In honor of the highs, lows, and true woahs of the 2021 Oscars — “Da Butt” dances, shock Best Actor wins, wolf howling and all — Vulture’s film critics joined forces to discuss the COVID-safe ceremony that was this year’s weird, new, and wild Academy Awards.
Alison Willmore: Bilge, I know that, technically, there were only two extra months tacked onto awards season, but it has felt like two years, especially with the chronology-warping effects of life in quarantine. There are movies I like an awful lot amongst the nominees, but dragging out the Oscar discourse for this long has made me sick of all of them — or at least has divorced my actual feelings about the movies from their chances.
Bilge Ebiri: I think one reason why this season has felt interminable is because without the usual series of events and release patterns there’s been relatively little awards drama — even if that drama is sometimes manufactured. Remember when 1917 felt like a total awards non-starter, and then suddenly it was released, became a huge box-office hit, and seemingly instantly became a potential Oscar spoiler? Unless I’ve forgotten something, there weren’t any particularly embarrassing or memorable pre-Oscar speeches, or awkward awards panel moments this year. Hell, we barely got the usual run of deeply offensive anonymous Oscar voter sound bites. It’s as if nobody really had the energy for it.
As a result, so much of this season has felt so preprogrammed. It’s weird to think that Nomadland was only technically released a couple of months ago. It has somehow been the front-runner since fall! But that also speaks to what a weird Oscar season it has been. Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao: unstoppable Oscar juggernaut? What? When you step back and look at it, it all feels so amazingly weird. Sometimes wonderfully so. Sometimes debilitatingly so.
AW: A lyrical meditation on American independence as both a source of strength and a self-defeating tendency, with star Frances McDormand going wordless for long stretches, shitting in a bucket, and acting mostly alongside first-time performers drawn from the real-life nomad community — what shameless, stereotypical awards bait, amirite? Nomadland would have been nominated in any regular year, but its steady spot at the top of the prediction charts in this has been a testament to how unusual the films that ended up in the conversation really were. Even The Father, which looks from afar like something created solely for the trophies it would accrue, is so much stranger and expectation defying in actual experience — just a real day destroyer, that one, but also so goddamn good.
BE: This does bring us to the issue that some people have raised — many of them quite disingenuously, clearly without bothering to see the films — which is that the slate of Oscar nominees this year are all horrible downers and not entertaining. If you’ve actually seen the films, of course, this is patently untrue. But I do think there is a grain of truth here, one tied to something that a lot of these folks probably haven’t realized. The fact that movie theaters have been mostly out of commission this past year is, I think, one of the reasons why so many of these films might feel to some like being made to eat your vegetables. The moviegoing experience is where much of the actual entertainment comes from. If you watch a sad movie with a group of people, it can be an act of communion; if you watch it by yourself in a small room somewhere, it can be alienating. (We discussed some of these issues when we talked about how viewing comedy movies had changed during the pandemic last year.) I’m not surprised that a lot of people haven’t bothered to see many of these films. Part of the magic of cinema is the idea that the movies should be bigger than us. And I’m not talking about big epics necessarily. You go to a theater and watch the smallest human emotions on a huge screen, there’s a grandeur to that. Even if you’re watching a film at home, the knowledge that it was made for a big screen prompts an adjustment in your brain. Like seeing a picture of a painting. You know that this painting is hanging on a wall somewhere, and your mind adjusts for that. For the past year, our minds have stopped making that adjustment.
AW: You’re right, Bilge, and theatrical releases also, I think inarguably at this point, allow for movies to have more traction in the public awareness just because they have a longer life. They’re not just plopped out on a streaming service and left to compete for attention with all the ruckus of constant new releases. And certainly a lot of the movies nominated this year — like, say, Sound of Metal (now streaming on Amazon Prime!) — rely on a sense of immersion in the worlds they put onscreen, which is just harder when you’re viewing something at home with all its distractions and multiple screens.
But also, I don’t know, I’m not convinced this year’s awards slate is significantly more downtrodden in terms of subject matter than the average Oscar year. The Oscars have harbored a fondness for seriousness and weighty themes, conflating artistic heft with topical heft. I think the difference is that award season is usually balanced out by a whole year of other films that weren’t ever intended for that particular consideration — balanced out by blockbusters and horror hits and edgy indies. So many of those just got pushed off the calendar. A lot of movies came out during and despite the pandemic, but we didn’t get the full spectrum of releases we’re used to. If these nominees sounded vegetable-y to people, I think it’s mainly because they exist only in contrast to the comfort viewing habits so many developed during lockdown, looking (understandably!) to the fun or the familiar or the escapist.
For me, what’s turned people away from these movies is less what they’re about than how difficult a lot of them have been to see. Some were streaming. Some were only in theaters (if you had theaters open where you were). Some went to the newly created premium VOD, and maybe then to regular VOD. Some were in theaters and simultaneously on HBO Max — but only for the first 30 days. The pandemic further fragmented the conversations we have about what we’re watching, but it also fragmented how movies were released. So … is it really a surprise that even when Netflix’s biggest titles failed to go anywhere, it got decent traction in the smaller categories?
BE: You’re absolutely right that part of the issue with this awards season has been the issue with the whole movie year, which is that a certain critical dimension of it felt like it had been removed. The last movie I saw in a theater before entering quarantine March of last year was a press screening for In the Heights, which felt to me at the time like it was destined to be one of the best films of the year. (I think the embargo on that damn thing has finally dropped, so I can say that?) And we were gonna get a big Steven Spielberg musical and everything. All of that stuff we are presumably getting this year. Of course, last year had Eurovision and Tenet, two big movies I adored and which I would have happily nominated for many, many Oscars were I making the decisions. But the fact that the calendar was ceded to so many smaller films — many of them very good, of course — made it feel impoverished to some degree. The truth is that the movie world is an ecosystem that requires all sorts of different types of genres and styles to thrive. We movie critics complain (often correctly) that Hollywood has gotten too obsessed with franchises and action spectacles and whatnot. But the opposite can also be true: Too much of one type of thing — however good that thing might be — can be frustrating as well.
So, how do we feel about these awards? I feel like there were very few surprises, which makes it hard for me to feel particularly strongly about any of them. Most of my disappointments came with the announcement of the actual nominations, when Da 5 Bloods and Delroy Lindo got shafted — but even that wasn’t a surprise at the time, since they had already gotten shafted for the various guild awards and Golden Globes, etc. The only thing about this ceremony that genuinely annoyed me was the relegation of the Best Song nominees (and in particular that magnificent performance of “Husavik”) to the preshow, which most viewers missed and people watching outside the U.S. didn’t get to see. The actual awards, though? Not so much.
AW: Yeah, it’s hard for me to feel very invested in this ceremony when the winners have so far almost all been what was predicted. Honestly, why the hell couldn’t “Húsavík” win Best Original Song? It wasn’t just the best of those songs, I’m pretty sure it was the only one that actually had a place of pride in the film instead of playing over the end credits. Also, it would have brought a touch of delight to this tasteful but unexciting ceremony (a friend texted me that it was boring, but a different boring than usual, which is a good way of framing it), while Wolfwalkers winning would simply have been justice.
I didn’t like My Octopus Teacher at all, and If Anything Happens I Love You downright enraged me, but I’d felt resigned to those wins by the time those categories rolled around. I appreciate Steven Soderbergh’s dedication to restoring some sense of the electric quality of broadcasting live from a room full of talent. But this winners list feels like it’s been actively competing against that by going with the most predictable picks in most of the categories we’ve seen so far (and we’ve seen most of them at this point!). It’s hard to balance on any sorta knife edge of uncertainty when a lot of these speeches, as lovely as many of them have been, and as welcomely diverse and international, do feel like they could have been prerecorded.
BE: I think the chummy, casual quality of the event has helped me care less about the actual winners as well — not in a bad way. By turning this into a more intimate and weirdly “cinematic” event (enhanced, I think, not just by the camerawork but also the 24-frames-per-second format), Soderbergh & Co. have made sure it feels less like a big, beamed-into-everyone’s-households, top-down spectacle celebrating the “Best” films of the year and more like a small group of industry people who probably know and maybe like each other giving out awards among themselves. Honestly, our annual New York Film Critics Circle gala has more spectacle than this, for better and for worse. As a result, this Oscars ceremony feels smaller and less … I’m not sure “consequential” is the word I’m looking for. Let’s just say that I don’t feel particularly upset about my faves winning or losing. I would have loved for Time to win Best Documentary. I would have loved for Wolfwalkers to win Best Animated Film. I’m happy Another Round won, but I wish there was a way Collective could have won something, too. But I can’t feel too angry or excited about any of the winners. Not this year. I’m just happy for everybody. We’ve all been through so much.
AW: Ultimately, these Oscars feel like they’re making the best of a rough year, which is all any of us can hope for. And, in order to do that, they’re gesturing toward the future as much as celebrating the winners right now. The emphasis on celebrities, reopening theaters, and community instead of the individual (and possibly not widely watched) titles feels like a part of that — like a reassurance that Hollywood will go on, even if these particular films might not have a sizable cultural footprint. Given the way the ceremony has cut back on the usual clips of the nominees, I feel like West Side Story and In the Heights ended up getting showcased just as prominently as some of the current Best Picture nominees. Which makes a perverse sort of sense, as it’s entirely likely that would have been among those nominees, if not for COVID. Next year — musicals, erotic thrillers, big entertainments on the big screen! This year … hey, it’s Glenn Close doing a “Da Butt” dance!
And after blathering on about the lack of surprises, Best Actor, which was kept for last, went to Anthony Hopkins instead of the late Chadwick Boseman, who was assumed to be a certainty for the award. The anticipation of a posthumous win for Boseman and a moving tribute is presumably the reason the category had been moved to the final position, after Best Picture (chaos!), which meant that the Academy Awards instead ended on the note of presenter Joaquin Phoenix accepting on behalf of Hopkins, who was terrific in the movie and who also wasn’t present at the ceremony. Shocking to me that Boseman wasn’t given that win, though that abrupt finale felt appropriate to the sentiments we were expressing at the start of this piece, didn’t it, Bilge? Even the awards themselves seemed to want to rush to the end and be done with things.
BE: The whole thing felt like a film production, and at the end, it felt like the production ran out of money, and they just announced the final award and quickly rolled credits.