Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: The Sad, "Disturbing Familiarity" of This Year’s Oscar Nominees

Illustration by Kyle Hilton
Illustration by Kyle Hilton

Nearly as disappointing as the tired lack of inclusivity among this year's best picture contenders, writes The Hollywood Reporter columnist, is "the timidity of the filmmakers" that did make the cut.

In 2015, at the beginning of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, I wrote a column for The Hollywood Reporter called "Hollywood Diversity Is a Special Effect." Yet, here we are again, five years later, singing the same sorry song. But rather than wring my hands over the frustration, irony and inevitability of it all, I'm going to look at another aspect of the Oscar nominations for best picture that isn't about inclusivity but is almost equally culturally devastating: the disturbing familiarity of some of the films and timidity of the filmmakers. All the nominated movies are good, all are worth paying to see. But almost half do little to elevate art or illuminate the human condition. With so many excellent television shows streaming daily, the "best" movies must step up their game, not just in technical wonderment but also in literary aspiration.

"Literary" sounds pretty grandiose and maybe even a little New Yorker snobby. All I mean is that when we celebrate "the best" in any art form, we should have a criteria that rewards not just dazzling style and technique but also depth of substance. We should come away from our best works not just entertained but reflective, with a keener insight into our own lives and interactions with others. That's asking a lot, but that's why we award those who achieve it.

It's worth noting that six of the nine films nominated for best picture have historical settings, and five are based on historical events. Last year, five of the eight nominees also were historically based. One of the reasons filmmakers choose subjects based in history or based on historical events and people is that the story tells us something about who we are today. It's like a Rosetta Stone for translating the past into a language that better explains the present. And some of the nominations do just that.

As war becomes more sanitized and long-distance in the minds of Americans, we need to be reminded that war is hell. 1917 joins other great war movies (Paths of Glory, The Boys in Company C, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket) in making the horrors more intimate, the relentless terror more exhaustive. Sam Mendes' much-discussed tracking-shot technique gives the audience no respite from the intensity and insanity of war.

Jojo Rabbit writer-director Taika Waititi's addition of, and portrayal of, Adolf Hitler as an invisible friend to the story's 10-year-old protagonist and aspiring Nazi is brilliant. As Jojo starts to question the veracity of the Nazi propaganda, imaginary Hitler becomes increasingly sinister. The emotions this movie elicits from the audience — joy and sorrow — are earned and linger long after the end. And the parallels with the politics of our time are especially frightening and poignant.

Little Women, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, offers a fresh and clever reimagining of the classic novel that is completely engaging. The struggles of the sisters to find their own voices, and for those voices to be taken seriously, in a repressive society still ring true. It's a conventional story re-imagined in an unconventional way.

South Korean director Bong Joon Ho's Parasite is probably the most original and continually surprising of the bunch. Sometimes it feels like a surreal Oldboy-like puzzle, sometimes like a Shameless-like dysfunctional family comedy, but all the elements come together to form a riveting and heartbreaking meditation on the crushing impact of class struggle in society.

Marriage Story barely makes the top of my best list. Writer-director Noah Baumbach's dialogue is a delight: There are so many dazzling scenes of raw and bruised emotions that are painfully true. But there also is a sense of familiarity about the story, as if we've seen it often in other films — though not as skillfully.

As for the rest: Joaquin Phoenix gives a powerful and original performance in Joker that deserves his nomination for best actor. But the movie drags as it keeps covering the same material, with the same obvious commentary on our negligent mental health care system. I thoroughly enjoyed Ford v Ferrari, as sleek and slick as a racing car and one I would happily watch again. But its joys are all in the moment of watching, forgotten soon after.

Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest filmmakers ever. Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas probably influenced more contemporary directors than any other movies. But The Irishman is bloated with scenes that needed trimming and features a clueless protagonist who, despite being a killer, is surprisingly dim and therefore dull.

In an earlier article, I disapproved of director Quentin Tarantino's highly inaccurate and distasteful portrayal of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but that is not why this film isn't deserving of a best picture nom. He has every right to do what he wants with history, but what fresh insights have these changes given us? Despite excellent performances and several riveting scenes, the movie wanders off into the distance slumped over the saddle like Shane.

Part of the problem is the Academy's 2009 decision to expand the number of best picture nominations from five to 10, a return to the 1930s and '40s, when the Academy nominated eight to 12 movies. In doing so, the Academy made it clear that the awards are first and foremost less about recognizing quality and more about making money by promoting as many movies as possible. With five contenders, we could have had the best, but these additions make a nomination for best picture more like a participation award. If the Academy wants movies to be taken seriously as an art form, then lean into exclusivity and to the rich voices that show us the complexity of our lives in fresh, vibrant ways.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.