Friday, June 26, 2009

The Big Ten

So, everyone who follows the Oscars is in an uproar upon hearing Wednesday's announcement that they will nominate ten films for best picture rather than the typical five. This hasn't happened since the days of The Wizard of Oz. In fact, Casablanca was the last best picture winner to be chosen from a pool of ten. The reactions have been varied. Some, like Sasha Stone of Awardsdaily are choosing to see the silver lining, arguing that this will mean greater inclusiveness. Films that are normally destined to be on the fringe are going to be invited to the party. Some think that this will lead to a best picture list padded with ten Oscar-baity films instead of five. The list will be packed to the rafters with Finding Neverlands, Chocolats and Benjamin Buttons.

I'm of several schools of thought about the whole thing. First of all, those who are saying that films like Star Trek are now in the running for a best picture nomination. Ridiculous. Banish the thought from your mind. Star Trek was...cute. I'll say very cute, even. Don't get me wrong. But best picture? Come on. While it's true that it's been a while since the best picture list has included 10 films, there is some precedent we can look to to see why a movie like Star Trek would never be nominated, even with that many films in the fray.

The Broadcast Film Critics Association, which has (for better or worse) become a fair predictor for Oscar nominees/winners, nominates ten films for best picture. The National Board of Review cites a top ten list. Last year, Iron Man was absent from both of these lists. That would seem like the film that is an apt comparison. It was a phenomenon, whereas the reaction to has been more along the lines of..."Wow, this movie isn't a total embarrassment." The notion that a film like Star Trek could ever manage a best picture nomination is baseless, knee-jerk and reactionary. It's silly.

My thoughts on the shift are as follows. Ultimately, it won't really change much. There are still only going to be five best director nominees. This pretty much does away with the "lone director" slot, which has previously gone to Julian Schnabel for The Diving Bell and The Butterfly and Paul Greengrass for United 93. Both of those films were BFCA nominees for best picture, and if the BP lists in their respective years had been inflated to 10, rather than 5, those films probably would have made the cut. I say "pretty much" because there are also lone directors, like Pedro Almodovar for Talk to Her and Fernando Meirelles for City of God whose films may have still have trouble making the list (see how Star Trek isn't getting a nomination?)

Even with ten films, having five best director nominees automatically cuts the list of legitimate contenders in half. Gone are the days of Grand Hotel and Driving Miss Daisy. No best director nomination pretty much means a death knell for your chances in best picture. And since most of the prestige pictures are adaptations, we're going to see a few best picture nominees with corresponding screenplay nominations either. That eliminates their chances as well, dontcha think?

Let's face it. Even when the Academy nominates five films, only two (sometimes three in a particularly weird year) are really in contention for the top prize. 2006 is a recent example of when people talked about any of the five contenders conceivably winning. The Departed eventually won, but it was probably only Little Miss Sunshine that gave it a run for its money. One comment that I keep reading is that its hard enough finding five films good enough to vy for best picture in a given year, let alone ten. And that came from an unnamed person within the Academy. What an incredibly cynical thing to say about the industry in which you work. Yes, if you search only among the "prestige" films and refuse to think outside the box, then yes, last year's best picture list would have included Doubt, Defiance, and Changeling as possible contenders. Or, it could have contained The Wrestler, Rachel Getting Married or Wall-E. Lack of imagination on the part of the voters has always been a problem, and we'll likely see expanded mediocrity rather than a best picture list that invites strange new faces to the party. But, I am a pessimist...

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