As it turns out, even at 91 years old you can still experience growing pains.
That’s the scenario the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finds itself in Tuesday, following its unveiling of nominations for this year’s Oscars, the culmination of which was a field of eight wildly varied Best Picture nominees which collectively confirm one thing: The Academy is as clueless as the rest of us about its identity in 2019.
And while some of its choices (“The Favourite,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “A Star is Born,” even “Black Panther”) encapsulate an Academy willing to play it safe even as it lacks confidence about the Oscars’ implications beyond glamorous statuettes and viral moments, other films vying for Best Picture glory represent an institution rebelling against the idea that anyone knows what’s good for it, even its own members.
— The Academy (@TheAcademy) January 22, 2019
There’s no reason to tiptoe around it: The nominations of “Vice,” “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” are strange developments. In this day and age their certification as three of 2018’s best movies (“Best”? More on that later.) is akin to a posse of high school jocks showing up to a party of theater geeks, who must now quietly find out who among themselves sent these particular invitations.
You just have to read between the lines of the Best Picture nominees to find an Academy at odds with itself. The dichotomies of art-house and mainstream, socially aware and blissful existence, deeply personal and historically recounted are just some of the yin/yangs that exist among them.
And while variety is a recipe for excitement – this year’s Best Picture showdown is easily the most wide open in a long, long time – the Academy’s scattershot approach this year feels less like a mark of confidence and more like it’s blurting out every potential answer to a question with probably no answer at all: What, exactly, makes a Best Picture winner?
If the answer – the Academy’s answer, that is – is to be found among this year’s nominees, we need a guidebook to navigate the inconsistent terrain. “Roma” is just the 11th foreign-language film to be nominated for the honor, hurdling the barrier perhaps with more ease than any other contender before it. “Black Panther” completed its year-long myth-making odyssey to become the first superhero movie officially up for the final statuette. “A Star Is Born” continues to ride the momentum of what seems like manifest destiny, while “The Favourite” is also in the homestretch despite its subverting of typical Oscar Bait tropes. “BlacKkKlansman” is the mark of a woke auteur returning to the top of his game, and possibly cinema’s best advocate for the black experience in a year where where black stories thrived. “Green Book,” by comparison, is a feel-good story that oversimplifies intricate issues. “Vice” erratically deconstructs one reason our world got to be as erratic as it is, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” reached the peak of one medium by riding the coattails of coming as close as we can to resurrecting an icon of another.
The question isn’t who the Academy is going to recognize on the evening of Feb. 24 so much as what it is going to recognize. What does the top honor on Hollywood’s biggest night go to, anyway? The most indelible mark of technical innovation? The rawest depiction of humanity and emotion? Does it align itself with the political sentiment of the time? Does it forego objective quality for the product that has come the farthest in making a name for itself (campaigning is a major factor in awards season, after all)? Should a director’s entire career up until that point be taken into consideration? Should prior hiccups?
In one sense, this year’s crop of Best Picture hopefuls come across as the Academy being apologetic. Apologetic for what? Even it doesn’t seem so sure. What began as a cycle of reinvention a few years ago with the rage of social media, #OscarsSoWhite and now #MeToo, has resulted in an Academy that, now more than ever, has admitted it’s not so sure at all about what its decisions really mean. And that might just be the place where it’s meant to reside, a parallel with the existential debate of movies themselves, namely what are they supposed to do for us, and how accountable must they be?
In trying to find its place in the age of constantly shifting societal conversation and how film factors in, the Oscars are suddenly playing Russian roulette. Now more than ever, it seems, the Academy is aware that the implications of what happens when the cards are read, statues handed over and thank yous proclaimed are completely out of its hands, for better or for worse.
There’s proof in the numbers, as well. Barring the ever-peculiar case of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” in 2012, 2010 was the last time there was a Best Picture nominee with a Rotten Tomatoes score in the 60s. There hadn’t been two in the same Oscars this century, but that changed Tuesday; “Vice” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” are aggregating at 64 and 62 percent, respectively.
“Vice’s” poor audience score (54 percent) makes its nomination even more eyebrow-raising, though “Bohemian Rhapsody” was much more well-received by audiences (89 percent audience score) and was a giant box office haul to boot. In domestic dollars, it was the second biggest Best Picture nominee aside from the behemoth that is “Black Panther.” (While we don’t know the exact figures on “Roma” receipts, seeing as its Netflix-driven campaign was a first-of-its-kind journey, it almost certainly didn’t reach the figures of those two films.)
And if audiences loved seeing Best Actor nominee Rami Malek transform into Freddie Mercury, they adored the pairing of Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen; “Green Book” has a 94 percent audience score.
All that is to say: Was this the Academy’s way of including more movies with widespread appeal, in an attempt to increase constantly plummeting viewership? Was it an act of charity, to put it bluntly? Or was it simply standing its ground and refuting the behind-the-scenes narratives that many thought would have crushed those respective films’ Academy Award chances? It’s been 10 years since the Oscars expanded its Best Picture field to include as many as 10 contenders, and potentially some more mainstream flicks; is 2019 a result of that vision?
It’s impossible to say for certain, though it was just a few months ago that the Academy pitched (and killed just as quick, at least for now) its infant concept for a Best Popular Movie Oscar. It was the surest sign yet that the Academy wasn’t sure of its cultural standing, and it may yet have influence over how the 2019 Oscars play out.
One thing that is almost objectively certain, even when discussing such matters where subjectivity reigns: It’s not as if there weren’t other suitable candidates for the Academy’s top honor.
Are the Oscars trying to include more movies of the moment? “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Sorry To Bother You,” “Blindspotting” and “The Hate U Give” are incredibly urgent.
Is the Academy really trying to widen the field to include popular blockbusters? “Mission: Impossible—Fallout,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” and “A Quiet Place” all infuse grand cinema with the same sense of passion and artistic grace, and nearly all have made more a cultural impact than “Rhapsody.”
Does the industry seek to recognize more complex fare, stories where rewatches and an acute eye are necessary for final judgment to be rendered? “Widows,” “First Reformed” and “Annihilation” combined for a grand total of one nomination, even as all their narratives burst with subtext and interpretation.
In an age characterized by cynicism, was the priority to infuse the Best Picture field with optimism? If so, “Paddington 2,” “Support the Girls” and “Eighth Grade” are still waiting for the call.
At its core, this is what becomes so increasingly odd and frustrating the more you run through the names of what the Academy has named the eight movies of the year, even as the qualifiers for Best Picture remain as murky as ever. It’s as if Thanos snapped away half of this year’s crop of eligible films. Should we really expect “Green Book” or “Vice” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” to actually come out on top? Probably not, but the Academy has made weird decisions before, and fairly recently.
It’d be a mistake to look back on Best Picture fields as a historical record of cinematic quality, and that might never end up being more true than in 2019. If that is to be the case years down the road, a footnote should be included: “We’re not so sure what they were up to, either.”
To play devil’s advocate, this singularly odd grouping of Best Picture nominees also comes amid changing Academy demographics. Voters are becoming younger, less white, less male and more diverse—and with that evolution still underway, there’s going to be some tug-of-war going on. This year’s Best Picture field provides some of the clearest evidence we can hope to see of that.
Of course, we haven’t reached the ending of this story. It won’t even be reached at next month’s ceremony. A new tier for what we believed the Academy to be seeking in a Best Picture winner was thought to have been summited with “Moonlight” two years ago, but as more time goes on, “Moonlight’s” triumph feels more and more like a once-in-a-generation win than a generational one.
The nominations have been announced, the field is set and if we thought last year’s final month in the Oscar Race was engorged with think pieces, we had no idea.
In the meantime, as confused as it is about what constitutes the year’s best films, it feels as if the singular conscious of the Academy has also let out a sigh of relief for admitting what most of us already knew about it—that its decisions are measured only in scrutiny, and only with time. Acceptance is the final stage, AMPAS.
The Oscars are 91 years old and still growing up, but perhaps it will perpetually remain in puberty.