The Oscars 2023 saw two polar opposite winners: Everything Everywhere All at Once, a maximalist film driven by young fans, and All Quiet on the Western Front, a technically faultless depiction of war. The awards reflect the Oscars’ identity crisis and tendency to cater to unshakeable impulses rather than celebrate innovative talent.
Two Oscar ceremonies happened last night. For those living under a rock (ha!) Everything Everywhere All at Once has built up a rapturous momentum since it debuted at SXSW festival nearly a year to the day before the 95th Academy Awards. Young fans drove its exceptional word-of-mouth campaign, responding to the film’s maximalist style, crass sense of humour, and full-bodied embrace of genre aesthetics.
It’s not the film you’d expect the Academy to reward so lucratively, but they didn’t have a choice; the film demands attention, and the swathes of audiences who had sincerely never seen anything like it need acknowledging. Over the last few years, the Oscars have embarrassed themselves trying to make people care about movies; Everything Everywhere pulled it off.
Regarding narrative preferences, a dominant principle amongst more online audiences is “niceness”. Prioritising kindness makes for more compelling and important narratives. This was visible in films like EEAAO, Darren Aronofsky’s obesity-empathy drama The Whale, and even in niche categories like Best Animated Short. But it was confronted or subverted in the acerbic existentialism of The Banshees of Inisherin or the venom of Tár, two films that went home empty-handed.
But something equally powerful is the story surrounding a film; all four acting wins went to long-overlooked, first-time nominees, with more than one having a rich “comeback kid” story. But it wasn’t a clean sweep for niceness: last night, we saw a success story that spoke to completely contradictory sensibilities.
All Quiet on the Western Front is as long and loud as EEAAO but caters to a different subset of Oscar voters. It’s been accumulating its word-of-mouth reputation on Netflix for a few months but resonated with the inverse type of audience from EEAAO. All Quiet attempts to recreate massive global combat on a massive scale, filled with traumatised performances and technically faultless depictions of the barbarity of war.
Like all Oscar winners, mileage will vary, but All Quiet doesn’t try to show you something wholly fresh but rather sets a new benchmark for this type of story. It won four Oscars, ensuring that favourites Tár, Elvis, The Fablemans, and Banshees were awarded nothing.
Any awards body can only be judged by its winners. With its ever-declining viewership and constant calls for renewal and reform, the Academy is deep in an identity crisis. 2023’s nominees, which featured smash-hit biopics, crowd-pleasing arthouse fare and the two biggest money-makers of the year, were very populist in nature, and All Quiet’s technical and international trophies could be attributed to its filmmaking being a lot more skilful than the other nominees. But it’s more likely voters knew the film was worth rewarding because they had done so every decade since these wars took place.
Last night, the Academy acknowledged a fervour for cinema that mainstream audiences increasingly don’t show but seemingly also chose to cater to their most unshakeable impulses. The nominees for Best Score, Best Production Design, and Best Cinematography featured some of the most exciting, inventive filmmaking on display, but only were the sterling talents of John Williams, Mandy Walker, and the entire Babylon team ignored.
They instead decorated the most prominent and least exciting candidates. All Quiet was well-made, undoubtedly, but every other nominee in its categories had a more complicated emotional goal in mind for its audience. The Oscars argued that what they see as worth celebrating is incredibly limited outside of responding to an already-established popularity. But by committing to two polar opposite winners, their confident showbiz facade falls away to reveal a profoundly insecure voting body, concerned less with celebrating the innovative and more with “getting it right.”
2023 will go down as A Tale of Two Oscars, where a passionate fanbase – in a time of increasingly apathetic viewership – got what it wanted. But there were some habits they just couldn’t shake off at the expense of more daring and nuanced talent. Will this keep happening? Will the same type of films always make the Academy weak at the knees, regardless of how much attention outsiders receive? It’s impossible to predict, but the Oscars’ people-pleasing impulses have never been more starkly on show.