The Oscars unveiled its 2023 nominations this past week, joining the previously announced award nominees lists from the major unions of craftspeople that make movies (Note: DGA, WGA, SAG, PGA, among so many others).
The work and the films run the gamut from big budget and big box-office to micro-cost and little-to-speak-of in the way of tickets sales. They also stretch from the extremely well reviewed to the mixed or even disliked.
This is nothing unusual and as it should be.
AND… If you’d like to hear our totally unvarnished take on this year’s Oscar contenders, as well as marvel with us over how it is that Riz Ahmed and Allison Williams, this year’s genetically gifted announcers, can still manage to look that good at 5:30 in the morning, click here for all the hot takes we have and then some.
Shameless self-promotion, to be assured, but also informative, fun and a bit bitchy.
Still, I do have one small but definitely full-on bitchy bone to pick over what is and what is not required for great screen storytelling these days.
Top Gun: Maverick has been judged one of five BEST adapted screenplay nominees by BOTH the Oscars AND my own Writer’s Guild of America this year.
I mean, SERIOUSLY?
I don’t care how much $$$$ it made or the fact that it seems to be credited with single-handedly reviving the domestic box-office at brick and mortar multiplexes post-pandemic.
There are financial awards for that, not to mention attention from NATO.
The latter would be the National Association of Theatre Owners, not the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That last one is a world peacekeeping organization vs. the former, whose job it is to keep the nation’s movie theatres open and its owners at peace.
Note: Top Gun: Maverick DID NOT save the world.
Unless the only world you know is the movie business.
Perhaps that’s the problem.
Hey, there is nothing wrong with big, broad blockbuster entertainment. And there is nothing wrong with big, broad blockbuster entertainment being nominated for awards.
When they are deserved.
But if you are talking about basic storytelling 101 in the blockbuster arena, at its most essential and most basic there are the GOOD GUYS and the BAD GUYS.
Yet in Top Gun: Maverick, this box-office behemoth of a sequel to a blockbuster from the wretched excess decade of the eighties, we don’t even know who the bad guys are because the writers are too scared, too lazy or likely too worried to tell us.
Tom Cruise’s Maverick is tapped to choose and lead a small group of elite fighter pilots (Note: Think Cruise and his buddies thirty plus years ago) to stop __________________ from enriching uranium, which can presumably, in turn, give THEM, the _________________, a nuclear bomb(s).
But who is THEM???
Who are THEY? Who is __________________? The ENEMIES? THE…..BAD GUYS?
The best we are given is the general term rogue nation.
Except no rogue nation can fit the definition of what country or powers are being even vaguely suggested, even if you take into account the very, very few clues provided in the screenplay/film. (Note: For a breakdown of the evidence, here is one excellent analysis, much better than we could do here).
So, well, whom are we rooting against and why are we invested in this mission in this award-nominated screenplay?
Okay, okay, I know. It’s because we want Tom Cruise to win. Always.
Well, some of us.
But from a STORYTELLING point of view in a war movie, don’t we need to know WHO IS THE ENEMY??????
That is, aside from logic.
Of course, right. A major reason we don’t know is international box office potential. The forces behind Top Gun: Maverick don’t want to offend any nations, or nationalities, or inanimate objects, rogue or not, for risk of denting their profits with any type of political firestorm or cultural cancellation.
And at a $1.44 BILLION in ticket sales worldwide, including $744 million in foreign territories OUTISDE the U.S, who can argue with that strategy.
But…is it AWARD WORTHY dramatic writing?
It depends on what you are giving the award for.
To whit, Top Gun: Maverick is now the FIFTH highest grossing movie of all-time, soaring past the original Black Panther. The latter film, a worldwide phenomenon, grossed $1.347 billion in total, $647 million from the US and almost $700 million from overseas.
And it had a ton of discernible villains, not only from within Wakanda, its own country, but even from the U.S.
Not to mention, its current Oscar nominated sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, has SPECIFIC ENEMIES from ALL OVER the UNIVERSE.
That is because the people behind the Black Panther movies know how to BOTH tell a good story AND respect their audience.
See, blockbusters can be artistically interesting and don’t HAVE to play it vague and safe.
If the filmmakers and the studio decide that is what they are going to do.
What is surprising is that a very large group of Hollywood writers in both the Motion Picture Academy and the Writers Guild have drank their employers’ Kool-Aid and chosen to keep everything they know about great dramatic screenwriting away from their ballots in favor of their hoped for bloated bank accounts.
I would like to attribute it to solely a large group of white male Hollywood writers over 50 whom long for the glory days, when they could imagine themselves as digital Tom Cruise, or even simply employed by the likes of Simpson and Bruckheimer.
But then I realize I am one of those white male 50+ voting writers.
And among my biggest nightmares would be to wake up resembling anything akin to the fictional Maverick or the digital and/or real life version of that particular movie star. Or in the employ of any two producers making any Simpson-Bruckheimer type product.
So that answer is way too easy.
Instead, I attribute it to a much more realistic view of what’s happened to corporate artists worldwide since time began, especially in Hollywood.
As your bank account rises you have to work like hell to prevent your work and your taste and your voting opinions on anything from going into the toilet.
And that requires the kind of effort and determination that far too few of us are still willing to suit up for.