“The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.”
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
Humans have always needed stories. They help us make sense of our lives. There have always been people who felt compelled to tell those stories, whether it was around a fire, passed down from generations, whether it was a quill or a pen, whether it was color or black and white. Whether a book or a poem or a painting or a song – something about the way we think and see and love and laugh and live and die is wrapped up in the stories we tell.
The Oscar race, ideally, is about awarding the stories that resonate. Sometimes they happen to be the best movies, the ones that stand the test of time. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes people can’t really explain why it is they have an experience with a film that others share. This year, the voters across the board seem to be motivated by the desire to effect cultural change.
But 2020 is a specific time and place. The films that resonated, the films that lasted through months and months of reviews and critics awards and the streaming viewing platforms — they remain for a reason. Here are the films and the moments that resonated with me.
Did we know in the beginning of 2020 what a year it would turn out to be? We didn’t. We had no idea. We thought the worst thing we’d be living through was a contentious presidential election. But then came the fires, the pandemic, the protests and then January 6th. The idea was that the entire system was suddenly a threat – that it was all corrupt and anyone involved in it was corrupt unless they grabbed a hammer and started destroying everything. That is when the high profile firings started. At first it seemed like the people calling out others into the public square to be shamed and humiliated were the ones with the power.
But as Coca Cola started broadcasting how to “be less white” and Oreo Cookie was weighing in about trans rights on Twitter and Disney was firing Gina Carano and the New York Times was dumping Don McNeil — then it all started to come into focus for me. This wasn’t activism. This wasn’t a revolution. This was the very powerful holding onto their power with fall guys. Right and left the hammer came down – it was Jeff Bezos banning books and taking Parler offline to show just how much power he had to meet the demands of the target demo.
Maybe it was just me but I really did see for the first time this year who really controls this country, and how that power is being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. That is why populism often arises when the needs of the working class aren’t being met. The films that remain in this race, I think, are films that speak to this in one way or another.
When I think about the year we just lived through I think most about Mank. Mank is a film about the great risk in telling the truth but how that truth must be told anyway. This past year so much of the truth was buried. Outright lies were flagrantly told, but there was also deception and delusion in how the press decided to deliver the news and at a time when we can all curate our own reality. Too many big tech giants control too much of what we see, read, learn. It is repeated throughout Mank that Herman J. Mankiewicz is regarded as “just the court jester.” He surely served that role in Hollywood as he wrote and ghostwrote scripts, gambled away any money he might have made, and makes people laugh with his brash wit, especially people like William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies.
One must never underestimate what it takes to lay bare the truth, as Mank does in this film. It isn’t just that he writes the great script for Citizen Kane that would win him an Oscar, and that it is arguably the greatest screenplay ever written, but it’s also that he risks everything to tell that truth: That Hearst was a hypocrite who sold himself as a populist savior for the working class while he was in bed with the powers that be to screw over the people. One of the best through-lines of the film are Mank’s exchanges with Irving Thalberg. First to mock him for running a movie studio but being stuck on how to use propaganda to sell ideas to the people, and then to confront him for doing just that — except now using xenophobia to drive votes away from the socialist candidate. If you read up on that election, by the way, you’ll see that it was a time of uprisings just like the 1960s and just like now where workers during the Depression were constantly fighting for their rights.
To answer the question of why Citizen Kane is such a great movie is to understand the power of art to deliver hard truths in ways no other medium can. I’ve seen Mank so many times throughout 2020 and every time I watch it I think about something else about this past year, why it feels so relevant to right now. What I keep coming back to is the extremely wealthy using art and artists to manipulate how people think. There’s a line in the film that says if you repeat a lie over and over again sooner or later people believe it’s true. This echoes a line in Citizen Kane which says “You provide the prose poems and I’ll provide the war.”
Hearst was said to have helped start the Spanish American War in order to get good headlines, and again, the Hearst model for journalism has suddenly become the norm. Citizen Kane exposed Hearst — but it wasn’t specifically about him. It was about the American system that builds and supports tycoons. Mank sees the absurdity in all of it, and the two Finchers (Jack the writer and David the director) deliver that absurdity by filling in the blanks of what exchange might have occurred that would inspire Mank to blow the lid off the joint.
In the end it comes down to the truth – why it is worth risking a whole career for then and now. In 2020 we’re all so afraid of it. We self-censor at every turn for fear of being called out or shunned or shamed. Reporters are afraid. Artists are afraid. Filmmakers are afraid. But here is a guy who was not afraid. Who took his one shot, helped create a masterpiece, and won an Oscar for it. That is why it resonates in 2020. And why it will continue to resonate far beyond this year.
Nomadland resonated, I think, because Chloe Zhao is a female writer/director for sure. But it’s more than that. It is about what it’s felt like this past year to be locked inside. Since the film is about people who do not live in traditional homes and aren’t rooted anywhere watching Nomadland takes us to a place of isolation that does reflect how so many of us are feeling right now. She has a love and a reverence for that which is real – she isn’t hunched over a computer furiously tweeting angry hashtags, addicted to the algorithm like a slot machine junkie in Vegas. She’s watching the sun rise and set. She is swimming in fresh water streams and feeling the ocean mist on her face. You know, REAL LIFE? Nomadland is therefore a film you feel and experience. That has connected voters who can get behind a movie that makes them all feel the same way at once.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 – I’ve always been an Aaron Sorkin fan, going back to a Few Good Men, An American President, and of course The Social Network. For me, that he wrote a script this year and made it into a movie is a great pleasure. No one can write dialogue like he does and to have a whole movie with so many characters speaking Sorkin, I think that is what has driven love for this film throughout the year. We are all so familiar with that rat-a-tat-tat and how deep down his passion for activism and morality bleeds through his work, lending an anchor to hold us all in one place and have our perspective aimed in the same direction.
Promising Young Woman – Somehow, for a film that is a tragedy, this is still a fun movie to watch. As many times as I’ve seen it I still enjoy Cassie’s journey through the film every step of the way. I think because writer/director Emerald Fennell never loses her sense of humor and satire. Though it has made me cry every time, there is something beautiful about the ending, no doubt because of the song she chooses. It’s the heart necklace, the text messages, the painful goodbye – it just plants itself deeply and doesn’t let go. It is a Me Too movie without a doubt – and for that, it likely speaks to and for a generation. But it is also just a great movie top to bottom and one I never seem to get tired of watching.
Minari – Lee Isaac Chung decided to take us to the wilds of Arkansas in a manufactured home where his Korean-American family planted roots to become fruit and vegetable farmers. It is a coming of age story about a grandson learning how to love and appreciate his grandmother. It is a story of an impatient and frustrated wife learning to be patient and wait out her husband’s dream of farm life. It is about a husband wrestling with the land and keeping a dream alive even when the money starts to run out. And finally, it is about the American dream we all still believe. We have to. That is what this country is. It is about anyone coming from anywhere to make their lives anything they want them to be.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – I probably haven’t seen a performance like Chadwick Boseman’s ever in my life. With an equally transformative performance by Viola Davis, this is a film that has earned its ensemble nomination with great performances across the board. But with the beloved and talented Boseman we are treated to one last moment watching an actor give the performance of his life. Many have tried to get there but most can’t fathom it. I think this is a country in love with him and his memory and I think that is much of why the film continues to stick with us.
News of the World – there is no doubt that this, the only big studio film in the race, needed a big screen, an audience and the shock and awe of box office. But if you watch it closely you’ll see so much of what we just lived through in a country torn apart by Civil War. The “news” in this film must be brought on horseback from town to town, and the responsibility could not be higher. We’re living through a time where our own news is a matter of choice. We can believe any reality we want and find stories to back it up. But here is a character whose job is to care about bringing the news that is real and that matters. It’s also just a beautifully filmed movie with an uplifting ending that I found a relief after such a hard year.
One Night in Miami – while there are so many memorable scenes in this movie, awful and painful scenes of blatant racism, there are also moments of conversations between actors that Regina King captures so well. What resonated, I think, with this film – other than the historical importance of it – was King’s own POV evident throughout. It is how she shoots the film, how she communicates with actors to get the right performances – it’s evident in every frame.
Hillbilly Elegy – I am a sucker for lost causes and the way the critics and film twitter went after this movie made me angry enough to quietly wish it gets in for Best Picture. It is about making something of your life out of abuse and drug addiction. But it is also about towns the government has left behind. It is one of the most authentic and revealing stories about the year we just lived through but one would have to open one’s mind to know that. I think Glenn Close should win for her performance in this movie and I hope Amy Adams also gets nominated.
The Father – It is the pure power of the performances, specifically Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman that drives this film, but it resonates because so many of us are going through similar experiences with parents who are fading away from dementia. This movie gets it so right and never gives easy answers. It is terrifying to watch and to experience. But it’s a wonderful film even still because there is still a flicker of a person there, however fast his light is dimming.
Other performances that stood out for me include Ellen Burstyn’s powerful monologue in Pieces of a Woman, Daniel Kaluuya throughout Judas and the Black Messiah, Robin Wright in Land, Mads Mikkelsen in Another Round which, along with The Mauritanian is picking up a wave of enthusiasm from the BAFTA. Riz Ahmed is a genius in Sound of Metal – the performance of his career.
It’s been an incredibly long and exhausting year. The Oscars will always be about capturing a moment in time – not necessarily about awarding the films that will stand the test of it. It will always be about how we revere people, how we turn them into heroes and how that reverence plays into how we watch their movies. The only thing that changes is the criteria for what bestows the halo for a season. The Oscar race usually flies by in a minute, but this year it has almost overstayed its welcome. It’s not over yet. But through all of it we must remember to stop and appreciate those who still have the courage, the desire and the support to keep making movies.