Oscar Goes for Popular Vote in Nominations

After decades of low-profile specialty films, Acad members embraced sequels and B.O. behemoths

(L-R): Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in 20th Century Studios' AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Oscar nominations were announced Jan. 24 and in the best-picture race, voters have come up with the most wide-ranging lineup in decades, full of populist choices. 

The 10 films nominated for Oscar’s top prize represent a cross-section of blockbusters, specialty films, indies and mid-range Hollywood movies. There is also a healthy mix of long-established studios, streamers and specialty companies. There’s one film not in the English language, one co-directed by an Asian American (and starring a mostly Asian American cast) and one by a woman. 

The breadth of the list is a sharp contrast to most best picture slates of the past two decades. 

Best picture nominations for the 95th annual Academy Awards also offer several distinctions, including two sequels nominated in one year, which is a first; and two contenders that are in the year’s worldwide top 10 at the B.O., the first time that’s happened since 2009. 

The 10 Oscar noms for best picture are “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Netflix), “Avatar: The Way of Water” (Fox), “The Banshees of Inisherin” (Searchlight), “Elvis” (Warner Bros.), “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24), “The Fabelmans” (Universal), “Tár” (Focus), “Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount); “Triangle of Sadness” (Neon) and “Women Talking” (United Artists). 

The titles represent sci-fi/fantasy (“Avatar”), family dramedy (“Banshees,” “Fabelmans”), cosmic family comedy (“Everything”), dark character study (“Tár”), big-scale military themes (“All Quiet,” “Top Gun”), musical (“Elvis”), social satire (“Triangle of Sadness”) and intimate drama (“Women Talking”).

This list doesn’t cover all the bases. There are no documentaries, animated movies, no films about disabilities, only one apiece from a person of color and a woman, and no films centering on Blacks or Latino/Hispanics.  

But this year’s roster is much more inclusive and varied than most best pic lineups in the 21st century, when low-budget specialty films easily dominated. For example, when the 2005 nominees were announced — “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote,” “Crash,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Munich” — none of them had earned as much at the B.O. as a documentary contender (“March of the Penguins”). That was typical of many awards years.  

In Oscar history, only seven sequels have previously been nominated for best picture. Two took the top prize: “The Godfather Part II” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” The other past contenders for best picture were “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945; the sequel to “Going My Way”), “The Godfather Part III” (1990), “Toy Story 3” (2010), “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (2002) and “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015).  

This year’s lineup also reflects public tastes: The top two films at the year’s global B.O. were “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Top Gun: Maverick,” which earned a combined $3.5 billion worldwide. The strong showing for sequels is fitting: The worldwide top 10 for 2022 included only one film that was not a sequel (China’s sci-fi comedy “Moon Man”). 

In Oscar’s first 75 years, the top B.O. film at the global box office earned best pic wins 17 times, about one-fourth of the time. But this hasn’t happened since “LOTR” in 2003. In the following decades, the best picture winner has wound up, on average, in the year’s No. 47 slot. 

Does 2022’s populist list mean a sea-change with Oscar voters? Maybe, maybe not. Oscar pundits tend to analyze each year’s nominations as if they indicate a seismic shift in the industry. But actually, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters always select the best of what’s been offered that year. So there could easily be another major reversal in the next few years. 

Even though there are no women directors nominated, the best picture prize in the past two years went to films directed by women: “Nomadland” and “CODA.” In fact, only two films directed by a Caucasian male — “Spotlight” and “Green Book” — have won best picture since 2012. The others were helmed by a person of color or a woman.