It’s been a long time since I trusted the Academy Awards to determine the best movies and performances from the previous year. But for all their considerable limitations, the 2020 Oscar nominations released on Monday do have a fair amount to say about one of the most consequential and combustible subjects facing us today: white men.

Joaquin Phoenix plays the eponymous character in Todd Phillips' Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix plays the eponymous character in Todd Phillips’ Joker.

Six of the nine movies nominated for best picture – 1917, Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Joker, Jojo Rabbit and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – are almost entirely about men, and a seventh, Marriage Story, is substantially concerned with masculinity.

That the Academy voters’ preferences are so narrow, especially in a year with plenty of other alternatives, is a shame for them and for their industry, in so much that Oscar nominations can help actors land future parts and directors land the financing and distribution for their next projects. But given the power men wield and the damage they can do, sorting masculinity out is a worthy artistic endeavour.

The fact that Joker, Todd Phillips’ inconsistent and superficially serious movie about the mentally ill Arthur Fleck’s (Joaquin Phoenix) transformation from victim to villain, got more nominations than any other movie released in 2019, is silly – especially in a year when HBO’s radical superhero story Watchmen exists. But the fact that it did so well illustrates a persistent tension in the way we talk about troubled white men who vent their rage in spasms of violence.



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