It’s widely understood that, in 2009, the omission of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” from the Best Picture category caused such a heated response that the academy expanded the category’s number of nominees from five films to 10 the very next broadcast. The change came with the intention of being able to honor some of the larger, more popular films each year (as if “The Dark Knight” weren’t masterful regardless of its budget or mass appeal).
Seemingly, it worked — at least for Nolan films. Two years later, his follow-up, “Inception,” was nominated for the top prize. But part of a larger problem still remained, as the academy, like it had for Nolan’s second “Batman” film, snubbed him for Best Director.
The British Academy (BAFTA), though, did not. Nolan earned his first nomination for the prestigious David Lean Award for Direction, but that was hardly the first time he was recognized by a respected organization. Additionally, the Directors Guild of America — its award arguably the second most important Best Director prize of the season — not only nominated Nolan for “Inception,” but had also granted him nominations for “The Dark Knight” and “Memento.”
It was hard to discern what exactly the problem was. Was it due to the аcademy’s small directors branch of 512, significantly smaller than the DGA’s body, which is larger than 16,000? Was it blockbuster bias, the very thing the academy wanted to alleviate in Best Picture, that remained in the conversation for Best Director?
Whatever the problem was, it was seemingly addressed this past year through “Dunkirk,” Nolan’s visceral war epic. After some of the best critical reception of his career — top critics even called it his best film yet — and massive box office success, Nolan was quickly singled out as the one to beat. The experts of the awards prediction site GoldDerby.com had even come to, at one point, a near-unanimous consensus that Nolan would be the Best Director winner.
The moment that he was nominated for the Oscar genuinely felt like the release of something built up over years, not only because it was his first, but because it felt like he could actually win. It felt like he could ride the same type of narrative that Leonardo DiCaprio did to win his Oscar for “The Revenant” — the narrative of “We’ve snubbed this guy for too long.”
So, what happened? The awards season began, and while Nolan kept showing up, his name was rarely called — only really by critics’ groups, if ever, and not even the top ones. When Feb. 3 and the Directors Guild awards came, and Guillermo del Toro won for “The Shape of Water,” Nolan’s chances for Oscar gold started to dissipate. When BAFTA also went with del Toro, those chances all but vanished; the fact of the matter is that, now, it’s incredibly unlikely that Nolan will win this year.
It’s hard not to be excited by the thought of the Three Amigos (Mexican filmmakers Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón and del Toro) all having Best Director trophies. But the sudden stagnancy of Nolan — an almost universally agreed-upon frontrunner not long ago — has been surprising and discouraging.
Nolan may have received that coveted nomination, but the industry’s unwillingness to celebrate him remains to a significant degree. Is the bias still there? Is he not winning because he’s not necessarily the most fun personality to vote for? Has the intense fan response to those very problems only aggravated voters, through no fault of Nolan himself?
At this point, it feels similar to how George Miller traversed the awards season with “Mad Max: Fury Road” two years ago, his being the clear accomplishment, but it being obvious that he would not be awarded.
The reality is that Christopher Nolan made a war film, one of the academy’s favorite genres. He made it with his own trademark stylings, but a sense of familiarity remained for the industry to grasp onto. Nearly a decade removed from that first egregious snub, the Academy knew it couldn’t ignore him. But at this point, it feels as though the industry nominated Nolan and then ruled him out the minute after.