At the pandemic Oscars, anything could happen. Here are the lessons from the nominations: The good, the bad and what needs fixing.
There was a moment last year, right around the time that Palm Springs arrived, where if you were thinking about whether the Academy Awards would happen in 2021, you might have wondered if this rinse-and-repeat romantic comedy might be the sort of thing that could wind up a best picture nominee. There are 9,000 eligible Oscar voters, none of whom is me, but Palm Springs had a seriousness of purpose and an undercurrent of rage — two people meet at a wedding; then, thanks to a time-space wormhole, keep meeting at that same wedding — that I found seductive. And given the rinse-and-repeating we've been doing all these months: predictive. It was a Metaphor of Its Moment.
Director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara understood how to merge a funny leading man (Andy Samberg) with an uninhibited character actor (Cristin Milioti) and broad comedy with the existential dread of science fiction. It was a dumb movie. It was shockingly emotional. Alas, it was also probably too bright, too absurd and released too early in the year for any voter's serious consideration. By March 15, nomination day, it had indeed gone unconsidered.
I had another wishful moment in the fall, after I saw the The Forty-Year-Old Version, a Netflix comedy that Radha Blank wrote and directed. This one starred Blank as a washed-up Harlem playwright whose midlife creative crisis has lured her into underground Brooklyn rap. It's a satire of New York's art scenes and of whatever Black authenticity is now supposed to be. It's also a bearhug of bygone American filmmaking priorities: intimacy, emotional truth, framing. The movie is shot almost entirely in black and white and demonstrates an abiding, stress-free nostalgia for the persona-driven romances of prime Woody Allen, for learning-to-crawl Spike Lee.
This is Blank's first film. And I won't say you can't occasionally tell. But it's more redolent with amateurishness than reeking of it. Blank more or less made a movie of her life, not the movie of her life. The thrill of watching is that it feels like the start of something exciting. Oscars-wise, of course, she's nominated for nothing.
Yet if there were ever a year for the academy to anoint a comedy about old-style moviemaking and old-school hip-hop, made by and starring a Black American woman, it would be the year in which all kinds of businesses and institutions were promising to be a little less exclusionary in their whiteness, to venture beyond the usual suspects, toward women. It would be the year in which the eligibility window ballooned from 12 to 14 months, the year in which the movies were ultimately TV.
I knew the chances for Blank and Palm Springs were slim. But what if the people doing the picking got to tell us what they like before everybody else tries guessing — and perhaps implanting — what they will like? Maybe the final list still wouldn't have included either movie.
But this felt like the year to find out. The usual so-called bellwether festivals weren't their normal selves. And the full-tilt campaign machine to brainwash voters into picking the same class of movies over and over again became a diet version of itself. And yet even on a diet, the machine works. Netflix had flashier movies than Blank's to push — flashier black-and-white movies, like Mank, David Fincher's opulent yarn loosely about the making of Citizen Kane. With 10 nominations, it leads the field, as American period movies often do, especially when they're spritzed with Hollywood cologne. The campaign machine is a permanent part of how things work. I had just assumed that everybody would appreciate a year off.
Instead, the Oscar pundits' forecasts kicked up in August, once it was clear enough that there would likely be an Oscars. (The ceremony is scheduled for April 25.) These pundits don't read tea leaves. They're actually brewing tea. The nominees often look just as they say they will.
Nonetheless, the last year might've tricked a person into believing that anything could really happen. And by nomination day, something had. The academy's vow to do better with respect to racial, ethnic and gender representation essentially bore out. And they didn't need a steering committee to do that the way the BAFTAs, the British version of the Oscars, just did. The Oscars have never featured a less white class of major nominees; women fill 40 per cent of the director slots; there are three people of Asian descent in the acting categories. There are enough identity-oriented milestones that enumerating them feels thanklessly actuarial. Instead, you just look at the mix of names and titles and think, Was that so hard? Maybe. All it took was a pandemic.
Now we can toast marshmallows by the hearts warmed by the range of experiences (and faces) in this group of nominees. I'm not wild about most of these movies, but seeing their posters assembled on nomination day was gladdening. This is how things should look. But those are optics, which have their function but can't be everything.
To some people's credit, the eight films nominated for best picture — The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah, Mank, Minari, Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 — were in production before the world changed last year. Even without a global health crisis, it might take a minute for changes demanded even six years ago to seem evident. The movies are just notoriously slow to adapt.
Now we have a revenge thriller about medical school sexual assault and a sort of spy thriller set within the world of Black radicalism. One drama about a family of Korean immigrant farmers in 1980s Arkansas, another about a drummer in an avant-punk duo who loses his hearing. Two feature Fred Hampton, a real-life Black Panther, as a character; and only three of the eight are about white men — and just one of those fellows exists in the present, and he's not even sure what present he's in.
The asterisks people were expecting to apply to this field of movies won't stick. These candidates feel legitimate. And that movie about the deaf drummer, Sound of Metal, starring Riz Ahmed, feels like a miracle nominee — delicate without a trace of fragility; imaginatively directed; naturally, observantly acted; surprising. It's the nominee that sneaks up and wrecks you — and, it must be said, a film with a non white person at its center that needn't explain why he's there. I didn't get Palm Springs or Blank. But that's just as good.
These nominees are probably also a relief to certain academy members who were feeling the pressure to reflect the times (well, to buoyantly reflect them). But it's always worth pointing out that the Oscars are just the movie industry's annual checkup. The entertainment doctor might like where those gender and racial representation numbers are.
There are some concerns, though.
First, what happens after Hollywood resets? Warner Bros. is going to keep releasing its 2021 slate on HBO Max. Do the studios know that there's a crisis aside from the matter of who's starring in and directing what? There are increasingly fewer movies for this diversity of people to work on — at least, movies that don't owe their existence to do-overs and franchise proliferation.
Yes, this is the part where I lament the death of the mid tier, mid budget title that aspires to be little more than a movie star delivery mechanism, a movie pretty much like Palm Springs. Or The Little Things, that risible but never dull detective thriller with Denzel Washington and Rami Malek that dropped in January on HBO Max. With all due respect to Washington, the biggest stars now are Netflix and intellectual property, or so-called "IP." The movies are scarcely dead. But they're bypassing the movie theatre on their way to our bloodstreams.
That brings me to concern No. 2. What is a movie now? It's something we tweet, text and clean during; something we watch in installments, whether it lasts 104 minutes or four hours. It took me three days to complete The Little Things — because I wanted it to. A few years ago, I knew Roma, Alfonso Cuarón's black-and-white, starless magnum opus and a Netflix movie, would lose best picture when, after people watched it at home or on a phone, they'd tell me, "I mean, it was OK." What if what we're looking for at home is less an emphasis on beauty, style or atmosphere but on plot and action, neither of which were central to this particular Cuarón experience?
That skip-the-multiplex business might seem temporary, but some viewing habits have almost certainly set in. Try telling an Amazon shopper that she has to go back to getting trash bags from her bodega. We say we miss an actual movie theatre, and I think a lot of us do. Godzilla vs. Kong raked in US$48.5 million in its first five days in North America and US$239 million everywhere else. It's also on HBO Max, but people want to watch IP clobber IP on the biggest screen they can find.
I don't see even half those droves deciding to go out and see the flesh-and-blood American itinerants in Nomadland or the human flashcards in The Trial of the Chicago 7 when, in the case of Netflix's Chicago 7, it feels utterly indistinguishable from actual made-for-TV movies. The experience in June of sitting down to watch a Spike Lee original on Netflix was more thrilling than the movie itself.
We're losing something obvious: one another. When Carey Mulligan pulls up outside that bachelor party in Promising Young Woman, ready for vengeance, dressed like a nurse in a porno, I sat on the edge on my couch desperate for the tension of a packed house. That surgically made, morally confused movie was made for a communal disturbance it never quite got to provoke.
Who knows? The excitement of seeing any movie in a theatre might make us all want to give a work of domestic taciturnity like Minari the full Godzilla vs. Kong treatment. And if so, for how long? And if we discover that we've got an entire theatre almost to ourselves, would it be reasonable to conclude that the movie's a commercial failure?
How do we know what's a hit now? That's concern No. 3. The financial success of a movie isn't the same as its general excellence. No news there. But box office numbers are a vital sign. We gauge the industry's health that way. The numbers are the easiest way to show what we consumers like. The streaming era has altered that. Netflix lists what shows people are watching most so you can watch them, too. The actual number of people and how it compares with other shows are mysteries. None of the major streaming platforms — Disney+, Apple TV+, HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon — are releasing stats like the theatrical box office results the studios have released to the public for a century.
In the IP era, this might feel like a negligible development. Marvel and DC movies are usually enormous hits. But when the box office is the standard metric for determining what else to make and for whom, knowing just how big a global smash the Marvel movie with the mostly Black cast is matters for what happens in its wake. The numbers create the wake. Disney put Pixar's Soul on Disney+, where it seemed much appreciated and much discussed, but how did it do?
Otherwise, we're guessing what a hit is and to what degree. Suppose the pandemic subsides, and the studios maintain this dual theatrical-streaming strategy, offering only partial numbers. That kind of commercial flattening might feel like democratisation at future Academy Awards. No one gets to carp this year that the best picture nominees grossed less combined than some IP blockbuster's international haul. The academy has allayed one diversity crisis but has still another on its hands. The pandemic shuttered movie theatres and forced a rule change that relaxed the eligibility requirement of a theatrical release. It's a concession that codified or at least acknowledged what was already a standard voting practice. I don't know what percentage of voters normally opts to watch the contenders on the screeners that studios send out rather than in theatres. But this year, that number is probably close to "everybody."
A consequence might be a class of films that feels celebratory yet mild, neat, muted, pasteurised — cinematically and politically. I, at least, was surprised to sit down with a movie called "Judas and the Black Messiah" and discover that it seems terrified of the astonishing psychological tragedy lurking within its Judas. It passes instead for a more digestible action movie with a lot of FBI blah-blah and some Black radical flavouring.
What's not here is the visionary masterpiece that offsets a righteous disaster like "Chicago 7." The nominees list is missing the "culture" movie, the adventurous people's hit. The frequent lack of one has long been such a thorn in the academy's side that in 2018 it briefly flirted with tacking on a popular film category.
Expanding the best picture field, in 2009, from five movies to as many as 10 was supposed to lure more viewers to the broadcast and achieve a blend of the safe, the lucrative and the idiosyncratic. But the industry knew it was more profitable to increase production on movies that would dominate the global box office but that they probably didn't even like, while all but abandoning the creation of those star delivery mechanisms, the very ones that used to wind up at the Academy Awards.
You'll still sometimes get a good mix. Last year's class had a little of everything; and the movie that won, Bong Joon Ho's Parasite, was a class comedy that culminated in an attempted massacre. But that sort of mix feels endangered. What mid tier, adult-contemporary movies we do get don't arrive until the latter part of the year or early the following one. And because these movies — American Hustle, Marriage Story or 1917, say; or, lord help me, Green Book" — don't open in February or April or even September anymore, they form a kind of accidental genre: the Oscar movie. Sometimes it feels like that tail is now wagging the dog — that movies are being bred perhaps more for the academy's pleasure than for ours.
Whatever devil's bargain Hollywood struck to own the planet is evident every Oscar season after the broadcast's numbers are published. The thousands of people who choose Oscar winners also make our movies. And they must know that a browning of the nominees is only a partial solution. The culture is moving on — not from the movies but from the steadily self-flagellating salutes to them.
Average moviegoers don't get to make hits of Oscar movies until that's indeed what they already are. We didn't get a people's movie this year. We couldn't, obviously. The movies couldn't bring audiences together to produce a phenomenon like Gravity, a Cuarón movie alive with action, plot and beauty and a best picture nominee in 2014 (Cuarón won for best director); a movie that, according to The Wall Street Journal, united "young and old, men and women, art-movie fans, sci-fi geeks and evangelical Christian reviewers." The movie industry had begun to turn its back on movie culture before the pandemic. For years, it's been confusing the audience with fans. The movies need — or used to need — curious customers who don't know what they want until they see it, until a movie we didn't know we'd been waiting for finds us. That convergence is how "culture" happens.
Written by: Wesley Morris
Photographs by: Erik Carter
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES