Massive change is the consequence of horror. Such was the case on the morning of January 22, 2009. Moviegoers, critics and even Academy voters were in a state of utter disbelief following the “Best Picture” nomination announcement. Christopher Nolan’s unanimously praised “The Dark Knight” was nowhere to be found in the lineup despite landing eight other Oscar nominations. The $1 billion dollar-grossing film was expected to undo the long-standing bias against superhero movies by becoming the first of its kind up for the industry’s highest award. All signs were pointing towards the unthinkable – Nolan’s DGA nomination and the film’s respective PGA nod suggested history would be made. Sadly, The Weinstein Company’s “The Reader” edged out Nolan’s masterpiece for that crucial fifth slot. Mixed reviews be damned, a World War II motion picture backed by the greatest awards campaign publicists naturally upheld the status quo.
Only this time, members demanding variation in “prestige” taste weren’t going to lie down quietly. “The Dark Knight” acquitted itself from any form of lingering skepticism with Heath Ledger’s much deserving and wholly game-changing posthumous win for “Best Supporting Actor.” If genre performances could be taken seriously, why couldn’t the content itself? In conjunction with public outrage, the Academy rebooted their entire playbook from the ground up on June 24, 2009. The “Best Picture” limit increased from five to 10 nominees. The last time the Academy featured that many nominees in the aforementioned field was 67 years earlier in 1943. Following this change, science fiction films “Avatar,” “Inception” and “District 9” were nominated. In addition, “Up” and
“Toy Story 3” became the first animated films up for the “Best Picture” prize since “Beauty and the Beast” in 1992. Clearly, the expansion was allowing a broader representation of the given film year rather than catering to tastes in conflict with the general audience.
Unfortunately, progress has a way of backpedaling when the elite feel like their formerly exclusive country club is no longer theirs to control. In order to preserve their meritocracy, the Academy revised their ruling by swapping to a preferential voting system whereby the “Best Picture” could range from five to 10 films. The catch was that those top-tier movies had to accrue at least 5% of first-place votes by the voting body at large. Once more, the flavor of the majority (white male over 60) sat comfortably at the top for all to forcibly lick. The proof was in the 85th Academy Award lineup. The critically reviled 9/11 tearjerker “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” was favored over the hip and stylish “Drive.” A forgettable World War II film made the list, and a silent film pandering to Hollywood’s nostalgia obsession won the coveted award. Things reverted back to their original bland state of genre homogeneity.
Over the next several ceremonies, a few idiosyncratic films slipped through the cracks – “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Her,” to name a few – but the revision largely resulted in an expansion of the norm. “Skyfall,” “Frozen,” “The Force Awakens,” “The Avengers,” “Carol,” “Looper” and many more culturally significant films that didn’t fit the Academy mold were ignored for unmemorable fare like “Philomena,” “Nebraska” and “Hacksaw Ridge.” But then something astounding, albeit controversial, occurred during this year’s 89th Academy Awards. Aside from “Arrival’s” laudable nomination, the preferential ballot system went the way of a growing minority. The odds-on favorite “La La Land” – for obvious reasons given its genre and industry-pampering appeal – lost after a flub was spotted. It was in fact the black cinema and LGBT-centric film “Moonlight” that shined brightest that fateful evening. If “Moonlight” could defeat competitors whose genres (with the exception of “Arrival”) at one time won “Best Picture,” it meant the scales had completely shifted.
So now possibilities exist that we’ll never have biopic films stuffing the category. Heck, maybe this year will be the last to feature a Mel Gibson film. “Moonlight” has ironically shaken the ground with its historic victory. Whether or not the Academy decides to go back to a minimum of five or even 10 “Best Picture” nominees, it’s evident that critical consensus, public reaction and Academy taste are finally starting to align. Yes, the first science fiction film to win “Best Picture” will likely come from a favorite heavyweight like Spielberg, robbed for “E.T.” However, the fact that this potential reality has shifted from a “never” to a “soon” is largely accredited to the reboot made shortly after “The Dark Knight” snub. Loss creates fight, and thus hope is fostered. In the near future, we’ll have lived through a period in which all genres — high, low and in-between — will have been recognized in equal reverence concerning “Best Picture.”