The expansion of the Oscars’ Best Picture category in 2009, instituted after The Dark Knight failure-to-nominate debacle, was meant to boost audience interest in the awards by ensuring that art-house films would be joined on the Best Picture list by quality box-office hits. With a few exceptions, that hasn’t really happened. Instead, the enlarged Best Picture field has mostly done good by allowing unlikely small films into the mix. An Education, Winter’s Bone, The Tree of Life, Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Nebraska, Selma, Phantom Thread, The Favourite, Little Women: The Oscars were better for including all these movies, even if there was never a chance any of them would win.
But there’s a cost to expanding the field. The cost is that these days, more movies get nominated that are actually bad. In the 11 Oscar ceremonies since Best Picture was expanded, more than a dozen Actually Bad movies* have been nominated for Best Picture. Just last year, the truly dumb Joker giggled its way into the category—yuck. Compare those numbers with the preceding 20 Oscars, which with their limited-to-five Best Picture slates featured a total of only four Actually Bad movies.**
That’s why the pandemic-cursed movie year of 2020 is notable: The list of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture features zero Actually Bad movies! There are great movies and solid movies and pretty good movies and movies that sure aren’t for everyone. But none of this year’s movies are straight-up stinkers. In a year when everything went wrong for Hollywood, one thing went right. It’s quite shocking. Let’s take a look.
The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah: Good movies! You might enjoy one better than the other based on your love of historical sagas or family dramas, but they’ve both got something to recommend them.
Mank: A movie made to be injected directly into the bloodstream of Hollywood history buffs, which is a totally great reason to nominate something for Best Picture. And it’s a much better version of such a movie than previous Best Picture nominees of the same ilk.
The Trial of the Chicago 7: Fundamentally silly but thoroughly enjoyable. Deserves the nomination for Mark Rylance’s wig alone.
Promising Young Woman: Oh this is an interesting one. Emerald Fennell’s revenge drama has its detractors, including Dana Stevens here in Slate, who writes that the film’s message is so muddied as to be made imperceptible by Fennell’s attempts to portray its heroine as both an avenging angel and a dangerously driven revenge junkie. They might argue it’s Actually Bad. I’d suggest that, despite its flaws, it offers many viewers the kind of grim catharsis they want out of such a story. Like previous nominees Birdman, Precious, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it’s not Actually Bad but Worth Arguing About. Every collection of Best Picture nominees should have one of these!
How did we end up with this all-not-bad group of nominees? I have some ideas.
First of all, the pandemic-caused collapse of movie theaters may have been bad for the economy, bad for the cinematic arts, bad for awards-show ratings, and bad for people who depend on the stock market behaving rationally, but it seems to have been great for the Best Picture slate. No longer could boffo box office give Oscar voters cover to nominate a turkey like Joker, Bohemian Rhapsody, or Midnight in Paris. In previous years, it was easy for voters to convince themselves that their bad taste was actually good taste when it was backed up by hundreds of millions of dollars. This year, roughly nothing made hundreds of millions of dollars, so that possibility was off the table.
I also suspect it has at least something to do with this year’s weird, attenuated, fairly blah campaigning season. The lack of the typical press-the-flesh events that define Oscar season in Hollywood may have made it harder for the kinds of bad movies that often land Best Picture nominations to get traction. Instead of being convinced by very serious panels that Hillbilly Elegy, like Green Book, has something important to say about our divisive times, voters just decided it wasn’t very good. Instead of being targets of a starry, high-voltage campaign alleging that The Prom is Broadway magic brought to the screen like Les Misérables, voters watched it at home and were unimpressed. Good job, voters!
And speaking of those voters: Every year they get younger, less male, and more diverse in both ethnicity and work experience. That had an effect last year, when Parasite won, and I think this year’s nominees suggest the effect continues.
Look, the time will come when the Oscars once again nominate an absolute eye-roller for Best Picture. Most likely it’ll come next year, as moviegoers return to theaters, movie stars return to awards-bait cocktail hours, and movie studios release a backlog of Oscar bait, some of which will surely suck. So let’s enjoy this unlikely situation while we have it. You could watch any of the Best Picture nominees and have a pretty great night at the movies. And really, what else are you going to do?
*Actually Bad Best Picture nominees, 2009-2020: The Blind Side, The King’s Speech, The Help, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Midnight in Paris, Les Misérables, American Sniper, The Revenant, Darkest Hour, Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice, and Joker.