If we look close enough and listen hard enough to the films that resonate, maybe we can spot the ones that will last three months from now as Oscar voters nail them down. Probably many voters will see this as a weak year for Hollywood, or the year they have to finally abandon theatrical altogether and embrace streaming as a valid platform for cinema delivery. But one thing the brutal circumstance of this year has done more than anything else is remove much of the hype around awards season and forced us to look at the films themselves.
Oscar season up until this year has really been a lot like that scene in The Devil’s Wear Prada when Miranda Priestly explains how the tastemakers of fashion have influence that trickles down to the general public.
Yes, the idea is that Oscar voters select movies chosen for them by “the people in this room” from a pile of stuff. That system is still humming along as though nothing has really changed. The same people (like me) are predicting films the same way we always have, like we are the ones who get to decide. The certainty involved is interesting, considering we haven’t ever lived through a year like this one — and it’s been a while since the Oscars were held in late March, as they were up until around 2003. That date change shifted the Oscar race one month earlier and effectively placed the peak heat of the race in the months of October, November and December, rather than January and February.
Now, January is the new November. We’re just about to enter Oscar season where in recent years it’s been mostly over by now. But old habits die hard.
I may be one of only a few other people who remember what the Oscar race was like before it became about the “people in this room from a pile of stuff.” I remember when the whole year played out and then Oscar season started. This year, they’re being held on April 25th. The last time in living memory when Oscar Night was that late was the year Patton won Best Picture, on April 15th, 1971.
Studios are therefore pushing some of their major players to mid February, like Searchlight is doing with Nomadland. A few movies have yet to be screened at all, like Judas and the Black Messiah, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and Netflix’s Malcolm and Marie. So we’ll have to wait and see whether those films hit their mark or not.
In an ideal world, this year would bust up the well-oiled machine and allow for a wide variety of films to be let in the door. We’re not quite there yet, partly because Hollywood is still in the grips of what might be best described as a kind of a “Woke Scare,” which is like the Red Scare only it’s about monitoring films for potentially “problematic” concepts and themes, or perhaps the casting is “too white” or the directors are male, or someone involved has a history of “problematic” behavior. Twitter is the judge and jury in these trials, but no one wants to be seen as complicit – thus, they could likely vote accordingly.
Movie bloggers and critics are modulating for this potential blowback with their choices and predictions. We’re all predicting the Oscars using the same lens. In an ordinary year we might pick a movie Oscar voters would likely go for, given what we know of the Academy’s taste. This year, we compensate for the “Woke Scare” and we think, “this is the movie they might go for if they want to send a message that they are not racists or sexists or transphobes.” 2020 was, after all, the year the Academy announced eligibility guidelines regarding inclusivity in productions and narratives going forward. That means many Academy members will likely be voting from a place of defending themselves from potential attacks.
This year makes that really easy since there are an abundance of films directed by lots of women, people of color, LGBTQ filmmakers with inclusive casts and themes. It’s virtually guaranteed the acting nominees will not be all white, as they so often have been in the past, including last year. There is some chatter, in the year of Black Lives Matter, about whether or not a black director will be nominated and some have speculated this might mean Spike Lee or George C. Wolfe gets in. Some voters will decide that they not only want a woman but also a black director in there to prevent blowback.
But there is another thing that unites so many of the films that could become Best Picture nominees this year, and that is that each of them tells an aspect of what America looked like before this past year changed everything.
Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, the Best Picture frontrunner, can be read as part of the populism that rose up in 2011 after the Bush economic collapse, and ran all through Trump’s presidency. Although Nomadland leaves overt politics completely out of it, it’s hard to watch that movie and not think about Trump – or at least those who came to see Trump as their savior. My own theory is that Trump saw that Bernie Sanders was striking a chord with the “white working class” and appropriated that for himself, knowing that it wasn’t something Hillary Clinton – or any mainstream Democrat – would touch with the same frustrations and resentments.
The folks in Nomadland are living through so much of what both Bernie Sanders and eventually, Trump spoke to: abandoned factories, income inequality, a lack of a stable future for the middle of America. Democrats often seem to many to be focused almost exclusively on big city issues, which are different from the problems those who grew up in small town in rural America have. These are the “forgotten Americans” that drove — and still drive — so much of Trump’s base. Nomadland does not go there even a little bit. It has no political statements to make other than to depict the hollowed out world that free trade has left behind. It makes a bigger point with how Amazon and Walmart are somehow the main places for employment, given that both are operated by some of the country’s – and the world’s – richest people. The Walmart model is lowered prices for goods made in other countries sold to Americans whose measure of success is how much they can buy on a budget. The Amazon model does much the same, by aiming at the next highest economic tier – but they both eliminate the locally-owned middleman stores, the mom and pop shops that used to line Main Street. Everything anyone wants and needs are now in big box stores or listed online, and a piece of every necessity and luxury sold goes to Jeff Bezos and the Walton family, who always get a take.
Other than giving several thousand struggling people seasonal employment to get through the year, what else does that do for the people in Anytown, USA? One side of populism speaks to this. Another side is even darker, with even deeper roots, and it’s this message that permeates David Fincher’s Mank — still, to my mind, unequivocally the best film of 2020. Mank is about the hucksterism and rabble-rousing populism which swallows up actual populism, which counts on xenophobia and demonization to drive support — blame immigrants, or the homeless, or black city dwellers and you can make more privileged voters see their lot in life as someone else’s problem. This message resonates loudly and clearly in Mank.
Why does this matter? Well because that is what William Randolph Hearst was – a fake populist. Like Trump, Hearst was a rich man pretending to be a man of the people, which is how Charles Foster Kane portrays himself. That is why the Upton Sinclair storyline is intrinsic to Mank’s motivation. This is a film about how the Hollywood dream machine used the same sort of xenophobia to fool people into voting against the real populist and falling for the fake populist. This is also why the backdrop of this film highlights Hitler and Nazi Germany. This is yet another reason why Mank is such a great film and a film for 2020 – however hard it is to get there, the movie is, like all of Fincher films, a python’s coil. Expand out from the main story of Upton Sinclair and Hearst and you get Kane. Expand out from that and you get Hollywood and the propaganda aparatus of the studios. Expand out from that and you get how the media empire made Trump and how they fed off of Trump for four years.
Hillbilly Elegy is a film about the forgotten people that populism seeks to speak to, but if you’ll notice the critics tore it apart, even though it’s about the some of same people that Nomadland is about. Some will say one is a great movie and the other isn’t. Some will say one is protected because it wasn’t directed by a white male. Or maybe they just don’t like the well-known politics of JD Vance. Someday people will look back on this year, at the Trump era, and see these three films as really digging into the knot of why populism often rises in countries in the throes of severe economic distress and political division.
Paul Greengrass’ expansive News of the World (and one of the best films of the year in my opinion, and currently being written off by the “people in this room from a pile of stuff”) is really about how much it matters that the storytellers are honest and not exploitive of fanning the flames of fear and hate. It takes place just after the Civil War and in a country grappling still seething with white supremacy and violent struggles for dominance. The film isn’t explicitly political but its point is made all the same. A lot of people who have just lived through 2020 can find solace in the kind of relief this movie affords at the end. We need to have our hearts healed and not many films can do that. This one does.
Of course, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom also speaks to the moment loudly and clearly. Writer August Wilson’s desire to write about black characters and black history rarely depicted in theater, film, or literature. These are characters with vivid inner lives talking about philosophy and exploring sexuality and fate. It might be the best film in the wake of Black Lives Matter because it shows definitively the lives that so often go unseen. That Chadwick Boseman screams at God’s injustice the year he died only adds to the film’s relevancy. Taking place decades later, Da 5 Bloods is explores another untold dimension of America’s involvement in Vietnam with a powerful lead performance by Delroy Lindo. Regina King’s One Night in Miami is long conversation about the role of black leaders and artists in a country in transition. What better way to reckon with this past year than to look at how these icons might ruminate and navigate through such a tumultuous time in America’s past – just as 2020 is.
Aaron Sorkin decided to tell the story of the Trial of the Chicago 7 in 2020 of all years, having absolutely no idea what was about to erupt on the streets of this country. This film takes us back to a time very much like 2020, minus the pandemic, when protesters clashed with police, and eventually culminated with the Chicago 7 defending themselves from going to prison. With a big cast full of big stars, Chicago 7 is a timely film but it’s also the kind of films Oscar voters have traditionally gone for – lots of actors, big set pieces, meaningful story. If you’re looking for one mainstream film in the race this year, this might be it.
If you look back on this year through the lens of Promising Young Woman you will have absolutely no doubt what we’d just been through with the Me Too era and how so many women are still feeling angry about it. That film, controversial though it may be, lays out a moral fable with a specific point of view and makes no bones about it and does it with a vicious wink. It is chilling and up-to-the-minute timely.
Even though Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is not overtly political — it isn’t even divisive — it is still low key about the idea of what it means to be American. How does that get defined? We are a country of immigrants and a melting pot of different cultures. This film tells that POV from a Korean family moving to Arkansas to become farmers. Chung tells his story of living two different cultures but becoming distinctly American. Since immigration has been such an important topic this year it is worth remembering how for so many all over the world America is still the land of reinvention and opportunity. Minari reminded me of that, and why I love this country so much, flaws and all.
We are about to go through the era when Baby Boomers, the children of the Greatest Generation, are entering old age and many will begin to slip into dementia and various other illnesses. That generational dynamic of a very influential generation is, I think, explored in films like The Father where Anthony Hopkins is trying to navigate his own dementia. And Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks – about a daughter who is coming to terms with who her father is. While On the Rocks isn’t about the effects of old age it is about one generation reconciling its attitudes with another. Coppola isn’t quite my generation – I am older – but I believe we are both Generation X, the kids of Baby Boomers. We are in our 40s and 50s now and are living in the wake of the Boomer generation. I feel something very resonant in the way On the Rocks explores the differences in our generations.
There are other films about other questions that are a little more under the radar than these films – like Kevin MacDonald’s The Mauritanian about whatever the hell is going on at Guantanamo Bay and Rod Lurie’s The Outpost about the quagmire of Afghanistan. As much as we’d like to pretend we’ve moved on from wars in the Middle East, there is still so much to work through with those wars and The Outpost serves as a reminder.
Netflix’s Midnight Sky, which is really about climate change and the dread of what it might do to the planet. The Prom, also Netflix, is about tolerance in the red states for LGBTQ youth.
Here are my current Best Picture predictions–just for fun, from a pile of stuff:
News of the World
Promising Young Woman
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
The Trial of the Chicago 7
One Night in Miami
On the Rocks
Da 5 Bloods
Let Them All Talk
** I will add that, considering it is not the strongest and most competitive year there is a chance for an Animated or a Documentary film to break into Best Picture, where there might not otherwise be. So keep an eye out for that.
Movies I’ve not yet seen:
Judas and the Black Messiah
The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Malcolm and Marie