Now’s the time for Oscar voters to do some ‘Soul’-searching

Middle-school band teacher Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx)  grapples with existential questions in "Soul."
Middle-school band teacher Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) at right, grapples with existential questions in Pixar Animation’s “Soul.” Tina Fey(left) is the voice of 22.

(Pixar Animation)

A non-English-language movie had never won the best picture Oscar until Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” prevailed last year.

Could Pixar Animation’s lovely and gentle “Soul,” which ponders all sorts of existential questions in ways both profound and silly, break another barrier this year, becoming the first animated movie to win best picture?

It’s a question I tossed out before Christmas on The Envelope podcast (you subscribe, right?), and that was before audiences — and quite a few academy members — ran the movie on a continuous loop over the holidays.


Honestly, although it would be nice if an ambitious, joyful movie full of imagination and curiosity won the Oscars’ top prize, I’m not holding my breath that academy members are suddenly going to cast aside a long history of animation aversion and give “Soul” best picture. It’s entirely possible — even in this diminished year — that “Soul” might not even be nominated in that category. “Beauty and the Beast” is the only animated movie to earn a nod when Oscar voters had five nomination slots on their ballots. “Up” and “Toy Story 3” made it in when the Oscars expanded the best picture race to a fixed 10 nominees — giving members 10 slots on their ballots. They’re going back to 10 next year, but that doesn’t help “Soul” now.

Certainly, there are arguments to be made for other films. Well ... maybe one other film. I’ll hold off, though, on further “Nomadland” talk until you’ve had a chance to see it. (Hopefully, that will happen.) But a “Soul” victory would be fitting for the year we’ve just experienced. What better way to commemorate 2020 than to honor a popular movie that asked us to contemplate what’s really important in life?

In the meantime, here’s a brief look at some of the other contenders, most of which remain largely unseen by voters because there’s no sense of urgency (the Oscars are still more than three months away), and, you know, we’ve had more pressing issues to occupy our minds lately.


The cast of "Da 5 Bloods" standing and crouching in a semicircle in the film
(L-R)Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, , Clarke Peters and Jonathan Majors in “Da Five Bloods.”

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Netflix): Aaron Sorkin’s legal drama has the most mainstream appeal among Netflix’s four primary best picture contenders. It sports a first-rate ensemble, plenty of snappy Sorkinesque idealism and pulls off the neat trick of making a complicated, ‘60s-era courtroom case feel timely, trenchant and urgent. That it’s the year’s second-best legal drama, placing behind Steve McQueen’s thrilling “Small Axe” movie “Mangrove,” isn’t important, as “Mangrove” will be competing at the Emmys. “Chicago 7’s” craftsmanship and moral clarity could make it Netflix’s first best picture winner.


“One Night in Miami” (Amazon Studios): Regina King’s feature directorial debut is a meticulous, visually assured picture of what might have gone down the night Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown met in a motel room right after Clay — who’d soon take the name Muhammad Ali — won the heavyweight championship in 1964. Again, it’s history tailored to the academy’s predominantly older demographic, but also possessing a bone-deep understanding of its subject and how their conflicts reflect the experiences of Black men in America. I’ve spoken with several academy members who say it’s their No. 1 film of the year.

Riz Ahmed as Ruben in SOUND OF METAL Courtesy of Amazon Studios
(Amazon Studios)

“Mank” (Netflix): Labeled early as the season’s juggernaut, David Fincher’s dramatization of the life of Herman J. Mankiewicz and his authorship of “Citizen Kane” has receded as critics groups have mostly given it the cold shoulder and academy members have been more mixed on the film than expected. It was unlikely that Hollywood would reward a movie about itself in this of all years, though “Mank” remains a solid bet to vacuum up a host of nominations — and come away with next to nothing on Oscar night, supporting actress Amanda Seyfried and production designer Donald Graham Burt excepted.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Netflix): This adaptation of August Wilson’s revered play is also likely to score a fair share of nominations and at least one win — for Chadwick Boseman’s stunning final performance, the culmination of a career marked with excellence.

“Da 5 Bloods” (Netflix): The stickiest of all of Netflix’s best picture contenders, Spike Lee’s latest arrived in June and has remained in the conversation, thanks in part to Delroy Lindo’s complex, defiant lead turn. Like “Ma Rainey” and “One Night in Miami,” it boasts a superb ensemble of Black actors working at the top of their game.

“Sound of Metal” (Amazon Studios): Darius Marder’s feature debut is a moving character study of a drummer coping with the loss of his hearing. Word-of-mouth about the film has been slowly building among academy members, particularly for Riz Ahmed’s lead performance and Paul Raci’s serene, truthful supporting turn as the counselor helping him through his journey.
“Palm Springs” (Hulu): The Oscars are almost as allergic to comedy as they are animation, but this inventive look at a couple of people trying to find a way through living the same stupid day over and over again pretty much summed up the past year. I can’t be the only one who feels that.



Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Credit: Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios
(Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios)

“Nomadland”: Both the Los Angeles and New York critics groups gave director prizes to Chloé Zhao for this poignant film, 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. It’s a profound work of art.

“The Father”: Anthony Hopkins floored Sundance audiences last year with his portrayal of a man railing against encroaching dementia. Oscar voters have been slow in giving this a look, as we’ve all been coping with losing our minds in one way or another for the last 10 months. It opens Feb. 26.

“Minari”: The outcry over the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.’s bonehead rule that disallows American-made, non-English-language films to compete for its best picture categories gave Lee Isaac Chung’s drama about immigrants chasing the American dream a nice little publicity bump. It’s a powerful film but also gentle in spirit, which has encouraged a lot of voters to check it out. Opens Feb. 12.

Yuh-jung Youn in “Minari” from A24.
Yuh-jung Youn in “Minari” from A24.

“News of the World”: The last time Tom Hanks and director Paul Greengrass collaborated was on best picture nominee “Captain Phillips.” And this entertaining western is better than “Captain Phillips.” It premiered Dec. 25.


Filmmaker-turned-Oscars producer Steven Soderbergh wondered if this year’s slate of nominees might skew “indie-cinephile.” If that happens, we could possibly see Kelly Reichardt’s vivid frontier tale, “First Cow,” or Emerald Fennell’s giddy revenge tale, “Promising Young Woman” (featuring a ferocious lead turn from Carey Mulligan), or Eliza Hittman’s unforgettable abortion story, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” among the nominees.

John Magaro in a scene from "First Cow." Credit: Allyson Riggs/ A24 Films
(Allyson Riggs/Allyson Riggs/Allyson Riggs/Allyson Riggs/ A24 Films)


When the academy pushed the Oscars back two months, it also extended the Oscars period to the end of February. Most studios punted their contenders to the 2022 Oscars. But two films dropped in: Lee Daniels’ “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (Feb. 12) and Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Feb. 26, from its original August 2020 date). The movies just began screening, so it’s a bit early to sift through the reactions. But Andra Day’s turn as jazz legend Holiday and Daniel Kaluuya’s portrayal of Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton figure to be prime acting contenders.