Nomadland and the New Chum of Oscarbait

The morning after this most recent Oscars, I was chatting with a friend who is not a big movie watcher and, to her perpetual credit, does not follow awards season buzz at all. Knowing that I am the kind of nitwit who follows awards season pretty nearly, she asked how the Oscars went, mentioned that she saw Nomadland won, etc. I’d chatted with her in the past week about Nomadland, which is now the actual Best Picture winner instead of the presumptive Best Picture winner, and I was sharing why it appeals to people (even if I’m not a fan). I mentioned that it was an example of a kind of movie that doesn’t really win Oscars in a normal year, and that other more traditional movies had not done as well. “Is that good?” she asked.

The movie that I had in mind when I said the thing about “more traditional movies” was The Trial of the Chicago 7, the sole movie in the Best Picture field to go home emptyhanded. In my original takes on the Oscar nominations, I made the case that Trial of the Chicago 7 was positioned well to go on an Argo-style run. This case fell apart fairly quickly, because that Original Screenplay nomination which I felt it needed was undermined continually by Emerald Fennell winning all the screenplay awards. On Oscar night, I predicted Nomadland for Picture, Fennell for Screenplay, and Trial editor Alan Baumgarten for Editing, who ended up being the only Trial person I guessed for any category. (Obviously I should have held off on him as well, but going off the logic of “the movie with the worst editing will win this,” I thought I was making a canny decision. That Bohemian Rhapsody win from a couple years ago was…damaging.) The underlying logic of my original thoughts about Trial winning had to do with how traditional an Oscar movie it is. A feelgood drama with a lot going on—big acting, big production, big writing, big costumes, and all of that mixed in with a suggestion of historical importance—is what I think a lot of us recognize as an Oscars sweet spot.

Here’s your past decade of Best Picture winners before this ceremony: The Hurt Locker, The King’s SpeechThe ArtistArgo, 12 Years a SlaveBirdmanSpotlightMoonlightThe Shape of WaterGreen BookParasite. I think it’s self-evident that Trial fits in this company pretty neatly. Grant that King’s SpeechArgo12 YearsSpotlight, and Green Book are movies of widely varying quality, and that what a film like 12 Years is trying to do is so very different from what a film like Green Book is trying to do. I still think Trial passes a smell test, at least in terms of tone. I think what I didn’t give enough credence to was that Trial is hardly the only movie of that particular type in the field this year. Judas and the Black Messiah, while significantly less triumphal than Trial, overlaps on its timeline and has significantly more potent performances. (On the latter point, the Academy certainly seems to think so; Judas had two acting nominations and one win to Trial’s single nod, and all in the same category.) Between its two movies set in the 1960s, it seems pretty clear that the Academy liked one of the dramas with a lot going on plus historical importance better than the other. Clearly, I miscalculated back in March, and while I think “Judas is a bracing movie rather than a super fun one” was a mistake to go on, I’ll continue to be dubious that the Academy is going to make a habit of rewarding dramas centered entirely on Black people rather than doing it every now and then, or stapling something which might be about a Black person onto some movie which assumes a white audience looking to see themselves on the screen in some basically positive way.

What I also overlooked was that, in some ways, Nomadland fits a little more neatly into this group than I previously gave it credit for doing. I know that my own review/understanding of the movie gets hung up on the pseudo-documentary quality of the film, the inclusion of real people using their real names and real stories alongside three-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand. But if you watch that movie without doubting first, I think it’s very easy to read it not as an interesting, if potentially misguided, hybrid genre Frankenstein. It plays as a slow-burning road movie, a how the other half lives story which seems to demand comparisons to simpler, cheaper, perhaps even nobler kinds of movies from those halcyon days of ’70s movies.

If there’s one Best Picture winner that Nomadland has been compared to most frequently, it’s Moonlight. A slightly unusual, incident-driven story structure broken more neatly into chapters than acts. Auteurs of color. Cinematography that people went gaga for. Unexpected performances from unknown, perhaps even nonprofessional actors. A sense of realism that pervades the film, even if the events are fictional. Better received on the increasingly essential festival circuit than it was, or would be, in theaters, and with that comes an intimation of a smaller movie, a more personal movie. What Nomadland is missing is a political attitude, a charge that I would never toss in Moonlight’s direction, and perhaps why we went into Oscars Season 2020 with Nomadland as the smart money and Moonlight would have been an upset no matter how few times they lost the envelope for Best Picture. I think it’s not such a stretch, though, to say that it bears a similarity to a movie like Green Book, a movie which is about true events that the average person no normal person is privy to. In other words, it is the kind of fiction that can be most easily given authenticity and thus weight in the mind of your average viewer: “based on a true story.” Though Fern is no more real than Marge Gunderson, the story of these real vandwellers, the real Empire, Nevada, the real Bob Wells and Linda May can be enough to cast this movie with seriousness. The idea of a real Tony Lip and a real Don Shirley teaching each other how to relate to someone unlike themselves—even if, especially if, that story is basically hooey—gives that story seriousness. Viggo Mortensen could have housed ten pizzas in bed and it would have maintained that seriousness; heck, the pizza and the fried chicken and the wild accent work are what make the serious parts stand out in the first place. Fern getting the squirts in her bucket accomplishes much the same thing as Viggo putting basically a whole pizza in his mouth at once. It’s so out there and weird and memeable that when it comes time for them to do the Serious Stuff, you’re at attention. You know it’s different enough that you like, stop smiling blandly and start furrowing your brow on cue.

A confession: I love those anonymous Oscar voters pieces that come out around the ceremony. I love them because they’re all so terrible. They’re not unlike the anonymous scouting reports on guys coming out into the NFL Draft, which, amusingly, are also happening right now. Everyone is so hilariously tetchy in those, so dismissive and provincial. It’s a lot of fun, and maybe more importantly they affirm my assumptions about why people in Hollywood like what they do. (Here’s a quote from the Hollywood Reporter that puts Nomadland on a stick and puts that stick over the campfire: “It tells these people’s story in a way that invites empathy without saying, ‘You should feel shitty about your gilded, privileged life.’ And it is also reflective of the past year, showing how challenging life can be, and reminding us how much we have to be grateful for.” Like, good Lord, thank you for making my point about this movie for me!) Writing this I keep thinking about a quote which is fairly revealing from one of those anonymous execs voting on Oscars, someone who misses being wined and dined. S/He says, “The final nominees look like a bunch of Spirit Award movies.” And here’s someone else from Gold Derby: “Many of the other films [besides Trial] are great but remind me of independent films.” On the Big Picture, Sean Fennessey recently used the phrase “mainstream indie,” which he recognized as a kind of contradiction in terms but which I think is actually kind of a nice appellation for this trend. Those anonymous voters have a pretty good point. It does look like the indie film awards, because a lot of these movies were nominated for Indie Spirit Awards. Nomadland won the show, with Minari also nominated for Best Picture. 60% of the Best Director field was at the Spirit Awards, including winner Chloe Zhao. Carey Mulligan won Best Actress over Oscar winner Frances McDormand and fellow nominee Viola Davis; in the absence of Anthony Hopkins, Riz Ahmed topped Chadwick Boseman and Steven Yeun. The Documentary Feature category, not that that Oscar voter even had that category in mind, matched four out of five nominees with the Oscars. I could go on.

Twenty years ago, the Indie Spirits and the Oscars had some crossover for big performances (Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls, Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream, etc.), but the only place they intersected in Picture and Director was for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonGeorge Washington had four nominations at those Indie Spirit Awards and was made for like, $50,000 with no names or bestseller pedigree. How would George Washington stack up against Nomadland? Would that Gold Derby interviewee still look at a crop of movies like Promising Young Woman and Sound of Metal and say “they remind me of independent films” if something which was genuinely independently made and not picked up by some subsidiary of a corporate giant were to somehow crash the Oscars? Or, heck, how about if First CowThe Assistant, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always, all of which look and feel more like a traditionally independent feature than any of the Oscar Best Picture nominees, were to have taken some slots at the ceremony?

Nomadland is an example of what I think of as “boutique indie.” This is the world of Oscar juggernauts like Miramax and Searchlight, as opposed to some podunk distributor you’ve never heard of. Indie doesn’t mean Andrew Bujalski and Jim Jarmusch any longer, and we’ve come quite a ways from John Cassavetes, Monte Hellman, and Roger Corman. It means something completely different altogether from Stan Brakhage and Shirley Clarke. (Could any of them have gotten into Tisch or USC?) When we say indie film here, we mean something polished, not spitshined. We basically mean that the studios themselves, at the bacchanalia of IP, are not going to home in on the prestige stuff that does not even attempt to pay the bills any longer. Forty years ago, a movie like On Golden Pond was a triumph for Universal; adjusting for inflation, a movie you could have made if they’d loan you Kate Hepburn and a couple of Fondas made $350 million and scored ten Oscar nominations. It would absolutely not be a Universal movie in 2021. It would, like Promising Young Woman, go to Focus and try to rack up those sweet trophies while spending more on a marketing campaign than it did on actually making the picture. Sometimes you’ll hear people lament that the best movies of the year and the most profitable movies of the year have diverged so starkly, but somewhere in the past, oh, thirty years, the studios have simply not matched profit with critical expectation. In the 1960s, those big budget musicals took home Oscars. The 1990s, even without the benefit of Titanic, looks like box office paradise for Best Picture winners compared to the last fifteen years. The trend started when the businessmen took back the studios in the 1980s, but by the mid-2000s, once franchise movies had really taken over the end-of-year box office charts, you can see the divergence. There’s always an American Sniper or a Slumdog Millionaire hanging around somewhere, to say nothing of Avatar, but who saw The Hurt Locker or Moonlight or Nomadland? I’d say that this is the Bruckheimerization of American cinema—if it makes as much as Armageddon, who cares if it sucks?—but there are people who would kill for a blockbuster to have the relative craft of like, Independence Day or Crimson Tide and would love to ram that through the Best Picture race for old times’ sake. Maybe the issue is that people aren’t going to see good movies, or maybe the issue is with good filmmakers who don’t make good movies accessible to a mainstream audience. Or (this one’s the right answer) the studios have figured out how not to burn their money on stuff that they’ve decided can’t get them as good an ROI as another Fast and Furious movie, but which will get them good press for a couple months a year.

In an industry which is artistic insofar as that’s profitable, and more than a century on from the birth of the medium itself, it cannot be surprising that those priorities have downshifted. In the past four decades, what an Oscar Best Picture winner (or serious contender) looks like has frequently looked like a relatable family drama (Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, Rain Man, American Beauty) or historical epic (GandhiThe Last EmperorSchindler’s ListTitanic). In the past fifteen years or so of the boutique indie, regular people at a moment of historical import, or who are placed synecdochically to give meaning to it, are the favorite of the Oscars. The Hurt Locker, on the ground with a small group of American soldiers, fits that mode.  Argo is a good example, as are Spotlight and Green Book and now Nomadland. The King’s Speech, by choosing a small moment that it could turn into a kind of heretofore unheard historical crescendo, is a sort of ancillary partner; so is The Shape of Water, which is fantasy second and a Cold War story first and foremost. In a Titanic, someone you’ve heard of does something you can verify. In these, someone you’ve never heard of does something you’ll have to google when you get home. Because the budgets are smaller, the scope is smaller. If prestige has been ratcheted down financially by the studios but we still expect high stakes, then every year we get some new takes on safe, middlebrow stuff that can coast in the wake of an issue without having to figure out what that might mean for a city or nation. It’s most important, for this kind of film, to look like you have something to say, or maybe to be really nice about something, than to cut too far against any grain.

“Is that good?” I guess it depends on what the alternative is. We’ve seen one of them proposed and then nixed in short order, the Popular Film Oscar. I don’t think Green Book should have sniffed Best Picture at the Oscars, but that doesn’t mean I think that Black Panther should have taken home that prize either; ditto The King’s Speech and Toy Story 3. Nor do I think the Oscars exist to award truly independent work, or to find the outside of the cinematic envelope and reward that edge for its bravery. For now, whether or not it’s good, boutique indie has planted a flag, and it’s going to take more than a few years for some other kind of movie to rip that flag out of the ground and replace it with something new.

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