Oscars Spotlight: The 2021 Nominees for Best Picture

In 1969, as revolutionary fires burned, the Academy gave its Best Picture award to “Oliver!” Hollywood, still ruled by the crumbling studio system, was almost willfully blind to the nineteen-sixties; even breakthrough films such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Rosemary’s Baby” were left off the Best Picture list, which included representatives of such superannuated genres as the big-budget musical (“Funny Girl”) and the medieval costume drama (“The Lion in Winter”). Under the newly devised rating system, “Oliver!” became the first G-rated film to win Best Picture, and it remains the last. By the next year, movies like “Midnight Cowboy” and “Easy Rider” finally injected the ceremony with a dose of sixties counterculture—but the decade was over.

Two of this year’s eight Best Picture nominees are set largely in 1969, and they show what Hollywood wouldn’t bring itself to see back then. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” dramatizes the politicized court proceedings against activists who, the year before, protested the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. “Judas and the Black Messiah” goes inside the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, led by Fred Hampton, who was assassinated that December. Both films arrived on the heels of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, which made 1969 seem less past than prologue. But what will this year’s Best Picture slate reveal to observers a half century from now? They’ll surely remember these as the Pandemic Oscars, an elongated awards season during which moviegoing was, by necessity, a stay-at-home affair. As Academy voters streamed the nominated films, they were forced to contemplate tectonic shifts in their industry: Warner Bros. moved its big-screen releases to HBO Max; Netflix became a lockdown-era cultural commons; even L.A.’s beloved multiplex the ArcLight Hollywood was forced to shut its doors. Prestige studio products, including Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” were postponed, perhaps giving oxygen to smaller contenders, such as “The Father” and “Sound of Metal.” And yet few in Hollywood can foresee whether the movie industry will return to “normal” after the pandemic, or whether the seeds of the streaming new normal have already grown roots.

At the same time, Hollywood has grappled with—and, some might say, commodified—issues of racial and gender parity. Three years after the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the Academy has its first #MeToo nominee, in the form of “Promising Young Woman.” Five years after the #OscarsSoWhite implosion, the Best Picture list includes “Minari” and “Judas and the Black Messiah,” movies by and about people of color, and “Nomadland,” a portrait of all-American late-capitalist drift, circa now, as told by a female Chinese director. On a recent episode of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” the host griped that this year’s Best Picture nominees were a bunch of woke, virtue-signalling “downers,” foisted on audiences to make them feel “guilty, dirty, and bad.” Maher is the product of the “Easy Rider” generation, for whom (at least in hindsight) progress was a pot-filled party, but it’s hard not to see him as the 2021 equivalent of the “Oliver!” voter, who just wanted movies to “entertain,” like they used to. Except that movies were never apolitical; the Oscars have always included issue-oriented “downers”—and the current nominees, if you bother to watch them, are a pretty entertaining lot. One has to wonder what sense of nostalgia is threatened by the existence of a family drama (“Minari”), a revenge thriller (“Promising Young Woman”), or an undercover-informant caper (“Judas and the Black Messiah”). Could the resistance be less to the genres, which are age-old, than to who’s making them and about what?

Before we find out the big winner, this Sunday, here’s a look at the eight contenders for Best Picture.

“The Father”

Photograph courtesy Sony Pictures

Attention, Bill Maher! “The Father” is actually fun to watch. Well, “fun” may be stretching it, but it’s far from the grim dementia weepie you might expect. Based on a play by the French dramatist Florian Zeller (who directs), the film is a maze through the disintegrating mind of Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), an irascible patriarch who can’t admit that his cognitive abilities are slipping. The narrative tricks that Zeller uses to make us feel Anthony’s disorientation are as clever and twisted as anything in, say, “Inception.” There, have I sold you on “The Father”? Give the old man a try.

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Shaka King’s film tells the unbelievable true story of William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a petty thief who agreed to spy on the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) for the F.B.I. As fraught and suspenseful as a Mafia-informant movie, King’s drama captures the guilt-ridden writhing of a double-crosser and the day-to-day perils of a revolutionary movement under siege. And, like “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” represented in the Best Actress race), it unpacks the insidious racism of federal law enforcement in the J. Edgar Hoover days—a theme that feels queasily contemporary.

“Mank”

With ten nominations, David Fincher’s paean to Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter of “Citizen Kane,” has the most nominations of any film this year. But that doesn’t necessarily add up to a Best Picture win; last year, “Joker” had the most nominations, followed by “The Irishman,” “1917,” and “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” all of which lost to “Parasite.” Nor is the truism that movies about movies always prevail as solid as it used to be. (See “La La Land.”) Anecdotally, “Mank” has generated more respect than emotional engagement in the viewers I’ve spoken to. If it wins, though, it’ll mark a long-pined-for victory for Netflix, an ascendance that many Academy voters who worship the big screen have resisted. Could the film’s reverence for golden-age Hollywood—plus a year of quarantine binge-watching—finally melt the Netflix jitters?

“Minari”

Photograph courtesy A24

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