All that’s missing is the money. The Oscar nominations this year have the kind of balance and range that suggests a happy equilibrium, an embrace of modernity and tradition, heart-tugs and razzle-dazzle, glamor and substance, depicting a wide variety of experiences, places, and cultures. The Academy—which chooses the ten Best Picture nominees as a whole and has the members of particular craft divisions choose their category’s five entries—has mapped out a vision of Hollywood that plays like a template for a restart: a turnkey house of movies that’s ready to go for when the pandemic subsides and viewership returns.
There are good movies and even great ones nestled among this year’s roster, but not a single commercial hit, by the classic box-office standard. Only “Dune” cracked the hundred-million-dollar line for North American ticket sales, barely. Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” with its thirty-seven-million-dollar domestic gross on a reported hundred-million-dollar budget, would be considered a flop. Of course, the numbers come with a huge pandemic asterisk. But the real difference—the enduring one, which doesn’t seem likely to go away for medical reasons—is the shift from theatrical releases to streaming. Among the nominees, “Don’t Look Up” and “The Power of the Dog” are Netflix films that had only nominal theatrical releases; “Dune” and “King Richard” were released on HBO Max on the same day as their theatrical releases. “The Lost Daughter,” which garnered nominations for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s script and Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley’s performances, is also a Netflix film; so is “Tick, Tick . . . Boom!,” with two nominations. “Being the Ricardos,” with its three acting nominations, is a Prime Video release, and “CODA,” with three nominations, including Best Picture, was released on Apple TV+ and in theaters on the same day.
The shift toward streaming is no panacea for filmmakers; the run of the streaming mill is no less homogenizing than is studio-centric production. But streaming does change the industry’s approach to the very concept of success. Because a streaming hit is less quantifiable—or, at least, because standards haven’t been established and services’ transparency doesn’t come close to that of box-office reporting—the notion of hit-ness becomes more subjective, more a matter of word of mouth and groundswells of opinion. One of the most pleasant surprises among the list of nominees is the quadruple presence (Best Picture, International Feature, Adapted Screenplay, and Directing) of “Drive My Car,” Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s complex and lyrical drama, a minute short of three hours, about a grieving theater director staging an unusual production of “Uncle Vanya” at a festival in Hiroshima. It’s a wonderful film, and I’m not surprised that Academy members who saw it were impressed; I’m surprised that they saw it at all, and I think that, for once, critics’ groups that named it Best Picture (including the two I’m in, the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle) were heard, because the very environment is different.
The viewership of the Oscars broadcast has been in free fall in recent years, and there has been speculation that a Best Picture nomination for “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which is closing in on three-quarters of a billion dollars in North American ticket sales, would get the show some attention. But, if franchise films can do just fine without the Oscars, the Academy may have recognized that it goes both ways, and has made its choice. There’s no shortage of great actors and worthy directors who work on franchise films and superhero productions, but the Oscars are both idealistic and aspirational: they offer not an image of Hollywood but the industry’s preferred self-image, which is to say, the version of itself that its notables want to put forward. At a time when the economic aspect of the business and the art of Hollywood filmmaking are more conspicuously divided than ever, nominations and awards become the encouragement and the ballyhoo that people who make films offer in the hope of making more films—films of overt creative ambition that may not make a dime. Whether such a vision is sustainable may ultimately depend, paradoxically, on whether movie theaters’ best worst enemies, the streaming services, take up the slack when the box office can’t deliver. The hard-nosed realism of this year’s idealistic nominations lies in the streaming sites’ ubiquity.
Though the Academy is gearing up for the pandemic parentheses to close, the slate of candidates for awards at the March 27th ceremony suggests little expectation that things will return to the way they were. (For a view of the changed realm of movie releasing, it’s worth noting that two short films released by The New Yorker, “Affairs of the Art” and “On My Mind,” are among the nominees, for Best Animated Short and Best Live Action Short, respectively.) There’s a welcome air of ambition and idiosyncrasy amid the expected sentimental favorites, yet there was far more artistic accomplishment available in the year’s releases than the Academy acknowledged. (To my dismay and surprise, “The French Dispatch” wasn’t among the nominees—not even in design categories.) Here’s my list of what should have been chosen, with my choices for the winners in bold type.
“The French Dispatch”
“I Was a Simple Man”
“The Woman Who Ran”
“Being the Ricardos”
I’m sticking to fictional films, in deference to an unfortunate tradition that I don’t honor but do grudgingly acknowledge: that no documentary has ever been nominated for Best Picture. The Academy does sometimes include international films here (though not often enough); the preponderance of American films on my list is a happenstance of a banner year in movies here, but of an elusive sort: a handful of exceptionally inspired and accomplished films, and another handful of very good ones, and otherwise very little of enduring interest. The main reason is a shortage of ambitious independent-film releases, and it remains to be seen whether this is a pandemic-related blip or the harbinger of a long-term shift in the economics of production and distribution. The latter would be a catastrophe, because independent filmmaking is the main engine of artistic progress in the American cinema. Also note: a peculiarity regarding the year’s best movie ripples throughout the categories. The emotional power, the ingenuity, the insight of “The French Dispatch” is pretty close to that of “Licorice Pizza,” and “Zola” isn’t far behind. But the extreme stylization of “The French Dispatch,” like most of Wes Anderson’s work, makes it uniquely dependent on the quality of production design, hair and makeup, and costumes, without which it would fall like a failed soufflé. At their best—and “The French Dispatch” may well be Anderson’s best to date—his films are comprehensive creations that reconceive the very stuff of movies, from acting to cinematography to writing to editing to the very nature of drama. Its surpassing directorial achievement is inseparable from the high accomplishments in the various other creative categories.
Wes Anderson, “The French Dispatch”