Oscars season is still unsettled ... but the Emmys are going to be fabulous


If you want to get a feel for the state of this year’s awards season, you need to find your way to the 605 Freeway and L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley. Fly by the sand and gravel pits, exit on Valley Boulevard and then push past the taco trucks and the muffler shops, the salvage yards and the strip club, and hang a left on Vineland. Just up the road, you’ll find the Vineland Drive-In, which for the past couple of months has been the unlikely home for all sorts of special screenings for Oscar voters and guild members.

I RSVPed for one of these events a few weeks back because I wanted to move from the claustrophobic confines of my home to the airless interior of my automobile. Plus, I was told there would be popcorn. However, when I pulled up to the entrance, the attendant informed me that the movie, Amazon Studios’ drama “Sound of Metal,” would be starting about two hours later than scheduled because management had decided, apparently rather arbitrarily, to change the time. Or something like that. This didn’t sit too well with the awards voters — all four of them! — who had driven to the City of Industry for a night out.

“F— it, man. Let’s go get some tacos,” a guild member said after rolling down his car window to ask me what’s what. And we did just that, though I think he went to the truck in front of the smog check shack while I was across the street at the liquor store. But it didn’t matter, because the tacos were tasty, full of tender pork, comfort and joy. For a couple of grease-soaked minutes, I forgot about the world. And then I drove home and watched “Sound of Metal” like I’ve viewed nearly every other movie this year, sitting on my living room sofa, beverage in hand.

The awards season landscape is unsettled right now because the world is unsettled, and asking anyone to pay attention to the Oscar race for best picture when the COVID-19 numbers are spiking and the defeated U.S. president is attempting to subvert democracy feels like a bit of a reach. The Oscars are still four months away, two months later than usual, scheduled for April 25. When I ask voters what they’ve been watching lately, inevitably they come back with “The Queen’s Gambit” and “The Crown.” So, yes, the 2021 Emmy season is upon us! (And don’t forget about “The Flight Attendant.”)


Voters have also been savoring the five movies in Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology series on Amazon Prime, which collectively, won the best picture prize last month from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. McQueen had two goals in mind for “Small Axe.” He wanted the films to be viewed as a whole, and he wanted them to be seen by as many people as possible. So although three of the five movies premiered at the New York Film Festival this fall, they will compete at the Emmys as a limited series and not, individually, at the Oscars. (Again ... the Emmys are going to be really great this year!)

But you know what? When (if?) we’re able to really get in the proper headspace, the Oscars could be better-than-decent too, even with the reduced slate of contenders and the realization that not every movie featuring Amy Adams and Glenn Close merits serious awards attention.

Both the Los Angeles and New York critics groups gave director prizes to Chloé Zhao for “Nomadland,” which stars Frances McDormand as a woman embarking on a journey after her factory town is erased from the map. The movie played for a week virtually in December via Film at Lincoln Center Virtual Cinema with a theatrical return planned for Feb. 19. Its thoughtful examination of community and compassion makes for stirring viewing in these troubled times. Pair it with “Soul,” the latest heart-tugger from Pixar Animation, and you have a pretty profound double feature about what it means to be alive right now.

“Soul” is streaming on Disney+, and many of the season’s notable contenders can currently be seen on other streaming platforms as well. Netflix boasts a glorious adaptation of the August Wilson play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” featuring Chadwick Boseman’s final performance. If there’s one thing that is decided at this early date, it’s that Boseman will likely win the lead actor Oscar for this triumphant, career-best turn.

Having a prime spot on a ubiquitous streamer like Netflix has built-in advantages, though you still have to hook an audience, something that another Netflix title, David Fincher’s old-Hollywood drama “Mank,” has struggled to do. Without the parties and premieres and the hype surrounding film festival launches, this year’s contenders find themselves on a slightly more even playing field, particularly with the motion picture academy’s streaming app making everything accessible, provided members save their passwords and have a rudimentary understanding of technology — or a 24/7 lifeline to grandchildren who do.

And for all the talk about this being an asterisk year for the Oscars, the depth of exceptional movies is remarkable, particularly among documentaries. Alexander Nanau’s searing “Collective,” about the human costs of systemic rot in Romania, should be nominated in both the documentary and international feature categories. (I’d put it on my best picture ballot too.) Garrett Bradley’s “Time” is an exquisite, forceful portrait of the resilience of a Black woman fighting for her family while her husband serves a 60-year sentence for armed robbery. The playful “Dick Johnson Is Dead” ruminates on time too, as filmmaker Kirsten Johnson attempts to come to terms with her aging father’s failing mind.


That’s not even mentioning “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” the Spike Lee-directed film version of Byrne’s jubilant 2019 Broadway show, which stands as the most joyous piece of entertainment released this year. Released on HBO Max, it’ll be eligible for the Emmys, which, if I haven’t mentioned it, are going to be fabulous come September.

“Time” is on Amazon Prime. You can find “Dick Johnson” on Netflix. “Collective” is available on numerous streaming platforms and will be the best $7 you ever spent — unless maybe you’re buying tacos. In that case, I know a place. Just plan on being flexible if you’re catching a movie afterward.