Everything Everywhere All at Once has made Oscars history in many ways, some more significant than others: the first win for an Asian American director, the first Best Picture winner primarily depicting the lives of Asian Americans, the first Best Actress award given to a woman of color in more than 20 years, and the first ever for a woman who openly identifies as Asian. But it’s also a milestone in a way that is likely to get less attention: It is the weirdest Best Picture winner in history.
It used to be that you could count on a Best Picture to be, well, normie, the kind of movie for which the term “Oscar bait” was coined: a rousing drama touching on serious issues in an elegant and understated style. There were exceptions: The Silence of the Lambs tilted farther into horror than the academy had ever dared to go, and The Artist became the first silent movie to win the top awards since the 1920s, but generally speaking, if you put on a Best Picture, you—with apologies to 1994 winner Forrest Gump—knew what you were going to get.
It’s been widely observed that the massive shakeup in voting membership between 2016 and 2020, leading to a body substantially more diverse in terms of race, gender, and national origin (as well as significantly more representative of the movie industry’s below-the-line workers) has transformed the academy’s taste. While the expanded cohort is still too new to be entirely predictable—even some of the most devoted Oscars whisperers were caught flat-footed by last year’s victory for CODA—they’re indisputably more open to considering intimate character dramas that the old Oscars would have considered too “small,” and much less inclined to believe that movies in languages other than English should stick to the foreign film category (which they don’t even call “foreign film” anymore).
But while Moonlight and Parasite’s Best Picture wins were atypical, they could also be, at least retrospectively, explained in familiar Oscars terms. They’re both classically, even exquisitely, well-made dramas on important subjects, the kind of quality film the movie industry likes to believe it’s still capable of making (no matter how far outside the system those particular films actually originated).
Everything Everywhere, on the other hand, is a different story. It may have a solid emotional center built around the relationship between immigrant parents and their American-born children, but it’s also a loopy, anarchic comedy with an evil bagel and talking rocks.
This isn’t your parents’ idea of “an Oscar movie.” It might not even be yours. I’ll admit that when talk of Everything Everywhere racking up nominations started to surface, I immediately discounted its chances, largely because I figured there was no way in hell anyone over 60 would vote for a movie so off-the-walls inventive and unabashedly millennial, practically the opposite of the measured unity that is the academy’s benchmark for good taste. (An anonymous member of the director’s branch told Indiewire he thought the movie might be “a generational thing” but watched it three and a half times until he understood it.) Sure, Birdman was a little in-your-face, and The Shape of Water mixed and matched genres with abandon, but you could still make a case for them under the old rules: The academy loves movies about the creative process; the academy loves movies that hearken back to older styles of moviemaking.
Everything Everywhere is much tougher to squeeze into that old paradigm. As the annual handful of Oscar voters explaining their picks arrived last week, the word that voters who picked it kept using to explain their choice was “original.” While it’s replete with references to previous movies, from martial-arts classics to Wong Kar-wai’s languid romances and even Ratatouille, it’s more collage than homage. It doesn’t look like any movie that’s ever won Best Picture—and really, it’s not even close.
I don’t know whether older Oscar voters were put off by Everything Everywhere’s style, but if they were, they were outnumbered, and between the academy’s crackdown on inactive members and the simple fact of human mortality, their numbers are only going to diminish. There will always be movies that are too out-there for Oscar recognition, and many of them all the better for it. And there will still be the occasional ebb and flow, the years when even the academy’s new guard opts for something cozily familiar instead of envelope-pushing. (It’s only been four years since Green Book.) But the bar for Oscar weirdness has been set much higher, and it’s not going to go back down.