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Opinion: Polarized Oscar 2023 Selections: Moody and Cloudy vs. Box Office Extravaganza

You could be forgiven for thinking that some of this year’s Academy Awards best picture nominees were photographed in black and white. They were not.

But several of the tickets, even the excellent ones, seem sold out.

There’s the dreary grayscale of both the gripping “Talking Women” and the desperate “All Silent on the Western Front,” palettes that could be called bloodless, except that, in these violent and sometimes lurid films, black blood spurts freely from grayish cuts. in cadaverous flesh.

And the clouds aren’t just hanging over the war movie is hell set in German trenches choked with corpses (“All Quiet”) or the movie about flighty Mennonite women caught up in a community of prolific rapists who use tranquilizers for cattle. about their victims (“Mujeres Hablando”).

The low, dreary light also floods the lightest food. In “Triangle of Sadness,” a genius satire on influencers and projectile sickness, no light bulb seems to shine brighter than 40 watts. (Real-world tragedy struck “Triangle” last year as well, when its beaming star, Charlbi Dean, died suddenly at 32just a few months after the movie won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival).

Even Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical film “The Fabelmans”, while no one has the idea of ​​a disappointment, spends long periods in darkened movie theaters.

Visually muted, many of these movies are also thorny in ways that don’t say date and popcorn; they say sofa, Netflix and rainy and contemplative afternoons. They are melancholic and, like moody teenagers, also difficult.

As a story about heartbreak and terrible self-harm in a male friendship, “The Banshees of Inisherin” is also largely lacking in color. Set on a fictional Irish island, it doesn’t skimp on green, but much of it is the color of a pint of stout.

“Tár,” about the death of an ethically twisted bandleader played by Cate Blanchett, is tinged with elegant navy and taupe. The director’s cerebral quests, complicated inner life, and dangerous international relations will be relatable to anyone, unless you’re Sylvia Plath or maybe Virginia Woolf.

These clever “little” movies are the nominees that gave this year’s Academy Awards a reputation for featuring a plethora of movies that no one saw. Indeed, “Tár” and “Mujeres que hablando” have generated more critical disquisitions than packed theaters.

But then there are the big four: the wacky blockbusters that didn’t require critical disquisitions. Its vampiric colors contrast with the darkness of the other nominees as comets against smog.

“Top Gun: Maverick”, “Avatar: The Way of Water”, “Elvis” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” were almost surprisingly successful with moviegoers. And though they’re filled with circus tones, sunshine, and bright skies, the movie business has treated them not as Hollywood stuff, but as saviors. Spielberg even credited “Top Gun: Maverick” with saving “the entire theater industry” after the pandemic.

In fact, the Tom Cruise movie grossed $1.5 billion worldwide last summer. “Avatar: The Way of Water,” James Cameron’s extravaganza released in December, has grossed more than $2 billion.

Meanwhile, the runaway craze “Everything Everywhere All at Once” grossed more than $100 million worldwide and Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” doubled that number.

These films imagine audiences that want to be transported, that resist films that seem like homework. The four helped assuage, for now, fears that streaming services have completely outgrown movie theaters.

Indirectly, all the best picture nominees seem to offer a blueprint for a new Hollywood taxonomy. The categories aren’t hard and fast, but what were once considered commercial movies—blockbusters for a global audience—are now better described as theatre. movies, made to captivate audiences in one room as they laugh, cry and spend together. His palettes must be vivid and his plots transport.

The most challenging movies, by contrast, are now streaming movies, made to be watched in the lonely hours, with breaks for snacks and thinking about difficult scenes, offering more complexity and less visual appeal. The bed and laptop are now the art house, with pillows handy to cry on.

I suspect that theatrical films will also be lighter in German than streaming art pictures.

It’s a real oddity from the 2023 list: how much German is spoken. “All Quiet on the Western Front”, of course, is entirely in German. In “Tár”, the American director lives mainly in Berlin and speaks German fluently and often. And in “Triangle of Sadness,” stroke survivor and key character Therese can only repeat one phrase: “in den Wolken,” which means “in the clouds.”

Some “Triangle” viewers have suggested that Teresa’s phrase says something about the rich and their detachment from reality. But maybe the clouds are just clouds.

In that case, perhaps Therese is talking about cloudy skies, arthouse films and their casts of surly soldiers, deranged bandleaders, miserable Mennonites and tearful influencers.

Virginia Heffernan is a regular contributor to Wired, author of “Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art” and podcast host. @page88 virginiaheffernan.substack.com