It’s been a gnarly November so far, as the midterm elections and news cycles have kept us occupied, and there’s often no better place that the cinema to escape the real world for a bit. But what do those audiences opt for: a gritty drama or a wild fantasy?
It’s the same question that’ll be asked of Hollywood’s Oscar voters, and it’s a theme worth looking at in the broader scope of awards season. Some of the biggest Oscar races in recent history have come down to whether voters will honor a film that reflects a real, timely, intense drama or a vibrant, whimsical, escapist dream, and the choice often speaks to the socio-political climate of the year.
The 2019 Oscar race is already pitting some strong contenders against each other to test escapism versus reality.
On the former front, We have Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga sweeping us into their star-crossed romance in the heady A Star is Born, or Alfonso Cuaron transporting us back to the Mexico of his childhood in Roma as he follows the life of a family’s maid. Then there’s Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, a twisted nightmare in Queen Anne’s court, and perhaps the most escapist of all, Black Panther, in which Marvel’s first black superhero gets his own standalone film exploring the vibrant comic-book world of Wakanda.
These stories encompass very real themes — A Star is Born tackles fame and addiction, Roma explores class and gender politics, The Favourite charts the impact of loss, and Black Panther examines the black experience — but the films transport audiences into another world.
On the other hand, we have a slate of films grounded in real stories and events, from Damien Chazelle’s intimate portrait of Neil Armstrong in First Man to Spike Lee’s surreal true story of a black police officer infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in BlacKkKlansman. Barry Jenkins adapts James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk into a prescient story for our present climate, while The Hate U Give is ripped from headlines as it explores the journey of a 16-year-old black girl who witnesses the fatal shooting of her friend, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a white police officer.
Director Adam McKay’s anticipated biopic Vice charts the rise of politician Dick Cheney (played by an unrecognizable Christian Bale), while Green Book wraps timely issues of class and race into the real-life story of a black classical pianist (played by Mahershala Ali) traveling through the Deep South with his white driver from the Bronx (Viggo Mortensen).
Addiction continues to be a theme, as Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet bring to screen the real-life story of a father struggling to deal with his son’s demons in Beautiful Boy, while Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges tackle the burden of addiction on a family in Ben Is Back. Hedges also brings to screen the true story of a teenage man forced to attend gay conversion therapy by his religious parents in Boy Erased.
There are few staples that Oscars voters, now made up of more than 9,000 members of the film industry, tend to favor in the Best Picture category: A-list actor transformations, movies about the movie business, and true stories of people or events that shine a light on a timely issue or hold a mirror to society.
To gauge how they might vote in the upcoming year, it may help to take a quick look at recent Oscars history — going back to 2010, the first year the Best Picture category was expanded to include up to 10 nominees — to see whether an escapist tale or a grounded drama clinched the coveted Best Picture accolade.
2010: The first year of the expanded Best Picture category led to one of the more interesting Best Picture races in Oscar history. James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster Avatar (still the highest-grossing film of all time at the worldwide box office) faced off with Kathryn Bigelow’s war thriller The Hurt Locker. The race set up a David-vs.-Goliath battle between Cameron and Bigelow, the first woman to win the directing Oscar. (The two filmmakers were also ex-spouses.) In the end, The Hurt Locker that prevailed. Winner: Realism.
2011: British period drama The King’s Speech found itself up against contenders such as David Fincher’s dissection of Facebook’s founders in The Social Network, Christopher Nolan’s complex dream thriller Inception, and Darren Aronofsky’s ballet nightmare Black Swan. It was The King’s Speech, about how the newly crowned British King George VI had to overcome the debilitating impact of his stammer to deliver a wartime speech, that checked numerous boxes and edged out the competition: an A-list actor (Colin Firth), a period drama, and a true story of an underdog who rises to success. Winner: Realism.
2012: Period drama The Help, starring an ensemble cast and about the lives of suburban white Mississippi wives and their black maids in the 1960s, and baseball drama Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, were pitted against the French black-and-white period film The Artist, starring a little-known Jean Dujardin. Hollywood’s penchant for movies about Hollywood shone through this year as the sweeping, whimsical The Artist, which follows a silent film star in the late 1920s struggling to adapt to the new world of cinematic sound, found itself the surprise winner of the Best Picture accolade. Winner: Escapism.
2013: Ang Lee’s visually stunning, fantastical The Life of Pi and Quentin Tarantino’s ruthless slavery revenge tale Django Unchained were up against indie romance Silver Linings Playbook and the heart-wrenching Beasts of the Southern Wild, a dream-life trip through a Louisiana bayou community affected by a devastating natural disaster. But it was Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, that ticked numerous boxes for voters: a star-studded cast led by Affleck, in a true story about American hostages in Iran who were rescued by undercover CIA agents pretending to make a film there, tying the showbiz angle into a thrilling plot. Winner: Realism.
2014: Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn as a suave, fast-talking investment banker in Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street was pitted against Cuaron’s heart-racing space thriller Gravity and Spike Jonze’s futuristic love story Her. But it was Steve McQueen’s heart-wrenching, unflinching historical tale 12 Years a Slave that broke through that year, scooping the Best Picture prize and making McQueen the first black director to win the category. Winner: Realism.
2015: On the night of the 2015 Oscars, the Best Picture race came down to two feats of filmmaking: Alejandro G. Inarritu’s fantastical Birdman, filmed to look like one shot through the claustrophobic labyrinth of a New York theater as a washed-up actor (played by Michael Keaton) tries to make his comeback, and Richard Linklater’s grounded coming-of-age tale Boyhood, charting the life of a boy who was filmed every year for a decade. In the end, it was Birdman, with its tale of an underdog hero emerging triumphant at the end in the world of showbiz, that edged out Boyhood to win. Winner: Escapism
2016: After losing out on the Best Actor Oscar in 2014, DiCaprio teamed up with 2015 Best Director winner Inarritu for The Revenant, a stark and brutal tale of a frontiersman in the 1820s left for dead after being mauled by a bear. The star-powered film went up against Matt Damon’s space thriller The Martian and George Miller’s post-apocalyptic sequel Mad Max: Fury Road, but it was the little indie journalism drama Spotlight, the true story of the Boston Globe’s investigative team uncovering abuses in the Catholic Church, that bested them all. Winner: Realism.
2017: The now infamous 2017 Oscars saw two contenders face off in a tense race on the night: Damien Chazelle’s whimsical love letter to Hollywood in the musical romance La La Land versus Jenkins’ raw, intimate, and powerful tale of a black gay boy growing up in an impoverished Miami neighborhood in Moonlight.
It was the battle of a studio movie with white, A-list leads versus an independent drama with unknown black leads, in a year when inclusion and representation were prevalent during the Oscars conversation after two years of #OscarsSoWhite. When presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced La La Land as the winner, people immediately acknowledged that the film appealed to Oscar voters with starry leads in a tale of showbiz. But just as quickly, the error was caught on stage as the Best Picture card actually read Moonlight, serving a huge win for a small independent film telling a story not often told in Hollywood. Winner: Realism.
2018: This year saw a tight race between Guillermo del Toro’s dark fantasy romance The Shape of Water, Jordan Peele’s searing racially charged horror movie Get Out, and Martin McDonagh’s tale of an avenging small-town mother in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Arguably, it was Peele’s film that made the biggest pop culture impact as it mirrored underlying racism and racial fractures in America within its story of a black man held hostage by his white girlfriend’s family, but in the end, it was Del Toro’s story of a mute woman falling in love with a fish-man that won the night. Winner: Escapism.
2019: At this early stage of awards season, the Best Picture contenders are led by A Star is Born and Roma, but with numerous films coming out over the course of next month, we’ll have to wait and see whether an escapist fantasy or a grounded tale of reality will emerge victorious.