If you take a look at the critics lists for this year, with one or two notable exceptions you will see what happens when you remove entirely the whole purpose films were invented in the first place: to fill theaters. For critics, not all that much has changed, except the selection has narrowed.
If I were to summarize the movies I see critics going for mostly, of those that would qualify in the Best Picture category, it would go something like this:
Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always
Promising Young Woman
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
They seem to be going for fewer movies like Mank, Chicago 7, News of the World, Hillbilly Elegy, Tenet, The Father, Sound of Metal, The Prom (although that one does surprisingly well with critics), The Outpost — any film that would have likely done well in theaters is absent from the majority of the critics lists. The pinnacle of offerings appears to be Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, which is designated for the Emmys, not the Oscars. But in the surreality of right now it rises to the top – that’s because films aren’t being judged by how they’re seen on movie screens but rather how they’re seen on television.
Was a time when Oscar voters were encouraged to only see movies on the big screen because that was how audiences were going to see them. Now, audiences are seeing them – even the big splashy blockbusters – on their TV screens. It has thrown the whole thing into a kind of subdued chaos.
No one really wants to talk about how weird it all is.
One thing that seems certain this year, at least so far. There is likely going to be a disconnect between critics season and Oscar season, which is more or less how the Oscars used to be before they pushed their date back by one month from late March to late February.
New York and LA critics are announcing this month, in fact in a couple of days. That is way too soon to be really all that influential in the Oscar race since they’re not even going to start voting until February. I think, where critics are concerned, there is a mixed bag on that. On the one hand, many clearly do want to be influential, not because they care so much about the Oscars but because they want to direct what defines “best” in a given year.
On the other hand, many decry the Oscars as being a pointless ceremony that has nothing to do with film appreciation. There has always been a bit of a rivalry going on between those who make films and those who critique films. This was illustrated in Ratatouille.
This year has upended everything – how films build buzz for the Oscars, the glamour of in-person screenings with q&as afterwards. So many Oscar winners were built on in-person appearances, like Bong Joon-Ho being everywhere and at every party last year. But not just that – stars have charisma. It is nearly impossible to resist that kind of magnetic halo effect. It somehow connects you emotionally to the people involved because they’re sitting right in front of you. No doubt, by now, Academy voters are immune to such charms since they’re inundated with them. But bloggers aren’t. Critics aren’t. Golden Globe voters aren’t. Put them in a room with Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep you can talk voters into almost anything. An Academy voter I know told me she only goes if she knows they’re serving a full meal.
All of that is gone.
Our usual method of predicting the Oscars is to lean heavily on how the critics shape the consensus but that’s because there isn’t a lot of breathing room between critics season and industry voter season. This year, all of that could change.
Thus, I must continue to look at the Oscar race as the films I think will appeal to a wider audience as opposed to those that dazzle an increasingly insular niche.
The critics, and maybe the industry, have clearly made an effort to lift up any non-white, non-male director who made a good movie. If I could find one commonality in most of the lists and the awards I’ve seen thus far, that is it. They are hoping to push inclusivity and equity at a faster pace than the industry has, thus far, allowed.
Even still, being a big time director still matters in the industry, even if it doesn’t with film critics. Where film critics will fall over the chair for Charlie Kaufman, for instance (especially after he wrote that book lampooning them, which was genius heading into awards season – now they wouldn’t dare pan his film, I’m Thinking About Ending Things). Oscar/industry voters, however, will have no such fear. They aren’t critics, after all. That makes me think they are still going to be more inclined towards at least watching the films of Paul Greengrass, Ron Howard, David Fincher, Lee Daniels, etc. While Best Director doesn’t really predict Best Picture anymore, they are still regarded highly among their peers.
Since we’ve never lived through a year like this one, it’s anyone guess how it will go but there will be films that make the jump from this phase to the next one, like Nomadland and Minari.
What I want to find out, as we navigate through this year, is simply this: is this a viable system? Can actual movies in actual movie theaters be sacrificed? Will people watch any of these films? Can they focus completely on them without multi-tasking – reaching for their phones, going on Facebook, texting, sexting. Can they sit there riveted as they would in a screening where there is no escape?
I remember how many walkouts I would routinely see during any given screening. That is one reason to have the celebrity-packed q&as – to ensure people stick around until the bitter end. In the privacy of their own homes, will they simply click off the movie if they are bored or annoyed by it? No one will ever know. They can do as they please.
I personally do not believe the Oscars can thrive if they bottleneck the way the film critics have done. If their year-end list is full of head scratchers to your average Joe. Film critics pick the movies they like but then those movies drop into oblivion never to be seen or heard from ever again. At least with the Oscars, the movies are presented with much pomp and circumstance beyond likes and retweets on Twitter.
This year will test the power of voices online. It will test the patience of Academy voters. It will test the fortitude of the industry to withstand the inevitable call-outs and attacks on Twitter. It will ask us to ask ourselves what the point of movies are in the first place. What point do they have in our lives when we have so many other content offerings, from Youtube to Snapchat to TicTok to cable to Netflix to Amazon, Hulu, Apple, HBO Max – and now, Warner Bros all at the ready with one clickety click.
Can the Oscars themselves hold onto the tradition of what my friend David Carr called MOVIE MOVIES. Why you show up, pay your money to sink into a dark room with other people as a communal experience? Can the Oscars be the hero of this century-old story as they shift and evolve to meet the demands of a generation that has come to define “good” not by whether people in my generation or the generation before think defines good, but their own brand of good – are the actors casting appropriately? Does it offend or insult any group? Does it offer gender diversity and inclusion? This is what they want to know. Is that entertainment or is it a kind of new religion?
I have to think, and I have to hope, that the standouts this year will not be singularly niche and too remote for audiences. The idea that people should “educate” themselves is one thing. The idea that Hollywood should entertain them is another. The business of Hollywood is a little of both: art AND entertainment.
To my mind, on the eve of New York and LA, the frontrunners for Best Picture remain the same as they did before the top ten lists emerged:
Nomadland – Chloe Zhao’s lovely moody meditation on those who choose to isolate themselves from traditional humanity and take to the road. It’s the music, it’s the cinematography, is the sadness on Frances McDormand’s face and it is ultimately Zhao’s sensibilities that make this the piece of cinematic poetry it is.
Mank – The surprise of Mank is that it is less about making Citizen Kane and more about why anyone would write that screenplay. It had to be personal to be that good and personal couldn’t just mean getting thrown out of a dinner party. It had to mean disillusionment – when you see someone for who they really are, when you see yourself for who you really are. There is a lot going on in Mank and if you blink you miss it. If you go back in for a second or a third or a fourth look, it reveals itself petal by petal … If you’re looking at Netflix to bring the cinematic goods you can’t get better than Mank.
News of the World – Still the only actual studio film in the running, bravely releasing itself in a year where it really needed the movie theaters. It doesn’t seem like there will be an occasion to experience this with an audience but that is what you want. It is built for that communal experience like no other film this year. The film isn’t really even about a newsreader taking care of an orphaned child – it’s about the importance of storytelling, the importance of getting truthful, honest news that isn’t propaganda. Hanks gives one of his best performances by a long way. If it isn’t a critics movie, then here’s hoping the industry recognizes it.
Minari – When we talk about coming together as a country Minari might seem like an odd choice to do that. But really, it is about what it means to be an American for many immigrants who came here to live the American dream. In this case, making a farm work in rural Arkansas for a Korean family. It’s a brilliantly written and directed story about putting down roots and finding home.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Aaron Sorkin’s film is another that needed the big broad canvas of a movie theater. It isn’t just that it’s a timely film about political upheaval in 1968, it is about Sorkin himself – what a great writer he is and how much actors love speaking his dialogue. This is an actor’s movie, to be sure, and one that will remind many what they’ve been fighting for.
On the Rocks – if you clear the fog of critics season you’ll find one of the few truly feelgood films in the lineup, which doesn’t take itself too seriously and features one of Bill Murray’s best performances. Apple is giving it a major push, which makes me think it definitely has a shot with industry voters – especially given that many will tune in just to see Bill Murray. It’s also a film that does the heart good.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – if Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis are heading in as frontrunners, this film will likely and easily land in the Best Picture lineup. But we’ve already got two from Netflix – with others on deck for possible inclusion, like Pieces of a Woman or The Prom (which the critics appear to really like and will get a bit of a bump from the Globes).
The Father – actors will dig it and Academy voters will relate to it. That it isn’t making headway with critics as yet doesn’t make that much of a difference, especially this year. It still feels like one of the standouts. It is a heartbreaking story of a father and a daughter trying to navigate through his intensifying dementia.
One Night in Miami – this is another one the critics don’t seem to be giving the boost I thought they would. But I think actors are a whole different ballgame – they will admire Regina King’s work here, which is exceptional. It really is about a moment in history when Black America was at an inflection point. like The Father, it is based on a stage play, and those can be hit or miss with Oscar voters but both will be driven by the performances.
I’m not sure what would be the tenth, if there is a tenth, but there are plenty of offerings, like Promising Young Woman, Hillbilly Elegy (yes, despite critics throwing a fit the acting might drive the thing), and the upcoming The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
Who knows, my friends. We’re making it up as we go. We’ll have to write this down in hindsight and pick through the ashes of what will burn the town down in a few months.