On Sunday, April 25, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be handing out their awards for the best films of what was surely one of the strangest and toughest seasons for the film industry on record. Most of the films nominated were made pre-pandemic (which will make this year’s and next year’s crop of films even thinner, most likely). Moreover, the pandemic closed cinemas for most of the year, forcing studios to distribute films online and compete with established streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. In previous years, there were discussions about not including films for consideration that did not have a theatrical release (as a way to support cinemas but also the studio system) but those concerns were eventually dropped and films produced and distributed by streaming services began winning awards.
Now it’s a whole new ballgame as there are more streaming services than theater chains. That is great for the viewer although it remains to be seen what it will mean for studios. Nevertheless, despite all of the lockdowns and difficulties of last year, there is a good collection of films nominated this year, most all of which can be streamed in the comfort of your home, apartment or dorm room. Even in the best of years, it’s tough to watch all of the films nominated and I have to admit, I haven’t seen all of this year’s nominees either. Still, I’d like to offer my thoughts and predictions for two categories and what should win and what will likely win.
Let’s start with Best Picture. This is a surprisingly strong category. At this time last year, I was speculating that there would be few films even released let alone seven deserving nominees. Several of the films nominated deal with socially relevant topics: historical race relations (Judas and the Black Messiah), the limits of political protests (The Trial of the Chicago Seven), immigration (Minari), ageing and dementia (The Father). Despite these important topics, my guess is the award will go to Mank, David Fincher’s beautiful (although at times tiring) re-creation of 1930s Hollywood that tells the story of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who came to write the screenplay for one of the all-time great Hollywood films Citizen Kane. While not the best film of the year (in my humble opinion), the story is one that will appeal to the Academy in that it is a love letter to Hollywood’s past. Moreover, David Fincher is a talented director and the cinematography is in beautiful black and white and the costumes and set design are excellent in conveying Hollywood of the 1930s. If it doesn’t win for best picture, Fincher stands a very good chance of winning for Best Directing, due to his skill and the fact that he has never won this award.
What should win? This is always a difficult question. First it’s important to recognize that the Academy Awards, like all awards, are political and the awards given are often a statement and reflect certain values. With that in mind, Minari should probably win, for a couple of reasons. First there is tragically a very real and growing anti-Asian sentiment amongst certain people in the U.S and this film beautifully portrays the struggles of a family of Korean immigrants as well as their hopes and dreams they have after coming to this country. It does not dwell on the discrimination that the family encounters, rather focuses instead on dreams, hard-work, disappointment and the power of family. While the film lacked (for me at least) a dramatic climax or point of transcendence or catharsis that I was hoping for, it is a beautiful film that in many ways is very American. Unlike for the Golden Globes (where it was controversially nominated and won for Best Foreign Language film), Minari has been nominated in the Best Picture category and not Best International Film (previous known as Best Foreign Picture as well). By being nominated as Best Picture, it validates and recognizes the fact many people speak languages other than English in the U.S. so it is not a foreign or foreign language film. In that way, it reminds us that it’s not easy to define national cinemas anymore.
That brings us to the category of Best International Feature Film, another very strong category. Here I’ve seen four of the five nominated films and while the odds-on favorites are Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round (Denmark) and the Romanian documentary Collective, my picks would be one of two others: the Tunisian film The Man who Sold his Skin or the Bosnian film Quo Vadis, Aida, both brilliant films that reflect on broad global tragedies: the exploitation of the refugee crisis and the limits of the international community to prevent genocide. Vinterberg’s film is a complicated story about alcohol and drinking culture in which a group of middle-aged men test a theory that life is more enjoyable if one consumes a constant level of alcohol. It often straddles the line between glorifying and condemning drinking culture and the final scene blurs that line in many ways even more. The other critic’s favorite, Collective is a documentary about fraud in the health-care industry in Romania, a country that struggles with governmental corruption. While an important film and topic, the revelations are not surprising and it mostly leaves the viewer angry and helpless (although it did result in a new government in Romania).
The Tunisian entry, The Man Who Sold his Skin, on the other hand is a smart commentary on the disparities between the wealth of the developed world and despair of those fleeing oppression and war. Sam Ali is a young Syrian who finds himself jailed by an oppressive regime. He escapes to Lebanon where he encounters a well-known Belgian artist and provocateur who promises him a European visa in exchange for allowing his body to be commodified as a work of art. The film reflects on both the sensationalism of the art world as well as Western exploitation of immigrants and the marginalized in both a serious and satirical manner. Quo Vadis, Aida also offers a critical look at Western society by telling the story of the genocide of Srebrenica in the 1990s form the viewpoint of a Bosnian women assisting in a UN refugee camp. The Dutch UN peacekeepers assigned to the region were in many case, young men who had little overseas experience and were in no way prepared for the horrors of the conflict. The failure of the UN to prevent the tragedy and the brutal nature of ethnic hatred make the film a tough but important film.
There are of course many other categories and a number of other worthwhile films nominated and worth seeking out. While the televised broadcast of the awards ceremony has been drawing fewer and fewer viewers, hopefully a little escapism and glamour will bring a much-needed distraction from the pandemic.
By Dr. David Coury
David Coury is a Professor of Humanities (German) and Global Studies and also Co-Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Partnerships. Additionally, he is the director of the Green Bay Film Society, whose International Film Series screens international and independent films twice a month at the Neville Public Museum. Admission is free and all films are open to the public.