Filmmakers need to be a bit psychic. They work on projects for years, not knowing if the fickle audience will connect with the themes and topics when the film eventually opens. In 2020, the movie gods have smiled: A number of awards contenders are centered on health and work — concerns that are especially crucial this year, though no one could have predicted this when the projects began.
Characters who are forced to change their lives have been a staple of drama since Sophocles. This year, the theme has added impact.
In “Nomadland,” Frances McDormand loses her job and her husband dies. So she leaves her home and lives out of her van, traveling to wherever there is paying work. In “Sound of Metal,” a drummer (Riz Ahmed) goes deaf and has to completely rethink his profession and his music. Sandra (Clare Dunne), the protagonist of “Herself,” separates from her abusive husband and starts a new life, as symbolized by the decision to build her own house, something she knows nothing about; and Jacob (Steven Yeun) in “Minari” quits his comfortable factory work in California to start over again as a farmer in Arkansas.
These characters’ lives have been turned upside-down. In 2020, we all know people who’ve had to make adjustments, but this group of characters is dealing with major upheavals, more extreme than most.
Another recurring theme this year is health. That includes the title character in “Mank,” who’s having a hard time after too many years of booze and cigarettes. Beyond that, 2020 offers a surprising amount of films dealing with mental health — and in a year of COVID, isolation, a disruptive presidential election and financial concerns, the topic hits close to home.
That roster includes the lead characters in “Pieces of a Woman,” a couple (Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf) who are dealing with loss and depression, and “Promising Young Woman” (Carey Mulligan) whose mental health seems fragile, to say the least, though it doesn’t seem to worry her.
A major sub-theme in this category is dementia.
In “Supernova,” novelist Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is facing his mental deterioration and asks, “Can you tell that it’s gotten worse?” His partner Sam (Colin Firth) discreetly doesn’t answer.
Sam’s loving support may make him caregiver of the year, but John (Viggo Mortensen) in “Falling” is also eligible for that prize. In a movie written and directed by Mortensen, it soon becomes clear that John’s father Willis (Lance Henrikson) has always been psychologically abusive to his kids and his dementia is aggravating the situation. John takes the abuse, patiently saying at one point, “I promised myself I was not gonna rise to the bait. I’m trying to help you, dad.” But when John finally explodes at his father, it’s cathartic for him, and for the audience.
In “The Artist’s Wife,” Lena Olin is dealing with her husband’s (Bruce Dern) fade into Alzheimer’s. She has flashes of anger that make her sometimes seems more irrational than he is and when she exclaims, “I feel like I’m losing control,” she sums up the fear of many 2020 characters and members of the audience as well.
“The Father,” in which writer-director Florian Zeller makes his filmmaking debut, perfectly captures the zeitgeist. The audience shares the disorientation and confusion of title character Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), as various people give him information; they contradict each other and his own perceptions of reality. In frustration, Anthony says, “There’s something that doesn’t make sense about this … I don’t know what’s happening anymore.”
At a time when the Trump White House spent years presenting “alternate facts,” and when accepted truth (including scientific data about the coronavirus, climate change and election results) is dismissed, the phrase “I don’t know what’s happening any more” could be the defining sentiment of 2020.
Tusker in “Supernova” jokes about his condition; when he sits down to chat with Sam, he calls it “The Dementia Hour.” But Sam says simply, “We need to plan, Tusker.”
We’re all waiting for things to be “normal” again, but we have to admit that it might not happen. Yes, “we need to plan.”
As with most things in life, the adjustments to change come in varying degrees.
“The Personal History of David Copperfield” begins with Charles Dickens’ famous opening line, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Spoiler alert: Copperfield (Dev Patel) turns out to be the hero, but it isn’t easy.
“One Night in Miami” centers on four men who are in the midst of discovering themselves. Each has different wants and needs, and each learns about himself through friendship with the others.
The women in “Let Them All Talk” are on a voyage — literally — of self-discovery. Candice Bergen tells her old college chum Alice (Meryl Streep) “I don’t know who you are any more.” Alice isn’t sure herself.
Many of the year’s protagonists have hit a low point. In “The Midnight Sky,” young Augustine is told, “Your life is just slipping away.” In “Soul,” school music teacher Joe Gardner says, “My life is meaningless.”
In “French Exit,” an American in Paris named Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) matter-of-factly tells a neighbor, “My life has fallen completely to pieces and I’m upset about it.”
All of these characters are making adjustments. But for protagonists in other films, the adjustment is on a much bigger scale.
Like Frances in “French Exit,” McDormand’s character Fern in “Nomadland” has also seen her life fallen to pieces, but unlike Frances, Fern takes immediate action; she can’t afford to feel overwhelmed. She becomes a migrant worker, moving from town to town, wherever there is seasonal work. Fern lives out of her van and tells a sympathetic young girl, “I’m not homeless, I’m houseless.”
Fern bonds with others whose lives also have been turned inside out, including fellow migrants Linda May and Swankie. They introduce Fern to Bob Wells, a Yoda-like character of the houseless group who has proudly escaped “the tyranny of the dollar.” Wells tells Fern, “My soul is here in the desert.”
That’s another recurring motif in 2020: the search for one’s soul.
When someone makes an abrupt change in his/her life, they’re liable to find resistance, as “Minari” and “Herself” remind us.
In “Minari,” Jacob tells his wife (Yeri Han), “We said we wanted a new start. This is it.” Her reactions to their new Arkansas surroundings: “It just gets worse and worse” and “Maybe there’s no chance for us.”
In “Herself,” Sandra’s abusive husband shows his charming side as he tells her, “We could just go back.” Appalled, she asks “To what?” She is determined to start a new life, and eventually has a meltdown at how difficult that actually is.
In “Working Man,” Allery (Peter Gerety) is described as “a broken-down geriatric.” When the town’s plastics factory is shut down, Allery continues going to the empty plant, explaining, “It’s just something I need to do.”
Drummer Ruben in “Sound of Metal” is lucky to find a mentor in Joe (Paul Raci), who tells him that he needs to make a mental adjustment: Joe tells Ruben, “Being deaf is not something to fix. … Learn how to be deaf.”
That’s a lesson for all of us in 2021. Don’t try to “fix” things; learn to work with the changes.
Like Anthony in “The Father,” we feel we “don’t know what’s happening any more.” And, as Sam in “Supernova” tells us, we need to have a plan.
In Paul Greengrass’s “News of the World,” Kidd (Tom Hanks) reads global news reports to people in the 1870 American Southwest. He tells them, “We can forget our troubles and hear the great changes that are out there.”
That may sound optimistic in 2020, and maybe the changes will be great in the long run. Either way, it’s good to know that filmmakers have the pulse of what we’re going through … even years before we go through it.