In a move that feels roughly equivalent to admitting Rodney Dangerfield to the stodgy golf club in Caddyshack, the Oscars, by way of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, are going to let loose and show some ankle with a new “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” category.
If you’re an Academy nerd, old-timer or one of the millions upon millions of people who have stopped tuning in — last year’s ceremony was the lowest rated, ever — this is pretty big news.
After The Dark Knight was snubbed in ’08/’09 the Academy took the move to broaden their Best Picture category to up to ten nominees — but what felt exciting in concept quickly became irrelevant in practice. District 9 or the darling indie of the moment were never actually going to win, these were like pity invites to a party. Once that reality set in eyeballs, justifiably, left. No sense sitting through a three-hour-plus broadcast to see a 45 second clip of a movie you like, that won’t win.
So now, the Academy, in addition to guaranteeing a three-hour broadcast (the minutiae of that decision and implementation thereof a little too yawn inducing for our purposes) adds the “Popular Film” category, which will guarantee that a movie people have actually seen and loved will win an Academy Award outside of Sound Mixing.
This is a bit revolutionary for such a proud institution. Historically will the “Popular Film” winners carry the same clout as Best Picture winners? Or will the award take on the same placating, also-ran tenor of the expanded Best Picture nominee effort? Alternatively, will films that have every right to be nominated for Best Picture lose their shot by falling into the Popular Film category? What saves the Academy the embarrassment of having to nominate Avatar for Best Picture also risks the downgrading of worthy greats like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark — even if they didn’t win the big prize.
We won’t know the answer to a lot of these questions until the Academy reveals the eligibility requirements for the category, and actually crowns a winner. Assuming, however, that the category takes the shape of most with five nominees here’s what the 91st Oscar telecast on Feb. 24th, 2019 – and the first with this category – is likely to look like:
The Nominees for Achievement in Popular Film:
Mary Poppins Returns
The iconic character’s grand return to the big screen won’t reach the heights of the original – itself garnering nominees for Best Picture AND a win for Julie Andrews – but Emily Blunt’s sure to be charming performance, Lin Manuel-Miranda’s presence, and a crowd pleasing set of songs, set-pieces and box office will guarantee a holiday for Mary.
A Quiet Place
If John Krasinki’s stunning and surprising breakout hit is deemed too slight for a Best Picture nomination proper, it will most certainly have a great chance in this category. For it’s art, invention and the way it captured audiences and maybe even, by extension, our stressed zeitgeist, this horror thriller (a famously overlooked genre as it is) will be a shoo-in for the new category. And look there, it’s Emily Blunt again! But welcome.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
If Fallout was a silent film it would probably still, and should be, nominated in this category. As a technical achievement in the craft it’s staggering and as an audience entertainment few thrill machines have ever been better calibrated, even in this already towering franchise. You don’t make a “Best Amusement Park Rides” category and then only nominate carousels and tea cups. Also, Cruise once worked with Blunt in the fantastic and underrate Edge of Tomorrow! Okay, I’ll drop the Blunt thing. (Shameless Self-Promotion Alert: The Nerdbot review of Fallout is available here.)
Avengers: Infinity War
Marvel’s own Lord of the Rings will somewhat controversially get a nod as Marvel will find itself with two noms in the category, and Disney with three overall. But let’s be honest — Aquaman is going to take a slot away away from Thanos? Doubtful. Even before you count the cavalcade of heroes who attempted to take away his terrible gauntlet in a dizzying, and nigh-impossible to mount, adventure. The fact that it pushed 700 million domestic after the biggest opening of all time and counts as a capper on a decade-long run of Hollywood legend will certainly help.
And The Winner Is… Black Panther!
The first ever “Popcorn Oscar” (as the Academy is hoping to nickname it) will go to Disney and Marvel — but not for their biggest feat, just their most unexpected one. Black Panther captured the culture writ-large and others underrepresented to inspire not just a thousand think-pieces but audiences of all ages and backgrounds in ways that were not just unfathomably popular, but important. That means the Oscar’s can have their cake — giving a nod to the nerds and general audiences — and eat it too, by still being important – politically, culturally, artistically. The fact that Panther will be the highest grossing movie of the year will only strengthen T’Challa’s case — not that strength was anything the warrior king was short of. And to watch Ryan Coogler and hopefully his proud and badass cast take the stage to take the award will be a great reward indeed. …Of course, the controversy-ready downside will be if Black Panther winning here is a back-of-the-bus-ing it from the Best Picture category itself. That will most certainly be a debate for another day.
But, on the whole and IM(humble)O, it’s a bit of a damn shame that this category didn’t show up sooner. The phrase “Academy Award Winner” Back To The Future, The Force Awakens, Inception or Jurassic Park has a nice ring to it. To say nothing of last year’s would-be winner, Get Out. A blockbuster no one ever forgets and that inspires for generations is every bit as deserving, and even more so, than the prestige picture that no one even remembers.
Tune in next year to see if the Academy’s gambit pays off, and for conjecture to turn to history. Who do you think should take home the new top prize?