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From 'Nomadland' to 'Pieces of a Woman': This Year's Downbeat Films Make for Apathetic Oscar Voting

Illustration by Avalon Nuovo

Looking for a little escapism? You won't find it among most of the films courting consideration, and that has some Academy members feeling blue.

In an Oscar season in which members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are stuck at home with more time than ever to consume movies, there are fewer movies than ever that they actually want to consume. "The biggest contender this year is Apathy," one longtime Academy member emailed me last week. "Many I've spoken with say they will pass on voting this year."

It's not just that several of the highest-profile movies that were slated to be in contention were pushed back on the calendar until theaters can widely reopen — among them Steven Spielberg's West Side Story and Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch — or that there are so many great options streaming on TV. It's that the movies that are in the mix are almost all "bleak," "grim" and "make you want to slit your wrists," to borrow descriptions shared with me by other Oscar voters.

They are not wrong. While Oscar contenders are often dominated by serious-minded, often downbeat films, there are usually a few lighter, more optimistic options — from 2016's La La Land to 2019's Little Women — to brighten up the overall mood. Not this season, though. Contenders prominently feature a disastrous home birth happening in real time (Pieces of a Woman); a man descending into dementia (The Father); an abuse survivor being gaslighted by her accuser (The Invisible Man); a barely functioning alcoholic who can't get out of his own way (both Mank and The Way Back); a teenage girl struggling to secure an abortion (Never Rarely Sometimes Always); an old woman haunted by the Holocaust (The Life Ahead); a civil rights activist betrayed by his friend (Judas and the Black Messiah); a man unjustly imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay (The Mauritanian); a dying man fighting to save mankind as Earth becomes uninhabitable (The Midnight Sky); a woman with a child running from killers (I'm Your Woman); a man with a child running from killers (News of the World); a loyal servant set up by his master for a crime he didn't commit (The White Tiger); an American singer entrapped by her own government (The United States vs. Billie Holiday); old friends unloading their long-repressed grievances with one another (Let Them All Talk); and a young woman whose soul is crushed by working for a Harvey Weinstein-like movie mogul (The Assistant).

If those loglines don't whet your appetite, here are some for even stronger contenders: a young drummer begins to go deaf (Sound of Metal); a PTSD-afflicted Vietnam vet confronts his demons (Da 5 Bloods); a young woman becomes a #MeToo avenger (Promising Young Woman); racial oppression explodes into violence (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom); a family of immigrants struggles to make it in America (Minari); a woman who lost everything in the Great Recession meets others in the same situation (Nomadland).

Oh, I almost forgot the Pixar movie about — wait for it — death, purgatory and the afterlife (Soul).

None of this is intended as a comment on the quality of the movies themselves. Many of them are excellent. It is merely an illustration of why so many Academy members aren't particularly excited to pop in a screener or click on the Academy Screening Room streaming app at this particular moment in time.

Oscar races tend to reflect the zeitgeist — and frankly, the zeitgeist has been pretty shitty lately: A global pandemic has killed nearly a half-million Americans and forced the rest of us into long-term isolation; repeated instances of police brutality led to protests and, in a few cases, looting; an unhinged president contested an election he clearly lost and incited a violent insurrection; and beloved public figures, like Kobe Bryant and Chadwick Boseman, have died all too young.

The Oscars will, of course, go on, but one wonders if, just this season, voters might prefer a bit of escapism. There is only a very small handful of contenders that aren't oppressively heavy — and even those can be triggering for some. The Prom, a musical, is about young people in a small-minded town dealing with homophobes. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, a comedy, spends considerable time with the half of the country that believes in Donald Trump and doesn't believe in COVID-19. And what is Palm Springs — in which the main characters get stuck in a time loop — if not a reminder that every day of our lives during the pandemic is essentially the same?

In a cruel twist, the filmed version of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning Hamilton, the one title that many Academy members were most excited to check out, and that actually offers some hope for the future, isn't technically a film and, in a special ruling, was deemed ineligible by the Academy.

And so, come Oscar night, Hamilton, like the rest of us sequestering apart from one another and in relative isolation, will not be in the room where it happens.



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