Where Are This Year’s Genre Film Contenders for Best Picture?

By  · Published on December 22nd, 2013

One of the top-ten highest-grossing movies of 2013 will be nominated for Best Picture, and that’s something that didn’t happen in the past two years. The same movie, Gravity, will very likely be the sixth in a row to win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects to also be a Best Picture nominee. If it wins the top award, it will be the first to win both those honors since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I know a lot of people consider Gravity to be a science-fiction film, while I don’t quite qualify it as such. So I merely see it as the closest thing to a genre movie contending for Best Picture this year rather than a true representative. It’s more The Right Stuff than Star Wars.

Wasn’t the allowance for more Best Picture nominees intended to accommodate those more popular choices? The first year the Academy returned it to a ten-title category was 2009, and then we saw Avatar and District 9 plus Up, the first animated feature to get a slot since 1991. The next year we had another animated feature in the bunch, Toy Story 3, as well as the sci-fi film Inception. In 2011, Hugo nearly counted as a fantasy picture while Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was a kind of time travel film, but they stretched the definitions of genre film. Last year, the same went for the fantastically dipped Life of Pi and Beasts of the Southern Wild. This year there’s a slight chance that Spike Jonze’s future-set Her will make the cut, but maybe only if there are ten slots (last year there were only nine), and even that is hardly being sold as a sci-fi flick. I don’t know that I’d call it a genre film the way I would Avatar, District 9 and Inception.

It’s not that I necessarily want the Academy to recognize a bunch of blockbuster genre films. I’m not the kind of fan who complained about The Dark Knight or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 not being nominated for Best Picture. And maybe it’s actually a good sign that 2013 is such a great year for movies that there are so many probable Best Picture nominees that we don’t have to settle on stuff like whatever is this year’s equivalents to District 9 and Inception. But I think it’s more of a sign of how bad a year 2013 was for genre films. We don’t really have equivalents to those movies. We have Elysium and Man of Steel. And a ton of mediocre sequels and prequels, including those to former Best Picture winners, like Oz the Great and Powerful and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Elysium is an interesting one to note, because it is in fact an equivalent in terms of being by the same director, only it’s of lesser quality. The same goes for a number of other genre filmmakers with past Best Picture nominees. Peter Jackson, of course, with Smaug, an improvement on the previous movie but nowhere near as acclaimed as the LOTR trilogy. M. Night Shyamalan gave us After Earth, further indicating that he’ll never have a film as honored as The Sixth Sense. You could even argue that Pete Docter and Christopher Nolan, as respective producers of Monsters University and Man of Steel, failed us in comparison to their past Best Picture nominees as directors. There’s also a filmmaker with a non-genre Best Picture nominee under his belt whose new sci-fi film is an unlikely contender: Richard Curtis and After Time.

Man of Steel’s lack of critical favor and its disappointment to much of the general audience, as well, is a sign that we might never get a superhero movie nominated for Best Picture. The irony is that the “snub” of The Dark Knight was thought to be a factor in the Academy’s decision to expand the number of nominees. Nobody is going to be upset about Man of Steel not being nominated, nor Iron Man 3 nor Thor: The Dark World nor The Wolverine. And if The Avengers couldn’t get a spot last year (we like to imagine it would have been the tenth nominee), what could? Superhero movies are going to be on the increase but they’re also going to be more and more serialized pieces of a franchise rather than single entities, and that will hurt their chances even if they are of greater quality than we’ve been seeing in the last few years.

Are there any fan-oriented franchise films at all this year that would see an outcry like in years past? Will Hunger Games devotees put up a fuss that Catching Fire isn’t honored? Will anyone who was stunned by Star Trek’s lack of a nomination a few year ago be surprised when Star Trek Into Darkness also is ignored? Anyone think this should be the year for the Fast and Furious franchise, especially because of Paul Walker’s death? Are there animation fans that see Frozen as being worthy? Anyone besides me think Ender’s Game was one of the best films of the year? I can really only see those who love Pacific Rim thinking it deserves a slot. And while not a genre film, Before Midnight certainly fits the franchise consideration, yet I actually think that has a very good chance of being nominated for Best Picture, even more than Her.

Is it wrong to think that we were headed in a favorable direction for quality and prestige genre films because Avatar, District 9 and Inception were nominated for Best Picture? And is it therefore wrong to think we’ve already gone back into a decline? Maybe 2013 was just an off year. We can look to 2014 and see if there might be an improvement in the future. Maybe Jackson will pull off a masterpiece with his Hobbit conclusion, There and Back Again. There’s also a Christopher Nolan sci-fi film, Interstellar, but we mustn’t put everything on him. Could Guardians of the Galaxy be something so special to be considered? Doubtful. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could have Best Picture-worthy Godzilla and Planet of the Apes movies? Yeah, but it won’t happen.

There’s always the idea of trying to convince ourselves that the actual Best Picture frontrunners are genre films. I’ll give Gravity its bits of advanced technology if we must count it as sci-fi. Also it’s kind of a horror film. So is 12 Years a Slave, sort of. Inside Llewyn Davis is clearly a fantasy film set in the afterlife. So is Saving Mr. Banks, probably. And Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a time travel film that just moves forward chronologically. Yeah, this isn’t going to suffice. We simply need better genre films and blockbusters, and honestly the Oscar consideration thing is just an excuse. I was just really dissatisfied with what we got this year.

What genre film do you think deserves a slot in the Best Picture category this year?

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.