Awards Show Voters Are Sleeping on These Films & Performances From 2019
Academy voters have done it again: Almost all of the Oscar nominees in major categories are white men. That means incredible performances and films from women, people of color and queer folks were snubbed — yet again.
Although it’s easy to discount awards shows as frivolous entertainment — or as stars giving other stars trophies — it still holds true that films, actors and directors who receive awards gain a higher level of visibility. Moreover, these decorated artists and works become part of the pop culture zeitgeist and set the barometer for what we consider great art. The point? Representation matters. Here are some of our favorite unsung cinematic heroes of the year.
Best Actor: Song Kang-ho in Parasite — and the Rest of the Cast, Honestly
Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winning Parasite, a film that’s perhaps best described as a dark-comedy-meets-thriller-meets-social-commentary, has nabbed several Oscar nominations, most notably for Best Picture and Best Director. However, in a predictable-yet-frustrating turn, the film’s actors have been shut out of both the very white Oscars and the even whiter BAFTAs.
Best Director: Mati Diop for Atlantics (Atlantique)
About a decade ago, Mati Diop directed a prize-winning documentary short, Atlantiques (2009). Last year, 2019’s Atlantics (Atlantique), an adaptation of her first outing, became the director’s debut feature film. At Cannes, Diop made history as the first Black woman to have her film premiere in competition at the festival where it was up for the much-coveted Palme d’Or.
Best Actress: Lupita Nyong’o in Us
When an actor portrays two or more characters, you can bet it will test their range. And Lupita Nyong’o shows that her raw talent and her ability to create such nuance are things to watch in awe. Historically, awards shows — and the Oscars in particular — dismiss genre films, which is a problem in and of itself. And that genre bias? Now it has caused voters to overlook Nyong’o.
Best Writing & Best Director: Lulu Wang for The Farewell — One of the Best Films of the Year
Written and directed by Lulu Wang, The Farewell is a comedy-drama based on Wang’s life experiences, which she first unveiled to the public in the form of a radio story called What You Don’t Know on NPR’s This American Life program. Wang’s stand-in, Billi (Awkwafina) is an aspiring Chinese-American writer living in New York when her Nai Nai ("paternal grandmother" played by Zhao Shuzhen), who lives in Changchun, China, is diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Best Film: The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Joe Talbot’s feature directorial debut is based on a story developed in part by Jimmie Fails, who also plays the titular role. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a semi-autobiographical account of Fails’ struggle to reclaim his childhood home, a Victorian located in the city’s Fillmore District, as his city undergoes gentrification.
Best Director: Céline Sciamma for Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells the story of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young woman commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of reluctant bride-to-be, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). This slow-burn, intimate romance is also about the act — and art — of looking, and painting becomes an act of collaboration and love.
Best Director: Olivia Wilde for Booksmart
Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut is a heartfelt — yet raunchy — coming-of-age comedy that centers on the friendship between two young women (played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever), who set out to break some rules and have some wild fun the night before graduation. Dever’s character even gets a queer romance storyline, which is refreshing.
Best Actress: Tessa Thompson in Little Woods
Tessa Thompson is perhaps best known for her work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which she plays Valkyrie, one of Thor’s pals. But Thompson is truly a master of all genres, having starred in everything from blockbusters like Men in Black: International to indie darling Sorry to Bother You to musician Janelle Monáe’s visionary Dirty Computer emotion video.
Best Director: Melina Matsoukas for Queen & Slim
In terms of directing, Melina Matsoukas is perhaps best known for her Grammy-winning videos. Back in 2013, Matsoukas directed Rihanna’s "We Found Love" music video and, two years later, she directed Beyoncé’s "Formation" music video. After transitioning to TV, where she directed acclaimed episodes of both Insecure and Master of None, Matsoukas tackled her first feature film in 2019.
Best Actress: Awkwafina in The Farewell
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is based on her What You Don’t Know segment on NPR’s This American Life program. And that segment? It was based on Wang’s experience visiting her terminally ill Nai Nai in China — at a time when Wang’s family agreed it was best to keep the diagnosis from Nai Nai.
Best Actress: Zhao Tao in Ash Is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü)
Writer-director Zhangke Jia revisits career-long themes in Ash Is Purest White, a tragicomedy that follows Qiao (Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife and longtime collaborator) through the jianghu criminal underworld. Critics at IndieWire were quick to note that "above all else, this movie is a monument to [Zhao’s] talents" and her career alongside her director husband.
Best Actor: Robert Pattinson in High Life, Which Is Helmed by Best Director Claire Denis
If Brad Pitt’s Ad Astra looked too Contact-meets-Interstellar for you, we recommend checking out High Life. In the film, Robert Pattinson plays Monte, an astronaut on a doomed mission to the far reaches of the solar system. He and his young daughter are the last survivors. The Observer calls Pattinson’s performance "subtle, exacting and unpredictable" and full of a "bone-deep loneliness."
Best Actor: Ashton Sanders in Native Son
HBO’s update of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel of the same name allows Moonlight alum Ashton Sanders the chance to shine as Bigger Thomas, a Black man who lands a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, the Daltons. One night, Bigger tries to help the Daltons’ daughter, Mary, to bed, but ends up accidentally killing her.
Best Actress: Molly Shannon in Wild Nights With Emily
Prolific poet Emily Dickinson was doing more than just writing back in the mid-19th century. Wild Nights With Emily acknowledges that Dickinson enjoyed baking gingerbread, trying to get past the men who acted as literary gatekeepers and embarking on a fulfilling queer romance with her sister-in-law, Susan (Susan Ziegler).
Best Actor: Eddie Murphy in Dolemite Is My Name
Dolemite Is My Name tells the stranger-than-fiction story of struggling comedian Rudy Ray Moore, played here by none other than SNL alum-turned-movie-star Eddie Murphy. In the film, Moore, who experiences a string of showbiz-related failures, is struck by a real creative epiphany.
Best Actress: Mame Bineta Sané in Atlantics (Atlantique)
In Dakar, construction workers abandon their work after their wages are withheld and seek opportunities at sea — and all of this is spun around a love story between Ada (Mame Bineta Sané) and Souleiman. Vanity Fair’s K. Austin Collins says Atlantics "stuns and surprises," thanks in part to newcomer Sané.
Best Actor: Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems
Every few years, SNL alum Adam Sandler appears on the silver screen with an attempt to win Oscar audiences over with a dramatic turn, a la Punch Drunk Love and (the less successful) Reign Over Me. With Uncut Gems, Sandler seemingly found his Academy Award vehicle. That is, until Oscar noms were announced — and Sandler didn’t make the lineup.
Best Director: Greta Gerwig for Little Women
Between Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker being so divisive among fans and panned by critics and Cats completely failing to stick the landing, Little Women became The Film™ of the holiday season. Thanks in part to an incredible cast, Greta Gerwig, the writer/director behind Lady Bird, created perhaps the best possible film version of the beloved Louisa May Alcott novel.
Best Picture: Hustlers
In Hustlers, former strip club employees decide to turn the tables on their old Wall Street clients post-crash. Instead of letting the suits have all the control, the women empower one another and take their old clients for everything they’re worth. At the heart of the film, which is based on a viral New York Magazine article, is the relationship between Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) and Destiny (Constance Wu).
Best Actress: Zhao Shuzhen in The Farewell
Before The Farewell, legendary Chinese actress Zhao Shuzhen was relatively unknown to American audiences. But her role as Nai Nai, the grandmother to Awkwafina’s Billi, is far from her first credit. Her decades-spanning career has seen Shuzhen perform on stage as well as on screen — and, in China, she’s a revered movie star.
Best Director: Nia DaCosta for Little Woods
This grim, tautly woven thriller from writer-director Nia DaCosta depicts Tessa Thompson as Ollie, a woman with just a few days left on her probation for running prescription pills over the border. Ollie’s sister Deb (Lily James) finds herself pregnant and saddled with a deadbeat ex, which means Ollie must choose between her safety and helping her sister by running pills one last time.
Best Documentary Film: Apollo 11
Todd Douglas Miller directed, produced and edited Apollo 11, the universally beloved documentary film that tells the story of the 1969 spaceflight from which men first walked on the moon. Made up of archival footage, including previously unreleased film, the doc doesn’t include any of those standard movie tricks. That is, there aren’t any interviews or scene recreations. There isn’t even a narrator.
Best Actor: André Holland in High Flying Bird
Helmed by Academy Award-winning writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and director Steven Soderbergh, High Flying Bird tells the story of sports agent Ray Burke, who is played by André Holland. During a National Basketball Association (NBA) lockout, Burke finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place.
Best Actress: Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers
Inspired by the viral New York Magazine article, Hustlers follows a group of tight-knit women — led by Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona and the woman under her wing, Destiny (Constance Wu) — who ditch the strip club post-crash and turn the tables on their former Wall Street clients. Ramona, who initially cooks up the revenge scheme, becomes a bit too consumed by said ruse, to the detriment of her friendship with Destiny.
Best Actress: Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Fast Color
If Marvel and DC have left you feeling a bit burnt out when it comes to the superhero genre, we can’t recommend Fast Color enough. More grounded and less comic book-y, the film stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw — who’s perhaps best known for starring in Black Mirror’s "San Junipero" episode — as Ruth, a woman with supernatural powers. Uncomfortable with the idea of being controlled or studied, she goes on the lam.
Best Actress: Florence Pugh in Midsommar
After suffering a terrible loss, Dani, played by breakout star Florence Pugh, joins her boyfriend and his grad school friends on a trip to Sweden. Why’s that? Well, they’re a bunch of anthropology majors and they’re invited by an exchange student pal to experience a midsummer festival in a remote village. The only trouble? These rural Swedes are part of a cult-like community.
Best Actor: Taron Egerton in Rocketman
Last year, Rami Malek took home Oscar gold for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in the decidingly uneven (and divisive) Bohemian Rhapsody. Between this look at Queen’s frontman and the fourth rehash of A Star Is Born, it seemed like playing a musician was a surefire way to grab an Oscar nomination. Unfortunately for Taron Egerton, that train of thought was derailed this year.
Best Original Song: “Spirit” by Beyoncé From The Lion King
Touted initially as a "live-action" remake of Disney’s 1994 hit, 2019’s The Lion King is essentially a CGI rendering of the beloved original. Lacking the imagination and emotional depth of the ‘90s version — largely due to uncannily realistic yet hollow animation — Lion King tried to score some points by casting a phenomenal collection of voice actors, including Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor and, of course, Beyoncé.
Best Actor: Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse
Horror director Robert Eggers’ (The Witch) latest film tells the story of two grizzled lighthouse keepers — one experienced (Willem Dafoe) and one green (Robert Pattinson). While critics agree that both performers in The Lighthouse are powerhouses, Dafoe, with his winding monologues and precise accent, is a standout.
Best Animated Film: Weathering With You
A lot of folks are stunned by Disney’s "poor showing" at the Oscars. That is, now that Disney owns everything from Pixar to Marvel, it’s mildly surprising that they’ve only got one animated feature film, Toy Story 4, in the race. That means both The Lion King (2019) and Frozen II were shut out. But we’re honestly way more concerned about the Oscars’ snubbing of Weathering With You.
Best Actor: Kelvin Harrison Jr. in both Waves & Luce
Kelvin Harrison Jr. is about to make it big — the Oscars just haven’t caught on yet. In Waves, Trey Edward Shults’ film about one family’s journey to navigate love and forgiveness in the wake of loss, Harrison co-stars alongside Renée Elise Goldsberry, Lucas Hedges and Sterling K. Brown. Nonetheless, Harrison stands out, portraying a wholly convincing character who must overcome shame, guilt and uncertainty in order to move forward.
Best Original Song: “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” by Mary Steenburgen, Caitlin Smith & Kate York from Wild Rose
In Wild Rose, Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley) is an aspiring country singer and single mother from Glasgow. When the film opens, she’s released from jail after a year-long stint related to attempted drug smuggling, and, from there, the film sets off on that star-is-born musical trajectory we all know so well.
Best Documentary Film: One Child Nation
Praised for being both accessible and insightful, One Child Nation is a documentary film directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang. The doc illuminates the lasting ramifications of China’s one-child policy, which was put into place in 1979 and remained until 2015. Critics have universally praised the film, which nabbed a Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Documentary nomination.