We are a month into the fall movie season, a point at which the Oscar race should be well oiled and firing on all cylinders. And yet, as I’ve noted in previous columns, this season has a different vibe, as though we are flying blind as we move into the awards frame. That’s not due to a shortage of contenders, mind you – to the contrary, the early festivals have offered a variety of promising new Oscar contenders and reintroduced some of the favorites from Sundance and Cannes. But unlike almost every year in recent memory, there is no clear frontrunner coming out of the Venice-Telluride-Toronto gauntlet. Perhaps it’s just a result of the movies themselves – a variety of quality work with no undeniable standout among them. But I approach the scenario with a slightly different perspective: this is a season that has yet to find its own narrative.
I’ve talked a lot in seasons past about Oscar Season narratives – the through lines we follow each year that tend to dictate the conversation threads as we make our way from the opening night at Venice to the closing moments of Oscar night. Sometimes those narratives are determined by the films in play, while other times they’re set in motion by the volume with which critics and certainly pundits respond to them. But this season, neither has occurred, and no singular narrative has taken hold.
That may have a lot to do with last season, which was fraught with narratives both frightening and hopeful. The U.S. Presidential election set that dichotomy into motion automatically, and it so happened that there were films that played into it perfectly. La La Land debuted at Venice and became a very literal representation of its title: exuberance of dreams set against a more harrowing reality. Moonlight premiered at Telluride and exemplified a treacherous environment of identity reconciliation made all the more so by virtue of the clear and present danger of a Trump administration. It makes sense, in retrospect, how the season unfolded: La La Land blazed out of the gate and never seemed to waiver, its head of steam likely strengthened by the hope and dream of continued American progress. Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency seemed rock-solid, and therefore we were sort of gliding on air – cautious and worried, to be sure, but gliding nevertheless. Had that become our reality, there may have been no competing narrative for the entirety of the season. But that’s not how it turned out. Darkness set in on November 8, and the glide came to a rough skidding halt. There was an almost simultaneously depression of mood but elevation of consciousness, a combination that perhaps opened the door wider for a film like Moonlight, which spoke very precisely to those themes, to take hold.
Is that the ultimate reason the film won Best Picture? Not necessarily. The preferential ballot system holds a lot of sway and must be appropriately respected going forward. And also, ya know, Moonlight is a masterpiece film. But anyone familiar with the Oscar race is well aware that narrative plays a significant role in said race – and who dictates and controls that narrative is a crucial factor.
Precisely how directly impactful last season is on the current season is unclear. Most of the films we’re now seeing were in production before any of last season’s events took place, so one can’t draw a direct line from then to now. But if the rest of the Oscar-obsessed universe is anything like me, the entry point into the season was met with general malaise – it’s harder to fully immerse in the sensation of awards season when the world seems to be imploding around us. So even if the movies themselves aren’t necessarily taking on an explicitly political bent (we may witness many of those films next season), our own perspective as viewers, how we consume the content of these films, will indeed be impacted. Everything we see is now filtered through the prism of this new world order; it’s impossible for our perception and understanding of the Oscar race to be any different.
Certain films come to the table carrying politically-charged thematic threads, even if they’re not directly resulting from the rise of Trump. Darkest Hour certainly has politics running through its veins, and offers a point-counterpoint in terms of governmental leadership. Dunkirk covers different territory amid the same time period. Mudbound is a post-WWII epic that also examines race relations in ways that could resonate in today’s climate. And Steven Spielberg’s yet-to-be-screened The Post provides a real-life example of speaking truth to power.
Others, while not explicitly political, offer themes of inclusion that challenge the status quo. Call Me by Your Name is a challenging – and, in some circles, controversial – gay romance. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is about taking the law into one’s own hands when the powers-that-be prove to be utter failures. Battle of the Sexes only uses tennis as the canvas for its exploration of sexism and feminism. And of course, Get Out blazes right through precious notions of living in a post-racial society.
Or perhaps, in the wake of Moonlight’s historic Best Picture triumph and after dealing with nearly a full year under the Orange Monster, Oscar voters will move towards warmer human stories that carry less political baggage. The Shape of Water leads that charge with its big-hearted genre fantasy. There’s also Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age crowd-pleaser; and The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s Tangerine follow-up, with its story of an unconventional family dynamic in the shadow of “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
Perhaps this diverse and disparate group of contenders has sort of automatically dictated an open season without a clear narrative, or maybe the Oscar hounds just aren’t in the headspace to feverishly circle their wagons as they have in years past. Sooner or later, frontrunners will inevitably emerge. But we should treat this narrative-free moment, with its total lack of certainty and no sign of when it will clarify, as a sort of awards season nirvana, that rare moment when we don’t think we have all the answers. And if it manages to sustain itself for the duration of the season, that might be the best narrative of all.