Somebody asked me the other day if the Oscar nominations had been announced yet. Believe it or not, the 93rd annual Academy Awards ceremony is set to air on ABC this Sunday evening, but it’s no surprise that folks outside the industry seem to be largely unaware. A year without movie theaters has shattered any sense of what we as a culture used to consider the current cinema. Saturation marketing campaigns have been replaced by stealth streaming releases, with dozens of films unleashed every week to little fanfare and often siloed onto exclusive content platforms. (I have a hard time keeping up with all this stuff and it’s literally my job.) What used to be a collective experience of sharing a movie with strangers has become — hopefully not for too much longer — an isolated, housebound affair. And while awards pageants are intended to get the public on the same page, talking about the same stories at the same time, algorithmically-driven streaming services are designed to do exactly the opposite.
We’ve all had a lot of other stuff on our minds, anyway. Maybe it’s impossible to imagine any movie punching through the pandemic and politics to create a cultural moment in a year as tumultuous as 2020. (I suppose the “Borat” sequel came closest, but you can thank America’s Mayor for that one.) Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking about the opening of the 2002 Oscars ceremony, in which a nation still shellshocked from 9/11 was greeted by Tom Cruise standing alone on the stage, earnestly asking if in light of such tragedy, should we really still be celebrating show business like this? With trademark Cruise-missile intensity, he glared hard into the camera lens and answered: “More. Than. Ever.”
It was a gloriously grandiose start to an emotional, well-remembered broadcast — Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry all brought home history-making trophies that night — and looking back on it during an equally troubled time, I’m wondering if movies have ever felt like they mattered less to the general public than they do right now. It wasn’t exactly a shock last month when industry bible Variety pointed to an alarming report that less than half of “active media consumers” polled were aware of this year’s eight nominees for Best Picture. Not that they simply hadn’t seen these films, mind you. The majority of respondents hadn’t even heard of them.
To be fair, it’s an uninspiring lot. (There are some good movies in there but I saw a lot of great ones in 2020, none of which are up for Best Picture.) Most of the nominations went to the same few titles — seven movies received six or more nods — suggesting the august voting body didn’t make it very far down their stack of screener DVDs this year. I can’t say that I blame audiences for being checked out. The Oscar deadline was inexplicably extended two months due to the pandemic, which led to a lot of distributors monkeying around with platform availability — basically playing peek-a-boo with their releases of films like “Minari,” “The Father” and “Nomadland” in games of digital hide-and-seek — trying to qualify for critics’ awards in December while still holding off on wider exposure so they could cater to the Academy’s recency bias when nomination time rolled around in February.
The result was a frustrating false scarcity tactic that turned off a lot of die-hard movie lovers stuck with no way of watching the films dominating the year-end discussion. It also made my profession appear even more out of touch than usual, celebrating movies our readers wouldn’t be able to see for months on end, while reinforcing the notion that these awards are a private conversation between critics and the industry to which audiences are not invited. (Sure, slow rollouts are sometimes necessary for lower-budget films competing for screens against Christmas blockbusters in smaller markets, but none of that stuff comes into play when theaters are closed during a pandemic. This was all just Oscar jockeying, and apparently it worked.)
The industry’s asphyxiating insularity can be glimpsed in that this year’s most-nominated film is David Fincher’s bafflingly bad “Mank.” A plodding re-creation of long-debunked Hollywood lore, the egregiously uneventful movie stars Gary Oldman as a soused scenarist squabbling for a screen credit on “Citizen Kane.” This is a story that could only possibly be of interest to a tiny sliver of old movie aficionados, yet the film is so filled with dumb factual gaffes and flat-out fabrications it leaves its target audience tearing our hair out. That only 18% of poll respondents were aware of the film’s existence leaves me both unsurprised and envious of the other 82%. But I am eye-rollingly amused to note that “Mank” received 10 nominations this year, as opposed to the mere nine scored by “Citizen Kane” in 1941.
You’ll read a lot about Hollywood patting itself on the back for selecting the most diverse slate of nominees in Academy history, which is an unequivocally positive thing. However, one wonders if the lineup would’ve looked the same had powerhouse players like Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, Denis Villeneuve and even our pal Tom Cruise not all pushed their big movies back to late 2021. The films eligible for this year’s Oscars by and large came from filmmakers who didn’t have the clout to get them delayed until a (knock-on-wood) more box-office-friendly future, which is why such a startling number of studio movies sent straight to streaming were directed by women. This is no way meant as a slight to some excellent performances and well-deserved nominations, but knowing the Academy's proclivities the way that we do, I'll be curious to see if they cast as wide a net next year when the usual suspects are available again.
Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” has been the presumptive Best Picture winner since it headlined the Toronto, Telluride and New York film festivals last fall. It’s easy to see why upscale audiences fell hard for this soothing portrait of a lonely heartland, where Frances McDormand’s fictional Fern mingles with the actual subjects of Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction bestseller about transient older Americans living out of their vehicles and traveling for seasonal work following the 2008 economic collapse. It’s a gentle, uplifting movie about the pioneer spirit in which poor people living in states of terrifying precarity smile crinkly smiles for the camera and beatifically accept their lots in life. Nobody ever gets angry, raises their voice or votes for Donald Trump. They don’t even say swears. Zhao has made “The Grapes of Wrath” without the wrath.
Shot almost exclusively in front of beautiful sunsets, the film offers up Fern as our movie star surrogate, living the nomad life by choice and welcomed into a magical landscape where there’s no physical danger or racism or mental illness and a soft piano is always tinkling in the background from somewhere behind those pretty pink clouds. It’s an enormously serene and reassuring movie where even during a dire emergency Fern can always go hit up her sister for a quick $2,000 and everything will be fine. Some have called the movie poverty porn but I think it’s really more poverty tourism, allowing us easy identification with a made-up character who has far less at stake than the real-life colorful characters she meets along the way.
Much has been made lately in the press about Zhao’s kid-gloves treatment of Fern’s holiday gig at an Amazon warehouse — I’m told it’s a pretty large departure from sentiments expressed in Bruder’s book — but I’d expect nothing less from a Disney picture promoted to critics and media influencers with “curated concessions crates” that, according to the New York Times, included “artisanal beef jerky, wild berry jam, oranges, pears, dried apricots, dill pickle slices, banana bread, salami (‘humanely raised’) and a canister of chocolates.” (I have to rely on the newspaper’s description because apparently in Disney’s eyes I did not qualify for a “curated concessions crate.” I am taking their exclusion as a compliment.)
You wonder how disconnected from objective reality these industry insiders have to be in order to think the best way to sell a movie about homelessness and food insecurity during a dire financial crisis is by shipping gourmet snacks to their favorite media shills. It’s the same mentality that assumes we’ll all find nothing more riveting than a 131-minute feature about a disputed closing credit on an 80-year-old movie. But then, I guess none of this is surprising at all when you stop and wonder where exactly these people have been for the past year or so? Watching those clips from the 2002 Oscars reminded me of all the post-9/11 charity events and telethons with which the show business community rallied during the dark months that followed. Meanwhile today, we’ve got movie theaters, their employees and the below-the-line crew members who work on Hollywood films suffering catastrophic financial losses from which they’ll possibly never recover, but have we seen any of these obscenely wealthy luminaries lifting so much as a finger to help them out? The only show of support I can recall was Gal Gadot and her dopey friends singing “Imagine” off-key from the grounds of their gargantuan estates.
From restaurants to Broadway, other industries have all pulled together creating funds and foundations to help the most vulnerable members of their communities in a time of desperate need. Meanwhile, Hollywood’s sending out salamis. Do I really feel like spending my Sunday watching these people give each other awards for movies nobody saw? Less. Than. Ever.