The 2020 Oscars, cited in some circles as “the last good thing,” boasted the kind of Best Picture race born of the Hollywood tradition. At the center of this story was hero Parasite. Though overall beloved, Bong Joon Ho’s self-possessed satirical drama had calcified as an underdog given common apprehension of the Academy’s xenophobia. The story’s villain wasn’t any individual nominee so much as the pall of the previous year’s Green Book win; an outcome suggesting that the latter 2010s’ highlighted AMPAAS reformation had been more or less for naught.
That said, the category filled out with stock characters worth regarding. 1917 served the role of competent but uninspiring default frontrunner; Once Upon a Time in Hollywood represented the perennial love letter to showbiz; Joker played the all-purpose harbinger of doom. And capping the climax of an exceptionally chaotic ceremony, we got the sort of happy ending Tinseltown is best known for.
One culturally seismic year later, the next Best Picture race is an entirely different breed. Upturned by the challenges of 2020, polite society acclimated itself with the power of the proverbial fine-toothed comb. The year goaded new patches of American public to reconsider institutions within and beyond the world of media. As such, this bent for investigation has ensnared our new Best Picture story. In lieu of an overarching hero-versus-villain saga, insular battles concern the ideological merit of each film. (Or at least the most brightly spotlighted entries, though it’s difficult to distinguish cause from effect.)
In the final legs of the race, Nomadland ranks both as category frontrunner and its most hotly contested movie. The centerpiece of the divide concerns the film’s relationship with Amazon; scenes based in the company’s fulfillment center have run awash in consternation and, thusly, defense. Further unrest derived from a published conversation with Chloe Zhao’s partner and Nomadland‘s eventual production designer Joshua James Richards. This peek behind the curtain left an impression that the extant crew’s roles on set had been unfairly usurped in an act of romantic nepotism.
Zhao’s press tour has perhaps aroused the most heat, but at least a few of Nomadland‘s cohorts have incurred some degree of the like. The defiant response to Promising Young Woman has reverberated since its release in January; the poppiest entry of the lot has struggled to reclaim good favor after a swell of distrust of its politics. Though Judas and the Black Messiah welcomed an overall warmer reception, it hasn’t evaded skepticism over the delivery of the ideals of its lead characters.
And to even call them that drums up relevant hubbub; the Academy’s allocation of both LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya into the Supporting Actor race has all but drowned out Judas‘ Best Picture narrative. Meanwhile, we may thank Judas for dimming the volume on The Trial of the Chicago 7, whose onscreen events intersect with those in Shaka King’s stronger and more philosophically realized film.
Warner Bros. Pictures
From here, things get markedly more serene. As with Judas, discussions of The Father and Sound of Metal have laser-focused on their lead performances. Some have called The Father Anthony Hopkins’ career-best turn; others still have homed in on Sound of Metal‘s benefaction of Riz Ahmed’s unclad chest. (Let it not go unnoticed that his performance in the film is likewise superlative.) Perhaps there’s intrigue in the relationship between these films’ absence of controversy and projected distance from the top honor. But to investigate these notions merely manifests another, stranger realization. The “who will win?” of it all seems to have fallen out of the conversation altogether.
A year and change ago, the Best Picture race was, as per usual, defined by this mystery. Now, the race itself seems to have taken backseat to any given nominee’s excavation. And maybe it should; a defining takeaway from 2020 is the imperative to illuminate the stains on the fabrics we take for granted. When the litigation of real-life matters seems impossible, we turn our energies to artwork. Oddly enough, this can often yield an even steeper uphill battle.
The ambiguity of this year’s Best Picture narrative is perhaps best represented by another entry: Minari. Lee Isaac Chung’s film is not swept up in hullabaloo, but not exactly drowned out by it either. As the story of a Korean-American family settling and striving in predominantly white rural Arkansas, the film has no doubt accessed a connection to the necessary crescendo in conference on anti-Asian racism in the US. But the soft-spoken family drama has invoked just as much reverence for instances of simple, unsaturated joy.
Presumptuous though it may be to say, Minari feels like the nominee that we’ll be talking about henceforward regardless of who takes home the trophy. In this regard, our current Best Picture race is not altogether untraditional. In 2017, The Shape of Water bested Get Out; two years prior, Mad Max: Fury Road lost to Spotlight; perhaps most famously of the lot, The King’s Speech beat out The Social Network. And that’s just the past decade. So maybe it’s not terribly inappropriate to not know what to make of this year’s Best Picture homestretch. Maybe getting lost in the woods isn’t the same thing as missing the forest for the trees; and maybe it won’t leave us without a theoretical “best picture” after all. Trophy or not.
Oh, wait, I forgot about Mank. There’s also Mank.