But looking over the nominations for the 87th Academy Awards that were announced yesterday morning, it’s hard not to notice that this leopard has changed its spots. Just about every category is dominated by films that are heady and arty, idiosyncratic and “small”—movies that have been trumpeted by critics and, in a number of cases, haven’t connected at all at the box office, even given the lowered-bar expectations of the indie world. When I first starting watching the Oscars, in the late ’70s and ’80s, they were, in general, taken less seriously than they are now, and that’s because the issue of what qualified any given film to be an “Oscar movie” was so obviously influenced by commercial considerations. By and large, the Best Picture winners had to be crowd-pleasers, and this wasn’t just a crass issue of money. Hollywood has always been in the business of making popular entertainment; that’s what defines it. If a movie wasn’t popular, according to the logic of the Oscars, then it wasn’t living up to the dream of what Hollywood represented, and therefore it didn’t stand a chance of winning.
But that now seems a long time ago. Mega-budget blockbusters, sequels and franchises, the popcorn spectacles that dominate America’s (and, indeed, the world’s) moviegoing consciousness: These films aren’t even considered when it comes to the Academy Awards. The choice of the final film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as Best Picture of 2003 was supposed to help lift fantasy entertainment out of the Oscar ghetto, but the opposite happened. Today, it’s not even allowed in the room.
Instead, the Best Picture nominations this year look like they could be the nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards—and, in fact, they probably will be. They include The Grand Budapest Hotel, a delirious Middle European period chase caper that’s the first Wes Anderson film I’ve ever loved—though it’s still every fetishistically stylized inch a Wes Anderson movie; Birdman, the soaringly offbeat tale of a washed-up Hollywood actor struggling to reinvent himself as a serious theater artist—a movie that’s been greeted with so much rapture (and rightly so) for its bravura filmmaking and for Michael Keaton’s comeback-kid-as-shaggy-psychodrama performance that it comes as a slight shock to realize that the film has made only $26 million (that’s $13 million less than Taken 3 made in a weekend); Whiplash, the smashingly artful and adventurous Sundance Grand Prize Winner about a young jazz drummer and the big-band martinet who makes his life hell (a movie that, in three months, has made just $6 million); The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, two quirky British biopics about quirky math geniuses; and, of course, Boyhood, the Richard Linklater watch-a-real-live-actor-come-of-age! experiment, filmed over 12 years, which, if it wins Best Picture (as almost everyone, including me, thinks it will), will surely be the most unusual Best Picture winner in history.
There are, admittedly, two more nominees right out of the classic populist Oscar playbook. Yet they feel more than ever like strays, like borderline irrelevant gestures. Selma, the Martin King Luther King, Jr. biopic, was thinly represented in the other nominations, with the notable omission of a nod for lead actor David Oyelowo; it feels to me like the film, which is urgent and powerful, was grievously wounded by the controversy over its portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson. (When it opened last weekend, it performed modestly at best.) Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, which opens wide today, is an outrageously jingoistic Iraq War drama—the hero’s only traumatic stress is that he doesn’t get to kill enough enemies—that has the makings of a real red-meat hit. It seems to have been nominated mostly because Eastwood, at this point, is the closest thing among the nominees to being a Martin Scorsese, a fervently worshipped auteur who has earned himself a permanent chair in the Oscar club. And, once again, the film’s nominations weren’t spread very wide.
The Oscars, to be sure, are still Hollywood’s ultimate advertisement for itself. What has shifted is the makeup of the Academy, and also the thing that Academy voters now want to feel like they’re selling. Oscar analysis used to be rife with descriptions of how the tastes of stodgy “older” voters—the kind who still had links to the studio system—would influence the outcome, and how they wouldn’t vote for anything challenging. But that voting bloc is now smaller than it was, and what’s gradually risen to take its place is a major swath of Academy members who belong to Gen X. These voters, to a large degree, couldn’t care less about celebrating “popular” engagement with a soupçon of official “quality.” What Gen X has historically valued, in a word, is cred. X-ers like to vaunt the daring and the outlying, the audacious and the indie—which sounds great, and perhaps is, though one can’t help but notice the vast disjunction between what an “Oscar movie” is becoming and the films that Hollywood now spends 90 percent of its time making. Against all odds, the Oscars have become a boutique event. They’ve become cool.
How did all this start? It built slowly during the Harvey Weinstein era (remember the 1996 Oscars, when the nominees, in what seemed like a sudden indie takeover, included Fargo, The English Patient, and Shine?), but I would say that it really kicked in the year that The Hurt Locker won Best Picture. In 2008, the Kathryn Bigelow Iraq drama was as acclaimed as any Vietnam War film—but unlike The Deer Hunter, Platoon, or Apocalypse Now, it was seen in theaters by almost no one (total gross: $17 million), and without making it sound like that’s any mark of dishonor, the point is that no Best Picture winner, ever, had performed so meagerly. A precedent was set: The Best Picture winner no longer needed to be a winner at the box office. (Surely Samuel Goldwyn was turning over in his grave.) Another mark in the road came the year of Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), the strangest movie ever to receive a Best Picture nomination. It was a scrappy monosyllabic magical-realist avant anthro-fable, and it never had a chance of winning, but the fact that it was up on the slate at all was a major sign that the Oscars they were a-changin’. All of which sets the stage for the triumph of Boyhood.
What would the Oscars look like this year if the same films had been released but the passions and prejudices of Academy voters had come from 20 years ago? I suspect that we’d see nominations across the board for two popular and largely acclaimed year-end hits: Unbroken, the Angelina Jolie-directed tale of a soldier’s relentless survival during World War II, and Into the Woods, a Stephen Sondheim fantasia that demonstrates the boundless audience appetite for musicals. (I suspect it’s not an appetite for Bruno Bettelheim.) Gone Girl, the zeitgeist he said/she said thriller of the fall (a film highly regarded by most critics), would almost surely have made it into the center ring. I also wonder if Foxcatcher, a darkly gripping true-crime drama of sports and murder (it was number two on my 10 Best list), would have fared as well as it did: The film received five nominations, including pivotal ones for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, yet for a movie so celebrated, it has barely found an audience, and in the old Oscar universe it would likely have been “snubbed” for that anti-populist sin.
As someone who’s been waving the banner for independent film for more than 25 years, I should, in theory, be cheered by the new, cool Academy Awards. Yet I admit that I can’t help but survey them with a certain cynicism. There shouldn’t be a formula for awarding great movies—neither a commercial formula nor an anti-commercial formula. The way the Oscars work now, if you said something like, “Gee, why didn’t they nominate Guardians of the Galaxy?” you’d be laughed out of the conversation. But, in fact, Guardians of the Galaxy was my fifth favorite film of the year. I think it’s superior to every current Best Picture nominee except for two: The Grand Budapest Hotel and Selma. (Yes, I ranked it higher than Boyhood, which for me was number six.) I don’t know if the Oscars are doing themselves that much of a favor by pretending that the pop movies Hollywood makes eleven months out of the year are always inferior to the prestige fare that’s now automatically nominated. Openness to art is great, but when it comes to awarding movies, it’s not nearly as valuable as open-mindedness.