Trying to predict the Oscar nominations is always a losing battle, but 2022 threw even more curveballs than we’ve come to expect. This year’s Golden Globes faded into obscurity, announcing its winners through—and this is not a joke—a series of bizarrely worded tweets. Meanwhile, the Critics Choice Awards were moved from January to March on account of the omicron variant’s surge across the country. Without the biggest award-season precursors for context, Oscar prognosticators were largely left in the dark. As a result, three key narratives formed around three films whose Academy attention (or lack thereof) would sway how this year’s ceremony would be viewed.
In one corner, you had critics putting their weight behind Drive My Car, the meditative drama from acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi, which nabbed the top prize from the National Society for Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. To understand the rarefied air that Drive My Car had found itself in, only five other movies had ever done a clean sweep from these three critics groups: Goodfellas, Schindler’s List, L.A. Confidential, The Hurt Locker, and The Social Network. (Stating the obvious: That’s pretty elite company.) Any Oscar love for Drive My Car outside of Best International Feature would underline what the Academy is supposed to do: acknowledge the best that cinema has to offer in a given year, regardless of glitzy campaigns or A-list stars.
Elsewhere, there was Belfast, a film that checked off familiar boxes for Oscar traditionalists. From Academy favorite Kenneth Branagh, Belfast is a coming-of-age story inspired by the writer-director’s upbringing in Northern Ireland: a familiar, comfortably middlebrow drama whose greatest source of controversy might be how appalling its poster turned out to be. A slew of nominations for Belfast would be a safe (and predictable) move, while also giving Branagh the opportunity to become the first person ever nominated in seven different Oscar categories.
Finally, there was the hope that Spider-Man: No Way Home could sneak into the Best Picture race—not so much on merit, but more because the movie’s inclusion would garner a wider interest in the Oscars. The Academy’s big show has been in a ratings free fall for the past decade, and nominating a crowd-pleaser like No Way Home for Best Picture wouldn’t just draw in more viewers, but would also celebrate a film that almost single-handedly resuscitated the pandemic-ridden box office.
The Academy can’t please everyone, but the 2022 Oscar nominations were able to spread the wealth in a manner that should leave cinephiles, traditionalists, and casual movie fans satisfied. Perhaps the biggest surprise was how warmly the Academy responded to Drive My Car, which didn’t just nab an expected Best International Feature nomination, but is also up for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. Even the most optimistic supporters of Drive My Car would agree that a Best Picture win is probably out of the question, but the film’s very inclusion is worthy of celebration in and of itself. Then there’s Belfast, which scored seven nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director—a win for Oscar traditionalists, though without nominations for Best Film Editing or Best Cinematography, Belfast might not be considered a front-runner for Best Picture. (More on that shortly.)
And while No Way Home had to settle for a lone nomination (Best Visual Effects), that doesn’t mean the Oscars are without a blockbuster worth rooting for in the major categories. How else can one describe Dune, a sci-fi epic featuring an all-star cast, a thunderous score, and immersive special effects? For all the attention paid to No Way Home, it’s clear that the real Chosen One—the Kwisatz Haderach of blockbusters, if you will—was standing right in front of us like a giant space worm protruding from a sand dune. And with 10 nominations, including for Best Picture, there’s a good chance that Dune won’t just settle for being acknowledged by the Academy—on the strength of its nominations in the technical categories, the movie could win more Oscars than any other film this year, even if it (likely) fails to win Best Picture.
In fact, this year’s Oscar nominations have been distributed so charitably that a clear Best Picture front-runner has yet to emerge. Six-shooter to my head, I’d probably back Jane Campion’s cerebral Western The Power of the Dog, which leads all films with 12 nominations. (On Tuesday, Campion became the first woman to be nominated for Best Director twice.) But even that would set a new precedent for the Academy by giving Netflix the Best Picture win it has openly craved for years. The Academy isn’t totally streamer-averse—Hulu’s Nomadland won Best Picture last year, after all—but given the makeup of the other Best Picture nominees, that’s hardly a sure bet. Only three of the 10 Best Picture nominees—The Power of the Dog, Don’t Look Up, and CODA—came from streamers, with dark horse contenders like Nightmare Alley and Drive My Car sneaking in over Being the Ricardos (Amazon), The Tragedy of Macbeth (Apple), and Tick, Tick … Boom! (Netflix).
If there’s a message in the Best Picture nominations, it’s that the Academy is still backing films from traditional studios regardless of whether they make a dent at the box office. (It’s a shame that West Side Story and Nightmare Alley didn’t attract a lot of moviegoers, but maybe Best Picture recognition will draw more interest to these films through—ironically—streaming.) The 2022 Oscars has a little something for everyone, and thus, it doesn’t feel like a single movie is in the driver’s seat. That may prove to be stressful for prognosticators, but the rest of us can sit back and enjoy an unpredictable ride.