What’s not here is the visionary masterpiece that offsets a righteous disaster like “Chicago 7.” The nominees list is missing the “culture” movie, the adventurous people’s hit. The frequent lack of one has long been such a thorn in the academy’s side that in 2018 it briefly flirted with tacking on a popular film category.
Expanding the best picture field, in 2009, from five movies to as many as 10, was supposed to lure more viewers to the broadcast and achieve a blend of the safe, the lucrative and the idiosyncratic. But the industry knew it was more profitable to increase production on movies that would dominate the global box office but that they probably didn’t even like, while all but abandoning the creation of those star-delivery mechanisms, the very ones that used to wind up at the Academy Awards.
You’ll still sometimes get a good mix. Last year’s class had a little of everything; and the movie that won, Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” was a class comedy that culminated in an attempted massacre. But that sort of mix feels endangered. What mid-tier, adult-contemporary movies we do get don’t arrive until the latter part of the year or early the following one. And because these movies — “American Hustle,” “Marriage Story” or “1917,” say; or, lord help me, “Green Book” — don’t open in February or April or even September anymore, they form a kind of accidental genre: the Oscar movie. Sometimes, it feels like that tail is now wagging the dog, that movies are being bred perhaps more for the academy’s pleasure than for ours.
Whatever devil’s bargain Hollywood struck to own the planet is evident every Oscar season after the broadcast’s numbers are published. The thousands of people who choose Oscar winners also make our movies. And they must know that a browning of the nominees is only a partial solution. The culture is moving on, not from the movies but from the steadily self-flagellating salutes to them.
Average moviegoers don’t get to make hits of “Oscar movies” until that’s indeed what they already are. We didn’t get a people’s movie this year. We couldn’t, obviously. The movies couldn’t bring audiences together, to produce a phenomenon like “Gravity,” a Cuarón movie alive with action, plot and beauty and a best picture nominee in 2014 (Cuarón won for best director); a movie that, according to The Wall Street Journal, united “young and old, men and women, art-movie fans, sci-fi geeks and evangelical Christian reviewers.” The movie industry had begun to turn its back on movie culture before the pandemic. For years, it’s been confusing the audience with fans. The movies need — or used to need — curious customers who don’t know what they want until they see it, until a movie we didn’t know we’d been waiting for finds us. That convergence is how “culture” happens.