Every year, up to 10 films get in the ring to duke it out for the biggest prize in movies: the coveted Oscar for Best Picture.
The list of Best Picture nominees isn't necessarily the best indicator of overall trends in cinema — many of the year’s best movies never make it onto the list, because they’re too obscure, small, or foreign. Nonetheless, it's a good barometer for what Hollywood thinks is worth remembering.
Some years there’s a lot to gripe about when the nominations are released, but this year the Academy picked well. Nine good films were nominated for the top prize at the Oscars:
- Arrival: A philosophical science fiction story about how language shapes our perception of reality, the dangers of isolationism in the face of geopolitical crisis, and love. (Also, aliens.)
- Fences: A drama adapted from a highly acclaimed play, about a midcentury black trash collector in Pittsburgh bitterly frustrated with the ways the American dream has left him behind.
- Hacksaw Ridge: A bloody World War II movie about a religious and patriotic pacifist war hero who rescues fallen soldiers on the battlefield.
- Hell or High Water: A scrappy, critically acclaimed Western/heist hybrid about two brothers trying to save the family farm from foreclosure by robbing banks. It’s most interested in how the economic system has failed ordinary Americans.
- Hidden Figures: An inspirational family-friendly crowd pleaser set in the 1960s, about three black women scientists at NASA who were instrumental in putting John Glenn into orbit.
- La La Land: A feel-good (but melancholy) nostalgia musical — considered the frontrunner to win — about big dreams, trying to make it as an artist, and how sometimes things don't work out the way you expect.
- Lion: An inspirational tearjerker about a young Indian boy who is separated from his family and eventually adopted and raised in Australia. As an adult, he finds his way home.
- Manchester by the Sea: A moving drama about a janitor who comes home to look after his teenage nephew after his brother dies, and is forced to confront the tragic past he’d tried to leave behind.
- Moonlight: A drama about a young black boy growing up in Miami housing projects with his drug addict mother, and his struggles with identity, sexuality, and becoming a man.
All of these films turned a profit at the box office (some of them, like Hacksaw Ridge and Hidden Figures, a substantial profit) and were a hit with audiences and critics alike. Some (like Lion and Hidden Figures) were produced and distributed by studios; others (like Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight) surfaced at film festivals and fought their way to the top of the heap.
And it’s a remarkable list for a few reasons, especially since all of these films emerged in the uncertainty and turmoil of 2016. Here are a few of the nominees’ commonalities and differences — and what they mean for the common gripe that Hollywood is out of touch with “real America.”
Most of the nominees are political
Only one-third of the films nominated for Best Picture — Lion, La La Land, and Manchester by the Sea — could be cast as essentially nonpolitical. The rest touch on some issue at the center of a heated political period in American history, from issues of diplomacy and isolationism in geopolitics (Arrival) to struggles faced by black Americans (Fences, Hidden Figures, Moonlight) to the economic difficulties of the white working class (Hell or High Water) to issues of religious freedom (Hacksaw Ridge).
The very existence of these films says something obvious, but worth repeating: These concerns and topics stretch back long before the 2016 election cycle. Most of these films were in production or development before the major parties’ primary contests began. The public exercise of religious convictions, the black American experience, geopolitical anxiety, and the economy were issues of concern before the 2016 presidential election was an active, all-consuming matter.
But were the movies received as political statements? Sort of. For instance, the right-leaning New York Post said Hell or High Water was “nearly undone by its leftist leanings,” while the also right-leaning Heatstreet thumbed its nose at people on the left who criticized the movie for being “not PC enough.” Sites like the Imaginative Conservative and Conservative Review loved Hacksaw Ridge, as did National Review, and my own review here at Vox pointed to its red-state roots in concerns over religious exercise. Other left-leaning sites, like the New Republic, took issue with its black-and-white take on the world.
None of the films take as strong a stance as, say, Selma, the movie about Martin Luther King Jr. nominated for Best Picture in 2015, or even Spotlight, last year’s winner. But they may do something even more radical: embed concerns about diversity, representation, institutionalized injustice, economic disparity, and religious liberty into stories with characters with whom we rage, empathize, and weep. One of these approaches to political cinema isn’t necessarily better than another, but perhaps, in a post-truth age, it’s a sign of things to come.
Movies starring people of color make up nearly half of the Best Picture nominees
This is a remarkable change from 2016, for instance, when all eight nominees (Bridge of Spies, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, Spotlight, The Martian, The Big Short, Room, and Brooklyn) were driven by white protagonists. In 2015, only one Best Picture nominee — Selma — was led by a person of color.
This led to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, but it also pointed to a larger issue: that while diversity is a growing concern in both TV and film, Hollywood is still risk-averse and relatively slow to adapt.
That’s why 2017’s Best Picture nominees are so radical: Four of the nine predominantly star people of color — two of them, Moonlight and Fences, feature no white characters at all, and a third, Hidden Figures, features white people only as supporting characters. The fourth, Lion, does star several white characters (notably those played by Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara), but they are secondary to the primary interest and the movie’s centering location.
There are some obvious missing pieces here. Only Lion features an Asian actor in the lead role, for instance. Latinx actors are still missing from leading roles. And Hollywood still, on the whole, is skittish about diverse casting. (Don’t even get me started on the lack of women filmmakers.)
But this year’s nominations still represent a remarkable increase in diversity over recent years. Whether that’s due to backlash or a genuine interest in telling more diverse stories is debatable, but it’s led to a richer, less monotonous experience at the movies in 2016.
A majority of these movies aren’t about “coastal elites” — or elites at all
It’s become commonplace to accuse Hollywood of being “out of touch with reality,” as a February 1 Fox News article put it. In January, the Los Angeles Times ran a series of articles addressing whether Hollywood has “lost touch with American values.” At National Review, opinion writer Victor Davis Hanson characterized “coastal royalty” as being dominated by “executives who live in the la-la land of the thin Pacific strip from Malibu to Palos Verdes.”
Ironically, La La Land is the only nominee this year that could be said to concern “coastal elites”: The protagonists are struggling artists, sure, but they’re living in Los Angeles, and at least one of them drives a Prius. Arrival probably falls into this category as well, but its location and milieu take a back seat to its larger ethical point. And while you could make the case that Hidden Figures is a movie about elites — NASA’s space program isn’t exactly the fields of rural Kansas — that would be entirely missing the point.
But every other movie nominated for Best Picture is far more interested in the people toward whom Hollywood less frequently points its cameras. Fences is set in inner-city Pittsburgh among sanitation workers and their families. Hell or High Water features rural men who are trying to thwart the bank’s takeover of the family home. Manchester by the Sea’s characters aren’t struggling, but they’re hardly Boston society people either — Casey Affleck’s character is a janitor. Moonlight takes place in the Miami housing projects, and Hacksaw Ridge features characters from the Deep South. Lion’s central character, though adopted by a middle-class Australian couple, has roots deep in a slum in India.
This follows a broader pattern from 2016 movies, which more often than not moved outside coastal cities to find their subjects. Silence traveled to 17th-century Japanese villages. Paterson featured a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. Loving was about a mixed-race rural couple in midcentury Virginia. Queen of Katwe headed for a slum outside Uganda. Even the sleek Nocturnal Animals set half its story (and its best characters) in West Texas. Films like Toni Erdmann and Fire at Sea, both nominated in their respective categories (Best Foreign Feature and Best Documentary Feature) looked at the clash between modern Europe and the cultures around it, both the former Eastern bloc and immigrants searching for a new life.
That’s why, though it certainly holds some weight (especially during awards seasons, when glittering ceremonies and politically left acceptance speeches are the rule), the argument that Hollywood is out of touch with “real America,” so to speak, is as much evidence of a bubble as it is a cogent critique. After all, while the most religious movie of the year (Silence) was only nominated for one minor Oscar (for cinematography), it also was mostly ignored by audiences. Similarly, a movie like Queen of Katwe should by all accounts have done well in middle America, with a PG rating, crowd-pleasing sports-movie premise, and some religious underpinnings (one main character is a missionary), but it barely scraped by at the box office. The same applies to a movie like Loving.
In truth, the Best Picture nominees from 2016 reveal that Hollywood may be at least trying to diversify, in many directions (religious, cultural, and regional), and in some respects it’s succeeding.
But the bulk of Americans are still heading to the theater to see the big, homogeneous movies where things blow up (Captain America: Civil War and Rogue One) and animated family films (Finding Dory and Zootopia). The vast majority of the year’s top-grossing pictures are action films, animated adventures, and sequels or reboots. Not one of this year’s Best Picture nominees made it into the year’s top 20 domestic box office returns. Not a single one of them is a drama about ordinary Americans. (Hidden Figures is currently the highest Best Picture nominee, at No. 23 domestically, followed by La La Land at 24; the highest-grossing 2016 drama in the U.S. is Sully, at No. 22.)
So perhaps the question is not so much whether Hollywood is out of touch with “real America.” Maybe the question is whether real America is out of touch with itself.
Addition: this article was edited on February 6 to reflect the latest box office returns.