Let’s all rally for malignant

We are excited to welcome guest contributor Andrew J. Eisenman to the team here at The Run-Down on Movies. In his first piece, Eisenman walks us through the process of the newly added Oscars Fan Favorite Award, and specifically makes a case for James Wan’s “Malignant” to take home the prize.

Last week, the Academy announced that there will be a new award in this year’s ceremony: The Fan Favorite. This new category is an attempt by the Academy to appease voices that seem to think that Oscars only matter when the movies that are nominated are the movies most people have seen. Specifically, this new category was supposed to be a set-up for Marvel’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” to get an easy slam dunk after its brief and late campaign for Best Picture. But, just like the failed set-up at last year’s Oscars, aimed at giving Chadwick Boseman a posthumous Best Actor award, best laid plans can come to naught when dealing with voters.

The race for Fan Favorite started with two loud cries: One for “Malignant” from film critics like John Lensky over at EWW, and one for Zack Snyder’s “Justice League” cut from the ever present Snydercut community. In the days since, the Camila Cabello Stan Army has brute-forced Amazon Studio’s Cinderella into 1st place. Meanwhile, the Snydercut crowd figured out that the director’s cut of a 2017 film doesn’t qualify for a 2021 award, so they’re trying to get Snyder’s most recent work “The Army of the Dead” to the top as a stand-in. As for the Malignant Hive, the energy seemed to peter out as soon as it began. Let’s change that. With one week left in the competition, there’s still time.

I first heard of “Malignant” on Twitter, with someone on the timeline reacting to the shock of the third act twist of the film and telling everyone to hop offline right now and go see it before they got spoiled (this is your courtesy warning now as well). It was on HBO Max on dual release and I was broke on a Friday night, so I turned it on to see what the fuss was about. In my room, my TV faces my bed since I don’t have the room for a couch. I tell you this so you can understand that while technically small, it did take more effort to stand up out of respect for this third act twist than if I had been on a couch. When Annabelle Wallis reached behind her hair in that jail cell and pulled a parasitic twin out of her skull, I had to take off a comforter, two sheets and a blanket, roll from one end of my queen bed to another, and hop down to stand on the floor. Why? Because it was the right thing to do. Because a moment like that demands respect.

The second time I saw “Malignant” was my dad’s birthday. It was a Monday and about a month into its box office run, so we had to drive an hour to go see the film, bringing along my brother and his fiancé. When we reached the third act turn, my brother and his fiancé both shot straight up in their seats and bored holes into the side of my head with their eyes while my father, his own eyes as wide as America’s wealth gap, exclaimed “What the h*ck did you bring me too?”

It was glorious.

With “Malignant,” James Wan brought us a truly masterful piece of gonzo cinema, a true work of crazy “yes and-“ art that just goes for it harder than most filmmakers will go for it in their entire careers. It may have had a smaller box office than the Marvel film this award was designed for, but I’d argue that as great as the moment was when we finally got to see all three Peter Parkers on screen together (and it really was great), that moment she pulls the skull apart has created an audience experience like no other in 2021 or the next few years to come.

There are flavors to crowd pleasing moments, and while “Spider-Man: No Way Home” certainly got the loudest and the most cheers and the most money this year, its cheers are still in that same category of flavor as Black Panther stepping out of the portal in “Avengers: Endgame” or Darth Vader’s hallway massacre at the end of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” All great, crucial moments, but all the same flavor. “Malignant” is its own unique flavor in cinema, and that’s something just as hard and noteworthy as what Jon Watts managed to pull off.

This competition is run mostly through Twitter, with one vote per person through a web portal, and 20 votes per day through tweeting — and that’s not a mistake. This contest is a real attempt at ending the bad-faith debate over the very nature of cinema that has consumed “Film Twitter” ever since Martin Scorsese made a statement that — in an algorithm-free world — would have faded away by now. But we don’t live in an algorithm-free world, and many, many members of the Academy and seemingly every film critic in the world all spend a lot of time on Twitter and cannot escape the debate. So, it’s no surprise to me that while the Oscars are full of populist films this year — with “Dune” sitting comfortably next to “Drive My Car” in the Best Picture race — that the key question of the debate would make its way to the Oscars anyway: Are Marvel movies “cinema?”

But that question is dumb and just a smokescreen for the real question cinema faces today: What kinds of films do we want to see in theaters?

Did rom-coms disappear because audiences stopped showing up, or did audiences stop showing up because Netflix bought up all the rom-coms for 5 years and kept them from theaters? Did Marvel’s high-volume theatrical slate kill the modern drama, or did the Dark-Universe-ification of seemingly every franchise ever deal the killing blow? Is Marvel cinema? All of these are smokescreens. All of these are high-engagement ways of thinking about and talking about the real question of our day in cinema: What do we want to see in theaters?

The answer is often a circular paradox: We see it in theaters because it was in theaters, and it was in theaters because we show up to see it in theaters. Box office returns matter because they are the chief way we reward films, but they aren’t the only way. What do we want to see in theaters? Whenever I think about this question, I remember a story that John Krasinski has told before.

Krasinski was telling Paul Thomas Anderson how much he hated a film, and PTA replied “Don’t say that. Don’t say that it’s not a good movie. If it wasn’t for you, that’s fine, but in our business, we’ve all got to support each other…you’ve got to support the big swing. If you put it out there that the movie’s not good, they won’t let us make more movies like that.”

I’m not retelling that story here to say that you must vote for “Malignant” even if you didn’t like it because that’s the only way to save cinema. Far from it. If you don’t like “Malignant,” vote for what you like. That’s what this new category is supposedly for! The reason I’m repeating this story is because up to a point, what movies we want to see in theaters is up to us, what we see, and what we say we like — and the Oscars is one of the chief ways we do that. And for the first time ever, that mouthpiece belongs to all cinephiles who want it, not just Academy voters.

This is why the Oscars continue to matter despite falling ratings. It tells studios what we like through who and what we reward. It’s why getting nominated makes careers and causes consternation when someone who deserves recognition gets snubbed.

So, what do we want to see in theaters? I want to see more big swings, more Malignants.

This is the first time the Academy is extending its voice like this, and this is a chance we should not let pass us by. When that award is announced, it can be a film chosen because of the parasocial relationship between a star and her stans, it can be a film rewarded for toxic fandom, or it can be an original, shocking, absolutely bananas big swing of artistic talent championed by artists and fans alike. It can be something we want to see in theaters.

But we must rally, and rally quickly. We’ve only got a week left until the March 3rd deadline, and other factions have been voting for days. I’ve written this essay, I’m editing an FYC video and some fan cams, and I’ll be tweeting every day. But that’s the extent of my voice. I want to be a director someday, but right now my day job is cutting metal pipes with a portable band saw, I don’t have a podcast or local access show, or 100k followers on Twitter. My voice is small, and it can only be heard when joined with others. So, if my words have moved you, if you want to speak definitively into what we want to see in theaters, then speak. Be annoying on Twitter for just a week. If you have a podcast, show or following, get your audience involved. Doing something like this requires champions — so be a champion, take actual action. If you’ve written in favor of gonzo filmmaking, do it again, this week, about “Malignant.” If you’ve ranted about how horror is always underrepresented at the Oscars, here’s your moment. If you’re just plain tired of superhero films or cynical corporate reboots and yearn for an original swing, “Malignant” is as sincere as they come. Let’s do this for ourselves, let’s do it for the memes, let’s do it for cinema.

Here’s how the contest works:

Written by Andrew J. Eisenman, guest contributor to The Run-Down on Movies.

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