What does a prestige movie look like in 2021? Is it a gentle small-budget film about the resilience of an immigrant Korean family trying to assimilate themselves in the American heartland starring actors of Korean descent? Or is it a black-and-white epic spectacle about the business of movies that borrows its existence from what is regarded as one of the defining films of our generation, and is helmed by one of the definitive directors of our generation? And what if it is both and neither at the same time?
In any other year, the answer would be simple. Prestige movies by definition lend themselves well to auteurism " the draw of a prolific filmmaker tackling a project that both conceals and reveals their personal demons with technical and emotional agility is prime award season bait. After all, the business of a prestige movie is to make an audience feel like cinema is still art, even when packed in multi-million deals and loaded on streaming platforms.
In any other year then, David Fincher's Mank, a Netflix film that chronicles Hollywood in the 1930s and '40s to craft a character study of Herman J Mankiewicz and his decision to write Citizen Kane would be considered a spiritual companion piece to Alfonso Cuaron's deeply felt Roma. Both are movies that have a filmmaker working at the peak of their capabilities, and are essentially meant as tributes. If Cuaron made Roma to honour the resilience of his single mother and childhood nanny, then Fincher's decision to direct Mank, the script of which is written by his late father, is nothing if not a hat tip to a writer from a filmmaker who keenly understands how thankless it is to be a writer. Both Roma and Mank also hinge on the promise of being outcomes where filmmakers have had the luxury of being able to thoroughly realise their vision. In a different year, Mank would have been the award season frontrunner. The wins of the film would not just be predicted, they would be guaranteed.
But in a year where the world was forced to retreat indoors, and the big screen ceased to be the backdrop of our lives and the window to so many others, the rules of engagement look slightly different. For one, the way we have come to regard movies is missing crucial embellishments. Nor does the appeal of a movie hinge on the satisfaction its theatre-going experience provides; neither is a lavishly mounted promotional campaign equipped to steer the reputation of a movie in a way that overpowers other outings. At a time when the size of screens have blurred, so has the movie-watching experience, allowing films to be primarily judged on their inherent ability to bring alive a world. In many ways, it lessens the distance between a film and a prestige film.
This year around, there is prestige in having made any kind of film.
That is probably best reflected in the award season this year, boasting of possibly the most interesting and varied Oscar pool in recent memory. A quick glean at the 2021 Oscar nominations can point you to two things: no movie is upstaging any other, and most crucially, there is a greater room for smaller character-studies that could have easily been sidelined by the Academy in any other year. Take for instance, the Academy recognising a movie like Sound Of Metal (sure, the revised eligibility rule which allows even movies that have premiered on streaming to qualify for consideration helps matters) in four main categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor). Ask yourself this: If this was regular programming, would Sound of Metal be able to forge its own space at the Oscars beyond a token Best Actor nomination for Riz Ahmed's galvanising lead turn? Highly unlikely. That the film was also able to instantly resonate with audiences despite the auteur-led outings of the year also signals to the significant impact pandemic restrictions have had on our collective movie-watching appetite.
That also explains Ramin Bahrani's The White Tiger and Florian Zeller's The Father landing Oscar nominations. Or why Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman, Chloe Zhao's Nomadland, and Lee Isaac Chung's Minari have garnered the Academy's unanimous backing. Any other year, these two movies would have been a shot in the dark at best, earning probably one-off mentions but this year, they are as much of a contender as David Fincher's Mank or Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7.
In a sense, the lack of bells and embellishments surrounding movie campaigns has also allowed the Academy to leave behind their assumptions of what traditionally constitutes an Oscar-bait film (The Trial of the Chicago 7? The Mauritanian?) and expand their definition of what an Oscar-worthy film should look like. The point of any award, especially the Academy Award, should not be to recognise movies with might, but movies with pluck. This year might have been the closest the Oscars has come to realising that.
That is the other realisation the pandemic has brought forth when it prompted movie production crews all across the world to halt indefinitely. When movie production ultimately resumed almost a year later, one thing became clear: the movies that would get increasingly harder to make would be these character studies. It is easier to imagine a future where spectacles like Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7 would continue to be greenlit as compared to the deeply personal outings that risk more and forge a new language of cinema appreciation. This award season, replete with films about alienation, the ugliness of revenge, the privilege of hearing and memory, reflects that learning. If anything, it is impossible to not remember the 2021 award season as the rise of the indies.
Oscars 2021 will air in India on 26 April.