The new normal of the Best Picture race is that it is both more insular and more democratized. The majority of people will be able to freely watch the contenders if they choose, and things will get very tribal very fast. If you thought Oscar teams were intense before, where only the bloggers and critics were in on it, now it will be expanded to include all of Twitter – and that is going to be surreal. What will be motivating people, I suspect and predict, will have less to do with how good a film is but rather, how good supporting each film makes people feel. In other words, if social media is designed to broadcast our identities out to the world, what we choose to support defines who we are.
It’s important to remember that the race isn’t really going to get started in earnest until after New Year’s. Yes, that’s after October, after the election in November, after Christmas – after lockdown maybe hopefully? After a vaccine maybe hopefully? A lot of stuff is going to change. We are all still conditioned to see the race the way we’ve been seeing it for the past ten years since the date was pushed back one month (this was around 2003). That means right now we are focused on the early contenders more than anything. We do not know what will happen in the next few months or even in April of next year when the Oscars are held.
As of now, Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland is the film to beat, I’d expect, given both who made it and its subject matter. The film is deserving on its own but no doubt supporting it will make people feel good because it will feel like activism and progress. Supporting that movie and the ascent of it means Hollywood and the Oscars are a little more equal and diverse and that helps Hollywood and the Oscars release some of the tension aimed their way. Thus, they could feel slightly more motivated in that direction. That’s only unless something unequivocal isn’t released to top it. But for now it has what it takes to go all the way.
It also seems, at least right now, that Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 will find a place in the Best Picture and Screenplay lineups, at the very least. It’s possible Sorkin lands in Director too but that one is less certain at the moment, given who is coming down the pike. But for now, it’s safe to put him there until other films are seen.
What Chicago 7 has going for it is that it’s driven by a strong ensemble of actors. Frank Langella is the standout, in my own opinion, but Eddie Redmayne is also memorable as Tom Hayden, as is Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman. But Langella has more of the script to chew through as opposed to the others who really are part of an ensemble work.
Chicago 7 is ideal because it reflects the ideology of the Rob Reiner left at the moment – in that they were part of the counterculture revolution of the 1960s and feel as though they are living through a repeat at the moment. So whatever feels “anti Trump” is going to do well with them. The Academy has gone through phases of really taking to overtly political and “preachy” films like this one and then also rejecting them for that reason. There was a long spell where any film deemed “preachy” would be dismissed. But I suspect we are not living through one of those moments. “The resistance” seems primed to embrace anything that seems like a “fuck you” to Trump and/or the GOP. Sorkin himself is clearly aiming in this direction when he has a lawyer refer to the Chicago 7 as the “radical left,” a term Trump uses often.
And remember, we are in an election year – one of the most intense elections in my lifetime. 1968 might have been another like that but that was the year before 1969 when the Manson family committed those gruesome murders using much of the same language of the counterculture – like cops are pigs, etc. And that pretty much killed off much of the 1960s. The 1970s took care of the rest and by 1980 everything swung right – politics and culture, at least enough to influence movies and music.
Seeing our right now as similar to 1968 is probably an argument for Trump to win again, as Nixon did back then but hey – you never know how it will turn out. The one thing we do know is how people react to the Chicago 7 will have much to do with how they see this election, the recent protests and the eventual outcome of November 3.
Nomadland has no such requirements. It is a film that mostly exists outside politics of Left Twitter, though it does speak to why someone like Trump rose at all. It shows those left behind by politics and left behind by the American economy who are existing on the fringes. Mostly, though, it is just a beautiful, moving story that will not alienate people by forcing them to take a side. That, along with the possibility of a film directed by a woman winning (only one has in 93 years) could prove a powerful motivator.
To that end, our radar will be especially attuned towards films directed by women & women of color. That will be a need that will have to be addressed considering it was an issue in the director race last year, and the fact that no women got in have partly motivated the inclusion requirements put in place. In other words, unless they make their choices diverse and inclusive they will be forced to do so. But last year’s offerings were not good enough to best the top five in that all of those nominated had won a major award heading into the race, whether the Golden Lion or the Golden Globe, etc.
But this year I expect it won’t turn out that way. Voters will align behind one name early and carry that name through the season and the first name that feels strong enough right now is Chloé Zhao. But Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks is about to screen and perhaps that will also be strong.
For now it seems like two safe bets for Best Picture right now are Nomadland and the Trial of the Chicago 7. But there have to be formal reviews of the latter to compete with the raves for the former. Obviously, money will play no role in this year’s race.