Will the peculiar circumstances of 2020 persuade voters to step outside their comfort zones?
If you look at the Oscar predictions that are floating around these days, this could be the oddest and most intriguing Oscars year ever. Among the contenders that are currently predicted to land Best Picture nominations by one pundit or another are several films that would normally be considered the likely province of the Film Independent Spirit Awards (“Minari,” “First Cow,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”) and others that you’d usually expect to be stronger contenders in the acting categories (“On the Rocks,” “Ammonite,” “French Exit”).
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And then there’s the animated film “Soul,” which would have to do what only three animated movie have ever done, and without the benefit of the huge box-office grosses that helped propel “Beauty and the Beast,” “Up” and “Toy Story 3”; “Tenet,” which thrilled some and confused others and didn’t bring people back to movie theaters; “Palm Springs,” the kind of indie comedy that hasn’t been recognized by the Academy since maybe “Juno” or “Little Miss Sunshine” more than a dozen years ago; and Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” a brain-teaser of the most intriguing or annoying sort, depending on your mood.
I’m not saying that none of those movies have a shot at landing Best Picture noms; in fact, I would be neither surprised nor disappointed if some of them did.
(My reluctant predictions, which should be taken with a huge grain of salt at this point in this year of all years, are at the end of this piece.)
But between the COVID-mandated theater closings, the lack of in-person film festivals to stir up buzz and the steady stream of major-studio movies leaving 2020 for the presumably greener theatrical pastures of 2021, this has really become Oscar’s year of wishful thinking.
The Academy is itself doing some of that, moving ahead with plans for a show on April 25, 2020 despite the naysayers who think there aren’t enough movies to make a real Oscar race. And because the Academy is planning to put on a show (virtual or otherwise), it emboldens everybody else in the game to do their own wishful thinking, and to wonder if the peculiar circumstances of 2020 will persuade Oscar voters to step outside their comfort zones and consider the kind of films they might have either ignored or dismissed in previous years.
Will the ever-bigger, ever-more-international Academy voters figure out that those Indie Spirit movies are often damn good, and more interesting than the usual Oscar bait? Will they appreciate “Tenet” despite the unfortunate nature of its release, or embrace “Soul” even though it’s only making money for Disney+? Will they go back to movies that came out before the pandemic hit, like Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man?” Will they find another gem in the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film race, which at the moment has fewer than 20 entries and doesn’t seem to include any Best Picture possibilities?
Or will they just bide their time through the fall, waiting for the bigger films that feel more like Oscar movies? Those include David Fincher’s “Mank,” Paul Greengrass’ “News of the World,” George C. Wolfe’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Taika Waititi’s “Next Goal Wins” and a trio of films about Black icons that are planned for early 2021 release in time for the Academy’s expanded deadline: Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Lee Daniels’ “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” and Liesl Tommy’s “Respect.”
In the past, I would have guessed that they’d wait. But this is a changing Academy, one that gave its top prize earlier this year to a Korean-language film. So maybe there’s a reason for all that wishful thinking.
Besides, when I mentioned that phrase to one longtime Academy member, I got a quick response: “Wishful thinking? Sure. But can you remember a year when everybody wasn’t engaging in wishful thinking in October.”
As for my predictions, I’d just like to say that it’s too early to be doing this. (In a season that doesn’t end until April 25, October is the new August.) But at this point, I have to go with a combination of what I’ve seen, and the gut feelings I have about what I have yet to see. At the moment, this is my Top 10 – though it’s highly unlikely that the Academy’s system of determining Best Picture nominees would produce a full slate of 10.
In fact, this feels as if it should be a year of only six or seven nominees, though the number of nominations isn’t related to the number of contending films.
“Mank” (Netflix): David Fincher + Gary Oldman + a story about Golden Age Hollywood.
“Nomadland” (Searchlight): “She works with nonprofessional actors and she’s Terrence Malick,” one Academy member said of director Chloe Zhao’s rough-hewn but lyrical state-of-the-union drama (which does have two unimpeachably low-key pros, Frances McDormand and David Strathairn).
“News of the World” (Universal): Paul Greengrass can be a thrilling filmmaker, and he’s got a period story and everybody’s favorite COVID-beater, Tom Hanks.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Netflix): Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom-plus drama makes language visceral and is a complete actors’ feast. And there are lots of actors in the Academy.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Netflix): On the basis of the trailer (very stylized but rich), Viola Davis will be a force of nature and Chadwick Boseman will have a grand, final showcase.
“Da 5 Bloods” (Netflix): Spike Lee’s last film, “BlacKkKlansman,” rode a spring debut to a Best Picture nomination, and nobody can hold the Netflix streaming debut against it because almost every other contender has ended up streaming as well.
“One Night in Miami” (Amazon): Regina King’s feature directorial debut is another feast for actors and a charged slice of semi-history.
“The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics): It would normally be a strong contender for stars Olivia Colman and especially Anthony Hopkins, but in a leaner year people might respond to the film’s artful, deliciously brain-teasing construction as well.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (Paramount): A Lee Daniels film hasn’t been nominated for Best Picture since 2009’s “Precious,” but this one feels as if it could strike the right artistic and thematic notes.
“Tenet” (Warner Bros.): The big questions are whether voters will respond to bravura filmmaking if they don’t see it the way Christopher Nolan would like them to see it (i.e., on a huge screen).
“Minari” (A24): The Sundance winner is more ingratiating and less abrasive than the other A24 indie gems that the Academy mostly ignored (“Uncut Gems,” “The Lighthouse,” “The Florida Project”).
“Judas and the Black Messiah” (Warner Bros.): It’s a potential contender if Warner Bros. does release it in the first two months of 2021, and if there’s enough urgency to the story of an FBI operation against the Black Panther party (and if that doesn’t feel too similar to the government vs. Billie Holiday).
“Soul” (Disney/Pixar): The previous Pixar films that were nominated for Best Picture, “Up” (like this one, directed by Pete Docter) and “Toy Story 3,” benefited from the two years in which Oscar rules mandated a flat 10 nominees. It’ll be tougher for an animated film to get in under the current rules creating a variable number of nominees. (Next year, those rules will be changed.)
“The Life Ahead” (Netflix): Edoardo Ponti directs his mother, Sophia Loren, in a drama about an aging Holocaust survivor in failing health. It has the ingredients to be a glorious tearjerker, and the Academy has been known to go for those.
“The Outpost” (Screen Media): If Rod Lurie’s immersive combat movie is seen by enough voters (with big screens and good sound systems), it has a chance to get some traction.
And yes, there are reasons for another dozen or so movies to think they have a shot, some that are mentioned above and others that aren’t. Hell, the Oscar chances for “Parasite,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Whiplash” probably felt like wishful thinking at some point, too.