I’m aware of how ludicrous it is to jump from an antiwar movie to an aggressively pro-military one, but of such contradictions is any wide-ranging best picture lineup made. We’re also now entering the sequel portion of this list, which would have been even more robust had “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and/or “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” made the best picture cut, as some suspected they might. Cynical minds might conclude that the academy opted for “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” due to their staggering box office billions, and they may well be right. At a moment when theatrical moviegoing has seldom seemed more endangered, it’s easy to imagine voters gravitating toward the commercial juggernauts that kept the industry alive, even if the inevitable Hollywood consequences — more massively over-budgeted event movies and sequels, and precious little else — suggest the most Pyrrhic of victories.
But there’s also another dynamic at play. These are two of the longer-gestating sequels in recent memory, which speaks to the considerable care and thought that’s gone into their making, as well as their refusal to take the audience’s investment for granted. And in the case of “Top Gun: Maverick,” that refusal has resulted in a sequel that, while far less sweatily iconic than its 1986 predecessor, becomes, in the hands of director Joseph Kosinski, a markedly richer, emotionally rounder experience. It’s a pleasure to see Tom Cruise return to one of his signature roles, which many were hoping might land him his first acting nomination since 1999’s “Magnolia,” and to see him upstaged by Val Kilmer’s one-scene heartbreaker of a performance. But what gives “Top Gun: Maverick” its specific kick is the way it turns naval aviation into its own cinematic metaphor. In its hope for the new generation but its refusal to abandon the old, its belief that seemingly antiquated technologies can still be sources of pleasure, accomplishment and even salvation, is a deeply sincere expression of faith in the movies, their past and their future.