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How Did the 2020 Oscars End Up the Year of Edgy Men?

Despite all the pressure to be 'woke,' the top movies are a ratification of Scorsese's storytelling and the last laugh of 'Joker.'

Joaquin Phoenix accepts the Best Actor award for 'Joker' at the 25th Annual Critics' Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on January 12, 2020 (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Champagne Collet)

The 2020 Oscars promise to be the most interesting, and most conservative, since the Lord Of The Rings trilogy was winning awards two decades ago. 

Yes, it’s been that long since a billion-dollar movie received 11 nominations, and far longer since a shocking drama about the corruption of American society wowed the Academy. Yet Joker has accomplished both, securing prestige after audiences made it popular worldwide.

Joker is such an indictment of moribund liberalism that woke critics have taken greater aim at it than any other 2019 film. It got to the point where the media appeared to be hungrily anticipating a mass shooting in order to prove how evil young white incels are. Of course, nothing of the kind happened. Yet the long knives were still out for director Todd Phillips, who in comments to the press committed an unforgivable sin when he raised the specter of cancel culture in today’s comedy. Yet instead of “canceling” Joker, the outrage seems to have achieved the opposite.

The plot of Joker, at first glance, is a combination of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1986), and includes Robert De Niro, the star of both movies. Critics have noted this, but they’ve been too ignorant to ponder whether maybe Scorsese was just as anti-elite then as Joker is today. 

It’s about time we started rethinking Scorsese’s legacy, not just because he’s at the end of his career, but because his new Netflix movie, The Irishman, is nominated for 10 Oscars this year—a last hurrah indeed. Following Scorsese in the nominations hierarchy is one of his spiritual children, Quentin Tarantino, whose Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood received nine nominations this year. If Joker is depressive and hysterical, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood is hilarious and heartening—but both are forms of storytelling that depend on Scorsese’s groundbreaking mix of ethnic history, pop music, and Italian neo-realism.

These movies are populist and humanist—they attempt to reveal the conflict between immigrant communities (and indeed any other small community emerging in America) and the broader society. Such conflicts are essentially tragic—they can be managed, but never solved. That’s the source of drama and what makes them conservative—no amount of progressive Enlightenment liberalism can fix the problem and bring us heaven on earth. There will be heartbreak and violence, and redemption will only come, if at all, through the spirit, in small doses, and on the immediate, local level.

This brand of cinema attempts to retrieve national memory through a combination of artistic license and personal experience. Its directors become auteurs, personally guaranteeing the authenticity of their art through their vision—and the use of a kind of storytelling that suggests to the audience how they might approach important or revealing moments in American history,  whether it be the disappearance of union boss Jimmy Hoffa or the murder of Hollywood actress Sharon Tate and her guests in the Hollywood hills.

Will audiences and the Academy keep rewarding such genre storytelling? I don’t know—we’ll have to wait and see. We’re going through changes right now that make the past and the future hard to distinguish. The only clear thing so far is that the 2020 Oscars have shaped up to feature men, some edgy and unpredictable (Joaquin Phoenix, up for best actor in Joker) and others sure to invoke nostalgia for a different time in Hollywood moviemaking.

The major nominees include a number born at the tail end of the Silent Generation: Al Pacino (Irishman), Joe Pesci (Irishman), and Anthony Hopkins, who plays Pope Benedict in The Two Popes (can you get more conservative than that?). There are Boomers, too: Tom Hanks, Kathy Bates, Jonathan Pryce, Antonio Banderas. And there are elder Gen-Xers: Tarantino and Brad Pitt.

The Academy’s decisions to honor these actors have proved a humiliation to the woke, who had hoped after 2016 and #MeToo that they would dominate the awards, or at least not be shut out. The names above are the top tier of talent in America and this year they made some remarkable films. They refuse to stop working, continue to push boundaries, and are among the most beloved figures in entertainment.

Perhaps they are exactly what we need, a sign of a future without woke hysteria perverting American history and humiliating those who feel affection for their country. We should point to Scorsese’s example and make sure young talent learns from him, imitates him, discovers a path fit for our times.

Nostalgia is a poor form of prophecy, but selective nostalgia is often our surest method of figuring out what it is that we’re missing. Understood this way, even if we think of the 2020 Oscars as the last hurrah of a passing generation that has dominated cinema since the ’70s, there is much to be grateful for and much to learn. They should be an inspiration to us all.

It may be mere chance that these directors—Scorsese, Phillips, Tarantino—are dominating this year’s Oscars, but we should hope it’s a show of sanity in a time of great social tumult.

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation and a contributor to National Review, The FederalistLaw & Libertyand Modern Age.

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