Who says Oscar movies are elitist?

(Above from left) Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures.
(Above from left) Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures.PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Teresa Palmer and Andrew Garfield (both above) in Hacksaw Ridge.
Teresa Palmer and Andrew Garfield (both above) in Hacksaw Ridge.PHOTO: AMAZON STUDIOS

This year's Best Picture nominees may not have been commercial juggernauts, but are crowd-pleasers that give populism a good name

WASHINGTON • Are our moviegoing bubbles as impermeable as our political ones?

When the nominations for this year's Academy Awards were announced on Tuesday, some observers could be heard decrying yet another crop of films that "no one" has seen, noting the absence of such popcorn hits as Captain America: Civil War, Rogue One and Finding Dory.

Even Deadpool, which received love - and unexpected legitimacy - at the Golden Globes this month, was shut out of competition in the best picture and screenplay categories, where some comic-book fans hoped it might sneak in.

Granted, there are no huge boxoffice performers on a par with The Martian or Mad Max: Fury Road vying for awards this year. But a closer look at the nominees gives the lie to the assumption that the Oscars have become a self-aggrandising ritual for movies that only urban, presumably liberal-minded, elites flock to in kombucha-swilling droves.

Indeed, most of the Best Picture nominees embody the kind of crowd-pleasing values that give populism a good name.

Arrival, Denis Villeneuve's contemplative science-fiction thriller about communication and breaking down borders, has proved to be just the balm filmgoers were seeking after a bruising political season, earning just shy of US$175 million (S$250 million) worldwide since opening in November .

Hidden Figures, a bracing portrayal of real-life African American women who worked as Nasa mathematicians in the 1960s, has become a genuine sleeper hit by giving audiences of all ages, ethnicities, political persuasions and regional affiliations a story to cheer about.

The most widely seen of the bunch, the show business musical La La Land, has made nearly US$180 million and stands to earn more when it taps its way into 1,200 more theatres this weekend on the strength of its record-tying 14 nominations.

Admittedly, La La Land stands accused of valorising Hollywood at its most rarefied and isolated, as its title winkingly acknowledges. But its mix of self-awareness and romance has charmed viewers across the geographic and partisan spectrum. And it is outnumbered by Best Picture nominees that champion salt-of-the-earth, working-class sensibilities, from Fences, about a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh, and Hell Or High Water, about dispossessed Texas landowners getting revenge on greedy banks, to Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge, about World War II hero Desmond Doss, a one-man personification of the highest ideals of pacifism and patriotism.

Notwithstanding Meryl Streep's recent Golden Globes speech - in which she set out a regrettably false choice between quality cinema and Sunday afternoon football - our lives as moviegoers are not nearly as encased in bubbles as superficial assumptions might suggest.

Arrival, Hidden Figures and Fences may not be commercial juggernauts on the level of Rogue One, but they have punched far above their weight with general audiences. Even the indie drama Manchester By The Sea and the gay comingof-age story Moonlight - the most conventionally "indie", even esoteric, of the Best Picture nominees - are doing healthy business in markets big and small.

Manchester, an angst-ridden portrait of a Boston janitor coming to terms with his tragic past, has done well not only where it was expected to - in liberal bastions such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago - but it has also over-performed in conservative-leaning cities such as Boise and Phoenix.

As a spokesman for Roadside Attractions, Manchester's distributor, described the performance of that film, "there doesn't seem to be any difference between red and blue" when it comes to films that take viewers on a powerful journey, whether it is imaginative and action-packed, or empathetic and emotional.

When viewers tune in to the Oscars telecast on Feb 26, they will be within their rights to poke fun at the over-the-top gowns and selfrighteous speeches.

But do not accuse the movies of being elitist or out of touch; if anything, they have helped pop our self-imposed bubbles, rather than reinforce them.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2017, with the headline 'Who says Oscar movies are elitist?'. Print Edition | Subscribe