Oscar nominees are better, but show acts like it's embarrassed by them

Justin Chang
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — You might have noticed some social-media chatter several weeks ago about how everyone’s favorite guessing game suddenly wasn’t fun anymore — that it had tilted in a pretentious new direction. The game was becoming too obscure, for the average American player. People were having to think too damn hard — and, worse, to admit there might be things they don’t know.

Nobody likes that. Some of the winning answers sounded suspiciously foreign; did they really belong? What ever happened to plain English? What about the easy choices, the popular choices, the choices everyone knows and loves?

I’m speaking, of course, about Wordle, the viral brainteaser acquired in January by the New York Times, spurring many users to complain that the winning five-letter words had suddenly gotten a lot tougher (what the hell’s a “tacit”?), and that the Times must have been responsible. (They hadn’t, and it wasn’t.) But I could also be describing some of the tediously anti-intellectual sentiments swirling around this year’s Oscar nominees. The motion picture academy is irrelevant and out of touch. The films are too obscure. The similarities between the disgruntled factions are striking and even a little instructive — and not just because dedicated Oscar watchers, like Wordle players, spend a lot of time guessing at what might fill five empty slots.

Why so serious? We’ve now seen what the academy has nominated in those five slots in every category (plus the 10-slot best picture race), and the results have been found sorely lacking in some quarters. Has anyone even heard of these nominees, let alone seen them? What’s the big deal with the dog movie (no, not that “Dog” movie)? What’s up with the Japanese car movie? Why didn’t they nominate “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” a picture that people have actually seen? To quote ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, bemoaning that “No Way Home” didn’t get a best picture nomination while “Don’t Look Up” did: “When did we decide that the best picture has to be serious?”

While I agree with Kimmel that “Don’t Look Up” doesn’t belong in the best picture race, a rambunctious, heavily improvised Adam McKay satire is an odd nominee to single out as proof of the academy’s chronic humorlessness. Nor is McKay’s movie the only source of levity, or at least attempted levity, in this year’s lineup. Indeed, any blanket dismissal of these best picture nominees as “too serious” — too dour, too drunk on their own self-importance — strikes me as a mischaracterization so lazy as to raise doubts about whether the person making it has actually watched any of them.

This combination of photos shows promotional art for the films nominated for an Oscar for best picture, top row from left, "Belfast," "CODA," Don't Look Up," Drive My Car," Dune," bottom row from left, "King Richard," Licorice Pizza," "Nightmare Alley," "The Power of the Dog," and "West Side Story." (Focus Features/Apple TV+, Netflix, Janus Films & Sideshow, Warner Bros. Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, Searchlight Pictures, Netflix, 20th Century Films via AP)

OK, so you may not crack a smile during “Drive My Car,” “Dune” or “Nightmare Alley.” But you will probably chuckle more than once during “King Richard,” “Belfast” and “CODA,” all warm family dramedies that balance lump-in-the-throat pathos with wry, antic humor. “Licorice Pizza” is a sunny, shaggy delight that happens to boast the vehicular action scene of the year. Pleasure comes in many forms, and seriousness can be deceptive: Beneath its taut psychological suspense, “The Power of the Dog” might be the stealthiest of dark comedies, positively cackling as it skewers the American cowboy myth and manipulates your sympathies. “West Side Story,” being “West Side Story,” ends in tragedy, but its musical sequences, awash in kineticism and kaleidoscopic color, are cinematic pleasure of a very pure grade.

Every genre but one: To lump these movies together under a giant frown emoji, in other words, would be as reductive as trying to consign them to a single style or subject. This year’s best picture race features a musical, a western, a sci-fi epic, a neo-noir, a youth comedy, a disaster flick, a sports movie, a personal memoir, a scrappy Sundance crowd-pleaser and a Cannes auteur’s magnum opus. Leaving aside the question of whether these films are any good (I think most of them are) — and the less interesting question of how much money they’ve made — it’s hard to recall the last cluster of films that so admirably fulfilled the best picture ideal. There’s something here, in theory, for everyone — except those who subsist on an exclusive cinematic diet of superhero movies.

I don’t mean to make a gratuitous target of “No Way Home,” a movie I enjoyed perfectly well and like better than a few of this year’s best picture nominees, if not as much as other Oscar-winning films of its comic-book ilk, like “Black Panther,” “Joker” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Whatever you think of this latest and most lucrative of Spidey adventures, most of the arguments for its alleged Oscar-worthiness rest on a tiresome canard that equates popularity with quality, ubiquitousness with greatness. Its cinematic virtues, whatever they may be, seem to matter far less in this equation than its commercial ones.

Tom Holland stars in "Spider-Man: No Way Home."

'Poor little rich film': “Everyone’s seen this movie” is exaggerated to mean “Everyone likes this movie,” and “Everyone likes this movie” is stretched further to suggest that “This movie is the best.” Arriving at the end of a year when the COVID-19 pandemic continued to exact a toll on exhibitor revenues, “No Way Home’s” trio of Spider-Men have been recast as box office saviors, giving hurting theaters the billion-dollar adrenaline shot they needed. Surely a best picture nomination was the least the academy could have offered as a token of gratitude. (“Ah, the poor little rich film!” critic Guy Lodge summed up in a sharp assessment for the Guardian.)

Steep price: But voters didn’t bite. (“No Way Home” did receive one Oscar nomination, for visual effects.) And now, as penance for not having nominated any “popular” (read: superhero) movies, the academy appears to be paying a very steep price set by ABC, which has been pressuring the organization to boost its dwindling show ratings for years now. The unusually drastic changes to this year’s Will Packer-produced Oscarcast — all made with an eye toward trimming the show to a more audience-friendly three hours — have come under ferocious and wholly deserved criticism. The movie industry is in an uproar over the fact that Oscars in eight categories — production design, sound, original score, makeup and hairstyling, film editing, documentary short, live-action short and animated short — will not be presented during the live telecast, a major blow to the nominees and winners in those categories and the various artists’ branches they represent.

Meanwhile, after its widely derided attempt to introduce a “popular film” Oscar category years ago, the academy is once more trying the crowd-sourcing route: What kind of professional organization has no time to show film artists the respect they deserve but makes time for Twitter-driven segments crowning an #OscarFanFavorite and an #OscarsCheerMoment? Clearly, one that couldn’t be more desperate to correct its perceived irrelevance, which apparently means ensuring that “Spider-Man: No Way Home” gets some sort of recognition during the telecast. Here it may be worth noting the obvious, which is that Disney — which owns both ABC and Marvel Entertainment and receives a share of the profits for the Sony-distributed “No Way Home” — has what you might call a vested interest in a Marvel-branded superhero movie getting some kind of Oscar recognition. And it just might work: To no one’s surprise, “No Way Home” is one of the 10 fan-favorite finalists.

So, as it happens, are “Dune,” not exactly a flop with more than $400 million worldwide, and “The Power of the Dog,” whose massive acclaim and front-runner status has made it one of Netflix’s more widely seen (and argued about) movies. All of which would seem to refute the notion that no one’s seen or heard of this year’s nominees, even if the pandemic’s lingering box office chill and the attendant rise of streaming platforms have complicated their fortunes. A crowd-pleaser like “CODA,” which appears to have become this season’s underdog favorite, can clearly thrive on a platform like Apple TV+; “Licorice Pizza” and “Belfast” (particularly in the U.K.) posted respectable numbers in theatrical release. By contrast, “West Side Story” and “Nightmare Alley,” both lavish big-studio remakes, were thudding box office disappointments, though “West Side Story” is enjoying renewed interest and passion now that it’s streaming on both Disney+ and HBO Max. That resurgence feels like a mixed blessing; Steven Spielberg’s movie may yet find its audience, but it feels as though it’s never had its moment.

Finding an audience: One important function of the Academy Awards, often lost amid the frippery and frivolity, is to help the nominated movies find those audiences and those moments. I say this as someone who was 8 when he started watching the Oscars, and for whom those early telecasts, laden with memorable speeches, montages and musical numbers, were a splendid opportunity to learn about new and old movies alike. For me and surely countless others, they were the imperfect but not-insignificant beginnings of a lifelong film education, and I don’t use the word “education” lightly.

This is an organization that calls itself the academy, after all, and whose purpose, apart from celebrating the industry’s ostensible best and brightest, is to enhance the public’s knowledge and appreciation of the motion-picture medium. That, presumably, is also the mission of the Academy Museum that finally opened last year after decades of setbacks and delays; it should also be one of the aims of this year’s Oscars ceremony.

Cowardly: In that respect, the academy’s knee-jerk insistence on popularity as a criterion of excellence or importance doesn’t just feel desperate or pandering; it feels cowardly, marked by “a whiff of self-loathing,” as Vulture critic Bilge Ebiri wrote in a spot-on excoriation of the academy’s recent decisions. Simply put, you can’t honor your industry by treating some of its most distinguished professionals as third-class citizens. And you can’t teach the public anything if you’re scared to tell them about things they don’t already know.

Any academy worth its salt would own its film geekery as proudly as it owns its red-carpet plumage, its strained presenter banter and its tacky musical numbers. It would see its annual telecast as an opportunity to renew and enhance the public’s interest in the art of filmmaking, which means — among other things — giving ample time to the short films and the artists who made them. It means granting at least a few minutes to key cinematic disciplines, like editing and sound, that constitute the often-overlooked building blocks of the medium. It means airing clips from terrific movies like “Drive My Car” and “The Lost Daughter” and “Parallel Mothers” and “The Worst Person in the World,” whose Oscar nominations reflect a level of critical discernment that is precisely the opposite of a blockbuster-first mentality. You could call that elitism; I prefer to think of it as the academy doing its damn job.

What kind of person claims to love movies, only to be affronted when one they haven’t seen or heard of is brought to their attention? You might as well ask what kind of person plays word games and objects to learning new words: the worst person in the Wordle, naturally. Let’s strive to be less like them.