Why MAD MAX: FURY ROAD Won't Win Any Oscars

Mad Max: Fury Road is an entertaining action film that is something of an insane accomplishment from a filmmaking standpoint. I've seen the film twice: once in a theater and the other time from the comfort of my home. Considering I enjoyed the film this number of viewings doesn't seem out of the ordinary, but that I merely enjoyed the film is likely not enough for those that adore it, saw it multiple times on the big screen, and no doubt fall asleep to it every night now that it's available on digital and Blu-Ray. There is a feverish following to the film. Many proclaimed it as their early front-runner for their favorite picture of the year back in May when it originally debuted. I bring all of this up because last week it was announced that the National Board of Review named Mad Max: Fury Road their best film of the year. And just this weekend the Los Angeles Film Critics group named George Miller best director with his film named runner-up for the Best Picture award. And so, now the question is does Mad Max: Fury Road stand a chance of winning an Oscar? The answer, despite this new momentum, is still no. 

Among the other choices for NBR's year-end awards were Ridley Scott for Best Director, Matt Damon for Best Actor and other nods for the likes of Room, Creed, The Hateful Eight and again for The Martian with Best Adapted Screenplay. This brings us to the reason why, despite major societies of film-lovers and critics recognizing the merit of an out and out summer blockbuster with a year-end reward typically reserved for a year-end release, Fury Road still won't win any Oscars: it's not The Martian. If there is a film that has been both critically and commercially successful this year that will take home any statues from the Academy it will be the intelligently written, but wholly accessible Martian and since the Academy only has room for one such film in its list of nominations (and some years there's not even room for one) that spot will be occupied by the Matt Damon-starrer leaving fans of Fury Road furiosa, indeed.

Why? You might ask. Why can there be only one seeming "blockbuster" in the crop of Oscar nominations? This year there certainly seems to be more of a push for what are considered mainstream films in the year-end awards fuss with the likes of both Fury Road and The Martian making large strides as well as Sylvester Stallone getting a lot of support for his performance in Creed, but if you look back at the last decade of Academy Award nominations you'll see that only after the outcry in 2009 for The Dark Knight and Wall-E not getting nominations (the following two years both Up and Toy Story 3 would garner Best Picture noms) that the shift from five nominees to a possible ten has allowed films released outside of the last four months of the year to be nominated for the top award. And this is only counting nominations, none of these "abnormal" films have ever won the award which is why NBR naming Fury Road their outright best film of the year is so impressive and a little exciting. Expanding the field of possible Best Picture nominees from five to ten allowed for the inclusion of the likes of Inception, Avatar (though this was still released in December and had the clear advantage of being Oscar-friendly James Cameron's follow-up to Titanic), District 9, and even The Help, but in the last few years alone the nominations for films released outside the standard awards season months have been smaller fare such as The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood. That's not saying there are always films considered more mainstream that are worthy of a nomination, but it would certainly have been encouraging to see a more interesting film like Gone Girl receive recognition over more traditional fodder like Imitation Game or Theory of Everything (both of which were solid enough, if not exceptional) last year. 

Still, despite the ever-waning possibility, there's still the opportunity for more mainstream films like Fury Road, The Martian and Creed to garner nominations thanks to the expansion rule, but will the Academy ever dare declare one of these films the winner? I don't think so. And this is also where I, personally, am stuck between a rock and a hard place given that right now, in this year's race, I would still award Best Picture to Spotlight AKA the seeming front-runner for the award. Despite it being refreshing to see more mainstream films get recognition from a prestigious organization I largely agree with something like Spotlight winning the ultimate prize, though I'd still argue that either The Social Network or Inception should have won over The King's Speech in 2011. Granted, I haven't seen Carol, Joy, The Revenant or Hateful Eight yet and I expect each of those to receive Best Picture nominations along with Spotlight, The Danish Girl, Brooklyn, The Martian, and possibly Room or Fury Road if they really go for it, but then again something like Steve Jobs, Bridge of Spies, 45 Years or Anomalisa could sneak in and take one or more of those spots. The point being, if the Academy feels the pressure to include at least one film that qualifies as a mainstream release alongside the more serious, critically acclaimed films it will be The Martian rather than Fury Road due to the fact it hues closer to qualifications having to do with release date and prestige than Miller's film. I tend to think of Martian and Fury Road on something of an equal playing field in terms of entertainment value, but I can see why those rooting for Fury Road view it as superior given the unique quality of the story and the astonishing tasks it took to make the film a reality. I'm not here to either champion or detract from Fury Road's quality, I just find it impossible, despite its recognition thus far, that the Academy will give it what many people think it deserves.        

Here's the catch though: is Fury Road a more mainstream film than The Martian? According to box office numbers it's a clear victory for The Martian given it has made $220 million domestically and has just now dropped out of the top ten after over two months in release with a $571m worldwide gross while Fury Road garnered *only* $375m worldwide ($153m domestic). So, while Fury Road might seem like the more mainstream choice given it debuted at the beginning of the summer movie season and is a non-stop action thrill ride-it getting a nomination technically wouldn't mean as much to the general public as The Martian would. The entire point of expanding the number of nominees in the Best Picture category seemed to be to give films that people actually saw a shot at getting rewarded so that viewer interest would extend beyond the world of cinephiles and if that still rings true, the obvious choice is The Martian

In fact, Fury Road, I would say, is more of the critical darling than The Martian. Ridley Scott's latest was admirable and more or less considered "a lot better" when compared to his recent output (which isn't saying much) while the general public ate it up because it offered an inspiring rescue story in the vein of Gravity with a likable male movie star replacing Sandra Bullock. Fury Road is the fourth film in a thirty-six year old franchise that today's audience had no reason to care about. To its credit, Fury Road could easily be seen by younger audiences as a wholly original, standalone film with no knowledge of the Mel Gibson predecessors being necessary, but the point is it was nowhere near as accessible as something like The Martian upon theatrical release. It's kind of obvious which film was going to bring in the bigger audience and so, if we're arguing about the Academy never nominating films people actually go to see rather than just nominating films outside their typical wheelhouse the blockbuster nom should go to The Martian seemingly benefiting the Academy more as a whole. If we're leaving out the politics of ratings and mass interest and simply recognizing the right films outside of any preconceived notions there is certainly an argument for Fury Road and it's clear that argument is being made by a number of critics groups. The tide is turning and we're in the midst of it.      

Considering my stance on the film, the more impressive thing for the Academy to do when it comes to Fury Road would be for them to nominate Charlize Theron in the Best Actress category. Fury Road is undoubtedly her film with the titular Max (Tom Hardy) playing second string to her narrative-driving mission. The Best Actress category is certainly going to be a tough one this year with both Brie Larson and Cate Blanchett being heavy favorites for their performances in Room and Carol, respectively. Still, the idea of Theron getting a nomination over, say, Jennifer Lawrence, Carey Mulligan or the lifetime nods the Academy feels they likely owe Charlotte Rampling or Lily Tomlin this year would make an even bigger statement rather than simply nominating Fury Road in the Best Picture category where they have the most wiggle room. There's no doubt in my mind that either Larson or Blanchett will walk away with the statue come February 28th, but to see Theron (a previous Best Actress winner) get a nomination for a mainstream action film would not only make a bigger statement concerning the possibility of different types of films eliciting performances worthy of awards consideration, but it would also give the Academy more credibility when it comes to its critics who cry foul over the limited types of films that get nominated. By showing variety in their nominations throughout and not just giving an obligatory Best Picture nod as the ones for District 9 and even The Blind Side felt, would be to take the bigger step forward.