How Many Populist Films Will Break Into Best Picture?

Let’s be honest: the Oscars are always looking for “awards-worthy” blockbusters to nominate in Best Picture every year in an effort to boost their ratings, and after last year’s ceremony experienced a rating bump (from 10.4 million to 16.62 million) – with only Don’t Look Up and Dune acting as the “mainstream” offerings amongst that crop of nominees – the Academy (and ABC) are likely itching to see if those numbers only continue to grow as the number of populist Best Picture nominees do. And, thankfully for both bodies, there are plenty to pick from in 2022.

Top Gun: Maverick is the film that really kickstarted this conversation this year (while Everything Everywhere All at Once became the incredibly rare crossover indie hit), but it doesn’t stop there, as this year’s Best Picture contenders include a plethora of populist films, from Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic biopic Elvis to Gina Prince-Bythewood’s exhilarating historical epic The Woman King to the James Cameron’s still unseen Avatar sequel The Way of Water, and many, many more. Below, I take a look at seven of the likeliest populist Best Picture contenders of 2022 – in alphabetical order – and assess both their advantages and disadvantages in this race to see which have the best chance at netting a nom at the end of the day.

Avatar: The Way of Water

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in Avatar: The Way of Water

ADVANTAGES: “Never Doubt James Cameron” is one of the age-old rules in Hollywood, an industry where almost nothing is ever certain – except for this. Anticipation is through the roof for this sure-to-be-staggering sequel (look no further than that boffo box office for a re-release of the original film alone), and let’s not forget that the first film became the highest grossing film of all-time at the time (both domestically and worldwide) and it went on to be nominated for nine Oscars, winning three. Avatar has a strong history with The Academy, and as one of the final films voters will see in 2022, it’s bound to be on the top of their mind when they cast their ballot for their nominations – and we all know Cameron can craft majestic imagery that endures.

DISADVANTAGES: Yes, the Avatar re-release performed much better than expected, but still, how amped is the mainstream audience for a new Avatar movie overall? It has been 12 years, and there are millions of moviegoers who weren’t even alive when the first film became a cinematic sensation. If it’s not as commercially successful as it’s expected to be, could that hurt its Oscar prospects? You could say that the craft categories would still appropriately honor it, but could that be its nomination ceiling, keeping it out of Picture? Also, while the first Avatar had a very strong environmentalist message, what’s the awards angle this time around? Is it just a “cool looking blockbuster”? (It’s Cameron, so I’m inclined to say “no,” but!)

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Lupita Nyong'o in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

ADVANTAGES: Hype is through the roof for this Ryan Coogler-directed Marvel sequel, even amongst audiences who aren’t always amped for the latest MCU entry. That thrilling teaser trailer set the world on fire – spotlighting an improved visual style and a supremely epic story – and the tragic passing of lead Chadwick Boseman (unfortunately) gives Black Panther: Wakanda Forever additional gravitas and emotional resonance, with many regarding it as a proper farewell to the late actor – and T’Challa. To some, it even looks better than the original so far – and let’s not forget that the original was nominated for seven Oscars and won three.

DISADVANTAGES: Part of the original Black Panther‘s awards success can be attributed to its revolutionary representation – not just in the superhero genre, but in the industry as a whole. Will some feel like that “novelty” will have worn off with this second installment, and what we’re left with is “just another Marvel sequel”? Ryan Coogler’s direction surely sets it apart from the rest of the MCU, but there are quite a few compelling contenders in the form of fervently anticipated franchise continuations this year (the aforementioned Top Gun and Avatar), and Wakanda Forever will have to establish a singular narrative for itself to put itself on the same level as the others – or even above them. (Especially since the Avatar sequel releases a month later, and could steal its thunder as the “second blockbuster Best Picture nominee after Top Gun.”)


Austin Butler in Elvis

ADVANTAGES: Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is one of the few adult-targeted hits during the COVID/post-COVID era at the box office, grossing $150 million domestically and $285 million worldwide, and earning pretty strong audience scores (A- CinemaScore, 94% on Rotten Tomatoes) and critics scores (77% on Rotten Tomatoes, 64 on Metacritic – right around the 66 that Best Picture nominee Moulin Rouge! received) as well. It also boasts a BIG Best Actor contender in the form of Austin Butler – who can conceivably challenge current frontrunner Brendan Fraser for the gold – and it stands to earn a hefty number of nominations, including Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Production Design, and Best Sound. Oh, and did we mention that this is Warner Bros. only awards bet this year?

DISADVANTAGES: Elvis has decent critics scores, but it remains to be seen if their “Best Picture level” critics scores (then again, Warner Bros. turned it around for Joker on the heels of big box office in 2019, after it received a 68% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 59 on Metacritic), and we can’t deny that Baz Luhrmann isn’t always “everyone’s cup of tea” (his films haven’t come close to above-the-line nominations since the aforementioned Moulin Rouge!). The fact that there are ten solid spots in Best Picture benefits Elvis, as semi-popular but perhaps not quite universally adored picks can then still sneak in, but another thing that could hurt it is the fact that Butler is not the Best Actor frontrunner yet – Brendan Fraser is. If Fraser falters, that would elevate both Butler AND Elvis – considering that every Best Actor winner since 2010 has gotten their film nominated for Best Picture – but until Butler takes the lead for sure, things remain uncertain.

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once

ADVANTAGE: One advantage right off the bat for Everything Everywhere All at Once is that it isn’t fully a populist pick – it blends populism and auteurism to brilliant effect, which has earned it many fans in the critical community (a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes with an 8.6/10 average rating, an 81 on Metacritic) that complement its commercial success ($70 million domestically and $100 million worldwide) quite well. It’s not only one of the most widely adored films by crowds and critics this year or even this decade, but this century, with millions falling head over heels for this heartfelt and humanistic action extravaganza in spite of its many eccentricities. And it has many vocal fans in the industry as well, from Barry Jenkins to Reese Witherspoon to Sian Heder – all Oscar winners, by the way.

DISADVANTAGES: To call Everything Everything All at Once an “unconventional Oscar contender” is an understatement – I’m not sure there’s ever been a film like this before, let alone one contending for Academy Awards. You can argue that the current industry adoration will offset this, but there is still the question of how older Academy voters will respond (likely not as positively or as openly as the younger/”hipper” voters), and that could hurt it. The passion is still probably there for a nomination, but if it really wants to go for the win, this is something to keep in mind (especially since, in many categories where it’s a strong challenger for the gold, it’s biggest competitor is the far more Oscar-friendly The Fabelmans, which is essentially “The Steven Spielberg Biopic.”)

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Daniel Craig and the cast of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

ADVANTAGES: The first Knives Out was adored by almost everybody, and it even went on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (and likely came close to Best Picture too, especially with three Golden Globe nods and a PGA nod). After premiering at TIFF, many felt like this sequel was just as good if not better than the first, and it earned a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 81 on Metacritic accordingly. It’s one of the most “fun” films audiences will see all year (as proved by its placing for the TIFF People’s Choice Award), and, after BARDO stumbled at Venice and Telluride, it has quickly become Netflix’s biggest priority in Best Picture.

DISADVANTAGES: Is the film just fun? As I asked with Avatar, what’s the “awards angle” here? The first film had a staunchly pro-immigrant and anti-1% message – and this film also looks to be taking the uber-wealthy to task – but is the social commentary pronounced enough for the sequel to really make a play at Best Picture nomination? Early word out of TIFF was that it’s mostly just a thrilling murder mystery – with the social commentary serving as “topping” – but if voters end up just liking the movie that much (and perhaps struggling to find another film to put on their Best Picture ballot), this could do the trick, especially with a late December release – though I do still worry about its low “nom ceiling” (which is really just Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay).

Top Gun: Maverick

Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick

ADVANTAGES: Simply put, everyone loves this movie. And, most importantly, old straight white guys love this movie. Y’know, the men who (still) make up most of the Academy? And while I get that the first Top Gun didn’t exactly set the Oscars on fire (though it did still earn four nominations and one win), this is a different – and better – movie: one that earned $715 million domestically and $1.5 billion worldwide, on top of rave reviews from crowds (an A+ CinemaScore, 99% on Rotten Tomatoes) and critics (96% on Rotten Tomatoes, 78 on Metacritic). It’s not just a “popcorn movie.” And it’s not just the most successful movie of the year (so far). It’s a blistering blockbuster that reminds us of how good they all could – and should – be, with commanding craft and overwhelming emotion.

DISADVANTAGES: There could be some “elitists” in the Academy who think Top Gun isn’t “highbrow” enough for Oscar recognition – or dismiss it as an “empty blockbuster” (especially in such a stacked year) – but, truth be told, I think these naysayers are few and far between. The positive response on this has been almost unanimous. If it doesn’t get nominated, there will be an ENORMOUS uproar.

The Woman King

Viola Davis in The Woman King

ADVANTAGES: The Woman King has been a critical smash ever since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, earning a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 77 on Metacritic, along with astounding audience scores (an A+ on CinemaScore and a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes). Additionally, it’s hailed as revolutionary representation in the “historical epic” subgenre, shining a light on an oft-erased time in history, and it’s led by an exceptional ensemble from top-to-bottom, with powerhouse performances from Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, and John Boyega. It’s another “aspirational blockbuster” (of sorts) – the kind of genre film Hollywood should be making, and it’s been received warmly for being so.

DISADVANTAGES: While The Woman King has done respectable business at the box office, it hasn’t yet set the world on fire ($46 million domestic, $50 million worldwide). Additionally, its nomination ceiling isn’t too high (it seems like its surest bet is in Best Costume Design at the moment, and Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu can contend in Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, but those are tight fields this year). However, worst of all might be the controversy that the film glorifies the actions of the Kingdom of Dahomey (which played a bigger role in the slave trade than the movie lets on), though this controversy has been distorted by racist trolls. However, even if it dodges that bullet, there’s the (incredibly unfortunate) concern some have that the film may be overshadowed in a month by Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, should that film take off, as certain voters may dismissively feel that they’re “cut from the same cloth” and gravitate towards the sequel to an Oscar winner.

Written by
Though Zoë Rose Bryant has only worked in film criticism for a little under three years - turning a collegiate passion into a full-time career by writing for outlets such as Next Best Picture and Awards Watch - her captivation with cinema has been a lifelong fascination, appreciating film in all its varying forms, from horror movies to heartfelt romantic comedies and everything in between. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, she made the move to Los Angeles in 2021 after graduating college and now spends her days keeping tabs on all things pop culture and attempting to attend every screening under the sun. As a trans critic, she also seeks to champion underrepresented voices in the LGBTQ+ community in film criticism and offer original insight on how gender and sexuality are explored in modern entertainment. You can find Zoë on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd at @ZoeRoseBryant.

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