Movies

The Oscars Aren’t Going Back

Parasite’s historic win was just the beginning.

A woman running; a man leaning against a red car; an animated man sitting down.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via SF Studios/Neon, Bitters End, and Participant/Neon.

There’s never been a list of Oscar nominations like this year’s. At first glance, the nominees for the 94th Academy Awards might seem like a step backwards, especially in the most visible categories. Of the 20 acting nominations, only four went to actors of color, down from last year’s nine—although two of this year’s, Will Smith and Ariana DeBose, are heavily favored to win. But zoom out a little, and the picture looks quite different. Jane Campion became the first woman to be nominated for Best Director twice, and three of the nominees for Best International Film were recognized in other categories as well, the first time the Academy has recognized so many of what used to be called foreign-language films in so many different ways.*

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Along with the latest report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion initiative, which found sustained (if not always steady) gains in the number of women and people from underrepresented groups directing movies over the last 15 years, the nominations offer some hope that the industry is walking the walk, even if they’re not all that far down the path. But it’s when you look beyond the most-scrutinized demographics of race and gender that the changing face of the Academy really becomes apparent. The massive push to diversify membership after a landmark 2012 Los Angeles Times article revealed that Oscar voters were 94 percent white and 77 percent male has indeed resulted in a hugely different voting body. Total membership has increased by more than two-thirds over the last decade; according to AMPAS’ statistics, the number of active female members more than doubled between 2015 and 2020, and the number of members from underrepresented ethnic and racial communities more than tripled. The pace has slowed somewhat since then—last year’s group of new inductees was half the size of the year before—but the percentages held fast: 46 percent women, 39 percent underrepresented groups, and 53 percent hailing from outside the United States.

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[Read: The 2022 Oscar Nominees You Should Actually Watch]

That last number is often overlooked, even omitted entirely from statistical breakdowns. And to be fair, a foreign-born presence within the movie industry is hardly a new phenomenon: From directors like Billy Wilder and Frank Capra to stars like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, many of the figures who defined the classic Hollywood style were recent immigrants. But these new Oscar voters aren’t foreigners who have assimilated into the American system. Among those inducted into the Academy last year were Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania and Romanian documentarian Alexander Nanau, neither of whom seems to be angling too hard to make their next project for Marvel. These voters don’t just live outside the U.S.; they bring to the voting body a worldview that actually encompasses the world.

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Extracting narratives from awards shows is a tricky business, especially when much of the relevant data—who voted for what, and how the winners won by— remains hidden away. (Imagine what political reporting would be like if there were no exit polls or vote totals, and all you had to go on was who won and who lost.) But looking at the past several years, one trend is undeniable. From 2015, when the Academy began its five-year push to double the number of women and people from underrepresented groups, until 2018, only a tiny handful of movies in a language other than English received recognition outside the categories of animation, documentary, and what was then still called foreign-language film. But beginning in 2019, with Roma’s 10 nominations, the shift away from this monolingual standard has been dramatic—and, after three years of heading in that same direction, seems to be permanent.

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In their respective Oscar years, Roma and even Parasite might have seemed like unicorns, cases of a simply extraordinary film triumphing over the Oscars’ historical provincialism. But put in context, they seem less like exceptions and more like evidence that the rules themselves are changing. Roma’s writer-director Alfonso Cuarón is a well-established industry figure—a previous winner and nominee in other categories, as well as the maker of the standout entry in the Harry Potter franchise——so the Academy could have been predisposed to look kindly on his autobiographical passion project (and besides, it did lose to Green Book). But you can’t say the same for Poland’s Pawel Pawlikowski, whose movie Cold War was nominated alongside Cuarón’s in director and cinematography, as well as the newly renamed Best International Feature category. (It lost to Roma all three times.) 2020 was the year of Parasite’s staggering Best Picture win, and also the year that North Macedonia’s Honeyland made history by receiving nods in both the documentary and international feature categories—both signs, one subtle and the other unmistakable, that the Academy’s current voters feel no allegiance to the received wisdom that movies should stay in their prescribed lanes, especially if they’re nonfiction or not in English.

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Last year continued the trend, with Minari, an American film whose dialogue is largely in Korean, notching six nominations and the Danish movie Another Round racking up two. But the Academy has never before spread the wealth the way it has in 2022, with three non-English-language movies, Drive My Car, The Worst Person in the World, and Flee, picking up nine nominations across seven different categories. It’s an especially noteworthy feat, because most of those nominations are generated by discrete branches of the Academy: Animators nominate animated films, writers nominate screenplays, and so on. It’s not simply that Academy voters love Drive My Car en masse, but that writers and directors and animators, working on their own, all came to the same conclusion. (Notably absent from the party this year is the actors’ branch, which failed to recognize even Renate Reinsve’s luminous performance in The Worst Person in the World; while actors remain the Academy’s largest voting bloc, their influence has been reduced by the Academy’s recent membership drive, which has disproportionately boosted numbers in areas like documentary, animation, visual effects, and short film.) It’s worth noting too that this year’s Oscars had the highest turnout ever among its nearly 10,000 members, which makes a particularly strong case that this is simply what the Academy is now.

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[Read: Parasite’s Victory Means It’s Time to Take the Oscars Seriously]

Even before its recent internationalist bent, the Academy had begun to show a pronounced—and frequently criticized—preference for small-scale character drama over big-budget spectacle. But the Oscars haven’t changed; the movies have. Forty years ago, the Best Picture Oscar often went to straightforward domestic melodramas like Ordinary People or Rain Man. The difference is that people went to see them. If you convert Rain Man’s $355 million to 2019 dollars—using the last year of pre-pandemic box office as a comparison—the movie would have ranked fourth worldwide, between Frozen 2 and Spider-Man: Far From Home. The only movie from that year’s top 10 to win a Best Picture nomination was Joker. The next nominee on the box office charts ranked 22nd.

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Rewatching Drive My Car, The Worst Person in the World, and Flee after the nominations, I was struck by how mundane they are—not in terms of their filmmaking, which is truly exceptional, but their subject matter. Drive My Car is about a man coming to terms with the death of his wife, and a marriage that was dying long before that; The Worst Person in the World is about a woman on the cusp of her 30s trying to figure out what to do with her life; Flee is a memoir about an Afghan refugee dealing with the pain of exile and the struggle to come out of the closet. They’re not imposing masterpieces by familiar industry figures, like Roma, or box-office hits by brand-name auteurs, like Parasite. They’re just movies about life, the kind that Hollywood by and large declines to make anymore. (Their closest English-language equivalent among the nominees, CODA, was made outside the studio system, distributed by a streaming platform, and remade from a French movie—and that a good chunk of the dialogue is in ASL.) The Worst Person in the World may feature a sequence in which the heroine trips on mushrooms and smears menstrual blood on her face, but it’s hard to think of any characters in an American movie from last year more recognizable than Reinsve’s Julie and Anders Danielsen Lie’s Aksel. They are, to use one of Hollywood’s favorite words, relatable. If you wanted to explain to someone two decades hence what life was like in 2021, you wouldn’t show them Dune or Nightmare Alley—you’d show them The Worst Person in the World or Drive My Car, and not just because both movies end with epilogues that extend into the age of COVID.

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The 2022 Oscar nominations speak to a vision of a world without boundaries, or at least one in which those boundaries—between nations, between artistic traditions, between categories—are permeable and ever-shifting. But they also make a firm, if more subtle, statement that movies should be about the way the people watching them live their lives—or at least that some of them should. Reflecting real life isn’t the only thing movies can do (and that goes for documentaries as well as fiction), but it’s one of their highest callings, and has been since the day the Lumière brothers set down a camera to watch workers leaving their factory. And if they have to go to Japan or Norway to find stories that look like life, even American life, then that’s what the Oscars will do.

Correction, Feb. 11, 2022: This article originally misstated that two women were nominated for Best Director this year. Jane Campion is the only female nominee.

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