This is the most populist Oscars in a long time

A four-across panel of faces of four lead performers.
Austin Butler in Elvis, Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick, Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All At Once, and Sigourney Weaver in Avatar: The Way of Water. All four movies were massive hits, and all are nominated for multiple Oscars, including Best Picture. | Warner Bros./Paramount Pictures/A24/20th Century Studios

So why doesn’t it feel like it?

In a recent Saturday Night Live sketch, Bowen Yang hosts a cheesy game show called “The Big Hollywood Quiz.” Tonight’s contestants are a film professor (Pedro Pascal), an entertainment writer (Ego Nwodim), and a Hollywood history podcaster (Chloe Fineman). The contestants start out well, answering questions about 1950’s All About Eve and the 1983 final episode of M.A.S.H., the most-watched TV finale ever aired. Then they get to the 2020s.

“This film, written and directed by Sarah Polley, has been nominated for Best Picture this year,” Yang announces. He’s greeted by the contestants’ visible befuddlement. “I’ll give you a hint,” he continues. “It has an all-female cast, featuring Oscar winner Frances McDormand.”

After some misses, the contestants ask for a hint. “It’s Women Talking,” Yang replies.

“Be more specific,” Pascal says, confusion in his eyes.

The crew doesn’t fare any better with a question about Andrea Riseborough’s controversial Best Actress nomination for her work in To Leslie, which Yang tells them they really should watch “because so far, it’s made $27,300.” When Fineman notes that’s not much for opening weekend, Yang deadpans, “It’s been out for four months.”

At this point, everyone is frustrated. “Where did all the big, popular movies go?” Pascal plaintively asks.

“Oh, they’re still here,” Yang replies. “They’re just in your phone, and you can watch them on the toilet!”

It’s an extremely funny sketch, thanks to impeccable comic timing, but if it’s meant to skewer the Oscars, it’s a tad disingenuous for 2023. This year’s slate of Best Picture nominees is in fact unusually populist. And while populist and popular aren’t synonymous, these nominees include a bunch of films that were both. If you add all their box office grosses together — just domestic, not counting what they’re taking in abroad — they grossed over $1.5 billion by the end of 2022, the biggest haul in over a decade. Top Gun: Maverick alone counts for nearly half of that, mostly because it came out way back in May 2022 and stayed in theaters through the end of the year.

But Tom Cruise wasn’t pulling all the weight here. In the two weeks between its release and the end of the year, Avatar: The Way of Water made a whopping $400 million domestically, while Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis made $150 million at home, despite only staying in theaters for a few months. And then there’s Everything Everywhere All At Once, the little indie that could, which pulled in an astounding $68 million domestically on a small budget, mostly thanks to phenomenal word of mouth.

It’s true that the other six films nominated in the category — The Banshees of Inisherin, Women Talking, Triangle of Sadness, Tar, The Fabelmans, and All Quiet on the Western Front — fit more into the “critically acclaimed art house film” category, with far lower grosses at the box office (which, even in the streaming age, is still the only reliable metric we really have to measure popularity).

But even then, their popular cred is striking. One is a personal project directed by arguably the most famous director in Hollywood, father of the populist blockbuster Steven Spielberg. Three others star some of the biggest actors in the business, like Colin Farrell, Frances McDormand, and Cate Blanchett. Triangle of Sadness won the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes and has a medium-sized role for Woody Harrelson, whose career isn’t exactly esoteric. And All Quiet on the Western Front is an adaptation of a classic novel that was previously adapted into one of the earliest Oscar winners — the first to win both Best Director and “Outstanding Production,” the 1930 equivalent of Best Picture. These movies may not be big moneymakers — they’re not exactly “popular” — but they’re far from obscure.

So why is the big joke that nobody knows any Oscar movies anymore? There are a lot of ways to explain it: It’s true that compared to, say, 2003 — where the nominees included The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Hours, Gangs of New York, The Pianist, and Chicago, the lowest grossing of which made eight times what Women Talking has so far — the trend in Oscar nominees has been toward smaller, more obscure films. (Had you heard of last year’s winner, CODA, before the nominations came out? If your answer is “yes,” you’re probably a film critic.) But it could be that the trend toward obscurity is more of a lengthy blip than a rule.

I’ve also had conversations in which people swear up and down that none of the Oscar nominees have been watchable in their major metropolitan hometown (they certainly have, and they’re almost all streaming as well) — an explanation for why the list seems so obscure to them. Surely, the feeling goes, if I haven’t heard of the movie, then it has to be obscure.

This is an interesting problem for me, a film critic, to think about. I watch more movies in a year than some people watch in a lifetime, and hear about hundreds more. The situation is different for most ordinary folks. In the SNL sketch, Yang asks Pascal to “name three movies from the past five years.” Stunned by the challenge, Pascal ventures, “Oh, wow. Three? Okay.” He contemplates, and comes up with Top Gun. Then he tries another: “The Hangover?

“That was 20 years ago,” Yang says.

“The Night … Man,” Pascal says.

“Sounds like you’re just saying words. Come on, all you need is one,” Yang coaxes. “Can’t you just name one more movie?”

“Nope,” Pascal says, resigned.

“That’s right!” Yang crows, jubilantly. “Nope! You won the speed round!”

I laughed at the sketch and then thought about it, because while it’s exaggerated, it’s not off-base. Everyone knows Jurassic Park and Independence Day and The Dark Knight, but even I have to Google to remember what movies came out last year. You could explain that away with some hand-waving about the pandemic, and by noting that there is just so much more stuff than there used to be; it’s harder to keep track. But that doesn’t quite explain the time-space compression sensation, the fact that if I say Mamma Mia! or Wendy and Lucy came out 15 years ago, it feels like chronology itself has warped.

The answer, I think, is in Yang’s quip about the movies being “in your phone.” Not so much the smallness, or the watching on the toilet, but the context collapse that happens when it feels like every movie or TV show from every time and place is all being delivered in exactly the same format at exactly the same time. The abundance of options and possibilities tend to strip the context and intentionality away from the viewing experience; you didn’t have to talk to your friends about what movie you wanted to see, buy a ticket, and create an experience out of it. Now it all just flows toward you, content in an endless stream.

But it can be hard to focus on any single thing in that deluge, and that raises another issue. Back in my day (takes drag on cigarette), to find out what movies were out, we had to … look for that information. In the brief period before social media took over the world, you had to call a phone number or look up movie showtimes in some rudimentary search engine or, before that, your local newspaper. To even know what newly released movie you wanted to see, you depended on the half-dozen trailers that ran before your feature presentation, or on TV commercials during your Thursday evening must-see TV time, or you actually picked up the paper and read some reviews. The closest experience to today’s streaming releases we had were to decide you wanted to “see a movie” that night, and then either drive to Blockbuster and browse the shelves, or trundle on down to the mall and buy a ticket for what was about to start. In other words, there was some proactivity involved — even if you were being sort of passive about it.

Today, though, we’ve come to believe that if we haven’t heard about something, then it doesn’t exist. “Nobody is talking about this!” we proclaim on Twitter, forgetting that our feeds are built around what algorithm creators think we want to see and, by implication, what they can market to us.

The same thing happens with films, and no wonder; sometimes it seems like Netflix is trying to hide its new releases. But what I suspect is that we’ve become so accustomed to passively finding out what’s going on because it’s pushed at us by our algorithms — flooded with a context-free neverending firehose of memes and news headlines and rants and thoughtful critiques and spam and, yes, ads for movies — that we’ve lost the art of what we once called “looking it up.” (It doesn’t help that the trailers are mostly bad.)

It’s okay if you haven’t seen most of the Oscar nominees, or even heard of them. In 2023, that probably means you live a normal, well-balanced life, one full of going outside to toss around a softball and maybe, I don’t know, reading books and whatever normal people do. But if you find yourself wondering why you can’t name three movies that came out in the past five years, remember, it’s not just the movies’ fault — and it’s a fixable problem, with a little effort.

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