Oscars are a time capsule. Though pundits may quibble about nominees or winners, one thing is beyond question: The film choices reflect the year in which they were released.
For example, in 1946, “The Best Years of Our Lives” hit a nerve as people were trying to rebuild their lives after WWII. The 1969 “Midnight Cowboy” captured all the sexual confusion, excitement and fear of that tumultuous decade.
This year’s contenders similarly reflect the moment we’re living in: a time of racial tension, gender battles, political wars, health issues and an overriding sense of doubt and isolation. A montage of 2020 film highlights would sum up the year just as accurately as newsreel clips.
Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” perfectly parallels the current outrage at government lies and manipulations. Like many of the awards contenders, it’s set in the past, but it’s very much concerned with the present (and future). A quartet of films similarly take place in the 20th century but serve as a reminder that Black Lives Matter issues are not new: “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “One Night in Miami” and “The United States vs Billie Holiday.” They’re concerned with the role of Blacks in America and the world. So is “Da 5 Bloods,” mostly set in the present day, but including central flashbacks to the Vietnam War era.
Two of the year’s films mix “real people” with actors, to very different effects. In “Nomadland,” the protagonist joins otherswho live in their vehicles, displaced by the American economy. In “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” Borat and his daughter encounter a wide range of “friendly” people who embody the venom in various aspects of American life.
In a year when COVID forced people to reinvent themselves, the protagonists of “Minari” and “Nomadland” are two sides of a coin. In Lee Isaac Chung’s movie, Jacob (Steven Yeun) works to create a new beginning in Arkansas for his family. In the Chloé Zhao-directed film, Fern (Frances McDormand) hits the road when her seemingly stable life collapses. In her case, the American Dream has been shattered; for him, the American Dream proves more elusive than expected. They are just two of the characters who are wondering where they fit in, after their lives have been upended — as all of ours have been this last year by COVID.
The leads in “Mank,” “News of the World,” Sound of Metal,” “Another Round” (played by Mads Mikkelsen), “The Little Things” (especially Rami Malek’s character) and “Soul” are soul-searchers forced to recalibrate their role in the world; each of them could echo the opening line of “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” wondering if they will prove to be the protagonists of their own lives.
And naturally, in a year of COVID, there are movies centered on health. “The Father,” the Viggo Mortensen-Lance Henriksen “Falling,” the Colin Firth-Stanley Tucci “Supernova,” Sophia Loren’s “The Life Ahead” and the Steven Soderbergh-Meryl Streep “Let Them All Talk” deal with aging, health and mental health.
Those last two films also reflect the changes for women. The women in “French Exit” (Michelle Pfeiffer), “Pieces of a Woman,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Ma Rainey,” “Billie Holiday” and Amazon’s “Herself” are not always sympathetic and not always right, but they’re consistently admirable because they’re fighting to stay in charge of their own lives.
And as a bonus, movies such as “Palm Springs” and “Tenet” deal with the confusing passage of time, or the horror at wondering if time IS passing. They are perfect movies for a time of self-quarantine.
Oscars reflects the zeitgeist because artists sense things that many others have not been able to articulate. “Best Years” producer Samuel Goldwyn and director William Wyler discussed the idea of a film about vets’ adjustment to civilian life, almost immediately after the 1945 war ended. They were told “Too soon!” Conventional wisdom said audiences wanted to move on, and get past their war traumas. The skeptics were wrong.
Three years after the Civil Rights Act finally passed, Hollywood made the 1967 “In the Heat of the Night,” a study of race relations disguised as a detective film.
In the 1970s, as the world was dealing with Watergate, the oil crisis, Oscar’s best-pic winners were “The French Connection,” “The Godfather” (parts I and II), and “The Deer Hunter” (which opened in 1978, three years after the U.S. left Saigon). It was a dark decade and these are dark movies.
Between 2004 and 2007, as the world was reeling from terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war, the winners were “Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash,” “The Departed” and “No Country for Old Men.” More dark times, more dark movies.
The 2019 “Parasite” victory is a symbol on several levels, including the sharply growing economic divide between haves and have-nots. It also heralded the fact that the West has now realized that Asia is center-stage, creatively and economically.
While best pic choices of the past often have reflected the world, sometimes they illustrated what was happening in Hollywood. When synch sound was new, MGM’s “The Broadway Melody” used the tagline “All talking, all singing, all dancing.” That was its claim to fame and that was the reason the film won the Oscar: It embodied a changing industry.
In 1948, 1% of U.S. homes had a TV set. Within five years, that boomed to 50%, and moviemakers were sweating the competition. So what did Oscar voters pick? “An American in Paris” (1951) and “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), two star-filled Technicolor extravaganzas, offering spectacles that TV couldn’t possibly match: “Try and top that, Mr. Idiot Box!”
The point is that art and awards do not exist in a vacuum. Even if a best-pic’s subject matter does not always mirror the news, it offers insight into what people were needing and thinking at the time.
However, it’s likely that this year’s crop of nominees, to be announced March 15, WILL reflect the news.
Some pundits have wistfully wondered what the Oscar race would have been if the studios hadn’t pushed their “big” films (“Dune,” “Respect,” “West Side Story,” etc.) into late 2021, leaving the 2020 field to “small” films. But that’s missing the point. Most of the Oscar contenders are indeed small-scale, but that makes them perfect symbols of 2020, when our lives have become small-scale, with less socializing, travel, extravagances. We’ve spent a year being introspective and keeping our heads down, and that’s what most of the films are doing too.
The 2020 films are connected to one another. In contrast, the 2015 best picture contenders included “The Big Short,” “Brooklyn,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Revenant” and the eventual winner, “Spotlight.” That’s a wide range, and it’s hard to find a pattern there.
This year’s lineup offers a wide variety of films, but they all seem to share the same DNA. These films are the perfect time capsule for a 2020 vision.