While not exactly the comeback Hollywood was hoping for, 2021 still represented a marked improvement over the preceding year. In terms of Oscar contenders, the major categories are once again primarily occupied by independent films that remain overlooked by the public at large. Even potential blockbusters such as Nightmare Alley and West Side Story—both in the running for Best Picture—fell far short of their commercial expectations. Showing greater signs of life is Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” which fared better at the box office and racked up 10 Oscar nominations (including Best Picture).
Behind the scenes, the Academy itself is in the midst of its own Hollywood-style drama. Numerous outlets have reported in-fighting over the decision to cut certain awards from the live telecast, including Best Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Animated Short. What appears to be an attempt to boost ratings feels somewhat misguided, at least when compared to the option of nominating films such as Spider-Man: No Way Home for Best Picture. More than the year’s biggest success story, the superhero flick has earned impeccable ratings across the board, including an audience score of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. It might have to settle instead for the newly introduced Oscars Fan Favorite Award, presuming it wins in that category.
Problems notwithstanding, the Academy Awards still function as a solid indicator of cinematic quality. This time around, it’s shining a light on international films such as Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car and Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World. On the homefront, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog deliver provocative alternatives to the standard tentpole release. Whether or not their respective Oscar buzz will drive up viewership remains a different story, but it certainly can’t hurt.