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Friday, February 23, 2024

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“Past Lives” & “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” Emerge As The Strongest Best Picture Contenders From The First Half Of 2023

At the halfway point of the calendar year, it is clear what the year’s two most acclaimed films are. One is an A24-released film centering on an immigrant woman who confronts what her life could have been. The other is a big studio sequel released early in the summer that was expected to be huge, but not highest grossing and most acclaimed film of the summer huge – to the point where a Best Picture nod that escaped its iconic predecessor may be possible. If this sounds familiar, this is precisely where we were in July 2022 with “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Top Gun: Maverick.” Twelve months later, we are at this precise point all over again, with “Past Lives” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” now recognized as the A24 darling and the massive summer blockbuster leading the critical charts midway through the year.

Next Best Picture’s own team collectively put “Past Lives” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” as 1-2 in their total midseason rankings, while the Hollywood Critics Association had the latter beat out the former as their midseason Best Picture. Yet whether the multiversal-spanning Spider-Man or the possible multiple lives spanning couple of “Past Lives” is No. 1 on early best-of lists, they are usually 1-2 in some order – just as one could safely assume the same about “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Top Gun: Maverick” 12 months ago.

In 2022, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was A24’s early season film that examined love, roads taken and not taken second chances, and much more through the eyes of a female immigrant originally from the Far East. In 2023, “Past Lives” does nearly the same thing, except that its lead female immigrant is originally from Korea, and her journey with her first love and her current husband keeps her in one universe.

Nevertheless, Nora/Na Young is forced to imagine what could have been if everything had been different with the man she first loved, just as Evelyn Wang did in a far more chaotic way. This turmoil is filmed by a brand-new director in first-timer Celine Song, who has only a slightly smaller resume than the Daniels had when “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was just their second full-length movie. But in both cases, these virtually brand-new voices were hailed as the most inventive ones of the year before the Fourth of July.

As we all know, almost no critic who saw “Everything Everywhere All at Once” could stop talking about it by mid-2022, and they kept on talking all the way to its historic Oscar night sweep. Meanwhile, as we’re all starting to figure out now, almost no critic who has seen “Past Lives” has been able to stop talking about it, whether they first saw it at Sundance in January or at an arthouse theater this past month. In fact, “Past Lives” has even exceeded the critical scores of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” already, with a Rotten Tomatoes 97% Tomatometer/9.1 avg and a 94 on Metacritic compared to the latter’s mere 93%/8.5 and 81.

Otherwise, while “Everything Everywhere All at Once” opened in March 2022 after premiering at SXSW and stayed in the box office top 10 for months as A24’s biggest film ever, “Past Lives” had a far more modest opening in June 2023 after premiering at Sundance. Still, although “Past Lives” surely won’t get to $70 million domestically in America before its awards season run, its limited release has exceeded projections enough that it surely won’t hurt any future campaign.

Either way, it is clear that for the second year in a row, an A24 love story with Far Eastern characters, a predominantly female perspective, an examination of lives here and elsewhere, a new directorial star, and a big word of mouth from both critics and audiences is the midseason film of the year. But it is also becoming clear that the only other film that might come close is the biggest film of the summer blockbuster season – and another sequel that brings back the theatrical movie experience.

In 2022, “Top Gun: Maverick” was the early summer sequel that followed an iconic and beloved predecessor, but it wasn’t expected to exceed it with both critics and the box office as it did. In 2023, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” does nearly the exact same thing, except that it is an animated superhero sequel to a film that merely came out five years ago, instead of a live-action virtual superhero sequel to a Tom Cruise film that came out over 35 years ago.

Nevertheless, “Top Gun: Maverick” had a high and perhaps improbable bar to climb over a movie that made Cruise a generational superstar and defined an entire decade. Likewise, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” had a high and perhaps improbable bar to climb over a movie that made Miles Morales a new generational Spider-Man and redefined both Spider-Man and superhero films, if not mainstream American animation. Yet in both cases, these sequels became runaway hits and critical darlings in ways even the most hopeful couldn’t have dreamed of.

Top Gun: Maverick” not only had the universal critical acclaim its predecessor never came close to, it had the kind of word-of-mouth juggernaut box office even “Top Gun” couldn’t match. Right from the jump of its Memorial Day weekend release, it barely fell off the charts for months after that, to the point where it both won the summer and began building buzz as a possible Best Picture nominee. In fact, it managed to hold off “Avatar: The Way of Water” as the biggest domestic film of 2022, which helped it cross over into Oscar season in ways very few summers or mega-blockbuster films do anymore.

Now 12 months later, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” not only has the universal critical acclaim its predecessor did – in ways very few sequels to a universally acclaimed blockbuster have come close to – it has the word-of-mouth juggernaut box office “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” couldn’t quite reach. Right from the jump of its post-Memorial Day weekend release, it has remained at the top of the charts five weeks later, to the point where it has nearly caught “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” as the No. 1 film of the summer. It won’t catch “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” as the No. 1 film of 2023. Still, it is almost assuredly about to win the summer and now has a case to cross over into Oscar season in ways very few summer or animated films do anymore.

Either way, it is clear that for the second year in a row, a summer sequel has defied the odds to become not only bigger than its beloved original but become the biggest and most beloved wide release of summer and the entire early year. As a result, that bigger-than-expected love and money may carry it all the way to the Best Picture field too.

So here we are once again, as the biggest film of summer and an A24 darling are the most loved films in the first six months of the year. And if the parallels to 2022 continue from there, both “Past Lives” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” will keep momentum building for months more, all the way to the Oscars. Of course, the parallels will be exceedingly hard to continue from there.

Since “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was the biggest above-the-line Oscar sweeper of all time, and since A24 itself won all but one major Oscar that night, it may be harder for A24 to be rewarded with major Oscars again so soon – though that didn’t stop much bigger studios like Searchlight and the former Weinstein Company year after year. In any case, “Past Lives” may have to share A24’s award season priorities with “The Zone of Interest,” just as “Everything Everywhere All at Once” did at first with “The Whale.” It still seems harder to imagine it standing out from the rest of the field, but even critics who championed “Everything Everywhere All at Once” in July 2022 barely dreamed a Best Picture win was realistic then, let alone all the other wins.

Meanwhile, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” has its own obstacles to overcome that “Top Gun: Maverick” didn’t have to face. While it is on track to be the biggest summer film of 2023, at maximum, it will make a mere $400 million domestically, whereas “Top Gun: Maverick” topped out at over $700 million. And, of course, as both a superhero film and an animated one at that, it has harder genre biases to overcome than a live-action war picture powered by perhaps the last live-action human megastar. Plus, since it likely has a Best Animated Feature Oscar in the bag like its predecessor did, Oscar voters may figure that’s enough for it and call it a day, like they did with its predecessor – although it wasn’t a summer movie champion.

By Oscar night 2024, “Past Lives” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” may well turn out very differently from “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Top Gun: Maverick.” Yet in July 2023, these pairs don’t look all that dissimilar quite yet. In fact, they combine to tell a story of the first six months of a moviegoing year that sounds all too familiar – which is ironic since all four films redefine stories and genres that are usually all too familiar. That is more than likely precisely why they are the most beloved films of their respective six-month periods, and maybe for longer than that.

How do you feel about “Past Lives” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” as awards season contenders so far? What nominations do you think they will receive? Please let us know in the comments section below or over on our Twitter account. Thank you!

You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @Robertdoc1984

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