Academy Awards 2015 Best Picture nominees

Oscars 2016: why Star Wars missed out, and other takeaways from

Spotlight castNobody is under the impression that the Oscars seriously reward the best films of the year. The awards have a spotty track record, having given their top prize to far more mediocre films than great ones.

But they're a unique window into what Hollywood thinks about itself, what it values. Every year, we get a sense of the kinds of movies Hollywood thinks it should be making. And, sure, some things never change (war movies and epics will always be Oscar favorites), but by looking at the nominees from year to year you can see trends emerge, grow, and then recede across Hollywood history.

1) Films about women fared better than they have in recent years...

Fox Searchlight The sweet period romance Brooklyn made it in. Yay, Brooklyn!

Since the early 2000s, the Oscars have slowly been nominating fewer and fewer films with female protagonists, seemingly with every year. This culminated in the 2015 Best Picture slate, which contained no movies in which women pushed the story forward.

The 2016 slate, however, features both and — movies where women are at the center of the story — as well as, which might have a man's name in the title but is undoubtedly the story of Furiosa, the woman and warrior Max falls into traveling with. Meanwhile, in terms of films not nominated for Best Picture, landed six nominations and was almost certainly one of the last films cut from the big category.

This is not to say that we're at the start of a long-term trend or anything, but it is a welcome corrective to recent Best Picture races.

2) ...but this same progress perhaps isn't so true of LGBTQ characters

Oscar tends to like LGBTQ characters as supporting players or as characters who aren't involved in anything resembling romance; something like, for which Jared Leto won an Oscar as a supporting player trans woman, or, which treated Alan Turing's homosexuality glancingly.

Mad Max gets into a fight.This is not to say these approaches can't work — indeed, The Imitation Game is pretty good — but it is to say that when a true LGBTQ romance, like the '50s-set lesbian love story Carol, comes along, the Oscars tend to shy away from it., of course, famously lost Best Picture after winning many major precursors, and Carol's Best Picture snub isn't hard to read in much the same way. LGBTQ characters shouldn't be defined exclusively by their sexuality, but they should be able to take part in one of Hollywood's most cherished (and Oscar's most beloved) genres: the love story.

There was progress down ballot, however. Trans woman Antony Hegarty was nominated for Best Original Song for "Manta Ray" from .

3) Small studios and distributors joined the party...

Open Road Films Spotlight hailed from an unproven studio when it came to the Oscars.

Going in, one of the great uncertainties of this year's Oscar nominations was whether the small studios and distributors would rise to the level of bigger players like Warner Bros., Fox Searchlight, and the Weinstein Company.

Sure, movies are ostensibly being judged for their own qualities at the Oscars, but we all know that's not really true. Movies are also judged based on their Oscar campaigns and how well their studios get them into the conversation. When you're dealing with a big studio or a known indie studio quantity like TWC, it's reasonable to assume they'll handle things relatively well (though big studios sometimes mess up). But when you're dealing with a new player, you can't assume anything.

Such was the case with 's studio, Open Road Films, as well as and 's studio, A24. Both had struggled to break into the Oscar game in previous years, which led to some predictions that all three films would underperform. But the two scored six nominations apiece, and outside of Ex Machina's Visual Effects nomination, the remaining 11 of those 12 nominations were in the top eight categories.

4) ...but the Academy might not be ready to embrace streaming services

Both Netflix and Amazon made at least nominal plays for Oscar voters' attention with and, respectively. Netflix made far more noise on the awards circuit with Beasts, scoring a Screen Actors Guild ensemble nomination and several other nominations for Idris Elba as the vicious Commandant. However, the film didn't land a single Oscar nod (even though I really thought Elba had a shot at joining the Supporting Actor race).

Meanwhile, Amazon's Spike Lee film yielded that director's best reviews in ages, but also came up empty at the Oscars, even in categories like Best Original Song, where the competition is weaker.

Vintage photo of Portrait of Ian Hunter.
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