Mister Tee wrote:I feel like we've been struggling most of this millenium trying to define what we want a best picture to be.
And to expand upon this idea a little bit further, it seems that different factions have emerged with wildly different ideas about what that should look like. Now, some will say, that's always been the case, and of course, you could easily go back to slates like 1967 and 1969 to see Best Picture nominees that were all over the map. But that did change for a while -- mostly beginning in the '80s -- because I look at a lot of slates from my formative Oscar-watching years, and I see a remarkable similarity among nominees -- think of the WWII/Elizabethan showdown in 1998, or years like 2005 or 2008, where every Best Picture nominee is of a very similar stripe (mostly period pieces and/or literary adaptations, dealing with significant social issues). This is not to say there wasn't a difference aesthetically between any of these nominees -- there's a pretty big gap in my mind between The Thin Red Line and Elizabeth, as there is between Milk and The Reader -- but superficially, they all feel like they belong together. They're the kind of films that a certain type of moviegoer isn't going to miss (despite varying degrees of success).
Cut to now. A Marvel superhero movie is a Best Picture nominee. So is a virtually plotless black-and-white Mexican art film. So is a crowd-pleasing remake of a nearly ninety year old story. So are a group of inventive, singular takes on the true-life historical piece. So is a historical piece that's about as traditional as they come. So is a badly reviewed blockbuster nominated simply because of how much money it made. These aren't just movies that appeal to differing sensibilities on a spectrum -- they're films made for different audiences entirely, and every one is eager for Oscar to put its stamp of approval on the film whose victory they deem most important for film culture, and well, culture period.
These attitudes are also extending to other conversations about the awards. I'm not sure how much it's permeated the larger discussion to the degree that #OscarsSoWhite did, but within the industry, there's a not insignificant group of people outraged by the exclusion of films by women directors from the conversation this year. I think arguments like this often get simplified to their most reductive -- I personally think Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Private Life are better than a good chunk of the Best Picture slate, but totally groan when I see movies like Mary Queen of Scots and On the Basis of Sex offered up as evidence that female-directed films aren't being given a fair shake. But, let's imagine an alternate universe where some of the most widely-praised films by women HAD made an awards dent beyond critics' circles, where Oscar's Best Picture roster had included The Rider, You Were Never Really Here, and Leave No Trace. Couldn't we all but guarantee that such a scenario would lead plenty of other people to gripe about how voters just nominated a bunch of tiny indies that no one saw? It seems that more and more people are deeply invested in what individual nominations MEAN -- and for the record, I'm not dismissing anyone's frustration that female filmmakers historically haven't been given the kinds of opportunities that lead enough of them to be able to make a Roma -- but that attitude in turn almost makes looking at the nominations kind of a Rorschach test. Responses to the Director list can vary from "how awesome, two foreign language nominees!" to "nice, a Latino and an African-American!" to "ugh, no women!" to "what do the directors have against money-makers?" without even discussing any of the actual work, nominated or otherwise.
As Mister Tee says, I'm not sure there is going to be a return to an era of more consensus, partly because movies themselves are being increasingly sorted into such disparate piles -- there's huge blockbusters and there's tiny indies and there's (increasingly few) middle-of-the-road mainstream entertainments for adults. (And as we've seen this year, it doesn't really much matter how GOOD the entries in that last group are -- just existing is enough to get them into the awards discussion.) And so, organizations that are seeking to honor the best in cinema are more likely to draw from across this wide chasm, particularly as the movies that used to be Oscar's sweet spot just become tv series now. But, as you suggest as well, I'm not sure how the Oscars don't suffer in the minds of many as a result -- for instance, if Green Book is named Best Picture, there's going to be an entire swath of viewers outraged that such a retro, offensive-to-many picture was named the year's best, but in a similar manner, if Roma is the winner, there's likely an equally large group of people who are going to feel alienated by a ceremony celebrating a Mexican art film. (And in both cases, a decent chunk of viewers who feel like Black Panther was clearly the cultural filmgoing event of the year -- in much the same way Titanic and The Return of the King were in years past -- are going to feel slighted by that film not going home with the top prize). It's true that people have always griped about Oscar's choices, but I'm not sure the races between, say, The King's Speech vs. The Social Network or The Aviator vs. Million Dollar Baby ever felt like the outcome would determine the relevance of an entire cultural institution, and TO WHOM that institution would remain relevant.