With the Oscars taking place this weekend, a look at what this year’s Best Pictures tell us about cinema, and the state of the Academy.

Despite over a year of uncertainty resulting in the film industries’ transformed theatrical landscape and the biggest overhaul in the way we watch major movies since the streaming era began, one thing remains certain – on April 25, Hollywood will celebrate their best of the best by handing out a new batch of Oscars.

Albeit a little later than usual, the 93rd Academy Awards approaches and eight films are in contention for the top accolade: Best Picture. Ranging from American politics to Old Hollywood, feminist revenge to Nomads, memory loss to hearing loss, and betrayal to the American Dream to find ourselves, the nominees explore a myriad of themes.

With 51 nominations between them, the eight titles fighting for the main award all provide insight into the ceremony, its voters and the film industry as a whole; their presence in the line-up reveals where the film industry as a whole is in 2021.

Here are the lessons we can take from the pictures eager to hear their name spoken after “and the Oscar goes to…”.

THE FATHER
US-UK Relations aren’t over yet

Despite this year’s group of nominees feeling decidedly American-centric, there’s always room for something European in the mix, with French writer-director Florian Zeller receiving a nod for his feature debut, The Father.

Starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman (both nominated for Oscars, and two of eight Brits to score nominations across the four acting categories), The Father’s exploration of dementia is a thoughtful and intimate affair reflective of British cinema’s typically more understated approach – and proof that the US-UK relationship, at least when it comes to filmmaking, is stronger than ever.

While it’s The Father flying the European flag in the Best Picture category, Dane Thomas Vinterberg does so in Best Director, where his feature Another Round brings refreshed sensibilities and international outlooks to the category and ceremony.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
Eyes are finally being opened

Whilst there will always be Green Books and our Driving Miss Daisys, the nomination haul for Judas And The Black Messiah indicates that perhaps the Academy isn’t as closed-minded as it once was.

A blistering examination of Black history, race and betrayal, Judas And The Black Messiah documents a late 1960s Chicago Black Panther Party and makes timely parallels with events of the previous year, including the increased presence of the Black Lives Matter movement.  Thanks to the Academy’s recent attempts to diversify their ranks in order to create a voting body more reflective of the world around them, the love for Judas And The Black Messiah feels, at the very least, like a step in the right direction – and richly deserved.

Having shied away from more uncomfortable titles that expose the whiteness of the institution in the past, the Academy simply couldn’t ignore Shaka King’s incendiary feature. Thankfully, it didn’t.

MANK
Nobody loves Hollywood more than Hollywood

A film about Hollywood, loved by Hollywood? Who would’ve thought it! Despite entering the race as the arguable frontrunner, Mank suffered from a more muted reception (it has the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score of the eight nominees) than you may expect from the first David Fincher flick in six years.

But the Academy evidently couldn’t resist nominating Mank and did so in ten categories. Looking back, it was wrong to underestimate the film, which documents the making of Citizen Kane – a movie itself widely considered to be one of the best ever. Examining the good (the magic of the movies! the dazzle of the stars!) and the bad (capitalism is dangerous and the executives exploited it!) of Old Hollywood, it allows the industry to indulge in a nostalgic journey through their history while recognising faults in their DNA – and, perhaps, celebrating growth?

We might all be film fans here, but nobody loves Hollywood more than Hollywood itself. Never bet against them revelling in that.

MINARI
Filmmaking is a worldwide, collaborative effort

What’s remarkable about Minari, a film mostly spoken in Korean and starring South Korean actors, is that it is one of the most quintessentially American films in an already Stateside-heavy stack.

In spite of controversy that arose from other award bodies placing it in their foreign film category, Minari tackles the American Dream with a unique vantage point, presenting it through an intimate family drama textured by cultural specificity and experiences. Maybe its nominations are the most electrifying effect of Parasite’s triumph last year that permanently kicked down the barriers for non-English speaking films to succeed in the above-the-line categories.

The multi-nation collaboration is further proof that filmmaking is a worldwide effort, and the richness of the varying perspectives that films can share.

NOMADLAND
Searchlight is the award player to beat

When Disney acquired Fox in March of 2019, there was a real concern that anything failing to fit the Mouse House’s well-established, big-budgeted, special effects-driven and family-friendly mould would be quickly removed from its slate moving forward. Thankfully, despite several of Fox’s branches ceasing to exist, Searchlight remains fully operational – and Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland is its big ticket feature this year.

Looking to add another Best Picture champion to its roster alongside previous winners including The Shape of Water, 12 Years A Slave, Birdman and Slumdog Millionaire, Searchlight has form as the strongest distributor in the award season game. As well as other success stories including The Favourite, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Jojo Rabbit and The Grand Budapest Hotel, its campaigns are consistently of such a strong standard, with an ability to swiftly adapt – given the rulebook being tossed out of the window as a result of the pandemic – demonstrating a well-oiled machine.

It’s looking increasingly likely that Nomadland will be our next Best Picture winner, further solidifying Searchlight’s reign as the award season distributor you want your project to lie with.

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
The Academy voter make up is changing

In a similar way to Judas And The Black Messiah, Promising Young Woman’s nomination success is further evidence that the voting Academy’s make-up is evolving.

Despite personal scepticism as to whether the mostly white, mostly old, mostly male Academy would take to a female revenge thriller, Promising Young Woman racked up five nominations – including four in the major categories, Picture, Director, Actress and Adapted Screenplay.

Previous standouts in this sub-genre such as Gone Girl, Elle and (to an extent) Widows have failed to break out either at all or to the degree they were expected to, and should have. That Emerald Fennell’s feature directorial debut has managed to change that tide indicates a widening taste for the types of stories the Academy are is willing to celebrate.

 

SOUND OF METAL
Endurance is Key

When the envelopes are ripped open on April 25, it will have been 597 days since Sound Of Metal premiered at Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, facing the longest journey to the Oscar stage for any of this year’s nominees.

Where many come sprinting from the gate and stumble before they can collect any trophies, Sound Of Metal has been running a very long race. Debuting to solid buzz that it slowly but surely built and maintained in the following months, Sound Of Metal’s strategy had to adapt far more than any other film’s – debuting pre-pandemic and watching an entire theatrical distribution change before its eyes.

As the unofficial underdog of this year’s crop, its ability to adapt and back up Amazon Studios as a genuine award season player after some recent false starts is astonishing, proving that success can be built if you can endure the vicious award season cycle.

TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
Timing is everything

A pandemic wasn’t the only major event of 2020; it was also an election year. Aaron Sorkin’s sophomore directorial effort, The Trial Of The Chicago 7, pinpoints an important area of history that struck a particularly relevant chord during a turbulent year in our history.

Recounting the United States federal government charging the Chicago Seven with the intent to cite riots in the 1960s, writer-director Sorkin turns to history as many filmmakers have done in order to comment on today’s society. With 2020’s fraught political landscape making this a particularly timely project, the film struck a major chord with voters who rewarded The Trial Of The Chicago 7 with six nominations.

While not to discredit the film in any way, it’s worth questioning whether the film would have landed so well with the Academy in an ordinary year, with its well-timed and potent release no doubt working in its favour.

 

Film so very often reflects the world around us and the selection nominated for Best Picture at the 93rd Academy Awards indicates a group with varied interests, with the overall solid line-up of eight offering unique lessons and insights into the filmmaking esteemed and Hollywood in general. We wait and see which of these picks up gold at the weekend…

 


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