The past two months have been a weird time at the movies. “Paddington 2,” a sequel made by the folks behind “Harry Potter” that centers entirely around the misadventures of an animated talking bear who has a (worrying) addiction to marmalade, became the highest-rated film of all time on Rotten Tomatoes. Similarly, the latest “Star Wars” chapter, a multi-billion-dollar enterprise of blockbuster filmmaking, was almost universally beloved by critics for its willingness to take risks, while it simultaneously faced endless backlash from fanboys who saw director Rian Johnson as the antichrist holding their beloved childhood to a flaming torch.
The rules that critics have used to define what makes a “good movie” (Hollywood! History!) with “good” actors (Meryl! In a historical drama!) and “good” directors (Spielberg! Directing a movie about history!) no longer seem to hold entirely true.
Just take a look at the Academy Award nominations for Best Picture. This list includes a socially aware horror film, a coming-of-age tale, a real-time war saga from the director of “The Dark Knight Trilogy,” a fantastical story that involves a fish-man who loves eggs, an LGBTQ+ summer romance, a pitch-black revenge comedy, a detached love affair and yes, two self-important historical dramas, one of which stars Streep and is directed by Spielberg. The only thing these movies have in common is the fact that they are all competing head to head to win Best Picture.
This collection of films is the most thematically diverse set of nominees that the Academy has announced in recent memory, yielding choices from at least seven different genres. Sure, some typical Academy stalwarts have remained, such as “The Post” or “Darkest Hour,” but these films remain outliers, already “losers” in a race that is only warming up.
Generally speaking, genres such as horror, fantasy and coming-of-age — which were previously reserved for low-budget January releases, book adaptations and Disney Channel, respectively — are now taking both critics and the public by storm. Yet this sudden upsurge in the critical appreciation of commonly scoffed-at genre films raises the question of whether the nature of filmmaking itself is changing, or if we are.
On the one hand, the Academy and Hollywood finally seem to be making small strides in terms of diverse representation and storytelling. This isn’t saying much, seeing as six out of the nine films in the Best Picture category are still directed by white men, but it’s worth noting that the three films that are not, “Get Out,” “Lady Bird” and “The Shape of Water,” are also the three often considered frontrunners in the Oscar race. Films that exist outside the typical white-male Oscar formula are finally being funded, produced and made — and they’re good. Not just “good” — as one might refer to “Argo” or “The King’s Speech” — but good.
This group of films also demonstrates the strengths of belonging to a genre by subverting the very rules set out by that genre. “Get Out” is known as one of the best horror films ever made not because it relies on ghosts and ghouls, jump scares and gore, but because it highlights the darkness and racism at the heart of the person who lives down the street from us and still has his “Hillary 2016” sign propped up on the front lawn. “Lady Bird” blew all other coming-of-age tales out of the water because it wasn’t about huge prom proposals, catfights or last-minute romantic reunions, but because it was about a group of kids getting high, microwaving leftovers and having a dance party to a Dave Matthews Band song.
These movies didn’t just turn their established genres on their heads for the sake of turning their established genres on their heads, but instead found the sincerity that exists within war, fantasy, comedy and horror. They weren’t concerned with following rules or breaking them, instead choosing to delve into the human element of a genre. Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet’s sparkling chemistry and removed wanting was always more important than actually detailing their sexual reunions, and del Toro made sure the earnestness in Sally Hawkins’ expressions was always prioritized over the adjacent Cold War shenanigans.
Del Toro ended up summarizing why this shift in filmmaking and genre-bending is so important when he told Variety that he intended to relay “a story not through the agents and the scientists, but through the janitors, the cleaning women who had to wipe the toilets, emptying the trash bins.” These are our new sci-fi heroes.
It almost doesn’t matter to me who wins the Academy Award on March 4th. The simple existence of these genre-bending films, in which a mute woman saves the day or a Black man survives to the end, is already a small victory for storytelling and representation. Next year, maybe we’ll have a big one.