The 'popular film' Oscar proves the Academy has no idea what a good movie looks like

Commentary: Instead of re-examining old-fashioned ideas of "high" and "low" art, the Academy wants to put blockbuster movies in a box. That's a bad idea.

Mark Serrels Editorial Director
Mark Serrels is an award-winning Senior Editorial Director focused on all things culture. He covers TV, movies, anime, video games and whatever weird things are happening on the internet. He especially likes to write about the hardships of being a parent in the age of memes, Minecraft and Fortnite. Definitely don't follow him on Twitter.
Mark Serrels
3 min read

Black Panther.

Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios

On Wednesday the Oscars made some changes. Weird changes. Changes that confirm what many have known for years, perhaps decades: the Academy is out of touch in significant ways.

The major, most newsworthy, change is a new category "designed around achievement in popular film."

You can always count on the Oscars to disappoint you.

2016 was the worst year. Let me tell you why.

2016: Brexit, US presidential election, Russian hacking. In 2016 there were plenty of good movies, but only one truly great movie. Only one movie that captured the zeitgeist in a way that somehow felt timeless and of its time. That movie was Mad Max: Fury Road.

Let me toss out some superlatives here.


Mad Max: Fury Road.

Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

Mad Max : Fury Road is almost certainly the best action movie ever made. It's a brain-leaking visual masterpiece, a pitch-perfect exercise in universe building, a feminist call to arms, an allegory of misguided masculine power structures disguised as a two hour long series of explosions. But it's also a two hour long series of the best goddamn explosions ever recorded on film.

Mad Max: Fury Road is distressing. It's intense. It's meaningful. It's perfectly edited, perfectly paced. It contains outstanding performances: Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, Hugh Keays-Byrne as Immortan Joe. As a piece of art, as a technical achievement, Mad Max: Fury Road is close to perfect. It isn't just one of the best films of 2016, it's one of the best films of the century.

But in 2016, the Oscar for Best Picture didn't got to Mad Max: Fury Road. It went to Spotlight.

Spotlight. Remember Spotlight?

A good movie. A great movie, perhaps. But very much the type of movie that wins Oscars. Based on a serious true story about a serious issue. With serious performances from serious actors doing some serious acting.



Open Road Films

In other words, when the Academy had the perfect chance to really do something different, to subvert tradition and give a genuinely spectacular and epoch-defining movie its due, it blew it. The Academy played it safe. It gave Spotlight the Oscar because, let's face it, Mad Max: Fury Road is just an action movie. And action flicks can have technical Oscars for their effects or sound, but big wins for genre pieces such as The Shape of Water remain the exception rather than the rule.

Now, we don't know exactly what form the new Oscar category will take, because the Academy has left it vague. But critics are already attacking the decision for "pandering" to popularity. It's been suggested that the decision waters down the Oscars, and pushes it in the direction of a "people's choice" or MTV-style awards show.

Give me a break.

This decision to add an award for "popular" movies does the precise opposite. Much like the addition of the "best animated feature" award in 2002, it's a decision designed to give the Oscars a laser-like focus. A decision designed to put a specific type of movie in a box so serious movies can compete for the serious awards.

It's a category designed for movies like Mad Max: Fury Road or Get Out or, dare I say it, superhero movies as a whole. A box for mainstream cinema so a specific type of movie can continue to fight it out for the major awards.

It's elitism, basically.

And perhaps the most old-fashioned type of cultural elitism: a confused misinterpretation of "high art-low art" concepts that were already outdated by the mid 20th century. Is Black Panther's commentary on post-colonialism less relevant or important because it's in a superhero movie? Is The Last Jedi's subtle skewering of audience nostalgia and toxic fan culture worth ignoring because it's part of a science-fiction space opera?

The Oscars are voted for by an out-of-touch subset of industry insiders with a boring, filtered, old-fashioned idea of what a "good" movie looks like. The introduction of an award for "achievement in popular film" allows the Academy to vote for the Forrest Gumps of the world. Mad Max: Fury Road, Get Out and other movies like them can just have the scraps.

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