What just happened?
Several observers (including this one) had already compared this year’s Academy Awards race to the 1960s, when films like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” upended Hollywood’s traditional notions of sense, substance and good taste. “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, both in their 30s and collectively known as the Daniels, possessed the similar contours of a cultural disrupter: audacious, unabashedly self-indulgent, a pastiche of formal influences and callbacks that managed to feel sophomorically shallow and philosophically deep at the same time. It wound up winning seven of the 11 Oscars it was nominated for, including best picture, best director, original screenplay, editing and three acting awards.
Filmed and edited in 2020 — amid the ructions of the covid pandemic, the Trump administration and the outrage over the murder of George Floyd — “Everything Everywhere All at Once” uncannily captured and expressed the chaos of its era, and its embrace of dislocation and contingency resonated especially poignantly with young viewers, whose lives now resemble a confounding A/B test that will result in either promising or disastrous futures. Its pop culture grammar connected as well: While Steven Spielberg was referencing “The Greatest Show on Earth” and John Ford in “The Fabelmans,” which “Everything Everywhere All at Once” competed against for best picture, the Daniels were referencing anime movies, Marvel comics, martial arts flicks, video games and Spielberg himself. (Ke Huy Quan, who won the Oscar for his supporting performance in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” made his screen debut as a 12-year-old in Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”)
In grumpier precincts, some skeptics actually compared “Everything Everywhere All at Once” to “The Greatest Show on Earth,” albeit as one of the worst best picture winners in Oscar history. And it’s true that the film’s anarchic, endlessly iterative style and shaggy structure (editor Paul Rogers sheepishly admitted in his acceptance speech that this was only his second movie) turned off many people who went to see it out of curiosity. But for those who gravitated to “Everything Everywhere All at Once” — often returning more than once to tease out its Easter eggs and hidden meanings — it dovetailed with the zeitgeist. After making a rhapsodic debut at last year’s South by Southwest film festival, the movie played and played, eventually earning more than $100 million worldwide and staying in some art house theaters for almost a year.
The fact that “Everything Everywhere All at Once” swept the Oscars on Sunday night has already animated a dedicated group of detractors, who see its success as the End of Cinema as We Know It. But they can take comfort in the evening’s other big winner: “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Edward Berger’s harrowing, exquisitely rendered German-language remake of 1930’s best picture, earned four Oscars: for best international feature, cinematography, production design and original score. If EEAAO represented an annihilation of once-sacred norms and traditions, “All Quiet” represented abiding fealty to formal elegance and narrative fundamentals, which Berger executed with crisp precision and breathtaking expressiveness.
Along with several of their fellow winners, EEAAO and “All Quiet” also exemplified the growing internationalization of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has only recently acknowledged the reality that film is a global medium, inside Hollywood and out. The Indian film “RRR” won best song for “Naatu Naatu,” whose live performance provided a jolt of exhilaration in an otherwise safe-and-steady telecast. It was the second India-based production to win an Oscar: Earlier in the show, the documentary short “The Elephant Whisperers” became the first. Like such recent predecessors as “Roma” (from Mexico), “Parasite” (South Korea), and “Drive My Car” (Japan), “All Quiet” competed in both the international feature and best picture categories. This year, Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund made the leap from the international feature category (in which his previous films “Force Majeure” and “The Square” were nominated) to best picture for his cosmopolitan social satire “Triangle of Sadness.” When she became the first lead actress of Asian descent to win an Oscar, veteran Michelle Yeoh joined such recent winners as Bong Joon-ho, Chloé Zhao and Yuh-jung Youn in embodying an Academy whose membership is now more than 20 percent international and growing.
The success of “Everything Everywhere” and “All Quiet” also proved the value of a rock-solid Oscar campaign. The independent studio A24 broke its own record on Sunday night, becoming the first company to sweep the top six Oscars (Brendan Fraser won for his lead performance in “The Whale,” an A24 production). This came as no surprise to anyone who had paid attention to A24’s rise since its founding in 2012, when it set upon a trajectory of making smart, envelope-pushing films by edgy auteurs, and brilliantly cultivating their devoted audiences. The company has also become an awards juggernaut, creating quietly effective campaigns for such contenders as “Lady Bird,” “Room” and “Minari” and winners like “Moonlight” and, now, EEAAO.
Netflix, which distributed “All Quiet,” has become its own awards-season behemoth, aggressively vying to become the first streamer to earn a best picture Oscar (that honor went to Apple TV Plus last year, with “CODA”). While the cast and directors of EEAAO were charming their way through the parties, luncheons, guild awards and in-person screenings that precede the Oscars, the team behind “All Quiet” was subtly emphasizing that film’s dedication to pure craft, as well as its antiwar message — timely in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a marked contrast to such bellicose competitors as “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
In their own ways, EEAAO and “All Quiet” both succeeded in generating the kind of goodwill that is essential when it’s time for Academy members to vote. Paraphrasing Maya Angelou: You might forget what someone says but you’ll never forget how they made you feel. On the surface, the night’s two big winners could not be more different. But EEAAO and “All Quiet” both had passionate constituencies that their teams identified, activated and grew with superb skill. In the case of EEAAO, a core audience of cultists grew into a critical mass of voters who privately might have been befuddled or even alienated by the movie’s self-indulgent excesses, but who couldn’t resist the likability of stars Quan, Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis, and the goofy humanism of the Daniels.
Whether EEAAO winds up resuscitating American film or auguring its demise, there is no denying that it’s a movie that met its moment. For better and for worse.