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Why the Oscars Need More Movies Like ‘Hunger Games: Mockingjay’

Ever since the Oscars snubbed Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” for best picture in 2009, the Academy has tried to dodge accusations of elitism. The argument goes that Oscars voters, made up of a bloc of 6,028 Hollywood insiders, aren’t in touch with the general public’s movie tastes. As the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote in a column that year: “It may be that the more movies matter, the less the Oscars do.”

But there’s one way to fix that problem. The Academy ought to invite Katniss Everdeen to February’s ceremony.

The fact that “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” isn’t being heralded as a contender in the best picture race is ridiculous. The box office juggernaut, which opened to $123 million over the weekend, is precisely the reason why the category was expanded in 2010 to include up to 10 nominees. Yes, “Mockingjay—Part 1” is the third movie based on a popular three-book series divided into two parts for financial gain, but director Francis Lawrence pulls it off. And the Academy owes the franchise, after it foolishly didn’t nominate last year’s “Catching Fire” for anything. Not even best song.

The truth is, the Oscars need “The Hunger Games” more than the series need the Oscars. It’s not that the Oscars should mimic the MTV Movie Awards. But at the same time, the ceremony is at risk of looking like a day-late shadow of the Independent Spirits Awards. Every single major winner at the last Oscars (with the exception of Alfonso Cuaron) had picked up a Spirit Award just before the telecast.

And, in the past decade, the Academy has given the best picture Oscar to a studio film only three times. Despite the expansion of the best picture race to include more populist titles, Oscar voters frequently give those extra slots to arthouse favorites like “Nebraska,” “Tree of Life” and “Amour.” So far, this year’s best picture competition is again shaping up to be another indie race — with frontrunners “Boyhood,” “The Imitation Game,” “Theory of Everything,” “Birdman” and “Foxcatcher.” This is a problem, because fewer hits among the list of nominees generally means fewer viewers watch the Oscars.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” is a blockbuster that’s good enough to be considered art. It’s an impressive accomplishment to keep a beloved franchise fresh, from the script (by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, which delicately builds on Suzanne Collin’s final book) to the special effects, cinematography and sound. In an industry that rarely allows women to headline blockbusters, Jennifer Lawrence delivers yet another layered performance as Katniss — every bit as rich and nuanced as her Oscar-winning role in “Silver Linings Playbook.” In a weak year for lead female performances in movies, why isn’t she being talked about like Meryl Streep (“Into the Woods”) or Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”)?

The supporting actors are also great. As Alma Coin, Julianne Moore brings to life a politician that would give Sarah Palin a run for her money. Donald Sutherland continues to build Snow into a vengeful monarch, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, appearing in one of his final screen roles, looks jubilant now that it’s been revealed that Plutarch Heavensbee isn’t evil. It’s the kind of role, as a benevolent and protective father, that the Oscar-winning actor didn’t get to play often in films or onstage, and I’m grateful that it’s one of our final portraits of him.

It’s a mystery why some hit films — like “Lord of the Rings” and “Avatar” — manage to break into the Oscars race while others (see the eight installments of “Harry Potter”) don’t. If it were up to me, the best picture race wouldn’t just include “Mockingjay,” but also films like “Interstellar,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “The Lego Movie.” Then it would really feel like a celebration of all of this year’s best movies — not just the small ones.

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