In Defense of the New Oscar Category

A couple of days ago, the Academy Awards body announced that they would be introducing a category to honor popular films. The backlash was hard and fast: it was instantly waved off as a bad idea, with Rob Lowe declaring that the film business “had passed away” at the announcement of the new award. His opinion seems to be widely agreed-with across the board, with many seeing it as a cynical move to cash in on the popularity of mega-hits like Infinity War and Black Panther.

So, yeah, I see the backlash against the new Oscar category. But if I’m being honest, I’m actually more happy than I am about the new Best Popular Film award than I am irritated – and here’s why.

For one, there are many, many amazing films that have been left out of the major Oscar categories because they’re not the “right” kind of movies: take Jurassic Park, for example, which got a handful of wins in the technical categories but was overlooked for the big prizes. I think we can all agree that it’s one of the most significant movies to come out in the last thirty years or so, a perfecting of the blockbuster that demonstrated just how specific an achievement a film of sure pure entertainment value is. A New Hope was similarly overlooked for major awards, and the best the Indiana Jones franchise ever crept to was a nod for cinematography for Raiders of the Lost Ark. These are all movies of huge cultural significance, beautifully made and innovative in so many ways, and yet they were hand-waved for majors awards because they weren’t the right kind of film.

In more recent years, too, as the blockbuster has grown more dynamic and innovative, the choice to overlook them for major awards has grown more egregious. Look, I’m not saying that Mark Hamill should have got an Oscar nomination for The Last Jedi, but I am saying that Hugh Jackman deserved one for his sensational performance in Logan. Michael B Jordan was never going to get nominated for Erik Killmonger in Black Panther, but I’d certainly far rather see him get a nod for his sizzling, captivating turn than yet another fucking dull-ass British biopic. One of my favorite pieces of acting this year was a stunning turn from Zoe Saldana in Infinity War, but nobody’s discussing any awards recognition for her in any serious way. And sure, I would be thrilled if someone actually acknowledged the fact that Gerard Butler was legitimately amazing in Den of Thieves beyond me.

And as more and more prestige actors (Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, Josh Brolin as Thanos, Ben Affleck as Batman) and directors (Taika Watiti with Ragnarok, Ryan Coogler with Black Panther, Ava DuVernary with A Wrinkle in Time) move into the realm of blockbusters, it seems bull-headed to ignore some of the great work their doing in them. I’m not saying that all or even most of these blockbusters are superb cinema, but some of them – especially in the last year, with the release of stuff like Black Panther and Infinity War – have been. A movie that took on themes of African identity versus African-American identity would have been lauded with the same cast, but they stuck a superhero in it and now we don’t want it to get Academy recognition? I’ve seen some irritated rumblings about these films not needing critical recognition thanks to the enormous amounts of cash they raked in, but Get Out, last year’s indie darling, made many times more against it’s budget at the box office than Infinity War did, and I didn’t see anyone complaining about that rightfully scooping armfuls of awards.

I do somewhat understand where the complaints about this new Oscar category come from, with people viewing the Oscars as a chance to celebrate truly worthy cinema, but this category doesn’t come at the expense of any other. You can still have your Lady Birds and your Three Billboards and your Shapes of Water(s), but I don’t see anything wrong with acknowledging the fact that there’s been some extraordinary achievements in the world of blockbuster filmmaking in the last few years. I don’t want to point the “snobbery” finger too quickly, but most of the complaints I’ve seen about the new award feel very much like that – an attempt to keep popular movies that appeal to normal cinema-goers at arm’s length, away from the “worthy” movies the Academy deigns to award.

Amazing cinema comes in many forms – and yes, that includes Jurassic Park and The Empire Strikes Back and Indiana Jones, which we have no problem acknowledging as brilliant pieces of art now. So what’s the problem with actually recognizing some of the brilliant, innovative, and ambitious movies that have come from blockbuster cinema just because they make a lot of money or many people enjoy them? I have been and always will be a passionate defender of blockbuster cinema, and for me, this new category is a chance to recognise some of the amazing work that’s gone into creating some of the best pieces of entertainment in recent memory.

What do you think of the new Oscar category? Are you happy about it, or do you want to see it scrapped? Would you like to see more attention paid to blockbuster cinema in major awards categories? Let us know in the comments below!

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By Louise MacGregor

(header image courtesy of Infinity War.

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