Best Picture Category At The Oscars Expands To Ten. Should We Care?

Today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that the slate of nominees for next year’s Best Picture category at the Oscars will be expanded from 5 to 10, at least in part to accommodate this year’s outcry when blockbustery critical darlings like WALL-E and The Dark Knight were shut out at the expense of, among others, the awful The Reader. I’m genuinely torn on this. Like so many others, I’m having some  problems transitioning my love for movies into a love for this insanely over-hyped awards show, that more often than not ends up throwing statuettes at unworthy movies. But if my trying to pretend that I don’t really care about the Oscars was really sincere, I guess I wouldn’t be writing about this at all. Yet here I am, typing away.

This leaves basically two other possible reactions. First, I could applaud the (admittedly transparently populist) move as a step on the way to broaden the image people generally have of what makes for an Oscar movie. Expanding the number of nominees should, at least theoretically, make it easier for movies with smaller promotional budgets or slightly less savvy marketing executives to gain their masterpiece a nod. Hopefully, such an expansion could also signal an opening for that movies that don’t necessarily speak equally to all parts of the Academy, or genres that generally have had a harder time getting recognized in the Best Picture category (like comedies, animated movies/children’s movies or documentaries), than the predictably mainstream epics the Academy have made an art form out of over-recognizing. In addition to ideally giving the Oscars broader popular legitimacy and making the Academy able to recognize great achievements over a broader scale of genres, it could also help smaller movies get the audience they deserve. I know, it will still take a lot to make the cut, but we know from recent years what it could mean for small movies to gain a nomination. Michelle Leo was nominated for Best Actress (a category that’s reportedly staying at five nominees) for the low-budget thriller Frozen River last year, giving it a lot more attention, and now that attention could potentially be doled out to other similarly low-budget movies as well. Anything that makes people see more good movies has to be a good thing.

Still, I can’t help but play a little devil’s advocate here. I’m not particularly annoyed by how the Academy all-but admits that this expansion came into being because of the declining viewership the ceremony has attracted over the last several years (although it was actually up again slightly this year). I could have been annoyed by that if had actually considered the Oscars first and foremost a noble battle among the finest works of cinematic art in any given year, instead of what it mostly is; a competition between marketing strategists to get the right people within the Academy to see your movie and then spread the word.

But if we back off the cynicism for a minute, a couple of concerns still arise. Most importantly, if we buy into the notion that an Oscar still is the most exclusive recognition a movie can get, an expansion could potentially reduce the prestige of the Best Picture category. If the crop of movies to choose is a weak one, as it arguably was this year, this move could mean that picking a Best Picture winner in the future would mean picking The Better Of The Good, instead of picking The Best Of The Best. Also, I’m not sure whether I approve of the way the Academy seems to have locked itself to the expansion in advance: If next year’s field turns out to be as thin as last year’s, they would still be obligated to choose ten movies, of which maybe two or three are great, another three or four are good but not extraordinary, while the final three or four are included simply to fill the fixed quota and please the big companies. The more sensible approach, and one that would take care of prestige problem while at the same time offering some flexibility, would be to scrap the predetermined number of nominees altogether, and simply nominate the movies that merit a nomination, no matter how many or how few. I know this would not necessarily solve the problem of the unorthodox Oscar movies currently being let out, but it would nevertheless make the move feel less rigid, and bring the focus back on the quality of the movies.

Still, no matter where you end up on the question of whether this is a good or a bad move, a humble or a purely cynical move, I can’t help but think about what it could have meant to this year’s Oscars if next year’s rules had been in place this March. On the plus side, Revolutionary Road and The Dark Knight would probably have been given the honor they deserve, and maybe even Man on Wire, the winner in the Best Documentary category. Alongside Milk (take one here, take two here), they would have provided a much-needed sense of audacity in the way to tell a story and shown that what is serious doesn’t always have to be one hundred percent serious, and equally boring (see: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). One possible downside then, is that a movie like Doubt, a movie good only in the safest, dullest and most distant meaning of the word (it doesn’t hold up well over time), could easily take the slot instead, playing to the Academy’s taste for well-acted but non-spectacular Issue Movies. And, even though in the end this of course is a question of personal tastes, such a retroactive expansion would still do nothing to fix the most serious flaw: After all, The Reader would still have been nominated, and I’m not sure I’m thrilled thinking about the possibility that Australia still could have taken the slot initially reserved for Revolutionary Road

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10 Responses to Best Picture Category At The Oscars Expands To Ten. Should We Care?

  1. poeticgrin says:

    Once again you are my source for entertainment news. I haven’t heard this & I’m wondering why it’s not front-page news here.

    I’m pro this decision, if only that it will make the Oscars seem different and fresh.

    Your comment on The Reader was totally correct. That was a horrible movie, at least the second half. I’ve only fallen asleep in two movies in my lifetime at the theater… and this was one of them.

    I’ve got a better idea… how about they just let you pick the nominees? You have better taste. :)

  2. queerlefty says:

    “Once again you are my source for entertainment news. I haven’t heard this”.

    Again, Bryan, I’m glad to be of service, and without going all Global Village on you, I will simply smile at the thought that something I wrote from Bergen, Norway, could potentially spur a totally independent conversation in Little Rock, Arkansas (0r wherever you may be at this moment) just hours later.

    In total, I suppose I’m pro-expansion too, I just wanted to lay out the arguments on both sides of the issue. Also, I would have come much more forcefully in favor of it if I had gotten assurances from the Academy that it would not simply use this new rule to nominate an even longer string of mediocre epics. I’m still angry about how RevRoad was snubbed this year.

    I’m behind you 100% on The Reader, but which movie was the other you’ve fallen asleep to? I don’t I’ve ever done that (except for an early morning screening of the fertility clinic-documentary ‘Frozen Angels at the Bergen International Film Festival in 2005, and that was because I hadn’t sleep the night before, and not because I disliked the movie), but have come very close to leaving the theater because of the crappiness of the movie (most noteably the truly terrible Wim Wenders drama ‘Million Dollar Hotel’ from 2003, with Mel Gibson and Milla Jovovich. God, that was awful!) a couple of times. Perhaps unfortunately, I’m too stubborn to actually carry out such an impulse.

    If they had let me pick the BP this year, I would have nominated ‘Revolutionary Road’, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, ‘Milk’, ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Man on Wire’. The award would – of course – have gone to ‘Milk’.

    Anyway, you really know how to make me feel both competent and powerful, Bryan. Thanks for that.

  3. Smilie says:

    You’re my source for entertainment news too. :-)

    I used to watch the Oscars but started getting annoyed with them. A lot of the movies I watched and really enjoyed weren’t present in the show. Admittedly I tend to watch obscure movies (mostly because main stream blockbusters don’t appeal to me), but I was tired of watching an awards show where movies I thought were terrible or at least mediocre won a huge number of awards. It’s also difficult to get excited when you haven’t seen most of the movies that were nominated.

  4. queerlefty says:

    True. Care to share some movie favorites?

  5. My first reaction when I heard about this last week was, “GREAT. NOW THEY DO THIS AFTER ‘SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE’ WON? UGH…” But then, just as quickly, I was glad to hear about the news.

    I liked the fact that you weighed the positives and the negatives of the Academy’s recent move. I agree with pretty much all your points. But I heard somewhere that having 10 Best Picture nominees was the default way back when (I think in the 1940’s or 1960’s)?

    One of the main reasons why I was happy that they expanded the category to 10 was that the potential of having a “landslide” win will be minimized (assuming that most of the nominated pictures are near or as equally good). The hype over “Slumdog Millionare” definitely helped the so-called win and I really don’t want that to happen again because, to be honest, most (regular) people’s choice to win are, well, stupid ones. For instance, “Crash” (over “Brokeback Mountain”) and “Slumdog Millionaire” (over “Milk”).

    Facebook statuses contributed to the hype as well… I forgot why that popped into my head.

    • queerlefty says:

      As you know, Franz, I was satisfied with Slumdog Millionaire than you were (it was my second choice for BP, behind ‘Milk’), and I would not put the ‘Slumdog’ in the same category of scandalous Oscar snubs as ‘Brokeback’ v. ‘Crash’. (How about 1999, when ‘Shakespeare in Love’ was awarded over ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and – you guessed it – ‘Fight Club’ wasn’t even nominated?)

      The expectation that a traditional frontrunner would have more competition certainly is one of the more intriguing possibilities of this move. Still, that has to mean the Academy will think more unconventionally about what movies to nominate. I won’t believe until I see it.

  6. Smilie says:

    Favourite movies? hmmm…I’ll have to think about that for a bit. “Beautiful Thing” comes to mind as well as “The Curiosity of Chance” and “Before the Fall” (probably since I watched it the other day). I also enjoyed “Boy Culture” and “The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green” (although I think the eye candy had a lot to do with it).

    In terms of more recent and “mainstream” hollywood-type movies, there aren’t a lot that I enjoyed enough to think of off the top of my head. Let’s see…Juno was good. I also enjoyed “The Bucket List” as well as “Jumper”.

    I can’t think of anything else right now. :)

    • queerlefty says:

      Guess I’ll have to check out all of them, then! I try to get a mix of mainstream movies and more daring and unconventional ones, but now I’m right in the middle of a streak of mostly awful summer blockbusters (Terminator Salvation, Transformers 2, X-Men: Origins etc). I could cite 50 films among my favorites, but at this very moment I’m still on a high from rewatching Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin.

      You liked Jumper? I’d pretty much say it’s the worst movie I saw last year (except, possibly, ‘Australia’). I saw it for Jamie Bell only. I shouldn’t have.

  7. Oh ya! I forgot about “Shakespeare in Love” vs. “Saving Private Ryan.” That was atrocious!! Eugh, yeah, good thing “Fight Club” wasn’t nominated. =P

  8. Smilie says:

    Jumper wasn’t great. The only reason I liked it was to watch Jamie Bell and Hayden Christensen. While I’m not a fan of Hayden’s acting ability, I could watch him forever. :-P

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