I have to say, I’ve really, really loved being back in the movie theater these last few months. Just sitting in a dark room, staring up at the big screen, and watching movies the way they were meant to be seen — with no mask on my face (restrictions having been lifted) — has truly been wonderful.
And now that I’ve seen everything worth seeing through the first six months into the year, much of it in one of those dark rooms on one of those big screens, I think it’s time to take a step back, check out the lay of the land, and discuss how this year’s movies should be viewed as part of a larger whole. This is not just a column about the Oscars at the halfway point of the year, it’s a wake-up call for the Academy, too.
So if you’re a voter, listen up.
Earlier this year, as we were looking back on the cinematic year of 2021 and the awards season it yielded, I had to acknowledge that it was the least inspired group of movies I’d seen since maybe 2008. The Best Picture winner that year was Slumdog Millionaire, which was a nice little movie that had a good underdog story but was not in any kind of way Best Picture material. The same goes for CODA, which I rather enjoyed, but which didn’t give me the visceral reaction that, in my mind, a film that takes such an honor should give me. I don’t actually think that any movie nominated for Best Picture last year gave me that feeling, not even the ones I really liked, such as Dune. If one came close, it was The Worst Person in the World, which didn’t even get nominated for Best Picture even though it was a far better film than Drive My Car, the foreign-language movie that did score a nod.
But that was last year. This year, there have already been six movies that have given me that feeling, which is pretty astonishing considering how rare that feeling is. Summer Movie Season is, of course, known for its popcorn fare, but rarely does it provide the kinds of movies that the Academy takes seriously when it comes to the Oscars.
The thing about that, though, is that the Academy really should be paying closer attention to these movies. The organization has come under fire in recent years because of how eclectic its taste has become, and how it doesn’t really recognize big studio films anymore, at least not the way it used to. Sure, Dune won more Oscars than any other this past season, but like its blockbuster predecessor Mad Max: Fury Road, it dominated the below-the-line crafts awards and had no real shot at a Best Picture win, while its director, Denis Villeneuve, was snubbed despite, y’know, being in charge of all those craftspeople. I will admit that last year was an anomaly because we were still coming out of the pandemic and some people were still reluctant to go to the theater (and more about that in a sec) so things were still askew, and with that in mind, I think it’s fair to offer the Academy a mulligan of sorts.
Now, though, things are back to some semblance of normal, maybe as normal as we’ll ever be again, and it’s time for the Academy to understand that it has a unique opportunity here to right the ship, or else sail irrevocably into irrelevance.
Before I get started, Elvis is not one of the select half-dozen movies I think the Academy should be considering at this juncture because I thought it was mostly a boring mess with a rare awful performance from two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks. What it does have, however, is magnificent work from Austin Butler, who does enough here to assure himself of a Best Actor nomination. I know the movie is getting a lot of love and people seem to enjoy it, but outside of his performance, it’s a big “no” from me.
I’ll dispense with the suspense and just get to it. The six movies that really reached out and touched me in some way this year were, in chronological order: The Batman (obviously), Everything Everywhere All at Once, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, The Northman, Top Gun: Maverick (again, duh), and perhaps most surprisingly, Adam Sandler’s latest Netflix movie Hustle.
The Northman didn’t do well enough at the box office and is far too polarizing to garner anything more than some technical nods when the time comes, while Massive Talent is a lark that I think might be seen as too flimsy to get the proper respect, and Everything Everywhere is very successful for an indie but is too weird and wild for the Academy to really get behind.
That leaves three films.
Hustle is a joyous, exuberant movie that allows us that rare pleasure of seeing Adam Sandler actually act while also playing a genuinely likable character. He’s not going to get any Best Actor buzz, but he really should, and the film itself is worthy of the same chatter. We don’t give comedies, especially thoughtful comedies, the kind of attention and respect that they deserve, and we haven’t for a very long time. Annie Hall was the last comedy to win Best Picture, but that was 45 years ago. Sure, Don’t Look Up was nominated last year, but it was just as polarizing as The Northman, perhaps even more so.
But Don’t Look Up is cynical and mean, and it leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth. Hustle is sweeter — it’s fun and upbeat and hopeful, just the kind of film we should be celebrating. I haven’t talked to a single person who hasn’t enthusiastically enjoyed it, and isn’t that the kind of well-made movie that we should be rewarding? Even if it is a streaming movie on Netflix?
That’s really the thing I so badly want to talk about with voting members of the Academy. I don’t know when they started thinking their poop didn’t smell, but the truth of it is that movies that give us joy are essential to the industry. Hustle is proof that a movie can still entertain and make us laugh while also having gravitas. I do not for a moment believe that this is going to happen, or that Hustle will be recognized in any meaningful way this awards season, let alone at all, but it’s important to spread the word and get more people to watch it with the hope that voters will start to think about it as a potential awards contender.
That leaves us with two movies about which I have already written many words this year — The Batman and Top Gun: Maverick. Here’s where I want to get on my soapbox and belt out to the back row of the Dolby Theatre why Academy voters should be looking very, very carefully at both of these movies for Best Picture nominations, but one in particular.
Do you want the Academy Awards to retain any cultural relevance whatsoever? Do you want people to give a damn about the ceremony anymore? Do you want to bring people back to the show, and engage them in a way you no longer seem to be able to do?
If your answer to these questions is “no” then we have nothing more to discuss, and it’s pointless to even pretend that the industry is going to survive the way we want it to.
If your answer is “yes” then it becomes absolutely necessary, downright paramount (no pun intended), that the two best studio movies to emerge this year are not dismissed as simple popcorn fare. I understand that there will be voters who will automatically do just that because one is a superhero movie and the other is “just” an action flick, but, see, Black Panther was both of those, and it earned a Best Pic nod five years ago. Which, by the way, led to the highest ratings the Oscars telecast has seen in the last decade.
Setting aside the fact that both The Batman and Top Gun: Maverick actually deserve the honor of a Best Picture nomination, because there is no way you’re going to convince me that 10 better movies will come out this year, the Academy needs to show viewers that it still cares what they think, and that a silly “Best Fan Favorite” trinket it hands out to the popcorn movie with the most trolls voting for it on Twitter doesn’t actually accomplish anything beyond reminding us all how condescending and pedantic the Academy is to the average moviegoer.
As with Hustle, I don’t believe for one second that The Batman will get the Oscar love it deserves, and I’m sort of okay with that because I am used to the inherent bias that works against superhero movies come awards time. But Top Gun: Maverick is another story entirely. This is simply the result of the studio system operating at its very best, with top-notch talent on both sides of the camera, everyone bringing their A-game, and the biggest star in the world serving up what is arguably his best ever performance, one that may define his career for a new generation of fans.
If you’re an Academy voter, how on Earth do you not recognize that? Unless you want your organization to fade into obscurity, you can’t, and so I’m putting the Academy on notice that it had better not make such a mistake. Top Gun: Maverick offers a rare opportunity to reward greatness while also acknowledging the power of the audience. A nomination for Best Picture would be akin to saying, ‘Yes, we see that so many of you are flocking to this movie, not just for the visual spectacle, but because it’s actually a really fantastic movie.’ It would recall a time when that sort of thing actually mattered, and Oscar voters understood that.
With Top Gun: Maverick, the Academy has a chance to set things right and give itself a real shot at survival. If it whiffs this opportunity, I think it would be crossing a line from which there is no coming back, and there will be little left for any of us to do to save the Oscars as we know them. To lose that loving feeling would be one hell of a shame.
Neil Turitz is a journalist, essayist, author, and filmmaker who has worked in and written about Hollywood for nearly 25 years, though he has never lived there. These days, he splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires. He’s not on Twitter, but you can find him on Instagram @6wordreviews.
You can read a new installation of The Accidental Turitz every Wednesday, and all previous columns can be found here.