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6 quick takeaways from this year's Oscar nominations

Kirsten Dunst (<em>The Power of the Dog</em>), Denzel Washington (<em>The Tragedy of Macbeth)</em>, <em>Flee</em> and <em>Drive My Car</em> are among this year's Oscar nominations.
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Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog), Denzel Washington (The Tragedy of Macbeth), Flee and Drive My Car are among this year's Oscar nominations.

Updated February 8, 2022 at 3:22 PM ET

No, the Oscars are not a true measure of merit; they never have been. Yes, they're a popularity contest, thanks to a system that can and does get gamed by expensive media campaigns. And yes, they're just an excuse for an industry teeming with self-congratulatory personalities to lavishly congratulate itself.

Given all that, at the end of the day — yes, they're fun. They're fun to gawk at, fun to argue over and capable, under the right circumstances, or doing some actual good: A nomination can help audiences find a smaller movie they might have otherwise overlooked.

Some of you might object to treating the Oscars like a horserace. Some of you are wrong; that's all the Oscars are. And with this morning's nominations, the race is on. Here's six things that leapt out:

1. More Oscar voters = more diversity

Nearly 9,500 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are eligible to cast votes this year — that's a more than 30% increase in voting membership since the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite movement drove AMPAS to take efforts to make its voting pool younger and more diverse.

This year, of the acting categories, only supporting actor remains #Sowhite, with Ciarán Hinds (Belfast), Troy Kotsur (CODA), Jesse Plemmons (The Power of the Dog), Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Power of the Dog) and J.K. Simmons (Being the Ricardos) nudging out, among others, the blistering, unpredictable performance of Colman Domingo in Zola.

Simmons has won in this category before, for Whiplash, but this is the first nomination for the other four. Smart money's on Smit-McPhee, whose performance is an extended act of stealth warfare.

The lead actor category is dominated by people of color, including a surprising nomination for Javier Bardem (Being the Ricardos), and much-less-surprising nods for Will Smith (King Richard) and Denzel Washington (The Tragedy of Macbeth). And although Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog) seemed an early lock-on favorite, and Andrew Garfield's nomination for Tick, Tick ... Boom! warms the hearts of musical-lovers, this is Denzel's category to lose.

The actress categories are all over the map, and generated some of the true surprises of the morning.

For supporting actress, everyone has been talking about Ariana DeBose for West Side Story and Kirsten Dunst for The Power of the Dog. The Judi Dench nomination for Belfast — making her the oldest woman ever nominated in the supporting actress category — testifies to the fact that the Oscar voting pool still contains some of the old guard. Jessie Buckley's nomination for The Lost Daughter hadn't been seriously tossed around among Oscar watchers, but her performance as Olivia Colman's younger self in that film is crucial to understanding how Colman's character became as damaged as she is. And that sound you heard when Aunjanue Ellis' name was announced for King Richard was a vast number of people who've been watching this excellent actress putting in the work for decades shouting, "Finally!"

The lead actress category was full of previous nominees — Jessica Chastain for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Olivia Colman for The Lost Daughter, Nicole Kidman for Being the Ricardos, and Penelope Cruz for Parallel Mothers. But while the Cruz nod wasn't widely predicted, she does provide Almodovar's baby-switching melodrama with a grounded quality it otherwise lacks. Maybe the biggest surprise of the morning, (besides Ruth Negga's snub for Passing), came from the category's sole never-before-nominated actress: Kristen Stewart for Spencer.

Stewart's (literally) haunted performance in Pablo Larrain's Diana biopic had a lot of buzz early on, but when she got overlooked by the BAFTAs, which generally act as a kind of Oscars bellwether, all that buzz faded away. Turns out she got counted out too early. Nevertheless, look for Kidman to stomp on the competition like they're so many grapes under Lucy Ricardo's bare feet.

As for best picture, the Japanese film Drive My Car made it into the running, in addition to its nominations for best international feature, best directing and best adapted screenplay — just as Parasite did, two years ago. Though beloved by critics, its moody, introspective tone and three-hour running time will likely combine to preclude a repeat of Parasite's singular success.

2. The dog? Is powerful!

Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog was the morning's big winner, with 12 nominations, beating out Dune (10 nominations), West Side Story (8), Belfast (7) and King Richard (6).

Campion's nomination for best director makes her the first woman who's been nominated twice in that category. Should she win, as she is heavily favored to do, she will only be the third woman to do so.

It would also represent the first best picture win for Netflix — a major battle victory in the ongoing war between streaming and theaters.

3. The big battle: Feelgood vs. Feeldark

In the race for best picture, it's likely going to come down to a fight between two very different movies: Kenneth Branagh's warmly nostalgic Belfast, and Campion's not-at-all-warm, acidic The Power of the Dog.

Both Branagh's semi-autobiographical, poignant remembrance of his youth during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and Campion's dispassionate autopsy of festering masculinity, prove deeply satisfying, albeit in widely divergent ways. Belfast provides comfort, while The Power of the Dog provides cathartic, steel-trap plotting.

Five years ago, Belfast's strong performances, young narrator and feelgood quality would have combined to make it a shoe-in; the less generous among us would've tagged it as "Oscar bait." But the love for The Power of the Dog has proven consistently strong and hasn't yet flagged.

4. Could Flee go three for three?

The moving Danish film Flee is both a documentary and an animated feature. It's the tale of a young man who fled Afghanistan with his family as a boy, and who has spent his life guarding various secrets ever since. This morning it received nods for best doc, best animated feature and best international feature.

While a sweep is unlikely, given the competition, the trifecta of noms at least means that more people will get to see this excellent film. The best shot its got of a win is in best documentary, but it's up against the beautiful Summer of Soul.

5. How to get better Oscars ceremony ratings? Two words: Be. 'Yoncé.

It's no secret that the Oscars telecast has gotten lousy viewership over the past few years. The nomination of "Be Alive" from King Richard for best original song, however, raises the possibility of a live performance by Beyoncé. If even a small percentage of the Hive tunes in for that, and/or for a performance of "No Time to Die" by Billie Eilish — ratings will get a bump. (The other best song nominees include tunes by okay-boomer favorites like Diane Warren and Van Morrison.)

Encanto's "Dos Oruguitas" got a nod, as well. While it's a beautiful song, it likely won't send the droves of TikTokers who've been lip-syncing to the movie's other, earwormier songs to their TV sets on Oscar night. (Justice for "Surface Pressure"!)

6. Don't look now, but Don't Look Up did well

Critics split on Adam McKay's broad, scattershot, omnidirectional satire that attempted to turn a meteor speeding toward Earth into a metaphor for the slow, inexorable and devastating cost of human-caused climate change. But the Academy ate it up, and lavished it with 4 nominations, including best picture, best original screenplay, best editing and best original score. And while it joins the ranks of films nominated for best picture but not best director, the film's makers and its fans will always be able to point to these nominations.

(See above, in re: Oscars' status as measure of merit.)

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.