Oscar Best Picture Contenders from ‘RRR’ to ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ May Not Play by Old Rulebook

Comedies, sequels and however you classify 'Everything Everywhere All at Once' are in play

Everett Collection

A decades-in-the-making sequel to a critically dismissed landmark of ’80s schlock-buster culture. A wild speculative-fiction odyssey from two directors whose previous feature centered on a flatulent corpse. A cannibal love story. A three-hour Telugu-language action epic. A Bresson-inspired Polish art film whose protagonist is a donkey.

For most of Oscar history, it would have been unusual to see any films with the above descriptions in contention for the night’s biggest prize. And yet it would hardly be a major surprise to see any one of them land a nomination when the best picture Academy Award slate is announced next month. 

Even more so than the pandemic-era Oscar years, which always felt contingent and ad-hoc, a system in crisis doing its best to hold the line, a look at the 2022 best picture race sees a snapshot of a business clearly deep into a profound transition. On the surface, normality has returned: cinemas were once again operating at full capacity with record-breaking blockbusters, festivals were as busy as ever, and even the annual rounds of screenings, Q&As and receptions once again gave awards season its most sacred rituals back. But there is nonetheless a sense that a ground shift has taken place, and the old Oscar rulebooks are rapidly falling out of date. With this comes a sense of uncertainty, as well as a sense of opportunity: What does a “best picture nominee” even look like, anymore? And with this uncertainty, will the Academy seize the opportunity to shake off some of its old habits and embrace a more inclusive approach to its marquee award?

Perhaps the most striking feature of this year’s crop of likely best pic hopefuls is the large number of sequels: “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” chief among them. Sequels have certainly been nominated in the best pic category before, and two have won (“The Godfather II” and “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”). But rarely have so many found themselves in serious contention all at once, and it would be even rarer to see sequels to films that were not themselves nominated factor into the race, as both “Maverick” and “Glass Onion” would be. (It wasn’t until 2010, with the nomination of “Toy Story 3,” that the Academy had ever given a slot to a sequel whose parent film was not also a nominee.)

It’s not hard to see this as a sign of the times, as franchise filmmaking and IP exploitation take up larger and larger roles in the business. (Last year, for example, four of the best pic nominees were remakes, including the eventual winner, “CODA.”) In that sense, “Maverick” is both an outlier — a megaplex four-quadrant event film in an era of ever shrinking screens and distribution platforms — and perhaps a bellwether. As deathlessly popular as it may have remained for the past four decades, the original “Top Gun” was never anyone’s idea of an Oscar movie. Joseph Kosinski’s sequel, however, took the built-in nostalgia factor and sure-bet profitability of the “Top Gun” name and turned out something genuinely meaningful, emotional and exquisitely well-crafted. It’s already won top honors from the National Board of Review, and along with James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” seems to be barreling toward Oscar attention. Nominating “Top Gun” would hardly be a sop to populist tastes; it would be an acknowledgment that an ambitious, accomplished filmmaker can make a great film even while operating within the IP-mad ecosystem of modern Hollywood.

And the shifts in that ecosystem are showing up in other, just as obvious, ways. Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” Todd Field’s “Tár,” James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” and Maria Schrader’s “She Said” all share a number of commonalities: they all hail from acclaimed filmmakers, and appeared to be best picture contenders sight unseen; they all had splashy festival debuts, followed by strong reviews; they all share serious, sensitive, zeitgeisty subject matter … and they all notably underperformed commercially. Profitable box office has never been a prerequisite for best picture viability, nor should it ever be, and several of these titles will surely still find themselves in the running come Oscar night. And rightly so. But the shrinking theatrical market for these sorts of traditional fall prestige films also suggests that perhaps some of the conventional wisdom around what is and what is not an “Oscar movie” is ready to be broadened. 

For example, why shouldn’t there be room for S.S. Rajamouli’s “RRR,” an international smash out of India that steadily developed word-of-mouth momentum unlike any other international film of the year? Or Gina-Prince Bythewood’s “The Woman King,” a starry, primary-color historical drama that married classic epic filmcraft with a thoroughly modern sensibility, winning over mainstream audiences along the way?   

And perhaps the field will also open up to genres and filmmaking methods that have long been underrepresented. It’s been 30 years since Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” became the first animated film to crack the best pic nominees, and since then only two have managed to follow in its footsteps. Previous best picture winner Guillermo del Toro has “Pinocchio,” which looks to have a real shot to become the fourth, and similar attention ought to be paid to Domee Shi’s Pixar-goes-to-middle-school gem “Turning Red,” Richard Linklater’s affectionately nostalgic “Apollo 10 ½” or Dean Fleisher-Camp’s universally beloved “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.”

Comedies, long one of the best picture category’s most notorious blind spots, could also get a chance to shine. Nowhere more obviously than with “Glass Onion,” Rian Johnson’s throwback murder mystery sequel that, like its predecessor, appears to hit right at that intersection of escapist popular entertainment and serious old-school filmmaking craft. 

Spare a thought as well for Mark Mylod’s “The Menu” and Ruben Östlund’s “Triangle of Sadness,” both of which used pitch-black humor to tackle class and social issues every bit as pressing as any of the year’s more ostensibly serious contenders. And Martin McDonagh’s “Banshees of Inisherin” managed to be just as wrenching as his Oscar-nominated “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” despite operating much more traditionally within a comedy framework.

Documentaries are the most conspicuous outsiders lurking in the wings of the best picture conversation, having been shut out of contention for the entirety of Oscar history. Considering nonfiction filmmaking has perhaps never been as broadly popular as it is today, it’s hard to imagine the best picture race can continue to ignore the genre for much longer, and 2022 gave us plenty of docs — “Good Night Oppy,” “Fire of Love,” “Descendant,” “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” and “Moonage Daydream”— whose critical and commercial successes more than qualify them to be considered alongside their fictional brethren. 

Likewise, while “Parasite’s” landmark best pic win in 2019 seemed the culmination of the Academy’s slow-building willingness to nominate international films in the category, the widespread acclaim garnered by “RRR,” Poland’s “Eo,” South Korea’s “Decision to Leave” and Denmark’s “Holy Spider” make a strong case that this should be more than just a passing flirtation.

Of course, that’s not to say that none of the old Oscar rules still apply. Plenty of 2022’s probable contenders broadly hew to models — from idiosyncratic character studies (“Bones and All,” “Women Talking,” “Aftersun”) to righteous historical sagas (“Till,” “All Quiet on the Western Front”), visually sumptuous spectacles (“Elvis”) and the perennial movies-about-movies (“Babylon,” “Empire of Light,” “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths”) — that feel like they would have been right up the Academy’s alley in pre-ground-shift eras. 

But then there’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” An outlier even in this most unusual of years, the uncategorizable Michelle Yeoh-starrer from Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert is both an experimental festival movie and a crowd-pleasing lizard-brain actioner; a goofy lark and a serious inquiry into the nature of regret and the Asian American experience; a profoundly original concept that grossed franchise-pic B.O. numbers. It was a bold new type of film that paved a new path to success across the eternally splintering cinematic milieu, and given an Oscar landscape where several parallel universes have suddenly become visible, surely the Academy could always choose to inhabit one with a similar breadth of possibilities.