And the Oscar Goes To...

The Lessons the 2022 Best Picture Nominees (and Winner) Taught Us

Like the rest of the world, cinema and the wider film industry remain in a period of deep recovery – but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. After a heavily altered, scaled-down award season last year, the film industry’s celebration of the year’s best is back in all of its pageantry glory with last night’s 94th Academy Awards.

The Academy Award for Best Picture continues to be recognized as the most lustrous of all the awards handed out by the film industry, and this year, ten features were in contention for the grand accolade. As ever, there is the widest range of genres, stories, and (indeed) quality on display, with each nominee offering a unique insight into the ceremony and its voters, as well as a wider snapshot into where the industry currently is, and where it is heading.

So, what lesson do each of the ten nominees for Best Picture teach us?

BELFAST – HOPEFUL FILM IN A HOPELESS TIME

For over a century, movies have played an important role in comforting, inspiring, and entertaining us during the darkest of times” the Academy explained to us in 2020, emphasising the need for hope during the first year of the pandemic when everything felt so dreadfully uncertain.

And it’s a paradigm the Academy have evidently believed in throughout; all it takes is one glance at almost any Best Picture line-up, particularly in the preferential era when the line-up expanded from five to as many as ten nominees. There has always been room for a hopeful film in a hopeless time. 

Belfast followed in the footsteps of Hidden Figures, Green Book and Jojo Rabbit as a film whose narrative features a thematic hardship framed by a sense of optimism that better days will soon be upon us. In Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical tale, the Troubles in Northern Ireland of the 60s and 70s are explored and while the severity of the situation is never undersold, the framing through the eyes of a child protagonist who sees the strong community values and sense of unity around him imbues optimism into the situation. 

DRIVE MY CAR – PASSION IS IMPORTANT

Entering award season, Drive My Car was barely registering on the lips of pundits and voters. While heavily considered a contender in the Best International Feature, very few believed it stood a chance in the more competitive Best Picture stakes. But, something very important happened for Drive My Car –- viewer passion carried it into the conversation.

As the value of film critics continues to be questioned, their championing of Drive My Car drove it into the big leagues and provided a greater platform to a film which could have otherwise been lost in the shuffle. Appearing on 89 critics top ten of the year, and going on to become the first non-English-language title to win Best Picture from three out of the four main US film critic groups (LA, NY, NFSC), the clear passion bolstered the film’s presence which converted into three especially impressive nominations – Director, Adapted Screenplay and Picture.

DON’T LOOK UP – WALL TO CEILING TALENT

With some confidence, it can be said that Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up is the most divisive nominee in the line-up this year. But what it lacks in critical acclaim, it makes up for with perhaps the most star-studded ensemble in recent memory, confirming a shifting understanding in Hollywood that although “movie star power” may be a thing of the past, a whole bunch of stars can still dazzle viewers.

Where people once solely sought out a film during its theatrical run based on an actor or actress they loved taking a top-billing spot, these celebrities are more accessible than ever through television and streamers, meaning that audiences don’t have to go to the cinema to see them in action, and the once-bulletproof openers don’t pull in the numbers they once did.

Although “movie star power” may be a thing of the past, a whole bunch of stars can still dazzle viewers.

But, when the film debuts on Netflix, without the pressure of opening weekend grosses, and there are so many big names providing added value to the product, everyone does a little bit of the lifting. Don’t Look Up is packed with wall-to-ceiling and the shiny ensemble – Meryl Streep! Leonardo Dicaprio! Jennifer Lawrence! Timothee Chalamet! Ariana Grande! And so, so, so many more! – means there’s something for everyone. I would wager that perhaps the film wouldn’t have performed so well with the Academy had the film not been so overflowing with riches on the acting front.

DUNE – BLOCKBUSTERS ARE WELCOME IN BEST PICTURE

No, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune didn’t break box office records or single-handedly save cinemas while the pandemic continued to rage on — but its $108 million domestic and counting gross makes it the highest-grossing domestic and worldwide nominee of the year. 

Proving that the Best Picture line-up isn’t all for Oscar-bait and mid-budgeted fare, Dune’s ten nominations – and, importantly, its ability to break out of the technical nominations – demonstrates there is room in the line-up for blockbuster filmmaking when they are of a high enough quality. While the conversation almost always revolves around superhero films (a reminder that Black Panther scored a Picture nod a few years back), Dune is indisputably one of the better made studio films of the year and has been recognised as such.

KING RICHARD – WE LOVE A BIOPIC

While many actors will tell you they don’t chase accolades and awards, it’s hard to believe that many of them wouldn’t appreciate a gold trophy on their mantlepiece. And, as is incredibly clear in recent years, if you want an Oscar, find a real life and somewhat well-known figure you resemble – or who, with a touch of prosthetics, you could resemble!

In both the leading actor and leading actress categories, real life figures outnumber fictional characters 3:2. From royalty to Hollywood legends, playwrights to television personalities, these films are treated as an opportunity for an actor to showcase their talent, in a way that can be more closely measured – it is, for example, easier to compare how an actor has observed and embodied somebody we know through body language, mannerism, an accent and more, over a character the artists is creating from (almost) scratch.  

And while not all biopics rise into the Best Picture ranks, King Richard (for which star Will Smith collected the gold for his performance) has scored love across the board.

LICORICE PIZZA – NOSTALGIA SELLS 

What do La La Land, Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, Birdman, Argo and The Artist have in common? They’re all Best Picture nominees from the past decade that are about, set, or linked to, Hollywood. Whether they concern filmmaking, platform budding actors, or simply soak up the atmosphere of the moviemaking capital, they present a version of Los Angeles many of the Academy voters will intrinsically recognise.

Particularly for older members, the 1970s setting of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza was an irresistible one. Described as a ‘hangout movie’, it offers voters a chance to bathe in a nostalgia for an industry as they likely remember it best, with familiar landmarks, figures and behaviours that will give them a chance to relive the good old days. Even down to the way it is shot, on stunning 35mm, it transports viewers back to the era for a relatively carefree, unchallenging time.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY – LIKABILITY HELPS

After charming the entire award season when The Shape of Water swept the director awards in 2017-18, the highly-regarded Guillermo Del Toro bought himself a ticket to return to the Oscars, showing that when the Academy likes you, they really, really like you.

While not to be unfair, Nightmare Alley is not considered the strongest work of the writer-director by very many and its nomination in Best Picture was somewhat unexpected. But it is also very likely that the charm of Del Toro, his genuine love for the craft of cinema, and the unproblematic, well-respected cast he works alongside here, may have propelled the film into the higher leagues and snagged a nomination in this extended field of nominees. And that’s not something to sniff at! 

THE POWER OF THE DOG – QUEER VOICES ARE HEARD

As they have sought to diversify their voting body, the Best Picture spotlight has been shone on films showcasing the voices of minorities and underrepresented groups.

Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name explores the identities of two men experiencing same-sex attraction in a supressively masculine environment, examining the way that their homosexuality is used both against them and to benefit them. It is a subdued affair, and not a dynamic often explored in films, and so this thematically challenging film provides audiences with an interesting point of view that means the queer voices heard in our films remains as diverse as the people within the community. 

WEST SIDE STORY – REMAKES RULE

Proving that remakes aren’t exclusively for the superheroes, Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of the 1961 winner is further proof that remakes, in all of their guises, are Hollywood’s bread and butter. Sixty years after West Side Story swept the 34th Academy Awards, this new interpretation may not have earned as many nominations but has done well to mimic the footsteps of its predecessor, earning seven nominations. As the industry scrambles for the next billion-dollar grosser, there doesn’t seem to be a week go by where an IP isn’t announced as being brought into the 21st century with a fresh lick of paint, and the presence of one within the Best Picture line-up is concrete proof that the trend won’t end anytime soon.

And the winner is…

CODA – SLOW AND STEADY WON THE RACE

Slow and steady has rarely been a preferred method in the award season arena, particularly as the shelf life for streaming titles has decreased. But CODA, a coming-of-age comedy-drama acquired for Apple TV after debuting at Sundance in January 2021, has played the game rather flawlessly.

Despite debuting in July, CODA parlayed gradual momentum to become a sleeper hit, its feel-good charm resonating long enough in voters’ minds to make the ballot and take home the gold statue. It already had the SAG Award for Best Ensemble already in its clutches – a fantastic achievement considering the competition and its cast of lesser-known talent.

CODA is proof that the aggressive nature of your usual fall-debuting, financially heavy-hitting players is not the be all and end all of the award season race. Sometimes, the little films that could have the momentum to keep up in this race – and it makes for a far more exciting one.♦

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