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Opinion The Oscars finally remembered popular movies can be great art

A scene from "Everything Everywhere All at Once." (Allyson Riggs/A24)

Academy Award nomination day is often a Festival of Grievance over slighted films, especially those that have been wildly popular with audiences. But this year — with best picture nods for hits including “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Elvis,” “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” — Oscar voters and moviegoers have for once agreed that a movie can be both very popular and very good.

If that seems obvious, think again. As superheroes conquered the box office and TV ratings declined, the Oscars began to be plagued by a disconnect between the tastes of the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the preferences of the ticket-buying public. As the academy sought to reaffirm the power of cinema over mere spectacle, audiences lost interest. When movies that viewers hadn’t heard of, much less developed a rooting interest in, dominated the nominations, there was little reason to tune in (unless you were desperate for endless displays of celebrity self-congratulation).

It also meant that blockbuster factories such as Marvel developed their own perverse attitude toward artistic ambition. Seeking cachet, franchises signed up award-winning indie directors (Chloé Zhao, Destin Daniel Cretton), but ultimately asked them to turn out mediocre action flicks whose main reason for being was to put butts in seats.

Discussions about how to bridge this divide have long carried an unfortunate undertone.

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One line of argument goes that nominating more fan-favorite films would be a form of self-preservation for the academy — which implies that in choosing popular movies, the academy would be slumming. The 2018 proposal to create an Oscar for outstanding achievement in popular film was scrapped before it could be attempted because the ingrained contempt was so obvious; a “popular film” award is necessary only if the movies that connect with the biggest audiences are innately inferior to the real art competing for best picture.

At the same time, fans of some of the most successful movies on the planet have displayed an annoying insecurity in demanding that the academy kneel before Zod — or at least before the awesome financial power of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Cultural hegemony as measured by box office apparently isn’t enough; franchise super-fans need their tastes endorsed by film’s gatekeepers, too.

So I was delighted to learn that this year’s best picture nominees include four popular movies that are as excellent as they are distinct from one another. This should quiet some of the grumbling — and make for an Oscar season defined by enthusiastic debates about all the different ways it’s possible for movies to be great.

“Avatar: The Way of Water,” which just crossed the $2 billion mark at the box office, is a visual wonder made possible by director James Cameron’s restless dedication to technological innovation. It’s not on the list for its dialogue or its performances — though Sigourney Weaver’s motion-capture turn as an alien teenage mystic is vulnerable and surprising — but because Cameron has stretched the boundaries of what seems possible for film.

By contrast, the most-nominated movie of the year, Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s multiverse fantasia “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” wouldn’t work at all without the actors who anchor it. The Oscar-nominated performances by Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis turned a carnival of absurdities — most notably a world-destroying everything bagel — into a tale of piercing tenderness.

And “Elvis” and “Top Gun: Maverick” make complementary points about what’s possible within well-established genres.

Biopics are awards-ecosystem catnip: Physical transformation + accent + parallel with contemporary events = acting nomination. But with “Elvis,” director Baz Luhrmann summoned an invigorating dose of vulgarity and a total lack of visual restraint, making it all feel new. “Elvis” is no sober reflection on the short, troubled life of the King; it’s a movie about what it felt like to encounter a giant force of cultural disruption in real time.

And “Top Gun: Maverick”? There’s not a single surprising thing about this grown-up, melancholy sequel to the 1986 hit about cocky fighter pilots. At this point, if Tom Cruise hangs off the side of a plane in a movie, he’s just meeting expectations. But the film exceeded expectations as the equivalent of a steak seared just right — an argument that crowd-pleasing pleasure can be a race to the top, not the bottom.

One year does not a trend make, much less a permanent cultural shift. But at least today, the Academy Award nominations are a reminder that greatness is everywhere in film, from the austere orchestral halls of Berlin to — yes — the glitz of Graceland.