MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20W2O: 10 Best Picture Nominees – Part 1, Why It’s Good


I like the idea of 10 nominees for Best Picture.

When I first heard it—which, coincidentally, was before the Academy Governors did—I did not. I felt it was an overreaction to the ratings and The Globes. I felt it would not make The Oscars more inclusive. I felt it missed the point.

I didn’t HATE the idea. I just thought it missed the real mark. I felt then—and continue to feel—that in this media-saturated era, Oscar needs to move to within 5 or 6 weeks of New Year’s Day to be seriously relevant to people.

But then, The Academy voted. And they didn’t include, as the screamers were sure would happen, Star Trek or Harry Potter. (Even the most enraged didn’t really think Transformers would be nominated.) Instead, after the Obvious 4 (Avatar, Inglorious Basterds, Precious, Up in the Air), they included An Education, A Serious Man, two highly-regarded hits (The Blind Side and District 9), and Up, the first animated film to get a Best Picture slot since the creation of the Best Feature Animation category. The was some critical whining about The Blind Side, but mostly because they didn’t see it coming.

They also included one other film… The Hurt Locker, which with a $12.7m domestic gross was no lock to even get nominated. Would it have been included in a vote of 5 films? Maybe. Maybe not. But the film then went on to be the second film in the previous 20 years of Oscar to win without being the #1 or #2 highest grossing nominee when final voting occurred. The other one was American Beauty, which was #3 and had grossed over $100m domestically before voting.

This was one of the most significant anomalies I have come across in my 17 years or so of covering Oscar aggressively. There were a lot of reasons why The Hurt Locker won, not least of which being that it was a great, great movie. But it was not something that could be anticipated based on the history of Academy voting.

Much of what we who write about all this—an ever-expanding group—is based on history, sampling of a very small percentage of Oscar voters, and whether we like to admit it or not, the vagaries of other awards and studio award marketing. Each of us has a different group of connections, though some tend to overlap. But over and over during any season, we all have to readjust our sights on what is, not what we think it might be. And at that point, history is often rewritten into legend. Reality gets simplified into a meme. And that’s when it gets weird.

The nest year, celebrating the 2010 films, the Obvious 5 were The Kings Speech, The Fighter, The Social Network, Toy Story 3 (in part, because there were 10 and now an animated film was not handicapped), and True Grit. The lowest grosser in that group, pre-nomination, was The King’s Speech, which had then earned $58m domestic. By the time final voting came, all five would be over $90m domestic.

A blockbuster did get in… Christopher Nolan’s Inception, which not unlike Gravity this year, was wildly praised by critics and audiences alike. Also, Black Swan, which was a very edgy surprise hit. And all grossing under $21 million, The Kids Are All Right, 127 Hours, and Winter’s Bone.

Was there something to complain about here? Did we all want to see Winter’s Bone kicked to the curb? Was Inception not worthy? The Kids Are All Right?

But the next year, The Academy, in Bruce Davis’ last act before his exit, changed the rule from 10 nominees to anywhere from 5-10 nominees. Why? The public argument was that they did an internal study and found that there was rarely enough passionate (top vote) support for more than 6 or 7 films. So the argument was that the standard for entry had to be raised. Reactive stupidity once again won the day. Making this even more stupid, however, was that ABC made its decade-long extension with The Academy before the change. So the intense pressure was off… and still, change for change’s sake.

Of course, we have had 9 nominees in each of the 3 seasons in which this new system was integrated. So if the accounting of previous years, used as the cudgel to get this (stupid) new system in place was accurate, something changed. Immediately after its implementation.

Personally, I think this was Bruce Davis’ poison pill to The Academy (and Dawn Hudson) on his way out. It’s just the kind of brand thinner that desperate organizations chase. The Academy didn’t need to be legitimized. It was already—and still is—legit.

In the next Academy season, The Obvious 4 were The Artist, The Help, Midnight in Paris, and The Descendants. This was the first time in modern Oscar history that a low grosser—The Artist—was also nominated as the frontrunner. The film would never pass $45m domestic, even after having won Best Picture. The other obvious films were all over $50m domestic when nominated.

Filling out the list were War Horse, Moneyball, Hugo, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and The Tree of Life. Three of these were from living legends (Spielberg, Scorsese, Malick), one was a hit on a surprise level (Moneyball). And one was from a director, Stephen Daldry, who had directed only 4 movies and had pulled shocking nominations out of his hat on all of them. This included 3 Best Picture nominations and 3 Best Director nods, including one for a film not Best Picture nominated.

And again, which 4 films wold you pull out of Best Picture consideration?

I bet a lot of people could pick 3 they felt didn’t belong in the 9. Many I know would be happy to make the film that won Best Picture one of the removed. But how many would cheerfully remove 4? It gets a lot harder.

This brings us to last season.

Once again, picking 5 films isn’t very obvious. It seems safe to guess that Lincoln would have made the 5. And Life of Pi, which wasn’t a big media favorite at the time of nomination, ended up being strong enough to win Best Director. So I would assume that it would be in. So between Django, Argo, Silver Linings, and Les Mis, which was being left out? (People will disagree… even if you are sure as sure can be.)

And as noted in the other seasons, who would be happier if Zero Dark Thirty, Beasts of The Southern Wild, and Amour were left hanging?

Now look… you can disagree. We can disagree. But the fact of the matter is, this is an issue of personal preference, not in the Top 10 of “issues with the Academy Awards that matter.” You can even disagree with that, if your personal dislike of having up to 10 nominees is super-strong.

But after a lot of years of covering this beat, this is one thing I have learned. Every time you get a statistic that you can reverse engineer into being foolproof for the last period of time, it turns out that you end up being the fool… if not today, than next year or the year after.

It’s quite simple to me. Would Oscar be better served had the following films not been nominated?

A Serious Man
An Education
Beasts of The Southern Wild
Black Swan
The Blind Side
District 9
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Hurt Locker
The Kids Are Alright
127 Hours
The Tree of Life
War Horse
Winter’s Bone
Zero Dark Thirty

You can argue about the list, to some degree, adding or subtracting a title. But personally, I count at least 9 titles in this group that I treasure at or near the highest level. So I am very happy with the move to 10, even if I think the change to the 5-10 nominee system is problematic in many ways and is a terrible idea.

Finally, let’s discuss this year’s nominees.

First, I would say that the Obvious 5 are also the Top 5 grossers in the group; Gravity, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, The Wolf of Wall Street, and 12 Years A Slave.

Is there something, aside from personal taste, to complain about on this list? Two of the films were late entries, though they were from extremely consistent Oscar nominees in recent years, Scorsese & Russell. Captain Phillips was a surprisingly strong commercial player after getting solid reviews in October. 12 Years A Slave is a powerful film about a powerful subject from a fine artist turned filmmaker. And Gravity is an industry/film lover’s gamechanger (much as Avatar was) and a massive worldwide smash.

The “added” 4 are; Philomena, Dallas Buyer’s Club, Her, and Nebraska.

Is someone out there anxious to explain how these 4 films being nominated lessens The Oscars?

In Part 2, I will write to the sturm und drang being thrown out there by a couple of writers who seem to want to pin all the failings of the modern, marketing-and-publicity-heavy Oscar season on the change from 5 Best Picture nominees to 10 or 9 (as it has been the last years). And I will write to the many legitimate problems that are being brought up as well.

The thing is, I am fine with them hate, hate, hating the 5+ nominee idea. There is nothing wrong with feeling it’s bad news. But relying on one stat that can only be analyzed over 3 seasons and attaching and mis-attaching all kinds of other stuff to this one stat as though it is a primary factor in causing an overall problem is not a very strong argument.

If 500,000 more people see Philomena, Dallas Buyer’s Club, Her, or Nebraska because they were Best Picture nominees, viva la system! These are terrific films that are not easy to market. I just don’t see how it’s not a win for everyone.

Be Sociable, Share!

8 Responses to “20W2O: 10 Best Picture Nominees – Part 1, Why It’s Good”

  1. movielocke says:

    There are two things the three years of nine nominees has illustrated.

    1). The change was all about Animation. Animators are already segregated and disdained second class citizens within the hollywood royalty and movie snobs of the academy. The old movie snobs of the academy (the ones that get films like A Serious Man and Amour nominated) were privately fucking pissed off that two animated films had been nominated. The academy leadership looked at the numbers and realized that the Animated branch of the academy had more than 1/11th of the total membership. They then looked at the ballots of the Animated branch and saw that the segregation and disdain foisted upon the animators had had an effect, all the ballots of the animated branch for best picture had animated films in the top consecutive slots. People at Pixar were voting for people at Dreamworks and Disney and Fox respectively, before their ballots ever got down to the bottom half where they might include live action. That meant that when all the ballots were reordered, and say a dreamworks film was discarded, those animated ballots, at an extremely high rate, went straight into the Pixar or Disney or Fox pile. Until you wound up with an animated film reaching the threshhold for Best Picture. There was an extremely real chance that an animated film would permanently get nominated as best picture every year. There’s an extremely easy fix, to this “problem” though, which is that the animators at all those rival studio will always put their studio’s film first that year, that means they’re divided at the first step. If you institute a high minimum that no studio can meet on its own–200 first place votes–you very effectively kick the animated branch back into their segregated place, which means those uppity animated fuckers won’t be bothering the snobs anymore. Conveniently, this high bar won’t affect any other films or branches, so no one even notices the change.

    2) It was effortless to adapt to the new rules structures for both the two years with ten nominees and the three years with nine. It used to be that Harvey had an iron death grip of doom on the process of getting a BP nomination by whoring around for second and third place votes–why? because he knew how to manipulate the process, the new system is also manipulatible, but the process you have to focus on is more like in the Iowa Caucuses, you have to have a complete count of your number one votes. Without number ones you campaign just doesn’t count, so the whole system has shifted from manipulating the undercard to manipulating the top billing.

    Also, the summer before they announced the change to ten nominees, the academy celebrated the nominees of 1939 with weekly screenings of the ten. The atmosphere throughout was ecstatic, and at one point, the academy president, upon introducing one of the films said something along the lines of, “These ten films are all just so amazing, it’s wonderful that such a wide array of films were honored” yada yada yada. About six weeks later, the change to ten nominees was officially announced.

  2. Daniella Isaacs says:

    If we had 10 this year, BLUE JASMINE, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, BEFORE MIDNIGHT, or, at the worst, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY would have sneaked in. Nothing to be ashamed of there, and, with the exception of AUGUST (in my mind), all very worthy films. You’re right: let’s go back to ten.

  3. JoeS says:

    I DO object to most of those 6-10 slotted films you mentioned being considered now and forever, “Best Picture” nominees.

    This isn’t third grade. You shouldn’t get patted on the back for just being good enough to be rewarded for just participating.

    There was NO chance in hell of UP, DISTRICT 9, EXTREMELY LOUD, BLIND SIDE etc. of actually winning. So, why give them a token nomination to just fill out the field? Put a star on the producer’s forehead, say “job well done” and be done with it.

    The only tweek I might make would be to add a 6th nominee in those years where there is a virtual tie for that 5th/6th slot.

  4. filmlooney says:

    If you name “top 10 films” like AFI without naming the best, it would be great to recognize those films. But I just don’t get why bother nominate a film that has zero chance to win. Even with 5 nominees, most of the times 2 or 3 of them have no chance. I actually like the idea to recognize a highly commercial film that is usually missed out in those awards season, but couldn’t they do that without nominating it for BP?

  5. BoulderKid says:

    Eh, I like the expanded field. Back in the days of five I always felt that there was this idea of an “oscar film” which signified a certain level of self importance. I think the long established joke that you needed to make a holocaust movie or costume drama to get a nod sort of support this.

    Now with 9 or 10 nominees, movies that are hyper entertaining, but not necessarily “important” can get in. I’m think mostly of action, comedy, and scifi films. It’s ridiculous that Terminator 2, Minority Report, and the Matrix weren’t nominated. These are films that I will stop whatever else I’m doing and watch until the end anytime they come on tv, which to me is one of the purest indications of quality. So to see something like Captain Phillips (which I don’t agree with DP that a nomination would have been a sure thing under to the old system) or District 9 get in, makes the nominees, in my opinion much more indicative of the best films of the year.

    Side note: 2011 was such a brutal year. Just a bunch of 2.5 star and 3 star movies getting “nominee status.” I think “Moneyball” is the only movie there I ever deliberately rewatched.

  6. Bob Burns says:

    entirely agree about moving Oscar to January and agree with your larger point about the expanded field. There are many films on your list that were better than the eventual winners, and, even if they didn’t have a chance to win are deserving of the next highest recognition available.

    Those films all had strong support within the Academy or they could not have been nommed. My guess is that the five film system was excluding large blocs of Academy voters year after year and that this move was as much about the Members wishes as it is about external considerations.

  7. Daniella Isaacs says:

    “This isn’t third grade.” Except, maybe for Ingmar Bergman or Steven Spielberg (or someone at that level) none among us has any standing to suggest that films like INCEPTION or AN EDUCATION or MIDNIGHT IN PARIS are “third grade” efforts. Sheesh.

  8. Martin Pal says:

    Five films is plenty. If the eventual winner is worthy enough, in whatever sense of the word you want that to mean, it will be in the Top 5. No need for inflation. Ten nominations doesn’t even mean they get it right, even in 1939.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon