The Oscars are in no-man's-land


Illustration by Max Zhang.

The Oscars are stuck in no man’s land. After a bizarre and depressing year without weekly pilgrimages to the cinema, the 93rd Academy Awards had significantly less energy surrounding it than the previous year’s ceremony. This year’s Oscars––and likely many more to come––lacked an exciting x-factor like Parasite, the Korean film that swept up four Academy Awards last year, energizing the entire ceremony. Each of the four times Parasite was announced as a winner, Twitter was sent into a frenzy as critics and cinephiles celebrated its wins as though they themselves had just been handed a golden statuette. Most years, a disappointingly large number of awards have seemed to already be sewn up to anyone semi-following the awards circuit, making Parasite’s shock wins all the sweeter.


Enter 2021. Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland was as close to a lock to win both Best Picture and Best Director as we’ve seen in the past decade. While the meditative film was an unconventional choice to be anointed as frontrunner, the fact that it ran so far ahead of its peers dampened the anticipation for the ceremony. The night of the awards thus became a march towards the inevitable rather than a gleeful unknown.


While a late push for Minari and Judas and the Black Messiah (the two best films nominated for Best Picture) to play spoiler wasn’t out of the question, this narrative was rooted more in wish fulfillment than likelihood. Most likely to upset bettors’ nights was The Father and Trial of the Chicago 7. Had it won, The Father would’ve been an immediate entry into “Best Picture Winners No One Really Talks About Anymore” club, joining recent entries such as The Shape of Water and The Artist. The Trial of the Chicago 7, on the other hand, would’ve been a regression for the Academy, a voting body determined to take a step back every time they make progress. Just two years after awarding Moonlight Best Picture, a historic night that seemed to signal a permanent course correction in the Academy’s taste, the highest honor went to Green Book. It almost seemed sensible for Trial to win this year after #FilmTwitter scored too many victories last year with Parasite’s coronation.


What made Trial’s chances at Oscar glory a particularly grim existence is how it pales in comparison to its fellow courtroom drama Mangrove. The British film, one of six entries in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe collection of films, was ineligible for any Academy Awards. The BBC and Amazon co-production defies labelling. Mangrove boasts a runtime of over two hours, while other films in the collection are closer to fifty minutes. McQueen, whose 2013 feature 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture, is one of the best filmmakers of his generation. His work being deemed ineligible by the Academy is criminal. Had Mangrove been released as a standalone film on Amazon, it would have certainly qualified, as four of this year’s eight Best Picture nominees debuted on streaming services for their wide release.


However, since Mangrove is an anthology film within Small Axe, it competed at the Emmys instead of the Oscars. This did not stop many film critics from naming the Small Axe films, particularly Lovers Rock and Mangrove, as their top film of 2020. The LA Film Critics Association took this a step further, honoring Small Axe with their Best Film top prize.


While the Oscars’ interpretation of what constitutes a film has only gotten stricter since the honoring of OJ: Made in America’s win for Best Documentary in 2017, shockingly even the Cannes Film Festival has been more flexible than the Academy. In addition to Mangrove and Lovers Rock having been planned to screen at the 2020 festival, the previous year they screened two episodes of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young, a limited series distributed by Amazon. This blurred line between film and limited series will only continue to be more obscured when Oscar winner Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) debuts his latest directorial effort: the Amazon limited series, Underground Railroad.

This is not to say that the Oscars need to include every limited series in their ceremony. Big Little Lies, originally a stand-alone mini-series, was directed by an Academy Award-winning director and starred an impressive cast of bonafide movie stars. The HBO series, however, combined small town soap opera drama with a murder mystery: a quintessential television recipe since the airing of Twin Peaks in 1990. Even as directors and actors experiment with television and more creative ways to package their work, à la Small Axe, it’s important to put this year’s weaker Academy Awards lineup in context. COVID-19 ravaged the film industry, pushing back the releases of many films expected to compete for Oscar gold including The French Dispatch, In the Heights, West Side Story, and Dune. Films such as First Cow, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and Emma had their theatrical releases completely halted and fell victim to being guinea pigs for premium video on demand releases, all but nixing their chances at awards.


The lack of buzz surrounding the 2021 Academy Awards is partly due to its date—the ceremony got pushed back to late April to give films a wider release window to qualify. Keeping the original date would have allowed for less confusion from both the voting body and potential telecast viewers. Unfortunately, many people simply haven’t heard of this year’s Best Picture nominees. If name recognition doesn’t matter though, then why not nominate critically beloved films such as First Cow and Never Rarely Sometimes Always instead of the mediocre atrocity that is Trial of the Chicago 7? By attemping to split the middle between a ceremony targeted at hardcore film fans and one for those who trek to the cinema a couple times a year to see the latest MCU entry, the Academy rarely satisfies either group.


The 2022 Academy Awards will look a lot different than this year’s. The world will hopefully continue to move out of the global pandemic and cinemas will reopen. Perhaps the only saving grace of this year’s ceremony was Steven Soderbergh acting as one of the telecast’s lead producers. The famously innovative director brought a sincere, cinematic flair to a truly bizarre edition of the Oscars. A pandemic-affected Academy Awards shouldn’t spell doom for Hollywood’s biggest night going forward. Although Soderbergh is unfortunately not returning to produce future telecasts, it doesn’t take a boundary-pushing auteur to see that the Oscars need tweaking.

Connor Rush is a senior studying Marketing and English.