(Written in the runup to the 2021 Oscars)
Film critics around the world have been waking up to an unaccustomed quiet these past months. It’s the absence of a sound that normally overwhelms everything else this time of the year: the churning of the Oscar mill. The Academy Awards are usually announced in January and given out in February. But the year, the ceremony has been pushed to 25 April. This, and the long closure of theatres due to the pandemic, has thrown the awards season out of whack.
I, for one, couldn’t be happier. In a normal year, from around September to February, everything becomes about the Oscars. Big studios roll out their prestige films, the ones with some combination of Pitt, Streep, DiCaprio, Bale and Lawrence. Smaller studios release indies they bought at Sundance. The movie press pits film against film, actor against actor, in an endless series of prediction pieces. All other awards feed the Oscar sweepstakes, resulting in pieces whose headlines read “What does the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award screenplay win for this plucky no-budget film mean for its Oscar chances?”
For six months every year, American studios conspire to reduce cinema to a handful of (mostly English language) films: not the year’s best, just the best-distributed. And everyone plays along, as if there's no choice but to choose sides. But covid-19 has messed with the machinery. Oscar-bound films are releasing in theatres across the world at different times, or not at all, or on different streaming platforms. Screeners will, of course, be going out to the voters, but the surrounding din is noticeably reduced. After all, the prospect of discussing the chances of films you haven’t seen—films which, depending on streaming services in your country, you may not see at all—isn't inviting.
The fallout is there’s no clear field of Oscar candidates this time. The forthcoming Golden Globes—surely one of the strangest international film awards, given out by a body of journalists writing for foreign publications but living in southern California—on 28 February might give us some idea who’s in contention. At the moment, it’s a wide-open field. Is Frances McDormand a Best Actress front-runner for Nomadland? Could the Korean-language Minari muscle into the main categories? Where do Borat and The Trial Of The Chicago 7, Da 5 Bloods and Mank and Judas And The Black Messiah figure? It’s up in the air at the moment, which is allowing everyone the mental space to evaluate these films as films and not as “Oscar hopefuls”.
There’s another reason for the ferment. It was only last year that Parasite pulled off the biggest surprise in Oscar history, becoming the first non-English film to win Best Picture, in addition to Best Director, International Feature and Screenplay (Roma might have broken that particular glass ceiling in 2019 had Best Picture not been given, inexplicably, to Green Book). In 2018, The Shape of Water won over the more credentialed Dunkirk, Phantom Thread and Call Me By Your Name. And in 2017, the indie Moonlight beat the highly touted La La Land. With three Best Picture trophies in four years going to what would not long ago have been considered wild cards, Oscar winners have become tougher to predict, even if the larger selection is still depressingly English- and major studio-oriented.
Even though the Oscars aren’t being rammed down our throats yet, it’s difficult to stop looking at the film world through that lens. Last month, watching One Night In Miami, I wondered which of the four fine central performances would qualify as supporting turns and which as leads. Discussing the astonishing physical performances of Vanessa Kirby in Pieces Of A Woman and Riz Ahmed in Sound Of Metal with a friend, my friend and I lapsed into Oscar-talk. We have been conditioned to think like this, to categorise and winnow. But it’s not that difficult to stop, take a moment and remind oneself that there are more sensible ways of engaging with cinema than pitting films against each other.
The Oscar season is not yet upon us. Enjoy the quiet while it lasts.
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