Again, the popular film isn't always the best. But the Academy appears to have an aversion to things that are popular among the movie-going audience.
Allow me to demonstrate. Here is an analysis of the Top Grossing Films by year for the 2000's, along with the rank of the highest grossing non-animated, non-franchise film and the ranking of The winner of the Best Picture Oscar:
|Top Grossing Film||Non-Franchise/Non Animated Top Grosser||Gross Rank of "Best Picture|
|1. How the Grinch Stole Christmas||2. Cast Away||4. Gladiator|
|1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone||7. Pearl Harbor||11. A Beautiful Mind|
|1. Spider-Man||5. My Big Fat Greek Wedding||10. Chicago|
|1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King||7. Elf||1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King|
|1. Shrek 2||3. The Passion of the Christ||24. Million Dollar Baby|
|1. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith||4. War of the Worlds||49. Crash|
|1. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest||10. The Pursuit of Happyness||15. Departed|
|1. Spider-Man 3||6. I am Legend||36. No Country For Old Men|
|1. The Dark Knight||12. Gran Torino (Hancock (#4 in gross) is technically not a franchise film, but it was intended to be).||16. Slumdog Millionaire|
|1. Avatar||8. The Blind Side||116. The Hurt Locker|
|1. Toy Story 3||6. Inception||18. King's Speech|
|1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt 2||13. The Help||71. The Artist|
|1. The Avengers||13. Lincoln||22. Argo|
|1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire||6. Gravity||62. 12 Years a Slave|
|1. American Sniper||1. American Sniper||78. Birdman|
|1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens||8. The Martian||62. Spotlight|
|1. Rogue One: A Star Wars Stor||14. Hidden Figures||95. Moonlight|
You can see the breakdown like this:
Only The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was the highest grossing film of the year to win Best Picture.
Notice too how erratic the grosses are for Best Picture. The Academy seems to have a hard time giving an Oscar to a semi popular movie. After 2003, every time a relatively popular film wins an Oscar, the Academy goes out of its way to choose an obscure film. Look at the swing between Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, and The King's Speech. And if you notice the trend since 2012, the Academy is moving further and further away from popular films.
But even if you controlled for non-franchise, non-animated films, the Academy is not in step with the movie-going public. Granted, most of the films in this category were nominated for Oscars, but they rarely won. Even if the Academy decided eliminate every franchise or animated film from Best Picture contention, they are still incredibly far apart from their audience.
What does this mean?
The Academy voters want to tell us what is good. But I tend to trust the movie-going public more. But I think it goes beyond that. Look at the themes in the non-franchise, non-sequel films:
|2. Cast Away||Hold on to hope|
|7. Pearl Harbor||Patriotism and friendship|
|5. My Big Fat Greek Wedding||Family and Marriage|
|7. Elf||Family and Christmas spirit|
|3. The Passion of the Christ||The Love of God|
|4. War of the Worlds||Protectiveness of Fathers|
|10. The Pursuit of Happyness||Protectiveness of Fathers|
|6. I am Legend||Faith and self-sacrifice|
|12. Gran Torino (Hancock (#4 in gross) is technically not a franchise film, but it was intended to be).||Caring for others who are different and self-sacrifice|
|8. The Blind Side||Family and racial unity|
|6. Inception||The nature of dreams|
|13. The Help||Human dignity and racial justice|
|13. Lincoln||Human dignity and leadership|
|6. Gravity||Survival and faith|
|1. American Sniper||Patriotism and courage|
|8. The Martian||Innovation and courage|
|14. Hidden Figures||innovation and racial justice|
For the Oscar winners its this:
|4. Gladiator||Strength and Honor|
|11. A Beautiful Mind||Love overcomes all challenges|
|10. Chicago||Fame corrupts|
|1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King||Courage and Goodness against evil|
|24. Million Dollar Baby||Handicapped life isn't worth living|
|49. Crash||Everyone is racist|
|15. Departed||Life is unjust|
|36. No Country For Old Men||We're all going to die|
|16. Slumdog Millionaire||Life is all connected|
|116. The Hurt Locker||War is a drug|
|18. King's Speech||We can overcome our handicaps|
|71. The Artist||Adapt or die|
|22. Argo||Courage and creative movie-making|
|62. 12 Years a Slave||courage and endurance|
|78. Birdman||Art is better than life|
|62. Spotlight||Corruption in the Church|
|95. Moonlight||Racial and orientation injustice.|
Now my interpretations of the theme are debatable. But for the most part, there is a higher appeal to traditional values in the first list as opposed to the last list.
I believe the Academy is not only trying to sell us on style, but on theme. The reason why is that themes deal with the transcendent part of the story and those are the places that truly affect our world-view. I believe that as the years have gone on, the Academy is less interested in reflecting the themes that truly are universal to all humans and instead focus on trying to push new and innovative themes.
This is a mistake for several reasons. But the primary reason is this: truth always wins out.
If art is not touching on something truly transcendent and universal, then it is too much tied to the zeitgeist. And when that happens, it becomes quickly out of fashion.
Be honest, in the last 10 years, from which list of films are you going to find movies that are still relevant? And from which list will we find movie that will be relevant in 30 years?
The Academy voters need to stop thinking only of the moment but of the film's place in the pantheon of great films. To horribly repurpose and paraphrase a quote about Shakespeare, great movies should not be for only their time, but for all time.