Last time we talked about how Forrest Gump was a signal flare to the film industry that the Academy liked safe over challenging. Talk about racism, sure, but don’t make anyone uncomfortable, just have an old Jewish lady learn to be less racist because of her black driver, or have someone dismiss the KKK as “sometimes people do things that make no sense.” Don’t make Do The Right Thing, that’s too much. We are going to see more of that, and we’re going to see it quickly. In the 21st Century, Oscar Movie became a genre, Oscar Season its nesting ground, and the more studios tried to quantify what would get Oscars, the more bait-y Oscar movies got, the less they appealed to audience, the further Oscar ratings fell… and the Oscar Bump that boosted nominees’ gross began to vanish.
In other developments… People suddenly liked the ideas of Trilogies in the 2000s. Not just a franchise, but a Trilogy. If your movie made money, suddenly the creator “always meant for it to be a trilogy.” And several notable ones had the same pattern: make a relatively stand-alone movie with a neat premise (the stand-alone part is something studios forgot about in the past fiveish years); if it makes money, film a second that expands on the world you created, and a third that utterly disappoints wraps it all up, and for preference film those two back-to-back so we’re not wondering what happens to Han Solo for three years. Perhaps because the 80s and 90s brought us so many classic trilogies: Star Wars, Godfather, Back to the Future,Indiana Jones in a way. Jones was always more of series of standalones than a proper trilogy but we counted it. Meanwhile, franchises that tried to keep going indefinitely?
Well… to paraphrase a movie we’ll be talking about on page ten, you either die a trilogy, or live long enough to see yourself become Jaws: The Revenge.
And let’s be real… in two pages we’re going to be talking about another series that made the Trilogy look better. Gonna be spending about a third of this post on it, in fact. The One Trilogy to Rule Them All.
With that in mind… if the Best Pictures of the Aughts were the Fellowship of the Ring, which would each one be and why? Let’s find out!
So when last we left the dance between Oscar winners and the top earners, Commerce had blown up and left Art in the distance. The Oscars fell back into biopics, with four out of ten winners being biopics, also Amadeus which doesn’t count, and audiences started saying “Yeah, you do you, Oscars” and ignoring them.
Now this had two effects, from what I can tell. First off… art movies kind of… receded? For half the decade (off and on), the Oscars seem to be once again leaning towards crowd-pleasers over what was becoming their usual arthouse fare. Was this a conscious choice, or was it that the only people leaning into High Art were Merchant Ivory? (Merchant Ivory, purveyors of languid period romances, were in full swing this decade but never sealed the deal at the ceremony and were never big money films so we don’t discuss them much.) There definitely seem to be some years where, even at the time, I thought “Wow, not a big year for for art movies if these are the nominees.”
But then some studios had themselves an idea.
Sure their Oscar fare might not play well in the summer or against the big November/December tentpoles, nothing plays well in September, and if you release them too early in the year then people forget about them come nomination time… but here’s the thing. There’s a loophole. To be eligible for Oscar nominations, you only need to play a limited time in a limited amount of theatres by the year’s end. So you do a week in LA, maybe New York, open wide in January when nothing’s happening, get yourself a Best Picture nomination and scoop up an extra $10 million or so when the buzz hits.
And so begins Oscar Season. The time of year when studios who want some prestige, in addition to a multi-film action/comedy tentpole franchise starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson*, toss out some Great Man Biopics with flashy lead actor performances or classic literary adaptations or films that played well enough at festivals to warrant a “For Your Consideration” campaign.
(*I kid, I also some Dwayne Johnson.)
(Not that all studios are choosy about what movies got FYC campaigns, The Bone Collector got a FYC campaign, and you couldn’t tell me one detail about what that movie’s about if I paid you.)
(I will not pay you, I’m aware you’re on the internet right now.)
And where loopholes exist, monsters arise to take advantage. If prestige and money can go hand-in-hand again… well. The Golden Globes are easily swayed by shiny things and schmoozing with big casts (explain how The Tourist got a Best Musical/Comedy nomination otherwise, Hollywood Foreign Press, the few positive reviews were embarrassed about it), and enough money and pressure can get you on that Best Picture list at the Oscars.
A perfect situation for somebody trying to be an Old School Studio Head like Louis B. Mayer.
Exactly like Louis B. Mayer.
Right down to getting handsy or worse with your female talent.
Miramax Films was an incredibly influential studio through the 90s. Bought by Disney in 1993, they gave platforms to young, experimental, eventually heavily influential filmmakers: Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Stephen Chow, and one Quentin Tarantino. Miramax helped Peter Jackson get Lord of the Rings into production.
It was also run by an absolute monster named Harvey Weinstein, whose crimes were numerous and Hollywood’s worst kept secret, yet it took decades for him to be brought down, and now hopefully he’ll stay in prison and away from actresses until he’s too old to hurt anyone.
Sadly we will have to come back to Harvey sooner rather than later. But let’s see what we can get through before then.
Our new game? The 90s are where the Oscars fell back into some legendarily bad calls. So we’ll be asking what the real best picture was, or what should have taken the box office crown. (No decade owns bad choices by audiences, that is forever.)
(I’ll give the 90s this, at least the Domestic/International Box Office Champs sync up more than they don’t. I’m gonna miss that moving forward.)
So up until now, “Art Vs Commerce” has been more of a friendly rivalry. The Golden Age/Studio Era didn’t have the same hard line between “art movie” and “popcorn movie,” or in other words “award movie” and “movie that makes money,” like we have today.
Up until this point, the Best Pictures and Box Office Champs have been somewhat aligned. The Box Office Champ has been nominated for if not won Best Picture 35 out of 52 times*. Even more significant? The Best Picture winner was in the box office top ten for the year 44 times.
Well that’s changing. Eight Best Picture winners didn’t make the top ten box office for the years between 1928 and 1979**. Eight out of fifty-two. In the 80s, it’s five out of ten. That’s a pretty dramatic shift. And come the 2000s that’s only gonna get worse.
It’s as though Art and Commerce are like Clark Kent and Lex Luthor in the first few seasons of Smallvillelet me finish. [Ahem] In the first few seasons (20s-60s), they’re good friends, admittedly they have some drastically different goals, but their interests do tend to overlap. Then comes season five (the 70s/80s), and suddenly their interests are at odds, and they begin to go from friends to enemies. One starts to get bigger and more ambitious, one tries to prove they’re smarter and grows to hate anything with a cape and a secret identity.
(Am I the only one to use Smallville to describe the growing rift between Oscar movies and popcorn movies? Because I’m not sorry. Honestly I’d have used Gotham but it’s impossible to describe the relationship between any two characters on that show without a corkboard and a lot of yarn.)
And the reason why? Blockbusters. Audiences were turning out in bigger numbers for popcorn flicks, which allowed studios to spend more money on them, leading to bigger hits. And more importantly, they had no set genre. Big hits in past decades tended to focus on a genre: the 40s liked war movies, the 50s acted righteous with biblical epics, the 60s got big into musicals, and the early 70s enjoyed a disaster movie. But the thing about genres is they hit a saturation point, often because studios flood the market trying to get a piece of the new hotness, then average quality drops while quantity shoots up, a bunch fail, and the bubble bursts. The one exception seems to be the current King Genre that one studio in particular is keeping afloat, I’m sure I needn’t name either.
But blockbusters weren’t a genre, they were just a scale of movie. They could be anything. A space opera, a superhero, an archaeologist punching Nazis, a kid travelling back in time to get his father some action. Anything. They were immune to genre fatigue or changing tastes. The only thing that could kill blockbusters would be, I don’t know, a deadly global pandemic that forced all public forms of entertainment to shut down indefinitely, but the 80s had a different kind of deadly global pandemic. So there were more and more blockbusters that got bigger and bigger, and there was less and less room at the box office for the simpler, human stories the Oscars were embracing.
So this decade we have a new game: no matter how far apart in tone and content they get, what thematic link joins them? And what would the mash-up movie look like? That could be fun. ‘Cause the distances get wide.
*The 17 box office champs that didn’t get nominated include a couple of classics, but are mostly things the Academy skips: comedies, a cartoon, a superhero flick. And also, thankfully, Cinerama Holiday, This is the Army, and the entire oeuvre of Eddie goddamn Cantor.
**The eight Best Pictures audiences didn’t turn out for are Cavalcade, The Life of Emile Zola, Gentleman’s Agreement, Hamlet, All the King’s Men, On the Waterfront, Marty, and In the Heat of the Night. So… real mixed bag there.
Before we move on, I just need a moment… based on what I intend to include, I have crossed the halfway point of my watch list!
Not counting any optional viewings I might throw in down the road. Like, say, if two movies from a particular trilogy make the list in one way or another, but the objectively best one doesn’t, I might just go ahead and rewatch the other one anyway. But what are the odds of that happening. Three times. In one decade.
Oof. Might need to move this along if I’m going to wrap this project up before the Oscars improbably happen this spring, and I have to compare/contrast Nomadland or Mank with 2020’s default box office champ… let’s see here… Bad Boys For Life? Huh.
Congrats, Hollywood, you’ve concocted a scenario where I’d be disappointed to not be watching Sonic the Hedgehog.
Okay. We made it through the 1950s, a decade in American history revered by middle-class white cishet male Christians, and rightfully seen by everyone who doesn’t fit that description as a patriarchal ethnostate dystopia, and wow but their choices in movies backed that up. But it’s the 60s now: the early days of the sexual revolution, the Civil Rights movement, war protests, hippies, rock music gets better, it’s a decade of change and upheaval.
So how, if at all, did the movies reflect that? Well, off the top of my head, when the decade started the Hays Code was officially still in place, and by the end an X-rated movie won Best Picture, so… bit of a shift there. In fact, in honour of that, this decade’s Recurring Bit will track how Hollywood’s self-censorship gradually collapsed with “What’s Good, Hays Code?” Parallel to that, this is the decade that the old-school studio system finally died out, and New Hollywood was born. It was, in a way, the end of history.
Sword-and-sandal epics didn’t go away in the 60s, in fact we’ll cover one soon enough, but the big ones did get dramatically less “Yay Jesus” and the Oscars seemed to be kind of over them. Sure some got best picture nominations, because we still have a couple decades of the Academy thinking “Look if that many people watched it, it must be worth a nomination,” but when it came to handing out the big prize it’s like they were saying “No, we gave Best Picture to Ben-Hur, now we’re done, that was the deal,” and went back to throwing the trophy as far away from a biblical epic as they could.
And one correction to my last entry: I was misinformed about when the Three Stooges retired. Apparently they had a resurgence in 1958, swapped Joe for Curly Joe, and that trio kept going all the way to 1970. Look that’s not a major part of film history, frankly the Curly Joe years aren’t even a major part of Stooges history, but I reported a false fact and felt the need for a correction.
Into decade three of our deep-dive into Oscar history! And where are we spending most of the 50s, Patton Oswalt?
Big name producers started spending a lot of time on Bible stories. A lot.
Biblical epics are all over this decade, and when they won the box office, it often wasn’t by a narrow margin. Audiences seemed to love these things so much they’d flock to one even if it wasn’t, you know… good. At all. And they tended to be so long. On the other hand, they’re the first movies I’ve seen in this project to say “You know, slavery is pretty bad,” even if they’re so laser focussed on Roman or Egyptian slavery that even I can’t tell if American audiences were supposed to think “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t have done that either.”
I’m gonna warn you right up front. Audiences in the 1950s made some dumb, dumb choices at the box office. There were a lot of classic, iconic films being made in the 50s, but they kept getting passed over for trash. Hot trash, to be fair, but trash all the same. We start to see some proper musicals much more often this decade, so I may slip in some musical flair here and there, but successful or not, they ain’t all great.
Between the runtimes and the constant reminders that Jesus Was Pretty Good Actually, if any decade of this project were gonna break me… this would be it.
Meanwhile, the Academy drifted into… very bland waters. There’s weird variety in subject and tone, leading to serious tonal whiplash if you watch them all in a row, but still often bland. Yes, we often accuse the Oscars of picking movies that speak to their oddly specific preferences rather than movies of lasting influence or impact, but this decade… honestly I’m not sure what possibly could have drawn Oscar buzz to a lot of these. Sure there are three or four bangers from film history, but some of these winners…
I have a friend, or possibly a nemesis, depends on mood, who would pretend that he was finally going to watch the first season of Pennyworth, and then out of, I can only assume purest spite, instead watch the dumbest trash reality show available and text our group chat all about it*. (Flirty Dancing? Really? Come on, you are only hurting yourself, man.) In this case it’s like sometimes the Oscars said “We are not giving one of your Jesus epics a Best Picture Oscar, we will give it to literally anything else.” Why were they so set against big religious pics? Well, my main theory is they’re not very good, but most of them still managed Best Picture nominations, including the two worst/most aggressively Christian so… I don’t… I’m definitely not out to say “Jews control the film industry ” but–
And we are back for another decade of cinema history: the Best Pictures and box office rulers of the 1940s. Last installment was a dream for screenwriters, for it not only provided the looming presence of the Rise of Disney, but gave us a hero in Frontier Journalist and Vigilante Preacher Yancey Cravat, Attorney at Law, and a villain in C-grade Groucho Marx/Blackface Enthusiast Eddie Cantor. But as we leave the 30s behind us, it’s sadly time to say goodbye to impossibly noble Yancey, and thankfully also to Eddie.
You know, unless there’s a really good reason to bring them up.
One thing I’ve noticed is that the Golden Age of Hollywood was all about the producers. Cecil B. DeMille, Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, that handsy son-of-a-bitch Louis B. Mayer, these were seen as the men behind the movie. Today, it’s the director who gets that acclaim, with the exception of Hollywood’s reigning king, Kevin Feige. Look at Argo. Did anyone make a fuss about the producers? No, and one of them was George goddamn Clooney. The possible first large exception to the producer being a bigger deal than the director came to Hollywood this decade, and we’ll talk about him very soon, but for now, it’s Goldwyn, Selznick, DeMille, and Mayer’s world.
What’s interesting to me about the 1940s is that black and white was still the default. Gone With the Wind was in full Technicolor, Wizard of Oz was mostly Technicolor, so obviously that was an option, but plenty of films we’re about to talk about, in this entry and the next one, were still black and white. I find this peculiar given how fast silent films dried up in the wake of The Jazz Singer. This blog series covers 166 films, and only three were silent: Wings in the late 20s, when sound was in its infancy; City Lights in the very early 30s, because Charlie Chaplin was loath to adapt with the times; and one in the 2010s of all damn places because someone thought it would be clever. But black and white stayed the standard for over a decade after Gone With the Wind.
(Yes I’m aware black and white film is still a thing but for good or ill it’s an aesthetic choice rather than a practical one, The Lighthouse wasn’t trying to save money.)
So while sound was an industry game-changer that every studio rushed to incorporate, the the 40s colour was more like 3D or IMAX now. Not every movie does them, fewer still use the right cameras the whole time, because that’s added expense, and you need to be sure you’re getting it back. The big tentpoles might shoot in 3D, or just get the post-production conversion, but your Get Outs and John Wicks, for example, do not.
So, if colour is only for the Big Shows, how would World War II and the post-war era treat cinematic tastes?
At least one very high high this decade, and a spectacular low, and they were the same year.
Welcome, welcome, patrons and party people. I know it’s been a minute since I’ve done much here… well, done much that got published. I had 4000 words and change on fixing the DC movies, but I was only five movies in and hadn’t even gotten to “The Worst Reasons People Defend Zack Snyder” yet and sure we all have a surplus of time this year but come on, man, get there.
So instead… starting a big and ambitious new project.
As I’ve said at least once a year since starting this blog, the Oscars are my Superbowl, my World Cup, my Wrestlemania. I’ve watched the show nearly every year since 1987. For a decade and change, I’ve watched every best picture nominee. So I know, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they screw up all the time. They’re nervous about diversity, reward safe movies that claim to have a message, and hand out acting trophies based on who’s due rather than deserving. They have made some epic, clown-shoes, disastrously bad choices in the past 93 years… and the time has come to dig into them.
Over the next nine posts, I’m going to be discussing every best picture winner in Oscar history, from moderate-Jeopardy-question Wings to reigning champ Parasite… and if it takes too long to do this, whichever of the seven movies that made it into theatres in 2020 that wins next year. Tenet? Invisible Man? Or will they throw an Oscar at Apple+ if it means not nominating Vin Diesel’s Bloodshot for Best Picture? Who knows. Life is chaos right now, chaos and stress and tragedy, so for a minute let’s talk about movies instead.
With each post, I’ll be looking at a decade of Oscar history*, and examining each year’s Best Picture according to the Academy, and the year’s box office champion. What did the Academy choose to crown, and what did the crowds flock to, and how different were they?
Art Vs Commerce, Oscars Vs Box Office! It should be an interesting journey through film history, or a window looking into my descent into utter insanity.
I’m gonna try to watch as many of them as possible, because there are a lot of movies on the list I’ve never seen and several I feel I should… but I likely won’t get to all of them. Maybe because they’re hard to find, because streaming services aren’t here to be a history lesson, and they sell more subscriptions with Hubie Halloween than The Life of Emile Zola. Or maybe they’re hard to find because no matter how much audiences in the 20s loved them, some movies have aged even worse than Gone With The Wind. Or maybe because I’ve seen them enough times to be able to discuss them at length. I mean I’ll watch The Lord of the Rings again, I’m cool with that, but I’m unlikely to learn something new about it.
And if anyone was wondering whether this was going to descend into “Damn kids don’t appreciate the classics, they’d rather TikTok than watch a true classic art film,” old-man-yells-at-cloud territory, two days in I swiftly abandoned my viewings for this project to watch Sarah Z’s 90-minute YouTube exploration of the dark side of Sherlock fandom and have no regrets. I am… not fancy.
So. Let’s hop in the old Wayback Machine, and see what sort of movie scored an Oscar in the Great Depression. My general impression? In these, the first years of handing out Oscars, they seemed to be experimenting with what an award-worthy movie even was. Choices range from war epics (both grim and congratulatory) to historical pieces to quiet character pieces to screwball comedy. And audiences… audiences liked a laugh, they liked spectacle, and as we’ll see, they liked some things 2020 says they really shouldn’t have, while also undervaluing a true king.
Allow me to explain as we examine… whoof… twenty movies.
*I considered one post per year but that seemed like madness. That’s 93 posts, at which point I’d definitely need a 94th for Best Picture Winner Bill and Ted Face The Music and box office champion Sonic the Hedgehog.
Gonna be real with you, readers, I had a different post, a single-page short story I hammered out to exorcise the lingering emotions of an affecting dream, but… maybe that’s just for me? I don’t know. I don’t know that there’s anything there worth y’all reading. Instead, I present Tales From the Nerd Farm.
So there came a time after my last marketing gig when the EI had run out and I needed some form of income, and as we may recall the post office wasn’t a good fit. A friend owned an internet cafe, one I’d long patronized for Thursday night gaming sessions, and they needed someone to work weekends. A few months later, I was the new manager. Time passed, and this job I took to keep busy while trying to get a career going became the longest I’d ever worked anywhere.
And then COVID happened, and five weeks of no revenue and no rent relief meant the city’s last standing internet cafe, home to gamers, people with no home computer who need to do an online training course, and people who need documents scanned, closed for good.
I’ve never talked about it here, because I tend not to discuss current employers on the internet. But now that it’s gone, I may as well share some stories of some of the oddities, the times good and bad, the weird things you get used to working at an internet/gaming cafe… a profession that might be going the same way as my old gig, projectionist.
(Digital projection basically killed that as a specialized skill. Ushers can download a movie and press a button.)
And I’m going to start each section with “Something I Always Wanted to Say to a Customer but Never Did.”
The year was 2013. A year and change after The Avengers changed the game for the film industry. Marvel Studios had gone from uppity newcomers to the juggernaut of Hollywood, and it seemed like they were announcing their intention to conquer TV as well, starting with the unexpected return of recently deceased fan-favourite character Phil Coulson in Agents of SHIELD, created by Avengers writer/director and nerd icon Joss Whedon.
We did not yet know that Marvel Studios and Marvel TV were very different entities, and once Joss Whedon stopped working for either, the connections between the two would suddenly and irrevocably cease. Or that Joss’ ex-wife would publicly air his infidelities, and Ray Fisher would openly complain about his behaviour during the Justice League reshoots, leading to some shit from Buffy coming up, and now liking Joss Whedon is a problem…
So to get past that, we’ll instead credit Agents of SHIELD to its true showrunners, the husband and wife team of Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen.
Agents of SHIELD was Marvel TV That Was’ first salvo, and it was nearly the last show standing, with its final season airing after Cloak and Dagger, Runaways, and all of Marvel Netflix wrapped up, knowingly or otherwise. So they’d be first in/last out… except that similar to Fox’s X-Men franchise limping across the finish line withthe long, long delayed New Mutants, apparently Marvel decided to film and release supernatural series Helstrom despite the fact that the shows based on better known characters it was supposed to be paired with were all cancelled when Kevin Feige shut down Marvel TV. Seriously, everything got shut down, but they still said “Go ahead, do a season of Helstrom.” That show had better not end on a cliffhanger.
In any event, Agents of SHIELD had its work cut out for it. Other than Coulson, the show starred no familiar Marvel names, just a bunch of original characters. The most notable name in the cast had to be Street Fighter and Mulan’s Ming-Na Wen, who is not the household name she goddamn deserves to be. People expected weekly crossovers to the movies, but the movies never ever acknowledged them back. Other than a couple of appearances each from Thor’s Lady Sif, Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, for known Marvel characters they were mostly restricted to at best C or D-list villains for the first three years. And because they debuted seven months before Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they weren’t allowed to have a plot until episode 16 or so, meaning that the first season moved at the glacial pace of early Lost and played more like NCIS: Fringe Science than something connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not only wouldn’t the movies recognize or acknowledge them, neither would other Marvel TV shows, not even the ones on the same network. You were NOT good enough to pretend to be above AOS, Inhumans.
Somehow despite all of this, despite everything working against them, they managed to be Marvel TV’s longest running and, according to studies, most popular series. And there are reasons for that, and also reasons why it’s always been a middle-of-the-pack show in this blog’s annual rankings… save for the one year it came last because the bar was much higher and their “Oh crap we’re still on the air now what” sixth season couldn’t compete.
The final season of Agents of SHIELD wrapped up recently, in which the Agents found themselves jumping through history, trying to stop a race of robots called Chronicoms from wiping out SHIELD in the past to facilitate their invasion in 2019. And much like The Punisher’s final season allowed us to examine Marvel Netflix as a whole, the final season of Agents of SHIELD shines a light on everything the series did well, and all the places they struggled.
Let’s begin with our core cast, the nobodies who became fan-favourites.