A non-English-language movie had never won the best picture Oscar until Bong Joon Ho's "Parasite" prevailed last year.
Could Pixar Animation's lovely and gentle "Soul," which ponders all sorts of existential questions in ways both profound and silly, break another barrier this year, becoming the first animated movie to win best picture?
It's a question I tossed out before Christmas on The Envelope podcast (you subscribe, right?), and that was before audiences — and quite a few academy members — ran the movie on a continuous loop over the holidays.
Honestly, although it would be nice if an ambitious, joyful movie full of imagination and curiosity won the Oscars' top prize, I'm not holding my breath that academy members are suddenly going to cast aside a long history of animation aversion and give "Soul" best picture. It's entirely possible — even in this diminished year — that "Soul" might not even be nominated in that category. "Beauty and the Beast" is the only animated movie to earn a nod when Oscar voters had five nomination slots on their ballots. "Up" and "Toy Story 3" made it in when the Oscars expanded the best picture race to a fixed 10 nominees — giving members 10 slots on their ballots. They're going back to 10 next year, but that doesn't help "Soul" now.
Certainly, there are arguments to be made for other films. Well ... maybe one other film. I'll hold off, though, on further "Nomadland" talk until you've had a chance to see it. (Hopefully, that will happen.) But a "Soul" victory would be fitting for the year we've just experienced. What better way to commemorate 2020 than to honor a popular movie that asked us to contemplate what's really important in life?
In the meantime, here's a brief look at some of the other contenders, most of which remain largely unseen by voters because there's no sense of urgency (the Oscars are still more than three months away), and, you know, we've had more pressing issues to occupy our minds lately.
"The Trial of the Chicago 7" (Netflix): Aaron Sorkin's legal drama has the most mainstream appeal among Netflix's four primary best picture contenders. It sports a first-rate ensemble, plenty of snappy Sorkinesque idealism and pulls off the neat trick of making a complicated, '60s-era courtroom case feel timely, trenchant and urgent. That it's the year's second-best legal drama, placing behind Steve McQueen's thrilling "Small Axe" movie "Mangrove," isn't important, as "Mangrove" will be competing at the Emmys. "Chicago 7's" craftsmanship and moral clarity could make it Netflix's first best picture winner.
"One Night in Miami" (Amazon Studios): Regina King's feature directorial debut is a meticulous, visually assured picture of what might have gone down the night Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown met in a motel room right after Clay — who'd soon take the name Muhammad Ali — won the heavyweight championship in 1964. Again, it's history tailored to the academy's predominantly older demographic, but also possessing a bone-deep understanding of its subject and how their conflicts reflect the experiences of Black men in America. I've spoken with several academy members who say it's their No. 1 film of the year.
"Mank" (Netflix): Labeled early as the season's juggernaut, David Fincher's dramatization of the life of Herman J. Mankiewicz and his authorship of "Citizen Kane" has receded as critics groups have mostly given it the cold shoulder and academy members have been more mixed on the film than expected. It was unlikely that Hollywood would reward a movie about itself in this of all years, though "Mank" remains a solid bet to vacuum up a host of nominations — and come away with next to nothing on Oscar night, supporting actress Amanda Seyfried and production designer Donald Graham Burt excepted.