The 94th Academy Awards ceremony is set to take place on March 27, 2022 — a little over two years after stay-at-home orders began sweeping across the U.S. and the coronavirus pandemic became an identifiable threat for most Americans. Its effect on Hollywood was felt almost immediately: Tentpole releases were pushed (and pushed, and pushed) back, leaving few studio films in the 2021 Oscars race, which cleared the way for an indie film like Nomadland to pick up best picture.
The Searchlight release felt like a companion of sorts to 2020’s best picture winner, Parasite, Bong Joon Ho’s explosive drama that forced audiences across the globe to think critically about capitalism and its failings. If Parasite seemed like a warning sign for things to come — its four Oscar wins came just a month before the pandemic hit the U.S. with full force, upturning the economy and sending unemployment rates sky-high — then Nomadland felt like we were watching our present onscreen, even if the film was set in 2011 and examined the effects of the Great Recession.
While Nomadland‘s win may have reflected the precarious moment in history in which it was released, its competition at the Oscars tackled equally serious subjects: dementia (The Father), the political turmoil of the 1960s (Judas and the Black Messiah and The Trial of the Chicago 7), Hollywood disillusionment (Mank), the limitations of the American dream (Minari), the #MeToo movement (Promising Young Woman) and disability (Sound of Metal). Not all of these films were overtly bleak, but a thread of hopelessness meandered throughout their run times.
Months later, with an end to the pandemic nowhere in sight, our collective mood is still low. Some movies, on the other hand, are exuding a lighter tone. The blockbusters returned to theaters (even if audience response has been subdued) and brought excitement to the multiplex — among them epics like No Time to Die and Dune.
Even a selection of this year’s Oscar bait feels less dark, with heart-tugging features like Focus’ Belfast, a coming-of-age story with 11-year-old Jude Hill in a breakout lead role; Warner Bros.’ King Richard, with a commanding performance from Will Smith as the father of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams; Netflix’s Tick, Tick … Boom!, the feature film directorial debut from Lin-Manuel Miranda that proves Andrew Garfield is as good a singer as he is an actor; and A24’s C’mon C’mon, which sees Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix hold his own against his precocious scene-stealing co-star, 12-year-old Woody Norman.
Also in the mix is United Artists’ House of Gucci, which is so stylish, so star-studded and just campy enough that it resembles a big-screen version of a Ryan Murphy production (only directed by veteran helmer Ridley Scott). Amazon’s Being the Ricardos, which for months has sparked online discourse about the casting of Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, has proved skeptics wrong after exuberant guild screenings in recent weeks.
There’s no dearth of darker fare this season, particularly from Netflix: The streamer has The Power of the Dog tackling masculinity and repression in the American West, Don’t Look Up satirizing bureaucratic ineptitude, and The Lost Daughter and Passing both examining the complex psychological bonds between women. Searchlight’s Nightmare Alley and 20th Century’s West Side Story, two fresh takes on tales brought to the screen in 1947 and 1961, respectively, are dazzling sagas with tragic ends. Meanwhile, A24 and Apple TV+’s The Tragedy of Macbeth puts the funereal qualities of Shakespeare’s tale of ambition and corruption right in its title.
It is not a question of whether these films should be honored by the Academy but rather if Academy voters will pick one of these titles to represent the year in cinema as a whole.
It’s understandable if viewers find themselves drawn to the feel-good films over the more somber competitors — but one shouldn’t overlook how the crowd-pleasers also speak to the zeitgeist. Belfast‘s story is set against the Troubles, when political and cultural differences divided Northern Ireland. King Richard displays the Sisyphean efforts involved in pursuing Black excellence in an unyielding world and the sacrifices one makes to do so. Tick, Tick … Boom! is a high-energy musical but one that questions the morality of making art amid a plague. For all the sweetness displayed in C’mon C’mon, the dramedy is tinged with heartbreak as it shows the frustrations of raising a free-spirited child in a chaotic world.
Even the campiest moments of House of Gucci, Being the Ricardos and Neon’s Spencer, all of which feature A-list actresses chewing scenery and dominating the screen, depict the dissolution of marriages as outside forces isolate the female protagonists from their male companions. Spencer might have the happiest ending of this trio — one can’t help rooting for Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana to break free from the prison of the British royal family — but that’s only because the film ends with Diana achieving independence and not with her real-life tragic fate. We know what awaits her many years later, which adds a poignancy to Spencer‘s conclusion.
The films that feel like the biggest distractions from the chaos of our own world are, in fact, holding a mirror up to it — the good cheer disguises the sorrow that lies beneath the surface.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.