From an uncertain race to great comebacks to major studios, here are some things to celebrate as Oscar season pauses (barely) for Thanksgiving
It’s that time of year, as voters head off on a long weekend with stacks of newly arrived screeners and one big question: Which film should I share with the family over Thanksgiving weekend? The kids could go for “Frozen II,” the adults will get a kick out of “Dolemite Is My Name” and you might find some middle ground with “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
But then there’s “1917,” which actually arrived in the mail for some voters on Tuesday, three days after its first screenings and weeks before its theatrical release. Would you dare watch that epic on a TV set?
While Academy and guild member ponder those questions, here are 10 things I’m thankful for this awards season.
1. The field is now set.
It’s true we haven’t seen everything yet. Among big movies that could conceivably figure in the awards race, particularly in categories like music, visual effects and sound, we still have “Cats” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”
But the last “Star Wars” movie to be nominated for Best Picture was the first one, and “Cats” is, well, “Cats.” So I’m going to figure that we’ve now seen everything that’s really in contention, that the smashing unveiling of “1917” over the weekend was the last hurrah for major Oscar contenders. And I’m going to be thankful for that.
2. We don’t know what’s going to happen.
Uncertainty is good for an Oscar race, and we definitely have it this year. “1917” is great and will receive loads of craft nominations, but it’s a war movie — is it too divisive to win? Will the three-and-a-half-hour length of “The Irishman” work against it when voters pop in the screener? Can Sony find a way to give “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” some awards momentum months after it opened? Can “Parasite” legitimately contend for Best Picture when voters can easily give it Best International Feature and feel as if they’ve honored it enough?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, and I don’t think anybody else does, either. And that’s good.
3. It’s another strong year for international cinema.
Yes, lots of attention has gone to the disqualification of two films from the Oscars Best International Feature race, though the fuss over the ineligibility of “Lionheart” and “Joy” shouldn’t have been “Should the Academy have disqualified them?” (under existing rules, it had to) but “Should the rules be changed for next year?” (The answer to that one is no: Admitting English-language films to the race will hurt small countries, not help them.)
Despite that furor, 2019 has been a strong year for movies that aren’t in English. South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” of course, is the monster in the race, but it’s hardly the only one that will be looking to compete in mainstream Oscar categories. Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory” is magnificent, with Antonio Banderas deserving widespread recognition for his performance as a director who isn’t Almodóvar but is a lot like him. “Les Misérables” and “Atlantics” are getting lots of attention as well, and so is “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which isn’t France’s Oscar submission (“Les Mis” is) but nonetheless warrants notice.
Last year, 14 of the 24 Oscar categories included at least one nominee not in English. And maybe the Academy has truly gotten so accepting of international cinema — and so international in the makeup of its membership — that something similar could happen this year.
4. Indie directors are stepping up and getting recognized.
Robert Eggers had only made one horror movie before “The Lighthouse.” The Safdie brothers were indie darlings before “Uncut Gems.” Marielle Heller came out of Sundance and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” before working with Melissa McCarthy (on last year’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) and now with Tom Hanks on “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Noah Baumbach was a quintessential New York indie director before slowly building up to “Marriage Story,” and “Little Women” auteur Greta Gerwig was a mumblecore queen not too long ago.
There’s a lot of vitality in this year’s films, and much of it is coming from filmmakers who have come from the indie world. Standing alongside Scorsese and Tarantino, they’ve given 2019 a shot of energy.
5. Real supporting actors are out there if you look hard enough.
If you look at the Oscar race for Best Supporting Actor, you can be forgiven for thinking that the Academy has arrived at a very loose definition of the word supporting. Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in “The Irishman,” Tom Hanks in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Willem Dafoe in “The Lighthouse” and Anthony Hopkins in “The Two Popes” are really co-leads who are being campaigned in the supporting category to improve their chances and because there’s another guy in their movie with a marginally bigger role.
And they’re all great, but can we take a moment to be thankful for actors who really serve a supporting role in their films? I’m thinking of Wesley Snipes in “Dolemite Is My Name,” Alan Alda in “Marriage Story,” Aldis Hodge in “Clemency,” Rob Morgan in “Just Mercy” and Song Kang-ho in “Parasite,” though there are plenty of other options as well. (Kyle Buchanan had his own list in the New York Times last week.)
One thing for the quasi-supporting frontrunners to not be thankful for: the note on Oscar acting ballots that tells voters to put a performance in whatever category they think fits, regardless of how a performance is being campaigned. But truth be told, voters usually go along with the campaigners’ suggestions.
6. Joe Pesci is back.
I don’t know if he’s lead or supporting in “The Irishman.” I just know that he hadn’t been in a movie in years when Martin Scorsese talked him into appearing alongside Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel in his new film. And I know that the guy known for playing loudmouths and loose cannons dialed it down and delivered an unforgettably quiet but sinister performance that might just be the best thing in the movie.
So thanks, Joe. And thanks for talking him out of retirement, Marty.
7. Terrence Malick is back, too.
He never actually left; in fact, the veteran director has made more movies in the past decade, six, than in the previous 37 years combined, when he made four. (And his 2010s total is seven if you count the two different versions of his documentary “Voyage of Time.”)
But his new movie, “A Hidden Life,” still feels like a comeback of sorts. It feels as if I’m damning it with faint praise to say it’s his best film since “The Tree of Life” (although I really liked the longer version of “Voyage of Time”), but it’s far more than that: It’s prime Malick, a rapturous reverie that is also tied to a stronger storyline than he’s had in years. And it feels like a true gift from a master.
8. Lina Wertmüller is still around.
The Italian director of “The Seduction of Mimi,” “Swept Away” and “Seven Beauties,” the last of which made her the first woman ever nominated for Best Director, is now 91. She is also funny and feisty, as became clear when she appeared at the Academy’s Governors Awards in October to accept an Honorary Academy Award. On a night that also honored David Lynch, Geena Davis and Wes Studi, Wertmüller was the undisputed queen of one of the best, loosest and most spirited Governors Awards ceremonies ever.
Let’s hope she makes a return trip to the Oscars in February to renew her complaint that the Oscar is a male figure and to continue her lobbying for a female counterpart, the Anna.
9. Major studios are not just in the franchise business.
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” “Little Women” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” were released by Sony. “1917” is from Universal, which won the Oscar last year with “Green Book.” “Ford v Ferrari” was made for Fox, which now places it in the Disney family. “Joker” and “Motherless Brooklyn” are from Warner Bros., “Rocketman” from Paramount.
Yes, Netflix is at the center of this year’s awards races with “The Irishman,” “The Two Popes,” “Marriage Story” and “Dolemite,” and indie distributors like Neon (“Parasite”) and A24 (“The Farewell,” “Uncut Gems,” “The Lighthouse”) are in the thick of the competition as well. But at a time when major studios are often accused of doing nothing but commissioning sequels and riding franchises, it’s nice to see that the majors still have a significant stake in the awards business, too.
10. It’ll be over sooner than usual.
It was hard to be thankful for this year’s earliest-ever Oscars date back in October, when the race suddenly heated up earlier than usual. It’ll be really hard to feel much appreciation for the shortened season on Jan. 7, when the Directors Guild, Producers Guild and BAFTA all announce their nominations, or on Jan. 25, when five different awards shows will take place simultaneously on the first Saturday of the Sundance Film Festival.
But on Feb. 10, the day after the Academy Awards take place, it’ll be easy to thank the Academy for a shorter season, and for a vacation that will arrive two weeks earlier than usual.
So while I’m not exactly thankful for the accelerated season now, I’m looking forward to being thankful for it later.