From ‘Fair Play’ to ‘Flower Moon’: Timely Tales Tackling Inequality and Fighting Corporations Will Resonate During Awards Season

The Oscars love it when a movie sticks it to the man.

Films focusing on systemic inequality, or the monied elite’s morally murky ways, arrive as many industry voters have spent the better part of the year on the picket lines, holding out for a better contract from studios. These movies could strike an emotional chord with Academy members when they cast their ballots.

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Although the titles vying for Oscars have nothing to do with fights over streaming residuals, they reflect a growing dissatisfaction with the chasm that exists between the 1% and those of us lacking trust funds and Swiss bank accounts.

Read: Variety’s Awards Circuit for the latest Oscars predictions in all categories.

Take “Dumb Money,” which focuses on ragtag investors who put the squeeze on hedge funds that bet that GameStop’s shares would keep plunging. The script from writers and executive producers Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo shines a light on the uneven playing field between billionaires and working-class Americans just trying to stay afloat. That kind of David-versus-Goliath story may be Oscar catnip. And while most of the mega-rich investors kept their fortunes — or, in this case, bespoke suits — other films up for awards have the good guys triumphing.

There’s “Air,” the Ben Affleck-directed movie about how sneaker company Nike took a huge gamble to sign rookie Michael Jordan, a deal that helped the basketball prodigy soar into the highest echelon of wealth and fame. Another is Maggie Betts’ “The Burial,” with Jamie Foxx playing a personal injury lawyer who helps a funeral home owner (Tommy Lee Jones) sue a large corporation.

Farther back in history, there’s Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which dramatizes the brutal murders of members of the Osage by a group of men desperate to obtain their oil-rich land. The story may be set in the 1920s, but the greed it depicts remains all too familiar.

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor

That’s not the only film dealing with the country’s troubled racial history. “American Fiction,” from debut director Cord Jefferson, offers a satirical look at Black exploitation in media. Its laughs are followed by tears in Ava DuVernay’s “Origin,” which explores interconnected instances of bigotry and oppression.

There’s also Netflix’s workplace thriller “Fair Play,” which shows the way that women have to keep fighting for their seat at the table. That feminist message is echoed by Warner Bros.’ “Barbie,” which pokes mostly gentle fun at Mattel, the toymaker behind the titular doll, with its depiction of a male-dominated C-suite.

Past Oscar seasons have seen many zeitgeisty contenders that speak to the political moment. The emotional toll of economic downturns, presidential elections and global crises often resonates strongly in and outside of Hollywood. In 2009, Jason Reitman followed up his satirical take on Big Tobacco (2006’s “Thank You for Smoking”) and teen pregnancy (2007’s “Juno”) with “Up in the Air,” a view on job loss through the eyes of a corporate downsizer for hire (George Clooney). Paramount Pictures’ dramedy dropped two years after the 2007-08 financial crisis, tapping into the pain of audiences reeling from layoffs and foreclosures. The film was rewarded with six Oscar nominations, including best picture and three acting mentions.

More recently, there’s 2020’s best picture winner “Nomadland,” which focused on people choosing to live as nomads. That look at life on the road through the eyes of those who feel abandoned by a changing world gave voters a feeling of being seen.

Something similar may happen this year. When the strikes are finally over, awards voters may be hungry for a movie that pays tribute to others who were willing to take a stand against a system that they saw as exploitative or corrupt. For some screenwriters and actors, that may mean an invite to the Oscars to go with their new contracts.

Read the latest prediction updates below.

Current Oscars Tracking
(Sept. 28, 2023)

Best Picture
“American Fiction” (MGM)
“Barbie” (Warner Bros.)
“The Holdovers” (Focus Features)
“Killers of the Flower Moon” (Apple Original Films/Paramount Pictures)
“Maestro” (Netflix)
“Oppenheimer” (Universal Pictures)
“Origin” (Neon)
“Past Lives” (A24)
“Poor Things” (Searchlight Pictures)
“The Zone of Interest” (A24)

Jonathan Glazer, “The Zone of Interest”
Cord Jefferson, “American Fiction”
Yorgos Lanthimos, “Poor Things”
Christopher Nolan, “Oppenheimer”
Martin Scorsese, “Killers of the Flower Moon”

Bradley Cooper, “Maestro”
Leonardo DiCaprio, “Killers of the Flower Moon”
Colman Domingo, “Rustin”
Cillian Murphy, “Oppenheimer”
Jeffrey Wright, “American Fiction”

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, “Origin”
Lily Gladstone, “Killers of the Flower Moon”
Carey Mulligan, “Maestro”
Natalie Portman, “May December”
Emma Stone, “Poor Things”

Supporting Actor
Sterling K. Brown, “American Fiction”
Robert DeNiro, “Killers of the Flower Moon”
Robert Downey Jr., “Oppenheimer”
Ryan Gosling, “Barbie”
Mark Ruffalo, “Poor Things”

Supporting Actress
Emily Blunt, “Oppenheimer”
Penélope Cruz, “Ferrari”
America Ferrera, “Barbie”
Julianne Moore, “May December”
Da’Vine Joy Randolph, “The Holdovers”

Original Screenplay
“The Holdovers”
“May December”
“Past Lives”

Adapted Screenplay
“American Fiction”
“Killers of the Flower Moon”
“Poor Things”
“The Zone of Interest”

Animated Feature
“The Boy and the Heron”
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem”
“Trolls Band Together”

Production Design
“Killers of the Flower Moon”
“Poor Things”

“Killers of the Flower Moon”
“The Zone of Interest”

Costume Design
“The Color Purple”
“Killers of the Flower Moon”
“Poor Things”

Film Editing
“American Fiction”
“Killers of the Flower Moon”

Makeup and Hairstyling
“The Color Purple”
“Poor Things”

“Killers of the Flower Moon”
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”
“The Zone of Interest”

Visual Effects
“Blue Beetle”
“The Creator”
“The Little Mermaid”
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”

Original Score
“American Fiction”
“Killers of the Flower Moon”
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”

Original Song
“I’m Just Ken” from “Barbie”
“What Was I Made For?” from “Barbie”
“Road to Freedom” from “Rustin”
“Better Place” from “Trolls Band Together”
“This Wish” from “Wish”

Documentary Feature
“American Symphony”
“Little Richard: I Am Everything”
“The Pigeon Tunnel”
“They Shot the Piano Player”

International Feature
“Perfect Days” (Japan)
“Society of the Snow” (Spain)
“The Taste of Things” (France)
“The Teachers’ Lounge” (Germany)
“The Zone of Interest” (United Kingdom)

Top 4 Nomination Leaders Tracking (Film)

  1. “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Oppenheimer” – 12

  2. “Barbie” and “Maestro” – 10

  3. “Poor Things” – 8

  4. “American Fiction” – 7

Top 4 Nomination Leaders Tracking (Studios)

  1. Netflix – 18

  2. Apple Original Films / Paramount Pictures / Warner Bros. – 13

  3. Universal Pictures — 12

  4. A24 and Searchlight Pictures — 8

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