The People’s Oscars: How the Academy Can Revive a Dying Cornerstone

In 2008, The Dark Knight was released to unprecedented success. For once, a blockbuster nailed almost every aspect of moviemaking. Director Christopher Nolan’s epic featured legendary performances, brilliant cinematography, an iconic score, and insane box office success. Most importantly, it brought Gotham City to believable life. In critic’s eyes, the gritty tone helped elevate it from a movie to a film.

When nominations for the 81st Academy Awards rolled around, many called for the blockbuster to be recognized on Hollywood’s biggest stage. In addition to Heath Ledger’s obvious nomination for Best Supporting Actor, the film received seven other nods in technical categories like Sound Editing and Visual Effects. Despite this recognition, The Dark Knight was shut out of the event’s crown jewel: Best Picture. The Academy instead opted to nominate The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, and Slumdog Millionaire. Fans weren’t exactly pleased.

Sure, some of the nominations made sense: Milk, a biopic on the first openly gay elected official in California, and Slumdog Millionaire, the story of an Indian teen as he reckons with poverty, are both the kind of films the Academy usually eats up. They have a type, which is perfectly fine. These films are indeed important, and many should be nominated. But that year the Academy used all five Best Picture slots on relatively traditional choices. If the most popular movie of the year also happened to be one of the best films of the year, why didn’t the Academy at least consider it?

The Academy did not escape criticism for their decision. The Guardian called the film’s exclusion “a disgrace.” That’s a fair assessment. The Academy Awards are supposed to celebrate the year in Hollywood, meaning it has a duty to include stuff people actually watch. The Academy sometimes forgets this and plummets back into smug pretension. A film of Frost/Nixon’s caliber that grossed $27 million globally, for instance, should not be nominated over a film of The Dark Knight’s standing that raked in upwards of $535 million in the United States alone.

This is part of the current problem with the Oscars — they are out of touch, and, thus, often boring. Following the year it snubbed Bruce Wayne, the Academy elected to extend the number of Best Picture nominees to 10. Instead of feeling more inclusive, it has watered down the competition, and, unfortunately, the award’s prestige sometimes sinks with it.

Now, popular films (and mediocre Academy prototypes) usually get some amount of lip service come awards time. It’s a nice recognition for those films, but in reality they are just cannon fodder for the heavyweights. This makes it seem more like a list of ‘good enough’ films than the year’s absolute elite. By changing the problem instead of solving it, the Academy has cheapened their main event.

Now, for those films, is it better to be nominated in an easier format than not nominated at all? Probably. Even if it’s lip service, being nominated by the Academy is a huge honor. It remains the gold standard of the industry. But as an awards show, you need every nomination to be rocksolid. Return legitimate hype to the award. Make the race for Best Picture must-see TV. Once in a lifetime films like Mad-Max: Fury Road losing out to important, but safe ones like Spotlight is not how you grow the show. Therein lies an interesting irony. An Academy dedicated to the magic of film often produces incredibly uninspired nominations. Why?

The Oscars have become like a sport in the film world. The season is long and arduous, riding from prerelease film festivals all the way up to the big night. The Academy should lean into this, building anticipation throughout the year. Embrace the politics, make it dramatic, sell storylines. It’s wild that, of all places, Hollywood would be struggling with this.

The actual night of the Oscars is still an incredibly American event. An entire industry celebrates itself with its fans after months of marketing. For one night, you get to feel like a movie star, which is awesome. It’s also is an excellent way to give the people that work behind the scenes their moment in the sun.

Production roles like cinematographer, editor, sound mixer, writer, costume designer, make-up, visual effects, and so much more all deserve way more praise than they’ll ever get. It’s also a great night when there are surprises and memorable moments. The confusion over who won between La La Land and Moonlight was top tier TV. What’s more is both of those films also deserved to be nominated, making the stakes feel real. Those two, plus last year’s winner The Shape of Water, at least feel like inspired choices. They are something new, and an encouragement for directors to be bold.

So, 10 years after The Dark Knight’s exclusion changed the event, how are the 91st Academy Awards looking? Flatly, not great. In addition to the lack of heavyweights, the actual show threatens to be worse than ever. They still don’t have a host after Kevin Hart stepped down. Now the jokes will be conducted, I guess, by an ensemble of Hollywood stars, making the event potentially even more self-gratifying than normal. The Oscars need a witty, edgy comedian that can humanize the celebrities. Use the night as an opportunity to showcase the best comedians Hollywood has to offer. No more Jimmy Kimmel. Making the show entertaining will go a long way towards restoring relevancy.

The nominees this year are a mixed bag. You have traditional Oscar types such as Green Book, Vice, and A Star Is Born. Then there are the films made by big gun, visionary directors: Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (these two are the frontrunners). Lip service is doled out to Bohemian Rhapsody and BlacKkKlansman. In short, it’d be your typical Best Picture field, if not for the eighth nominee, hailing from the superhero genre: Black Panther.

Black Panther’s Best Picture nomination is the Academy’s attempt to be hip. Though good in principle, this particular nomination feels like misguided pandering. I like Black Panther. It’s a refreshing addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Wakanda is awesome, the music is great and the performances are mostly sound. But it also has the same pitfall most Marvel products do: it’s focused on the next one, almost right out of the gate. Black Panther is just their archetypal superhero origin story in a more interesting setting than normal.

If they wanted to honor the Marvel model this year, they could have nominated Avengers: Infinity War. 10 years in the making and encompassing the consequences of nearly 20 movies, it was an entertainment endeavor that had never been attempted before. What’s more is they nailed it, setting the new standard for their genre in the process. Black Panther can’t claim similar significance because of the inherent limitations with a Marvel origin film.

Like Infinity War, and all other Marvel films for that matter, Black Panther was very successful financially. It proved the box office viability of a POC-led blockbuster (something that was long overdue). For that, it’s an important film.

Is it worthy of a Best Picture nomination? No, but it’s also not designed to be. It’s supposed to lay the groundwork for better Black Panther movies and be another triumph for Marvel’s empire. It succeeds at doing so, but as a film it doesn’t go beyond that, making it really difficult to justify its nomination. In fact, Black Panther 2 will almost certainly be better than its predecessor (just like The Dark Knight is far superior to Batman Begins) because it can avoid many of the original shortcomings (too much going on, weak ending, and wasted potential of a good villain) and become something greater than itself.

It does not elevate above the genre it comes from in the same way that other blockbuster nominees have, and therefore how can it be considered among the year’s elite?

An interesting comparison can be drawn from 2017 nominee Get Out. Horror movies, like superhero movies, almost never get recognition from the Academy. Get Out did, and deserved to. It spun the original genre into something larger than just simple horror.

Blending the real terror of racism with the genre’s trademark of suspense made the film so effective that it inspired discussions and debates. Unlike Black Panther, it had a clear and concise vision and executed it as such. Get Out was bold, sprinkled in comedy effectively, and, most importantly, felt inspired. It wasn’t just the next product in a line, it had something to say. Even though Get Out stood little chance of winning, its nomination was important in that it featured one of the year’s best and most important films. Black Panther is missing the best part.

But that didn’t matter to the Academy. They felt they needed Black Panther in this year’s show. In fact, they were so desperate to include it that they originally made up a Best Popular Film category. Perhaps they were worried people would see through a Best Picture nomination? The young category received heavy backlash as it felt cheap and forced, and the Academy eventually swept it under the rug. Yes, they should be nominating films that were popular, but don’t sacrifice quality to do so. To make it its own category could prevent future deserving blockbusters from earning proper recognition.

The Academy would just save the ‘real’ awards for ‘real’ films. Instead, the Academy should encourage popular movies to go above and beyond. Against the current landscape of sequels and reboots this could usher in a renaissance. Improving the Best Picture race will also help interest in the other categories as people will be more likely to be familiar with concurrent nominees. Likewise, new categories could be a cool idea that breathe fresh air into the dying show. Things like Best Soundtrack or Best Breakthrough Performance or Best Stunts would help modernize the event. Nominating the biggest commercial success of the year just because you think it will make people watch sets a lazy precedent.

Ironically, there actually is a fresh superhero movie that actually deserves a nomination. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a near flawless film. It is a unique experience, both visually and conceptually. Miles Morales’s story has a real message that is consistent and cleverly brought to life. For me, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the best film of the year. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It even seems to bridge the gap between the casual moviegoer and film junkie, as it is one of the highest rated movies of the year online. On the online film community, Letterboxd it was voted film of the year. On iMDB it remains the highest rated American film of 2018.

To the Academy, take note — there are great, fresh films out there. Other major snubs this year include Bo Burnham’s horrifyingly realistic Eighth Grade, Alex Garland’s sci-fi mindblower Annihilation, and Armando Iannucci’s biting satire The Death of Stalin. If you haven’t seen them, all three are fantastic. I can’t recommend them enough. It’s really strange that those three, plus Spider-Man, weren’t nominated considering they had two other available slots.They just chose not to use them. Why? Were they afraid that too many nominees might water down the prestige? If they’re not careful the Academy will find itself underwater, drowning in irrelevancy.

-Nick Shiffman



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