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‘Oppenheimer’ and ‘Barbie’ give the Oscars an explosive combination, as well as some major oversights

After combining to save the summer box office, the two-headed monster known as “Barbenheimer” will see if it can do the same for TV ratings, providing an explosive pop-culture tandem in a year in which the Oscar nominations appeared to get a lot right, along with a few of the seemingly unavoidable glaring oversights.

On the plus side, the nominations for the 96th Academy Awards unveiled Tuesday underscored that “Hollywood” and even its top prize increasingly represent a global industry. Of the 10 best-picture nominees, for the first time more than one in a single year went to a movie shot primarily in a language other than English: “Anatomy of a Fall” (French), “Past Lives” (Korean) and “The Zone of Interest” (German).

Fourteen non-English-language films have been nominated for best picture over the course of Oscar history, with South Korea’s “Parasite” (2020) the only winner.

After often shortchanging movies that resonated with the public on a mass scale, the field also recognized genuine box-office hits in “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie,” which amassed a leading 13 and eight bids, respectively. “Barbie” trailed the outlandish “Poor Things” (with 11) and director Martin Scorsese’s historical epic “Killers of the Flower Moon” (10).

Given the emphasis on trying to jump-start Oscar viewing after the ratings slumped to historic lows during the pandemic, providing the audience with a greater rooting interest in the nominees seems prudent and practical, though that hasn’t always been the case in recent years.

Because of that, much of the focus will surely be on “Barbie” – whose tally included major omissions – and “Oppenheimer,” the perceived frontrunner after winning at the Critics Choice Awards and Golden Globes. Opening the same weekend in July, director Christopher Nolan’s epic about the development of the atomic bomb and Greta Gerwig’s feminist take on Mattel’s popular doll grossed $2.4 billion worldwide (with “Barbie” accounting for roughly 60% of that) between them. (“Barbie” was distributed by Warner Bros., which like CNN is part of Warner Bros. Discovery.)

Ryan Gosling, Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig on the set of "Barbie." - Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Pictures
Ryan Gosling, Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig on the set of "Barbie." - Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Pictures

As evidence of how scarce such hits have been in the best-picture race, “Oppenheimer” alone roughly matched the combined box-office total of the last five winners, two of which, “CODA” and “Nomadland,” were primarily distributed via streaming during the pandemic.

Despite that, “Barbie” star Margot Robbie and director Greta Gerwig were among those left off the list of nominees, with Robbie’s absence, as the literal face of Barbie, perhaps the most surprising. Gerwig did receive a nod in the screenplay category (as did Celine Song, the director of “Past Lives”), but the lone directing recognition for a woman went to “Anatomy of a Fall’s” Justine Triet.

One issue for the Academy has been the expansion to as many as 10 nominees for best movie, while holding the best director category to five contenders – a prescription that virtually ensures plenty of grousing.

The change, implemented 15 years ago to bring more (and hopefully some more popular) movies into the mix after “The Dark Knight” didn’t make the cut, has created inevitable “snubs,” since nominations for best picture and director have traditionally gone hand in hand.

In the academy’s long history, best picture/director winners have overlapped nearly 75% of the time, including three of the last four years. In a bad sign for “Barbie,” only six movies have won the former without at least being nominated for the latter, the last being “Green Book” in 2019.

Writer/director Cord Jefferson on the set of "American Fiction." - Claire Folger/Orion Releasing
Writer/director Cord Jefferson on the set of "American Fiction." - Claire Folger/Orion Releasing

To its credit, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on the awards, did acknowledge some new blood, including Cord Jefferson’s directing debut “American Fiction” and the romance “Past Lives,” whose star, Greta Lee, was among other notable omissions.

Seven of the 20 acting nominations went to people of color, including indigenous actress Lily Gladstone for “Killers” and a trio in the supporting-actress category: America Ferrera, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Danielle Brooks, whose movie, the musical adaptation of “The Color Purple,” was otherwise overlooked.

That roster also included Colman Domingo for the Netflix film “Rustin,” while Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t among the “Killers” contenders, a justified (and occasionally rare) instance of voters not being bedazzled by star power.

Colman Domingo (center) as civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin in the Netflix movie "Rustin." - Parrish Lewis/Netflix
Colman Domingo (center) as civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin in the Netflix movie "Rustin." - Parrish Lewis/Netflix

Still, the nominations made history in other ways, with nods to elder statesmen like Scorsese and composer John Williams, who added to his record total in becoming the oldest nominee ever at 91.

Scorsese, 81, received his 10th nomination as best director (he’s won once, for “The Departed”), moving him ahead of Steven Spielberg, and behind only the 12 nominations collected by William Wyler, which included “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Ben-Hur.”

Jodie Foster also squeezed into the loaded supporting category for her role in “Nyad,” marking her fifth nomination, with the first coming for Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” in 1977, and the last for “Nell” in 1995.

A bad year for superhero movies also extended into the visual effects category, where Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” prequel (the one hit in the bunch) was recognized, but “The Marvels” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and DC’s “The Flash” and “Aquaman” were not.

The Oscar ceremony will be on March 10 and televised by ABC.

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