It should be noted, too, that these nominations are not merely token nods toward crowdpleasers intent on getting eyeballs to televised ceremonies. Several of them, including Everything Everywhere (which grossed $103 million worldwide) and Top Gun 2 have their champions who will tell you with absolute sincerity that they’re a frontrunner for Best Picture. Meanwhile Michelle Yeoh is generally considered one of several frontrunners in the Best Actress category after her stunning performance in Everything Everywhere while Tom Cruise is considered by many to be a dark horse candidate for receiving a Best Actor nomination from the Academy.
Until then, and over at the CCAs, both Yeoh and Cruise were nominated in their respective categories, as was most of the cast of Everything Everywhere in supporting categories, including Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, and Jamie Lee Curtis, while Cameron and the Daniels received Best Director nominations, for Avatar: The Way of Water and Everything Everywhere, respectively. Additionally, Viola Davis was nominated for Best Actress due to her work in The Woman King.
Admittedly, the taste of critics and the filmmakers in the industry can differ wildly—just last year the CCAs, like most critics groups, rallied around Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog while the Oscars went for the more feel-good and sentimental CODA, an Apple TV+ original. And in the Best Director category alone, the CCAs nominate 10 helmers while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selects only five. However, it seems as if the industry, which remains at a major inflection point after the pandemic has accelerated audience migration toward streaming, might be pivoting back to a blockbuster-heavy slate of awards contenders in 2023. It’s a phenomenon we arguably haven’t seen since Lord of the Rings: Return of the King won Best Picture in 2004, including by beating Master and Commander.
This is remarkable for awards bodies’ tastes, not to mention prudent. Our modern understanding of what an Oscar movie is actually fairly recent—arguably dating back to around 1999 when Harvey Weinstein’s Shakespeare in Love beat the crowdpleasing WWII blockbuster, Saving Private Ryan. Even then the change didn’t happen overnight (see again: ROTK). But in less than a decade after the 1999 Oscar season, the Academy went from nominating audience favorites like Saving Private Ryan, and even selecting them for Best Picture over more deserving fare—see Forrest Gump beating Pulp Fiction in 1995 and Titanic beating L.A. Confidential in 1998 for more—to often snubbing hits and audience favorites, including most famously The Dark Knight in 2009.
Of course the awards season has visibly begun changing in recent years. It was only a few years ago when Black Panther became the first superhero movie ever to be nominated for Best Picture. Nevertheless, many of these awards and nominations have felt like consolation prizes: empty gestures intended to get audiences to tune in and avert the declining viewership awards shows endure nearly every year. The Academy even infamously attempted to put populist entertainment at a pseudo-kids table when it was announced there would be a “Best Popular Film” category. That was quickly jettisoned after it proved… unpopular.
Popular films can, indeed, be some of the best movies in any year, but that fact is sometimes harder to reconcile with an industry that appears to be rushing to the lowest common denominator of commodified corporate product (read: content) with industrial-sized blockbusters dominating the box office and sucking up most Hollywood resources, leading to the death of medium budget movies, including the type of adult dramas that used to be awards and audience darlings. Even so, occasionally some of these blockbusters can have a soul and reveal a level of craft and care that is exceptional. Top Gun: Maverick, for one, buttressed the entire summer box office with innovative IMAX cinematography and storytelling that could win over almost anyone’s heart, if not necessarily their mind.