November 27, 2022


Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

The 2021 Oscars will have no blockbuster movies. So what?

In the fall of 2018, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences proposed an idea that was so ridiculous on its face, so transparent in its cynicism, that it briefly united the industry, the media and the entire movie-loving community in a collective sneer. The plan, as you may recall, was to introduce an Oscar for best popular film, giving Hollywood’s biggest cash cows a shot at a gold statuette to supplement their nine-digit-plus box office hauls. It was a pandering gesture but a telling one, an attempt to throw a bone to the big-studio Goliaths from an organization doubtless tired of seeing the best picture Oscar go to so many mid-budget art-house Davids (“Spotlight” and “Moonlight,” among others).

It didn’t happen. Reactions were so overwhelmingly negative that the academy swiftly backed away from the idea, though without scrapping it entirely. Declining Oscar-night ratings — and the (mis)perception that those ratings reflect the commercial stature of the movies being honored — have kept the academy in a perpetual state of anxiety over its relevance. For that reason, we were warned, some version of a popular-film Oscar might resurface in a later awards season.

One of the ironies of the whole kerfuffle is that popular films haven’t exactly been excluded from the best picture race of late. Two 2018 nominees, “Get Out” and “Dunkirk,” were major commercial smashes. The 2019 crop included such decided non-obscurities as “A Star Is Born,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the highest-grossing of the lot, “Black Panther” (and, in my estimation, the one that should have won). Last year’s Oscar ceremony may have taken another ratings hit, but you could hardly blame that on the films nominated, among them “Joker,” “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” “Ford v. Ferrari,” “Little Women” and “1917.” Along with “Parasite,” whose groundbreaking best picture win wouldn’t have been possible without its robust theatrical performance, they testified to the rude good health of moviemaking as an art form and moviegoing as a pastime.

But all that changed in 2020, which was not, to say the least, a healthy year for anyone. The COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the film industry, throwing its cherished cultural traditions and commercial imperatives into disarray. Theaters closed nationwide, some for good; others reopened in fits and starts, but their wares and receipts were shadows of their usual selves. There was no shortage of new movies, thanks to streaming services and virtual cinemas; drive-in theaters were reinvigorated. But a certain brand of academy favorites — the big-name auteur pictures, the thinking person’s tentpoles — were in perilously short supply.

John David Washington in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi action epic “Tenet.”

(Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros Pictures)

High-profile new adaptations of “Dune” and “West Side Story” (the latter from Steven Spielberg, no less) joined James Bond and various Marvel superheroes among the titles delayed until 2021. Oscar veterans Ridley Scott, Adam McKay and Wes Anderson all faced delayed productions or premieres. A few heavyweight titles attempted a kind of compromise, but in nearly every case the strategy backfired. “Mulan” and “Wonder Woman 1984” became guinea pigs for their studios’ fledgling streaming platforms. Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” the one studio picture with enough name-auteur clout to brave something resembling a traditional wide release, was prematurely sold as the movie that would save theaters — and became an equally premature emblem of their obsolescence and failure.

We can only speculate about how the movies that were held back would have fared with audiences or the motion picture academy. But what seems to be inevitable as Oscar nomination voting kicks off March 5, is basically the opposite of what the proponents of a popular-film Oscar could have possibly wanted: a best picture race largely devoid of “popular” films, at least in the conventionally understood sense of popularity.

This is surely grim news for the academy’s leadership, to say nothing of the executives at ABC. But as someone whose chief demand of the Academy Awards is that they honor excellent work, regardless of size or scale, this strange state of affairs strikes me as entirely fitting — an apt departure from the norm following an unprecedentedly norm-flouting year. These are not, to put it mildly, triumphant times for the motion-picture medium; they are times of adaptation, compromise and survival. If the Oscars should go forward this year — and I think they should — then surely they should reflect that precarious new reality.

They should also call for a bold new definition of what constitutes popular filmmaking, one that goes beyond the simplistic criteria of box office domination and franchise recognizability to include those pictures that fulfill the promise of smart, well-crafted, broadly accessible entertainment. And whatever you think of some of the movies that have generated traction with awards voters this season, many of them decisively fulfill that promise.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “One Night in Miami … ” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” are audience pictures through and through — talky, juicily acted ensemble showcases that merge history, politics and personality in the grand Hollywood tradition. “Da 5 Bloods” and “Judas and the Black Messiah” extend those virtues still further into the realm of the old-school, character-driven Hollywood action movie, viscerally tense and rhetorically blistering by turns. A diminished theatrical profile hasn’t kept “Promising Young Woman,” with its thorny subversions of the rape-revenge thriller template, from inspiring the full gamut of reactions. I won’t say too much about “Minari” (whose writer-director, Lee Isaac Chung, is a friend), but like the similarly well-received “Nomadland,” it strikes me as the kind of big, emotionally resonant movie that is too often dismissed, in industry-classist terms, as a small, modest one.

That these movies are capable of connecting with a large audience, in other words, is hardly in doubt. Whether that connection is actually being forged — or will be forged in the weeks of relentless promotion and years of shelf life to come — is harder to discern without the traditional box office measuring sticks. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon don’t provide comparable reporting on how well their movies perform, and we’ve also lost less tangible measures of cultural impact: the excited conversations that swirl and gather around a movie in festival queues and theater lobbies, or at dinner and work with friends and colleagues (the “in real life” connections social media can’t replace). What’s gone largely missing this year is that palpable charge of excitement, the cultural weight and deeper, more sustained attention that a movie can command when it looms large for weeks and even months on a big screen. When it demands that you come to it, rather than the other way around.

I don’t mean for this to devolve into another lament for the endangered sanctity of the theatrical experience; you’re tired of reading those pieces, and I’m beyond tired of writing them. Nor do I wish to venture into the partisan minefield that reliably pits movies against television, especially in a year when we consumed them all, in an undifferentiated deluge, on the same small screens. (The Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., of which I’m a member, gave its best picture award to the excellent Steve McQueen-directed BBC/Amazon anthology “Small Axe,” a decision that struck me as both bizarre and perfectly emblematic of the year’s bizarreness.)

Really, my own position is as incoherent, contradictory and difficult to sum up as the past 12 months or so have been. I saw a lot of terrific movies last year, but still nowhere near enough. I was grateful for a reprieve from studio releases, but if I’m being honest, I missed a lot of them too. (Sometimes you need the chaff to appreciate the wheat.) The 2020-21 awards season has been an aberration, a series of outmoded industry rituals desperately imposed on a pool of mixed-to-good-to-great movies that seem to have been arrived at by even more arbitrary calculations than usual. But it has also been, in some ways, a corrective and an opportunity.

By all appearances and prognostications, this year’s slate of nominees looks to be an unprecedentedly diverse one — an indication that movements including #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo are making systemic inroads. Women filmmakers like Chloé Zhao, Regina King (“One Night in Miami”) and Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”) have been tipped for slots in the typically male-dominated director race. Zhao and King are both directors of color, as are other perceived contenders including Chung, Spike Lee (“Da 5 Bloods”) and George C. Wolfe (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”). In the acting races, some of the most exciting and oft-repeated names belong to performers of color like Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Andra Day, Riz Ahmed, Steven Yeun, Delroy Lindo, Yuh-Jung Youn, Daniel Kaluuya and Leslie Odom Jr.

It’s telling that one of the most inclusive award slates in memory could arise from a year when the studios were effectively on hiatus, which speaks to how much better represented women filmmakers and filmmakers of color have generally been in the independent sphere. It’s also telling that so many of these movies recast American history and identity from the standpoint of characters so often excluded from mainstream narratives: a Korean immigrant family forging a tenuous future in “Minari”; Black men and women struggling for their own self-determination in “Da 5 Bloods,” “One Night in Miami … ” and “Judas and the Black Messiah”; a movement of disenfranchised workers embracing individualism (and collectivism) in “Nomadland.”

A slate of nominees like that would certainly represent progress. It also wouldn’t begin to go far enough. Last year, in the early months of the pandemic, some of us dared to envision an Academy Awards slate that might veer into uncharted realms of cinematic excellence, treating the absence of Hollywood fare less as a problem than a kind of liberation. The usual industry precursors aside, of course, we can’t say for certain what the academy will do: A group that pivots from “Moonlight” to “Green Book” to “Parasite” is the definition of unpredictable. But in a year without major studio competition — and with an ever-expanding, increasingly global voting membership — the academy has never been in a better position to shake up the old norms and bring long-neglected tiers of filmmaking to the fore.

There are any number of ways they could go about this, of course, some more likely than others. They could find room in the best picture race for beautifully handcrafted independent dramas that were released in early 2020, like “First Cow,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and “The Assistant.” They could make history by anointing “Collective” and “Time” the first nonfiction works ever to compete for Oscar’s biggest prize. In the wake of “Parasite’s” big victory — and even in a year when major international festivals were either canceled or dramatically scaled back — they could fill a few slots with any number of excellent titles from overseas, like “Martin Eden” or “Wolfwalkers” or “Beanpole” or “Vitalina Varela.”

Or, barring those possibilities, they could shunt them all into a new category altogether: best unpopular film.