Best Picture Noms Offer Somber Reflection of the Pandemic’s Impact

Oscar contenders, from 'Everything Everywhere' to 'Fabelmans,' are a time capsule of how COVID affected us all

(from background to foreground, left to right) Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen), Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams), Natalie Fabelman (Keeley Karsten, back to camera), Lisa Fabelman (Sophia Kopera, back to camera) and Reggie Fabelman (Julia Butters, back to camera) in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.
Merie Weismiller Wallace/Univers

When movie theaters closed in 2020 due to the pandemic, many pundits predicted the end of moviegoing forever. Considering that grim assessment, Oscar’s 2022 best picture slate is a statement of victory. 

Academy voters came up with a great cross-section of films, from big epics to intimate dramas, showing that movies are very much alive. While the list is healthy, the 10 films still show traces of lingering COVID, since they center on themes that reflect our concerns during lockdown: loneliness and fear, mental health, a need to connect despite nearly impossible odds, and an attempt to define our roles within the family (either genetic or the family we choose.)

As announced Jan. 24, the 10 Oscar noms for best picture are “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Netflix), “Avatar: The Way of Water” (Fox), “The Banshees of Inisherin” (Searchlight), “Elvis” (WB), “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24), “The Fabelmans” (Universal), “Tár” (Focus), “Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount); “Triangle of Sadness” (Neon) and “Women Talking” (United Artists).

The best-picture contenders are like a time-capsule, capturing the feelings we’ve all had in the past few years.

In “Banshees,” for example, Colm (Brendan Gleeson) says, “I just have this tremendous sense of time slipping away.” He ends his longtime friendship with Padraic (Colin Farrell), creating turmoil for everyone on the small Irish island and Padraic’s sister, Siobhan (Kerry Condon), asks her brother “Do you ever get lonely?” 

“The Fabelmans” has been described as Steven Spielberg’s love letter to cinema, but it’s also about fear. The first thing Sammy’s father (Paul Dano) says to him is, “Don’t be scared.” Sammy’s mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), tells him, “Movies are dreams you never forget,” to which he replies: “Dreams are scary.”

Mitzi also talks about art and “Making a world you can be safe and happy in.” It may be a love letter to cinema, but love is never easy. The high school golden boy/bully tells protagonist Sammy, “Life is nothing like the movies.”

“Avatar: Way of Water” is eye-popping creative filmmaking, but the effects only have impact because of the emotional core of the film. Taking place years after the 2009 original, the Na’vi family are immigrants, trying to “make Pandora a new home for humanity,” as one of them says. “This family is our fortress.” 

During lockdown, millions of people around the world either felt imprisoned with their families or were trying to connect with them despite the distance. 

The title character in “Elvis” enjoys his glamour and success, but worries at one point, “I’m gonna be 40 soon, and nobody’s gonna remember me.” 

Ed Harris in “Top Gun: Maverick” tells Tom Cruise’s character, “Your kind is headed for extinction.” Maverick replies, “Maybe so, but not today.”

The protagonist in “Tár” starts out with total self-assurance, but as her world is turned upside down, her nights are full of fear — strange sounds of a metronome, dripping water, faraway screams, animal noises. 

Evelyn Wang, the protagonist of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” is undergoing a crisis of introspection and personal re-evaluation, which were trademark COVID activities; she is told by her husband, “Every rejection, every disappointment has led you to this moment. … Goals, dreams you never followed.”

She sums up the feeling of many of us in the 21st century: “I’m still a little bit lost.”

Almost in response, Ben Whishaw’s character in “Women Talking” says, “I want to help but I don’t know how.” (Evelyn could lead a support group that includes those sect members in “Women Talking” as well as Mitzi and Lydia Tár.)

COVID sensibility seeped into other 2022 films, including ones nominated in different categories — such as “Living,” “Aftersun,” “The Batman,” “Blonde,” and “Triangle” — as well as movies that somehow missed out on nominations, such as “The Son,” “Bones and All,” “Crimes of the Future,” “Till,” “Thirteen Lives” and “The Woman King,” 

Why did these films not make the BP Top 10? Without seeing the hard numbers, we’ll never know whether some of these movies were left far in the dust or missed out by just a handful of votes.

That’s what makes the awards fun and frustrating. Pundits try to bring scientific standards to a question of personal taste. And ultimately, we will never know why. 

The COVID sensibility seemed to linger over everything everywhere in the past few years. It was like the distant sounds of war in “Banshees,” constantly reminding everyone of their vulnerability and/or mortality. 

And that may have contributed to the dark predictions about the future of moviegoing. 

People have been proclaiming the death of movies for nearly 100 years. Ever since Variety began in 1905, it has chronicled all entertainment innovations. In each case, the new entertainment options certainly cut into moviegoing, but “open wound” is not the same as “deader than a doornail.”

Movie-watching started as a seat-of-the-pants operation, often taking place in converted storefronts, with films that lasted six or seven minutes. But it quickly became the world’s No. 1 source of entertainment, since it was cheap and accessible.

But when radio boomed in the 1920s, some predicted home entertainment would spell the end of moviegoing. It didn’t. The death knell was sounded again with television, then with homevideo in the 1980s, DVDs in the late 1990s, and streaming in the 21st century.

With each step, the film industry reacted with outrage: “We hate this new invention!” However, that quickly turned into “Maybe we can make some money from it.” 

For example, the movie studios were horrified by television. As Variety reported in June 1951, America had an estimated 13 million TV sets; within two years, 50% of U.S. households had a television. Other studios were wary when Disney entered TV production in 1954, but they quickly joined in when they saw how successfully TV could promote Disney products like films, merchandising and even Disneyland.

TV also kept Oscar alive by giving AMPAS its first substantial source of income via licensing of the awards telecast.

Wall Street currently is fixated on streaming numbers as the measurement of success. Presumably, this will change. The year’s biggest movie successes, led by “Avatar” and “Top Gun,” are titles that had exclusive runs in theaters, no simultaneous releases on digital. 

That’s why Oscars are the perfect time capsule, because the mood of the world is reflected in the nominees, as well as the rumors, hopes and fears surrounding the industry.

It’s not clear why entertainment journalists are so eager to predict doomsday scenarios. But Hollywood will likely figure out a way to monetize this latest crisis. 

That’s one reason why the best-picture nominees for the 95th Academy Awards are so cheering. Though most of the films deal with dark topics, they generally conclude on a note of hope. That’s true of the characters — and of moviegoing in the 21st century.

And everybody loves a Hollywood happy ending.