‘Eighth Grade’ vs. ‘Lady Bird’ vs. ‘The Florida Project: A Coming-Of-Age Film State of the Union

As good as the top movies of 2018 have been, so far, it’s also been a year that’s felt particularly iterative. All of my favourite movies of the year so far have in some way, even tangentially in some cases, been slight improvements over similar films from the last couple of years. For example, A Quiet Place and Sorry To Bother You are in one way or another, could be considered this year’s Get Out, in the former’s case a low-budget indie darling that rode critical hype to obscene box office success, or in the case of the latter, a subversive, transformative take on the modern black experience. In a more linear fashion, Black Panther is the superhero film that did for black audiences what Wonder Woman did for female audiences,while Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2 iterated on the superhero sequel in more traditional ways, Mission: Impossible – Fallout pushed the boundaries of what should legally be allowed on the set of an action movie, and so on, and so forth. I’m not sure if this is exactly a take down of a year that desperately needs something a little more original, or an indication that things are going well since it’s arguably been a better year for film so far, but it’s an interesting phenomenon, and it continued for me following my experience with Bo Burnham’s coming-of-age dramedy Eighth Grade this past weekend, a film I enjoyed tremendously but had trouble separating from my experience with last year’s coming-of-age stories about young girls, Lady Bird and The Florida Project.

First things first; Burnham’s directorial debut, Eighth Grade is the story of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an introverted young girl in her final week of middle school as she struggles with what she perceives to be her own shortcomings in a world dominated by the persistent connectivity and pressure that comes with social media. It’s a fantastic film that sheds any and every possible kind of pretense for the sake of a realistic portrayal of what life at that age must currently be like. Burnham’s writing and directing seem unconcerned with his own filter, his own interpretation, as the film almost never deviates from telling Kayla’s story as you’d imagine she’d want to tell it. It’s an impressive feat considering that any relatively accurate, realism-bound representations of teenage life in a given time frame don’t usually come until that generation is old enough to make their own movies. Eighth Grade manages to be relatable because no matter how the times change, no matter which social media platform (if any) you had in middle school, the basic tenets of growing up, of struggling with the horrors of school and popularity and the opposite sex and your own insecurities tend to stay mostly the same. Eighth Grade manages to leave its audience empathetic to Kayla’s struggles, no matter how contextually different they may be to our own, or how frivolous or inconsequential they may seem to an adult with a mortgage or dependents of their own, yet it’s also relatable enough to apply to each and every one of our own struggles and haunting nightmares of our developmental years. It’s uber realistic, charming, and relentlessly cringy at every possible turn, a rousing success for Burnham as he begins his directorial career.

It’s a great, original film that I will recommend to everyone and that has a very strong chance of making my top 10 this year, but looking at some early Oscar predictions, it’s unlikely to break through the way it probably should, outside of maybe a Best Original Screenplay nomination. And that got me thinking about those two aforementioned coming-of-age films from 2017, both of which share commonalities with Eighth Grade, especially thematically, but took two very different paths following their release. One, namely The Florida Project, was similarly raw, original and important, and at the end of the line it failed to break through come awards season in any meaningful way. The other broke Rotten Tomatoes records, topped everyone’s best of lists and breezed to five Oscar nominations. And while it wasn’t a bad movie, I felt like I was taking crazy pills watching Lady Bird accomplish all of this despite what I perceived to be some very apparent flaws. And at the risk of angering some of you reading, I’m going to use those flaws (and the ignored strengths of The Florida Project) to show the inherent unfairness of what’s about to happen to Eighth Grade.

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In case you need a refresher course, The Florida Project is the story of a young girl living in poverty with her struggling, rebellious mother that place over a summer in the shadow of Disneyworld. Young Moonee is living life like any six-year-old would, oblivious to the hardships and realities of the world around her before it very abruptly tries and slap her in the face. The movie, from innovative indie filmmaker Sean Baker, is unabashedly raw. From how it’s filmed, to the cast of first-time actors it employs (anchored by a phenomenal Oscar-nominated performance from Willem Dafoe), The Florida Project never stops reminding you that what’s happening in the movie is reflective of actual, real-life, current-day society. More than a coming-of-age film, it’s a take down of vicious circle status quo of capitalism, the all-too-real story of a teen mom that’s already been failed by the system and is only further punished by it simply because she wants to try and make ends meet and do right by her daughter.

Despite all of that, The Florida Project wasn’t able to translate its sheer originality and bleeding raw message into anything more than that aforementioned nomination for Willem Dafoe. The Oscars are tragically broken, so I’m not here to reiterate any of that (although you can see me discuss that at length in my post about the new popular film category from last week), but it’s an easy benchmark to point to when it comes to films that are so obviously deserving of more attention and love, but fair to get it because they aren’t as flashy and accessible as their alternatives. Like The Florida Project, Eighth Grade is similarly low budget, raw, uber-realistic and ultra-relevant, and lacking the flash that usually draws people’s attention.

That’s where Lady Bird comes in. Greta Gerwig’s film is competently made, charming and easily accessible, but it managed to ride the coattails of two phenomenal performances and subtle nostalgia to five Oscar nominations and endless fawning from anyone with a top ten list. Posing as semi-autobiographical and taking place around the turn of the century, Lady Bird tells the story of its titular character, a young woman played by Saoirse Ronan as she struggles with her identity, with boys, and with authority figures (including her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf) in her final year of high school, with dreams of moving out of the suburbs and out to the big, far away city.

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A lot of that log line sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? At the end of the day, you can boil movies like this, and Eighth Grade, and countless others down to a similar sentence. Where they deviate, and I feel as if Eighth Grade veers closer to what The Florida Project does, is in how it uses that pretty generic elevator pitch to send a message through its subtext. The Florida Project has something to say about the way the system puts people in poverty at a disadvantage. It makes you question the very nature of that system. To be fair, I don’t think the level of subtext runs that deep with Eighth Grade, but Burnham definitely has something pertinent to say about how we perceive the younger generation and how their constant connectivity may or may not be something worth discussing (he specifically treats it as a benign constant, actually). In comparison, Lady Bird reflects on a fictional relationship between mother and daughter that’s likely more extreme than anything Gerwig every experienced (by her own admission, as a matter of fact), and while that’s entertaining and familiar and, in a way, heartwarming, and certainly deserves a place in any conversation of last year’s best films (even though it didn’t make mine), it doesn’t really feel as if it has anything important to say through that story, other than possibly a reminder to call your mom once in a while. I just wonder if a message tantamount to what you can get out of a Hallmark card is worthy of the praise it received, particularly, it seems, at the expense of something like The Florida Project. While it and now Eighth Grade attempt to humanize their contemporary, misunderstood subjects in an effort to make them relatable to the audience, and while they do it in genuinely impressive ways with a small budget and unrecognizable casts, Lady Bird merely peddles in the theatrics of its top performances and the familiarity of an era that hasn’t yet been mined for nostalgia.

This all finally made me realize why I didn’t get on the Lady Bird hype train. While it’s a good movie, while its performances are excellent and its message relatable, it feels manufactured in kind of a sneaky way, a transmutation of what used to be the typical form of Oscar bait into something more modish and palpable to audiences that have long-since learned how to recognize when they’re being pandered to. I don’t want to say that Gerwig isn’t passionate about what she made, but there’s a reason why she hired two recognizable, decorated actresses (ones you’ve certainly seen in half a dozen shows and movies despite the fact that they’re not usually in any blockbusters) to be her leads and not rather with unknowns that would leave more room for the material. There’s a reason it’s set in the past, peddling in nostalgia that distracts from the film’s shortcomings with efficacy, a nostalgia for the under-served median age of influential voices (as well as the ever-growing younger class of Academy voters).

This isn’t meant to serve as some sort of grand conspiracy theory, just a reflection of the fact that even indie movies are made with profit and marketability in mind, and that those aspects are keenly obvious in a movie like Lady Bird. Those things are present in one form or another with Eighth Grade and The Florida Project as well (all three were distributed by A24 and both Eighth Grade and Lady Bird were produced by Scott Rudin). In fact, their realistic, raw nature is probably just as designed to sucker in someone like me. The Florida Project employed Guerilla tactics to film a scene at Disneyworld, and that’s an easy, marketable point. Eighth Grade is a contemporary movie about 13-year-olds starring 13-year-olds, and that’s part of the pitch. It even shares some of those tactics with Lady Bird, taking place in a monotonous suburban town with a Burger King in its mall food court that could serve as the setting to each and every one of our stories. It has a quirky father figure either meant to remind us of our dad or, if we’re old enough, the father we either hope to be or dread that we’ve become. It puts its main character through the ringer of awkward teenage situations we’ve all experienced, be it the pity party invite, the too-cool-for-school popular kid they try to befriend, the fleeting crush that, in retrospect, was a dodged bullet, or whatever else. A lot of these things are certainly common between Lady Bird and Eighth Grade, some even with the somewhat different Florida Project. They just feel more authentic in one over the other, the tactics less obvious, more honest to the voice of the auteur, more indicative of where trends in indie filmmaking need to go.

I tend to get a little riled up, and this all probably feels like too harsh of a takedown for a film that I honestly liked. Greta Gerwig is a competent filmmaker and with Lady Bird she manages to to reign in two powerhouse performances that would have otherwise dominated the film beyond recognition. Her subtle use of nostalgia, the way she kept her characters within the parameters of their archetypes and the tactics she employed to make her film stand out yet remain relatable are commendable and worthy of praise and, hey, probably even those Oscar nominations. But the best way I can describe what I mean here, and hopefully without sounding to harsh, is that Lady Bird feels like the offspring of someone who has seen a bunch of John Hughes movies and made that kind of film in her own image, just better than the dozens of other filmmakers doing the same thing. In contrast, Eighth Grade feels like the product of what could very well be the next John Hughes, that is to say, a talented, emergent young filmmaker capable of tuning in to the frequency of the current generation and making movies for them. Of course, Bo Burnham’s directed but one movie and done some standup we’ve all seen on Youtube, so who knows if that comparison is worthy, but Eighth Grade truly is that good and worthy of that kind of praise.

Thing is, circling back, in a year that’s been remarkably iterative so far on the last couple of years of cinema, it’s hard to see something like this breaking out of the pack when it doesn’t have that flash, that gimmick, that thing for people to latch on to. Eighth Grade is special in that it’s a really good movie and its reflective of the way indie films of this nature will hopefully evolve in the coming years, but its unique properties simply don’t stand out the way they need to to make an immediate impact, making it likely to disappear in the shuffle of this year’s awards frenzy. That being said, it’s easily one of my favourite movies of the year so far (9.5 out of 10), and I will do my part to keep it part of the conversation.

 

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Why “Achievement in Popular Film” Might Be Necessary: Looking Back At 15 Years of The Oscars Veering Away From What People Actually Watch

Last week, the Oscars announced a series of changes to the upcoming 2019 telecast, one of which in particular set the internet ablaze with criticism. At the 91st Academy Awards, a new category will stand alongside Best Picture, as “Achievement in Popular Film” seeks to steer the Oscars away from the criticism that the Academy doesn’t recognize movies that people watch anymore. The real reason seems to be that ABC, the network that airs the show every year, is concerned about sagging ratings (and I’m sure it helps that their parent company, Disney, usually release the year’s most popular films). The criticism has been fierce from many sides, varying from uncertainty over how the Academy will handle such a category, with so few details yet provided, to ambivalence over the idea of recognizing movies that are already “honoured” with hundreds of millions at the box office, and straight up anger and derisiveness over the idea of the Academy creating a conciliatory, possibly second-class award to stand in the shadow of Best Picture, especially in a year where there is already a fierce fan campaign to get Black Panther in the race, with many derisively (and, to be honest, pretty offensively) comparing the announcement to segregation.

While there are many good points among the naysayers, I’d like to at least wait and see what the parameters of the category are, if not to see what effect it has on the actual telecast. I also reject the idea that this is a rash decision from a “panicked organization”. Because if you look back at the last 15 years of Oscar history and try and step into the mind of a voting member of the Academy, it becomes clear not only that there is often no real consensus over what they might want to reward as popular film, but also that this is a change many years in the making.

The article that follows will take a look into the patterns in and around Best Picture since Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King reigned supreme in 2004 that may have led to this decision. At the same time, I have also prepared a separate article looking back at the last ten years and predicting who may have taken home this award ever since 2008, the year where The Dark Knight’s snub led to the Academy expanding Best Picture to up to ten films. But for now, let’s go back all the way to 2004:

Ever since the 76th Academy Awards, when The Lord of The Rings: Return of the King swept every category it was nominated in and took its spot among the highest earners to ever win Best Picture, the Academy has steadily regressed to a place where it values art over popularity and anything else. Despite the fact that, in the last couple of decades, studios have found creative and interesting ways to intersect art with the kind of populist qualities that drive audiences out to movie theaters,the idea of what an Oscar-caliber film even is has gotten much smaller in space and much more closely tied to art and message, rather than being that year’s crowning achievement in film.

I’m not trying to make any sort of judgment about whether or not this is right, or whether any of the Best Picture winners since Return of the King are unworthy (other than probably Crash; fuck that movie), or even that the Oscars should at all be concerned with awarding movies that make more money, but the facts paint an interesting picture:

In 2004, Return of the King became the last film to both win Best Picture, and come in first overall in the yearly box office, with a $377M tally domestically. In fact, of the 14 movies that have since won Best Picture, only five have even made $100M, what has long been an industry benchmark for success, and only two of those films (Argo and The Departed) reached this milestone before any awards hype would have boosted their tallies. On top of that, those two films and Million Dollar Baby are the only ones to have anything close to a big budget (The Departed comes in at $90M, the other two in the $40M range), with the rest all hovering around $15M-$20M, and all the way down to the $2M microbudget of Moonlight. And while Oscar does add to most films’ box office, it none of these 15 films managed to become smash hit blockbusters like Return of the King, even with the boost. The five films that reached that $100M milestone all hovered around 15th place in their respective years top box office, while the rest varied wildly, mostly unphased by Oscar, bottoming out in 2009 with The Hurt Locker, which only made $17M in theaters.

Like I said, box office success doesn’t really reflect the quality of a movie. Not only does it vary wildly based on the resources of the film’s distributor, the movie business has changed a lot in recent years. But the dichotomy between what makes an Oscar movie now and what made an Oscar movie back then and all the way back through the 90s is worth taking a look at, and it’s real, as proven by the expansion of Best Picture to up to 10 films. Prior to this seemingly defining moment, box office success and Best Picture often intersected, as the Oscars regularly awarded top 10 performing films. In fact, on two other occasions, like with Return of the King, the box office crown and Oscar were shared by the same film (Titanic and Forrest Gump). Beyond just the winners, plenty of popular films were regularly in contention for Best Picture and other major awards.

So, what changed so drastically in the last 15 years? Well, like I already mentioned, you could first and foremost point to some drastic changes in the movie industry since the rise of the internet. With streaming cheap and accessible, and no shortage of content, it’s become much harder to coax people out to their homes and into theaters. That’s led to a content explosion, with studios producing more, often cheaper content on both the small and big screens, and it’s led the big six studios to focusing their money on a handful of tentpoles. In the 90s, the top movies made somewhere between $200M and $325M domestically. Anything more was an anomaly. Since 2015, there has been no less than three $400M+ movies every year, a figure that’s become even crazier this year, with three Disney movies pushing up against $700M, and that’s before factoring in foreign markets which can push the top movies past $1.5B and beyond, especially thanks to emerging markets like China which didn’t even exist back then.

Now, those numbers mean a lot of things. It means that with a the risk of a $150M+ budget is worth it for the big studios if it means a billion dollars in worldwide revenue. It means that their funds are tied in a few big budget movies, effectively eliminating the mid-budget films that dominated the box office in the 90s and challenging creators (of which there are many more of now) to make more out of less, leading to a yearly success story like Get Out last year or A Quiet Place in 2018, excellent low budget movies from driven, talented auteurs seemingly capable of making success out of nothing and bringing in insane multipliers on their microbudgets, feats which go unappreciated by studios focused on a much bigger picture. The problem is that for every Get Out or A Quiet Place, there’s 20 or 40 movies that don’t make back twenty times their budget, effectively making this microbudget gamble thing a wash, unless you’re A24 or Blumhouse, successful indie studios that peddle mostly in genre films that don’t compete for Oscars anyway.

I sort of get it. If one movie out of twenty is going to be a smash hit on a microbudget these days, why would a big studio risk $50M on a Forrest Gump type of movie with similar odds? Pass over three or four Forrest Gumps and you get one Star Wars or Marvel movie that’s nearly a guaranteed hit with the same multiple and international appeal. It unfortunately means that the mid-budget movie is dead, but I get it.

In other words, that means that the mid-budget movies that dominated the box office no longer exist, that studios realized they can make a killing spending exorbitant amounts of money and making astronomical returns on tentpoles consisting mostly of existing IP, therefore forcing creatives with original stories to tell to work on much smaller budgets than the top directors prior to the early aughts. With certain exceptions (like your Scorseses, Spielbergs and Tarantinos working with the remaining goodwill they built in those years, or the odd case of Ben Affleck and Argo), it’s probably the big reason that auteurship and Oscar-caliber films have transferred over to smaller budgets.

At the surface, this isn’t a big issue. Hollywood still makes their money and creative types face challenging but rewarding scenarios of either making more with smaller budgets or creating art in the studio ecosystem of a tentpole. And at the end of the day, the consumer is getting more for their buck thanks to streaming, so long as they’re willing to wait and skip the increasingly expensive and unpleasant proposition of going to a movie theater. The one wrench in the works, as it turns out, is Disney, the one big studio that doesn’t dabble in smaller budget, awards-oriented fare (at least until the Fox deal goes through and they own Searchlight). As mentioned, they also happen to air the Oscars, and there’s more than likely a correlation between the decrease in budget of Oscar-type films and decrease in ratings for the Oscar telecast.

And I get this side of it too. People don’t want to watch an overbloated, pretentious awards show when they haven’t even had a chance to see the movies that are being rewarded, and won’t get to until months later when they hit Netflix. At best they might care aobut the people in them, but the idea of a movie star isn’t even what it used to be (that’s a whole other article). From this perspective, the changes kind of make sense, and if I’m being frank, most of the people complaining are going to watch the Oscars regardless of how they feel about “Achievement in Popular Film” and what that might mean. The Academy isn’t trying to get them to watch, they’re trying to get the people who, by February of next year, will have only seen a handful of movies that will most certainly include Black Panther, The Avengers and maybe A Quiet Place and a couple of other surprises.

But I also get the other side of the coin. The Oscars might not mean anything to the vast majority of the people they’re trying to reach, but it’s important to ensure they still mean something, period. Simply having the equivalent to a beauty pageant in the middle of your self-important industry show won’t guarantee increased ratings and might only serve to alienate the group that actually cares. That doesn’t mean that a new category is the end of the world, but it has to be handled careful. If it is, there’s a chance that a category like this could have a positive effect on the industry, one that returns at least a little bit of glory to the type of movie that used to compete for Oscars but doesn’t anymore. Because it’s not just the fact that Oscar-type movies have gotten smaller in scale. There are good, big-scale movies that simply don’t get recognized anymore.

I discuss this in further detail in the prediction post, but there are plenty of movies since the category expansion that were big in scale but wound up snubbed. Movies like The Dark Knight, Gravity, Avatar and Mad Max: Fury Road are both big and scale and really good, yet weren’t able to break the trend, and that’s probably a side-effect to all of the above. The big movies got a lot bigger, the small movies shrunk really quickly and Oscar chose the latter path, ignoring the exceptions that should have been recognized because they were just square pegs trying to fit into round holes. If this category was created ten years ago and rewarded, at the very least, those four movies, then it’s totally justifiable. The best version of Achievement in Popular Film is a category that’s all about the intersection between art and popularity. A category that recognizes movies that maybe don’t fully tip over the scale in terms of quality (however you might measure that), but are important to the industry. The Dark Knight showed us that comic book movies can be good and meaningful. Avatar literally changed the way movie theaters do business. Gravity and Mad Max made crazy leaps in special effects and were big budget, populist auteur films in an age where that kind of stuff shouldn’t exist anymore. Hell, as you’ll see in the other post, I’d even accept a scenario in which a movie like Argo can win both categories, as the rare mid-budget throwback movie that sort of feels like the best of both words.

The problem is that, so far, the Academy hasn’t bothered to reassure us that this category will be something like this, and not simply an excuse to parade around the likes of Kevin Feige and Kathleen Kennedy because they were the producers that made the most money in a given year. Or, for that matter, if the voting members rebel and simply make this a conciliatory second place Best Picture Oscar for the most popular nominee. Maybe I’m being too optimistic about this change, but part of me is disinterested in the overreactionary nature of critics this past week when we don’t yet know what the change will look like. And even if this winds up being bad, then what’s the big deal? At worst, they’ll shutter the category in a few years and go back to the old format or try something else.

It’s no different, really, then that category expansion ten years ago. The Academy already noticed the trends mentioned above and they decided to recognize up to five more films. the change paid immediate dividends, with movies like District 9 and Up receiving Best Picture nods at a time where it was almost inconceivable for science fiction and animation to be up there. Even some smaller movies like An Education probably benefited from this, ensuring that both sides of the coin got something out of it. I’m not sure if this change affected any of the winners, and it certainly didn’t help the movies I mentioned above, but with so many more films being made, it was a positive change. Now it’s time to make another one, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to recognizing movies that mass audiences actually like.

If I’m being honest, this probably wouldn’t have been the first thing I would have changed if I was in charge of the Academy. There is a laundry list out there of potential categories that would be more interesting and that would better serve the industry. “Breakout Performance” would make a lot of sense, to recognize younger talent. The fact that there are no Oscars for the stunt workers that risk their lives to entertain us is absolutely outrageous at this point. And if you’re going to reward more kinds of films, why not go all the way and reward the best comedy, best science fiction, best musical, best horror? Popular Film is not something I would have thought of, but depending on how it’s handled, it could be an interesting tool for voters to play with as a broad, unspecific category.

Nevertheless, barring a crazy turnaround, they’re going to do this for the 2018 Oscar race. And while this year’s likely winner is fairly obvious, I’m curious to both define what “Achievement in Popular Film” might mean, as well as looking at who would have likely won the award in recent years. You can check that out by clicking here. Otherwise, feel free to yell at me about how wrong I am in the comments below or on Twitter.

From The Dark Knight to Black Panther: Predicting A Decade of Oscar’s Proposed “Achievement in Popular Film” Category

By now, you’ve probably already taken a side in this whole “Achievement in Popular Film” fiasco. I won’t bore you with the details of how I feel (unless you want to click here and read a long, rambling essay with my thoughts and some cursory recent Oscar history), so instead, let’s just launch into the point of this second article; accepting that these changes are going to happen, I thought it might be interesting to look back at the last few years of Academy Awards and see who might have been in contention for this statue, had it existed back then.

The problem, of course, is that the Academy hasn’t yet defined what Achievement in Popular Film actually means. As I said in my other piece, the ideal scenario would be that this winds up being some sort of cross section between art and popularity. In a more unfortunate case, it will either be a secondary conciliatory Oscar for some snubbed popular movie, or merely an excuse to parade out the year’s most successful Disney producers. In any case, in the article below, I made a sincere attempt to look back at the last ten years (ever since the Academy expanded Best Picture to up to ten films in order to deal with decreasing relevance of the movies it was rewarding, and certain snubs like the one for The Dark Knight). And the results were kind of all over the place and super interesting, to the point where it actually kind of got me excited to see what the first couple of years of Popular Film might look like in the immediate future.

Here are the parameters I worked with, in the absence of any from the Academy itself:

  • Box office performance: I’m setting the bar for popularity at $100M box office, as that’s a pretty standard benchmark for a film’s success. What’s more, the movie will have had to make this money by more or less the end of the year in order to avoid the inevitable bump that an Oscar run would provide. I made some exceptions for movies that would have most certainly released earlier if an award like this was on the table, but generally speaking this means that a lot of Best Picture nominees wound up on the cutting room floor.
  • No animation: Animated features are eligible for Best Picture (and have broken through on three occasions), however considering they already have their own category and the fact that there’s at least half a dozen animated films that break $100M a year, it doesn’t seem like it’s within the spirit of the category. Otherwise, there are no genre limitations.
  • The movies have to be good: I know that this is incredibly subjective, especially as the years go by, but I ignored movies that weren’t considered great, but still made a lot of money, like Suicide Squad. This is probably unfair, but I’m not giving another Oscar to some sorta Suicide Squad.
  • Like the Academy already mentioned, films nominated for Best Picture are still eligible for this award.

That’s about it. Without the Academy defining what “popular film” is supposed to mean, I don’t want to pull in the reins too tightly. And, as you’ll see, it’s created some interesting results. Let’s start with the current year before going back to 2008.

2018 – Predicted Winner: Black Panther
Potential Spoiler:
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
Best Picture Winner: N/A
Other Nominees (So Far): Avengers: Infinity War, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Ocean’s Eight, A Quiet Place, Ready Player One
Still To Come: Crazy Rich Asians, Mile 22, First Man, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Widows, Creed II, Robin Hood, Mary Poppins Returns, Welcome to Marwen, Aquaman

It would be kind of poetic if, after pressuring the Academy to create this category and after everyone presumed that it was made for Black Panther, Disney didn’t actually take it home. It seems like a given, but it kind of depends on what winds up defining the category and if any block of voting members decides that this definition doesn’t line up with Black Panther. At the risk of getting a lot of hate thrown my way, I actually don’t think that Black Panther is an Oscar-caliber film, much like I didn’t think Wonder Woman was last year. At least not in terms of how the Academy has defined that in recent years, siding more towards quality and art rather than industry importance. Black These are movies that mean a lot to people for a variety of reasons, but at the end of the day, neither is even the best superhero movie of their given year, yet alone worthy of being the first to break through to Best Picture. This category could be the Academy recognizing this divide, and while it may not sit well with some people, I think it’s probably the right move to recognize these kinds of movies and their relative importance without admonishing the smaller scale art films that have taken over Best Picture. With that in mind, Black Panther seems to be the obvious winner. But I wouldn’t count out Infinity War, which made virtually the same amount of money domestically and was beloved by moviegoers. Then again, if cultural impact is paramount, then Crazy Rich Asians might stand a shot if it makes some money, or they could pull a Globes and turn this into the farce that comedy/musical is at the Golden Globes. And wouldn’t it be funny if, after all this fuss and muss, the Achievement in Popular Film award goes to a goddamn Mamma Mia movie?

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2008 – Predicted Winner: The Dark Knight
Potential Spoiler:
Mamma Mia!
Best Picture Winner:
Slumdog Millionaire
Other Nominees: Iron Man, Twilight, Quantum of Solace, Sex and the City, Tropic Thunder, Step Brothers

Speaking of hilarious poetry, let’s go back to the year that was the precursor to this mess, when the outrage over The Dark Knight’s snub led to the expansion of Best Picture. If instead the Academy created Achievement in Popular Film to accommodate it, the same way they’re doing for Black Panther, then it seems pretty obvious that The Dark Knight would walk away with this award and Christopher Nolan fans wouldn’t spend the next decade lamenting the fact that their favourite director never got the recognition he deserved. Or… just like they might this year, they give it to freaking Mamma Mia.

2009 – Predicted Winner: Avatar
Potential Spoiler:
Inglourious Basterds
Best Picture Winner: The Hurt Locker
Other Nominees:
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Hangover, Star Trek, The Blindside, Sherlock Holmes, Taken, District 9, Watchmen

2009 seems like another obvious year. Avatar was not the best movie of 2009 (that was Inglourious Basterds), but it was most certainly the most influential. It ushered in the current era of 3D and forced theaters to buy all new equipment. It set new box office records domestically and worldwide, records director James Cameron already held. But it was toppled by The Hurt Locker for Best Picture because it was a mainstream action/sci-fi movie with a derivative, forgettable story and mediocre acting. . After The Dark Knight muddled the line between art and mainstream appeal, the Academy quickly put its foot down and said that it was disinterested in that debate, instead rewarding one of the least-watched Best Picture winners of all time and likely perpetuating the stereotype that the Oscars are for art films no one cares about. If Popular Film existed in 2009, there’s no way Avatar doesn’t come out the winner. Unless… the Academy treats it as Best Picture #2 and gives it to Inglourious Basterds, the film they’re afraid of giving Best Picture to despite eight nominations, a Supporting Actor-winning performance from Christoph Waltz rivaling the bar set by Heath Ledger a year earlier, and a Best Original Screenplay snub so egregious that they gave Tarantino the nod a couple years later for Django Unchained when 2009 Hurt Locker winner Mark Boal should have won for his superior film, Zero Dark Thirty. So, do you give it to Avatar, the benchmark-destroying film, or Inglourious Basterds, the Tarantino masterpiece too gauche to be lauded as the year’s best film, but incredibly popular? What’s more, does anyone remember The Hurt Locker if this category exists?

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2010 – Predicted Winner: True Grit
Potential Spoiler:
Inception
Best Picture Winner:
The King’s Speech
Other Nominees: Other Potential Nominees:
Alice in Wonderland, Iron Man 2, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows Part 1, The Karate Kid, Tron Legacy, Shutter Island, The Other Guys, The Expendables

2010 is when things start to get weird and the necessary for this category dwindles for a few years. I may be blinded by hindsight, but there’s not a single populist film in this pool that really stands out. The year’s top action/adventure performers are all sort of bland and forgettable and haven’t held up in the years since they came out. And it would have been a travesty to reward half a Harry Potter film (more on that when we get to 2011). I would have killed for a The Other Guys win, as a precursor to Adam McKay’s dramatic turn in recent years, but I highly doubt the Academy would have given this award to any comedy, yet alone one starring Will Ferrell, and Shutter Island is an underrated Scorsese/Leo team-up that was otherwise ignored at this year’s Oscars and would have an equally difficult time in this category. Barring a wild misinterpretation of what this category is supposed to mean, that leaves us with only two possible winners, both 2010 Best Picture nominees. Either this goes to True Grit, or Inception, and at the end of the day Oscar is much more likely to pick a Coen over a Nolan.

2011 –  Predicted Winner: The Help
Potential Spoiler:
Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows 2
Best Picture Winner:
The Artist
Other Nominees:
Fast Five, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Thor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Bridesmaids

The further I get into my own head about this damn category, the more it looks like it’s going to wind up being Best Picture Jr. instead of rewarding the year’s most popular good movies. A lot of what I’ve said suggests that 2011’s statue should go to the last Harry Potter film. Even though it’s a Part 2, a trend I absolutely loathed about this era of blockbusters, it would have been the perfect time to reward the legacy of a really important and uber popular film franchise, similar to how they celebrated Lord of The Rings eight years earlier. Especially considering, shockingly, that the Harry Potter franchise never won a single Oscar. Then again, if we accept the other, more cynical reason this category came to exist in 2018, the year of the Panther, then doesn’t rewarding The Help make just as much sense? Even so, 2011 was a good year for blockbusters, as you can see above, so it’s just as possible that they go a different root with this and try to reestablish the award as truly populist, or even give it to Bridesmaids, the first true comedy contender in recent years. All that being said, I think it’s just easier to give it to The Help, a great movie that a lot of people loved at the time and, as a Best Picture nominee that year, a fairly uncontroversial choice.

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2012 – Predicted Winner: The Avengers
Potential Spoiler:
Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Argo, Life of Pi, Lincoln
Best Picture Winner: Argo
Other Nominees:
The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, The Hunger Games, Ted, Prometheus

2012 is probably the apex of the crossover between Popular Film and Best Picture, yet also the year where a truly populist film is the most obvious winner. All but two films nominated for Best Picture made well over $100 million, a whopping five of them all reached that threshold before our arbitrary early January cutoff, and each of those five are wildly different and good in their own ways. A master debater would point to 2012 as an easy takedown for anyone arguing that Oscar doesn’t reward movies that people watch. But for the Popular Film category, that creates a massive problem. This is a year where they might want to give this out as a secondary best picture reward to, say, Life of Pi, a movie which could have easily usurped Argo for best picture, or Django Unchained as a conciliatory award to Tarantino. Even Argo would be a fine winner and the first film that could win both categories, either justifying its existence or further unnerving those who’ve already chosen to hate it no matter what. And if it wasn’t for the fact that 2012 is also the year The Avengers came out, I’m sure we’d all be fine with any of those choices. However you might interpret this category, if Marvel pulls off what they did with this movie in 2012 and don’t get rewarded for it with a category named specifically after the thing that their movies are, then there’s a problem.

2013 – Predicted Winner: Gravity
Potential Spoiler:
American Hustle
Best Picture Winner:
12 years A Slave
Other Nominees:
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Iron Man 3, Fast & Furious 6, The Heat, The Great Gatsby

2013 is probably the weakest year on this list. It doesn’t really have any big blockbuster movies that stand out, and most of its Best Picture nominees didn’t make their money before the cutoff, leaving us with American Hustle, which, quite frankly, I had to bend the box office rule to sneak in, and the obvious winner, Gravity, which was in equal contention for Best Picture for 12 Years A Slave. In fact, it won four more Oscars than 12 Years and even gave us a rare Best Picture/Best Director split, with Alphonso Cuaron taking the second most coveted statue of the show. Gravity was a great film and surprisingly popular for an Oscar contender, and in retrospect, the fact that it didn’t win Best Picture was probably the most telling early sign that the Academy was starting to firmly move away from rewarding popularity. Giving Gravity this reward is an easy compromise.

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2014 – Predicted Winner: American Sniper
Potential Spoiler:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Best Picture Winner: Birdman
Other Nominees:
Guardians of the Galaxy, Maleficent, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, Interstellar, Neighbors, The Equalizer, Gone Girl

If this was 20 years earlier, American Sniper would not only be the winner in this category, but it would have easily won Best Picture and several other awards. But in 2014, the Academy’s priorities are rapidly changing, and a movie like American Sniper is both unaligned with Hollywood’s politics and represents something they’ve left behind as the Academy moves further away from populist movies. I originally considered disqualifying American Sniper from contention because it only made its money in January, but it’s kind of too crazy a story to ignore. This is a based-on-a-true-story movie about the struggles of an Iraq war vet that, depending on what side of the political spectrum you might fall on, was either a badass that killed a bunch of terrorists (fuck yeah America!), or a complicated, ill person handed a sniper rifle by a military and society that enables and encourages his ilk to do bad things and then gaslights them by calling them heroes yet treating them like the homeless (deep breath), struggling to reintegrate with society upon his return from a harrowing, unnecessary war.  This is a story that appealed to middle America and pandered to certain people on the left, leading it to an unlikely spot at the top of the 2014 box office, an unlikely feat considering the year that Marvel had and some other great action movies. While it came out late and was likely boosted by all its Oscar nominations, I decided to throw it in here because it’s important in all of this context of what this category should be (and could have easily gone wide in like November and been eligible anyway). This, along with Argo, are the 90s style of serious mid-budget blockbusters that the Academy should want to get back to and a completely kosher choice for this award, if that’s not the kind of thing you want to reward in Best Picture. At the same time, it’s not like the Academy ignored American Sniper; it got six nominations. It was snubbed in all but one technical category not because of the kind of film it is, but because of who make it and his and its politics. Clint Eastwood, despite being a legend both in front of and behind the camera who hasn’t lost much of a step at his age, was by this point firmly an old, conservative asshole barely two years removed from when he assailed the character of the sitting president and mocked him at the RNC by talking to an empty chair. Hollywood can forget a lot of bad things, but character attacks on Barack Obama is not one of those things. So depending on what kind of cynicism is your shit, either they give him this award out of spite since it’s no Best Picture, or they nominate him and give it to Captain America because that’s what the country really stands for.

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2015 – Predicted Winner: Mad Max: Fury Road
Potential Spoiler:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Best Picture Winner:
Spotlight
Other Nominees:
Jurassic World, Furious 7, Cinderella, Spectre, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Straight Outta Compton, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Trainwreck, Spy, The Martian

Spotlight is a good movie and I don’t blame the Academy for giving it Best Picture, but the fact that a film like Mad Max can come out of an Oscar ceremony with six statues and one of them isn’t Best Picture is exactly the problem with the Oscars these days, and why this category exists. Some might argue that being technically good (all six of Mad Max’s Oscars were below the line, although George Miller should have contended for Directing and Charlize Theron should have been nominated for Best Actress) doesn’t mean that you deserve the top awards, but Mad Max, like, for example, Avatar, should be an obvious exemption, perfectly blending art with popularity and a stunning, industry-changing achievement in film that deserves to be recognized. It’s the obvious winner here as a consolation prize. That being said, 2015 is also the year Disney brought Star Wars back in the grandest possible way, destroying box office records (including some set that same year by Jurassic World), and could possibly stake an equal claim to this award.

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2016 – Predicted Winner: Rogue One
Potential Spoiler:
Captain America: Civil War
Best Picture Winner:
Moonlight
Other Nominees:
The Jungle Book, Deadpool, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Doctor Strange

2016 is probably the year that made Disney realize they could probably push the Academy into creating a category that could easily go to one of their movies every year. Star Wars and Marvel are assure that they will always have the top box office spot. They even managed to secure four of the top five slots, a feat they might be able to accomplish again this year. With no studio producing prestige films (at least not until the Fox acquisition is complete), this is the only way Disney can assure a bigger Oscar presence, and in 2016, there is no way Achievement in Popular Film doesn’t go to a Disney movie. Outside of La La Land gaming the system by going wide earlier and sneaking a victory here (and likely avoiding the envelope fiasco with Moonlight), they have virtually no competition among popular films. Rogue One was great and different and probably the easy winner. Civil War further elevated what Marvel was capable of doing. Even The Jungle Book had enough prestige and quality to possibly take it. With the Academy swinging so far in the opposite direction for Best Picture with the microbudget Moonlight, this is an easy year for Disney.

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2017 – Predicted Winner: Get Out
Potential Spoiler:
Wonder Woman
Best Picture Winner:
The Shape of Water
Other Nominees:
Beauty and the Beast, Logan, Dunkirk, War for the Planet of the Apes, The Last Jedi, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Kong: Skull Island, Baby Driver

Then again, things could swing wildly back in the other direction with 2017. Get Out shocked everyone by making $175M on a $4M budget and eventually taking home the Oscar for Best Screenplay for Jordan Peele. It’s unlikely rise to prominence and its relevance in 2017 would make it the perfect winner here, even in a rebellious sort of way when in so many of the years listed above, an populist action movie seemed like such an obvious choice. But 2017 was a pretty stacked year for popular film and it might have made the decision a little less obvious. Instead of giving this to Get Out as what might be perceived as a consolation prize, Wonder Woman, perceived by many as a Best Picture snub, would have been a fine winner. Logan might be one of the best superhero movies of all time and sneaked into the Adapted Screenplay race, an unlikely feat for this kind of movie. The Last Jedi was the top grossing film of the year, Dunkirk was a reliable Chris Nolan Movie, Jumanji was a shockingly good sequel and family film… and the list goes on.

It’s kind of funny, there are barely any years with any clear winners. I don’t know if that’s because the Academy hasn’t defined the award yet, or because popularity can mean different things, even with a benchmark for performance. What I’ve learned looking at all these races is that, depending on how strictly the Academy winds up defining this, and how derisively the voting members decide to vote, this is a category that can go any number of ways, sometimes depending on the year. A lot of people may not like it, but considering this is new territory for the Oscars, I think it kind of makes it exciting. If Best Picture is going to continue to be art and art only, if they’re never going to return to how it was before 2004, and if they can avoid turning this into a Best Picture Consolation Prize, then down to see what this category might wind up looking like. That should be the least amount of benefit of the doubt the Academy is given here, even if the idea is sort of all-over the place and (so far) half baked.