There are 38 movies in this year’s crop of Oscar nominees, three less than last year, and the same number as in 2020. (It should be noted that I do not consider the ‘Short’ category entries at all – Live Action Short, Short Documentary, and Animated Short – for a number of reasons, mostly to restrict the workload, and because it is often difficult to find and watch these Shorts.)
The ‘Specialized’ Movies
First, we need to deal with what I call the ‘Specialized’ films. These are those films whose only nomination is one of the three ‘Special’ categories: International Feature, Animated Feature, and Documentary Feature. Movies nominated in these categories are, usually do not receive recognition in any of the other ‘non-specialized’ Oscar categories, like acting, costumes or cinematography.
There are exceptions to this rule and those exceptions are often very significant. Last year, for example, Another Round – nominated as an International Film from Denmark – also received a director nomination for Thomas Vinterberg. And, Soul was nominated in the Animated Feature category, as well as Sound and Original Score. When that happens I like to take those films receiving multiple nominations out of the ‘Specialized’ category and compare them to the rest of the Oscar population.
This year using the same definitions, there are three movies that are nominated in one of the ‘specialized’ categories that are also nominated in other categories. Those titles are Drive My Car, The Worst Person in the World, and Encanto. The first two were nominated in the International Feature box, and Encanto is, of course, a Disney entry in the Animated Feature category. So we will remove these three films from the ‘Specialized’ exclusion, and let them compare to the other mainstream movies. That still leaves ten ‘Specialized’ films.
There is another anomaly this year and that is with the movie Flee. For the first time since I’ve been studying Oscar movies, this film was nominated in all three ‘Specialized’ boxes. In the past we might have had a film that was put up in two of them (Honeyland, International and Documentary, is an example). But Flee is unique because it is an Animated, International, Documentary. Because it did not receive any nominations in any other categories, I’m going to leave it in the ‘Specialized’ bucket and not include it in further analysis. But it should be noted that this is a very unique situation, and promises to be a very interesting movie.
If you look at the quality rankings within and across these three sub-categories, there are some interesting distinctions. The general viewing public (as measured by the IMDB audience rating) is much more consistent across these categories than professional critics (as measured by the Critics Metascore). Simply put, the audience rating does not show much variance either within these three categories, or across them.
In the Documentary Feature category, the critics liked three films much more than the viewing public – Summer of Soul, Attica, and Ascension. Summer of Soul was a favorite of both groups, while the public liked Flee equally well. Both groups did not give high ratings to Ascensions.
Among the International Feature Films, critics liked Drive My Car and The Worst Person in the World much better than the viewing public, and those films received nominations in other categories and so are being removed from this group. Neither group was enamored with Italy’s submission, The Hand of God. And It should also be noted that one film, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (the first Oscar submission from Bhutan) has not yet received enough critical reviews to enable a Metascore rating. Hopefully, by the time I get to viewing this film, that will change.
The Animated Feature group, surprisingly, showed much less variation. Usually the viewing public, often families, rates these films more favorably than the critics, but this year the critics average rating was slightly above the public’s, although the average was boosted substantially by a very high rating for Flee, which was rated the top film by both groups. The critics didn’t care for Luca while the public didn’t like Raya and the Last Dragon very much. Interestingly, the public rating for Encanto is at the bottom along with Raya and the critics put it in the middle. (Encanto is this year’s Disney entry and Disney usually wins, so these ratings complicate that picture a bit.0
Here are the ten ‘Specialized’ films this year and their nomination categories. I list them here so the reader is aware that they are excluded from future analysis (I will, of course, watch and review them when these categories come up in the program sequence):
Flee (Animated/Documentary/International : Denmark)
The Hand of God (International : Italy)
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (International : Bhutan)
The Mitchells vs. the Machine (Animated)
Raya and the Last Dragon (Animated)
Summer of Soul (Documentary)
Writing with Fire (Documentary)
The Rest of the Oscar-nominated Films
If we take out these ten ‘Specialized’ films, that leaves us with 28 movies for further analysis. The next step in assessing a year’s new crop of Oscar-nominated films is to look at the patterns of nominations. I examine not just the total number of nominations for each film, but also the distinction between what is called ‘above the line’/major, and ‘below the line’/minor nominations. Major nominations are those in the categories most directly related to the telling of the story. Those include the four acting categories (male and female, leading and supporting), and directing, and screenplay writing (original/adapted). I also include the Best Picture category, although the films nominated in this category are almost always those receiving nominations in other, major categories. The remaining categories fall ‘below the line’ and involve more technical skills like costume design, film editing, and music. Movies nominated only in the minor categories tend to have outstanding characteristics in those categories, but are maybe not the best at telling the story.
My argument, then, is that looking at just the number of nominations a film receives does not give you a true estimate of a film’s ‘Oscar Value’. Instead, you have to weight the nominations, depending on whether their nominations are major or minor. I do this by creating what I call an Oscar Quality Index (OQI). This index assigns a score to each movie based on the one point for each minor nomination, two points for each major nomination, and three points for a Best Picture nomination. (Note that Drive My Car, The Worst Person in the World, and Encanto also receive three extra points for being nominated in the ‘Special’ categories – International and Animated Feature. This produces something of a skew in the distributions, but I felt a necessary one.) One can also look at this as an Oscar Buzz Index, since nominees in major categories tend to receive more favorable press than those in minor categories. (BTW, after the Oscars are awarded, I double the category points for each winner, which creates yet another distribution.)
If you do that for all the movies and then compare how they rank – as opposed to just the number of nominations – you can start to discern some subtle differences. Look, for example, at the top two movies, The Power of the Dog and Dune. The first movie has 7 of its nominations in the ‘major’ categories, while Dune only has two. The suggestion, based on this distribution, is that, while both movies have very strong attributes, The Power of the Dog may be more effective at telling the story, because it had so many more ‘major’ nominations, but Dune with such a large number of minor nominations, might be more of a visual and aural spectacle to experience. That puts these two movies in an interesting competition.
Using the OQI, there are six movies in the top category (Power of the Dog, Belfast, Dune, King Richard, West Side Story, and Drive My Car). All six of these were nominated for Best Picture. Six more movies received a better than average score (CODA, Licorice Pizza, Don’t Look Up, Nightmare Alley, Being the Ricardos, and Lost Daughter). All but the last two were also nominated for Best Picture.
At the bottom of the scale are those films receiving just a single OQI point, which means they received only one nomination for a single minor category. We can expect these films to offer something to see or hear, but maybe not to have a lot of power in the story-telling departments. (Those movies are Cyrano, Coming 2 America, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Dragon, House of Gucci, Free Guy, Four Good Days, and Spider-Man: No Way Home). To those 7 films I add one that received two OQI points, but both of them were in minor categories, Cruella. These eight films form the bottom of this year’s pool. The remaining eight films received 2- 5 OQI points and form the ‘below average’ quality pool. These films are The Worst Person in the World, Encanto, Tragedy of Macbeth, Eyes of Tammy Faye, Tick, Tick … Boom, Parallel Mothers, No Time to Die and Spencer). I should note that most of the surprises in my viewing of Oscar movies come from this group – they are, sometimes, much better than their OQI suggests. (OK, nothing is perfect.)
But this is where I start.
The OQI, Audiences Rating and Critics Metascore
My next step is to compare these films using the three Quality measures outlined earlier – The IMDB Audience rating, the Critics Metascore number, and my own Oscar Quality Index, to see where similarities and differences might occur that give us insight into the movie-making world.
First, let’s consider where all three scales rank movies in roughly the same position. Four films rate very or fairly high on all three scales. In my estimate, that suggests that these will be very good competitors and good viewing experiences, with powerful stories and some degree of technical craft. Those films are Drive My Car, West Side Story, Belfast, and King Richard. In a middle grouping, there is consistency of rankings on all three scales of four more films – Encanto; Tick,Tick…Boom, No Time to Die, and Nightmare Alley. This group of films can tend to harbor some surprises where maybe there are some hidden gems with great experiences, but maybe not any lasting takeaways. Then, at the bottom of the pool on all the rankings are five films – Free Guy, Cyrano, The House of Gucci, Coming 2 America, and Four Good Days. These films are likely to have some technical superlatives, but are likely not good story-tellers. (These are the films that my wife usually says – “I’m not going to get that two hours back”)
Frequently, the most challenging films to review, and sometimes to watch, are those where there is disagreement between one of these quality measures. There are fifteen films this year where a movie is ranked different on one scale, as compared to the other two.
The Power of the Dog is a film rated very highly by both the critics and my OQI, but was rated in the bottom quarter by the viewing public. What was it about that film that turned off the audiences? (This is one of only two movies from this year’s crop that I’ve seen and reviewed, so go to my review for further discussion of this issue.)
Dune is an example of a film that went the other way – received significant Oscar recognition and was loved by the public, but didn’t fare as well with the critics. This isn’t uncommon with science fiction films – it seems to be genre that critics don’t get into, but this one promises to be an intriguing film, scoring lots of minor nominations. That suggests that it is a sensory spectacle, but a story that might be a bit complicated to fit into a single movie format.
Don’t Look Up is another unique film because it scored relatively high on the OQI – and even got a Best Picture nomination – but didn’t do well with anyone else! It is at the bottom of the critics ratings, and is in the bottom half of the audience ratings. So why, exactly, is this film doing so well at the Oscars?
And then there is Spider-Man: No Way Home, one of this year’s blockbuster movies. This film was the highest rated among the viewing public, but did poorly with both critics and the Oscar community, receiving only a single nomination for Visual Effects. It isn’t uncommon for blockbusters to miss out on Oscar recognition, but why did this one do so poorly while Don’t Look Up, which nobody else liked all that much got nominated for Best Picture? Sometimes the Academy doesn’t make sense.
Cruella is a special case. Nominated only for Costumes and Makeup, it rated in the bottom group for critics but above average for audiences. I think we can explain this one as a family film, appreciated by family audiences, but maybe not a really good story for adult filmgoers.
Four films were rated highly by critics, below average by the viewing public, and only average in the OQI. These films were The Tragedy of Macbeth, Parallel Mothers, The Lost Daughter, and Spencer. These are cases where the Academy aligned itself somewhat with the critics, but not with general audiences. The question here will be what makes these unattractive to the paying public, if that’s what movies are ultimately for?
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Dragon may contain some surprises. It scored just a single minor Oscar nominations but was ranked about in the middle by both critics and audiences. The Academy may have under-judged this film.
Three films received mediocre Oscar ratings, and yet were liked by both the public and the critics. CODA, Licorice Pizza and The Worst person in the World are films that might be underrated by the Oscars. CODA might be this year’s truly underrecognized film and I’m looking forward to seeing it. Part of the rationale for the third movie might be because it is an International Film, but it is one worth watching for a potential surprise. (I’ve recently reviewed Licorice Pizza and believe I’ve identified why it might have some of its positive ratings – see my review.)
Finally, there are two films that received modest Oscar recognition but weren’t well received by either the critics nor the public, The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Being the Ricardos. For these films the Academy may have simply made a mistake or there might be special political considerations they placed higher in the Oscar race than their other ratings would suggest.
So there you have it, my analysis of this year’s films. In the companion essay, I will attempt to rank these films in a preliminary assessment using these three scales. Then the final step is to take what we’ve learned and see how that might help us predict the Oscar winners…
(Raw Data Available Upon Request)