The “Oscar Movie” is a Myth

Every awards season, it feels like we run through the same cycle, where an “unconventional contender” rises in the ranks, many prominent pundits label it as “too out-there for the Oscars,” and then, seemingly “defying all odds,” said “unconventional contender” nabs major nominations – and maybe even a few wins. And you would think by now that these successive cycles would demonstrate once and for all that this is no longer your granddaddy’s Academy, right?

Wrong. Because no matter how many times an Oscar contender that isn’t a stuffy biopic or a World War II drama breaks through with the Academy, we have to do this same dance every single year, doubting a universally acclaimed “outside-of-the-box” indie or artistically exceptional blockbuster and proclaiming that AMPAS just “isn’t ready to embrace genre fare,” when the facts – especially over the course of the last decade – show otherwise.

Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once

This year, the “unconventional contender” in doubt is the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once, an explosive multiversal action extravaganza with a surprisingly emotional core about cutting through the chaos of these troubled times and rediscovering what really matters. Thanks to its stupefying spectacle and sweeping sentimentality, the film received a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes (with a 8.6/10 average rating) and an 81 on Metacritic, but this wasn’t just a success on Film Twitter, as it crossed over to the mainstream in a major way as well, earning $70 million at the domestic box office and $100 million worldwide, becoming A24’s highest grossing film to date.

With such rave reviews from critics and crowds, you would think that, despite the film’s occasional aberrant absurdity, this would be a shoo-in for some major Oscar nominations this awards season, particularly for the poignant performances from Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, and also for the Daniels’ delirious direction and winsome, witty writing. And yet, this pervasive thought still exists that the film – despite the fact that it’s already defied the odds associated with its eccentricity due to it possessing a powerful emotional pull that makes it resonate regardless – will go home with a goose egg on Oscar nomination morning.

I can repeat Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s astonishing critic and audience scores and booming box office numbers until I’m blue in the face, but there’s still little that can be done to convince some that it’s something the Academy will touch with a ten-foot pole. On its own, outside of the context of its critical acclaim? Sure, I can see that. Films with butt plug battles and dimensions where people have hot dogs for fingers don’t scream “Oscar.” But instead of reiterating all that Everything Everywhere has going for it, the best argument in the film’s defense is the Academy’s own history in recent memory, which shows that idea of “the Oscar film” as we once knew it has become obsolete.

Jake Sully and Neytiri in Avatar

For a significant period of time – especially throughout the 2000s – it was thought that blockbusters could hardly ever be seen as Oscar fare, a “fact” seemingly solidified when The Dark Knight was inexplicably snubbed for a Best Picture nod. And then, Avatar, a visually sumptuous sci-fi epic that essentially doubled as a special effects showcase and had a story that seemingly amounted to not much more than “Dances with Wolves in space” earned nine Oscar nods, including noms for Best Picture and Best Director.

Sure, you could wave away Avatar‘s awards success as a fluke, given that it was the first feature film from Titanic‘s Oscar-winning director James Cameron since that 1997 disaster epic, and it became the highest grossing film ever at the time, elevating its profile significantly. Big box office was also used to explain away the success of Christopher Nolan’s Inception a year later, since it didn’t have many other narrative qualities that seemed to point towards Oscar gold ahead of time. And the same could be said for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity in 2013, which, like Avatar and Inception, was seen as receiving a “pass” for its state-of-the-art special effects and profuse profitability.

Mad Max: Fury Road

What then of 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road? That film – despite having a fiercely feminist foundation – didn’t seem to have a story intended to appeal to Oscar voters on the surface, nor did it even have an Oscar-friendly release date, premiering nationwide on May 15. So what kept it in the Oscar conversation? Mainly the fact that it was just that good. And so much of its overall quality was attributed to director George Miller’s insistence on using practical effects throughout the film’s production, creating a dizzying cinematic spectacle the likes of which we’d never seen in film before.

But even then, despite the universal acclaim (97% on Rotten Tomatoes with a 8.6/10 average rating and a 90 on Metacritic) and strong box office ($150 million domestically and $375 million worldwide – though this wasn’t as strong as AvatarInception, or Gravity, as naysayers would point out) some still said Mad Max was a longshot to receive any Oscar consideration above-the-line, due to how “non-Oscar-y” it was (whatever that means) and the “weirdness” of the world that Miller created with this franchise.

Max had the last laugh, earning ten Oscar nominations and winning six awards in total, but while its “unconventional” awards success cleared the way for similarly “un-Oscar-y” blockbusters to contend with the Academy (such as Warner Bros.’ own Dune, which just won six Oscars itself earlier this year), there remained a doubt about smaller genre films, such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out in 2017, despite the widespread acclaim or massive mainstream attention they may have received.

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out

That Blumhouse horror thriller faced an uphill battle from day one due to the fact that it released at the end of February (the weekend of the prior year’s Academy Awards, in fact) and that it was initially primarily positioned as a commercial genre programmer and not an awards play. However, a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes (with a 8.3/10 average rating), 85 on Metacritic, and $175 million domestic box office haul ($255.4 million worldwide) later, it became pretty damn clear that this film had “it.”

And even still, in spite of the fact that Get Out became regarded as “the movie of the moment” in the wake of the 2016 election for how deftly it commented on 21st Century race relations and “performative liberalism,” there was still pervasive doubt that this studio horror film was going to appeal to the Academy, particularly for the extreme twists and turns the plot takes in its third act, with many deeming it as “too genre-y.”

Well, tell that to Jordan Peele’s Best Original Screenplay Oscar, or the film’s three other Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. And it was even odder how much doubt there was for Get Out given that it was contending in a year in which a film about a woman who wishes to have sex with a fish-man inexplicably became the Best Picture frontrunner.

The Shape of Water

Yes, of course I’m talking about Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeous Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, which was similarly doubted all season long for the fact that its central romance was an interspecies one, between a mute cleaner at a secret government laboratory and a humanoid amphibian man being housed there. Never mind the fact that the story spoke to outsiders daring to live their lives under a regime that despised their very existence (another theme that resonated deeply in a post-Trump world) – this was just “too weird.”

Explain then how it ended up with 13 Academy Award nominations and four wins, one of which was for Best Picture. In the wake of The Shape of Water‘s (and Get Out‘s) awards success, a trend began to emerge: if you were a genre film with strong social commentary that “spoke to the moment,” you could potentially transcend the eccentricity of your premise, as a vote for that film represented a vote for a film’s message instead of its more “absurdist” attributes.

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman

Why didn’t Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman receive the benefit of the doubt in 2020/2021 then? Sure, it was a “genre-y” revenge thriller, but it also sought to directly critique and comment on 21st Century rape culture, particularly on college campuses – a terribly timely issue many could support being thrust into the spotlight. And it featured a tour de force performance from a former Oscar nominee, Carey Mulligan, at the center of it all.

Well, this was simply going to be too much for older white male voters in the Academy to take, naysayers said. And yet, unflinching social commentary succeeded once again, as Promising Young Woman went on to nab five Oscar nominations when all was said and done, even winning for Best Original Screenplay for Fennell, who beat out the more “Oscar-friendly” film The Trial of the Chicago 7 from a beloved former winner, Aaron Sorkin.

Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker

And how about we take some time to talk about “superhero films,” too? I remember hearing morning, noon, and night how Black Panther – despite becoming a bonafide cultural phenomenon (especially amongst Black Americans), grossing $700 million domestically and $1.3 billion worldwide, and receiving the best reviews for any Marvel movie to date – stood no chance at nabbing above-the-line nominations at the Oscars simply because, at the end of the day, it was still a Marvel movie. Cue seven nominations and three wins (for Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, and Best Original Score) at the 91st Academy Awards.

Same goes for 2019’s Joker, which was dismissed because it was directed by “The Hangover guy” and seemed to be a Scorsese rip-off, only for its commentary about mental illness and the eternal conflict between the 99% and the 1% to strike a chord with viewers (and voters) the world over, leading the film to a $335 million domestic box office haul (and over $1 billion worldwide) and an astounding 11 Oscar nominations (the most any film received that year) and two wins: Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix (the first above-the-line award win for any comic book adaptation) and Best Original Score.

Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and Stephanie Hsu in Everything Everywhere All at Once

So, what does all of this tell us? Well, for starters, I’ll extend this olive branch to those who still doubt genre films like those mentioned above and this year’s Everything Everywhere All at Once at the Oscars: the Academy is never going to stop nominating biopics, movies about Hollywood, or World War II epics. It’s just not in their blood. And I’m not stupid enough to ignore the fact that there are some films they’ll always be partial too, and some films we can almost always pencil in for nominations months ahead of the actual awards season.

However, we have to do away with this idea of there only being one type of “Oscar film” entirely. Historically, it’s just not true anymore. If we were having this conversation in the 80s, 90s, or 00s, sure, you may have been able to make a strong case for yourself. But these are the 2020s. This is a whole new era for the Oscars, and a whole new Academy. Time and time again, we’ve been shown that, should a film possess a strong enough story, tremendous technical work, a moving social message, or some mixture of these three elements, it doesn’t matter what genre its in or how “weird” it seems on the surface – voters will respond to it. And that’s why, these days, this hypothetical “Oscar movie” that we’ve made up in our minds – the “only type of movie that the Academy will ever embrace or award” – is no more than a myth.

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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