Every so often, there is a clear front runner when it comes to the Oscars race. This year, that movie is 'Nomadland'.
Thus far in awards season, 'Nomadland' has won Best Picture and Best Director for Chloé Zhao at the Golden Globes. It has won four awards at the BAFTAs, including Best Picture and Best Director, again. It has also won a number of critics awards and festival prizes, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
That's a pretty strong indication that it has Best Picture in the bag. Moreover it's unlikely to be beaten for Best Director for Zhao.
'Nomadland' is, by all means, a good movie, as it follows Fern (played by Frances McDormand) as she travels across America in her caravan and meets fellow nomads, many of whom were played by real-life nomads.
They share deep conversations about the meaning and vast potentials of life and their lifestyle. Fern is also grieving the loss of her husband.
Like Zhao's previously movie 'The Rider', the crux of 'Nomadland' is its ability to move the audience, and Frances McDormand's (already a two-time Oscar winner but hey, she could very well win a third) central performance is crucial for this.
'Nomadland' is a really beautiful movie, showing off the US western coast from Nevada to Arizona. It's an alternative realisation of the American dream that few consider, and this could be this reason above all others why the film has tapped into the hearts of so many.
But there's also something very safe about a film like 'Nomadland'. There isn't one unpleasant or mean person that Fern meets along the way, and while Fern does struggles with grief, it is ultimately hopeful and an easygoing watch (in fact, sometime too easygoing in its pacing).
The problem is that the Oscars has become increasingly predictable and conservative in its selection of winners. 'Nomadland', like previous winners and fellow nominees this year, is never all that challenging or gripping.
Slate.com, for example, has written about how the film shies away from the economic issues that have forced Fern and others who she meets into a nomadic way of life. Its depiction of Amazon is absurdly positive, compared to a film like 2019's 'Sorry We Missed You' (directed by Ken Loach) which engages firmly with the difficult subject matter and issues.
It's not the only 2021 Best Picture nominee that seems rather safe.
'Mank' is obviously tapping into that whole "Oscars love movies about making movies" trend which saw the likes of 'Argo' and 'The Artist' win in previous years.
With 10 Oscar nominations, the most of any nominee this year, it acts as an interesting companion piece to 'Citizen Kane', and has some fabulous black-and-white cinematography and production design. But it can also be rather dull and haphazard in its presentation of the story.
'Judas and the Black Messiah' presents a far more interesting Best Picture pick. Its performances are excellent, and it feels far more reflective and representative of events of the past year than say 'Nomadland'.
Then 'Sound of Metal' is a little like 'Nomadland' in its presentation of a community viewers know little about (in this case, the deaf community).
Riz Ahmed may just steal the Best Actor win from Chadwick Boseman (posthumously nominated for 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom', in a performance he's already won awards for). But it's unlikely.
In any case its technical accomplishments are exquisite. 'Sound of Metal' will be a hard one to beat for best sound, and probably editing also.
At the time of writing, the Best Picture Oscar nominee 'The Father' was unavailable to rent or watch in Ireland.
In any case, the fact that 'Promising Young Woman' will likely only take home Best Screenplay (for writer-director Emerald Fennell; though this writer is still holding out hopes for Carey Mulligan to win Best Actress too) is a crying shame. It is the best picture of the year. Or at least, it's the most important (cue eye roll, I know, but hear me out).
'Promising Young Woman' is an onslaught of a movie. With regards genre, it is essentially a revenge thriller. But it ultimately reveals itself to be a powerful contemplation on gender inequality, and issues of sexual harassment and assault that remain prominent in a #MeToo era.
It looks at how these issues pervade our language, while the institutions that are supposed to protect women, such as the law and education, continually let women down. It is smart with a dark sense of humour. But it is also unhinged and furious, sick and tired of what’s been accepted as the norm for too long. The mirror it holds up will upset, appall and enrage you. There have been few such stirring films in recent years.
Another noteworthy best picture nominee up against 'Nomadland' this year is 'Minari'. Much lighter in tone than 'Promising Young Woman', 'Minari' is still impressively multi-layered and nuanced. Its story about a South Korean family who move to Arkansas during the 1980s to start a new life, is beautiful and feels so authentic. It manages to be both familiar and fresh.
And yet, 'Minari' will not win Best Picture this year. Because 'Parasite' won last year. Which is so stupid and arbitrary, but one can only throw their hands up in resignation.
Which is the problem with the Oscars. For every step the awards ceremony takes forward with winners like 'Parasite' and 'Moonlight' (which people still forget won the award, thanks to 'La La Land' stealing its thunder, and which a surprisingly large number of average moviegoers still haven't got around to actually watching), they alternate it with a thoroughly conservative choice soon after.
In 2019, we wrote about how the Oscar nominees that year were dominated by the crowd-pleaser. In other words, uncomplicated, easy-to-watch, feel-good, simplistic features. It considered 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and 'Green Book' as examples of this, and both came out big winners that year.
'Green Book' remains the most cringeworthy of recent winners. And that was from a mere two years ago. ('The Shape of Water' preceded it, and though a stunning and fantastical movie, people still have mixed feelings about "the woman who f***ed a fish movie")
If the Oscars continue to appease their viewers rather than rewarding truly crowd-shaking, rather than crowd-pleasing, movies, the audience will disengage. With viewing figures of the awards ceremony consistently in decline, it seems that is already happening.