With Oscar nominations on the horizon, we all find ourselves scrambling to predict the outcome when thousands of Academy voters’ selections will be revealed and how far they will differentiate themselves from previous precursors like the Golden Globes, Critics Choice, and BAFTAS. This past decade we have seen the membership increase to include more diverse voters, such as people of color and international members. As we move forward into the 2020s, let’s look back at some fantastic surprises from previous Oscar nominations from the last decade (2010-2019), have an entertaining retrospective on how far the Academy has managed to still surprise us in years where we think we have them pegged and maybe then we can conclude what fun surprises can come our way on January 24th.
10. Best Supporting Actor – Jonah Hill for “The Wolf Of Wall Street” (2013)
Jonah Hill had established himself as an Oscar nominee for 2011’s “Moneyball;” it would seem apparent that joining Leonardo DiCaprio for a Martin Scorsese black comedy would be a perfect match for another Oscar hit. Yet, with “The Wolf of Wall Street” releasing in late December and having missed all major precursors—the Golden Globes (where DiCaprio won Best Comedy Actor), SAG, Critics Choice, and BAFTA, it would’ve been easy to dismiss his chances as being slim to none. Yet, in a surprising turn of events of the Academy’s full embrace of the film, Jonah Hill managed to clinch his second Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, as his on-screen chemistry with DiCaprio proved to be too infectious for voters to ignore. It’s even more of a shock considering contenders that seemed primed for a nomination, such as Daniel Brühl for Ron Howard’s sports drama, “Rush,” where he received nominations from all of the organizations Hill missed. This was also the year where James Gandolfini’s beautiful work in Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said,” seemed to be garnering a genuine push for the late actor to be recognized for one of his last screen performances after his unexpected death, as he received nominations from the Golden Globes, Critics Choice, and SAG. Yet, the power of Scorsese and DiCaprio managed to propel Hill to voters’ minds as being worth recognizing.
9. Best Cinematography – Caleb Deschanel for “Never Look Away” (2018)
The nominations for the 2018 film year will undoubtedly be mentioned again throughout this article. Still, if anyone remembers listening to the reactions when the nominees for the Best Cinematography category were announced, we saw numerous misses for some high-profile films. Linus Sandgren missed out on his second Chanzelle collaboration for “First Man,” similar to James Laxton missing out on his second Jenkins collaboration for “If Beale Street Could Talk.” After her historical nomination in the previous year for “Mudbound,” Rachel Morrison couldn’t become a coattail nomination for Marvel’s first true awards contender, “Black Panther.” Instead, in a strong dominance for international films, Germany’s selection for the Best International Feature Film category, “Never Look Away,” became a surprising nomination for Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography. When we talk about branch favorites, look no further than Deschanel’s previous five nominations in this category, which include films like “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Patriot,” and “The Right Stuff.” Deschanel had been virtually absent from this year’s awards race. The film first premiered at the 75th Venice Film Festival but was shadowed by heavy-weight awards favorites like “Roma” and “The Favourite.” Besides a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, the movie and its cinematography were noticed in only a few awards groups or organizations. Deschanel is the definition of a branch favorite that goes under the radar, and heavy hitters tend to return after their first nominations (and win) even if the film doesn’t resonate with the Academy on the whole.
8. Best Makeup and Hairstyling – Stephen Prouty for “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” (2013)
Here is an excuse to keep reminding ourselves: The “Jackass” film series is considered an Oscar-nominated film series. But in seriousness, how many prognosticators could imagine the film in which Johnny Knoxville decked out as his Irving Zisman character in what we can consider low-brow comedy by Academy standards? This was a surprise considering the category only allowed three nominees at the time. For a “Jackass” film to jump ahead of Academy-friendly films like “American Hustle,” “The Great Gatsby,” and “12 Years A Slave“—films heavily contingent on their period aesthetics and craftsmanship with a widespread appeal, and here comes a genuine studio comedy about a man dressing up as an old man with secret cameras filing peoples’ reactions to his hijinks. It’s truly deserving of a mention on this list, considering Stephen Prouty was nominated by the Hollywood Makeup Artist and Hair Stylist Guild Awards. I think the more normalizations of studio comedies by the Academy Awards, the better we are in the long run of non-traditional films getting nominated.
7. Best Director – Bennett Miller for “Foxcatcher” (2014)
If we look at directors nominated by the Academy branch, we can see a deviation from the heavy precursors, such as the prestigious DGA institution and the BAFTAs. This year, we had established a firm trio of director contenders: Richard Linklater for “Boyhood,” Wes Anderson for “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and Alejandro González Iñárritu for “Birdman.” As for the remaining two slots, numerous names were brought up and predicted to appear. Academy veteran Clint Eastwood released his box-office smash war film, “American Sniper.” While it was a late release at the end of the year, Eastwood managed a DGA nomination, which seemed to indicate he would receive his fifth Best Director nomination. Ava DuVernay released her historical drama, “Selma,” in which she dramatized the Selma voting rights march. DuVernay secured her first Best Director nomination at the Golden Globes, making her the first African-American woman nominated for Best Director. It was under Brad Pitt’s Plan B production (which had won Best Picture for “12 Years A Slave“), and the director’s branch had yet to nominate a woman of color—this would’ve seemed like a perfect opportunity for DuVernay to get a nomination. At that same Golden Globes ceremony, David Fincher was nominated for his murder-mystery thriller, “Gone Girl,” and netted a Critics Choice Award nomination. However, on Oscar nomination morning, two other names were announced; one of them was Morten Tyldum for “The Imitation Game.” In retrospect, he was selected by the DGA, and the film was campaigned by the Weinstein company that would ultimately net eight Oscar nominations. But the bigger surprise of the two was Bennett Miller for “Foxcatcher.” Miller had been virtually absent all awards season. The film premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where Miller won Best Director; outside of that summer festival, Miller was one of five winners of the 2015 Santa Barbara International Film Festival for Outstanding Director—in other words, any major or regional awards body throughout the season did not recognize Bennett Miller. Having been previously nominated for 2005’s “Capote,” Miller is more known as an auteur with a small filmography. He was an example of the branch purposefully going over much-buzzed-about names towards a director that speaks to the arty sensibilities of the branch. He would be part of a long line of future auteur directors that would be recognized by this branch and willing to give them attention when so many awards bodies don’t.
6. Best Actress – Quvenzhané Wallis for “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012)
It’s hard for child performances to be taken seriously by the Academy at times. It’s much easier for child actors to receive nominations in supporting categories. Haley Joel Osment was eleven years old when he received his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in the smash-hit horror film, “The Sixth Sense.” Abigail Breslin was ten when the Academy recognized her for her “Little Miss Sunshine” performance. Justin Henry is the youngest Oscar nominee (in any category) of all time for “Kramer vs. Kramer.” In the modern era, the days of child actors being recognized are mostly over. It’s a miracle for a child’s performance to be taken seriously in the lead categories. In terms of Best Actress, before 2012, the youngest nominee was Keisha Castle-Hughes for “Whale Rider,” until 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated for Best Actress for “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in her debut performance. It was a gratifying moment to see Wallis become not only the youngest nominee for the category but the first African-American child actor and the first person born in the 21st century to earn an Oscar nomination. Wallis only got a Critics Choice and Independent Spirit award nomination that season, so her Oscar moment is a testament that her performance was propelled by love for the film and broke the age barrier for future child actors.
5. Best Original Screenplay – J.C. Chandor for “Margin Call” (2011)
The screenplay categories are ripe for a lone nominees every year. This decade has produced some fantastic Best Original Screenplay nominees in which the writer is starting to break through the Hollywood bubble of success or veteran writers are finally recognized for their years of quality work. Again, anyone can be inserted in this category: Paul Schrader received his first Oscar nomination for “First Reformed,” Mike Mills was recognized for his beautiful work in “20th Century Women,” and Yorgos Lanthimos made his first English language film with his demented, darkly hilarious script for “The Lobster“—all these screenplays (and so many more) are as deserving of a spot on this list. Yet, I can’t help but return to the 2011 J.C. Chandor’s dramatization of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, “Margin Call.” Starring a star-studded ensemble, this small film mainly went under the radar of most award watchers. It premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, opened in the fall with an unusual VOD day-and-date release, and made a nice profit. In terms of its awards, not many organizations recognized its script. The film takes a mature approach to the real-life event by utilizing accurate terminology and language that would seem dense to audiences unfamiliar with Wall Street terms. The film received mentions from the National Board Of Review for Chandor’s debut and being one of the Top Ten Independent films. The Indie Spirits nominated it for First Feature & Screenplay and was awarded the Robert Altman award. Chandor’s screenplay missed the Golden Globes, WGA, Critics’ Choice Awards, and the BAFTAS, so it was all the more surprising to see the film receive a Best Original Screenplay nomination, which ultimately helps bring a spotlight to small films like this and helped launch J.C. Chandor’s career. It’s the outliers of any awards season that tend to make this category exciting for the writer’s branch to be inspired in their choices.
4. Best Supporting Actor – Michael Shannon for “Nocturnal Animals” (2016)
There’s something interconnected between surprise Best Supporting Actor nominations and Michael Shannon. Having come off the 2015 year for his supporting turn in “99 Homes,” where he received nominations from the Golden Globes, Critics Choice, and SAG and won LAFCA, it was somewhat surprising Shannon missed out at the Oscars. Then comes the new year, when he joins Tom Ford’s sophomore crime drama, “Nocturnal Animals,” as Detective Bobby Andes, a grizzled, no-nonsense officer willing to go outside the confines of the law. A phenomenal performance, but it had been overshadowed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s dramatic turn as a crazed psychopathic killer. Johnson seemed more prime for a nomination than Shannon did the previous year—in a surprise, he won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor (beating the likes of Mahershala Ali for “Moonlight” and Dev Patel for “Lion“) and was nominated by BAFTA, along with the film gaining eight additional nominations (but no mention for Shannon), it seemed Johnson would receive his first Oscar nomination, as the film was earning more awards momentum. As Terrance Howard started reading the nominations with the first category, Best Supporting Actor, we all nodded our heads in agreement at the expected four actors most of us had predicted: Mahershala Ali, check. Jeff Bridges, check. Lucas Hedges, check. Dev Patel, check. Then suddenly, Michael Shannon was announced for “Nocturnal Animals,” and we were left in shock. It was a reminiscent moment some of us may have had (if those of us were watching back in 2008) when Shannon received his first Oscar nomination for “Revolutionary Road,” where he received no nominations from the Golden Globes, Critics Choice, SAG, or BAFTA. He managed to pull another magic trick out of his detective and receive his second nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In retrospect, we should have acknowledged that Shannon had more awards this year, where he was third place for NFSC (which is even funnier since he placed second for “99 Homes”), as well as nominations from Critics Choice & WAFCA. Some of us had neglected our blind spots, which allowed Shannon to surprise us by jumping ahead of Johnson’s momentum.
3. Best Actor – Bradley Cooper for “American Sniper” (2014)
Revisiting the 2014 year mentioned earlier, Best Director wasn’t the only category that was full of surprises. Regarding Best Actor, there were solidified four contenders primed for their nominations: Michael Keaton, Eddy Redmayne, Steve Carrell, and Benedict Cumberbatch. The last slot was such a head-scratcher for many of us. Jake Gyllenhaal received nominations for one of his best performances, “Nightcrawler,” from the Golden Globes, Critics Choice, SAG, and BAFTA. Some of us were hoping for “Selma” as a whole, particularly David Oyelowo, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as he received nominations from the Golden Globes, Critics Choice, and prominent critics groups such as the Indie Spirits and the CFCA. Yet, both missed what many would consider a late-contender, Bradley Cooper for “American Sniper.” The Clint Eastwood-directed film, as stated, was released late in the year (Christmas day in a limited release before expanding wide on January 16th, 2015), so many had presumed it may have been late in screeners being sent out. Cooper wasn’t nominated for any primary industry awards and only received mentions from the Denver Film Critics and the Empire Awards. Yet the film had a strong guilds presence, as it was mentioned by the PGA, DGA, WGA, ACE, and more, but no SAG. This also came after Cooper had been nominated the previous two years for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” respectively. If there was any doubt the Academy loves Bradley Cooper, look no further than him landing a legitimate surprise Best Actor nomination.
2. Best Picture & Supporting Actor – “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2011)
Here is a film that deserves its particular placement on this list, no matter who you ask. Stephen Daldry’s critically-panned 9/11 drama, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, released to negative reviews for its Oscar bait sentimentality and being emotionally cheap in its storytelling; it would be easy to dismiss this as an episode of “This Had Oscar Buzz.” No major or significant organization touched this film with a ten-foot pole. Move forward to January 24th, 2012, when Jennifer Lawrence and then Academy President Tom Sherak announced the Oscar nominations to a live press room. After Best Supporting Actress had concluded, Lawrence announced the nominees for Best Supporting Actor. As she finishes stating the last nominee was Max von Sydow, several reporters let out a loud “Woooo” in the far back, and we were left baffled. “Huh, that’s interesting but cool, I guess?,” many of us said, and then we proceeded with the rest of the nominees. Lastly, Lawrence announced the nominees for Best Picture, and the final 9th nominee was revealed: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Immediately we heard loud shrieks of joy in the press room. Us? We were all left baffled: “What just happened, and was that real?” How did such a negatively-panned film that wasn’t recognized by the Golden Globes, SAGs, or BAFTAS, manage to crash the Oscar party? Some say producer Scott Rudin was a formidable Oscar campaigner. Some say it had a resonance with older voters of the Academy. It’s not as if 2011 was bare-bones of other worthy contenders. The comedy hit of the year, “Bridesmaids,” having netted nominations for Best Supporting Actress and Original Screenplay, would seem appropriate for a Best Picture nomination. David Fincher’s American remake of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” had received five Oscar nominations, including nominations at PGA and DGA but was left off the list. Let this be another reminder to us prognosticators: never underestimate the Academy’s ability to shock.
1. Best Supporting Actress – Marina de Tavira for “Roma” (2018)
It was January 22nd, 2019. Our announcers for the nominations were Kumail Nanjiani and Tracee Ellis Ross. First up? Best Supporting Actress. Nanjiani begins with Amy Adams for “Vice,” and all of us immediately brain-check and look intensely, then he continues with Marina de Tavira for “Roma.” I don’t know about you, but my brain quickly deflated and fell into my body. “How? What? Who? Why?” may have been some of the thoughts in your mind, all while Ellis Ross continued with the second category. We all knew this was going to be number one, right? It’s almost hilarious how de Tavira’s surprise nomination has practically become a verb, where X-actor in the future might pull a Marina de Tavira nomination, where it’s the performance that becomes a coattail nomination to the film overall as a measure of its broad support. To put it bluntly, no one—no televised group, critics group, industry group, or online awards—no one we as watchers and predictors follow nominated de Tavira. This is the definition of a surprise nomination; it’s moments like this where I will always love the Academy Awards for surpassing even our wildest expectations. They had plenty of nominees to consider—Emily Blunt had the SAG nomination for “A Quiet Place;” Clair Foy was nominated by the Golden Globes, Critics Choice, and BAFTAs for “First Man;” Margot Robbie was gaining attention for her turn in “Mary Queen of Scots” with SAG & BAFTA nominations under her belt—it’s genuinely commendable and bold for a majority of Academy voters to uplift the unknown Mexican actress to a status most could only dream. Before “Roma,” most of us were unfamiliar with Marina de Tavira; once we saw the film, we generally liked and admired the performance but were smitten by Yalitza Aparicio’s lead performance; after the nominations, I believe most of us in the film awards space will never forget her. Her performance crossed barriers and catapulted her to Hollywood and the world’s stage. How can you not be romantic about awards season?
After a nice recap of some of the most recent Oscar nominations surprises, what can we expect this year’s nominations to give us? There’s only so much information to go off, and this awards cycle has proven to throw some curveballs in the rise and fall of certain contenders. One thing I want to firmly plant my flag on (for better or worse) is Iñárritu’s “Bardo” making a splash with the Academy. I have written extensively on Iñárritu’s relationship with the Academy throughout his career, but the response to his most personal film to date has been more muted with divisive reactions; I believe that someone who manages to win four Oscars (two for Directing) in the last decade, you’re about as in the club as one can be. Can he be left off entirely? Sure. But as of now, I have “Bardo” predicted to make not just Best International Feature Film but Best Director & Best Cinematography for Darius Khondji, as he did surprise many of us with his nomination by ASC. The work is phenomenal, and while he has had a big gap between his previous nomination for “Evita” in 1996, this is as big of a platform to extend his brushstrokes and give us some dazzling images. As for Iñárritu, he has been absent from many groups and organizations; this is more hope-predicting and my no-guts, no-glory Oscar pick. Lastly, there is a performance that’s been making waves throughout the industry and got a special shoutout from Cate Blanchett when she won Best Actress at the CCAs recently. I’ll give you a hint: it’s “a little movie with a big heart.” There is no reason to predict Andrea Riseborough for “To Leslie” when no one has recognized her with any notable mentions from industry awards. It’s a fool’s hope. It’s straw-grasping at best to make a race more exciting. No kind of campaign this prominent has ever happened at this late stage in which the public has been able to scrutinize. Maybe it is all for nothing. As I look back at these previous surprises, I’m reminded of a great quote from a famous two-time Oscar-winning actor, “sitting in your chair; I would probably say the same thing. And 999-point-999 times out of a million, you would be correct. But in the pages of history, every once in a while, fate reaches out and extends its hand.”
You can follow Paul and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @Paul_Rai28