Reacting to the Reaction to Today’s Academy Award Announcements

Naysayers are quick to disparage the value of the Academy Awards, always pointing out examples from history where X mediocre movie won when Y much-better movie wasn’t even nominated. I have no reason to dispute those instances, just to point out that while the decision-making process on determining these winners may lack the evenhandedness of an Olympic competition (unless it’s figure skating – woo, Olympic burn!), the results live forever, in Wikipedia entries and trivia questions and even history books.

We remember these films because they expose what seemed important to us at any one time, and when we look back on those years, we use the Academy Awards as a barometer for how people felt at the time. The Oscars, as overhyped and overblown as they are, matter.

So, with the nominations releasing today, I’ll be taking a look at each the categories over the next week and trying to sift out what the nominations mean.

Let’s start with the big one.

Best Picture

I know it’s a dull thing to start on, but because of a rule change in the voting, we need to cover a quick bit of Oscar history before we begin. I promise I’ll keep it brief.

The Academy Awards created the Best Picture award in 1931 (it was named “Outstanding Picture” then, and went through a number of name changes before settling on “Best Picture” in the sixties) and created a system where ten films a year would be nominated for the slot. In 1944, they sliced that number to five, where it stayed until 2008. That year, a number of smart, artistic films (Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, Frost/Nixon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Reader) had taken up all the Best Picture slots, leaving no room for populist fare like The Dark Knight. Deciding that opening up more spots would make room for more audience-friendly movies, they moved the number back to ten.

The decision backfired almost immediately. In 2009, there were five clear-cut Best Picture nomination locks (The Hurt Locker, Avatar, Inglorious Basterds, Precious, and Up In The Air), and the rest of the category was filled up with interesting indie non-contenders (An Education, A Serious Man) plus at least one clearly undeserving film (The Blind Side). So the decision swung the other way, and this year they developed a sliding scale for the movies: there would be between five and ten movies nominated every year, with the number of the movies on the list being determined by this incredibly complicated sliding scale.

If you don’t want to bother reading the linked article (and I don’t blame you), take this away: in order to be nominated, a film needs a certain amount of first-place votes from Academy voters. So a movie can’t just be considered “very good” by a lot of critics, be placed fourth or fifth on most ballots, and skate onto the list that way. It has to have a significant number of supporters who believe that this movie was the best movie of the year. And so we come to this year’s list. 

There are nine movies nominated for an Academy Award this year, including a couple that a lot of critics (and most of America) hated: Tree of Life and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. The former is viewed as overlong, overly ambitious, and underplotted, while the latter is seen as treacly and contrived. But it doesn’t matter – they’re going to the Kodak! Meanwhile, the well-reviewed and financially successful Bridesmaids and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are left on the outside looking in.

Other nominees include several with no chance at all of winning (The Help, Midnight In Paris, Moneyball, War Horse) two likely also-rans (Hugo, the most-nominated picture with eleven, and Golden Globe winner The Descendants), and the almost certain winner, The Artist.  The Oscars are over a month away, so there’s still time for things to change, but I’m pretty sure I can lock that prediction down right now. It’s The Artist’s year. It just is.

I’ll break down why I think it’s the winner in my Oscar prediction column in a few weeks, but let’s talk about the field at large, and what it means about moviemaking this year. 

Most Oscar predictors hedged their bets on Oscar predictions, but the vast majority assumed that there would be at most seven Best Picture nominations. Why? Because most of the movies outside those seven just weren’t that good, or were good but flawed, or were solid but not remarkable. There just didn’t seem to be that many “wow, you’ve got to see this” movies outside the top five or so.

But here’s the thing: there weren’t that many “wow, you’ve got to see this” movies in the top five. It just wasn’t that year. How many movies premiered this year that were unmissable? I enjoyed The Artist and The Descendants a great deal, but they aren’t really memorable, not for the long term. They’re good, and I recommend you see them. But they don’t wow.

Last year was a battle between an emotionally resonant Hollywood biopic (The King’s Speech) and the zeitgest-hitting origination of Facebook (The Social Network). The story, going in to the Oscars, was new school vs. old school (I’ve dismissed this theory before, so I won’t go into it here). The year before that was Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker (also known as Star Wars vs. Annie Hall part II). Great stories, great movies, great matchups. Made for a fun Oscar telecasts, or would have if James Franco hadn't slouched his way through it.

But this year… is anyone so tied to The Artist that they’ll throw a fit if it doesn’t win? Does anyone feel The Descendants  or Hugo is so deserving it must be awarded an Oscar? Did anyone feel The Help, or Midnight In Paris, or Moneyball, was anything else other than a very solid, watchable movie?

Actually, did anyone besides me actually watch those movies?

The reason other movies snuck into the list is that if a voter liked a movie, there was no reason for them not to put them into their top slot. I mean, what else deserved to be there?