Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @GeneSeymour. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Maybe it’s just how the general state of things is affecting me lately, but the 2020 Academy Awards nominations honor the gloomiest, most despair-ridden slate of films I’ve seen since the 1970s, when movies in general were better than they are now.
Don’t believe me? Watch 1976’s “Taxi Driver” and last year’s “Joker” in tandem.
And if you still don’t believe me, I’ll gladly take my “OK, Boomer” snaps under a separate cover. (Just don’t be too repetitive.)
The thing is: It wouldn’t have taken much to lighten this slate up a little. Nominating “Dolemite is My Name” for Best Picture, for instance, would have been a nice grace note. So would nominating Eddie Murphy for Best Actor for “Dolemite” Akwafina for Best Actress for “The Farewell” or Jennifer Lopez for Best Supporting Actress for “Hustlers.”
Lots of bounciness and light in those choices. But they’re nowhere to be found.
Just about every Academy Awards season somehow ends up being a contest between our hopes and fears, with hope usually walking off with all the party favors.
The examples go as far back as 1977, when the uplifting “Rocky” won Best Picture over “Taxi Driver” and other less sanguine competitors such as “Network.” Another example came last year when the racial-brotherhood bromides of “Green Book” likewise triumphed over the beautiful-but-distressing childhood elegy, “Roma,” and a far more acerbic race-based melodrama, “BlackKkKlansman.”
This year’s Best Picture nominees? Not a whole lot of hope here, folks. We have the slow, painful death of romance (“Marriage Story”); a dour, near-funereal shaggy-dog story about a phlegmatic hit man (“The Irishman”); a blackly funny but agonizing depiction of contemporary social polarities culminating in gore and gristle (“Parasite”); a wish-fulfillment fantasy of an alternate-universe 1969 whose climax is no less bloody (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”); a harrowing odyssey through the muddy, corpse-ridden battlefields of World War I Europe (“1917”); and an origin story of a comic-book sociopath (“Joker”) that seems almost nostalgic for a dingy, crime-ridden urban landscape straight out of the Bronx-is-Burning era of 1970s New York.
Even less drastically dark Best Picture fare such as “Little Women” and “Ford vs. Ferrari” are haunted by the prospects of death to varying degrees, while “Jojo Rabbit” may be the only movie on this ballot with some rays of hope poking through its ominous Second World War milieu. Still, there may be something a little too idiosyncratic to some voters about a youthful protagonist whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler.
Seriously, were those voting on nominees that hard up for uplift? What happened to “Dolemite is My Name,” the raucous, ribald and charmingly humane account of African American lounge comic Rudy Ray Moore’s reinvention as a cult movie icon? The movie, in this writer’s opinion a better-made one than “Green Book,” was noticeably absent from all major categories, including Best Actor, where Murphy’s performance as Moore was once considered a no-brainer nominee.
While we’re here, let’s make a checklist of other omissions. The most egregious, perhaps, is Greta Gerwig for directing “Little Women,” though it’s always possible she could receive the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar she’s nominated for. As with Spike Lee’s Oscar for co-writing “BlacKkKlansman” last year, it’s often an Academy consolation prize.
Lupita Nyong’o’s fiercely committed performance was the best reason to see the horror comedy “Us. But she was likewise ignored by the Academy for a Best Actress slot, as was Akwafina’s affecting Golden Globe-winning turn in “The Farewell.” And don’t get partisans of Jennifer Lopez’s performance in “Hustlers” started on their girl’s omission as a Best Supporting Actress nominee. No doubt you’ve heard them shouting from the Bronx to Beverly Hills.
Excepting Nyong’o, any of these films or nominees could have lightened the load of gloom shrouding this year’s awards, though one should set off fireworks for “Parasite’s” six nominations, including Best Picture, the latter an unprecedented coup for a South Korean feature.
Somehow, despite “Joker’s” cache of 11 nominations – the most of any movie, with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “The Irishman” close behind with 10 – I’m wondering whether Batman’s mortal enemy will actually end up with the big prize at the end.
As I keep telling people year after year, the industry – not the critics or the audience – votes on these things. And people in the industry don’t just vote for what’s great or even good: They vote for what they want the rest of the world to know about their trade, their product and their shared values – and not necessarily in that order.
That’s the hope anyway. As for their fears, well, we’ll have to wait and see.