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John DoughertyJanuary 30, 2024
Oscar statuettes appear backstage at the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on Feb. 28, 2016. Nominations for the 2024 Oscars will be announced on Tuesday, Jan. 23. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP, File)

Last week the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for the 96th Academy Awards. Here are some major takeaways:

The Best Picture race: stories of hard truths. If I had to identify an overwhelming theme for this year’s Best Picture category, it would be “hard truths.” The 10 films nominated this year were all, in unique ways, about looking past the facades of relationships, institutions and histories in order to discover the complicated, sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrific, truths beneath.

America’s Catholic Movie Club columnist looks at this year’s crop of contenders.

“Oppenheimer” and “Killers of the Flower Moon” meditated on the violence behind American power, success built on the bodies of the innocent. “The Zone of Interest” explored similar topics in the context of the Holocaust, focusing on the comfortable lives of the Auschwitz commandant’s family outside of the death camp’s walls. “American Fiction,” “Anatomy of a Fall,” and “Maestro” involved the tension between public and private lives and how they intersect in the creation of art. In “Past Lives” and “The Holdovers,” characters reexamined the people and places that formed their past, in order to discern where to go in the future. And in “Barbie” and “Poor Things,” characters discovered worlds much larger and more complex than they ever imagined, and found themselves irrevocably changed. Both films also reflected on sex, gender and freedom.

A surprising best picture nominee. While “Oppenheimer” is the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture (especially following its win at the Golden Globes), perhaps the most interesting nominee is Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall.” It certainly earned its place on the shortlist: the film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and received widespread acclaim, especially for Triet’s direction and screenplay, and Sandra Hüller’s lead performance (the Academy nominated her for Best Actress).

What makes the nomination of “Anatomy of a Fall” interesting is that it follows the controversial decision by the French Oscar committee not to submit the film for Best International Feature (their choice, Tran Anh Hung’s “The Taste of Things,” did not receive a nomination). Some commentators, including Triet herself, consider this retaliation for the director’s criticism of the Macron government.

This year’s nominees feature more international films than ever before.

The fact that the Academy nominated “Anatomy of a Fall” for several major awards reads as a strong statement of support for the film, and could presage at least one win.

A historic year for women, despite snubs. While much of the post-announcement discourse has focused on Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie not receiving director or lead actress nominations for “Barbie” (and, to a lesser extent, the mirrored snubs of director Celine Song and star Greta Lee for “Past Lives”), this year was a historic year for women nominees.

Justine Triet (“Anatomy of a Fall”) became the eighth woman ever nominated for Best Director (and the sole female nominee this year). This was also the first year where three of the Best Picture nominees were directed by women (“Barbie,” “Anatomy of a Fall,” “Past Lives”).

And in the acting category, Lily Gladstone (“Killers of the Flower Moon”) became the first Native American nominated for Actress in a Leading Role. Earlier this month she made history with her win in the same category at the Golden Globes.

A more international slate. “The Oscars are not an international film festival,” South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho said in 2019. “They’re very local.” While Bong’s film “Parasite” would go on to win Best Picture at the 2020 Academy Awards, his point stands: For most of its history, the Oscars have focused primarily on American films. Only 18 international films have ever been nominated for Best Picture.

This is a big year for director Martin Scorsese, whose complicated relationship with his Catholic faith often informs his work.

This year’s nominees, however, feature more international films than ever before. Three are nominated for Best Picture (“Anatomy of a Fall,” “Past Lives,” “The Zone of Interest”), the most in its history. Also, this year’s Best Documentary Feature category is made up entirely of international films, three of which were directed by women. These nominations indicate a growing openness by the Academy to recognize international films.

Catholics at the Oscars. While there were several films that dealt significantly with Catholicism last year—including Abel Ferrara’s “Padre Pio” and the Russell Crowe-starring horror film “The Pope’s Exorcist”—they didn’t receive Oscar nominations. Instead, the most Catholic film in the running this year is likely “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which centers on a largely Catholic community of the Osage Nation.

This is a big year for director Martin Scorsese, whose complicated relationship with his Catholic faith often informs his work. His directing nomination for “Killers of the Flower Moon” made him the most-nominated living director in Oscars history, and the film could earn him his first Best Picture win.

While Scorsese may be the only major nominee who speaks about his Catholic faith in the present tense, several other big names have their roots in Catholicism. Half of the directors of Best Picture contenders were either raised Catholic (Martin Scorsese, Bradley Cooper, Christopher Nolan) or attended Catholic schools (Greta Gerwig, Alexander Payne). Payne attended Creighton Preparatory School, a Jesuit all-boys school in Omaha; the experience influenced his work on “The Holdovers,” which also takes place at an all-boys school (“I’m still tight with my friends from Latin class,” he told the Napa Valley Register).

The acting categories also feature a handful of former Catholic school kids: Cillian Murphy (an atheist who nonetheless told GQ in 2019 that “Catholic guilt” keeps him humble), Carey Mulligan (who attended an all-girls Catholic school and sang in the church choir), and Emma Stone (who attended Xavier College Preparatory in Phoenix, before transitioning into a full-time acting career).

The 96th Academy Awards will air live on ABC on Sunday, March 10.

[Exclusive: Martin Scorsese on ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ the American Dream and his new film about Jesus]

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