Next Year’s Oscars Already Have a Complex Relationship With Nostalgia

As a collective group, Oscar voters are a decently nostalgic bunch—which is probably one of the most relatable things about them. We all have our own ways of longing for some aspect of the past. For awards voters, that might include a fondness for the films and filmmakers that remind them of the movies they’ve loved in the past. Best-picture Oscars have been won and lost on this appeal. It’s hard to imagine that the movie The Artist would have won best picture in 2012 without voters responding to its obvious nostalgia for silent films (somehow Damien Chazelle’s Babylon didn’t poke at those feelings!). Even a movie as strange as Guillermo del Toro’s fish romance, The Shape of Water, benefited greatly from its stylistic evocation of Old Hollywood.

And while nostalgia doesn’t always work for an Oscar campaign—Steven Spielberg’s recent run of The Post, West Side Story, and The Fabelmans, all of them great movies with significant throwback appeal, couldn’t nab him another best-picture win—it’s usually present somewhere or another during awards season. The 2023–24 Oscar season is already displaying a rather particular relationship with nostalgia, a push-pull between what’s appealing about our past and what deserves to be dismantled.

We can start, as almost everything will this Oscar season, with the summer’s twin blockbuster triumphs, neither of which has a simple relationship with nostalgia. Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s epic-size biopic about the man responsible for inventing the atomic bomb, takes direct aim at American righteousness in everything from our triumph over the Nazis in World War II to the morality of scientific progress. Meanwhile, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie has a lot of ideas, about everything from patriarchy to the impossible expectations placed on women to Matchbox Twenty. None of those ideas involve leaning into the simple nostalgia of Barbie dolls.

And yet the Barbenheimer phenomenon itself was nostalgic, a much-needed throwback to a time when the movies had something for everyone: men, women, girls, Nolan bros, Gerwig gays, history buffs, people who wear pink and sneak wine into the theater. The summer of Barbenheimer was a throwback to a time when people went out to the movies because it was the thing to do. Few things in modern-day Hollywood are more nostalgic than that.

Illustration by Michelle Thompson.

If Oppenheimer and Barbie do end up leading the way this awards season, as most insiders expect, they’ll be joined by a handful of movies looking to explore nostalgia in their own way.

Few films are being more overt about their throwback appeal than Alexander Payne’s upcoming The Holdovers. The 1970-set film stars Paul Giamatti as a disgruntled teacher at a private boarding school for children of wealthy parents; Giamatti’s Paul Hunham is stuck staying behind during holiday break to look after students who can’t go home. The film’s trailer, with its faux-throwback Focus Features logo, Badfinger needle drop, and anachronistic voice-over narration, seems to be especially selling the movie on its Hal Ashby–esque nostalgic appeal. There’s also the fact that Payne and Giamatti are reuniting for the first time since 2004’s Sideways, a movie that has the gall to be nearly 20 years old.

Sofia Coppola’s movies almost always seem to yearn for their own past, whether it’s the dreamy ’70s suburbia of The Virgin Suicides or a young girl’s time alone with her dad in Somewhere. (Perhaps there’s a bit less yearning for the antebellum amputations of The Beguiled.) With Priscilla, Coppola looks back at the early days of an American rock icon through the perspective of his young wife. Baz Luhrmann did the Elvis thing last year with a maximalist take on stardom, but Coppola’s film has the hazy color palette and eye for detail of a memoir (fitting, as it’s based on Priscilla Presley’s own memoir).

If Barbie wasn’t quite the corporate brand nostalgia you were looking for, there was always Air. Ben Affleck’s film about the creation of the Air Jordan sneaker at Nike was a throwback in any number of ways. Remember the uncomplicated joy of watching Michael Jordan defy gravity on a basketball court? Remember when a pair of sneakers could give you a piece of Jordan’s legacy? Remember when Affleck and Matt Damon made Good Will Hunting and had their whole lives in front of them? The 1998 winners for best original screenplay have a fond place in the Oscars’ memory, and Oscar voters could indulge their own nostalgia for that pair of fresh-faced Boston-area kids by giving Air some attention.

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