Decision week for Oscar voters always stirs waves of pontification, but, having reached 2020, it may be useful to take a page from Tom Hanks’ ambitious CNN documentary The Movies. He decided to group movies by the decade, not just by the year, to assess what each period told us about our pop culture.
Arguably, the best movies of 2010-2020 bridged the gap between documentary and fiction in an effort to uncover the truth. Hence, while superhero fantasies captured the box office, the major awards were heaped on fact-based films like The Hurt Locker, Spotlight, Argo or 12 Years a Slave. In this vein, the emergence of Parasite as an Oscar favorite this year carried a certain inevitability.
All this represented a sharp change from the films of the previous decade, its winners then reflecting a bleary sentimentalism — Crash, Slumdog Millionaire, Million Dollar Baby, etc. Some gurus cite 2009 as a transition year, when imposing films like The Dark Knight and Wall-E were surprisingly overlooked, with the Academy under mounting pressure to expand the contenders lineup to 10 pictures. By 2010 the list included not only Avatar but also The Social Network and Winter’s Bone.
The CNN doc, created by Hanks and Gary Goetzman, was helpful in reminding us of broader trends: Movies of the ’60s like Midnight Cowboy and Dr. Stangelove were stunningly disruptive, reflecting their times. The ‘70s gave us All the President’s Men and The Godfather, but that was before a storytelling blandness overtook the next decade, symbolized by Driving Miss Daisy, Ordinary People and Ghandi.
Generalizations about eras, or movies, are always risky, to be sure. Critics might argue that the dominant mood of the past decade was anarchic eccentricity – witness Birdman or The Artist or even A Beautiful Mind. The “serious” film critics, however, would insist that the entire list of Oscar contenders is irrelevant; their annual “best picture” favorites consist of films most of us have never seen or heard of.
Indeed, no contenders list this year includes films from two of our most celebrated filmmakers, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, both of whose work is barred in the U.S. from exhibition. Their exclusion tangentially reminds us of perhaps the most important change in the Oscar criteria – the politics of inclusion and diversity. The several thousand new Academy members now hear insistent voices encouraging them to weigh issues beyond the artistry of performance or the cohesion of the narrative: Are the casts representative? Are the filmmakers?
In view of this, the controversies of past years seem pedestrian by comparison: In the 1940s studio chiefs set off a rebellion by instructing employees to cast their votes only for studio product – Warner Bros people were required to vote for Warner Bros films, or risk the wrath of the Warner brothers.
Much later, a rebellion was triggered by the blatant electioneering by Harvey Weinstein, favoring films like Chocolat or Shakespeare in Love. Later still, the exclusion of The Dark Knight in 2009 triggered charges that Academy criteria had become too esoteric and anti-populist – an argument that resulted in the creation of a short-lived category of “popular” films.
Given the fragmentation of the marketplace, politically and culturally, it’s impossible to predict the films of the coming decade. The movies of 2019 will be respected and even honored by the class of 2020, but as new criteria prevail, the movies will change and so will the rebellions.