We’ve almost reached the end of a very long road for the Oscars 2020. Voters will have one week, starting tomorrow, to fill out their nomination ballots for each of their respective branches plus Best Picture. Each voter is given five slots to fill for their branch and everyone is given five slots for Best Picture. On January 7th, the date the ballots are due, we will also learn the five Directors Guild nominees and ten Producers Guild nominees. We’ll also be able to factor in what we know from the Golden Globe Awards, which will be held this coming Sunday. There is no time to contemplate much this year — the films in the mix have either made an impact or they haven’t.
Here are five takeaways from my perspective:
- Studios showed up. In an era when the major studios are being criticized for not creating enough original content, they have come roaring back, whether you hear anything about their efforts in entertainment coverage or not. While the studios have always made films aimed at adults, they have recently been hit and miss where the Best Picture race is concerned. This year, there are so many slam dunks from the major studios — they have pulled out all the stops and put on display a string of great titles to challenge the rise of streaming content that threatens them.
Universal alone has produced three of the year’s best films. Sam Mendes’ 1917 manages to be both intimate and expansive, telling the story of a war that killed 40 million soldiers. In following the internal arc of the main character, the real time experience of that war (and every other) becomes indelible. Universal also gave us Melina Matsoukas’ risky and daring Queen & Slim, a film with an original voice, a complex female lead, and hard-hitting subject matter; and Jordan Peele’s Us, an original horror movie that made so much money it’s the only the top ten box-office film of the year that isn’t part of a franchise. And yes, they also released Cats, which could very well represent the annual sacrifice for a frustrated film community that is normally stifled as they’re told what they can and cannot criticize. Here, they have the one-two punch of a white guy, Tom Hooper, and Taylor Swift — a woman the internet both loves and loathes all at once. It was like watching the ending of Midsommar, watching critics salivate in the freedom to finally cut loose when artists falter. I suppose there must be one every year to release that pressure.
Sony came out with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s best film and maybe the best film of 2019. Wildly funny, with a haunting sense of the past and a moment at the cultural crossroads depicted so beautifully, as a movie star on his way out accidentally collides with the would-be Manson murderers. Sony also has Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, which is catching a last minute wave and appears to be just the kind of thing audiences were looking for, and Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Both of these films, along with Once, are making good money.
Fox, which has now merged with Disney, released Ford v Ferrari — which is, along with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, one of the the most satisfying films of the year. It’s a big, beautiful studio film — the likes of which we rarely see anymore. They also produced, under their Fox Searchlight banner, Jojo Rabbit: Taika Waititi’s comically unsettling and ultimately uplifting film about the battle of freedom against fascism. These same themes are explored with much more sober tones in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, in a way that only this legendary director could express.
Warner Brothers surprised everyone with the billion dollar hit, Joker, which has managed to disrupt the status quo where superhero movies are concerned and has maybe broken a spell of sorts by making something that is unquestionably disturbing and brilliant all at once. They also have Just Mercy, which has landed on President Obama’s list of his favorite films of 2019.
These impeccable films are competing with a dazzling array from Netflix, A24, STX, Neon, and Lionsgate, each of them turning out work that matches anything the big studios can do. That’s something worth noting.
- Netflix has come to play. Even though Netflix had a major contender last year with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, they are back in big way with four of the year’s best films: Martin Scorsese’s epic The Irishman, about the lonely road of a hitman who sacrifices his relationship with his daughter for his relationship with the mob; Craig Brewer’s marvelous Dolemite Is My Name, about the spirit of entrepreneurship in the black community, depicting Rudy Ray Moore’s rise as realized by the great Eddie Murphy in a career-defining role; Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes, which is catching a last minute surge as more and more people see it; and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, which deconstructs his painful divorce.
- The internet is still the internet and there will be shitstorms. Where will they come from? What will they be about? Will the shortened season minimize them? Will the outcry about (no) women push a film into the race? If no films by women are included, how much more controversy will it create?
Why can’t the Oscars have a host? Because every joke and joker now comes under scrutiny, scanned by the collective to find one offended person or many offended people and if so, then all are offended and thus, the Academy will pay the price. Humor, at its best, is offensive. Otherwise, why bother? And that’s exactly what they’ve done at the Oscars: fear of offending one person and therefore all people has eliminated the host, either because no one can pass the test of having lived a perfect life with perfect opinions, or because the jokes might potentially offend. It’s not that no great hosts exist; it’s that none of the best candidates wants to sign up for the grief.
You really have to be Ricky Gervais, who is the Cats of awards hosts — meaning, he can offend liberally because he always does and doesn’t care. Twitter can’t touch him. They can try, as they often do, but ultimately in hiring him in the first place the Globes are basically saying, “you know you want to watch this because it will be entertaining.” Sure, we’re going to offend people and Twitter will implode, but hey. The ratings will be jamming.
But the Academy can’t hire someone like that. There are too many careers on the line. They have thousands of members and those members will be held accountable for the past behavior of members and for whatever might tumble out of the mouths of potential Oscar hosts. So here we are. Listen to Twitter or ignore Twitter — it isn’t going anywhere. Take the good with the bad and good luck figuring out which is which. One could argue is part of the reason why Little Women landed on its feet and has a real shot at a nomination. Without Twitter, it might have not gotten the same kind of advocacy.
- Where will the Best Picture winner come from? Cannes, where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Parasite launched? Venice, where Joker won the Golden Lion? Telluride, where Marriage Story and Ford v Ferrari launched? Toronto, where Knives Out launched and where Jojo Rabbit won the People’s Choice Award? New York, where The Irishman premiered? Or none of the above — perhaps a late breaking film like 1917?
- History will be made if Parasite wins Best Picture, as it will be the first Foreign Language film to win in both the International Film Category and the Best Picture category. If The Irishman wins, that will be the first win for Netflix, and proof positive that the game has completely changed. If 1917 wins, it will be the first time a film that went unseen during festival season won Best Picture since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby.
Can you think of any other major factors in play this year? No matter which way we choose to look at things, it all starts tomorrow. Hear the engines revving? Strap in.