From Spielberg to ‘Babylon’ and ‘Nope,’ This Oscar Season Is All About What Makes Movies Tick

As questions about the future of filmmaking abound, here are some of the biggest takeaways from a very meta Oscar season.
Oscars 2023: 'The Fabelmans,' 'Babylon,' and More Movies About Movies
Universal Pictures/screenshot

It’s an old adage during Oscar season that Hollywood loves to celebrate itself, but no awards cycle in recent memory has done it as explicitly as this one. While the Best Picture category has made room for the odd interrogation of movie mythology over the past decade — “Mank,” “Once Upon a Time a Hollywood,” “La La Land” — it’s been a decade since “The Artist” swept the Oscars with its fawning tribute to the silent era, and went up against “Hugo,” which did more or less the same thing.

This time around, Academy voters are bombarded with Best Picture candidates that make the case for the movies, both onscreen and off.

In the wake of the pandemic and ubiquitous questions about the sustainability of the art form, this reflexivity shouldn’t come as a surprise, but what does stand out is a lack of duplication. No two movies about movies this season make the same argument for its importance as art or a medium of mass communication. An alien visiting this planet millennia down the line might look to this crop of contenders to grasp the value of movies to the people who make them now.

For now, as questions about the future of filmmaking abound, they’re a collective wakeup call. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from a very meta Oscar season.

The Camera Doesn’t Lie…

Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” may be his most personal movie to date, but even without the context that it provides an origin story for the most successful filmmaker in history, the main argument holds up.

While the bones of the drama stem from a rather melodramatic divorce story, that same trope is given renewed value by turning it into a kind of cinematic detective story. Young Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) finds pure joy the art of making escapist movies with whatever resources he can cobble together — but it’s the revealing nature of his home movies that deepen his relationship to the medium in ways he doesn’t predict from the start.

Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) in The Fabelmans, co-written and directed by Steven Spielberg.
“The Fabelmans”Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal

By training his 8mm camera on small domestic moments, Sammy comes across his mother’s hidden attraction to a family friend, and comes to understand her complex sense of emotional estrangement from her surroundings. That’s a profound testament to what cinema can do without any of the complex trickery of the Hollywood machine.

Take any random Spielberg movie pre-“The Fabelmans,” strip away the metaphor, and you can get…”The Fabelmans,” a story about how Spielberg came to understand that the foundation of every great movie must be more than fancy tricks.

…but Spectacles Can

Oh, but what fancy tricks the movies offer up! “Top Gun: Maverick” walked the red carpet at Cannes (and stormed its skies with jets) for a good reason: It resurrected the beats of a traditional rousing blockbuster formula right on schedule, proving both in its daring plane antics and ultimate commercial success that Hollywood escapism offers singular appeal.

You don’t have to be crazy about this sequel to acknowledge how well it works on its own terms. No actor in film history since Charlie Chaplin has embodied the performative nature of movie stardom since Tom Cruise, and the movie builds its by-the-numbers showdowns around his lasting appeal. For all the heft of the filmmaking on display, it really just boils down to the underlying appeal of Tom in the cockpit, zipping around ad infinitum, and the visceral appeal of feeling like you’re stuffed in there with him.

However, “Top Gun” is only the most conservative of this year’s awards contenders to illustrate the spectacle appeal. James Cameron already proved his performance-capture magic in “Avatar” could push the art of movie acting in a new direction; now he’s shown that you can just add water to keep that experiment going. From a narrative standpoint, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is a rather familiar sequel formula, with its main character learning to be a family man and old villains tossed back into the mix with new variables to raise the stakes. But it’s good enough for government work when the cinema of attractions is the real selling point.

Cameron shot his actors underwater then replaced it with CGI, resulting in a fascinating blend of the real and imaginary that no human eye has processed before. It smacks away the sentimental notion of “movie magic” in favor of literal movie magic.

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, (aka AVATAR 2), from left: Jack Champion, director James Cameron, on set, 2022. ph: Mark Fellman /© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
James Cameron on the set of “Avatar: The Way of Water”©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

Yet “RRR” proves that credibility doesn’t have to be the sole factor in a satisfying spectacle. S.S. Rajamouli’s breakout Hollywood spectacle has benefited from a shrewd arthouse release enhanced by its availability on Netflix, but it wouldn’t have stayed in the conversation this long if it wasn’t such a rich, satisfying blend of historical fiction and cartoonish action. One key aspect of this epic tale of persecution and resilience against the oppressive thumb of the British Empire doesn’t negate the other: The CGI looks ridiculous (that tiger!) but also makes total sense within the heightened logic of a movie that invites you into its lunacy and encourages you to dance along.

However, as Jordan Peele’s “Nope” reminds, there’s a danger to such snazzy escapism once it enters a commercial context. The attempt to capture the movie’s outlandish UFO creature yields more than a little bloodshed, as does a certain sitcom with an unwitting monkey thrust into the center of its show. “Nope” has a lot to say about the movies by implication, but in a behind-the-scenes featurette on the movie, the writer-director doesn’t mince words:

“The DNA of the movie has this big question about the human addiction to spectacle and what happens when money becomes involved in that. There’s this massive exploitation of what should be pure, what should be natural.”

And that leads us to this season’s other salient point about the cinema.

Film History Is Messy…

In “Nope,” Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer play sibling horse trainers for Hollywood productions in a family business that stretches back to the earliest example of filmmaking in history: As it turns out, the jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 chronophotographic experiment was their great-great-great grandfather. It’s a lovely bit of imaginative historical speculation that doubles as a quick lesson on the origins of the art form, but Peele’s main point is that the full scope of contributors to the medium have yet to be fully appreciated.

Marginalized voices have always been there. The canonization of history has a lot of holes.

Plus, all that razzle-dazzle associated with the Golden Age of motion pictures obscures its darker core. Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” delivers a sultry tribute to pre-Code Hollywood, but despite that orgiastic opening and plenty of pizzaz throughout, it’s really about the grotesque (and often dangerous) nature of a young industry with no guardrails for its most vulnerable members. Racism and crime flourishes in this movie as if the studio system were designed to create it from scratch. Despite Chazelle’s climactic montage that celebrates the art form, “Babylon” lingers in the paradox of movie magic — yes, the cinema is essential to finding meaning in the world, but at what cost?

BABYLON, front, from left: P.J. Byrne, Olivia Hamilton, 2022. ph: Scott Garfield /© Paramount Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection
“Babylon”©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Well, “She Said” shows us exactly the cost. While it may be one of the most accurate depictions of investigative journalism ever, Maria Schrader’s absorbing tale of the New York Times reporters who broke the stories of Harvey Weinstein’s serial abuses is also about how the industry enabled such behavior in the first place. Though it struggled at the box office and could have a hard time retaining its awards season momentum, “She Said” offers a critical perspective to this season’s meta trend.

Because filmmaking holds such an inherent appeal, it offers great appeal to young, gullible people and predators eager to exploit them. That fundamental danger goes well beyond Weinstein’s crimes. The most effective scene in “She Said” is its opening minutes, an absorbing montage in which a young woman falls in love with a movie set — and then, in a devastating shot that finds her sprinting down the street in tears, suffers the consequences of the monster behind the scenes.

The illustration of this vulnerability — the joy of moviemaking that obscures its environmental risks — should serve as a cautionary tale for generations. And if that seems too self-serious, try Ti West’s “Pearl,” which makes the same point with its predatory projectionist who tries to coax the movie’s WWI anti-hero (Mia Goth) into silent porn. In a less competitive year, Goth would be a serious Best Actress contender for exacting revenge on his awful scheme, achieving a kind of proto-MeToo response to the system of abuse at its earliest phase.

…but Moviegoing Is Sacred

Fortunately, some projectionists are good people, too. Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light” has received mixed reviews with its nostalgic story of love between movie theater employees in a ’80s-era coastal town, but nobody can argue with how well Toby Jones steals the show. As the wise projection booth guru lurking on the cusp of the main romance, he offers catharsis at every turn through the celluloid at his disposal. By screening “Being There” for his depressed coworker (Olivia Colman), he flips the ultimate switch to improve her mood. It’s a cheesy scene but undeniably infectious if you can relate, especially as the very act of theatrical experiences are at risk.

Toby Jones and Micheal Ward in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.
“Empire of Light”

Consider “TÁR.” While not an explicit movie about movies, Todd Field’s immersive look at a successful woman’s self-destructive impulses is a pure theatrical experience — a three-hour example of cinematic world-building and subjective storytelling that demands from the pure, uninterrupted attention of its viewers, something that only the movie theater can bring.

It’s a greater paean to movie magic than even “Avatar” — a spectacle of emotions that forces you to pay attention. These days, that amounts to a radical act, and it’s exactly the kind of bold maneuver this art form needs in order to survive whatever existential threat comes next.

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