Back in March, shortly before the release of “Furious 7,” Vin Diesel threw out a bold prediction about his movie’s chances in the forthcoming awards season. “It will probably win best picture at the Oscars,” he told Variety, “unless the Oscars don’t want to be relevant ever.”
Box office domination is a lousy measure of relevance, let alone quality, but Diesel’s comment did carry a valid point about the Academy’s historic disregard for genre movies, the occasional best-picture win for a “French Connection,” a “Silence of the Lambs” or a “Lord of the Rings” finale notwithstanding. Still, to its credit, the organization has taken some welcome steps toward acknowledging that movie greatness doesn’t always come laden with self-evidently worthy themes; sometimes it shows up swinging a sword, driving a car, or toting a cattle gun.
And things have arguably improved since the Academy expanded its best picture category from five nominees (a move brought on directly by the perceived snub of “The Dark Knight,” one of the key American genre movies of the past decade), without which a cerebral action-thriller like “Inception” or a post-apocalyptic creature feature like “District 9” might have had trouble squeezing in.
As for the high-end popcorn fare the Academy might make room for this season, it’s worth remembering that genre itself is a highly elastic concept (what is “Argo” if not a spry and funny caper movie?), especially if it comes accompanied by serious filmmaking chops and the imprimatur of a respected auteur.
Certainly that bodes well for “The Revenant,” whose year-end release date and Oscar-friendly pedigree shouldn’t disguise the fact that it is, at heart, a Western revenge thriller that promises to go in darker and more visceral directions than director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has ever before attempted.
Expectations are no less high-sky for “The Hateful Eight,” the latest blood-soaked magnum opus from Quentin Tarantino, who constitutes a genre unto himself — one that has amassed five Oscar wins and 21 nominations, including two best-picture mentions for “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained.” That streak could continue with “The Hateful Eight,” which is getting the deluxe event-movie treatment, including a 70mm roadshow theatrical presentation that will run three hours total.
Although less of a sure thing by dint of its sequel status, “Spectre” will surely stoke at least some awards talk, especially if Sam Mendes makes good on the promise of “Skyfall” (which racked up five nominations and two wins). While no James Bond movie has ever been nominated for best picture, Oscar might smile a wee bit more favorably on the concluding entry of the Daniel Craig cycle — a franchise-within-a-franchise that has given Agent 007 a new lease on cinematic life.
There are similarly tantalizing possibilities among the ranks of the already released. “Sicario,” a scorching blast of war-on-drugs nihilism from director Denis Villeneuve, telegraphed its serious intentions early on with a competition berth at Cannes. With his Oscar-nominated duo of “Prisoners” and “Incendies,” Villeneuve has become one of Hollywood’s leading exponents of high-minded, sometimes self-serious pulp, and in his new film, there’s no denying the artfulness with which he eases our descent into an unspeakably grim world without overplaying the violence.
Some appreciation should be duly expressed for the extravagant gothic pleasures of Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak,” even if this predictable (and predictably gorgeous) movie ultimately feels like a triumph of production design over storytelling. Detractors might be tempted to say something similar about “The Assassin,” a ravishing martial-arts epic from the Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien, who blurs the line between art and genre with a delicacy and fluidity no other filmmaker could have managed. Critics’ awards likely await, but Oscar will take no notice.
That leaves “Mad Max: Fury Road,” George Miller’s powerhouse return to the post-apocalyptic action franchise, which overcame its long gestation period (30 years!) and various production woes to generate strong box office and some of the year’s most ecstatic reviews. With its wall-to-wall kinetic mayhem and diabolically rococo production design, “Fury Road” could (and should) hit the Academy’s sweet spot with its shotgun marriage of highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities. If there’s room for only one high-octane thriller to muscle-car its way into the Oscar race, I imagine even Mr. Diesel would agree to step aside and let “Fury Road” have the hour.