Must every movie be heralded as “timely” and “urgent” in order to matter?
“Da 5 Bloods” is the “movie for our moment.” So is “Palm Springs.” And “Nomadland.” “Minari” is “the movie we need right now.” So is “Wonder Woman 1984.” And “Hamilton.” In each of their own ways, these movies were pertinent to the past year, providing us everything from comfort to clarity in these turbulent times. But using the same phrases to describe seemingly every movie renders them meaningless and turns them into a cynical gimmick.
While these phrases and their variations aren’t new, they became ubiquitous in the aftermath of the 2016 election.
“Relevance is one of the great shibboleths of criticism, and after a real-life event as dramatic and complex as this year’s election, the temptation to seek clues and answers in works of popular art is almost overwhelming,” New York Times co-chief film critic A.O. Scott wrote in the introduction to his list of the best movies of 2016, following the election of Donald Trump. “But cinema is better at exploring than explaining, and the screen is more like a prism or a kaleidoscope than a mirror or a window. We seldom get the news from movies.”
A lot of critics and Oscar prognosticators couldn’t help but view that year’s Oscar season through the lens of Trump’s election. One of the prevailing narratives around the Best Picture race was that it served as a referendum on the election. On Oscar night, when “Moonlight” unexpectedly triumphed over the season’s presumed front-runner “La La Land,” it was seen as Hollywood’s rebuke or repudiation of Trump’s victory.
Pop culture has always been a product and reflection of the world around us, whether that was the artist’s intention or not. The best movies — and the best art in general — help us see the world in a new way, crystallize something we hadn’t fully seen before, connect the past with the present and the specific with the universal. But overemphasizing a film’s relevance or inserting real-life parallels when they aren’t there isn’t that.
Every few weeks or months, a critic might declare the latest buzzy movie “the movie of the moment” or “the movie we need right now.” Studios and their publicity consultants then splash these flashy quotes onto movie posters and For Your Consideration ads during awards season. It reflects a tired tendency to ascribe some sort of larger significance to the movie, even when it isn’t directly there, and reinforces an overused notion that movies must be heralded as “timely” and “urgent” in order to matter.
The Rise Of The Phrase ‘The Movie We Need Right Now’
The push to underscore a movie’s relevance for awards purposes isn’t entirely new. For years, now-convicted sexual abuser Harvey Weinstein was infamous for his aggressive approach to getting his movies Oscars. He was pivotal to the ways modern Oscar campaigns often resemble political campaigns. At times, he shoehorned social and political significance into his awards season contenders, like having “My Left Foot” star Daniel Day-Lewis testify on Capitol Hill to advocate for the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, giving the movie an extra boost. Similarly, for 2014′s “Philomena,” the movie’s real-life subject Philomena Lee met with U.S. senators to lobby for adoption-related legislation that was relevant to her story in the film.
But Weinstein was mainly known for his blatantly manipulative and heavy-handed emotional appeals to Oscar voters, creating an entire awards season industrial complex. If you wanted an Oscar, you had to schmooze and hobnob at every awards breakfast or dinner, every panel or screening. Weinstein was hellbent on making sure anyone with influence saw his movies, generating a sense of exclusivity: If you haven’t seen this movie or met its star or filmmaker at a fancy event, you’re missing out.
Take 2008′s “The Reader,” which Weinstein strong-armed into that year’s Oscar race. The slogan on its For Your Consideration ads sums up his entire approach: “The one film that has everyone talking.” (It’s questionable as to whether it did indeed have everyone talking: In his opening monologue, Oscar host Hugh Jackman joked about having not seen it.)
In 2010, Weinstein produced “The King’s Speech,” that year’s Best Picture winner. “Some movies you see. Others you feel,” the movie’s ads declared. Its awards campaign used the extremely obvious slogan: “Find your voice.” By 2014, when the ads for the Weinstein-produced biopic “The Imitation Game” urged Oscar voters to “honor the man, honor the film,” this approach had become the subject of mockery and derision.
Regardless of whether Weinstein was behind them or not, many of the awards campaigns for movies of the 1990s and 2000s relied on these transparently sentimental appeals and bombastic phrases to tug at Oscar voters’ heartstrings. Looking back at the quotes from critics’ reviews that were emblazoned on For Your Consideration ads, most of them conveyed wonderment and amazement. For example, in 2008 — another seismic election year — the ads for Best Picture winner “Slumdog Millionaire” boasted that the movie was “a buoyant hymn to life” and “a soaring, crowd-pleasing fantasy.”
Every now and then, there were ads that referenced a movie’s relevance, trying to convey that it was about something serious and important. “The Dark Knight”: “this is the zeitgeist movie.” “Doubt”: “a movie that is actually about something.” But most of these kinds of narratives were applied to movies with more overt political and social themes, such as documentaries, political thrillers and biopics.
Sometimes, even those movies didn’t lean into political narratives as much as one might expect. For instance, the discourse around 2008′s “Milk,” starring Sean Penn as LGBTQ rights pioneer Harvey Milk, was very politically oriented for obvious reasons. Its release came at the dawn of the Obama presidency, and California’s Prop 8, which banned marriage equality, had just passed, giving the movie something to fight against. Yet when looking at its ad campaign, only some of the language and visuals directly referenced the political landscape surrounding the film’s release.
Why The Phrase Has Become Particularly Useless To Audiences
The 2016 election marked a turning point. Search for phrases like “the movie we need right now,” and the results show a huge spike in articles in late 2016 and early 2017. Over the last few years, it has been hard not to view everything through a Trumpian lens.
This, however, was overkill. “Loving,” about the couple whose legal fight brought an end to laws banning interracial marriage, was “the movie America needs right now.” Disney’s “Zootopia” was “exactly the movie we need right now.” “Arrival” was also “the movie we need right now.” So was “Hidden Figures.” “La La Land” was, too — but because it was an escape from the hellscape of 2016, rather than a corrective to it.
By early 2017, culture writers started to point out the egregious overuse of these now-meaningless phrases and poked fun at the trend. But there was no turning back. “Wonder Woman” was the “superhero movie we need right now.” “I, Tonya” was “the movie we need right now.” Or was it “Mudbound”? Or maybe “Darkest Hour”? “The Shape of Water” was “the movie of the moment.” So was “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” So was “Get Out.” So was “The Post.”
Analyzing this phenomenon at the end of 2017, film critic K. Austin Collins pointed out the absurdity of these headlines while acknowledging that the whole concept of relevance is complicated.
“Movies don’t need to be sold to us as what we need right now, or ever, to be relevant as art, but it’s true that this form of relevance is the way our culture is currently swinging, and it’s doubly true that art should strive to be about the world in which it exists,” he wrote.
Perhaps it’s more instructive to think about it as a spectrum. Art that ignores politics altogether and actively tries to be apolitical is often misguided. On the other hand, making a piece of work that’s too on-the-nose and inserting relevance for marketing purposes is inauthentic. Sometimes, deliberately underlining a movie’s modern-day parallels can have the opposite effect on moviegoers.
For instance, last year, I really wanted to like “Jojo Rabbit.” But when it was pitched to reporters and critics as “an anti-hate satire,” I became more skeptical about the movie than I otherwise would have. I didn’t want to be hit over the head with the movie’s relevance from the start, but rather, discover it through the movie itself.
The dynamics of this year’s Oscar race are still unfolding, with the contenders jockeying for attention using various narratives. On one level, the current Best Picture front-runner, Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” could be considered “a movie for the moment,” a movie about something “timely” and “urgent.” It documents the grim effects of the Great Recession, the monotony of being cogs in a capitalist machine and the precariousness of life on the margins (and has faced some scrutiny for not being critical enough about these topics). Yet, as my colleague Matt Jacobs wrote, it’s not explicit about these Big Important Themes — and it doesn’t need to be.
“In an era when so many movies triple-underline their social consciousness, Zhao has crafted a drama too intelligent to submit to such showboating,” he wrote.
Sometimes, the Academy decides to award Best Picture to something polarizing; sometimes, it gives it to the safest pick. And every now and then, it gives it to a damn great movie, a “Moonlight” or a “Parasite.”
To borrow another oft-used and overwrought phrase, movies are supposed to “stand the test of time.” The best movies are both timely and timeless. They represent big ideas and evoke a particular moment — and stand on their own, too.