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Avatar and Top Gun lead a rare Oscar year where big movies are Best Picture material

Everything Everywhere All at Once and Elvis were also hits with big nominations

Na’vi mates Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and Jake (Sam Worthington) fly on their mottled blue banshee mounts above the clouds with a sunset behind them in Avatar: The Way of Water Image: 20th Century Studios
Austen Goslin (he/him) is an entertainment editor. He writes about the latest TV shows and movies, and particularly loves all things horror.

It’s the rare year when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the general American moviegoing public are in total agreement. The 2023 Oscar nominations were announced on Tuesday morning, and the most popular movies of the year by box-office standards, Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun: Maverick, both earned nominations for Best Picture. While this may not sound surprising, it hasn’t really happened for almost 50 years.

The most recent time it happened was a bit of a technicality, so in the mind of this Oscar trivia buff, it doesn’t actually count. In 2010, the top two movies at the American box office were Toy Story 3 and Avatar. But Avatar was actually released in 2009, and just hung around in theaters for months after its debut. Because of this staggered release, the two movies weren’t even nominated for Best Picture in the same year; Toy Story 3 broke into the category at the 83rd Oscars, celebrating 2010 releases, while Avatar was at the 82nd ceremony the year before.

But to chisel this into the trivia history books: The last year in which the top two movies at the U.S. domestic box office were nominated for Best Picture at the same Academy Awards was actually 1975, when Jaws topped the box office and earned a Best Picture nomination while One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest took second at the box office but first at the Academy Award ceremony.

Remarkably, given how rare it is otherwise, this feat also happened again in the 1970s when massive hits The Sting and The Exorcist both earned Best Picture nominations in 1972. Perhaps most surprising was in 1970, when four of the top five movies got Best Picture nominations with Love Story, Airport, M*A*S*H, and Patton, which eventually won the award. It happened even more frequently in the ’60s, including a stretch between 1962 and 1965 where it happened every year. And in those days there were only five slots in the Best Picture category.

While it’s hard to imagine a box-office landscape similar to that of the ’60s and ’70s, when movies like Cuckoo’s Nest or The Sting could land in the top two of the year, 2023’s Oscars is certainly a lot more populist than it’s been in the past. Aside from just the two top box-office earners getting nominated, the list of nominees was led by surprise smash hit Everything Everywhere All at Once, which earned 11 nominations. While Everything Everywhere didn’t crack the top 10 of the year, it did manage to make over $70 million domestically off a comparatively tiny budget and over $100 million worldwide, which certainly makes it a hit, to say nothing of its status as a bit of a cultural phenomenon. Elvis also took home eight nominations, including Best Picture, and made over $151 million at the domestic box office.

In other words, we may never return to the halcyon days of ’60s and ’70s cinema where the commercial and critical favorites were often one and the same, but this year’s crop of nominees certainly represents a much closer consensus that we’ve had any time recently. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that this year also happens to be the first in recent memory where superheroes weren’t box-office darlings.