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To Connect the Oscar-Verse: What the last three Best Picture winners mean

By Zach Terrillion

Staff Writer


It’s been about a month since the 95th Academy Awards, honoring 2022’s best in film. I’ve been following and reporting on this Awards season technically since my review of Blonde way back in October. Still, I won’t report too much on the ceremony because there isn’t that much to report. I think that’s actually what the Academy was hoping for. There was no drama. No egregious winners. It was an era of good feelings.

Everything Everywhere All at Once took home Best Picture. It was the first ever sci-fi movie to do so. It won 7 awards overall, the most won by the Best Picture winner in nearly 15 years. These seven awards included a whopping three acting awards, only the third film ever to do so (the last was Network in 1976). TLDR, the Oscars loved this movie. This flick is about butt plugs, raccoons who cook, queerness, and generational trauma. What stands out is how it compares to the last two best picture winners: Nomadland in 2020 and Coda in 2021. These three films are similar and different in many ways. They form a trilogy that traces the voters’ views, the Academy.

Illustration by Frances McDowell, Production Assistant

Traditionally, the voters’ views have reflected where society lies at a given moment. The 70s were defined by winners like The French Connection and The Godfather. Gritty dramas that reflected the edge of the New Hollywood movement and American youth culture in general. The 80s and 90s gave the top prize to prestigious epics like Gandhi, Braveheart, and Titanic. This perhaps reflects the rebirth of American conservatism with Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. These movies were old-fashioned crowd-pleasers, moving back into the past through period costumes and sets.

Moonlight won in 2017 right after the election of Donald Trump, notoriously beating the frontrunner, La La Land. Trump’s election was adrenaline to the populace, raising awareness of the hatred still at America’s heart. It was a dark, urgent time. Everyone needed to make a statement. To take a side and do the right thing. An old-fashioned musical did not meet such a statement. A raw, groundbreaking portrayal of Queer blackness likely did. The later 2010s awarded additional films, like Green Book (ugh) and Parasite (yay), which reflect contemporary cultural and societal issues like capitalism and racial tolerance.

This trend begs the question. What do the best picture winners of the 2020s represent? What do they mean for American culture and society? What is their statement? I want to first examine 2021’s winner, Nomadland. Chloe Zhao’s realist indie chronicles a working-class older woman played by Frances McDormand. She is left adrift after the death of her husband and the closing of the manufacturing plant where she works. She becomes a modern nomad, living out of her van as she treks the nation for meaning, belonging, and community.

The film is not your typical Best Picture winner. It’s slow as hell, letting the camera linger on shots of America’s beautiful heartland. The screenplay is minimal, almost documentarian, with supporting characters played by real-life road nomads. It’s a small, subtle movie, coming out only a year after the blockbusting Parasite.

The fact this tiny movie won Picture may just be that it was the Pandemic year. The fact a movie could contend for this season was an awards-worthy accomplishment. Still, out of all the small indies nominated, why this one? Chloe Zhao’s film is ultimately about isolation and connection. A lonely woman treks in an empty space. She shouts her name into the horizon alone. She perhaps waits for someone to respond. Or she is perfectly content with where she is. Nomadland reflected a society likewise lonely, adrift amid sudden change. At the film’s end, Fran visits her former home, abandoned like much of Rust Belt America. She visits the home briefly before returning to the road. She is moving forward. This ability to move amid change meant something to people.

Coda was 2022’s Best Picture winner and is quite similar to Nomadland. It is a small indie about working-class people. In this case, however, it’s a family of deaf fishermen. Like Fran, their hearing daughter discovers a gift for singing and is looking toward the future. It’s pretty typical fare as the daughter juggles whether to stay with and help her family or leave her old life behind for college. Like Nomadland, the film also centers on connection. In this case, it’s about family. Even when you’re isolated, leaving your family behind, they’ll still be there for you. Coda is simple, but it makes you feel good. It shockingly upset 2022’s frontrunner, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, a dark, depressing, and homoerotic revisionist western. That upset emphasized the Academy’s taste. They preferred the lighter, happier work. The one about family and the one about connection.

No film defines family and connection like Everything, Everywhere, All at Once does. Removing all the multiverse shenanigans is not too different from the confusing postcapitalism of Nomadland or the power of family in Coda. If anything, it’s a perfect meeting place for these two themes. It is a multigenerational tale of family unity in a time of strife. The win of Everything, Everywhere means a lot of things. A rare win for genre filmmaking, opening the doors for horror, animation, fantasy, comedy, etc., to have a seat at the table. A rare win for small-scale filmmaking that can break big at the box office amidst the hegemony of the MCU (Which has the truer Multiverse of Madness?). A rare win for actors and creators of color, with Michelle Yeoh only the second woman of color EVER to win Best Actress. In terms of what Everything, Everywhere and these other films mean for the Oscars? It’s a rare toss-up.

The Oscars ratings have been declining for a while now (though they did go up a bit this year, capping at 18.7 million viewers compared to 16.7 million the year before). I’ve been bothering the Grape’s readers with awards coverage for most of this season, probably to little avail. I often get questions from friends and family about the nominated films. What exactly is in contention? Truthfully, I only watched EEAAO and Top Gun: Maverick. The year before, folks were reviewing the Will Smith tea, rather than Apple TV (which distributed Coda) winning the big prize. This is 100 percent valid. My obsession is incredibly unhealthy, dating back to when I first watched Seth MacFarlane make wildly offensive jokes at the 2013 Oscars. Back then, the only nominee I watched was Les Miz. The Oscars don’t matter. We should probably start calling them The Oblivions: The annual gala for the Hollywood elite.

The three films epitomize the Oscars’ twilight. Nomadland and Coda are small-in-scale and little seen (at least not as much as Top Gun). They’re either schmaltzy or pretentious in the eyes of many general audiences. They are textbook Oscar winners. Still, they’re reflective. The idea of family and connection, but also being willing to separate from those connections, whether leaving your family for musical school or packing it all up in a van and taking to an open road. These two movies know to let go. Maybe the Academy does too.

However, Everything, Everywhere is about overcoming that letting go. The main protagonist, Evelyn Wang, reaches out to her daughter across the universe as she slowly slips away. She is defiant against the systems that surround her. She rebels like the female leads of Nomadland and Coda, but she does it to keep her family together. In awarding Everything, Everywhere, perhaps the Academy is returning to itself. Trying, in what is perhaps a last-ditch attempt, to connect.

America, as a whole, is attempting to reconnect with itself. There is so much uncertainty about our sense of belonging. Our government is in flux. The internet is the new center of human culture. We feel so lost, separated from ourselves. Perhaps the Oscars are reactionary and arguing for a return to old-fashioned values. They want a return to good feelings. Another chance to reconnect with his audience. As long as they don’t recognize another Green Book, I’ll keep crawling back. I, and many others, probably need it.

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