the last two years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has taken steps to broaden and diversify its electorate, and this year's nominees would seem to indicate that those efforts are paying off. (Assuming you think that's a good thing at all.)

The directing category features both the fifth woman (Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird) and the fifth African-American (Jordan Peele for Get Out) to be nominated for the award. There are two African-American men nominated for Best Actor and two African-American women for Best Supporting Actress. A woman, Rachel Morrison for Mudbound, was nominated in the Cinematography category for the first time. Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani-American, and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, got a nod for Best Original Screenplay for The Big Sick.

So, yes, there is plenty of diversity in this group of nominees. And, yes, that is a breath of fresh air in my book.

But, if I may be so bold, this is also a breathtaking youth movement. Peele is 38. Gerwig is 34. Morrison and Nanjiani are 39.

There is probably an inextricable link between youth and diversity. Look at the changing demographics of the United States itself. But, as someone who all of a sudden is seeing his age-mates among the nominees, the revitalizing effect of youth itself - independent of the race- and gender-related milestones - should not be lost amid all the talk about race and gender. 

Three Billboards is the movie we're going to be talking about for the next six weeks

It's a nominal front-runner, yes. It's also the most divisive of the Best Picture nominees - a veritable cottage industry of hot takes has sprung up in its wake as it has gathered momentum touring the awards circuit.

I don't know that I have anything to add about the film itself, other than what I have already said on our podcast and in my review.

But I have found the discussion taking place to be operating at a very high level, generally, and I think that's because even if you dislike what Martin McDonagh has put out, this is an absolutely fascinating film on which to chew.

It is not Crash, even if it might be an undeserving winner.

It has undeniably great performances from huge stars, but, depending on how you interpret key plot points and account for the overall tone, it's reasonable to view the film as deeply flawed. (For what it's worth, I don't agree.)

Speaking of front-runners, there isn't really one

The Best Picture race is as wide open as it's been in some time. Typically we're down to three or four films at this point with a realistic shot to win, with the race winnowing further between now and the day of the ceremony.

I would give six of the nine nominees at least a reasonable chance of taking home the big honor today. Those six are Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, The Post, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, by the way. And while there is a range of plausibility here among those six (Three Billboards on one end, The Post on the other), I am struck by the fact that there is a really good argument to be made against any of them individually taking home top honors. It might be counter-intuitive, but that leads me to believe there are more real contenders than usual.

Dunkirk doesn't have the acting performances you'd expect of winner. Get Out is a year-old horror movie. Lady Bird hasn't really won all that much on the awards circuit. The Post has almost no other nominations to speak of. The Shape of Water is profoundly weird. McDonagh did not receive a Directing nomination for Three Billboards, which has historically been a kiss of death.

I wouldn't feel comfortable putting money on the Best Picture race this year.

I'm glad I don't have to vote for Best Actress

Sally Hawkins. Meryl Streep. Saoirse Ronan. Frances McDormand. Margot Robbie. Each turns in a remarkable performance. Each has a tremendous pedigree. Each offers qualities that are unique and worthy of being cherished. 

I can't sit here and tell you who I'd pick right now. Can I root for all of them?

So there it is ...

The nominees are out and, for those of you dropping in to the film conversation for the first time in about a year, that's what you need to know to start. This is a competently selected group of nominees as I can remember, and a wonderful set of movies.

Go see them. Tune in to the In Reel Deep podcast for more analysis soon. And we'll see you on Oscar night.

Andrew Johnson