It’s hard to believe that it’s been an entire year since we witnessed CODA’s crowning as the Best Picture of 2021 at the 94th Academy Awards. It was a somewhat surprising turn of events given the small, unassuming nature of the film versus the more artsy competition, along with CODA’s status as the first streaming film to win the top accolade in an industry notorious for snobbishly shutting out the streamers.
As proof that the times are indeed changing in Hollywood, we can look to this year’s crop of Best Picture hopefuls to see how the past twelve months have further shaped an industry attempting to evolve past the pandemic period. Let’s dive into it, nominee by nominee, to see the unique lessons and informed insight they can offer us.
All Quiet on the Western Front – Foreign Language Films to the Front
Only 14 non-English language films have been nominated in the Best Picture category in the show’s 95-year history. Of those 14, Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front is the fifth consecutive nominee, following in the footsteps of Roma (2018), Parasite (2019), Minari (2020) and Drive My Car (2021).
Despite a clear hesitancy in recent years to allow non-English features to break out of the confines of the International Feature category, the embrace of these globe-spanning features is likely the result of a more diversified voting body.
While it looks that foreign language films are being welcomed with open arms into the Best Picture category, nominees in other categories—animated and documentary, for example—may receive their chance at the top accolade in the near future.
Avatar: The Way of Water – Blockbusters are Back
Let me be the first to hold my hands up and say that my expectations were low for the first Avatar sequel in 13 years. While the first film was a major success and a turning point for CG effects in cinema, it felt like the industry had moved on from these advances and there was no way for a follow-up to continue mining new technological resources.
But betting against director James Cameron is clearly a foolish move. Consistently underestimated, he’s nonetheless one of the founding figures behind the modern blockbuster, starting with his work on the Terminator franchise and later with the monumentally successful Titanic. His films are defined by huge scale and scope, and Avatar: The Way of Water is no different.
COVID has perhaps truncated the films in contention over the past few years but recognizing Avatar in all its eye-watering, massive-budget glory announces to audiences that the blockbuster will never die.
Banshees of Inisherin – Quiet Confidence Counts
While the past twelve months have certainly helped stabilize a COVID-ravaged industry, the various lockdowns and long-lasting implications are still on the minds of Academy voters as they search for the film that most aptly reflected the year gone by.
Martin McDonagh’s Banshees of Inisherin is perhaps the nominee most influenced by the pandemic in the thematic ground it covers — wasted time and morality are viewed through the lens of a broken-down friendship, but such emotions can be easily applied to an industry assessing what a post-pandemic audience want from the movies they make, and what relevancy they still hold.
Elvis – Away From Arthouse and Into the Mainstream
2022 gave us two very different biopics about two of the most iconic figures in the history of entertainment, with very different results.
There was the largely-shunned Blonde, which charted the (imagined) life and career of Marilyn Monroe and picked up a single nom for Ana De Armas’ star turn. Elvis, directed by Vegemite visionary Baz Luhrmann, managed to scoop up an impressive eight nominations—including a coveted Best Picture spot.
Proof that the crowd-pleasers can work for even the most decorated industry veterans, Elvis’s presence among this crop of nominees suggests that the Academy is trying to move away from the ‘arthouse’ standard. “Oscar bait” is often used as a derogatory term aimed at the group when then their tastes lean away from the mainstream, but giving the thumbs up to the more conventional biopic indicates an attempt to straighten up their image and align themselves more with what’s popular than what’s artsy, though Elvis is quite clearly both.
The Fabelmans – We Love Capital “C” Cinema
Two films operating as love letters to cinema were vying for the Academy’s attention this year but, deterred by the excessive and graphic depictions of debauchery offered up by Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, voters opted for the self-satisfied safety of Steven Spielberg’s The Fablemans, a semi-autobiographical tale about a young boy who dreams of being a filmmaker.
Not only does the Best Picture nomination for The Fablemans operate as further recognition for Spielberg as a legend of his craft, it also allows the Oscar voters to indulge in a little self-adulation. Yes, cinema matters! And, boy, do they LOVE cinema! If there’s one thing the Academy is going to do, it’s echo their own importance as a purveyor of cinema!
Everything Everywhere All At Once – The Indie Movie That Could!
As we head into the ceremony, Everything Everywhere All At Once is positioned as the one to beat—and has been since it came out earlier this year. It’s also one of the few offerings to feature starring performances by actors of color, meaning the Academy still hasn’t done any meaningful work to counter the #OscarsSoWhite charge of years before. And while the frontrunner status early into the season is one that should be avoided where possible for fear of burnout, very little has come to threaten Everything Everywhere All At Once‘s impending victory.
A cast of underdogs (the four Oscar-nominated performers all somehow received the first nominations in their long, impressive, and varied careers), relatively new-to-the-scene filmmakers and a studio not particularly known for their award campaigns all contributed to the cards being stacked against Everything Everywhere lasting the season.
But here, passion from a vocal support system carried them to the finish line.No winner is ever going to please everybody, but Everything Everywhere All At Once may come close.
Tár – Separating the Art From the Artist
While Todd Field’s Tár never gives a definitive, prescriptive answer on the age-old ‘separating the art from the artist’ dilemma, it arguably leans towards positive reinforcing the belief that it can indeed be set apart. By the film’s conclusion, Lydia Tár’s well-composed orchestrations are still being heard even as she’s banished into (temporary) obscurity.
It is the solution that would certainly suit the Academy and its voters given their checkered history of rewarding tarnished individuals—the standing ovation for Roman Polanski’s Best Director win in 2003 still haunts me. If the Academy weren’t to promote that very notion, a lot of the art they have celebrated and commemorated over the years would be lost given some of the deeply troubling individuals and behaviors that have been exposed over the past few years in particular. And that’s to say nothing of their credibility being massively called into question.
And they’d never sit by and let that happen: Tár helps solidify a very crucial belief for them.
Top Gun: Maverick – Fighting for the Cinematic Experience
“We come to this place for magic” are seven words that unite both the LBGTQ+ community and Oscar voters. Spoken by Queen of the gays, Nicole Kidman, in the widely revered AMC advert, it’s a timeless sentiment shared by many eager to preserve the cinematic experience.
Funnily, it was Kidman’s ex, Tom Cruise, who made sure the movie magic was alive and well when Top Gun: Maverick pulled cinemas back from the brink. As the industry feared that there was only space left for superheroes on the big screen, the Top Gun sequel was the title to entice older moviegoers back into the cinemas, and the film’s extraordinary box office success ushered in a collective sigh of relief across everyone who had stock in filmmaking for the big screen.
After rewarding a streaming film with the golden trophy last year, the Academy likely felt it crucial to reinforce the need for the experiential in moviegoing. And with Steven Spielberg himself telling Cruise that he “saved Hollywood’s ass… the entire theatrical industry”, it was important for them to recognize the film for it too.
Triangle of Sadness – Be timely, but not too pointed
Triangle of Sadness, a three-act satirical black comedy about class, wealth, and power, feels very of the moment. Figures in the film are familiar and behaviors are recognizable—thankfully, it’s fictional, and absurd enough to not upset anyone in the film’s crosshairs.
If (certain) voters looked a little deeper, they would see that the glamour, indulgence, and opulence the film is criticizing is what built the land of Hollywood. But because they’re not being shamed by name, and the comedic elements keep the tone lighter, they are able to enjoy the film more as a piece of entertainment than a damning indictment of their own practices.
Maria Schrader’s She Said tackled themes of abuse and wrongdoing more directly and explicitly criticized the industry; it wound up with no nominations. Perhaps if it packaged its message like Triangle of Sadness, it would be a different story…
Women Talking – Sometimes You’re Not the Flavor of the Year
In most situations, a spot in the Best Picture line-up is a cause for major celebration — yet there’s still a sense that Women Talking massively underperformed. Only two nominations for Sarah Polley’s latest film feels disappointing, given that the film was initially positioned as one of the pictures to beat this award season.
Looking at the line up as a whole, there’s an underlying theme of escapism that keeps cropping up. Escapism, notably, is nowhere to be found in Women Talking, a heady and contemplative film that deals with its weighty subject matter and is delivered in a very subdued manner with few bells and whistles.
During any other year, when voters were in a different mindset, Women Talking may have been one of the key contenders across the entire ceremony. But this year, Women Talking ranks as one of the least likely films to emerge from the ceremony victorious in the top category.♦