Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The illegitimate five

Welcome to Oscar week! I'll be tailoring my posts to the Academy Awards this week, leading up to the telecast on Sunday night. (Lone exception: I've already got a rant planned about Alice in Wonderland, timed for its release on Friday.) I've only thought up my first idea, so let's hope it turns out alright.

When it was first announced last year that there would be ten best picture nominees in 2009, I wrote the following:

"But mark my words now. Next year, on February 2nd, when those nominees come out for a March 7th telecast -- two weeks later than this year, and two weeks even less interesting as a result -- we're going to be running to our computers, getting on the internet, and cattily dismissing at least three or four of the nominations as unworthy."

I didn't do it on February 2nd. I was too busy recovering from my final push to close out my 2009 list. And February 3rd was devoted to my best of the decade list. But the time has come on March 1st.

In fact, forget about three or four -- I can argue that it is plain as day to see which five films would have been nominated under the old system, and which would have needed to be content with acting, screenplay, or technical nominations. Here are the five legitimate nominees for 2009:

The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
Up in the Air

And here are the five pretenders:

The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
A Serious Man


You may think I am just listing my five favorite films from that group of ten, but if you've followed previous rants about Avatar, The Hurt Locker and Up in the Air, you know that's not true. In fact, An Education would be my third highest film ranked out of the ten nominated. But let's be honest. Any other year, An Education would have gotten a nomination for the wonderful Carey Mulligan and for its script, and that's it.

Or you may think I'm just repeating the films that had their directors nominated -- which may, indeed, be the real way to determine the year's five top nominees in years to come. As it happens, I would have chosen these films whether their directors were nominated or not. (And a clap on the back to Oscar voters for getting that category right, at least.)

No, I'm basing my judgment on something far more intangible and universal, and something far less personal to me. The way I see it, there are five basic factors that have traditionally been in favor of films that get nominated for best picture, and even though my list won't surprise you in the slightest, it's worth listing them anyway:

1) A high amount of critical acclaim;

2) A high amount of popularity, as expressed by box office dollars;

3) A strong pull on the zeitgeist, as expressed through the amount they were discussed/anticipated;

4) A strong pedigree for the director/other primary collaborators;

5) A genre that is traditionally recognized by Oscar voters.

It shouldn't be a big surprise to hear that you need to excel in more than two of these if you want to get nominated for best picture. Presumably, #1 is weighted the highest, but #2 through #5 have a significant impact as well. There were films that were not critical darlings -- say, Gladiator -- that went on to win best picture because they excelled at #2 and #3. And then there were films that had barely received a wide release by the time the Oscars rolled around -- say, Million Dollar Baby -- that won best picture because of a high amount of #1 and #4. Having a healthy supply of all five gives you a really good chance.

Let's consider these five factors in the five films I've said are legitimate best picture contenders:

Avatar - The highest grossing film, and one of the most talked about films, of all time, Avatar was a shoo-in nominee even if some critics genuinely did not like it. James Cameron's pedigree as director of Titanic made a nomination all the more likely. Those strong factors outweighed the fact that sci-fi is not usually nominated.

The Hurt Locker - Probably the most critically acclaimed film of the year, The Hurt Locker was also seen by a decent number of people. Plus, war movies have a strong history at the Oscars. Another shoo-in.

Inglourious Basterds - This movie had a decent but not mind-blowing box office ($120 million), and decent but not mind-blowing praise from critics. What made it a logical nominee was the reputation of Quentin Tarantino, how much the film was discussed/anticipated, and the track record of war movies at the Oscars.

Precious - The exceptional critical praise made this film likely to be nominated, along with another factor I did not list above -- the Academy's PC desire to honor films made by minorities, if there are worthy ones available to honor. This is actually my top choice for best picture. It just feels like a best picture nominee.

Up in the Air - This was probably the second most critically acclaimed film of the year, behind The Hurt Locker, and it had a strong Oscar pedigree in past winner George Clooney. Plus it had quite a hold on the zeitgeist with its timely issue of corporate downsizing. I actually thought this was the frontrunner a couple months ago, but no one's talking about it anymore.

Okay, now let's look at the second tier of five nominees:

The Blind Side - This film was wildly popular, and in that sense, I guess it had the zeitgeist. But the film was not an especial favorite of critics, sports movies usually do not get nominated for best picture, and no one in this movie had any Oscar pedigree, least of all Sandra Bullock. The Blind Side is this year's perfect example of a film that the new system was designed to honor -- which makes it the most illegitimate nominee, according to our old standards.

District 9 - My case against District 9 is a little harder to make. Not only was it popular, and not only did people talk about it a lot (I'm now realizing that those two could really be linked as one), but a lot of critics had high praise for it as well. (High praise that I do not agree with). I guess the other two factors are strong enough to pull this one out of logical contention for me -- this is hardcore sci-fi, and both the cast and crew were complete unknowns (with the prominent exception of producer Peter Jackson). Plus, it's weird enough for the Academy to nominate one science fiction film (Avatar). Two in one year, if there were only five nominees, would be unheard of.

An Education - Critical acclaim is really the only thing this film has going for it, although the genre is good for an Oscar nominee as well. But this is a prototypical example of one of those films where the lead performance is clearly the best thing about it. It would have fallen in well with films like Monster, Monster's Ball, Boys Don't Cry, and this year's Crazy Heart -- pretty good films (except Crazy Heart), but the best thing about them is the acting performance that got the Oscar.

A Serious Man - The pedigree of directors Joel and Ethan Coen is the primary thing A Serious Man has going for it, though it got pretty good critical acclaim as well. But it was hardly seen and hardly discussed, and the cast is comprised of unknowns.

Up - It may be hardest to make my case against Up. It was critically acclaimed, wildly popular, and wildly talked about, from a company with Oscar credentials up the wazoo. The problem is, Pixar's credentials are in the wrong category: Best Animated Feature. And herein lies Up's biggest problem -- it is the second biggest beneficiary, after The Blind Side, of this year's expanded number of nominees. All the talk last year was that Wall-E should have gotten a best picture nomination, so it was clear as day that if Pixar's 2009 movie was at least halfway decent, it would get nominated for best picture. And doesn't its nomination for best picture take some of the drama out of the best animated feature race, where it is also nominated? If none of those pictures were also nominated for best picture, how can they possible be better than Up? Let me make a probably inexact baseball analogy, playing a little devil's advocate as well, about why Up shouldn't get a best picture nominee -- it's the same reason why baseball writers rarely vote for a pitcher for most valuable player. Pitchers already have their award, the Cy Young Award. Similarly, animated features have best animated feature, even if that necessarily narrows the field of films their brilliance can be compared to. The fact that only one other animated film has ever been nominated for best picture -- Beauty and the Beast in 1991 -- and that there are a half-dozen other Pixar films that could have been nominated if there were more available slots, makes Up a shoo-in for an illegitimate nominee, based only on factor #5 from above. In other words, it's illegitimate for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality, and everything to do with the fact that the nominees were expanded to ten specifically to help movies like it.

So, as a kind of recap, here is my personal ranking of the films, only in terms of their legitimacy of being nominated based on Oscar's past standards, not in terms of how I liked them:

1) The Hurt Locker
2) Avatar
3) Up in the Air
4) Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
5) Inglourious Basterds
6) An Education
7) District 9
8) A Serious Man
9) Up
10) The Blind Side

Agree? Disagree? Hey, it's an open forum.

Despite the fact that I've just written a post in which I called five of the best picture nominees illegitimate, I actually don't think the experiment of expanding to ten turned out too horribly. (Though you should check this out for a wicked parody of the expanded nominees on SNL.) All of the nominees ended up having at least one factor that would have led me to believe they should be nominated.

There are some movies that could have gotten nominated -- for example, The Hangover or Star Trek -- that I think might have cheapened the process a bit too much. Don't get me wrong -- I like The Hangover better than half the nominees, and Star Trek better than all but two of them. But never -- and I mean never -- has a comedy as broad as The Hangover gotten nominated, and it seems to fly in the very face of the level of stateliness and decorum that we like, on some level, to think that we can expect from the Oscars. Then there's the fact that it would have been the ultimate case of pandering to previously uninterested potential Oscar watchers. With Star Trek, I don't know, it just seems to be too much of a brand name to qualify for an Oscar. It would be like if a James Bond movie were nominated for best picture -- there have just been too many of them to start honoring them this late in the game.

Okay, tune back in tomorrow, when I ... when I write something else about this year's Oscars. I'll have my thinking cap on until then.

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