11 Academy Awards contenders, and why they do or don’t deserve Oscars
It’s a familiar refrain every year since I’ve been an adult, essentially: people look at Oscar nominations and conclude (sometimes rather rapidly) that they haven’t heard or seen any of them. It’s doubly so this year, what with the obvious delays and and other sundry pandemic-related concerns narrowing down the pool of likely candidates. It’s not just that the movies are more obscure than they usually are – it’s that, despite coming out on VOD or streaming platforms at a time where everyone was home to watch them, the films nominated for Oscars this year were not necessarily accompanied by the kind of hype that usually follows them. Marriage Story came out on Netflix, as did Uncut Gems, but they were part of the ambient conversation as something other than one of thousands of options to stream while we quietly wiled away an entire year at home; Mank was not.
That having been said, the relative paucity of high-profile titles released this week means that, while this is not exactly a banner year for the Oscars, the current crop of nominations features very few snubs and represents, in some strange way, just about the best possible outcome for the ceremony this year. It’s not exactly that The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an ideal movie to be nominated in any given year, but it makes a lot more sense than the nightmare scenario of Sonic the Hedgehog racking up nominations by sheer lack of competition.
Even I, who has usually seen most of the films up for nomination throughout the year through professional obligations, found myself woefully behind on the films nominated this year. The ping-ponging theatrical schedules in Quebec and the ever-shifting release calendar that resulted in said ping-ponging meant that some movies slipped by unwatched. I had to engage in the traditional pre-Oscar cramming session in the last few weeks in order to be truly prepared.
Instead of breaking down each category by who I think should win and who I think will win (an interesting practice that is nevertheless adopted by every single film or film-adjacent site on the Internet), I decided instead to look at each major film and what its presence in the Oscar race means.
I think I probably liked David Fincher’s divisive Mank more than most. Truth be told, I can very much see why a long and often aimless film about an old drunk shirking his responsibilities and yelling at everyone would not appeal to the general public. But the appeal of old-timey Hollywood movies and self-congratulating inside-baseball stories is so strong within the Academy that even one as prickly as Mank sweeps the nominations. Though I find it endlessly entertaining in a kind of masochistic way, Mank is one of David Fincher’s weaker recent efforts, and even its technical specs don’t really stand out. (In fact, the B&W cinematography that is touted as being a meticulous recreation of old-school Hollywood visuals hardly feels like it — whether or not that’s a factor of the film being released to streaming rather than theatres is unknown). I can’t imagine it winning too many Oscars besides perhaps boilerplate technical categories (makeup, costumes) — and even on that front, it has heavy competition.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Judas and the Black Messiah
Shaka King’s film about the assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton is a film about revolutionary politics that nevertheless takes a fairly straightforward approach to the material. It’s this approach that probably landed it so many nominations at this year’s ceremony; Spike Lee’s equally revolutionary Da 5 Bloods was almost completely shut out, owing most likely to its more overtly confrontational and experimental filmmaking. Judas and the Black Messiah is straightforward in the way that Oscar voters seem to prefer: clearly drawn characters, a white character (played by Jesse Plemons) who serves as the white audience’s ersatz surrogate, chronological storytelling and the evergreen presence of on-screen titles explaining what happened to all of the characters after the movie finished.
None of these are flaws, mind you. They’re features, not bugs, and Judas and the Black Messiah is an engaging and enraging look at a part of history often poorly served by films in the past. Though the Black Panthers have been featured extensively in the margins of films before, Mario van Peebles’ Panther from 1995 is just about the only film to look at this from a black perspective. In that sense, it’s a bit surprising that Judas and the Black Messiah has found so much support in the Academy, who generally prefer their films about race to be about unlikely friendship and/or overt Black suffering.
That having been said, I feel like its chances are fairly slim. Both Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield give standout performances, but the mystifying choice of having them both compete in the supporting category (for a film where they are the only two faces on the poster, not to mention the title explicitly referencing their two characters) means the film is likely to cancel itself out. I do think Judas and the Black Messiah is likely to be talked about in the future, which is more than I can say for Mank.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
The Trial of the Chicago 7
This, on the other hand, features the kind of bombastic-yet-poky liberal politics that the Oscars usually go wild for. There are many outlying factors that make The Trial of the Chicago 7 Oscar catnip: a period setting, the nostalgia of a time when civil unrest was deemed necessary and even a little romantic by the populace, a comedian doing a dramatic turn and endless long, florid monologues. That The Trial of the Chicago 7 is merely OK and exhibits many characteristics usually associated with TV movies or miniseries from a bygone era is less important than the fact that it is the Oscar-baitiest movie in a year that found it in relatively short supply.
The Trial of the Chicago Seven is entertaining enough as a show of everything good and bad about Aaron Sorkin as a writer (and more tangentially as a director) even if it leaves a lot to be desired in many respects. On paper, it’s the kind of movie that simply cannot go unnominated, though it seems unlikely that it’ll take home any prizes. It also feels like, in a few years, it will have been relegated to the dustbins of history, trotted out once in a while by high-school history class substitute teachers.
The thorniest and least likely of nominations also happens to be my favourite film in the running this year. Florian Zeller’s The Father seems on the surface like a classic disease-of-the-week awards play in which a venerated actor plays a debilitating disease for maximized Oscar potential. The last time a major movie star played someone with Alzheimer’s (Julianne Moore in Still Alice), she won an Oscar, so it’s cynical but not exactly unjustified to assume that this is going for the same thing.
But Zeller constructs The Father like a paranoid thriller in which nothing is quite as it seems and scenes play out repetitively to mimic the experience of living with a cognitive disease. It’s a tricky wire act; if Zeller doesn’t do it properly and if Hopkins is not 100% convincing in the lead, The Father could be little more than a dour mess. Instead, it’s an extremely immersive (and, it goes without saying, momentously sad and depressing) affair that avoids every pitfall of the aforementioned disease-of-the-week structure. It seems likely that without Chadwick Boseman in the running, Hopkins would take the Oscar home. On the other hand, the film is a little too grim and a little too artsy (for lack of a better term) to really resonate with Oscar voters.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom isn’t nominated for Best Picture and, in fact, it may be one of the only films this year whose four nominations (for Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis in lead roles as well as production design and hair/makeup) would likely be the same had we had a “normal” year at the movies. The Netflix production is an adaptation of an August WIlson play that really puts performances forward, and even if it weren’t the last film Boseman appeared in before his untimely death from colon cancer this summer, it would have been undeniable that he gives an excellent performance in the film.
There’s clearly something more than a little morbid about prognosticating about a dead person’s chances at a pretty meaningless award (in the scope of things, at the very least) but this does seem like a chance for the Academy to honour a legacy with an actual good performance by an actor whose output will have been tragically small.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday
The United States vs. Billie Holiday
The most classic Oscar bait choice in the running (and really only for Andra Day’s lead performance) is also the worst chunk of shit to be nominated this year. Day is just about the only redeeming factor in Lee Daniels’ formless slog through the life of Holiday, and the fact that she got the film’s sole nomination in a year that was really hankering for middle-of-the-road Oscar bait tells you everything you need to know about The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal
There was a lot I would not have been able to predict about 2020 when I saw Sound of Metal’s world premiere at TIFF in September of 2019. The fact that the film would find itself at the Oscars was definitely one of them. It’s not that Sound of Metal isn’t deserving of accolades; it’s that it’s exactly the kind of movie that takes enough chances that it never winds up finding an audience. Uncompromising in its depiction of a heavy metal drummer who suddenly and irreparably loses his hearing, Sound of Metal isn’t exactly a fun time at the movies, and the rigidity of its formal elements isn’t exactly an easy sell. But it also tells a story that’s pretty easy to relate to and even easier to find yourself immersed in. In many ways, it does feel like Sound of Metal’s nominations are the win — it’s a film that I completely thought would fall by the wayside when I first saw it, and the fact that it has cemented a place in history seems like victory enough. On the other hand, the Oscars do love an underdog story, and the fact that previously unknown actor Paul Raci landed a nomination may well pay off in the end.
It’s not that surprising to see Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round in the running for both Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film — it’s a crowd-pleaser if I’ve ever seen one, and seeing Vinterberg move away from Dogme 95 and whatever weird shit he was into right after (It’s All About Love or Dear Wendy) into mainstream American acceptance is wild, but I really doubt it’ll win anything. Another case of the nomination being the wind.
Though I really did love The Father most of all, Minari is probably my second-favourite film in nomination this year. A heartfelt and personal meditation on the experience of a Korean-American family, it’s probably the most heartfelt and crowd-pleasing film on the list this year – but also one that stakes its claim without going to obvious prestige territory. It’s a small, heartfelt, personal film that I nevertheless identified with to an incredible degree, despite it having absolutely no parallels with my real life. It’s the most universal and ostensibly the most accessible film nominated this year, but the fact that about half of it is in Korean has been a point of controversy. (The Golden Globes considered the film a foreign entry despite being set entirely in the United States.) That honestly might be enough to disqualify it in the minds of most voters, though it does seem like Youn Yuh-jung, who plays the grandmother in the film, may well be the frontrunner for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Promising Young Woman
Promising Young Woman
In a year where many movies seem to be rather left-field Oscar choices, none feels more left-field than Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman. It’s extremely easy to see it as a festival favourite that people talk about in hushed tones and takes so long to come out that it feels played out by the time it hits the general public. In another year, it would have been an under-the-radar indie pick rather than a film that nearly everyone I know has seen. Of course, COVID-19 isn’t the only factor here. The film was released in the midst of a second wave of #MeToo accusations and deals head-on with issues of rape culture and toxic masculinity.
In fact, what has ultimately stuck with me from the film is the questions it raises and the way in which it implicates the viewer in its anger more than its puzzle-box structure and its ironic pop-art aesthetics. There’s a gotcha aspect to Promising Young Woman that’s not likely to age very well, though there’s no question that its timing is just right, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it take home a few Oscars — especially for Carey Mulligan, who seems to be the frontrunner for most Oscar prognosticators.
The frontrunner in many categories, Nomadland is also the most zeitgeist-y of all movies nominated this year. Frances McDormand stars as a woman who, having lost almost everything after the death of her husband, takes to living in her van and wandering the American midwest, taking seasonal jobs here and there for survival. Nomadland isn’t a documentary, though most of the supporting cast (save for David Strathairn, who plays a fellow nomad) are actual nomads; their sequences play out almost in documentary-like fashion with McDormand as the anchor point.
Nomadland is a beautiful movie in which McDormand is, predictably, great, but I have to admit there’s still something about it that sticks in my craw. It might be the fact that the film depicts the vestiges of the failures of capitalism and yet has been bankrolled and distributed by Disney. Obviously, this is sort of a pointless argument to make since corporations have a hand in nearly every movie we see… but there’s still a disconnect to me between the two. There’s also the fact that I’m not sure what Nomadland in its current form has to offer that it could not also offer being a straight-up documentary, besides a great Frances McDormand performance. (Having won so recently for the controversial Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it’s unlikely that McDormand will take home a third Oscar.)Ultimately, though, I’m not sure the financial history or documentary potential of a movie is really relevant to judging whether or not it should exist. Nomadland is extremely well done and quite touching, and it wouldn’t be stealing any Oscar it wins. ■
The 93rd annual Academy Awards ceremony is airing on CBS and Global on Sunday, April 25, 8:30 p.m. For the full list of nominations and more, please visit the official Oscars website.
For more film and TV coverage, please visit the Film & TV section.
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