This Year’s Oscar Winners: ‘Will you still love us tomorrow?’

31 May

What generates staying-power in any single motion picture is always up in the air.  Why do some films stay fresh in rotation while others fade into history?  Well, box office helps.  So does heavy rotation.  It also helps if the film stays in the conversation.  Yet, when it comes to Oscar winners there is a strange phenomenon that even the most lauded films of the year will flame out once the curtain comes down on the ceremony.

A good example is last year’s Best Picture winner Nomadland, a movie that was not only universally praised by critics, beloved by audiences but picked up a bucket of honors at The Oscars, the Golden Globes, BAFTA, The AFI Awards, The DGA, The Independent Spirit Awards and just about every critic’s group in the world.  But where is it now, a year later?  When was the last time you saw it?  Why does it seem to be fading into obscurity?

In general, I think it may be the nature of the film itself.  Its story of a widow suffering the brutally cold winds of The Great Recession and then setting out across the American west as a nomad in a van was a reflection of our confusing and seemingly hopeless times.  It spoke to this generation in much the same way that The Grapes of Wrath spoke to our grandparents.  But that may be the problem.  It feels for the times we are living in, but reflects it in a way that reminds us that the winter of our discontent refuses to thaw.  Given that, it is difficult to muster up the desire to want to spend another evening with it largely because of its approach. The difference between Nomadland and The Grapes of Wrath is that John Ford’s film ended with a positive glimmer of hope, a hope that things will get better. Chloe Zho’s film ended as painfully bleak as it started.

Since Nomadland is so current, I have wondered how it will play in another decade.  By 2032, will it reflect the times that we are living in, or will it fade into obscurity as a social drama hopelessly out of date?  I find myself asking this same question every year.  Why do some films win Oscars and then vanish from sight?  When was the last time you saw Spotlight, the Best Picture Winner from 2015?  How about MinariThe Irishman?  Vice?  Marriage Story? Heck, even Joker.

Given those choices, what makes for an Oscar nominee?  It certainly doesn’t seem to blow in the direction of public taste.  Says author and critic Phil Hall: “The disconnect between what moviegoers embrace and what Academy voters honor has become increasingly acute over the years, and the 2021 Oscars shows how deep that disconnect has become.  Of the 10 films that were nominated for Best Picture, only Dune grossed more than $100 million at the time the nominations were announced.  And two of the films, West Side Story and Nightmare Alley were conspicuous box office flops.”

Box office is a fickle thing when it comes to Oscar nominees outside of the technical categories.  Prestige is the name of the game, and so too is name recognition.  West Side Story and Nightmare Alley were not successful at the box office – the former’s fate was coupled by indifference from critics – but they were each directed by Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro respectively, two men that are not only insanely respected by Academy voters but both have multiple Oscars already (Spielberg has three, and del Toro has two).

But those two films were nominated largely because they were, at that moment, in the ether.  What will become of those films a decade from now?  What will we say of them in 2032?  2042?  2052?  Or will we remember them at all?  For this essay, I have decided to take a crystal ball to some of this year’s winners, first to remind everyone that indeed something DID happen at the 94th Academy Awards besides the Will Smith incident, and second to see if any of these films have staying power, and to help with the predictions, I have asked for help from my fellow critics Phil Hall, Don Shanahan, Travis Fraiser Burgess, Peter Nellhaus, Doug Heller and James Plath who were kind enough to offer their insights.  Let’s start with the Best Picture Winner:

Due to the embarrassing stunt by Will Smith, most people have simply forgotten that this lovely little film from AppleTV+ bucked the system and won the Oscar over heavy favorites like The Power of the Dog and Drive My Car.  But aside from that, it is a film with a very wide appeal.  It’s timely in that it deals with a diverse family in a very real way.  It is un-preachy, which is merciful in a film that it deals with a deaf family.  And its well-made, rising out of what could have been a subject matter fit for the Hallmark Channel.  But what of its future? Shanahan believes that the film will make its lasting legacy in the hearts of the viewers: “CODA will be that little movie people revisit, but will never make larger legacies.”

I partially agree.  However, I ascertain that in order to generate staying power, the film is going to have to come out from behind the pay wall and make a run on basic cable where it can find a casual audience.  I don’t know if that will happen but if it does, I agree that it will stick around for a while.

Burgess is far-more pessimistic.  “Netflix films have thus far had almost no shelf life.  The jury’s out on if Apple[TV+] will fare any better with CODA, but it strikes me as a film like Ordinary People [the 1980 Best Picture winner]: a great movie, but one people will mostly only remember as ‘It won Best Picture, but was mostly an of-the-moment win.’”

Heller observed the social media community turning it’s back on the film: “I think CODA is going to have as difficult a time being remembered as Spotlight. It was an ‘in the moment’ pick that won’t be looked upon kindly in the coming years. But that, I think, is a larger problem for film criticism and Film Twitter, because as soon as a well-championed underdog stops being the underdog, it’s immediately crap. I can’t tell you the amount of tweets I read for nearly all of 2021 about how wonderful CODA is and how it should win Best Picture but never could and how that is a horrible travesty only to change the minute the winner was announced to ‘CODA? Really? It’s just a crowd-pleasing shallow movie! X, Y or even Z would have been the better choice.”

• The Power of the Dog
In spite of Sam Elliott’s negation, I thought this movie was terrific.  However, yes, Jane Campion’s western drama had a most divided reaction going into the awards.  Its presentation was that of an American western but its narrative structure felt very European.  It was slow, it was character-driven, a great deal happened without dialogue, and it ran up to an ending that left some viewers intrigued but others scratching their heads.  But that’s what I liked about it.  It was a character piece that didn’t announce itself.  It had the kind of literate structure that one usually finds on the page.

This approach shouldn’t surprise anyone who is familiar with Campion’s work.  All of her films from Sweetie to An Angel at My Table to Holy Smoke to The Piano have the kind of deliberate pacing that, for an American audience bred on films that move with a brisk pace and a clean narrative, may have seemed rather baffling.

As for its staying-power, I think this Dog has had its day.  I was thrilled to see Campion win Best Director, but I don’t see a general audience returning to the film in the future.  I do, however, see a future for the film as an article of film studies.  It may reside within film societies and Criterion fans where it will become a favorite of scholars.  This, by the way, is a crystal ball prediction that I also give to . . .

• Drive My Car
The winner of this year’s Best International Feature was not a film that garnered much enthusiasm outside of the film community.  The average filmgoer, sad to say, just didn’t seem to grasp it.  Many, including critics like Leonard Maltin, thought that the film was too slow, too long and too aloof.  Others haled it a masterpiece for its pacing and for its artistry.

As for its future, I think it will stay with film scholars, and will be studied for years to come – I have already tracked down at least 10 videos on YouTube that offer the film an in-depth analysis.  I might even predict that this film will make the rounds of those 50 Greatest lists from cinema experts in a few years.  Nellhaus, posits that, “Drive My Car will inspire at least one English-language scholarly book on the films of [director Ryûsuke] Hamaguchi, though will be better understood as an outlier when place with his other films.”  Burgess agrees that it will stay close to the chest as far as hard-core film fans: Drive My Car will become a mainstay for the Criterion crowd, if not a word-of-mouth classic.”

Doug Heller, who chose Drive My Car as the best film of 2021, wonders about the fate of any Oscar winner: ” In 2007, I would have sworn that There Will Be Blood would be a benchmark in filmmaking, but now it’s not often discussed. So I’d like to say yes, but I think it has more of a chance at being one of those great films that people remember in the back of their minds and recommend it endlessly without rewatching it.”
 • West Side Story
Honestly, Spielberg’s adaptation was so mediocre and was met with such a charge of “Why bother?” that I don’t see this pulling attention away from the original.  Purist will gravitate in that direction, but I see this film eventually fading into the cavern of the director’s less-than-stellar work.

Shanahan predicts that no one is going to reach for the remake in times to come: “As a remake, West Side Story will always play second fiddle to the original.”  And this is true.  Spielberg says that the reason for making the film is that it needed to be updated every once in a while for a new generation, but then there’s the argument of why a succeeding generation wouldn’t simply reach for the original.

Burgess posits that the film is nothing more than a blip on Spielberg’s filmography, “While West Side Story will have a role as a point in Spielberg’s filmography, I think it will be viewed similarly to Empire of the Sun and Amistad: well-made but nowhere near the level of E.T. or Jurassic Park.”

• Belfast
Kenneth Branagh’s deeply personal semi-autobiographical story of growing up in the titular city during the difficult sectarian conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, was largely met with soft reviews due largely to the film’s overly broad strokes (I was one its detractors).  Despite any objections, the WGA chose to reward Branagh with the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Critic James Plath believes that the film will have staying-power: “I personally think that Belfast is a film that will age well,” he says, “It’s a small film about a big topic with universal themes and grounding in historical events.”

I tend to disagree.  The lasting power of Belfast is not very likely to earn it a reconsideration.  Branagh is not a very consistent director when he is working outside of Shakespeare and I think that’s where his legacy will reside.  Belfast has a heart, but I think its time has come and gone.

• Dune, Part One
As bold and brilliant as Denis Villenuve’s work is – and it’s top to bottom! – I’m not sure what the future is here, at least not yet.  The success of this first installment was crippled by the quarantine which kept movie-goers away from the theaters.  Sure, it made money, but it didn’t have the boffo cultural explosion of The Fellowship of the Ring.  So, perhaps the future is still to be written.  There are still two more chapters to come and whether or not it will grab the goodies at the Oscars the way that this first film did – it won six! – remains to be seen.

Shanahan agrees and says that it’s all up to the sequel: “Unless Dune 2 elevates and sweeps Oscars of its own a few years from now, the first one will be a loud and pretty afterthought.”

Burgess also agrees that it’s a wait-and-see proposition, “It’s legacy will be entirely based on its sequels.  Should the sequels becomes huge hits, I can see Dune have a lasting legacy as a beloved sci-fi series.  But it all depends on how the sequel plays, hopefully released in an officially post-COVID world.”

• Encanto
For this one, I am tempted to simply go with my gut.  The popularity of Disney films over time are always up in the air and with Encanto I want to say that the shelf life won’t be at long as, say, Frozen or Zootopia.  It seems odd to say, but I think the film’s palette may be too busy and frantic for revisiting on a lazy evening at home.

As for longevity, I actually think that the unnominated song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” may have a longer shelf life in popular culture than the movie itself.  Meanwhile, the song that was nominated, “Dos Oruguitos,” has already slipped into obscurity.

Burgess disagrees, “Encanto will age well because Disney films always do for the generation that grew up watching them.”

• King Richard
Wow!  Hmmm.  Well, let’s stick a pin in this as “to be determined.”
Two months on, Will Smith’s actions at the Oscars are still somewhat fresh, and the future of his career remains up in the air – some future projects have been cancelled or put on hold.  His genial and generally inoffensive screen image have made his films the favorite of basic cable, but that future is also up in the air.

Currently, the conversation of Will Smith is met with a tug of the collar.  He teeters on the edge of cancellation and therefore it remains to be seen whether even his more popular films have a future as well.  With that, it is left to wonder if the stain of the incident will tarnish his single best performance in King Richard.  It is hard to separate the film from the incident and so the future of the film is in question.  Will anyone want to watch King Richard after what happened?

Shanahan wonders if the film will be remembered over Smith’s incident.  “Sure, a big star like Will Smith now has his Oscar, but people are going to remember the antics, not the movie.”

Phil Hall is more blunt: “I think King Richard will be recalled as Will Smith’s career achievement award rather than a singularly artistic achievement.  Of course, the Oscars ceremony will be remembered primarily for Will Smith’s bizarre behavior, but that’s another story.”

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Posted by on 05/31/2022 in Uncategorized


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