Should the 2021 Oscars happen? Yes, and here’s why
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced in June that it was pushing back the 2021 Oscars two months to April 25 and extending the eligibility window to the end of February, reactions from members generally fell into one of three camps: 1) Awards season is long enough already. Please, in the name of God, don’t do this 2) Seriously? An eight-month awards season? DO NOT DO THIS. 3) Thank you! Now I can binge-watch “The Great British Baking Show” over the holidays without feeling guilty about that pile of screeners teetering in the corner.
So, yes, the response was mixed. Understandably so. Be honest: In the middle of a global pandemic and the dumpster fire that is 2020, all anyone wants to do right now is watch “The Great British Baking Show” and not be judged. And by “anyone,” I mean me. If you disagree, let me know, and I’ll send some coconut macaroons your way.
But I digress. The academy’s thinking behind delaying the Oscars was to give filmmakers time to finish and release their movies in theaters. You’d have prestige studio films like Ridley Scott’s medieval thriller “The Last Duel,” Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” adaptation and Steven Spielberg’s version of “West Side Story,” along with new movies from acclaimed filmmakers like Wes Anderson (“The French Dispatch”), Leos Carax (“Annette”) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Memoria”), bolstering the ranks of contenders.
Those reinforcements aren’t coming. It was optimistic to think they ever were. Spielberg knew, refusing to show “West Side Story” to anybody because ... why bother? And with studios ceding 2020 to the continuing reality of the pandemic (“No Time to Die,” pushed to 2021, could have been the first Bond movie to earn a best picture nomination if it had been as good as “Skyfall”), you might imagine there are a few people at the academy asking that same question right now with regard to the Oscars.
The easy answer is that by the April 25 ceremony date, movie theaters will have been effectively hobbled for more than a year, and people will need a reminder why movies matter. Or, perhaps more accurately, after the public has grown accustomed to watching movies at home, including big-budget titles like Pixar’s “Soul” (just shuttled to Disney+ for the holidays) and Robert Zemeckis’ “The Witches” (landing on HBO Max on Oct. 22), people will need more than a reminder. They’ll need a reason to roll off the sofa again.
Movie theater chains are on life support. Art-house theaters might not come back. It’s time for the academy to break out the Bat-Signal and enlist the best and brightest members of its directors branch to craft short films about the singularity of cinema. Get a good mix, maybe Spike Lee, Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Thomas Anderson and Pedro Almodóvar. Find Michael Bay just in case any teenage boys are watching. Pair Bong Joon Ho with Martin Scorsese. Lulu Wang and Barry Jenkins. Make the ceremony a three-hour PSA for the motion picture industry.
And, sure, hand out a few awards too. The diminished fall film festivals are over, with the New York festivities wrapping up Sunday. Plenty of good movies still played, virtually and otherwise, at Venice, Toronto and New York. Even the cancelled Telluride made a splash, screening Chloé Zhao’s rapturous road movie, “Nomadland,” at a Rose Bowl parking lot drive-in event where the audience voiced appreciation by honking horns and flashing headlights.
Sad to say, that insulated response passes as the height of festival buzz these days, the post-screening scrums in theater lobbies replaced with hermetically sealed signals of approval. Given the state of the movie business, it also feels strangely, bleakly appropriate that some of the very best projects to premiere — Spike Lee’s electrifying filmed version of David Byrne’s Broadway show, “American Utopia,” and Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” movie anthology examining Black life in Great Britain — are bound for television. (“American Utopia” drops on HBO Max on Oct. 17, while the five “Small Axe” movies will begin premiering on Amazon Prime Video on a weekly basis starting Nov. 20.)
But since we’re not returning to movie theaters for a good long while, such distinctions are immaterial. You’ll be watching most, if not all, of the Oscar contenders from the comfort of your home this year, meaning that you’ll be viewing them in precisely the same way that nearly all academy members do annually. What’s on the menu? Here’s just a sampling of the movies you’ll be hearing about from now until (good God) the end of April.
THE BEST + THE USUAL SUSPECTS/PROSPECTS
“Nomadland”: Zhao’s gorgeous, elegiac snapshot of America’s soul moved me to tears when I saw it at the Rose Bowl. Normally when that happens, I might say there was something in my eye, which in this case was true as there was ash falling from the sky. (Thanks again, 2020.) But this gentle, compassionate movie is truly special, a portrait of a woman finding community while embracing aloneness. We don’t need a reminder that Frances McDormand is a movie star, but it’s nice to have a reason to trumpet that fact again.
“One Night in Miami”: Regina King’s feature directorial debut comes from a play that imagines what might have gone down the night Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown met in a motel room after Clay (shortly before he took the name Muhammad Ali) beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title. The film has a bone-deep understanding of these men, their internal conflicts and the ways their differences reflect the experiences of Black men in America. It’s also impeccably crafted on every level, visually assured and meticulous in evoking the era.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7" and “Mank”: Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher, together again ... on Netflix. “Chicago 7" is exactly what you’d expect from a Sorkin courtroom procedural — pulsing dialogue, sturdy construction, a whiff of self-righteousness. It’s a distant second to McQueen’s upcoming “Small Axe” standout entry, “Mangrove,” in the race for the year’s best courtroom drama. As for Fincher’s “Mank,” a drama about the co-writer of “Citizen Kane,” it seems tailor-made for the film academy, or, at least, for those members actually familiar with Orson Welles.
“News of the World”: Given that nearly every studio movie has moved out of 2020 following “Tenet’s” disappointing theatrical run (so much for Christopher Nolan saving cinema), there’s little reason to believe that Universal will keep this Paul Greengrass western drama on its planned Dec. 25 date. But I’m going to leave the Christmas tree lights on for this one because, judging from the trailer, it looks like it’s Tom Hanks being Tom Hanks, doing the right thing in the face of overwhelming odds. I’m grabbing a blanket from the hallway closet right now in preparation for the kind of cozy comfort that sort of movie would provide.
“The Father”: Do you remember Michael Haneke’s “Amour”? That devastating, dread-filled look at the inevitable decay of aging was sunshine, lollipops and rainbows compared to this horribly sad film about a man disappearing into Alzheimer’s. Anthony Hopkins makes the harrowing journey worth it though.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”: Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman star in this adaptation of the August Wilson play exploring tensions between Black blues musicians and producers of a white-owned record company in the 1920s. Boseman’s shocking death in August promises to make this, his final performance, an emotionally charged journey.
“Hillbilly Elegy”: Ron Howard directs this adaptation of J.D. Vance’s memoir looking at his Appalachian upbringing and the failings of working-class politics. Amy Adams and Glenn Close star. Between them, they own 13 Oscar nominations without a win.
“Minari”: Lee Isaac Chung’s film took both the grand jury prize and the audience award at Sundance, winning acclaim for its tender look at a young Korean American boy who moves to an Arkansas farm with his family. A24 still hasn’t set a release date for the movie but did unveil an official trailer last week, leading to optimism that the studio will find a way to properly release this low-key gem.
“Da 5 Bloods”: One of Spike Lee’s best. Which makes it one of the year’s best. Also: Delroy Lindo’s fearsome turn as a Black Trump supporter should win an Oscar, be it lead or supporting.
THE BEST, BUT ... PROBABLY TOO GOOD FOR THE OSCARS
Oscar voters have slowly expanded the parameters of what constitutes a “best picture” over the past decade, nominating Jordan Peele’s social thriller “Get Out” and giving the top prize to Bong’s “Parasite” last year, a historic win for a non-English language movie. But genre snobbery persists, as does an aversion to challenging fare that doesn’t have an army of awards consultants behind it.
You’d think that this year might be different with a smaller pool of contenders — and maybe it will be. Certainly, you could make a strong case for Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” (as my colleague, Justin Chang, did several months ago), a gentle, enchanting western that has only improved with time. Eliza Hittman’s tough-minded teen abortion drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” handles its subject with empathy and understanding. Its star, newcomer Sidney Flanigan, deserves consideration for lead actress, as does Elisabeth Moss for her work in the widely seen psychological horror movie “The Invisible Man” and “Shirley,” a sharp look at the life of writer Shirley Jackson.
Julia Garner just won her second Emmy for “Ozark,” and fans of the show should track down her quiet, expressive turn in Kitty Green’s “The Assistant,” playing an aide to a predatory film industry mogul. And since comedies are perennially overlooked, let’s not forget “Palm Springs,” a funny, inventive look at a couple of people trying to find a way through living the same stupid day over and over again. It might be the most relatable, relevant movie of the year. (Quick question: What month is this again?)
I know I mentioned that reinforcements aren’t on the way. But there is a little hope. “Soul” will arrive on Disney+ on Christmas, and I’m on board for any Pete Docter Pixar movie. “Respect,” the Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson, is scheduled to open Jan. 15. Another singer bio-drama, the Lee Daniels-directed “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” lands a month later, with Andra Day playing the legendary jazz singer. Warner Bros. hasn’t set a date for “Judas and the Black Messiah,” but it stars Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, and that’s enough to put me in the theater. Meaning my living room. Though, hopefully, this too shall pass.
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