Oscar cynic A.O. Scott once wrote, “A show-business oligarchy can’t seriously be in the business of legislating taste.” Still, it’s unlikely that he foresaw how fragile that business would become.
In a world of slaps and wrong envelopes, it’s easy to forget that the purpose of the Academy Awards is to celebrate great performances and feats of filmmaking. But even if the Oscars (which will air Sunday, March 12, on ABC) weren’t a farcical affair, their relevance would be scrutinized, given the twin existential threats to moviegoing: streaming and COVID-19.
Yet when WW’s film critics convened to discuss this year’s Oscar nominees, my cynicism melted. Sure, we griped about some contenders (Blonde, ugh), but we realized that this year, the show-business oligarchy demonstrated damn good taste.
It’s not just that the Academy nominated some great movies, like the German World War I epic All Quiet on the Western Front. It’s that the Best Picture nominees range from biography to sci-fi to satire to whatever subgenre Everything Everywhere All at Once belongs in (psychedelic-wuxia dramedy?).
Our conversation, which has been edited for clarity, covered a lot of ground, including the Academy’s allergy to geek-friendly fare (the superb Top Gun and Avatar sequels were snubbed for Best Director) and the baffling (in our opinion) love for Baz Luhrmann’s manic biopic Elvis.
Mostly, though, we marveled at the breadth of movies being honored by an organization too often fixated on middlebrow duds like Green Book. As film buffs, we’re well aware that reports of cinema’s death are greatly exaggerated. Surprisingly, the same may be true of the Oscars.
—Bennett Campbell Ferguson, Assistant Arts & Culture Editor
Bennett Campbell Ferguson: Is there anything you’re mad about being nominated or not being nominated?
Morgan Shaunette: I don’t know why Elvis is nominated for Best Picture. As I was watching it, I had to ask myself, is Baz Luhrmann good or is he just loud?
Alex Barr: I would wholeheartedly agree with that. Also, what is Blonde nominated for?
Shaunette: It got nominated for Best Actress, for Ana de Armas.
Ray Gill Jr.: I think Blonde would have been a much more successful film if it wasn’t about Marilyn Monroe—if you just did a dissection of an actress who becomes a star in that time. But because you put Marilyn in there, it made a lot of people very uncomfortable.
Barr: I would say—this is a bold take—that Andrew Dominik, the director of Blonde, has a vested interest in putting women in situations that he personally takes some kind of pleasure out of. I think he’s kind of a sadistic director—in some ways, he has the mind of a horror director.
I don’t think it’s about actually telling a story. It’s about making people feel uncomfortable in a way that will maybe grab their attention—and at the same time, taking the memory of a woman who has already been publicly dissected and churning out something horrible and fictitious.
Ferguson: By contrast, All Quiet on the Western Front is a movie I respect, but it is pretty torturous to sit through. Especially in cinephile circles, people get so detached from the idea of a movie being pleasurable being important. Does the Academy fall into that trap, or am I being too basic, like, “Why didn’t Top Gun: Maverick get more love, bro?”
Shaunette: This is just a very big question of, how do we fix Oscar? And I don’t know.
Barr: Top Gun: Maverick has a certain capitalistic appeal that I think turns off cinephiles because they have this feeling that art and capitalism should be completely separate. Whereas I would argue that film is the most major intersection of art and capitalism.
When we’re talking about the Oscars, what deserves to win? You typically don’t want to say the movie that had a $300 million budget or a $500 million budget or something insane like that. You want to go for something like Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Ferguson: The movie with the most nominations usually doesn’t win. We’ve seen this before with The Power of the Dog, which seemed unstoppable. But the love for Everything Everywhere All at Once, which has 11 nominations, feels more organic and more passionate.
Shaunette: Well, it’s also a movie people saw.
Ferguson: That does help!
Shaunette: It’s a blockbuster—a genuine, big, weird action movie. And it’s heady and well made enough to have become a critical darling as well as a box office hit.
Ferguson: A lot of the movies that got nominated feel of the moment. The Banshees of Inisherin is about friendship, and that’s on our minds as we rebuild—I feel like I’m still relearning how to talk to other human beings after being in quarantine. Also, there are so many odes to movie theaters, and The Fabelmans represents that. Those of us who care about movies worry about how fragile moviegoing is as a communal experience.
Shaunette: With All Quiet on the Western Front, there is a timelessness to an anti-war message. But specifically, in the movie there’s this one guy who’s in his fortified bunker, leagues away from the front lines, who’s like, “We need to keep fighting, we need to take this land back for country and for God.” Watching that in the context of the Russo-Ukrainian War, the comparisons are unavoidable.
Barr: These films are a reflection of the times. I really do think they highlight either a certain social fear or hope for the moment.
Gill Jr.: The lives of the soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front are arbitrary—until a filmmaker takes you into the body of one of them and makes you experience what they actually went through because of the decision made by the guy on the hill somewhere who wants to make a statement or make one last “brave” stand that he’s not going to be on the front lines of. You got to see the hope of the young soldier and see that deconstructed. The film had a Gallipoli or Born on the Fourth of July feeling to it.
Ferguson: With this conversation we’ve had here, I feel a little less grouchy about the Oscars. We talked about some really interesting things! There are some cool movies nominated!
Shaunette: They’re interesting movies. Good or bad, that’s important, obviously. But if a movie’s interesting, that’s more important to me. The worst thing a movie can do is bore me.