Birdman, just moments ago, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Birdman, according to Box Office Mojo, made about $37 million, making it the 82nd highest-grosser of the year. That’s less money than Sex Tape, Ouija, The Nut Job, The Purge: Anarchy, Let’s Be Cops, and many others that are, from a critical perspective, hardly worth a mention. Once again, all of the year’s biggest blockbusters (American Sniper notwithstanding) were shout out entirely.
Guardians of the Galaxy, the celebrated Marvel product, was nominated for Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects. It lost in the former to The Grand Budapest Hotel, and in the latter to Interstellar. We can argue over whether or not Guardians was deserving, but I think we can all openly declare that there was not a snowball’s chance in Hades that such a film could possibly win. And why not? Because of the horrible vice of its own popularity.
The Oscars have never played populist in that way. Gigantic, effects-driven genre blockbusters – the ones that you and all of your friends actually bothered to see in theaters – hardly ever win Oscars. Oscars are reserved for films that the Academy and studios feel carry some emotional heft. Some sort of esteem. Meanwhile a perfectly slick exploitation movie is left by the wayside. It could be argued that the lightweight adventure films are more – thematically and emotionally – trifling than their “serious” prestige-picture counterparts, but I would argue that films like The Guest, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Only Lovers Left Alive, Edge of Tomorrow, and John Wick are all – even objectively speaking – better films than The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything. Or even arguably Birdman.
One of the first lessons you have to teach yourself as a professional critic is to judge every film based on what you think its intentions must have been. Any and all star ratings are (or at least should be) relative, and not absolute. This means that films are not – perhaps confusingly for the people who care about Metacritic scores – a serious gauge for comparison.
So if a film like Guardians of the Galaxy or The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I, or The LEGO Movie, or even something like Gone Girl aims to deliver comparatively immature exploitation material, but provides said immature material rather perfectly, how do you judge? The Guest is the perfect exploitation film. It hits the exact correct tone, winking when it needs to, sleazing when it needs to, and giving us hindbrain-stroking violence when it needs to. It is a perfect exploitation movie. By comparison, The Imitation Game is highly imperfect. It’s story is told awkwardly, its structure is not tight by any stretch, and its themes become muddled between sexuality and war. The Guest is a better film.
But it’s not nominated for Academy Awards because, well, it’s just the not the right kind of movie.
Check Out: Nine Best Picture Winners that Time Forgot
The Academy is aggressively middlebrow. They never choose challenging or obscure art movies as their Best Picture, usually skewing toward actorly biopics, historical films, and movies about movies. Best Picture winners are typically predictable melodramas, the types of capital-I-important stories that appeal gently to people your parents’ and grandparents’ ages. The Best Picture winners are never the big hits of the year anymore, nor are they usually critical favorites. Indeed, Birdman is a film that is sneakily anti-blockbuster, claiming (perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly) that big action movies aren’t as worthy as other pursuits.
Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the biggest hits of the year, and, according to many of my peers (including my 11-year-old nephew) one of the best films of all time. The masses adored the subtle infusion of small bits of naughty punk into the ultra-slick Marvel movie universe. Guardians wasn’t #1 on any critics’ lists, but it was #7 on quite a few. Guardians was popular enough to break its way through the wall of pseudo-prestige built around the Academy Awards to get a mere two nominations, albeit both in tech categories. It lost both.
Why does the Academy so aggressively ignore the films that large numbers of people love? Blockbusters are not always the best of films – indeed a lot of them can be pretty awful – but many of them do hit the mark exquisitely. They aim to master a certain kind of genre story and can often make them rather perfectly.
And in a way, that’s a greater achievement than making a mediocre film about important subject matter. True, we may not be taking any important life lessons or earnest comments on history away from blockbuster exploitation movies, but we can take away some awesome, often sublime entertainment.
In 1981, Chariots of Fire won the Oscar for Best Picture. Chariots of Fire is nearly forgotten by the few who have seen it. Raiders of the Lost Ark was also nominated for Best Picture that year, and that is, in this humble critics’ opinion, a better, more entertaining, much more important movie. It’s not deep – indeed it’s almost aggressively shallow – but it’s slick and memorable and great. Pulp entertainment at its finest.
It’s time for the Academy to stop pooh-poohing pulp material just because of its pedigree, and begin to acknowledge the impact, the filmmaking, and the very things that the masses are reacting to: bold entertainment value. Maybe then they’d start to turn away from genuinely middlebrow movies masquerading as prestige pictures, and award genuinely middlebrow movies that are happy to be middlebrow, but are in their own way perfect.
Content does not dictate quality. The Academy may never learn this, but we can hope.