MCN Commentary & Analysis

A Buncha Weeks To Oscar*

It’s almost over.

It hasn’t even begun.

That is the story of this *Oscar season.

Netflix seems to have blown off the extended Oscar calendar. They are already all-in. They have a couple more movies that will go public this month and next… but media and Academy voters have access to everything now.

Nomadland has become Fox Disneylight’s only title of weight… and it has gotten a deep embrace by the film critics groups that decided to announce around year’s end. The film is the lost soul of the season, as it would be in any season, except that most of us are feeling like lost souls after nearly a year in COVIDLand.

People are trying to get revved up for the final films to enter… but sorry… not gonna happen. The only movie I can’t speak to directly is The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which Paramount just told us isn’t quite good enough by selling it off to Disney’s Hulu. I mean, there is no easier Oscar dunk right now than this year with a game-changing movie. They don’t have to spend the big release marketing dollars, but could go into an eventual theatrical marketplace with an Oscar or two on the shelf. And Paramount is covering its ass with Disney’s money. Not a good sign.

But back to the lost souls…

Aside from Netflix, this is a season of ennui.

Ammonite, First Cow, Minari, News of the World, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, On The Rocks, The Father, Soul… even Judas and the Black Messiah. Moody, moody, moody.

What strikes me as I watch these movies is… all good.. terrific performances… good directing… and nothing feels above the rest.

I am not mocking people who love any of these. Not the point: the point is that each of these titles has something specific that draws specific people. There is a remarkable lack of universality. And that is to be admired, but challenging when it comes to awards.

Nomadland? Middle-aged beloved woman wanders America seeking her peace. You want to find me a film critic in America who isn’t considering that as a lifestyle about now?

And what of the Netflix movies? A parade of B+, B, and B- titles. For me, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is clearly the best. But again, like the non-Netflix titles, everyone has their preferred titles, but is there a single title that is an absolute? Absolutely not.

And here is another blurry part: Netflix contenders started launching in October. Do you want to vote for The Trial of the Chicago 7 because you remember every minute of the film or are you now voting based on how you felt when you saw it four months ago? Or Mank? Or Da 5 Bloods, which launched more than five months ago in “Summer of the Pandemic: Episode One.”

Critics groups abandoned much of the Netflix schedule, so that doesn’t help. Talent is not floating around for meals and cocktails, so that isn’t helping.

It is the system of hype currency which determines the totality of life on Planet Oscar. That is the natural order of things. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things! And The Academy has meddled with the primal forces of nature! (H/t Paddy Chayefsky.)

On the other hand, is anyone making fresh memories?

How many more people think of Regina King as a director because of a Cadillac commercial than her first feature, One Night in Miami?

Are people fully committed to Minari or is it a reflection of last year’s Parasite win? Minari is in the traditional indie mode while Parasite was a crackling good yarn that entertained as well as made you think and feel.

Is anything coming going to feel as sticky as movies that landed late in other award seasons? No big movie stars. No major directors. What will make the PLOP! of these films thrown into the pot loud enough for anyone to listen?

Late entries Judas & The Black Messiah, Malcolm & Marie and Cherry, which all land on streamers, suffer from some kind of imbalance from their very foundations, whether it’s hiring a 31-year-old Oscar nominee to play a 21-year-old, rarely seen historic figure (and hiring one of the other ubiquitous actors of the moment to play a previously invisible street hustler) or shooting an age-mismatched couple to do monologues in surprisingly flat black + white but stopping short of real Cassavetes fireworks or a brother director team showing enormous growth as visualists, but losing track of the movie while they show off their skills.

All three of these films could have been greater. They needed space and time and more screenplay care. But each represents a lot of truly great talent on the rise that will be winning awards for years to come. And I would say, “not this year,” except that the void is so profound this season that who the hell knows?

Two of my personal favorites of 2020 are Promising Young Woman and Let Them All Talk. Both have problems getting traction. I’m not going to tell publicists or consultants how to do their job… but the job has not been done for either of these films. Talk is a harder lift, because a streamer launch for a film that is likely to work better for older people and needs major support from the film’s talent to get it over the hump… is tough. On the other hand, Promising is a tough, smart, unflinching film and maybe people just don’t have a sense of that kind of humor in this rough moment.

I started writing today with the intention of nailing down the Acting categories…

There are three lead performances by a woman that should be mortal locks: Fran, Viola, Carey. And even there, Ma Rainey is a true ensemble and an unknown in that title role would be running in Supporting.

I haven’t see Andra Day. So not sure. But there are a lot of great performances in this category that really aren’t Oscar roles… though they could be *Oscar roles. When is Kate Winslet bad? Or Saoirse? Or Streep? Or Moss? Or Coon? Or Moore?

No one thinks more of Zendaya than I… but she doesn’t belong in the conversation for this role. There is almost nothing left but the idea of Sophia Loren in her movie… you really get more from the side-doc, What Would Sophia Loren Do?. Vanessa Kirby is very good in Pieces of a Woman, but she isn’t even the best thing in the movie. Hillbilly Elegy is stuck in the mud, no matter how much any of us love the actresses (or look away from the fact that the lead of the story is played by a ghost, though that is not the actor’s fault). I have been waiting for Michelle Pfeiffer to find her great third-act role and after seeing the not-quite-Wes-Anderson version of Auntie Mame, French Exit, I am still waiting.

And the guys?

More complicated and a shorter list of performances even worth considering. Riz Ahmed is always great and is great in Sound of Metal… and now Amazon has to get people to watch the movie. Chadwick Boseman reached a new level with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and is also not a clear lead (like Viola), but yeah. And Anthony Hopkins gives one of his less complex performances, but is letter-perfect in The Father.

Love Delroy Lindo. Love Gary Oldman’s work. Who doesn’t love Tom Hanks? Do they deserve Oscar noms for delivering as expected? Perhaps.

Steven Yeun always puts it all out there and always deserves love. Kingsley Ben-Adir is not the lead of One Night In Miami, as none of the four actors are… An absolute ensemble. But he also played the opposite of Malcolm X, Obama, this year, which makes him interesting and on the rise. Denzel is giving us classic “old man” Denzel still lingering on his youth in The Little Things, but we are, perhaps, too familiar with him for this to jump out. Son of Denzel is, I think, soon to be one of our biggest movie stars. But neither of his films affords him a launching pad that is Oscar-nom-worthy this year.

In a season with all the traditional elements off the grid, will we see Best Actress and Best Actor each filled with four previously nominated actors and a single newcomer… pretty much like we expect of most seasons? Could be.

Much of the excited buzz around *Oscar this year is of the “the revolution has arrived” mindset. This is the opportunity for The Academy to deliver the round of nominations that turns the page on movie history. Familiarity breeds contempt!

Or it could be the season that proves that history changes slowly and that being among the top 10 – 15, combined with money and effort, is what brings home the bacon.

One of the things we have not yet seen in this award season is negative campaigning. It will come.

Netflix is not moving forward without a nomination for David Fincher, but there is a good chance that this season will have four of five Best Director nominees as female and/or of color. I don’t see anyone except, maybe, Nolan, breaking up that party. I count eight real possibilities. So that should keep progress happening.

But we’ve only just begun…

2 Responses to “A Buncha Weeks To Oscar*”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    We have had several films this year which have been discounted because they were originally theatrical pieces, and are heavily reliant on dialogue: Boys in the Band, Ma Rainey, One Night in Miami, Hamilton. (I wonder if Birdman woiuld have won if it had been presented on Broadway first). The question being whether this distinction of films being considered claustrophobic because they are theatrical, will continue, as films are increasingly viewed on TV, and subsequently judged for praise and awards.

  2. Glamourboy says:

    Let Them All Talk is a disappointing, incredibly disjointed film… maybe the first bad performance by Streep that I’ve seen. I kept asking myself… What is this film about… and the answer never came. Diane Wiest barely has a role. She mostly sits on the sidelines. There are two incredible scenes but that in no way redeems this messy little film, which will be a disappointing blip on the careers of those involved.

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