The financing, distribution and promotion of Oscar-worthy films has entered new territory in recent years thanks to the rise of online streaming services, but the films themselves—particularly in 2020—explore territory that seems familiar.
Ahead of Sunday’s 92nd Academy Awards, we spoke with Ernest Mathijs, professor of cinema and media studies at the University of British Columbia, about this year’s Oscar contenders.
What do you find most notable about the Oscar-nominated films of 2020?
There are two ways I can answer that. One is about the content of the films, and one is about the platforms through which they reach audiences. I’ll start with the second one.
We see quite a few films that are financed and produced by Netflix, but nevertheless still get a theatrical release which gives them an extra sort of cachet. These are scattered releases in arthouse theatres and cinephile theatres. They only play for a couple of weeks, just enough to create a buzz, and then they go on to Netflix for a wider platform. But in those couple of weeks they do reach critics and reviewers, and they do create enthusiasm through word of mouth. I think that plays an important part in what leads a film to be nominated. It’s a conscious technique on the part of Netflix, and it seems to be working well. The Irishman and Marriage Story would be the two most important examples.
And what about the content of this year’s films?
They’re not happy themes. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of emphasis on loneliness and dispossession. We see these emerging as social themes in general, and the films seem to speak to that. The one that stands out most is Joker, but it’s far from the only one. Another one would be Parasite, which is very much about dispossession, anger, loneliness, the urge to fit in, and also the frustration that somehow the system works against people. It almost seems as if anarchy and violence are the only ways in which characters find a way out, if it all.
Alongside that, however, we see that films resonate because they show understanding. They do not judge. The characters in 1917, Little Women, Joker, Marriage Story are approached through a lens of caring. These films, unlike social media, do not judge or hold trial over their flawed characters. You can see that in how characters touch each other with their hands in films such as 1917 and Little Women, and also in Harriet and JoJo Rabbit. It’s visible in the deliberate gestures and nods in Ford vs. Ferrari or The Irishman.
The films almost play the role of a nurse, a caregiver, a caring friend—a reprieve from the instant judging people face in their daily lives and in the news media. Above all, the Oscar-nominated films give us a lesson in humility.
Are these themes a sign of our times, or have we seen them before?
In the late ’70s and early 1980s—coming out of a period of energy crisis, environmental crisis, and family and community crises not unlike what we have now—we had films such as The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, and the films of Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese. These weren’t happy films. They were anxious films, and yet they received recognition. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a film such as Joker refers to the early 1980s and how messed up New York City was at that time. This reminds people that we’ve been in these miserable times before. We see capitalism running away on one hand, and people being left behind on the other end. That’s one point of reference that Joker makes quite explicitly. But I would say that a film such as Marriage Story, which has been lauded as the Kramer vs. Kramer of this generation, also makes that connection.