Thoughts on the Oscars’ “Popular Film” Category

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The Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars, are an annual set of televised awards given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Each year, the esteemed voters of the Academy gather together a host of important Hollywood contributors in an event dedicated to recognizing the best in cinematic achievement. These awards include “Best Actor in a Major Motion Picture”, “Best Actress in a Major Motion Picture”, “Best Director”, “Best Cinematography”, Best Original and Adapted Screenplay, and of course, the coveted “Best Picture” award. To win an Academy Award is considered a prestigious honor that few in the film industry will ever have the opportunity to receive…or so it was thought. This week, the Academy announced that they would be adding “a brand new category for outstanding achievement in popular film” which has been dubbed the “Popular Film Category”. The official details as to the criteria for this category have yet to be announced. What is certain, however, is that this is a completely moronic idea that is insulting towards the majority of films.

I first saw this news on an Instagram post. My initial reaction was that this must be a meme poking fun at the Oscars, but then I noticed that the post was published by none other than Rotten Tomatoes. This prompted me to check the official statement by the Academy to confirm that this was a legitimate motion by them. Upon learning this, I went nearly blind with fury. The idea of a popular film category is terrible for a few reasons, but before I dig into that, I need to give a little context about the current state of the Academy Awards.

In 1992, the Disney animated film, Beauty and the Beast became the first ever animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture. The significance of its nomination was rooted in the fact that animated films had long been considered unsophisticated entertainment for kids. By earning the nomination, Beauty and the Beast showed the world that an animated movie could have the grace and subtlety in its storytelling to be recognized alongside other live-action drama films. Furthermore, it opened the door for other animated features in the future to be recognized. However, in 2001, the Academy decided to create a category for Best Animated Feature. From that point on, any critically acclaimed animated films would go into that category. Now, it is true that UP (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010) received Best Picture nominations after the new animated category, but I’ll discuss that more in a moment.

The real historic and groundbreaking moment in the film industry took place in 2004 when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) was nominated for and won 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture. It was the first time that a fantasy film had ever won Best Picture and the first time that a true genre film outside of drama and musical had won. This move showed that no matter what kind of film was made, as long as it was dedicated to the craft of filmmaking, it could be recognized for being the best among all films. Then, the moment that changed the film industry forever, making it what it is today; The Dark Knight (2008), Christopher Nolan’s critical and commercial hit masterpiece, was snubbed at the 2009 Academy Awards by not being nominated for Best Picture. As a response to the massive backlash for this decision, the Academy decided to expand its Best Picture category from five films to ten. This allowed for more films to be recognized in the category and is the major reason as to why Toy Story and Up were nominated as animated films. There is still debate as to whether this was a good decision since it gives more films the opportunity to be recognized but may also lead to the Academy recognizing more of the conventional drama films that fit their criteria even though they don’t deserve the nomination. Regardless, The Dark Knight’s impact paved the way for a growing superhero genre that has, for the most part, avoided any prestige from the Academy.

Still, the push for recognition from genre films increased in 2016 and 2017, with some success. Logan (2017), the emotional homage to Western films featuring a grizzled Wolverine, was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2018 Oscars. Get Out (2017), a popular horror/thriller was nominated for Best Picture. Both of these films took strides towards bringing in more recognition for their respective genres. It seemed like the film industry was making progress and moving towards opening its tight circle of smaller and more obscure films…. until this latest announcement.

Now, all the work that has been going towards genre recognition will be eradicated. The Popular Film Category will essentially take whatever is a big hit, regardless of quality or cinematic achievement, and give out empty, meaningless awards to these films. Rather than having the quality of comic book films increase to where they can be recognized as Best Picture candidates, they will just be assigned to the Popular Film Category. If this Popular Film Category were around in 2004, The Lord of the Rings would not have won Best Picture, let alone been nominated. It would have simply been a “popular film”, and all of its cinematic splendor would go unrecognized in the real category. It’s almost like an award for participation. These films wouldn’t be awarded for being good, but instead, for being “popular”. What’s next? A category for Best Film Featuring Product Placement? Best Vegetable in a Movie? In fact, why have a single category at all, just break up the genres now. Best Biopic, Best Comedy, Best Supernatural Thriller. Each of these ideas is equally as ridiculous as the popular film category. Instead of adding legitimate categories that many people have been asking for such as Best Stunt Coordination or Best Voice Acting Performance, we get this. The only explanation for this, outside of sheer stupidity, is that this is an attempt to increase viewership for the awards show by having more popular films feature.

Hopefully, the amount of backlash this receives will change the Academy’s mind, and from the looks of it, there does seem to be a lot of backlash. Just check the comments in the Rotten Tomatoes post or read an article about it. Industry disapproval has spread with actor Rob Lowe and director Adam McKay (The Big Short) being some of the many vocal opponents. This may sound one-dimensional, but as it stands, this move by the Academy feels like a last ditch effort from a bunch of tight-lipped arthouse film snobs to boost viewership while keeping only a neatly-defined criterion of film designated for any true recognition.

 

MiniBlog: Good Character or Good Actor?

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One of the interesting aspects of film that I’ve noticed recently is that although good writing and good acting are two very different things, it is possible for good acting to overshadow good writing. Sometimes I’ll watch a movie and think to myself, were the characters good or was the acting just good enough to make the characters seem good? There are a few examples of this happening, the most recent being Cate Blanchett in Thor: Ragnorak. In the movie, Blanchett plays the main villain Hela, Thor’s evil older sister. Though Hela has been regarded as one of the more deliciously evil Marvel villains, when you really think about the development of the character, Hela falls flat as a compelling villain. Very little is established about the importance of her familial relationship to Thor, yes she does bring up the subject every now and then, but at the end of the day, she’s just another bad guy for Thor to defeat. There’s no bargaining, no internal conflict, Thor isn’t affected in any way by their relationship as siblings. She’s also given very little background and is simply depicted as the evil sister that likes war and wants to conquer things. What makes the role compelling in any way is Blanchett’s performance. She portrays Hela as a war monger that delights in the death and destruction that she leaves in her wake. If her character isn’t well developed, it is at least a joy to watch, and that may lead people to believe that it makes her a good villain. If the actor on the screen portraying the character is compelling, it doesn’t automatically make the character compelling though it may seem that way.

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Some other examples lie in many Christopher Nolan movies. Nolan, being a very big picture, narrative-driven, overarching story and plot kind of filmmaker, doesn’t spend too much time developing his characters. The story around the main characters often propels them towards much more interesting character moments. In films like Interstellar and Inception, the characters themselves are often simplistic and understated. In fact, both Interstellar and Inception deal with a single dad trying to pull off a near-impossible mission and get back to their kids. What makes us connect with Nolan’s characters are the actors that he hires to play them. In Inception, Cobb may not be as interesting a character if it weren’t for powerhouse actor Leonardo DiCaprio playing him. The philosophical lines and speeches spouted by the characters wouldn’t be as appealing if it weren’t Gary Oldman or Morgan Freeman executing them with pure eloquence. Now, not to say that Nolan or his screenwriters write bad dialogue or characters, they simply do not develop them as strongly as say Martin Scorsese’s The Departed or Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. Take a look at these films again and really consider the depth of these characters. What do you know about them? What can you say about them in the end? I think you’ll find that the importance of the performance plays a big part in how we perceive characters, and in some cases, an underwritten character can be highlighted and improved by a great actor.

 

Star Wars: The Power of Nostalgia

I’m going to describe a movie to you, and I want you to guess which movie I’m talking about.

 

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, a small group of freedom fighters is desperately trying to run away from a tyrannical galactic regime. One of the insurgents is able to stow away vital information containing some kind of schematic inside a droid. The droid escapes and the insurgent is captured and tortured by a helmet-wearing dark overlord. The droid somehow ends up on a desert planet and encounters an opportunistic youth. The youth and the droid meet a self-interested rogue, an older mentor figure with knowledge of the force, and Chewbacca. Together, they all escape the desert planet on the Millennium Falcon and confront a giant planet-destroying superweapon/enemy base. There, the evil lord confronts the old mentor and kills him without much struggle, the giant base is blown up by X-wings, and the young protagonist is truly connected to the force for the first time.

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So was I describing the original Star Wars: A New Hope? Or Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Before you answer that, I want to give a little background:

Since the return of the Star Wars movies with the new trilogy, both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi have made record-breaking debuts, each grossing over $200 million in their opening domestic weekends. They’ve also had much critical success with both films being over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. With a sudden resurgence in Star Wars, a new generation of kids are growing up with the legends of Jedi and Sith, and old fans are once again embracing their fandom. Star Wars, is officially a success on all levels again after the divisive prequels. So how is it that Disney has managed to satisfy both hardcore old fans and new ones? The answer is…nostalgia. Nostalgia is an interesting little element of pop culture that has seeped its way into the film industry and is now a studio’s most powerful tool for making big bucks. The two highest grossing films in the past five years have been Jurassic World, and The Force Awakens, both sequels made long after their previous films. Jurassic World, harkening back to the 1993 Jurassic Park, features a bunch of dinosaurs running wild after failing to be contained in a theme park, the exact same premise as the original. The Force Awakens is about a rebel alliance which, with the help of a young Jedi, desperately fights against a powerful empire led by a mask-wearing Sith Lord, the same general premise as the original Star Wars trilogy. If you take into account other resurgent franchises in Hollywood such as Mad Max, Predator, Alien, Terminator, live-action Disney remakes of animated classics, you’ll see that audiences are craving their nostalgic franchises and studios are happy to oblige. So it is understandable why the Star Wars franchise is repeating itself.

Now I’m not saying that The Force Awakens is a carbon copy of the original Star Wars movie, nor am I saying that it is a bad film. I actually enjoy The Force Awakens, it’s an entertaining and well-directed flick. However, The Force Awakens is a narratively unoriginal film with some original aspects scattered through it. The shining trait of uniqueness is the characters of Rey, Poe, Fin, and especially Kylo Ren. These characters are diverse and dynamic. Even though Rey can be a bit uninteresting and Fin is often played too much as comic relief, they feel fresh and new to the Star Wars story. Kylo Ren is particularly compelling as a conflicted villain that is constantly getting things wrong, constantly one step behind the superior heroes.

But even after watching The Last Jedi, which I also liked, it still felt like the exact same story. No matter how much they change up the characters or even the plot itself, they are still limited within the confines of the basic outline for the original trilogy. You can even tie the elements of the new trilogy to their old trilogy counterparts. The Rebels are now the Resistance, the Empire is now the First Order, the Death Star is now Star Killer Base, Boba Fett is now Captain Phasma, the Battle of Hoth is now that weird sequence on the mining planet with the ATAT walkers in the Last Jedi. There is no going back on these similarities, the narrative is fundamentally familiar. Disney has decided to take the Star Wars franchise in a recognizable direction instead of taking it to bold new places. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing for fans looking to enjoy the same old Star Wars that they used to know, it’s also not bad for new fans who can get into the new trilogy without having to find faults in the similarities. However, as a fan of originality and creativity in film, it is a missed opportunity. What could have been a brand new story that explores different elements of George Lucas’s vast universe is now basically something you’ve seen before. The prequels, for all their faults, presented fans with a new timeline in the Star Wars universe. They brought the Clone Wars and the Jedi Order and exciting new worlds like Mustafar, Geonosis, Felucia, and Utapa. George Lucas’s prequel universe was unique and creative, breaching a realm of science fiction that hadn’t been seen before despite the fact that the movies, for the most part, had terrible dialogue and characters.

The new films are competently made and directed but aside from the appeal of the main characters, excellent visuals, eye-popping action, and a masterful film score by John Williams, it’s the same story. Because of this, Star Wars is now being cinematically defined to this narrative, the story of the outnumbered rebels holding on to hope and believing in the force (by the way it makes little sense to me that a defeated empire is somehow able to piece itself back together in 30 years, reassert its dominance, and become even more powerful than before, while at the same time the victorious rebels would be incompetent enough to be reduced to a handful of scattered forces). Many believe that this narrative is what Star Wars should be defined as. The comforting caress of nostalgia still gives them that same exciting Star Wars feeling when they watch the new movies, and that is perfectly fine. But for me, it is frustrating to see the same ideas repeated. It may be satisfying enough for everyone else, but I will always lament over what could have been if the franchise had decided to continue the story rather than restructure and rebrand the story.