As we come out of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto it does not look like we have a “frontrunner” yet. I’ve had a couple of private conversations about the Best Picture race, because that is, to quote my old friend David Carr, where all of the heat is. Some years, we know right off the bat what is going to win. A movie hits all the right points out of the gate to satisfy the needs of the awards-voting community.
It is beginning to feel a little like Goldilocks and the Oscar Contenders. This one is too hot, this one is too cold…
Things have changed dramatically in the awards race in the 22 years I’ve been covering them year-round. In 2000, we had an abundance of movies to choose from, movies that played in theaters to audiences when box office still mattered. Gladiator won that year.
Over time, with the rise of the internet, and blogs like mine, with social media hitting around the same time as the rise of streaming platforms and great television, things began to shift. Now, here we are in 2022 and the one thing we’re missing — like the dead body found at the beginning of a whodunnit and the search for the prime suspect: the audience.
We don’t yet have audiences for the movies coming out of festivals. We also don’t have the need for audiences. We have built an industry that doesn’t really seem to care about them. These movies are made for such a small group of people — and even half of those have tuned them out. So who will watch these movies? Why does any of it matter?
$700 million for Top Gun tells us there are still people out there who want to see good movies if Hollywood is willing to make them. The question then becomes, why isn’t Hollywood willing to make them? And the answer that comes back is the strange disconnect between trying to please the loudest voices online and in media vs. trying to please audiences. These two things are living on two separate planets.
In the past, it wasn’t a problem. The market decided. Movies that made money proliferated. Movies that didn’t were canned. But now we have no market anymore because we have streaming platforms. Almost anything can be put on streaming. It doesn’t matter if people want to pay to see it or not.
Obviously a movie like Top Gun should easily be considered among the best films of 2022. As the years wear on and people look back they will be shocked to see the list of the movies that did get in. They won’t recognize them because they won’t have ever even heard of them.
We also know that there would have to be a significant number of Academy voters who were populist enough to put Top Gun at number one for it to even have a fighting chance of getting in. That isn’t likely to happen. The Academy has always bred for exclusivity. Now, of course, it’s bred for inclusivity. Either way you slice it, they consider their tastes to be “sophisticated.” Knowing this, the bloggers simply omit a movie like Top Gun, knowing that the sophisticates will turn their nose up at it.
If the Academy wanted to survive they would immediately invite a more populist group of members, meaning, people who might have more middlebrow tastes that would, at the very least, consider audiences. You know, the rabble Hollywood no longer thinks about or cares about except in terms of how they can convert them to their way of thinking? Yeah, them.
Pleasing audiences and pleasing the online voices that mostly micromanage all media are two very different things. Studios are starting to figure out that they can still release movies and make money by completely bypassing the bloggerati online. But Oscar movies can’t do that. They are completely at the mercy of the Film Twitter ethos. It’s a quandary. Or a quagmire. It’s one or the other.
Critics online, bloggers, and everyone else start picking movies apart from their trailers, acting like “cops” in a way to root out the bad things. They are a machine built to do just that, so in a sense there isn’t any way to survive it except to stop caring about it even a little bit. Leave him to their own gripes and complaints, move on. But the gatekeepers unfortunately spend time on Film Twitter, which means they must care what they think.
That means we start to hear grumblings and complaints about even the ever-shrinking list of available movies on offer. There are people who say things like “the screenplay was weak” or “the hair is not period-appropriate” — that’s all before we get to the perceived thought crimes about casting and thematic content that won’t erupt until later. Everyone is suddenly an expert.
This is like a species without an apex predator that destroys its own ecosystem and eventually extincts itself.
Artists have to be let out of their cage to try to tell authentic stories and they can’t do that if they’ve got a Planet of Cops breathing down their neck at every turn. Is it possible to get back to the business of just making good movies again without fear of Twitter? Maybe. Maybe not.
Either way, let’s look at the Best Picture slate and see where we are. The main question you have to ask is, “why would this movie win?” There is always a reason. It is never just because the film is good. There always has to be an adjunct supplemental reason that urges voters to push a movie to the top of their ranked-choice ballot.
Top Gun Maverick – By many people’s measure this would be considered the film of the year – $700 million and counting. Why would they vote for it? A better question, why wouldn’t they vote for it? Do they want to save their industry or not? Usually a Best Picture contender leads in some of the other categories like acting and directing or at least screenplay. Top Gun only really has techs and perhaps Best Picture.
Elvis – Strong contender for a Best Actor win, $150 mil. Why would they vote for it? Mainly because of Austin Butler’s incredible performance and perhaps nostalgia and love for Elvis.
Everything Everywhere All At Once – An inventive film that brought out the Zoomers. $65 mil. Why would they vote for it? It defines the industry in 2022 as the industry would like to be seen. Innovative, diverse, fresh.
Now onto the fest gets:
The Fabelmans – This Spielberg movie will take the number one spot now unless pundits go all in for Babylon sight unseen. Why would they vote for it? Because Spielberg is a legend and an icon. It will likely hit in all of the top categories and come in a formidable winner. In our current climate, however, it is difficult to get collective support for a white dude. It just is. But if anyone can do it, Spielberg can.
Empire of Light – This film is driven by its performances, most notably Olivia Colman in a nearly career-best role. Michael Ward is also great, along with the ensemble cast. It’s either a movie that sweeps you away, or it’s not a movie for you. To quote Woody Allen, this is a movie that has to enter through a different organ (other than your brain). Why would people vote for it? To save movies.
Women Talking – An ensemble of actresses talking about empowerment, rape, and freedom had everyone talking in Telluride. It is probably going to get a SAG ensemble nom, and it looks like Sarah Polley might have a shot at a Best Director slot. Why would they vote for it? If they were swept up in the lives of the women and to honor a female director whose moment has finally arrived.
The Banshees of Inisherin – A return to form for Martin McDonagh, which is Film Twitter code for, “Thank god he didn’t make another Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Safely back in his home country they can appreciate his writing and directing again. Why would they vote for it? Maybe for that reason. If they liked it enough, maybe. White guy, though, big problem still.
TÁR – Definitely a film that is going to do very well when the critics awards start rolling in. I will be shocked if Todd Field doesn’t pick up major awards out of the gate. Cate Blanchett’s performance is already one of the strongest of the year. Why would they vote for it? Because it’s a comeback for Field, maybe. And because of Blanchett.
Glass Onion – Should be a big crowd-pleaser and with a strong ensemble cast. Why would they vote for it? Well, it depends on how successful it is overall. Any crowd-pleaser is always a threat to win.
Babylon – We don’t know much about this movie, but sight unseen it looks fantastic. Why would they vote for it? Well maybe because La La Land didn’t win in 2016. Maybe because it’s about Hollywood. Maybe it will be too good to pass up.
Avatar: Way of Water – Jim Cameron is BACK. We have to wait and see. Why would they vote for it? Well, let’s see what it can do first. But remember, the first Avatar didn’t win Best Pic.
She Said – This is the one I’m really putting my early chips behind because it represents a moment of reckoning for the Academy to make-good on the Weinstein debacle. Female director too. All systems go.
Till – This will be a hard movie to watch, but as you can already see, we’re dreaming of a White Christmas here so far. So Till would add a more diverse slate to Best Pic.
The other ones, we’ll have to wait and see on. They do seem targeted more for performances and perhaps screenplay than Best Picture, but you never know.
The Woman King
I Wanna Dance with Somebody
Bones & All
Decision to Leave
Triangle of Sadness