Sunday, October 2, 2022

​Assessing The Oscar Prospects For “Top Gun: Maverick”

By Zoe Rose Bryant 

A 96% on Rotten Tomatoes with a 99% Audience Score. A 78 Metascore on Metacritic with a 9.0 User Score. An A+ CinemaScore. And now, a $160.5 million Memorial Day opening at the box office. To say that “Top Gun: Maverick’s” critical and commercial success is “surprising” is an understatement – this is a cinematic sensation that often comes along only once or twice a decade. And to make it all the more shocking, despite the original being a favorite of many 80s babies, it was never a critical hit, earning only a 57% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 50 on Metacritic. In fact, when “Top Gun: Maverick” was first announced, many rolled their eyes. What story was there to continue from a cheesy 80s actioner remembered most for its soundtrack (and Oscar-winning single, “Take My Breath Away”)?


Clearly, Tom Cruise took that question to heart, and, as a result, he assembled a top-tier creative team for this legacyquel that was scientifically engineered to succeed. Pairing his “Oblivion” director Joseph Kosinski (also known for 2010’s “Tron: Legacy” and 2017’s “Only the Brave“) with his “Mission: Impossible” writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, this crew crafted resonant and rewarding reasons to return to this classic in Cruise’s filmography, delivering a sequel that not only satisfied fans of the original but also brought naysayers into the fold with stupefying spectacle and mightily moving melodrama. Simply put, watching “Top Gun: Maverick” reminds you of the magic of the movies in its purest sense, as it represents the best of what blockbuster filmmaking can – and should – be.

Naturally, when a movie is this beloved by both crowds and critics, that ominous “O-question” follows. And while some may groan, the thing they need to realize is that, while there are summer blockbusters each and every year that leave audiences on a cinematic high, the emotions being expressed while watching “Top Gun: Maverick” is a rarity for any film, blockbuster or indie, and when acclaim is this widespread, it’s only organic that Oscar talk arises. In fact, as soon as the film was first screened, Best Picture buzz began to brew, and many – including yours truly – waved it away. Is the “Top Gun” sequel getting nominated for the most prestigious Academy Award? Give me a break.

But after you see this stunt-driven, sentimental spectacular for yourself, it’s impossible to deny that you’re witnessing something special, created with care and consideration over many years. This is no basic “blockbuster of the week.” This is more akin to the best of Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” series or even another May action extravaganza from a few years back that also courted Oscar consideration, “Mad Max: Fury Road.” And when you take “Top Gun: Maverick” on those terms – and start to assess how many categories it can contend in at the 95th Academy Awards – it’s clear that the film needs to be taken seriously from an awards standpoint, which is precisely what we’ve set out to do, race by race.

Best Picture
There are two significant advantages “Top Gun: Maverick” has right out of the gate when it comes to contending for Best Picture. For starters, there are a set of ten nominees in the line-up going forward – ever since last year – which allows for more unconventional contenders (and occasionally crowdpleasers) to squeak in. Second, there is almost always a blockbuster – or two – that breaks into the field, setting themselves apart from other big-budget fares with state-of-the-art spectacle and craftsmanship – something “Top Gun: Maverick” has already been commended for. 2021 gave us “Dune,” 2019 featured “Ford v Ferrari” and “1917” (along with “Joker” as a “populist pick”), 2018 brought “Black Panther” into the mix, and so forth.

However, there is already another blockbuster many are pegging for a Best Picture nod at the end of the day: James Cameron’s long-awaited “Avatar” sequel, “The Way of Water.” But here’s the good thing – “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” are not remotely the same type of film (benefitting from belonging to different genres). There’s proven to be space for more than one blockbuster in the past (including in 2015, the year in which the aforementioned “Mad Max: Fury Road” was nominated alongside “The Martian“). Additionally, “Avatar: The Way of Water” doesn’t release until December, while “Top Gun: Maverick” will run the tables this summer and start its campaign early, in hopes to already have a spot claimed by the time the Na’vi arrive.

A quick glance at this year’s crop of Best Picture contenders shows that “Top Gun: Maverick” will undoubtedly have some intense competition, especially from “artier” fare like “Women Talking” or “The Whale” and new films from multiple Oscar-winning directors such as Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Bardo (or a False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths),” Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light,” and Ron Howard’s “Thirteen Lives,” and that’s without even mentioning the indie sensation that is “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” But if you’ve been around the block a few times as an Oscar pundit, you know that not every slam dunk on paper will make a splash when the season actually starts, and you have to go where the season takes you instead of trying to guide it in a different direction.

And right now, all signs are pointing towards “Top Gun: Maverick” making a promising play for a Best Picture nod. It’s not just beloved by mainstream audiences – always a bonus with the Academy as they seek to nominate films people have actually seen to boost the viewership numbers on their telecast – but also incredibly respected by the industry and critics (arguably the most cynical group a contender must charm). It checks all the boxes, and, as you’re about to see, it’s going to have strong support from several branches, too, undoubtedly. Some will try to compare it to an action film like last year’s “No Time To Die” – “crafts and nothing more!” – but the overwhelming adoration for “Top Gun: Maverick” puts it on another level. We get “good” action movies every year. Rarely is one this unforgettably great.

Best Director
Joseph Kosinski is an essential asset to the “Top Gun: Maverick” team and one of the main reasons the movie works as well as it does. His control over the scale and spectacle of this expansive epic is worthy of all the awards attention in the world, but whether he’ll actually receive it is another story. Though the blockbusters that break into Best Picture are very usually, very director-driven, they have a poor track record of earning corresponding Best Director nominations. For every George Miller (“Mad Max: Fury Road“), there’s a Christopher Nolan (“Inception”), Ridley Scott (“The Martian“), Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther“), James Mangold (“Ford v Ferrari“) or Denis Villeneuve (“Dune“). And when you take into account everyone Kosinski will be up against – Spielberg, Scorsese, Chazelle, Cameron, Iñárritu, Mendes, and even the Daniels – it looks like Best Director might be a bridge too far.

This is a branch that can be notoriously picky, and if you’re not “in the club,” you run the risk of being overlooked entirely. However, never say never, as the year is still early, and we’re not quite sure what contenders will become big players yet, and some might even drop off altogether. Plus, a nod for Kosinski isn’t essential for “Top Gun: Maverick” getting into Best Picture, like many other blockbusters before it have broken into the line-up with support from other branches. At the moment, we’re wary of his chances, but it goes without saying that he absolutely should be at the top of those being considered, as, if you love “Top Gun: Maverick,” you have Kosinski to thank for how most of it was executed.

Best Actor/Best Supporting Actor/Best Supporting Actress
Tom Cruise genuinely turns in one of his best performances in “Top Gun: Maverick” – and easily one of his most poignant as well – and one might even say it’s his best dramatic work since the last century. How he fleshes out the character of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell with convincing pathos is nothing short of stupendous, and at this point in the year, it’s one of the most memorable performances from a leading man. Cruise hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar since 1999 for “Magnolia” (after previous nominations for “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Jerry Maguire”), and his work here would certainly be worthy of Oscar consideration. Still, knowing what the Oscars tend to go for, it’s unlikely this will be able to compete with more transformative or traditionally baity roles by the end of the year (Brendan Fraser in “The Whale,” Hugh Jackman in “The Son,” Leonardo DiCaprio in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Colman Domingo in “Rustin,” and Austin Butler in “Elvis,” to name a few).

And while Cruise is easily the acting standout in “Top Gun: Maverick,” his co-stars (especially Miles Teller, Glen Powell, and Jennifer Connelly) are equally engaging, but they too likely lack the “Oscar-y” material to allow them to break into their own acting fields either. Though, here’s the thing: blockbuster Best Picture contenders rarely earn acting nods (“Inception,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Black Panther,” “Dune,” etc.), and it’s never affected their awards trajectory elsewhere. These roles just simply aren’t seen the same way those in more straightforward dramas or baity biopics are, and that’s fine! Like – or love – these performances all you want (Cruise will likely contend for me until close to the end of the year), but they just won’t be the Academy’s bread-and-butter, and that won’t mean a thing for “Top Gun: Maverick” overall Oscar-wise.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Now, I’m tempted to say the same thing for Best Adapted Screenplay that I said for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress – it’s strong work that serves the movie well, but it’s not the Academy’s thing. However, looking ahead at this year’s Best Adapted Screenplay race, it seems a little… “lacking” (at least in terms of the films the Academy usually considers). You’ve got some former winners (Eric Roth with “Killers of the Flower Moon” and Florian Zeller with “The Son”) and some promising contenders on paper (Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking,” Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale”), but there are also a few oddities that can go either way at this point (Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise,” Tony McNamara’s “Poor Things”) and then another legacyquel (“Avatar: The Way of Water,” even though the first film couldn’t crack Original Screenplay a decade ago).

And, to be honest, “Top Gun: Maverick” indeed does have a solid script, which is one of the reasons it’s connecting with mainstream crowds and critics the way it has. It makes a sequel to “Top Gun” – seemingly an impossible concept to justify – a sincerely stirring meditation on honor and legacy, advancing Maverick’s arc in meaningful and moving ways. You also have one Oscar nominee (“American Hustle’s” Eric Warren Singer) and one Oscar winner (“The Usual Suspects‘” Christopher McQuarrie”) attached to the screenplay, and names can certainly take you far in these races. I wouldn’t personally put “Top Gun: Maverick” in my top five in Best Adapted Screenplay right now, but I wouldn’t say it’s unwise to have it in your top ten, mainly to keep an eye on it in case this thing really goes supernova come awards season.


Best Cinematography
Now we’re getting to the good stuff. “Top Gun: Maverick” truly has the potential to earn tech nominations across the board, starting with its cinematography, which is an instant standout in the film thanks to Claudio Miranda’s wondrously immersive and expansive work that places us right alongside the pilots in the film’s arresting action sequences (sometimes literally, as we experience the epic exercises from the point-of-view of their own cockpits). I sound like a broken record by this point, but Best Cinematography will also be a crowded category this year, with winners Russell Carpenter (“Avatar: The Way of Water“), Roger Deakins (“Empire of Light”), Linus Sandgren (“Babylon”), Janusz Kamiński (“The Fabelmans”), and Greig Fraser (“The Batman“) all contending, but let’s not forget that Miranda is also a winner, for 2012’s “Life of Pi” (and he earned a nomination before this for 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”). 

Miranda is a name the cinematography branch will recognize – if his work doesn’t already speak for itself, even though he’ll face some tough competition, that doesn’t mean he won’t be able to put up a fight. Plus, the vibrant visuals in “Top Gun: Maverick” and their captivating clarity are among the film’s most excellent calling cards, so if voters truly view it as a technical triumph from top-to-bottom, it would seem odd for them to overlook it in Best Cinematography. Of course, this field produces perplexing snubs from time to time, and in a year with so many heralded cinematographers going head-to-head, someone’s heart will get broken. Still, Miranda is absolutely at the top of the list for consideration here, and he’ll be battling for a spot ’til the bitter end.

Best Film Editing
Now here’s a category where “Top Gun: Maverick” is practically guaranteed a nomination and maybe even a win. Many are beating the drum for “Everything Everywhere All At Once” to run the tables in this year’s editing race, given how unique that film’s explosive and erratic editing is, but “Top Gun: Maverick” feels far more in line with former winners in this category such as “Ford v Ferrari,” “Dunkirk,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Gravity,” and so on and so forth. There’s so much quick cross-cutting in the action sequences to keep us engaged, constantly taking us in and out of the planes our protagonists are piloting. Editor Eddie Hamilton also has to balance a plethora of perspectives in these scenes so that we can properly piece together what’s going on and who’s doing what, and he pulls off this task without a hitch.

I have a feeling we’ll be debating between “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “Top Gun: Maverick” all season long in this category, but one thing is for sure – there’s almost no way they’re overlooked for nods at the very least. Tom Cross will be a compelling competitor for “Babylon,” as will three-time Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmaker for “Killers of the Flower Moon.” We’ll likely see “Avatar: The Way of Water” work its way into the final five too, but “Top Gun: Maverick” is as classic a Best Editing contender as they come – action-packed with stunning spectacle and stupefying sound work (more on that in a moment). And, while we think it’ll break into this line-up regardless of what happens in Best Picture, an Editing nomination will go a long way towards boosting its chances to contend for the top prize, too, so keep your eyes peeled.

Best Sound
Best Editing and Best Sound nominations – and often wins – going hand-in-hand is a tale as old as time at the Oscars. “Gravity,” “Whiplash,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Dunkirk,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Ford v Ferrari,” “Sound of Metal,” “Dune” – and that’s just from the last decade! So, since we’re high on “Top Gun: Maverick’s” Best Editing hopes, we’re equally optimistic about its chances in Best Sound. However, you really don’t even need to consider that correlation to be hopeful here – the sound work in “Top Gun: Maverick” is simply staggering all on its own, and action/war films tend to not only earn nominations in this category but win as well.

In fact, looking ahead, we’re not sure there are even that many credible challengers to “Top Gun: Maverick’s” Best Sound crown. “Avatar: The Way of Water” will likely factor into the mix, as should “The Batman,” and potentially a few Oscar-bait flicks like “Babylon” (as sound comes into play when that movie depicts the transition from the silent films to the talkies) and “Elvis” (where sound is essential to every musical sequence), but “Top Gun: Maverick” has it all, and with the potential for a Best Film Editing win and a Best Picture nomination to go along with its Best Sound nod, that type of widespread support boosts its chances for a win here significantly.

Best Visual Effects
Top Gun: Maverick” may not be the most CGI-heavy blockbuster around, but sometimes, that actually helps your chances for a Best Visual Effects nomination. There’s usually at least one contender every year that uses more “subtle” CGI/VFX and still finds its way into the field (“No Time To Die,” “Tenet,” “1917,” “First Man,” “Deepwater Horizon,” “The Revenant,” etc.), and some even go on to win as well. So, while one may be tempted to fill up their predictions with the most CGI-heavy pictures on paper (think along the lines of Marvel movies that’ll surely still contend like “Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness” or “Thor: Love and Thunder“), don’t count out “Top Gun: Maverick.”

Many have “Avatar: The Way of Water” already pegged for the win here – which isn’t a bad bet, considering it’s probable for a Picture nomination, its predecessor won this award, and that teaser trailer looked tremendous – but the VFX in “Top Gun: Maverick” is so smartly and intricately integrated into the stuntwork that we’re sure this team will run a helluva campaign convincing voters that their art is equally as worthy of Oscar consideration as more conventionally visual effects-y contenders, and being a big player in Best Picture will only help further their case.

Best Original Score
Music is as essential to “Top Gun: Maverick” as it was to its predecessor, and that starts with the score, consummately composed by Lorne Balfe, Harold Faltermeyer, Lady Gaga (!!!), and Hans Zimmer. While it certainly takes cues from the original’s compositions, it also builds upon those classic chords to create something original and equally sonically overwhelming, particularly when it comes to the instrumental version of Gaga’s single “Hold My Hand” (which will discuss in detail in a second), which is resoundingly romantic on a spiritual level.

Outside of that theme, the score might take too much inspiration from the original film’s orchestrations to bewitch this branch – and we have yet to see what former winners like John Williams (“The Fabelmans”), Justin Hurwitz (“Babylon”), and Hildur Guðnadóttir (“Women Talking”) have in store, while Michael Giacchino’s “The Batman” score already made a strong impression earlier this year – but many have still cited the score as a standout in “Top Gun: Maverick,” so it will undoubtedly remain in the conversation all year long regardless.  

Best Original Song
Could Lady Gaga really win her second Oscar this year? It’s likelier than you think. First of all, while more contenders will likely crop up as the year goes on, the Best Original Song race feels rather sparse at the moment. Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell could be in contention again for “Nobody Like U” from “Turning Red,” while two original songs will compete from “Elvis,” and a “The Bob’s Burgers Movie” track might pop up, but there’s little on the horizon to be hopeful for at the moment.

And second, Gaga’s song is just good enough to win all on its own, and that’s that. It’s not only perfectly utilized in the film itself (always a bonus in this field, which is sometimes full of end credits numbers only), but it’s also a propulsive power ballad packed with pathos and complete with a catchy, anthemic chorus that you’ll be humming as soon as you leave the theater. Of course, it’s only May, and there’s always the chance that a surprise song becomes a major contender between now and December, but debuting early didn’t hurt last year’s winner Billie Eilish, whose “No Time To Die” was released on February 13, 2020 – a full two years before she’d earn her Oscar.

Conclusion
If you were to ask this pundit what categories to predict “Top Gun: Maverick” in for the 95th Academy Awards this far out, I’d divide its possible nominations into four categories.

Very Likely

  • Best Picture
  • Best Film Editing
  • Best Original Song
  • Best Sound
  • Best Visual Effects

On The Cusp

  • Best Cinematography
  • Best Original Score​

Less Likely

  • Best Director
  • Best Adapted Screenplay

Not Going To Happen

  • Best Actor
  • Best Supporting Actor
  • Best Supporting Actress

But, always remember that a lot can – and will – change between now and December, and nothing is set in stone at the end of May. Still, “Top Gun: Maverick” has proved that it’s got the goods, and as its success continues to spread, it will continue to bolster its Oscar campaign until it possibly becomes less of a pipe dream and more of an inevitability, with almost all on board with throwing awards at such a triumph of blockbuster filmmaking.

Do you think “Top Gun: Maverick” will be taken seriously enough come end of year for awards consideration? If so, what nominations do you see it receiving? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Zoe and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @ZoeRoseBryant

Zoe Rose Bryant
Zoe Rose Bryant
Writes for AwardsWatch & Loud & Clear Reviews. Omaha based film critic & Awards Season pundit.

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