There was a time, not too long ago, when the Oscars were on the verge of becoming irrelevant. After decades of chronicling the best films cinema had to offer, the Academy was allowing themselves to age and grow stale. Throughout the 2000’s and early 2010’s, the ceremony had grown increasingly exclusive in terms of which films it was looking to nominate. While the term ‘Oscar bait’ has been around since the 1940’s, it found a whole new purpose and meaning during this time.
Part of this was due to a sudden spike in the amount of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. The kind of medium-budget film that used to sweep the Oscars was suddenly in danger of going extinct. Thus, the academy felt obliged to honor those that were still getting made, to give them a fighting chance. Another reason was down to the fact that the ceremony became less and less about the best films and more about who ran the best Oscar campaign. From the limited release in a few select cities to build buzz among critics right before the end of the year, to the methodically placed ads in just the right places so as to pander to the right voters, the strategy of the Oscar-winning campaign had become increasingly and mind-numbingly obvious.
Films like Crash and The King’s Speech won the award for Best Picture in their respective years, as we grew about as far removed from the ceremony that gave the 1992 award to Silence of the Lambs, a horror-thriller released in February of the previous year, as we could possibly get. All of the relevancy was gone from the prestigious awards, all of the voters’ courage and faith in blockbusters or genre fare seemingly vanished.
Until 2015, that is.
The renaissance happened in cracks in the structure here and there, with little pieces beginning to slip through. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s delightfully deranged Birdman wins Best Picture. It stars an Oscar-friendly cast, is a film about the entertainment industry, and is technically ambitious. So it hits lots of their sweet spots but is also the most flat-out unconventional film to win Best Picture since at least 2004’s Return of the King. Its win brings hope for the future with it, hope that the awards will be able to embrace stranger and more out-of-the-box choices.
Another palpable change is felt two years later, at the 2017 ceremony in the most public way possible. The Best Picture-favorite, La La Land, is incorrectly announced as the winner before producer Jordan Horowitz steps up to reveal that there has been a mistake and that Moonlight is actually the winner. Being the outside choice in many ways, the film is an intimately unique film-going experience that tells a crucial and relevant story. But the biggest change is the complete turn-around of a ceremony that just a year prior had inspired the social media critique of #OscarsSoWhite. It is an important moment of recognition and relevance that lights the way for big changes to come.
Following the 2017 ceremony, the Academy invites an unprecedented 774 new members to join them. These choices range from actors such as Donald Glover or Gal Gadot to directors like Jordan Peele or the Russo Bros. This move drastically changes the entire Academy system, now representing more diverse opinions, in ways both big and small.
Which brings us to this year’s Oscars, which finally delivers the full-on revolution the ceremony so desperately needs.
The mainstays are certainly there, with Spielberg’s The Post and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour representing the kind of films that would generally win Best Picture in previous years. But this year, the overwhelming favorite to win is a monster movie, of all things. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a dynamic genre film whose narrative depicts the struggles of the beaten and repressed of society, that is also representing and standing up for the repressed genres of cinema. It doesn’t tick off any of the Academy’s pre-established sweet spots, it simply got here by being a great film.
The same could be said of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a tense and well-made summer blockbuster, but a summer blockbuster, just the same. Other nominees, such as Phantom Thread or Lady Bird got here without playing the typical awards circuit. Thread had been largely skipped over by awards shows such as the Golden Globes, where Lady Bird had been categorized as a comedy as if to avoid having it in competition with the legitimate dramas of that field. Both are strange, unconventional films that tackle subject matter that is not usually of particular interest to the Academy but they do so in brilliantly inspired fashion. They earned their spot on the nominations list through the quality of their film, not the quality of their campaign or awards show history.
And then, of course, there’s the real game-changer; Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Not only is it a genre film, not only was it a blockbuster, but it was released all the way back in January of last year. In every way, it is the kind of film that the Academy-of-old would have hardly given a second glance. Yet here it is, rightfully nominated and with a good chance of seizing the award itself.
Where the Oscars felt so stifled and irrelevant before, they now seem to be trailblazers. Other awards shows, such as the Golden Globes, look outdated by comparison. In finally giving way to an entire new generation’s voice, the Oscars have taken steps to reclaim relevancy and their edge. A ceremony in which the biggest contenders for Best Picture are a movie about a gill-man falling in love and a horror-thriller that addresses racism head-on is the kind of ceremony we need in this day and age.
Oscar, my old friend, it’s good to have you back.