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The Radicalism of the 2018 Oscars

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

From the passionate Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman to Get Out, Jordan Peele’s sci-fi-adjacent thriller about, among other things, racial paranoia, the past year has offered moviegoers lots to talk about in the way of thrilling characters, narratives, and even industry milestones.

More exactly, the 2018 Oscar nominees, together, seem to speak to shifts within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. In light of criticism that the Academy has traditionally skewed older, whiter, and more male, it has sought to diversify its membership over the past few years, in hopes of eventually expanding the kinds of people and pictures considered for the awards. Vulture recently polled 14 of the Academy’s new members and found evidence that diversifying membership has made some difference, as illustrated by the embrace of movies like LGBTQ romance Call Me by Your Name, a favorite among the Academy’s newer, younger voters.

Yet the excitement hasn’t come solely from what’s onscreen. Over at The Atlantic, David Sims wrote in January about how, for the first time in 90 years, all five nominees for Best Director also wrote their own movies, and about how we’re in the year of the auteur, “with many of the gaudy awards campaigns focused more on the people behind the camera rather than on the stars in front of it.” (In addition to Peele, think of popular creators Greta Gerwig and Guillermo del Toro, who wrote and directed nominees Lady Bird and The Shape of Water, respectively.)

And these changes matter, of course. Despite gormless arguments against placing so much stock in movies, the above sort of representation engages with and influences the world around us, frequently telegraphing whose stories belong in the pantheon of “good art.” To explore the 2018 Oscars a bit more, I recently spoke to Alissa Wilkinson, Vox’s film critic and a member of the New York Film Critics Circle. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation is below.

You and one of your colleagues recently wrote that the 2018 Oscar nominations were a pleasant surprise. What jumped out to you when you saw the list?

Many people who’ve been following the industry for a while had gotten used to the Academy picking predictable films: movies that were kind of flashy or glossy, sometimes even obvious crowd-pleasers, but that didn’t really have the high level of artistic merit you’d hoped for. I don’t want to use the word “middlebrow,” because it’s often used in a derogatory way, but those are the kinds of movies it’s traditionally gone for. So much of that simply has to do with who was in the Academy and doing all the picking. Until very recently, the median Academy voter was a white man in his 70s. That was the norm, and it brought with it certain kinds of nominations.

So looking at this year, it’s great because there are surprises—there are movies that are pretty niche, I’d say. For instance, even though it isn’t one of my favorite movies of the year, Phantom Thread got so many nominations. That’s not a film that’s really a crowd-pleaser at all. It’s pretty much an arthouse film, but people obviously responded to it.

People, including myself, are really excited about the Best Director category, mostly because it represents so many things, so many milestones, for the Academy. Except for one nominee, nobody had ever been nominated in that category before. It’s also not homogeneous, and it’s recognizing the really great work from this year. That, to me, was what was surprising.

Before this year, many people had, I think, written off the middle tier of movies—such as comic book movies that sell well internationally—and the bottom tier of low-budget movies. Yet as you said, we’ve seen a diverse crop of successful movies this year. Thoughts on what might explain this? Maybe it says something about audiences or the times we’re in?

A lot of that has to do with how well movies are marketed. I think that part of it’s also that two of the nine Best Picture nominees came out during earlier parts of the year: Get Out was a February release, and Dunkirk was a July release. And so they’ve had more space to breathe and grow and distinguish themselves from other movies. On top of that, they’ve been able to find an audience that’s into what they’re doing. If you look at the films that’ve been nominated, they really do hit very different audiences. Lady Bird is a teen coming-of-age drama. Call Me by Your Name is more of a lush LGBTQ romance. Darkest Hour is very much a historical film.

Many of this year’s movies are fairly light-hearted as well, which means that people are more likely to go see them. There isn’t much of the kind of heavy, brutal, violent fare that might’ve popped up in recent years. These are all pretty palatable to most people, even if they’re aimed at different, niche audiences. That, I’d say, has influenced how the Academy has responded to them, in addition to the fact that there’s increasing diversity within the Academy.

So while only about half of the Best Picture nominees truly reflect what’s happening politically and socially, the fact of the diversity does suggest that the Academy is working harder to be representative of different constituencies, rather than just focusing on a particular one.

People also seem to be paying more attention to the sorts of writer-directors who might be described as auteurs. Here, I’m especially thinking of Jordan Peele and Get Out, Greta Gerwig and Lady Bird. Does this trend say anything to you about the state of filmmaking?

It definitely does. A large reason for that is that voices that continue to be underrepresented in Hollywood bring a freshness to storytelling where it can go stale. Sometimes we feel like we’re getting the same stories over and over again. People notice that, but they might begin with the movie and then work their way backward, to the maker of the movie. And that’s in keeping with the long tradition of auteur theory among French and American film critics, which considers the director to be the primary driving voice behind the film. That’s certainly the case for both Get Out and Lady Bird, and in both instances they’re knockouts and much better than anyone was expecting them to be, since actors directing their own movies are usually kind of duds. 

The hope is that these sorts of movies will clear the path in the minds of “money people” who might then say, “These aren’t niche films at all. They’re not for niche audiences. They’ve made it in the marketplace.” Hollywood is still very convinced that it’s an anomaly when a film breaks out that’s not made by a white guy. That’s just the way the industry works. But there’s been an increasing number of examples of why that’s not true, though at the same time we had the recent announcement about the Game of Thrones creators getting a set of Star Wars movies to themselves. That seems like a really boring, predictable choice, so who knows.

I feel like the Oscars perennially struggle to be relevant on a broad level. Do you think that these changes will speak to audiences in a way that widens the conversation?

It’s hard to tell, because the viewership isn’t that great. But one thing I’ve noticed is that people who like movies, generally, seem to be using Oscar nominations more and more to structure what they watch. There have always been people who are purists—who have to see every Best Picture nominee—but it feels like that’s a thing people are really quite eager to do. I don’t know how many people are very interested in watching the ceremony: It’s long, it’s boring, it’s late at night. You can see the highlights on YouTube the next day, so why bother? But lots of people are engaged in the conversation about what movies are good and what movies they hope win.

This year is particularly strange in that nobody really knows what movie is going to win. It’s super up in the air, which isn’t what it was like last year. By this time last year, we knew that it was a toss-up between La La Land and Moonlight. So that’s been a point of engagement for a lot of people this year, that there’s no consensus. The nominations, in that, can feel urgent.

I have to ask: What’s going on with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? It’s wild that it’s doing so well, given that it’s also split audiences into camps.

Well, it premiered in the fall, as these things do, and a lot of critics liked it quite a bit. Others were middling on it. I’m not super high on it myself, but it has some good performances. And audiences at first really liked it, too. The audience at TIFF [the Toronto International Film Festival] gave it the People’s Choice Award, which over time has actually had a pretty strong correlation to winning Best Picture. And then it got to the broader group of viewers, who may or may not be professional critics but who often write at the intersection of politics and culture or identity and culture, and they picked up on something that is there, especially if you have a chance to think about the film before you see it. Which is that it’s really bad about how it handles race. And it’s a movie that wants to say things about race, but it completely fumbles the ball.

That’s where I think opinions split. There weren’t a lot of nuanced opinions about it in some cases, but it’s a movie that’s hot-tempered and so kind of invites sort of hot-tempered dissent or rejection. For the most part, if you look at the hottest criticisms or defenses of it, they have to do with women being fed up with injustice, which is a huge thing that happened in 2017. Also: the movie’s bad handling of police brutality against black people, and its use of basically every black character as a prop for a white character’s journey. The movie wanted to do something else, but it just never got there. And the film, in my opinion, is very much not the best film of the year. I don’t even think that it’s the best original screenplay. But people nonetheless responded to it because it’s a passionate film, so for a lot of people it grabs them and they can’t forget it.

While it’s not the best film of the year, it’s the one that embodies 2017 in many respects. So it’s the one you watched and knew that the Academy was going to respond in some way.

I had a similar reaction to Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s film.

Detroit has the benefit of being what you could call a bad face on true events. It’s something maybe not a lot of people know about. Staging it like a horror film, like an invasion film, isn’t a terrible idea, but the execution wound up being pretty wrongheaded, even as it was shocking and visceral to watch. That was never going to make it very far, though. It’s so violent.

Are there any films you’re looking forward to seeing in the year ahead?

There’s stuff coming out that seems like it will be interesting. A lot of it is sort of scattershot. A Wrinkle in Time is something I’m really intrigued by. And I’m personally pretty psyched about Ocean’s 8. One of my favorite things to watch is a really great documentary, and I’m hoping that we’ll end up with some really creative documentaries—documentaries that are unusual in form, that will try to deal with the world we’re living in right now. It takes a while for those films to get made, but we’re kind of just hitting the point when the better ones—that aren’t full of talking heads and that really encapsulate what we’re living through—will make it to the big screen.


Brandon Tensley is the assistant editor at New America.