Oscars 2020: Is the Best Picture category an endorsement for Hollywood or a genuine pick of the year's best films?

Oscars 2020: Who was nominated for Best Picture, and what would winning it mean?

Siddhant Adlakha February 08, 2020 09:06:03 IST
Oscars 2020: Is the Best Picture category an endorsement for Hollywood or a genuine pick of the year's best films?

(In this 3-part series, Siddhant Adlakha offers a critical deconstruction of the top three categories of the Oscars 2020 — Acting, Direction and Best Picture. Part 3 offers a deep dive into each Best Picture nominee and questions what about the film got it nominated. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here)

When talking about the Oscars, something that often gets lost in the mix is who the Academy actually is. Created in 1927 by notorious MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was set up as a glitzy, glamourous union-busting effort. Nearly a century later, the Academy doesn’t quite have the same overtly anti-labour bent, but it’s hard not to see it as a body that — whether by accident or intent — match-fixes Hollywood’s status quo, with a select group of artists presenting to the world, in a yearly ceremony, works it considers to be the most outstanding.

These are the films nominated for Best Picture this year:


Ford v Ferrari

The Irishman

Jojo Rabbit


Little Women

Marriage Story

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


Some see Best Picture as a form of Industry endorsement. It’s hard to disagree; year after year, what wins the coveted statue seems to reflect the general views and attitudes of Hollywood at large, one way or another. After the back-to-back #OscarsSoWhite backlashes of 2015 and 2016 — two years where all twenty acting nominees where white — the historic 2017 ceremony saw marked improvements in diversity (seven acting nominees were people of colour, including two winners) and after some on-stage confusion, the Academy even bestowed its top prize on a Black queer indie, Moonlight. It felt like the winds of change had finally arrived.

However, three years removed from that historic ceremony, Moonlight’s victory feels more like a radical outlier, than the establishing of new norms. Last year, Green Book was awarded Best Picture over Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman in a decision that felt strangely evocative of the 1990 ceremony. Nearly thirty years prior, a similarly puerile, why-can’t-we-just-get-along racism/road trip drama by white writers and directors, Driving Miss Daisy was awarded the Academy’s top prize over another incisive look at systemic anti-Blackness by Lee, Do the Right Thing. This year, only a single acting nominee is a person of colour.

How does this keep happening? Well, it’s no secret; the Academy seems fully aware of it, and in recent years, has attempted to diversify its membership by inviting more women and more non-white artists. The problem is, we don’t really know if it’s been working, given the organization’s lack of transparency. How many voting members does the Academy have? As of last year, somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000, but there’s no exact figure available. About 35% of current Academy members are women, while about 18% are people of colour — improvements from 25% and 8% respectively five years ago — but even these shoddy figures are the Academy’s own estimates. Regardless, the vast majority of voters are still white men, and the Academy’s lifetime voting membership tends to skew older (in 2014, the average age was 63).

Few voters, therefore, are likely to gravitate towards works outside Hollywood’s “award season” status quo. The number of period films nominated for Best Picture since 2010 is now a mammoth fifty-nine, including seven of the last nine winners. Seven of this year’s nine nominees are period films as well. Meanwhile, studios continue to load the fall/winter movie season with “prestige” limited releases that stand to get a box office boost once nominees are announced — a tactic dating back to Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter, whose mere one-theatre release in December 1978 qualified it for the Oscars (its wide theatrical run came in February, three days after the nominees were announced).

Could the 2020 ceremony throw a wrench in the usual “Oscar bait” dynamic? Several great films have been nominated, but there’s really only one that would cause anything resembling a shake-up: Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, a darkly comedic thriller about class that earned South Korea its first nod for Best International Feature (and earned Bong a Best Director nomination). No non-English language film has ever won Best Picture, and of the nine non-American films to win, eight of them are British. The only French production to win, The Artist, is — quite fittingly — a Hollywood silent-era throwback.

This year, the Academy’s gaze continues to be largely nostalgic, harkening back to different eras across the 19th and 20th centuries. But what would awarding each of these nine nominees actually mean, and what does their inclusion in the Best Picture field say about where cinema is right now, and where it’s headed?

1) 1917

A film likely to sweep the technical categories — it’s up for Best Director, Score, Cinematography, Hair & Makeup, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects and Production Design — Sam Mendes’ war drama is among the showier films nominated this year. That’s a big reason it feels like such an Academy darling; regardless of what works and what doesn’t, it’s a film where technical prowess takes center stage in order to tell its story.

Oscars 2020 Is the Best Picture category an endorsement for Hollywood or a genuine pick of the years best films

A still from 1917. Twitter

Films of this nature have been showcased by the Academy before (Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Roma and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman and The Revenant in the last few years alone) and while techniques that draw attention to themselves are neither inherently good or bad, bombastic filmmaking noticeable to the everyman tends to find its way to the Oscar stages, certainly more than subtlety or nuance. What better way for Hollywood to remind people of the work its puts in, than by awarding a film whose marketing and critical conversation have largely been about its “one take” appearance, and the difficulty of pulling it off?

It would make sense, since the whole point of the Oscars is the industry patting itself on the back. The film really does feature some stunning technical work (especially from legendary Cinematographer Roger Deakins), and if the point of a Best Picture award is visible effort across the board, then there’s no better choice. That said, it’s not exactly a film whose individual parts manage to coalesce; if anything, its insistence on executing long takes with Rube Goldbergian complexity often robs it of human drama, and of the kind of psychological and viscerally emotional impact most war films deliver through editing and juxtaposition. Perhaps unintentionally, its goals end up being more mechanical than emotional — more logistical than artistic.

2) Ford v Ferrari

Perhaps the least talked about Best Picture nominee in recent memory, you’d struggle to find too many negative things to say about Ford v Ferrari. Like several films littering the Best Acting categories, it’s a solid, reliable biopic from a solid, reliable filmmaker. Though by being as broad and un-controversial as it is, it might feel like too safe a choice even for the Academy.

Oscars 2020 Is the Best Picture category an endorsement for Hollywood or a genuine pick of the years best films

The Christian Bale-Matt Damon starrer Ford vs Ferrari was released in India on 15 November

Reductively dubbed a “dad movie,” thanks to the prominence of vintage cars and emotionally withholding men, James Mangold’s Le Mans ’66 drama leans heavily on the movie star charismas of Matt Damon and Christian Bale, playing auto designer Carroll Shelby and racecar driver Ken Miles respectively. Their clashing egos are the crux of the story, one that I’m not entirely surprised connected with Academy voters. After all, Shelby and Miles read like idiosyncratic artists, fighting against (and within) a corporate system that expects them to conform, valuing money and public image over passions that would allow both men to feel free.

I respect Mangold’s filmmaking — functionalism is thoroughly underrated in an era where Hollywood studio fare feels slapdash — and I thoroughly appreciate his compromise-as-death approach. Though I can’t help but wonder if it’s too deflating a notion, honest as it may be, for an industry where compromise is becoming more and more of a prerequisite.

3) The Irishman

The Irishman is the work of a master filmmaker, gazing into the abyss of the past without being poisoned by nostalgia. No, what troubles Martin Scorsese, and what permeates the film, is regret, as he attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable on screen. In an age where Hollywood relies increasingly on the familiar, few things are more radical than a film that re-visits recognisable imagery in order to deepen and complicate our understanding of what we hold dear.

Oscars 2020 Is the Best Picture category an endorsement for Hollywood or a genuine pick of the years best films

Robert De Niro in a still from The Irishman. Twitter

It’s both the best film to be nominated — really, it’s not even close — as well as one of the least likely to actually win, because of what its victory would represent. While it features actors one might call the Hollywood old guard (“New Hollywood” greats like Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, all digitally de-aged), the film itself being this momentous, this funny, this challenging and this gut-wrenching isn’t really a good look for the studios. If you’ll recall, Universal, 20th Century Fox and Lionsgate were all in negotiations to distribute at some point, and bid winner Paramount eventually dropped the film altogether. At which point Netflix — one of traditional cinema’s biggest competitors —  not only purchased the distribution rights, but committed to the film’s ever-ballooning effects budget.

When Scorsese talked about superhero movies and only certain kinds of studio films being financed these days (“theme park rides,” he called them, compared to more challenging art), he was speaking from experience. The Irishman isn’t as easy to boil down into memes and soundbites as contemporary Hollywood blockbusters. It isn’t defined by pre-visualised action beats divorced from story, or by characters artlessly stating themes that aren’t actually dramatised (see also: Marvel Studios). Rather, the soul of The Irishman lies in silent, devastating stares, and in unearthing the unspoken complexities of human relationships and human morality. The kinds of things Hollywood has begun to shy away from, in favour of more coddling, more palatable fare.

4) Jojo Rabbit

What the Academy nominates in a given year says just as much as what it chooses not to. While the show and the organisation certainly value themselves progressive, their actual progress is often staggered, lagging behind real-world social trends and the demands of an increasingly vocal online public; Nazi comedy Jojo Rabbit feels like a symptom of that lag.

Oscars 2020 Is the Best Picture category an endorsement for Hollywood or a genuine pick of the years best films

Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit. Image from Twitter

Don’t get me wrong, I really, really like the film. In my review, I went as far as to call it an “intimate portrait of isolation and the ways one’s traumas can be made to intersect with violence and ideology.” But it’s a farce. At times, it’s a poignant farce, and in any other year, I wouldn’t feel as uneasy about its inclusion as I do in 2020 — for one key reason: Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, a soulful World War II film that hasn’t received nearly the same acclaim.

Ah, the pitfalls of an award season based on “for your consideration” campaigns.

Jojo Rabbit is about doing right from a position of safety, power and comfort. It’s a relevant story, no doubt, but its counterpart by Malick is a much richer, much deeper, much more complex exploration of similar ideas. In A Hidden Life, Malick views the tale of a real-world conscientious objector through the lens of an omniscient child, painting faith, morality and conviction as things in need of constant nurture. It’s a far more challenging story, and a call to action about the difficulty and immediate cost of standing up to evil — with the knowledge that any moral stance, or small act of resistance, stands a chance of being crushed by fascist boot-heels. While it feels like folly to compare farce to grounded drama (no matter how ethereally the latter is filmed), one movie is about standing up to a fantasy Hitler with a Kiwi accent; the other, about holding on to the belief that we aren’t powerless against the tides of history.

5) Joker

It shouldn’t feel like a caveat to praise Joaquin Phoenix, but it does. His performance is a make-or-break element of an otherwise dull film, anchoring it and creating subtext where little actually exists. Without Phoenix and the ideas he improvised, Joker is barely, minimally functional. Which, of course, is not to discount the tremendous work at all levels of production to make the film look and sound alluring. But regardless of its litany of nominations (Best Picture, Best Director and more), the film isn’t really about anything, despite having the appearance of meaning.

Oscars 2020 Is the Best Picture category an endorsement for Hollywood or a genuine pick of the years best films

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.

However, more so than its lack of thematic coherence, its lack of narrative framing, its lack of understanding of its own economic and mental health subplots, and its lack of anything resembling socio-political context — despite constant allusions to the socio-political — what’s most irksome about Joker is how much it feels like this year’s Green Book. It’s a film about the past that thoroughly misunderstands the present, and its inclusion in the Best Picture field feels obnoxiously stubborn. A backlash, if you will, to the Academy being pushed to not only be more progressive, but to be smarter about what that actually means. Even the aesthetic prowess that seems to justify its presence feels like a sham.

Good artists borrow, great artists steal, but artists like Todd Phillips meaninglessly re-assemble techniques and imagery without ensuring they belong. Stylistically, it plays like a parody of the Safdie Brothers — whose Uncut Gems, by the way, is one of the year’s best, most original films (another egregious Oscar omission). You’ve likely heard how much Joker’s plot resembles Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, but it’s also incredibly unlike them; Joker has nothing approaching their artistic risks, their dramatic edges and their penchant for empathetic narrative commentary on broken, violent men in desperate search of recognition.

6) Little Women

If there was one woman who should’ve been nominated for Best Director this year, it’s Greta Gerwig. Her second solo effort is tremendously clever, remixing 150-year-old material in a manner that feels truly engaged with it, as if we’re watching both volumes of Louisa May Alcott’s novel unfold at once. A traditional period/costume drama has never felt so experimental.

Oscars 2020 Is the Best Picture category an endorsement for Hollywood or a genuine pick of the years best films

Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Eliza Scanlen in a still from Little Women

If 1917 is lauded for its technical acumen, then so, too, should Little Women. Its sound design is impeccable, creating soundscapes of joy and loneliness through the way it mixes dialogue; its cinematography, sets and costumes ground us in time and place, in a story that hops quickly between time periods to create juxtapositions between moments of loss, joy and uncertainty, in a story not entirely unlike Gerwig’s Lady Bird, about the domestic and professional complications female artists are forced to balance.

To award it Best Picture would be to acknowledge that great, soul-bearing work needn’t be bombastic. It can be as subtle as the sound of a turning page, a motif that returns during vital moments in Jo’s journey from child to adult. But in an Oscar year such as this, the film is made to feel like an also-ran, given what the Academy seems to generally reward. There’s a bit of tongue-in-cheek wisdom that often helps predict a given category: swap out “Best” for “Most” and the winners reveal themselves. Little Women is not the “Most” anything; it doesn’t need to be overt and obvious to be emotionally affecting.

7) Marriage Story

Marriage Story comes not only from the same school of filmmaking as Little Women, but from the same household. Gerwig and Noah Baumbach are a formidable filmmaking couple, and Marriage Story is perhaps Baumbach’s wisest, most complete, most poignant work till date. But as with Little Women, its subtlety and nuance render it a mere extension, in an inflated category that — despite its aims at inclusivity — continues to have only four or five nominees that ever feel like they’re in contention.

Oscars 2020 Is the Best Picture category an endorsement for Hollywood or a genuine pick of the years best films

Scarlett Johansson in a still from Marriage Story

If nothing else, the Gerwig-Baumbach one-two punch is proof positive that the Oscars aren’t the be all and end all of what kind of films are worth watching. Marriage Story is an undeniably skillful character piece, and one that comes to no neat or easily digestible conclusions about its lead characters, the Barbers. While by no means morally murky — Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are theatre folk, not hardened criminals — they’re embroiled in a messy divorce that both stems from and exacerbates some of their worst, most human instincts.

Simple yet richly constructed, Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical melodrama lives and breathes between its spoken words, in glances and idiosyncrasies. Its most alluring facet — getting to know Nicole and Charlie, inside and out — also cuts the deepest. In getting close to each character, whom Johansson and Driver build carefully from the ground up, our very relationship to them becomes vulnerable. As they expose parts of themselves, and of each other, en route to explosive confrontations, we feel just as exposed. It’s a shame that big studios now shy away from work this intimate, this mature, but thankfully Netflix has been picking up the slack, at least for the time being.

8) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

There’s a melancholy meta-text to Quentin Tarantino’s latest; it’s both about, and feels like, the end of an era. It’s hard to imagine any of the “Big Five” studios — now the “Big Four,” I guess, after Disney’s Fox takeover — greenlighting a star-driven, big-budget adult drama anytime soon, especially one as personal and eccentric as One Upon a Time in Hollywood (That it should come out the same year as The Irishman is all the more fitting).

Oscars 2020 Is the Best Picture category an endorsement for Hollywood or a genuine pick of the years best films

Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Tarantino is no stranger to viewing the present through the lens of history. Pulp Fiction is a ’90s films that feels out of time, but one that gazes back at decades past (Butch is defined by the Vietnam War; Mia and Vincent immerse themselves in ’50s Americana; the film itself feels like an aesthetic homage to the French New Wave). Once Upon a Time is similar, at once vintage and chic; when Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) plays a villain in the 1860s, he’s styled in a then-contemporary bomber jacket, tethering him to the hippie zeitgeist of the 1960s. Tarantino, similarly, dresses the Manson Family girls in anachronistic crop-tops and short-shorts that you’re more likely to find today — exploitative? Perhaps, but like Dalton, he seems to wrestle with the anxiety of oncoming change, through a Hollywood that birthed him, but a Hollywood that no longer exists.

It stopped existing long ago; when Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) notices a “dirty movie” premiere in the distance, she points to a porno theatre on Beverly Boulevard — the Eros — and to a sea change in the American zeitgeist. A sort of darkening, which Hollywood historians often mark with Tate’s own murder. Tarantino, of course, has always gazed backward in his films, paying homage and keeping alive past traditions, so it’s fitting that he now owns the Eros. Today it’s the New Beverly, where he plays films from yesteryear. Once Upon a Time, which sidesteps real-world violence in favour of cartoonish vengeance, feels like Tarantino’s attempt to reconcile two eras separated by tragedy, and two eras which defined him.

In the film’s final moments, dreamlike music takes hold, borrowed from the 1972 western The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. In that film, the score plays over the arrival of Lillie Langtry — a real life actress in the 1880s, played here by Ava Gardner — as she reads a posthumous letter of admiration from the titular lawman. Once Upon a Time evokes a similar admiration for Tate — a rising Hollywood starlet who died when Tarantino was six, living just a few miles away — in quiet scenes where she watches herself on screen. Here, an icon best known for her death gets to be anonymous, and human, as she searches for recognition, and envisions possibility. As “Best Pictures” go, you could do a lot worse than a fairytale about cinema, and about a tragic figure getting to do the most human thing imaginable: dream. 

9) Parasite

Tarantino’s California dream feels right up the Academy’s alley, especially in an era of transition for cinema as a whole. However, it’s Parasite that truly represents change — both as a movie, and as an inadvertent symbol about “the movies” now that it’s on the world stage. Plus, I doubt Tarantino would mind, given how big a fan he is of Bong Joon Ho.

Oscars 2020 Is the Best Picture category an endorsement for Hollywood or a genuine pick of the years best films

A scene from Parasite.

Somehow South Korea’s first big Oscar splash, Bong’s anti-capitalist thriller not only aestheticizss class divide through its visual design — something that rightly earned him a Best Director nomination, along with a Best Production design nod for Lee Ha-jun and Cho Won-woo — but the film dramatizes the mechanics by which people, through very real, very invisible systems of control, are pushed, prodded at and contorted until they crack. It’s like Joker, but for adults.

Jabs aside, Bong’s meticulous technical artistry results in an air-tight machine of a movie, with movement and montage so precisely assembled that its filmmaking feels invisible. And yet, Parasite is also Bong at his most nakedly human, thanks in no small part to his incredible cast, led by Song Kang-ho as driver/conman Kim Ki-taek. Song, who’s been front and center in most of Bong’s films since Memories of Murder, is one of the best actors on the planet, and the highly-engineered contraption that is Parasite wouldn’t work nearly as well if Bong didn’t know exactly how to use him.

The film is rife with explosive, melodramatic moments, but it’s when Bong slows things down and lands on intimate, lingering close-ups of Song that it goes from thrilling to soul-piercing. As adept as Bong is at capturing momentum, he’s just as masterful when a scene calls for stillness; with immovable stares, Song projects — all the way to the back row — the feeling of silently cracking under the pressures of a violent system.

Should the inevitable come to pass, and the Academy opts to award Best Picture to something more traditional, then it would only prove Bong right. In a recent interview, the director said: “The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.” Regardless of Bong’s comments, the Academy awarding Parasite Best Picture would be the undeniably correct decision.

The film itself speaks, universally, to the growing global discord against systems of injustice, and by virtue of being “foreign” to the American experience and perspective, its endorsement by the Academy would be a powerful — if momentary — expansion of what great cinema entails in the minds of worldwide audiences. The Oscars would feel truly international, and more important than they have in years.

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