Best Picture winners tend to capture the zeitgeist of the year they represent. It is not usually a direct or specific correlation, but more of a mood or a symbol that reflects where we are and where we have been. Perhaps it is not a universal truth, and it is probably not often a conscious decision on the part of the voting membership. But patterns emerge when studying Oscar history alongside world history, whether the correlations are directly linked or more reactionary.
Our reigning Best Picture winner, Parasite, tapped into the ever-growing divide between rich and poor. Its win also bridged a long-standing disconnect between audiences and the vast world of international cinema. A year before, Green Book was met with a lot of frustration and ire when it took home the top prize, and many suggested it was proof the industry hasn’t changed at all. The reality was probably more complicated than that. Certainly some wanted to cling to the status quo. But looking deeper, Peter Farrelly’s film provided fans with the type of feel-good tale that tries to imagine the world as it could be. Whether it was successful in that endeavor is still a hotly debated topic, but doesn’t change the fact that Green Book, for better or worse, is a sort of time capsule of where things stood in 2018.
What is the story of 2020? The year we were locked in our houses when we weren’t outside demanding a better, more just world. The year we defended democracy and stood against hate. When we learned just how vulnerable so many industries are, including the entertainment industry. As movie theaters closed and most of the big budget, big studio releases shifted to 2021 and beyond, we turn to streaming services and independent film in a way we never have before. This is an exciting time for emerging voices and for talented filmmakers who have often been shut out of the conversation.
Netflix and Amazon Studios have a combined twenty or so feature films among the eligible titles. Apple TV+ and Disney+ have entered the conversation in ways no streaming service has been able to accomplish within their first year of existence. IFC Films, Oscilloscope and Bleecker Street have strong contenders on their slates. So does Neon, which is still basking in the glow of its game-changing win last year.
There is no shortage of potential nominees for the 93rd Oscars. But with so many options, one challenge many films will face is in maintaining a place in the conversation through the end of the extended season. With so much to watch and so many ways, films are being forgotten almost as soon as they are released. After successful festival premieres, Nomadland and One Night in Miami are still discussed, but not with the same fervor they were in September. Perhaps that will change when they finally make their way to mainstream audiences.
Or maybe not. We waited years for Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. Netflix launched with a great premiere and made sure to get it onto the service before the election. And now, while still likely to nab a few nominations, it feels a bit like old news when we consider that the Oscars are still five months away.
If hanging onto buzz is one hurdle, the other is tone. When the ceremony comes next April, we will probably have been in some version of lockdown for a year. Are we going to be looking to films like Florian Zeller’s The Father, which beautifully captures the isolation, loneliness and desperation of a man with Alzheimer’s Disease. It is a very specific subject, but one that we can all relate to in a way we might never have before.
This year includes more films than ever from Black filmmakers, women of color, and first time directors. Is this the year for Shaka King, whose Judas and the Black Messiah is a historical drama that offers context and insight into the fights that are still going today. Lee Isaac Chung’s quiet family drama, Minari, explores the importance of holding on to old ways while adapting to new opportunities.
And then there are films like Ryan Murphy’s Broadway adaptation, The Prom, a light-hearted, fun-filled celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community. After a year of uncertainty, fear, and isolation, is a happy, optimistic joy fest what we need? Maybe we’ll have to gauge the mood in February to have a better idea of whether we want to laugh or cry.
The truth is, this is a weird year and a very strange awards season. This year’s middle of November is like a “normal” season’s mid-August. We’ll continue making predictions and prognostications. But now more than ever, it is anybody’s guess which way the 93rd Oscars are going to go.