EJ Moreno looks at the Academy Awards and the new era of films vying for recognition…
As we enter a new awards season, it’s refreshing to look at the landscape of potential contenders. Loving the race to the Academy Awards for decades and later entering my own awards season as a Critics Choice Association voter, the last few years of movies have been more interesting than so many that have come before it.
No, that’s not a swipe at the years that brought us Schindler’s List, Gladiator, and Spotlight, but we are entering an era when genre films are becoming the standard for what works for voters. While there’s still a bias towards horror, one or two extreme films slip in or some outlandish sci-fi experience that causes us all to think.
Has the Academy Awards and the overall awards season finally got comfortable with stranger films being the norm? We’ll look at when the Oscars started to bring in weird movies, the films that received awards, and what this all means for this year’s season.
2010 is the shift for the Academy Awards in many ways. The biggest was the introduction to ten films being up for nomination rather than the usual five. This dramatically shifted the landscape of the Oscars, and you can see that in the harsh contrast between the year prior. For the 81st Academy Awards (2009 edition), Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, and The Reader all saw nominations, while The Dark Knight was regulated to the well-deserved Supporting Acting win and a few technical noms.
Not to call The Dark Knight “weird,” you can clearly see the film didn’t fit the mold enough to make its cause for an arguably deserved Best Picture nomination. The following year, the Academy went on to rectify that by nominating the blockbuster Avatar and giving a nomination to the sci-fi film District 9. The latter was arguably the first genre film Best Picture since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won in 2004.
Not only was District 9 a science fiction movie, but it was a reasonably alternative film, leaning toward less awards-friendly vibes compared to its fellow nominees, opening the door for cinema’s misfits.
After this, they’d go further into the world of the strange and usual. The 83rd Academy Awards looked at 2010’s best films, another strong year for nominations. We saw more exploration, like Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Toy Story 3 getting Best Picture noms. However, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan was the real shock and the moment I truly began to tune into what the new Academy was cooking.
Aronofsky was coming off The Wrestler, a heavily nominated awards contender that brought him to the dance of the prestige film. But would his surreal ballot dance film bring him back? It did more than that; Black Swan got him a Best Picture nomination and a win for Natalie Portman’s breathtaking turn. At this time, could you imagine the group of stuffy cinema lovers who went wild for Frost/Nixon eating this up? It’s a delight to think that a reasonably transgressive film made it that far and didn’t feel wildly out of place.
Black Swan was a horror-tinged film that earned its Best Picture nomination, but the Academy wasn’t fully there yet as they’d go on to award The King’s Speech the Best Picture win, which in retrospect is one of their weakest modern wins. With a few out-of-the-box acting wins and Best Picture nominations catered to those who don’t only love period dramas, we were making progress.
That progress was honestly too slow, and we dragged on with a rare, fleeting moment of absurdity for quite some time. That changed entirely, though, by the time we got to the 90th Academy Awards and looked at the films of 2017. Something awoke in the voters, and we got wins that mattered to the weirdos.
The movie where the “lady fucks the fish” is sadly the label that The Shape of Water got labeled as it headed into the awards season. Many loved Guillermo del Toro’s love letter to monster movies, but the premise of the film was something plenty thought would disqualify it from the Oscars.
But that’s not what happened this evening, and that was true for multiple genre films. The 90th Oscars saw nominations for Get Out, Blade Runner 2049, The Disaster Artist, and even Logan sneaked a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. Get Out even managed the rare win for a horror film, winning Best Original Screenplay and earning Jordan Peele’s seat at the prestige table. But the star of the evening was Guillermo del Toro and The Shape of Water.
It’s hard to stress how mind-blowing it is that del Toro finally won Best Director and Best Picture with an homage to Universal Horror movies. With the note of horrors rarity to win, even the great modern snub of Toni Collette came from the following year; it was impressive to see one of the great filmmakers of our time sneak this transgressive little love letter to such high acclaim. And deservedly so, as the film showcases everything we love from cinema filtered through the lens of del Toro.
Nothing like this had ever won Best Picture, with every other “weirder” win like Return of the King and Silence of the Lambs still feeling accessible to the majority. But The Shape of Water wasn’t made for easy mass consumption, and that’s the key to embracing the weird. You can’t conform or try to appeal to the masses, but you have to stay true to your vision, and that’s why this win was so landmark.
Not so shockingly, though, things didn’t change dramatically overnight. We weren’t seeing things like Titane or Us get their time to shine at the Oscars, but smaller wins for genre filmmaking like Black Panther and Joker showed the change was still happening. It wouldn’t be like that, and we’d have a modern one-two punch that forever changed the game.
This whole article and the hope for unique films to be showcased wouldn’t happen without the 2020 and 2023 wins: Parasite and Everything Everywhere All At Once.
What a powerful moment it was when both films took home Best Picture. Fans spent the entire awards season pushing and praying that these two fan-favorite vastly different types of movies made it to the top of the mountain. Folks were in the trenches for these films.
And it paid off as Parasite dominated the awards season all through 2019 and early 2020, feeling like the last moment of joy before the pandemic changed everything. We can all still remember Bong Joon-ho’s speeches and his happiness that not only an international film but a genre-bending experience was finally getting its time to shine. Joon-ho celebrates all sorts of cinema, much like del Toro, and it felt like that passion was paying off, especially for those of us who were tired of the typical drama winning the big prize.
Things got a bit rocky after 2020 with cinema having to find its footing, but we’ve never felt more back than when Everything Everywhere All At Once became the jewel of last season’s heated awards race. It still blows my mind that the action multiversal indie film pushed past everyone to claim its wins. A truly WTF movie with hotdog fingers, talking rocks, and a Michelle Yeoh powerhouse performance became the film of the year, and no one could’ve seen that coming a decade ago.
We are undoubtedly in a different time at the Oscars with new voters and filmmakers challenging the norms, and we’ll look to see that continue.
This year looks promising, with some of the more popular picks being contenders we wouldn’t think possible. First and foremost, the Barbie and Oppenheimer summer shook so much this year, and it’s a treat to see blockbusters that push the boundaries of that label get honored.
Barbie especially feels strange as a possible winner for Best Picture with its outlandish aesthetic, feminist themes, and “Movie Based on a Toy” award hurdles all seemingly knocked down early on. Nothing has stopped Barbie from being embraced by the general public and award voters, which honestly feels like the ‘weirdest’ thing of this whole article. And with Christopher Nolan’s rocky track record with the Academy, what feels like a sure-fire win for Oppenheimer could go to something else.
Poor Things is another film that has dominated the season, winning awards in Venice and a standing ovation at Cannes. After seeing the sexual, strange, surreal, and near-perfect film from Yorgos Lanthimos, I am amazed we are even having this conversation.
No film feels so perfect for awards yet against the old guard of Oscars than this. You’re telling me that a movie with more sex scenes than Titane and a more horror-filled vibe than A Shape of Water will make it to Best Picture; it seems preposterous. And here we are with pundits from all over the awards world putting this high on the predictions list and some seeing this as a real winner. Lanthimos feels more John Waters than Martin Scorcese, but it’s a time where that is almost the norm.
Is it time to accept that the weirdos are allowed at the party, or is the feeling we can be booted from the cool kids table a valid stance?
We can look towards this year’s Oscars as the real telltale. We are either looking at the Academy falling back to award something more conventional or the chance to give the outcast two in a row.
Only time will tell, but we are even looking at such a delightful year of strange movies; this is genuinely glorious.