It may have been 10 years ago, but the wounds inflicted upon us all at the hands of the 2009 Academy Awards have yet to heal. Said wounds are, of course, a result of Christopher Nolan’s game-changing, year-defining, oft-imitated-but-never-replicated film “The Dark Knight” not being nominated for Best Picture.
It seemed at the time that “The Dark Knight” fit Oscars standards in almost every discernible way, garnering eight nominations and two wins. But the film couldn’t even nab a nomination for the night’s top title. That was an honor that it lost to four dramas and a biopic, films that better fit the Academy’s markers for “prestige” pictures. Because, you know, “Frost/Nixon” was the highlight of everyone’s 2008. Why so serious, Academy?
People were irate at the snub, and the resulting uproar was enough to cause the Academy to change its rules, expanding the possible number of Best Picture nominees from five to 10. The Academy president at the time, Sidney Ganis, all but admitted that the snubbing of accomplished commercial films was the cause, saying that “I would not be telling you the truth if I said the words ‘Dark Knight’ did not come up.”
With the regime change, there would ostensibly be enough space to nominate achievements in genre filmmaking — action, horror, science fiction, comedy and, yes, comic book films — alongside the usual Oscars spread of dramas, biopics, period films, festival darlings and more dramas. Things seemed to be looking up.
And the Best Picture race did get better — but only kind of. 2009 saw science fiction film “District 9” get nominated. In 2010, horror pic “Black Swan” and box office giant “Inception” got paid their dues. We got “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Martian” in 2015, and “Get Out” in 2017.
But none of the genre films that get nominated for Best Picture ever end up actually winning the top honor, even though many of them arguably deserve it. And they’re always outnumbered in the category by the “Oscar films” that we’ve all come to expect, while other commercial marvels — think “Bridesmaids” or “It Follows” or “Logan” — continue to be ignored.
This status quo means that a film such as “Get Out” can boast a 98 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, insanely good word of mouth from audiences and journalists, awards campaign support from industry giant Universal Pictures and an original, vital voice that speaks perfectly to the year in which it was made — and still run into Academy members actively discouraging their peers from voting for it because it’s “not an Oscar film.” In other words, if your film is a commercial film, it has to reinvent its genre of choice, be constantly talked about by the press and audiences and/or have a hefty studio campaign budget standing behind it to even stand a chance at getting nominated. And then you’ll still lose to stuff such as “The Shape of Water.”
“Black Panther” fits this narrative perfectly. Beloved by critics and helmed by an already established filmmaker who had previously directed an Oscar-nominated film, it offers a fresh, unique perspective on the superhero genre that viewers love. And with Wakanda, the film builds a visually stunning, Afrofuturistic world that audiences had never seen before. In short, Ryan Coogler’s vision deserves its success for more than just the money behind it — but yeah, an awards campaign powered by the combined marketing might of Marvel and Mickey Mouse also doesn’t hurt. Those things secured “Black Panther” the nomination. But “Black Panther” is based on a comic book, so it’s considered a long shot to nab the win.
And yes, that’s frustrating. “Bohemian Rhapsody” has a measly 61 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. “Vice” has a 66 percent, and “Green Book” has a 79 percent. Rotten Tomatoes is far from the chief indicator of quality — but it does say something that these films can noticeably divide critics and still sail their way to a Best Picture nomination based on the fact that they’re tailor-made for Academy aristocrats (instead of general audiences). Who would have guessed that a feel-good period film based on a true story and two biopics in which a leading actor plays a historical figure would appeal to the Academy’s still mostly white, mostly male ranks? It’s not even that unlikely that the Academy will hand Christian Bale a trophy for donning pounds of makeup to play a politician after awarding Gary Oldman for that very thing last year. The more the Oscars don’t change, the more they stay the same.
The other four films nominated this year — “The Favourite,” “Roma,” “A Star Is Born” and “BlacKkKlansman” — are objectively good films with studios that were willing to go to bat for them during awards season. And it’s because of this that they deserve to be nominated, and it’s because of this that they’re considered “Oscar films” in the eyes of Academy voters.
But “Black Panther” has all of those qualities, and yet that film — along with other supremely crafted commercial films — somehow still doesn’t get taken as seriously.
And perhaps commercial films never will be. Or perhaps the Academy’s continuing efforts to expand its membership will translate into more genre films and experimental efforts garnering nominations in the ceremonies to come. Perhaps, best of all, “Black Panther” will win Best Picture this year, proving that well-made commercial films can win the hearts of critics, audiences and, at long last, Oscars voters alike.
Or “Bohemian Rhapsody” could win, and it’ll be 2009 all over again. Consider this your “Dark Knight” do-over, Academy. Try not to mess it up.
Contact Grace Orriss at [email protected].