| January 21, 2021
2020 has been a brutal year… at the movies and everywhere else. Most of us are hopeful that 2021 will bring positive change, starting with the taming of the virus by habit and vaccine.
I believe, intensely, that The Academy is making a mistake by moving forward to have a competitive season at a time when movie theaters are closed in Los Angeles or New York and with theaters opening and closing across the globe as the pandemic ebbs and flows. Regardless of your opinion, or mine, about the choice to allow films that were never intended to be shown in theaters except to qualify for Oscars to compete, the idea of an Oscar year being dominated near the point of exclusivity by said films with almost nothing in the mix from the five major studios brings into question the very meaning and value of Oscar.
The horrors of 2020 do not mean that excellent work in the cinematic arts has not been done. I will proceed on a constant analysis of how the season is going, as laid out and endlessly morphed by The Academy. (I expect more candidates to be squeezed in before this is all over.)
Given that we are finally in the Biden transition, this week seems like a good one to talk about the politics of *Oscar this season. We are already feeling the excitement of Film Twitter and its pleasure in the idea of an Oscar season without major studio movies. Somewhere there is a Venn diagram of the people who are turned on by movie theaters closing and those who would love to see an end to movies that don’t pass their political purity tests. A significant percentage of Film Twitter is in that shared segment.
But when the entire *Oscar pool is made up of independent films, this gets complicated. Treacherous, even.
We might as well start with the Netflix haul, as theirs will be the biggest footprint and the closest to traditional studio movies.
Da Five Bloods
The 40-Year-Old Version
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
The Midnight Sky
Pieces of a Woman
The Trial of The Chicago 7
The White Tiger
Impressive. More than a quarter of the field this season. All but one of the films has an Oscar winner in front of, or behind the camera. That would be The 40-Year-Old Version, while the only reach-y one among the rest is Pieces of a Woman, which co-stars the great Ellen Burstyn.
So is there anything problematic lurking here? Well, yes. George Clooney, David Fincher, Ron Howard, Charlie Kaufman, Ryan Murphy, and Aaron Sorkin are all very successful white male American filmmakers making movies that are mostly about white people and their problems.
Let me be 100% clear. I think the idea that race or degree of success would be any part of deciding whether these filmmakers’ films are awards-worthy is wrongheaded. But I don’t run the world. And I have seen this issue become significant in award-season rumblings of the last number of seasons. If you claim you haven’t, you are being defensive or an ostrich.
That doesn’t mean that six of the eleven films in the Netflix Awards Line-Up are somehow politically disqualified from Best Picture nominations or a win in this malformed year. (One was bludgeoned on first view, if not before it screened, Hillbilly Elegy.)
Realistically, Pieces of a Woman (white international director… all-white cast) and The White Tiger (a relative romp of Danny Boyle proportions from usually sublime director Ramin Bahrani), and The 40-Year-Old Version (female writer-director of color, but pure Indie Spirit) are not serious Best Picture players.
That leaves Da 5 Bloods and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom from the Netflix playbook, both directed by and starring great black Americans, many of whom have been embraced by The Academy.
Will this matter?
Ma Rainey is the best of the Netflix films that I have seen (a couple have been withheld). Saying that these things do matter to many people is not to say that race and/or pedigree are the only or primary or secondary drivers of these films’ awards interest. But in a cultural time when other films are disqualified for “failing” these tests, there is a discussion — however dangerous — to be had.
Mank has been the presumptive front-runner of this season for at least six months. David Fincher is revered. It’s a movie about Hollywood (which has overcome PC assault… at least until La La Land). Gary Oldman is one of our great actors. Great cast overall.
It would be silly to write off Mank as anything less than one of a small handful of potential Best Picture winners. On the other hand, it is a movie about a successful 1930s (thus, obviously white) screenwriter isolated in luxury because he is an out-of-control drunk, who walks the line of endless hypocrisy in relationships he has benefited from over decades of his debauched life. And he writes a great movie… though the movie is not really what this movie is about.
I can imagine the pieces that will run if (when?) Mank is made into half of a two-horse race by media and the other horse is directed by a woman or person of color and is about some supposedly more important subject. I will not approve of these personal editorials that pretend to be offering reporting and insight. But again… I am not in charge.
So let’s step away from Netflix for a moment and look at the realistic rest of the field, by PC focus.
Female Directors: Nomadland, One Night in Miami, First Cow, I’m Your Woman, On The Rocks, Mulan, Wonder Woman 1984
Non-American-Born Directors: Ammonite, Mulan, News of the World, Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, Tenet
Non-White Directors: Minari, One Night in Miami, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Of all these titles, two have white male leads (First Cow, News of the World). Only five of the thirteen have male leads, period.
Flipping back to Netflix, only one of the company’s eleven contending films has a female director and that is the most personal and unlikely to break through for Best Picture or Director, The 40-Year-Old Version. On the other hand, six of eleven showcase a female lead or co-lead.
Does this matter? Should it?
What none of us know is how different demographics, within the media and within the Academy voting bloc, will split the difference faced with so many options that match their preferences, both positive and negative.
Obviously, taste comes into the discussion. And once again, I point out that referencing these connections is not saying that I think that every individual uses them, consciously or unconsciously, to define their choices. But because of circumstances this season, there are no real “surprises” coming… no gamechangers.
Also, there is a difference between the nominations window and the final winner window. Again, in this situation, even more than normal, whatever “normal” may turn out to mean.
Let’s assume that Netflix will pick off three Best Picture slots and slots down the slate with them.
So Netflix takes three Best Actress slots. Then, Frances McDormand. Then… Carey Mulligan, Andra Day, one of the Ammonite women, or the Hillbilly Elegy stars who eat the true lead of that movie alive (one of its other big and rarely mentioned problems as a movie)? That’s when the arguments turn into ways of eliminating quality performances.
And how does one compare an endless parade of magic tricks by a director in a movie like Mank or Tenet to the vérité style of Nomadland or a theatrical-style piece like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or high style like Promising Young Woman?
Will the over-60s at The Academy actually embrace the parade of traditional directors and their more traditional movies this season? Will they still be high on the rush of honoring Parasite and Filmmaker Bong last season?
And how will everyone split their votes? Best Picture 10 versus Best Director 5. It’s not a new issue, but there are more titles stuck in the same elevator this year than ever before. One of the issues that sloshes around every Oscar season is throwing some BP votes to movies you enjoyed more than you respected… or vice versa.
And how will voters split – if they split – between a streamer like Netflix, which has spent years establishing that their films as FILMS, even if destined for the service primarily, versus movies that were targeting theatrical release – like Mulan or Soul or Wonder Woman 1984 – but got sidetracked to streaming? Is this a season where they see Netflix films as more legit than some studio releases, like, weirdly, Tenet, which hangs out there as a singularity.
In the past, I might have considered constructs that set one film with a constituency against another. But this season, the pool feels too small, both in number and style of filmmaking for that.
One Night In Miami‘s hopes are probably damaged by Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, not because they are both films with black talent behind and in front of the camera, but because both are stage pieces with limited opportunity to open things up, and Ma Rainey just does a superior version. For a first film with these limitations, Regina King did great. She got terrific performances. But four guys in a room is a circumstance that many of our great directors have failed to overcome. I look forward to her next films. George C. Wolfe did his best work as a film director and made the August Wilson play feel like a movie, with only a few moments where it feels very stagey, in a way that is very hard and a step more effective in that way)than Fences.
I also believe that Mangrove, by Steve McQueen, would destroy The Trial of the Chicago 7, although the specific subjects are different. One is mostly about the abuse of people of color in England in the early 70s and the other is about young white people (Bobby Seale is #8) fighting bad governmental policy (which feels current, even if it won’t by voting time) in the late 60s in America. The difference is that Mangrove feels more complete and is way more emotional (aside from the gagging of Bobby Seale). And McQueen is just working on a different level of directing compared to most, not just Aaron Sorkin’s second directorial effort. BUT… there is no showdown coming, as Amazon decided to push out Mangrove as part of a streaming series. So expect Chicago 7 to rack up no fewer than eight nominations and possible front-runner status.
Nomadland and Ammonite have nothing in common except for female leads. But their timing in Pandemic Year ties them together. And Nomadland came out the winner in that skirmish.
The Prom, a late entry, is the only really fun film in the mix. That alone (okay… and Streep) could deliver a Best Picture nomination.
And The United States vs. Billie Holiday has been, for now, positioned at The Closer… the last film to full jump into the *Oscar season. Previously nominated director in Lee Daniels. A female star unknown to movies. A historic show business story. Trevante Rhodes, a young actor of great charm who is beloved from Moonlight. Righteous anger aplenty.
It checks every box.
Now we just have to see the movie.
| January 21, 2021
| January 18, 2021
| January 14, 2021
| January 22, 2021
Emerald Fennell: "I don’t work conceptually, or even in a genre-type way. Generally what happens is I’ve been thinking about something for a while. I’ve been thinking about consent, and the sort of raunch culture that I grew up with, and the kind of 'loopholes' that are exploited to take advantage of women and their bodies. With this movie, the first moment was — which is what usually happens for me — a very specific scene. The specific scene was a drunk girl on a bed having her clothes taken off and saying, drunkenly, 'What are you doing? What are you doing?' And then sitting up sober and saying, 'What are you doing?' That moment came fairly fully formed. From there, I knew who Cassie was and maybe what the film was going to be. I’m interested in Westerns and road movies and the revenge genre, and in particular, I think, kind of centering women and trying to wonder what … For me, it’s always like, What would I do? What could I do? I probably wouldn’t know where to get a gun, and I probably wouldn’t trust myself with one. I think that’s a reason women don’t resort to violence, and it very rarely ends well when they do. But what could I do? And I think that that’s what always interests me. It’s like, Okay, well, what I could do is fuck with people. I could frighten them. But it would have to be in a much more psychological and existential way. And so that was kind of the root of this, maybe: How do you write a revenge movie that feels like something real and that is based in real trauma and grief? Because I suppose the other thing with the revenge [genre] that we don’t talk about very much is revenge and vengeance aren’t good things. And I think that’s the thing that was always interesting about Cassie, and particularly the way Carey played her, was that she just did something I’ve never been able to do in my own life and just said, “Fuck off. Fuck off, everyone.'"
| January 22, 2021
"The best bits of a conference — the demonstrations, sales pitches and chance encounters — are impossible to replicate online. For everyday meetings, however, I think there is a better chance that video chat will outlast the pandemic. Zoom fatigue may be real but the shift to virtual meetings is one of the more helpful changes to have taken place in the past year. Not only do they cut out long commutes and jet-lagged business trips but they appear to have sharpened up start times and reduced cross-talk. Recorded meetings are very helpful for those of us who work with colleagues in different time zones, too."
| January 22, 2021
| December 13, 2019
| December 4, 2019
| December 4, 2019