The Oscar race is rattling along like a car in the desert you had to use because your more reliable car broke down. It looks a little bit different, it rides a little bit different – it isn’t the one you counted on but it gets you where you need to go.
Where do we need to go? We need to get to the endpoint where the best films of the year are ostensibly chosen from a pile of movies that isn’t as big to begin with. This year, though, isn’t really about the movies exactly – partly because there simply aren’t that many of them, but also because of the recent events, the way Hollywood and the Oscars are changing, and what the many voices are telling the industry about which direction it should head towards. It is about how the awards race defines itself, and what the industry should be going forward.
Overall, this latest awards dump tells me a few things. Like what we already knew: Nomadland is coming in hot, along with Minari. Also Sound of Metal is resonating across the board, it looks like. Both Riz Ahmed and Carey Mulligan are strong contenders in the acting department. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is getting a bigger boost so far than I thought it would. The crossover films that made both AFI and NBR are:
Da 5 Bloods
Sound of Metal
I will have to build a comparison chart to see what that means in terms of past Oscars but overall I think these are showing broader support than some others.
Many people in their 20s, for instance, might look at this year’s lineup and very much see an awards race that reflects their ideology. Older people might look at it and wonder whether or not this was overkill.
Either way, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a long time coming, in fact. As weird as this year might seem – and there is no denying it — it was equally weird that for 80 years or so the Academy was dominated by white men behind the camera and white people in front of it. THAT was just as weird as what might be called “the year without white men.”
I mean that in the best of ways. The knee-jerk reaction to this observation is to say that I’m suggesting the movies that are chosen are ONLY chosen because they were directed by anyone other than a white male, but for the few times movies by and about white people show up. I don’t think that’s true. I think people pick what resonates with them and this year stories about people other than white men appear to be resonating more.
So why even comment on it at all? Because it’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. No one wants to be seen as a person even noticing it at all, let alone talking about it on a website. So most just sort of do that thing they would do if people said the Emperor’s new clothes were very fine indeed. These voters, so far anyway, are making a statement without a doubt, and one that they clearly hope will be recognized.
In other words, if the continual complaints about the industry is that they only award mostly white men for Best Director and Best Picture, if only one woman has won Best Director in 93 years and no black director ever has, then something has to change. This is a good year to make that statement given both the abundance of diverse offerings, and the limited selection on offer overall.
Let’s go through them one by one. The AFI jury this year was comprised of (according to the Hollywood Reporter):
This year’s juries were chaired by AFI board of directors member Jeanine Basinger (chair emerita and founder of the film studies department at Wesleyan University) and AFI board of trustees vice chair Richard Frank (former Disney TV chair, Walt Disney Studios president, and president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences). Other jury members included Debbie Allen, Cynthia Erivo, Rian Johnson, David Mandel, Marlee Matlin, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Wes Studi and Lulu Wang; authors and scholars representing prestigious universities with recognized motion picture arts and TV programs; film historians Mark Harris, Molly Haskell and Leonard Maltin; the AFI Board of Trustees; and film and TV critics from media outlets like the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, TV Guide and The Washington Post.
The wording makes it hard to know whether this reveals the total number of people who actually voted on the AFI jury. The most notable omission from this list, at least going by the current selections pundits and critics have been circling, were The Father (which maybe not have been eligible), Promising Young Woman (which was eligible), and News of the World.
Because the AFI jury includes industry members and academics, and not just critics, they do represent a kind of select group of tastemakers that, I think, gives you a decent enough idea of what films are making a mark. It is about as ideal a list as you could possibly imagine in terms of defining film awards as fair and equitable.
Next let’s move on to the Spirit Awards where, just as with the Gothams, this year they have a specific focus on women film directors. There is no denying it. Any men that get in are not white men.
None of the films for Best Picture were directed by white men.
For the Spirits, I could not find who their nominating committee members are, just this offered on their website:
Who decides which films/series are nominated?
Film Independent assembles nominating committees comprised of passionate, working members of the film community. Committees typically include a mix of film critics, programmers, producers, directors, writers, cinematographers, editors and actors, as well as past Spirit Award nominees and winners, and members of Film Independent’s Board of Directors. Film Independent staff are not voting members of any of our nominating committees. We have separate committees for American Narrative, International and Documentary films.
Either way, we still don’t know if awards will go to one person and one film mainly, or whether they will be split up across the board.
Finally, we get to the National Board of Review. Their selection is even more mysterious than the Spirit Awards. It’s hard to nail down any names at all in terms of who picks the winners.
From the NBR my main take-away was that it puts Spike Lee and Da 5 Bloods in the game, and potentially sets up Carey Mulligan for Promising Young Woman and Riz Ahmed with Sound of Metal to maybe be early favorites for the acting awards.
That Mank or Chicago 7 or Ma Rainey were left off doesn’t tell me much, just as Midnight Sky being in doesn’t tell me much. These seem fairly random, which is especially typical of the NBR. A pattern won’t emerge until we get to the Globes and then to the industry guilds to see what films are being chosen by which groups.
We’re still not to the point we see in any given year where we see awards that PREDICT what the Oscars will be. We’re still more or less with the influential stage of the awards race. That makes sense because we’ve now awakened the sleeping giant – and that means people will start talking about the Oscars, about movies, about streaming, about inclusivity, about women, about BIPOC – the whole nine yards.
Important things to remember at this early stage:
What gets in matters more than what’s left out. The doors slam shut on many hopefuls for good when the PGA gives its final ten. Until then, hope springs eternal.
The next big drop isn’t until February 3, when we hear from the Golden Globes finally. Then the SAG nominations February 4th. We still have such a long way to go, my friends. All of February, all of March and most of April. Hold it steady. Just imagine we’re on the Titanic and there are no visible waves. What could possibly go wrong?