This year's Oscar nominations include some of the more intriguing films of recent years, like Nomadland and Minari

Andra Day was Oscar nominated for playing singer Billie Holiday. Picture: Supplied

Andra Day was Oscar nominated for playing singer Billie Holiday. Picture: Supplied

Love them or hate them, the Oscars - on next week - are still the premiere film awards, in terms of fame and influence if not necessarily artistic merit. They're less frivolous and more self-consciously high-minded than the Golden Globes, better known and more influential than the BAFTAs or festivals such as those in Venice and Berlin and less political than the other big one, Cannes.

Their effect can vary: often they boost people's asking prices and profiles, but poor decision making, casting difficulties and sheer bad luck can play bigger parts. Cuba Gooding Jr didn't go too far after Jerry Maguire,

Ultimately, like any artistic award, the Oscars are highly subjective: what constitutes "the best" is difficult to judge and some films are polarising. When you're not comparing like with like, the subjectivity can be even more pronounced. How do you compare, say, same-year nominees like Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump? Humphrey Bogart suggested, probably tongue in cheek, the only fair way to judge actors would be to have everyone play Hamlet and let the best man win. But while it's difficult to imagine Bogart as the Prince of Denmark - or any Shakespeare character - it's just as hard to imagine Laurence Olivier being better than Bogart in The Big Sleep or Casablanca.

Many of the criticisms directed at the Oscars are valid. They have tended to be US-focused, white and Anglophonic (just as awards in other countries tend to favour their own, out of chauvinism and familiarity). In the studio era, employees were expected to vote for their own company's nominees and many did. There's a certain middlebrow, safe tendency and certain Academy favourites are frequent nominees and winners.

Many of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters' judgments haven't stood the test of time, and some even seemed puzzling on the day. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) beat High Noon and Singin' in the Rain wasn't even nominated. Ex post facto explanations could include that this was a de facto recognition of Greatest Show's director Cecil B. DeMille's long career, a "safe" choice in the anti-Communist era (the allegorical High Noon's screenwriter Carl Foreman was blacklisted) or that the star-studded circus film got lots of votes from friends and associates of those involved. And another Gene Kelly musical, An American in Paris, had won best picture the previous year (against stiff competition like A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire).

The academy's snubs and omissions as well as their selections are often puzzling. But they are a snapshot of the tastes of a particular group of people at a particular time and there's no real objectivity in assessing films' merits.

Some people have pointed to the declining viewership of the Academy Awards on TV as a sign that they're irrelevant and out of touch. This is asinine. The Oscars are not supposed to be a popularity contest to reward movies that mass audiences love; they aren't and shouldn't be like the People's Choice Awards. The same year James Cameron's sci-fi extravaganza Avatar become the box office champ it was nominated for best picture but the winner was the modestly budgeted, modest grossing The Hurt Locker, directed by Katherine Bigelow, the first woman to win the Oscar in that category. This year is the first with two women nominated for best director: ChloƩ Zhao (Nomadland) and Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman).

The shortage of big cinema releases, in part because of coronavirus, has meant nothing like a blockbuster is represented in this year's major Oscar nominations. Streaming services like Netflix are establishing themselves as big players in the film industry.

What is nominated, though, is an interesting and diverse list of mostly "smaller" films and a diverse range of nominees. I'm not going to attempt to pick winners but here are some observations.

The expanded and more diverse Academy membership of recent years might be responsible for some of the more interesting picks: it's hard to imagine Moonlight - a small, black, gay, arty film - or Parasite - a Korean satire - winning best picture even a decade ago.

Perhaps they paved the way for the likes of Minari. But the old Academy guard - cosily liberal but not radical, politically or artistically - can still assert itself: look at film like Green Book, a sort of variation on Driving Miss Daisy. Since it's a secret preferential voting system, it's hard to know how decisive victories are. Being everyone's second choice might be a good thing.

Certain films and roles and elements still qualify as Oscar bait, even this year. Playing a character with a disability has long been one way to get a nomination and this year we have Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal as a drummer losing his hearing.

Showbiz stories are also popular - Mank this year has the most nominations and in recent years we've seen Birdman and The Artist win best picture.

A lauded performance can win even if the film itself isn't universally admired. For example, Rami Malek won best actor for playing Queen frontman Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.

Actors have won for playing a range of historical figures, from Thomas More to Judy Garland.

Andra Day ticks a few boxes: she's playing a real person, Billie Holiday, with a tragic life (racial and political persecution, drug addiction) in the Black Lives Matter era. And what about other zeitgeist movies like Nomadland and Promising Young Woman?

Whatever the results, this is certainly an intriguing and high-quality year.

This story An intriguing Oscar lineup, finally first appeared on The Canberra Times.