Did they really do a full Academy Awards show for 2020?

Third-time Best Actress winner Frances McDormand and Chloé Zhao, the first woman of color to win the Best Director trophy, share a moment on the set of Best Picture winner Nomadland. Zhao also wrote and edited the film and both are credited as producers. Image courtesy Searchlight Pictures.

I spent January dicking around, procrastinating on the usual year-end routines for a film writer. Going through those particular motions after 2020, acting like we’d gotten a full slate of movies, felt dishonest. It felt boring. I didn’t do a top 10 list. I struggled to write a “most important films” list even in the presence of fascinating case studies like Birds of Prey, Trolls World Tour and Mulan, I couldn’t bring myself to. I ended up just blathering about Tenet and the HBOmax move two months after the fact and leaving it at that.

But most of the merit to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is in the normalcy of the routine and the bully pulpit winners get. This is how the people behind the curtains of the world’s most powerful factory for history’s most democratizing art form express and perform their values, how they view the work they’ve done and what they want to see going forward. After a year when the basic acceptance of reality became a partisan issue, there’s more merit to that performance than usual. It’s not about pretending we had a full slate of movies last year, it’s about the symbolic power of the awards.

In a necessarily weak year, the only Best Picture nominee I’d recommend in a vacuum is Judas and the Black Messiah. It’s the type of movie you’d watch several years down the line and be unsurprised to learn it had won Best Picture, a reserved walk along the razor’s edge in the spirit of No Country for Old Men that gets better every time you watch it, vital to its 1968 setting, its 2020 release and every point of American history before, after and in between, with a titan of history brought to electrifying life by Best Supporting Actor winner Daniel Kaluuya. It’s always shocking to be reminded he’s from Camden, and that this is his first Oscar – he’s one of those guys who seems like he was born with one or two already on the mantel.

Image courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

His character, the titular “Black Messiah” Fred Hampton, makes a guest appearance in Trial of the Chicago 7, which is also set in 1968 Chicago. The more I learn about this moment in history, when the Black Panthers were at the height of their influence and genuine socialism threatened to break into the American mainstream, the more vital it seems to return to it today. There’s a pattern in Chicago 7 of casting actors significantly older than the characters they’re playing – in perhaps the most dramatic example, they’ve got Sacha Baron Cohen, who celebrated his 48th birthday during production, playing Youth International Party founder Abbie Hoffman, who was 22 at the time of the trial – and I think that’s an intentional dig at the fact that the U.S. hasn’t really aged past these conflicts.

I regret not making time to do a full writeup of Chicago 7 now. It’s not a good film, but particularly, it’s an example of writer/director Aaron Sorkin failing to do something I consistently single him out for being the best at – organizing a true story into pointed narrative. He’s proved himself a genius at deciding what parts of the truth to bend and break to get at the core of the story. Trial of the Chicago 7 is a specific failure to do just that. The film gets sidetracked at every opportunity, concerning itself mostly with the racism directed toward Bobby Seale, who was insistently not a member of the Chicago Seven. The story coalesces around the Vietnam War, the great injustice the Chicago Seven were initially arrested for protesting, but the movie, as if it were a trial itself, stays focused on the title characters’ actions during the protest in isolation, not their sense of fear and betrayal of essentially being executed at random by their government via the draft.

That’s not fair. There are other fine films in this group.

Mank, the most nominated film by almost an order of magnitude but never the favorite given Netflix’ fractious relationship with the Academy and Nomadland’s international prestige, is a fine film, but unlike Judas, it’s the kind of film that would win Best Picture and be quickly forgotten. It’s a pointed and highly partisan refutation of auteurship, specifically of one of the most powerful – well, most charismatic – men in Hollywood history in a moment when Hollywood wants more than ever to distance itself from the powerful men of its past, and at the same time it’s an opportunity to celebrate one of the finest films in history while still sticking it to Orson Welles, whose immediate and permanent status as a Hollywood pariah forever sunk his masterpieces’ chances at the Oscars.

Image courtesy Netflix.

That’s not fair. Mank is another gem in the imitable careers of star Gary Oldman and director David Fincher. This is his first real attempt to pander to the Academy. Between Mank and Alien 3, his debut feature which he disowned due to studio interference, we’ll get to study one of the era’s most iconic directors under multiple forms of duress, hampered both by commercial overlords and Academy expectations.

Nomadland, like a lot of Best Picture winners, is capital “I” Important, but not necessarily capital “G” Good. The movie is a fictionalized account of non-fiction reporting by Jessica Bruder on the community of transient workers who saw their life savings drop out from under them in the 2008 financial crisis and got locked in the poverty cycle from there. It’s the first movie of this stature to portray American poverty as nakedly as other countries’ have been, but far from the first overall – I always recommend American Honey and It Follows as the critical expressions of hopelessness and broken promises in 21st Century America.

Does Nomadland belong in the esteemed company of other Best Picture winners? It’s the first film ever to win both the Golden Lion and TIFF’s People’s Choice Award. If it had come up completely empty on Oscar night, it would still be one of history’s most decorated films. I guess the proper question to ask is whether other Best Picture winners belong in its company.

The Oscar ceremony mostly lacked clips this year. I could normally care less about how the awards are presented, but it was noticeably odd to see Best Visual Effects be presented without cutting to the nominees’ visual effects.

China seems to have disowned writer/director/editor Chloé Zhao, who became the first Asian woman – and only the third Asian person and second woman overall – to win Best Director. It looks like she said some mildly bad things about the country she left 18 years ago, and that’s all it takes to get #cancelled by the CCP. It’s an entirely political issue, and it seems to me the usefulness of a Beijing native winning one of the most exclusively American awards in history as propaganda would outweigh opinions on China that she rarely seems to express, but I’m glad they’re mad about it.

I’m very happy for Anthony Hopkins’ surprise Best Actor win for his stellar performance in The Father in a similar way. I’m excited to watch MCU fans who definitely didn’t make time to watch Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom die mad about Chadwick Boseman not getting it.

The real snub of the night was against The Father, actually – in addition to Hopkins’ performance, the shifting, shapeless apartment in which it takes place made the film. Seeing Mank get the Production Design Oscar instead felt wrong.

Best performance Oscars usually go to actors who did much more than act whenever there’s an opportunity to do that, so Frances McDormand getting her third Best Actress nod for Nomadland, which she held the adaptation rights to and essentially commissioned from Zhao because she thought the underlying journalism was so important, makes sense, but by far the year’s best performance from a woman was Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman. The suddenly esteemed stage actress, who is apparently capable of being robustly expressive and completely magnetic even when she’s standing stock still, gave a complex and riveting performance as a woman recollecting her identity after the loss of a child and navigating concurrent collapsing relationships with her mother and husband.

Because of the way Oscar voting works, Kirby’s chances were probably limited when Netflix publicly dropped its campaign for costar Shia LaBeouf, who gave a similarly strong performance, after his ex-girlfriend sued him for abuse in December. LaBeouf has admitted culpability for her allegations and apologized, and I have a difficult time condemning him. I tend to reserve my condemnation energy for power structures instead of individuals, or in Hollywood’s case, predators like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby who incorporated those power structures into their hunting. I also reserve condemnation energy for people who are actually responsible for their actions, and it’s hard to say that LaBeouf is. He is not a well man. As described in this lawsuit, LaBeouf isn’t a predator, he’s a shitty, abusive boyfriend, and that shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows anything about him and what he’s been through. He doesn’t need to get cancelled, he doesn’t need a Hall of Shame Award, he needs help, and he’s back in rehab now trying to get it.  

Jacob Yi (Steven Yuen) looks over his vast backyard, which he plans to irrigate and use to corner the local market on Asian vegetables despite having been told the land is barren, in Minari. Image courtesy A24.

I don’t like Minari being locked out of the Best International Feature category, which it almost certainly would have won over Another Round – another fine film that deserved more attention than it got. They switched the award’s title over from Best Foreign Language Film two years ago as part of some social justice posturing, and I have absolutely no idea what the fuck an “international film” is. Every major movie releases in 300 different markets these days. Everyone’s favorite Batman movie, that icon of American pulp which was just selected for preservation by the Library of Congress, was directed in Chicago and Hong Kong by Christopher Nolan, who is as English as Earl Grey tea, starring Christian Bale, the most aggressively Welsh person who ever lived. Is that an “international film?” Most of Disney’s blockbusters, including every single Star Wars movie since they acquired the property, have been shot at Pinewood Studios 20 minutes away from Heathrow Airport, where they’ll be churning out movies primarily for American and Chinese audiences through 2030. Are those “international films?” In Minari’s case, it’s a movie about the American dream shot outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma and set in Southwest Arkansas with an all South Korean cast and more than 95% of the dialogue in Korean. It’s as “international” as can be.

The point of this award, whatever you want to call it, is that American viewers don’t like reading subtitles – Bong Joon Ho’s “one inch barrier” that commercially and critically sidelines movies that are not predominantly in English. These awards exist to level the playing field. Whatever point the cast thought they were making by performatively insisting it’s a purely American film, their movie needed and deserved the special categorization this award was meant to provide, and spurning it hurt the movie’s chances of coming away with a bigger haul.

I read somewhere that the Academy would have the opportunity to give four acting Oscars to four actors of color, and it looked quite likely – this came to fruition in the Screen Actor’s Guild awards, also for the first time ever, with Boseman and Viola Davis beating Hopkins and McDormand in their respective categories. It would fall neatly in line with the deliberate strides the Academy has been taking toward diversity in recent years, and while I’m always suspicious on the effectiveness of these sorts of arbitrary moves – simply putting a black face on a racist institution does nothing to solve the underlying systemic issues – I’ve come around on this one.

Hollywood isn’t like a professional sports league where there are only a finite number of people who can perform at that level, and minorities are systemically weeded out by racist teammates and coaches before they can really develop. The difference in acting ability between, say, Leonardo DiCaprio and the top player at your local theater is actually quite small. This is not a meritocracy, and it never has been. The choices producers make about who gets represented onscreen, who gets funding to tell their stories, are completely up to them. We don’t need to invest in a new generation of black and minority filmmakers, because that generation is already here, waiting to be funded and discovered on a Hollywood scale. And Hollywood’s voting members, by and large, have sent a crystal-clear message that’s what they want to see over the past few years.

That’s the symbolic power of the Academy.

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