Armchair Oscars – 2020

| May 12, 2021

Best Picture

Nomadland (Directed by
Chloé Zhao)
The Nominees: The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah, Mank, Minari, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Directed by Eliza Hittman)
My Nominees:
Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee), The Father (Florian Zeller), First Cow (Kelly Reichert), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe), Minari (Lee Isaac Chung), One Night in Miami… (Regina King), Small Axe: Lover’s Rock (Steve McQueen), Soul (Pete Docter), Sound of Metal (Darius Marder)


When the year two-thousand twenty came to an end it was nearly impossible for most people to really remember the sense of normalcy that had come before.  The year compounded so many crisis on top of one another that it was hard to keep up.  At home in America, there were fires on the west coast, hurricanes on the east coast, Black Lives Matter protests, Me Too scandals, riots, mass shootings, and a nightmare clown circus of a presidential election all wrapped up in a scary pandemic that not only killed three million people but brought the economy to a dead stop.

To our collective living memory it was the worst of times and while we’d been through tough times before, this one was a little different.  For one thing we didn’t have the movies to fall back on.  In times of hardship, Americans have always escaped to the movie theaters to recharge the batteries and find escapism, but even that beloved institution fell victim to the ravages of COVID-19.  With businesses shut down, quarantines mandated and social distancing in place, the already-struggling movie theater industry was brought to the brink of extinction.  The entertainment industry itself was shut down as movie releases were pushed back, productions halted and some blockbusters were either forced to premiere on streaming services or held off to be released at a later time.

With the industry at a stand-still, questions about the fate of the year’s Academy Awards invariably followed.  With so many movies put on hold, what movies would be around to honor?  The solution was to extend the deadline, allowing late-comers to make the cut which made for the longest Oscar season in history – 14 months!  The result was a wide swath of films on every social issue, everything from disabilities to Me Too, to racial injustice to social injustice to issues of artistic freedom to the fracturing of the American dream.

When all the smoke had cleared, the winner for the second year in a row was a film directed by an Asian filmmaker.  Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland was an elegiac melodrama steeped in the broken promise of the American dream and starring possibly the only actress that could bring us through it.  Frances McDormand won her third Oscar as Best Actress (and yet another for producing the picture) as a woman who loses everything in The Great Recession – even her hometown! – and becomes a van-dwelling nomad.

I dearly love the film that Zhao has brought to the screen.  She has an assured, unhurried directorial style and she’s a very good storyteller, constructing a script that is light enough that it gets out of the actor’s way.  She is more interested in the beautiful landscapes matched by the weathers of the modern American experience.  Nomadland is a movie that, years from now, will inform future generations how we lived at the dawn of the new millennium.  And yet, while I set the film among my nominees, I am not giving it my Armchair Oscar because it is not a film that I am willing to revisit right away.  I’ve seen it twice but it is, admittedly, such a bleak experience that its not due for repeat viewings.

By reasonable accounting, my Armchair Oscar should be Pixar’s Soul due the the fact that it was my #1 film of two-thousand twenty, but in a bizarre twist of reasoning I am not choosing it for my Armchair Oscar because I have a bone to pick with the Academy voters.

Amid the myriad of social issues present at the 93rd Academy Awards, I was a little dismayed that the film chosen to represent the Me Too movement was Emerald Fennel’s revenge fantasy Promising Young Woman, the story of a medical school dropout who plays a long-con in getting revenge on a  number of men who think it entertaining to drug and rape vulnerable young women and also on the institutions that casually turn a blind eye.

Addressing this issue is important, but I question the execution.  I wonder if such a hard-charging issue is right for a revenge fantasy.  Issues of date rape, gang rape and indifference from the collegiate community are, to my mind, just too important to be wrapped up in a cotton candy fantasy like this.  For 2020, I might have suggested the much more sobering Never Rarely Sometimes Always as a Best Picture nominee.  And, also, since the Academy’s voters chose to ignore it entirely, I am giving it my Armchair Oscar.

Eliza Hittman is a filmmaker whose constant narrative in her filmography are sobering dramas about the tricky caverns of teenage sexuality, films like It Felt Like Love (2013) and Beach Rats (2017).  Like Chloé Zhao, Hittman knows what she wants.  She knows the tone that she is after and (even more importantly) she takes her subject seriously, and that’s the key here.  Never Rarely Sometimes Always feels at all times like a beloved festival indie, a movie wrapped in that earthy guerilla-style in which you feel as if you’re standing just a few feet away.  The trick here is that it never feels like the effect is being piled into your arms.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always finds it’s focus on a character who, in a larger production, might have melted into the background.  Autumn is quiet, unremarkable and reasonably haunted.  She lives an unenviable existence in rural Pennsylvania where she is a social outcast at school, has few friends and relies for comfort on her cousin Skyler (Talia Ryder).  Her dour social skills and freewheeling lifestyle are largely a symptom of her home life where she is largely invisible.  Things are tough all over, that’s why she and Skyler work at a local supermarket in order to supplement a family income.

The future seems to promise nothing more fantastical then the one in which she currently exists; possibly to graduate high school, get married, raise kids and basically fit into the same rut as her mother.  But then the motherhood angle is bumped forward when Autumn discovers that she is several months pregnant.  She knows this even before visiting a local clinic and taking a pregnancy test and finding out that she is 10 weeks along.  The clinic is not a den of understanding.  The attending nurse encourages her to stay and then puts on an pro-life video entitled “The Truth About Abortion” hosted by the director of The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform.  The fact that the video, the organization and the hosting director, Gregg Cunningham, are real lets you know that Hittman is not out to take a cheap shot.  If the pro-life side is part of the conversation here, it might as well be seen for real.

Autumn discovers that, at 17, she cannot obtain an abortion in Pennsylvania without parental consent.  When home methods, such as punching herself in the stomach and swallowing pills fail to induce a miscarriage, she confides in Skyler that she is pregnant.  They steal money from the cash register at work and decides to travel to New York where she doesn’t need consent.

Taking the trip isn’t quite the easy ride that they hope.  Skyler is hounded by a smarmy kid named Jasper (Theodore Pellerine), the two girls get lost in the labyrinth of New York’s subway system, and worse, when they finally get to the clinic, Autumn is told that the abortion will be a two-day process due to the fact that the pregnancy is a lot further along then 10 weeks.  So, the girls do what they can to find shelter for the night in the busy atmosphere of New York City with no money.

The second day visit is really where the film finds its emotional center.  Hittman enters Autumn into the New York clinic where we expect to be run through the actual abortion process.  But the movie keeps those scenes very brief, and it is here that we come to understand that the movie isn’t really about the abortion, it’s more about the very real traps that young girls are forced into.  Going over the pre-procedure questionnaire she is asked to respond to some very uncomfortable questions that get more and more disturbing.  She very quietly reveals that she has been the victim of sexual violence, threats and eventually rape.

The mistreatment is not completely a surprise.  We’ve seen fleeting glimpses of Autumn’s home-life.  We’ve briefly met her father (Ryan Eggold) and it is clear that the relationship is not exactly warm.  It is clear that Autumn seeks comfort elsewhere, in the company of boyfriends whose chief interest in her is her sexual availability.  She relies, for comfort on the more level-headed Skyler who becomes her port in the storm.  She understands the traps that young woman get themselves into and becomes Autumn’s rock when she becomes desperate.

So too does Hittman understand the traps open to young women in America, but she tactfully avoids making her film manipulative or overly-melodramatic.  This isn’t a pro-life movie nor is it a expose on rape.  Hittman isn’t afraid of just letting her characters remain silent; her camera pushing in close so that we can see the disillusion in their young eyes looking out onto a world that they thought might protect them.

Yet, the movie is free of monologues and, in fact, many key scenes doesn’t even have dialogue.  The film zeroes in on the world that these two girls inhabit, a world of toxicity and male domination, whether it be from the guy in the restaurant making crude finger gestures, the creepy kid on the bus who makes a pass at Skylar or the drunk on a subway train who pulls out his penis, the world is a minefield of sexual violence aimed at teenage girls every day.

The daring of this film is what makes it special.  The daring to tell a story that doesn’t resolve in a comforting nest of easy answers.  The daring to let the characters be forced into decisions that they wouldn’t have made otherwise, such as stealing money for the trip or the decision that Skylar makes in order to get them back home.  Or Autumn, who could have easily lied on the questionnaire.  What made her so honest?  What drove the questions from her?  Was she being honest because she was talking to a nurse, or was she finally confronting the fact that she had been the victim of sexual violence?  The film is spare on answering these questions and that, very likely, is why it stayed with me for days after I had seen it.  This is the experience of millions of American girls every day, the minefield of toxicity that they are forced to traverse.  The movie doesn’t end with an easy victory or some kind of cathartic reasoning.  We’re forced to think about what we’ve seen, what the girls have experienced and decide for ourselves how we might have acted if we were in their shoes.  

Best Actor

Anthony Hopkins (The Father)
The Nominees: Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal),
Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Gary Oldman (Mank), Steven Yeun (Minari)

Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)
My Nominees: Delroy Lindo (Da 5 Bloods), Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Anthony Hopkins (The Father), Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), Adarsh Gourav (The White Tiger)

Netflix Will Launch Oscars Campaign for Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey's  Black Bottom - News AKMI

The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony was one of the most unusual in its history and ended with possibly the most awkward anti-climax ever witnessed on live television.  The biggest award of the evening was not leaning on who which film would win Best Picture but on whether or not Chadwick Boseman would receive a posthumous Best Actor award for his farewell performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.  The show’s producers were apparently so sure that Boseman would win that they rearranged the distribution of the awards so that Best Picture came before Best Actress and Best Actor.  The hope, apparently, was that the show could end with a final farewell to a rising star who left us way too soon.  BUT!  The winner was Anthony Hopkins . . . who was not there and accepted via Zoom.  With that, the show ended abruptly with no acceptance speech and a lingering questions over why Boseman didn’t win.

While Boseman’s brother Derek made a public statement on behalf of the family that there were no hard feelings, the atmosphere in the air was thick with questions of a racial conspiracy.  Did the 9,917 members of the voting academy really conspire to withhold the Oscar from Chadwick Boseman because he was black?  Logic doesn’t seem in play in this theory but a point to consider is that since traditionally, many of the voters are older (and some older actors have been known to give the ballot to their spouses or secretaries, etc.) there is the distinct possibility that much of the voting body didn’t even know who Chadwick Boseman was and voted for the more familiar Anthony Hopkins.  This was a category that was stocked with mostly new faces – Boseman, Steven Yeun, Riz Ahmed.  Hopkins and Gary Oldman were the two previous winners.  So, there is the familiarity factor.  Given that, the numbers possibly just tipped in Hopkins’ favor.  We have to guess since the Academy, as a rule, doesn’t reveal it’s actual tally.

Was it a whitewash?  Again, on pure logic, I am not inclined to think so.  This was a year in which the Actor’s branch gave an award to Daniel Kaluuya for Judas and the Black Messiah and Yuh-Jung Youn for Minari; plus the Director’s branch awarded their Oscar to Chloe Zhao, a Chinese woman and, for the first time, two black women – Mia Neal and Jameka Wilson – were given the Make-Up and Hairstyling award for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.  Given that, it’s hard to strike the voters with charges of white-washing . . .

. . . but that doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt.

Chadwick Boseman was a glamorous young man, a talented young man whose star was on the rise, and who left us long before he really got the chance to reach the fullness of his potential.  He fought through an undisclosed battle with cancer and ended his journey by giving the best performance of his life.

To have landed his farewell performance in a film based on the works of August Wilson was a godsend because Wilson’s work gives actors the chance to really challenge themselves and you can see that in Boseman’s character.  Levee Green isn’t instantly likable.  He’s complicated, frustrated and immature, yet he’s a musician who is talented beyond words.  He’s as quick with his words as he is with his trumpet.  He is young, but not so young that he shouldn’t know better – he still thinks that he can outrun his misdeeds.  In his own way, he is trapped.  Despite the limitations of a black man in 1927 Chicago, Levee has a plan for his life that moves beyond being part of an ensemble backing Ma Rainey’s band.

Levee’s wish is the wish of all talented people: the freedom to create and control one’s work.  The problem is that in being part of the an arrangement and trying to create his own arrangement for the titular song, he runs head-long into the fury of Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) a woman who has earned the freedom to create and control her own work.

Waiting in a recording studio for Ma to show up, Levee proves time and again just how immature he is despite his energy and individuality.  Throughout the film there are constant references to a locked door, and even questions about whether the door was there before.  It’s locked, of course, and late in the film Levee forces his way through the door only to discover that it is a dead end – only a brick wall on the other side surrounding a tiny courtyard.  It is symbolic of how far he has to go to reach the top.  He is a black man in an America still steeped in its racial hatred despite the changes that are happening in the larger world.  The tiny courtyard that is on the other side is representative of the space that he is living in, the confines that still hold him in place as a black man in a white-dominated country.

In many ways, Levee is blind to what is right in front of him.  His desperate pursuit of individuality and his intense bravado alienate him from those around him.  He doesn’t see the avenues of opportunity that are right in front of him and he has trouble learning how to navigate the obstacles.  He would prefer to move past the adversity rather than earn the respect that comes with overcome it and in the end makes a decision that ultimately destroys all of those opportunities that are in front of him. 

What you notice first about Boseman’s performance is his energy.  He is a ball of insecurity, anger and frustration.  His voice is small and wheezy and he talks non-stop, yet you can hear how haunted this young man is in two monologues that tip Levee over from being The Angry Young Black Man to being a person who has deep mental scars.  The first is a long remembrance of when several men came to his house to rape his mother – was cut across the chest when he tried to break it up. 

The other is a challenging one of his fellow bandmate’s religion, asking him where God was when these horrible things were happening.  Boseman was dying when he filmed this movie and it is in the second monologue that he transcends from the performance and begins asking questions that are loaded with pain and betrayal.  Listening to his words in hindsight are rather chilling.  “Life ain’t shit” he says. “You can put it in a paper bag and carry it around with you. It ain’t got no balls. Now death… . death got some style. Death will kick your ass and make you wish you never been born. That’s how bad death is. But you can rule over life. Life ain’t nothing. Nigga talking about life is fair and ain’t got a pot to piss in.”

Best Actress

Frances McDormand (Nomadland)
The Nominees: Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday), Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman), Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman)

Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)
My Nominees:
Radha Blank (The 40-Year-Old Version), Sidney Flanigan (Never Rarely Sometimes Always), Yeri Han (Minari), Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman), Frances McDormand (Nomadland)

Why Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Makes Us Love Viola Davis Even More

In the same year the Oscar voters overlooked Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, they also overlooked Viola Davis.  Many pundits expected Davis to become the second black woman to receive an Academy Award for Best Actress after Halle Berry 20 years before, but it was not to be.  The award became the third Best Actress award for Frances McDormand, this one for Nomadland.

Like Meryl Streep, Davis and McDormand were Oscar regulars but historically there was a lot more riding on Davis’ win in this category.  Yes, she had won for years earlier as a supporting actress in Fences but to win an Oscar for a lead performance was historically a big deal.  And again, like Chadwick Boseman, there were questions and accusations about whether there was a racial component in place, and even more immediate questions of “What does this woman have to do?”

I always find it a bit unfair to compare performances, despite the fact that this is the whole conceit of Armchair Oscars, but it is kind of inevitable in this case.  I dearly love both performances, but in choosing one other the other, I stand with Davis because hers was a transformation.  I have seen nearly every film that Viola Davis has been a part of and I can say that I’ve never seen this performance before.

Gertrude ‘Ma Rainey’ Prigette carries respect that she has earned like a diamond around her neck.  She demands it of those who are quick to think that they can tell her no.  This is 1927 and Ma knows that her only avenue of respect from the white management is in the music that she produces and she uses that as leverage to keep those around her from closing the doors that they might do to anyone else.  She throws her weight around, forcing her those around her to bear the brunt of her casual tantrums and seemingly outrageous demands.  In particular is Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), her manager, who bears no animosity because in selling Ma Rainey’s records, he will end up with the sweetest plum.  She knows that the respect only comes from the sales of her records.  “All they care about is my voice,” she says, “So why not make them earn it.”

When Ma Rainey sings, we understand what all the fuss is about.  She transcends music.  She seems to have lived the lyrics.  We understand that her nickname – Mother of the Blues – wasn’t for nothing.  She plays the command for respect for all it is worth.  Ma is demanding, often pissed off and makes requests of her charges that seem impossible. 

The story takes place in one afternoon at a Chicago recording session in which she arrives late on purpose and drags Dussie Mae (Taylour Page), her latest slam piece, along with her.  She has reached the stage in her career (and her legacy) in which she has forced open doors and she is afforded a social misgiving or two (at least in terms of the texture of the times).  She is not shy about her sexuality and makes no attempts to hide her taste for women.  Ma Rainey even worked her open sexuality into her music in songs like “Prove it to me Blues” and “Bo-weevil Blues” she expressed herself in a far more upfront way than even a white singer possibly could.

In choosing Viola Davis’ performance for my Armchair Oscar, I am placing it as a companion piece to Chadwich Boseman.  The two performances complement each other within the narrative, so choosing one and not the other would paint an incomplete picture.  Davis brings to the role a larger-than-life quality, the portrait of a black woman born into dire poverty and racial strife growing up in Georgia of the reconstruction era. 

She has seen the horrors of racism and as an adult has used her voice to gain economic power and freedom.  She has earned the right to command and demand pretty much anything she wants.  Unlike Levee, she knows how to navigate the white management because she knows that she has earned it.  Levee, on the other hand, doesn’t see the avenues open to him, he only sees closed doors and bitterness.  When the two come together, it is inevitable that his demand for going his own way will clash with her demand that things be just right.  She sees the larger world that he cannot – a world in which her economic freedom is built on giving the public what it wants.  Levee on the other hand wants freedom for himself and does not care.

Ma knows that the blues are a means of expressing the black experience in a way that white people will never understand.  All they hear are the notes; the message is lost on them.  “White folks don’t understand about the blues,” she says, “They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there, they don’t understand that that’s life’s way of talking.  You don’t sing to feel better.  You sing ‘cause that’s a way of understanding life.”

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About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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