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Oscar nods try to comprehend an odd year

by ANN HORNADAY THE WASHINGTON POST | March 19, 2021 at 1:42 a.m.

The weirdness continues.

Nominations for the 93rd Academy Awards were announced Monday morning, marking the beginning of the end of what will surely be remembered as the strangest and most chronologically challenged movie year in history.

The year wasn't even a year. Because of shuttered theaters, scrambled release schedules and radically upended viewing habits -- all brought on by the coronavirus pandemic -- the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences allowed films released in early 2021 to qualify for Oscars, resulting in a film such as "Judas and the Black Messiah," which made its debut at an all-virtual Sundance Film Festival just last month, competing for best picture alongside "Minari," "The Father" and "Promising Young Woman," all of which premiered at Sundance in January 2020.

But that overlap is barely noticeable at a time when the primary function of the Oscars has shifted from celebrating ambitious cinema, raising awareness for small but deserving films and promoting the entertainment industry to convincing people that movies still exist as a discrete art form amid the covid-era eyewash of "Contagion"-esque hygiene theater, bingeable series, viral memes, bowling alley drone shots and the latest installment of TikTok Bathroom Mirror Mysteries.

Put more simply: What is a movie when everything's a movie, including real life?

This year's nominees provided some encouraging, if not breathtaking, answers. As was expected after a year of nonstop streaming, services like Netflix and Amazon made strong showings, with such films as "Mank," "The Trial of the Chicago 7," "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" and "Sound of Metal" garnering several high-profile nominations. But distributors that insisted on showing their movies in theaters where possible -- such as Sony Pictures Classics, A24, Searchlight and Focus Features -- also did well with "The Father," "Minari," "Nomadland" and "Promising Young Woman," respectively. With the exception of "Nomadland," Chloe Zhao's contemporary road picture that makes gloriously expansive use of the wide-open landscapes of the American West and Midwest, few of the nominees suffered from most viewers seeing them outside theaters; indeed, the most personal stories might have benefited from the intimacy of the home screen.

(The Academy Awards will air April 25 on ABC and will take place at Union Station in Los Angeles and the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.)

Coming just hours after a notably female-centric Grammys ceremony, this year's Oscar nominations elevated movies with women at their helm and at their narrative center. For the first time ever, two women are nominated in the directing category, for films that also earned nominations for their lead actresses: In Zhao's "Nomadland," Frances McDormand commands the screen as a flinty, funny seasonal laborer living in her van; in Emerald Fennell's "Promising Young Woman," Carey Mulligan delivers a deceptively playful performance as a heroine who processes grief and trauma by way of candy-coated vigilante payback.

McDormand and Mulligan were joined by lead-actress nominees who personified similar ferocity, fury and fearlessness, from Vanessa Kirby's scenery-lights-and-everything-else-chewing portrait of a mourning wife and mother in "Pieces of a Woman" to Viola Davis' imperious title character in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and Andra Day's uncanny turn in "The United States vs. Billie Holiday," in which she portrays the jazz singer resolutely fighting the mostly male forces arrayed against her. (This is the first time two Black women will compete in the category since 1973, when Cicely Tyson and Diana Ross were nominated for "Sounder" and "Lady Sings the Blues." They lost to Liza Minnelli in "Cabaret.")

The don't-mess-with-me vibe extended to the supporting actress category, in which Maria Bakalova was deservingly honored for her daring, vanity-free portrayal of a young woman finding her voice in Sacha Baron Cohen's sneakily feminist satire "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm"; she was nominated for best supporting actress along with Youn Yuh-jung, the veteran Korean actress whose tartly funny matriarch in "Minari" both elaborated on and transcended the Tough Granny trope.

If there were surprises this year, it was in the directing category, where the Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg secured a nod for his middle-aged-men-run-drunkenly-amok dramedy "Another Round." Although it was disappointing not to see Regina King and Shaka King recognized for "One Night in Miami" and "Judas and the Black Messiah," respectively, it was heartening to see promising artists among the usual suspects: "Minari" director Lee Isaac Chung being mentioned in the same breath as "Mank" director David Fincher, for example, or Riz Ahmed ("Sound of Metal") and Steven Yeun ("Minari") claiming their place next to best actor veterans Sir Anthony Hopkins ("The Father") and Gary Oldman ("Mank").

Then there are the movies themselves, which managed to engage the world, even as it shifted under their metaphorical feet.

Film is a notoriously lagging indicator, so it would have been next to impossible for Hollywood to address the pandemic, protests and political ructions that defined the contours of American life in 2020 and early 2021. (Rapid-response documentaries like "Totally Under Control" and "76 Days" were exceptions, but neither was nominated.) Even obliquely, though, many of the period's best films captured the era's pervading sense of anxiety, alienation and aspiration -- whether by way of strained family dramas like "The Father" and "Minari," fiery re-creations of activist history like "Judas and the Black Messiah" and "The Trial of the Chicago 7," a portrait of sudden isolation like "Sound of Metal" (about a musician going deaf) or timely reflections of modern life like "Nomadland" and "Promising Young Woman." Whether they were adamantly naturalistic or boldly stylized, intimate or sweeping, seen on a laptop or a 30-foot screen, all the nominees offered reassuring proof that movies are still here. And they can still matter.

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