Monday, December 21, 2015

Should "The Force Awakens" Be Nominated for Best Picture?

Scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens
It seemed inevitable, but director J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened to predictably big business. If there was a box office record, it was likely beaten by now. The reviews are overwhelming, some even calling it the best of the franchise in over 30 years. In fact, it's tied on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes with the original for highest rated. While many have likely seen it (a few times even) and have discussed it to death, there's one argument that does seem ripe for the taking: can the film get any Oscar traction? There have been hints of it, but nothing really seemed plausible until this past week when the hype matched the film. Now, it seems like anything is possible.

For longtime readers, the knowledge that I am a skeptic on blockbusters intruding the Oscars is old news. While I do love Mad Max: Fury Road, I still remain hesitant to give it any shot at even a Best Picture nomination. While I am thankfully being challenged, especially with Golden Globe nominations, I do still maintain that the idea of populous entertainment has largely been separated from The Oscars. At most, we'll get original films from established prestige directors like Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity). As much as The Academy should be about rewarding diversity, its increasing lack of profit diversity has remained problematic, as evident by this past year's largely independent Best Picture category. Things could change, but I remain skeptical.

With that in mind, I will approach the remainder of this piece with an optimism that is more curious than truthful. OK, so what if The Force Awakens does have that energy? What would it need to do to be a Best Picture contender? The reviews don't hurt. The fact that it has 94% on Rotten Tomatoes is rather impressive unto its own. However, I do think that outside of Steven Spielberg's on and off interest in them, blockbusters have been ignored because the "art" is more in the technology than the production of story, acting, and everything else. Most of all, there's a cynical nature around franchises that means anything that is a sequel is generally expected to be inferior. Among several other reasons, it's likely why The Dark Knight was unable to be nominated in 2008. It's especially odd when you consider that it was the most successful film of the year.

To give a quick look back, the highest grossing film of the years used to mean something to The Academy. Films as diverse as Kramer vs. Kramer to Titanic would show up at the Oscars while also winning box office. They were understood as being able to entertain as well as be art. Even The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King would suggest that ignoring blockbusters is a fairly new phenomenon. Among the past few winners (The Hurt Locker, The King's Speech, The Artist, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman), none could be considered the highest grossing film of that year. In fact, The Hurt Locker is the lowest grossing winner in history. While it feels good to recognize independent films, I do think it comes at a cost of ignoring bigger films worthy of praise. Is it because they're merely seen as entertainment and cannot be taken as seriously? Think about it. Why wasn't The Avengers even taken seriously as a Best Picture nominee? It hit the zeitgeist in the ways that Titanic or The Return of the King did - both critically and financially. 

Here's what I think is being ignored. The Academy expanded the category to a sliding scale of 5-10 nominees for a reason. They wanted to show the diversity in film. For the most part, that hasn't been properly used beyond the first two years (when it was a set 10). During this time, smaller movies were alongside films like Avatar and Inception: films that were iconic to those years. Meanwhile, every subsequent year hasn't given notice to the zeitgeist movies that are likely going to be held on record as being the big films of 2011-2015. Essentially, I want the Best Picture list to be a reflection of cinema per year. I look back to the 70's and 80's and wonder why these films were significant to the time. Yes, I've come to understand that politics are involved, but I also believe that there's value in covering everything. It's refreshing to know that Jaws, Star Wars, even Raiders of the Lost Ark were all Best Picture nominees. In all honesty, they're iconic, but probably wouldn't even be nominated in today's climate for being silly blockbusters.

Now, I'll discuss what defines a zeitgeist movie, and one that I feel that The Force Awakens is likely to imitate: Avatar. It was a film that was immediately met with acclaim and considered revolutionary cinema. It had to be seen on the big screen. Director James Cameron was a master at creating a new world. It was beautiful. Most of all, it kept topping the box office and its receipts eventually made it the first film to gross more than $2 billion. That's insane for 2009/2010 - prior to the price hikes and surcharges that made it easier to get to a billion dollars. While Avatar is notoriously seen now as a flash in the pan, it was a big deal at the time. How was it met? With a Best Picture nomination and a few others. It was a zeitgeist film that likely will define 2009, even if we don't recognize it now. In 2015, The Force Awakens will define the same fields - and already has with a vengeance.

The argument could be made now that it's a cross between zeitgeist and taboo. Do you reward it for defining the moment, or ignore it for being the seventh movie in a largely inferior franchise? True, Star Wars was nominated for Best Picture, but the remainders have had an uphill battle. Maybe with the expansion of younger Academy voters, the nostalgia for Star Wars will give it some edge. However, it will be interesting to see if there comes a conflict between The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road. Will the two cancel each other out, as Fury Road has dominated conversation for most of the year prior to last weekend? The only edge is that Fury Road doesn't seem likely to hold the zeitgeist in ways that Avatar did. It was merely a great action movie. The Force Awakens feels more like an Earth-shattering experience. The reviews don't hurt either.

I would love for this year's Best Picture group to be as diverse as 2009 or 2010. To me, those were arguably the best years (with the new format) for nominees simply because it had a little for everyone. Compared to 2014, there wasn't much for those that weren't "angry white men." I want to believe that we're going to be able to see a category that can welcome films like Spotlight and Joy alongside Fury Road and The Force Awakens. I still remain skeptical that this will happen, thus ensuing outrage about how out of touch The Academy is. However, I still think that The Force Awakens should have a shot simply because of its triumphant presence akin to films from the past few years that have been ignored, regardless on if it's the seventh sequel or whatever. A good film is a good film, regardless of budget or subject. Whether or not it is the best movie of the year is debatable, but its presence and reception suggest that it's at least special enough to be nominated.

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