Grand Theory That Explains Why the Cornier Movie Always Wins Best Picture at the Oscars

There are two categories of movies: those that win the Academy Award for best picture and those that do not win the Academy Award for best picture. 

In a simpler, more perfect world, this judgment would be definitive: The better movie would invariably win. We would not spend our brief time on this weird rock fretting over whether the correct movie received the shiny trophy.

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That world does not exist. Sometimes, the film that wins best picture is remembered in subsequent years as a paragon of schlocky mediocrity. And in some cases, the runner-up—the nominated movie that critics thought would win or should win—only grows in esteem. (Apocalypse Now, Citizen Kane. Goodfellas—these are all examples of films that lost best picture but have since been hailed as enduring classics.)

La La LandRyan Gosling and Emma Stone star in 'La La Land,' a frontrunner for best picture. Summit Entertainment

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In 2014, the film critic and historian Mark Harris devised a theory to explain why a certain type of best picture nominee (sentimental, feel-good, earnest) tends to win and why another category of nominees (cynical, bleak—no feel-good resolution) tends to lose.

Writing in Grantland (RIP), Harris defined the former category as "Y" movies and the latter category as "X" movies. An obvious example of a "Y" movie is Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis's lovable but somewhat mawkish tale of a mentally impaired man's journey through life. An obvious example of an "X" movie is the 1994 film that lost to Gump: Pulp Fiction. "Y" movies tend to charm (or, uh, manipulate) the Academy in the short term.

But the "X" movies tend to triumph, at least in public esteem, in subsequent decades, long after the golden statue has been handed out. These films (see: There Will Be Blood, Raging Bull, pretty much any other Scorsese flick) are commonly favored, Harris writes, by "a certain breed of young or youngish, primarily male, perpetually impassioned and infuriated moviegoer." These films also tend to come from iconoclastic, cult-y directors, like David Fincher. "Y" movies, by contrast, include the likes of 2004's Crash, which is sometimes singled out as the worst best picture winner in history. (In his book on pop music rivalries, music critic Steven Hyden cites this same binary to describe the feud between Taylor Swift and Kanye West. Can you guess which one is the "Y" artist? Hint: It's not the one who rhymed "esophagus" with "put the pussy in a sarcophagus.")

Harris continues:

“Y” movies tend to be more written than directed, more interested in content than in form, humanist, sincere, “relatable,” emotional, often optimistic. Those qualities are not, in themselves, inferior, lazy, or weak. “X” movies, by contrast, tend to be dark, cynical, existential or nihilist, physically or emotionally violent, R-rated, and somewhat savage in outlook. They are often by, about, and for the alienated, the skeptical, and the enraged.

Which brings us to 2017.

There are nine films competing for best picture, but if you talk to most critics, you would get the impression that there are only two films in contention. La La Land—the sleek, escapist, Hollywood-themed musical that dares to answer the question "Can Ryan Gosling sing?"—is the favored pick to win. It is a non-controversial consensus pick; as our resident critic notes, it is "precisely the kind of film the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences exists to reward." Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’s gorgeous and poetic story of a queer awakening set against the Miami crack epidemic, is the little movie that could. It's the underdog, the critical favorite. It's by far the more socially relevant film. (Side note: There are other movies that could win! Arrival has a shot! Maybe...)

Related: Movies about journalism get nominated for best picture. Why don't they win?

If and when La La Land does win best picture, it will be easy for that film's skeptics to shrug it off as another instance of Oscar irrelevance, of favoring the easy winner over the challenging masterpiece. Some of that is true: Moonlight probably will be held in higher esteem 20 years from now. (If La La Land wins, there will also be a flurry of lazy jokes equating the film's win with Donald Trump's victory—saying that coastal elites neglected its appeal, that Moonlight should have campaigned more in Wisconsin, etc. These jokes are bad. They are not worth the space I have afforded them here.)

But neither film matches the binary too closely. And neither film really feels like predictable Oscar-bait.

MoonlightMahershala Ali in "Moonlight," one of this year's Oscar contenders. A24

I asked Harris whether he thinks the theory applies to the Moonlight/La La Land battle. He responded with ambivalence

"La La Land is divisive, but it has too many partisans across the board for anybody to tag it a gutless, soft, old-guard academy choice and have that stick," Harris wrote via email. "It's very hard to make the case that a low-budget original musical is a gutless choice. And Moonlight is, in a way, too gentle to hold the Raging Bull/There Will Be Blood alpha-dude slot in the 'If the academy had any balls...' argument."

But he acknowledged there is some sort of relevance vs. escapism battle in play.

"A kind of pastel version of that argument—the academy could reward art and give the prize to a movie that speaks to our moment, but instead it's going to reward an escapist, movie-obsessed movie about beautiful white people—is definitely being made. And it's being made about those two movies. So this year, they are the closest we come to my big theory of X vs Y."

Then again, maybe La La Land won't win. Maybe the academy will surprise us and crown something unexpected, like Hell or High Water. As Forrest Gump's mom always said, life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what—eh, forget it.Try Newsweek: Subscription offers

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