Will this be one of those rare years when Oscar shows the lowly “genre” film a little love?
Undoubtedly, if only because so many of this year’s best-picture contenders come wrapped in indie-film credibility and are layered with contemporary sensibilities that elevate the films beyond the “genre” label.
Consider “Get Out,” which combines two particularly Oscar-averse genres — horror and comedy. Writer-director Jordan Peele blended them into an awards juggernaut that dives headfirst into one of the biggest hot-button issues of the day: race.
Before we go further, let’s define our terms: While the French word “genre” refers to a way of classifying or categorizing artistic works, the term “genre film” usually stands as a pejorative when thrown around by snobby critics while referring to Westerns, sci-fi films, sports tales, war stories and a few other categories. It’s a way of dismissing a film (“It’s a genre film”) — a fancier way of saying, “Well, it’s only a Western.”
Oscar rarely rewards science-fiction or fantasy films, but “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro’s heartfelt monster movie, transcends a simple sci-fi classification. He infuses it with a mixed-species romance and a Cold War spy story that has been bringing lumps to human throats since it debuted at festivals last fall.
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The list goes on: “Dunkirk” takes the war movie and distills it to its high-stakes, action-packed essence, using innovative story-telling techniques in the process. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” turns the crime revenge story inside out, with its tough gal heroine facing off against cops whose hearts, it turns out, are in the right place after all.
These variations on genre films will be in a footrace to the best picture finish line with the more traditional dramas that round out the category. Yet even those films can be viewed through a genre prism.
“Call Me by Your Name”? It moves “queer” cinema from the arthouse and, perhaps, into the mainstream. “Lady Bird”? The coming-of-age genre has never been Oscar bait (unless you count “Ordinary People” in that column, which is a stretch). “The Post”? Journalism films rarely win, “Spotlight” to the contrary. “Phantom Thread,” despite the pedigree of director and cast, is still a movie about fashion and design.
“Darkest Hour”? We’ll give you this one: Oscar does love biopics. “A Beautiful Mind,” “Braveheart,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Last Emperor,” “Gandhi,” all the way back to “The Life of Emile Zola” and “The Great Ziegfeld” — the best picture winner list is full of them.
Genre films have never been a best-picture favorite, unless that genre is the epic. From “Gone With the Wind” (1939) through “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003), sprawling tales with long running times have been named best picture more than a dozen times. Musicals — from “Broadway Melody” (1929) to “Chicago” (2002) and almost “La La Land” last year — have won eight times. War films, from “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) to “The Hurt Locker” (2008), have earned seven best-picture trophies. Otherwise, when it comes to genre films, the Academy has routinely turned up its nose.
Name a purely action film that’s won best picture. There aren’t any — unless you count the very first winner, the silent “Wings” (1927), as an action film.
When it comes to best-picture winners, the Academy loves nothing better than a serious drama, especially one adapted from a best-selling book or long-running play — better yet, one based on fact (those account for five of the past 10 winners).
The only mystery that’s ever won best picture was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (1940). Horror films? If you count Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), well, that’s one. Could “Get Out” become the first horror movie in more than a quarter-century to get the statue?
For that matter, how many comedies have won an Oscar? You’ll have a hard time finding any beyond “It Happened One Night” (1934), “You Can’t Take It With You” (1938) and “Annie Hall” (1977). Westerns have similar numbers: “Cimarron” (1931), “Dances With Wolves” (1990); and “Unforgiven” (1992).
Gangster or crime films are slightly more popular, earning Oscars for the first two movies in “The Godfather” series (1972 and 1974); “The Departed” (2006); and “The French Connection” (1971). In a stretch, you might include “No Country for Old Men” (2007). Sports? Beyond “Rocky” (1976), “Chariots of Fire” (1981) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), you’ll be hard-pressed to find other winner.
If you’re an actor, then the genre you want to be nominated in is the ever-popular biopic, which should bode well for Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” Since 2000, there have been 10 lead actor and eight lead actress Oscars given to performers who embodied real people. That’s not to mention the six awards each for supporting actress and actor in that time for the same thing. All this is potentially encouraging for Meryl Streep, portraying publisher Katharine Graham in “The Post”; Margot Robbie and Allison Janney as Tonya Harding and her mom in “I, Tonya”; and Christopher Plummer, who plays J. Paul Getty in the more conventional drama “All the Money in the World.”
Directors can win for genre films, whether their films get best picture (Clint Eastwood, “Million Dollar Baby”; Martin Scorsese, “The Departed”) or not (Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”).
The only time science-fiction, action and fantasy films really get respect from the Academy is in the technical categories. “Blade Runner 2049,” an under-performer at the box office, came away with five technical nominations (including for Roger Deakins’ moodily stunning cinematography), which is several more than went to a critical darling like “The Big Sick” (1) or a box-office champ like “Wonder Woman” (0).
This year’s nominees show that genres can be extremely malleable classifications, if only because so many directors are getting the chance to pursue personal visions wrapped in genre trappings. It’s hard to dismiss “The Shape of Water” as just another science-fiction film, when its stars include a stalwart of British independent film like Sally Hawkins, an American indie icon like Michael Shannon and previous Oscar nominees (Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins). “Three Billboards” as just a crime revenge film? OK — but its sorrowful humanity and uneasy truce with life nudges it into a sweet spot that’s closer to “Moonlight” than “No Country for Old Men.”
Can this year’s awards alter the balance in favor of the genre film? Put it this way: Produce movies like these, which are involving enough to make you forget questions of genre because you get lost in the world they create, and it won’t be an issue.