This year taught us what movies mean to us
This year, the Oscars underscore an existential question about the nature of the art form
Does anyone need reminding that the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday will be the weirdest ever? Or the most lacklustre? We get it: No one's seen the movies. These Oscars are going to tank. Next!
Was anyone expecting rabid excitement after a year of pandemic, when theatres shuttered across North America, studios postponed blockbusters and prestige pictures and viewers hibernated on their couches with reruns?
This year's Oscars underscore a supreme irony that has yet to fully to play out: If 2020 taught us anything, it's that visual storytelling is more essential than ever. The question, when we emerge in 2021 or early 2022, is whether we'll still know what movies are, or what they mean.
It's a minor miracle that there were movies to celebrate in 2020 and early 2021, the extended eligibility deadline from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This year's eight best picture nominees may not have been massive crowd-pleasers — taken together, they grossed less than US$40 million. But they reflect vitality, ingenuity and admirable ambition from emerging talents.
So the future of film, at least as an art form, looks bright. The business of film is on shakier ground.
It's no wonder Hollywood — and anyone who cares about cinema — is suffering a massive case of the yips. And the unease goes deeper than the changed nature of distribution and exhibition. With movies now one more piece of visual storytelling on rapidly proliferating streaming services, the fear is they've become indistinguishable from the reruns, original series and random Tiktoks, tweets and Youtube videos people have been idly scrolling for the past 14 months. As Golden Globes co-host Amy Poehler said in the show's introduction, “TV is the one that I watch five hours straight but a movie is the one that I don't turn on because it's two hours.”
It's true that a startlingly small number of people — Academy members and audiences alike — have seen this year's nominees. But when we grumble about this year's Oscars, we're not talking about film as an art form, or even a business, as much as a cultural practice: that sense of occasion and ritual that defines its parameters, even if they've blurred in recent years. Poehler's funnybut-true quip notwithstanding, a movie can be differentiated from a TV show or streaming series, if only by way of time and space. It's a discrete, unitary esthetic encounter, lasting anywhere from one to a few hours, maybe — ideally? — experienced with others, in a dark room not our own. And, once in a rare while, it will transcend mere entertainment to become something bigger, generating an unspoken flash of recognition that builds into a buzz and eventually turns into a passionate collective conversation.
That is what defines film at its most exciting, relevant and universally galvanizing.
We may still talk about the movies we see, but those conversations are happening in the same rabbit holes where we're watching Substack comments and Zoom happy hours. Is it possible now for a movie to gain traction and become a genuine touchstone? The subject has occupied producer Michael Shamberg for the past several years, including a stint on an Academy committee tasked with assessing the future of film. Shamberg fondly remembers rushing to the theatre to see the latest Stanley Kubrick or Francis Ford Coppola film on opening day. “That's gone, I guess,” he says. “But I think there's still excitement about discovering a film. When you see it (and) where you see it doesn't matter.”
It's not lost on Shamberg that his frequent collaborator, Steven Soderbergh, is co-producing this year's Oscars telecast. Soderbergh has always moved comfortably between large-scale mainstream productions and smaller experiments, and he's always been adamantly platform-neutral. Yet in interviews he has also been adamant that this year's Oscars will celebrate cinema in its singularity, vowing that the show will be staged and shot like “a three-hour film.”
The fact that so many of this year's nominees are scrappy little indies — or emanated from the scrappy-little-indie world — reflects a year when most studios held back bigger-budget awards fodder. But it also reflects the binary way the industry is now functioning, wherein films are either lavish, spectacle-heavy tent poles or low-budget films that signal their seriousness by way of a grim tone and gritty production values. Just as this year's nominees bode well for the art form, maybe our collective Oscar shrug is proof that film culture still matters. Movies can succeed or fail on any size of screen. But it's the in-person, collective emotional experience we crave and that can permanently burn a film into shared memory.
Strangely, this year might be most memorable for finding meaning less in the movies themselves than in what we missed.