2015 is the Year When Genre Films Get Some Oscar Love

This just might be the year where the myth about "genre" films not being able to compete for major Oscars finally ends.

Every year, it’s the same thing: “Science fiction films don’t win Oscars.”  “Genre flicks don’t play with the Academy.” “It doesn’t matter how much a movie makes at the box office, because the Academy just doesn’t care about crowd-pleasing franchise fare.”

The arguments about which movies were included or omitted from the Oscar Best Picture line-up get so loud each New Year that the Academy changed it from five nominations to 10, and then to somewhere in between. Yet paying movie fans are still unhappy that their favorite movies rarely make the cut.

Movies like The Dark Knight and Marvel’s The Avengers would often show up in the technical categories, but rarely were taken seriously as Best Picture contenders. Visual effects, editing, sound mixing and sound editing nods are more than likely for these big budget franchise films, but writing? Acting? Direction? Forget it!

This has been going on for decades, as each year we have these hugely popular genre films—whether they be superhero movies, science fiction, fantasy or straight action—and they just aren’t getting the Oscar love that other dramatic fare enjoys. But for big budget genre and action films, particularly those that are part of a franchise, fans want to see them honored along with the more traditional Oscar fare—and for their directors to get the proper accolades due from creating the movies they love.

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Christopher Nolan has yet to even get nominated as a director despite the acclaim he received for The Dark Knight, which received nine Oscar nominations, winning one for the late Heath Ledger’s Joker… and one for sound editing. It lost most of the others to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, that year’s big winner at the Oscars. He didn’t get that elusive nomination for Inception a few years later either.

Nevertheless, this may be the year where the genre myth is finally dashed forever, because two of the most acclaimed and accomplished films of the year, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Roadand Ridley Scott’s The Martian, are both science fiction films. While they aren’t the biggest box office hits of the year, they are two of the films that have really clicked with audiences and critics alike. Mad Max: Fury Road is sitting pretty with 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and is already on many critics’ Top 10 lists for the year while The Martian is at 93 percent.

Reviews don’t mean that much when it comes to the Oscars because they’re not picked by critics or journalists, but when there’s that much love and appreciation for a movie, it’s likely to be in the conversation among the Academy voters as well.

Miller’s return to the Mad Max franchise is a great story unto itself. Seeing such a fantastic take on the post-apocalypse in an amazingly simple but effective action film from a filmmaker who just turned 70 makes the picture feel like as much an event as it does an achievement. And from the awards and critical attention the movie’s gotten so far, it’s hard to think that the Academy won’t nominate the movie for Best Picture and George Miller for his direction, on top of all the obvious technical awards like cinematography, production design, costume design, and you guessed it, visual effects, sound editing, and sound mixing.

Mad Max: Fury Road has already won the top award from two very different groups, the National Board of Review and the Online Film Critics Society, and received many nominations from other groups, showing the gamut of people with whom Miller’s film has connected.

The Martian is a similarly amazing achievement from the 78-year-old Ridley Scott, and the fact that two of the most exciting filmmakers of the year aren’t some young guns directing Marvel movies says a lot. Unlike Miller, who won his first Oscar for his animated film Happy Feet, Scott has received three Oscar nominations as a director, though he didn’t even win the year that Gladiator took home Best Picture.

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This is the genre that got him on the map with films like Alien and Blade Runner, and his return to it in recent years with Prometheus and now The Martian proves he’s still got it; the newest effort is already a hit as big as 2013’s Oscar favorite Gravity. In fact, some could say that movie’s success helped lead to The Martian being greenlit.

So that’s two strong science fiction movies that have a good chance at continuing the Academy’s support for a genre that’s often been maligned as not being awards-worthy. Clearly this is changing and not only for the science fiction genre. Also, there’s Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina, which has also been mentioned quite a lot during the early awards season with critical nods for the performance by Alicia Vikander as a life-like cyborg. It may be tough for this smaller film to compete with the higher profile ones mentioned.

Plenty of genre fare has gotten Oscar nominations since the expansion of the Best Picture category as well, including James Cameron’s Avatar. That box office behemoth also received nine nominations, winning three technical awards, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, which won the director his first Oscar, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (the same year as Avatar), and Nolan’s Inception, which actually won four Oscars… but again, all technical ones.

The original Star Wars was nominated for ten Oscars and it won six of them as well as a special award for sound effects designer Ben Burtt, but will J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens get even remotely that amount of love or are Academy members already brushing it off as fanboy fare? It certainly has the nostalgia factor going for it and that can apply to folks in the industry as well as regular moviegoers and critics.

As of this writing, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is 97 percent Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes from over 100 reviews (you can read Den of Geek‘s full, spoiler free review here), but having seen it, it feels very much like a movie that will get honored for its fantastic visual effects and production design—possibly even giving Mad Max some serious competition in those categories—as well as sound editing and mixing and cinematography. But like Mad Max, there isn’t a standout acting performance in the movie that could appeal to the Academy’s large acting branch, and it’s hard to imagine it will get as much serious awards play. See, Mad Max is a singular unique vision of the future from a master filmmaker still doing fantastic stuff well into his 70s. The Force Awakens is basically J.J. Abrams trying to recreate what made George Miller’s original Star Wars so great. It’s hard to imagine it could get into the Best Picture race even if there are ten nominations. 

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There is one genre that’s generally treated decently by the Academy over the years, and that’s the Western with the Coen Brothers’ True Grit and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained being recent ones to get Oscar love. This year, there are two very different westerns in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and last year’s big winner Alfonso González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, which both excel in their own fashion.

Since neither filmmaker is a stranger when it comes to Oscar attention, the Academy will be eyeing both movies with great interest, and they’re both likely to be honored for their technical achievements, particularly cinematography and editing.

Tarantino’s last Western, 2012’s Django Unchained,won two Oscars including one for screenplay, Tarantino’s second Oscar in that category. One can expect the screenplay for The Hateful Eight will once again be in the conversation, even though it’s unlikely to beat Spotlight, which is proving to be one of the favorites of the year.

The film’s cinematography by Robert Richardson, who won an Oscar for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, is being praised highly due to its 70mm presentation, as is the score by veteran Western composer Ennio Morricone, who has five Oscar nominations under his belt without a win (though he did receive an honorary Oscar in 2007). Still, five nominations isn’t a lot when you look at Morricone’s astounding filmography, and he’s due for a competitive statue.

Iñárritu’s The Revenant has just as much prestige, from the performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, whom many feel may be the frontrunner to win Best Actor. And the filmmaker reunites with Emmanuel Lubezki, who has won the Oscar for his cinematography two years running (including 2013’s Gravity and for his work on Iñárritu’s Birdman in 2014). The Revenant also has his Oscar-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (who provided some tunes for Babel) providing the score.

When you have two such Western films with so much going for them, it’s hard to imagine either will be completely ignored by Oscar voters, although they could very well cancel each other out since they’re such different takes on the genre—The Hateful Eight is all about the words while The Revenant is more about the visuals. They’re both quite unforgettable cinematic experiences that deserve to be seen in theaters just like the science fiction movies mentioned above.

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One of the main reasons why genre films are likely to get more attention this year is because the other offerings just aren’t as strong at least in terms of everyone being in the same boat on which movies they prefer. As mentioned before, Spotlight has been one of the favorites since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and others in that vein like Room and Steve Jobs also offer strong dramatic performances and worthy writing. Movies like Sicario (also a genre film) and Todd Haynes’ Carol have been getting attention going all the way back to Cannes, but none of these offer the overall “wow” factor one expects from an Oscar-worthy Best Picture.

On the other hand, the four movies I mentioned all offer great promise for genre films getting the respect they deserve by catering to the people who see them in a way that’s more important than anything else when it comes to movies: entertainment.