Oscars Countdown: Do We Really Need Ten Best Picture Nominations?

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Yesterday the countdown began to the biggest night in movie self-aggrandisement of the year, the 83rd Academy Awards. The cycle of the modern era is thus: everyone from top print critics to plebs such as myself produces end of year lists, then spends the next couple of months being repeatedly and increasingly disappointed when their favourites are overlooked. I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with the Oscars for just that reason, but old age and boredom have led me to realise that while I may not enjoy them as much as I once did, I still have an opinion on them. In that respect they’re like the weather or The X Factor – you may not really enjoy them, but it’s good to have an opinion on them.

So between now and the big night in a little over a month, I will, whenever I get bored of talking about other things, give my view on some of the big issues surrounding the Oscars. The biggest talking point after the nominations is couldn’t they have found anyone more interesting than Mo’Nique and that old guy to announce them why your own personal favourite didn’t make the cut, of course. As much as I was pleasantly surprised that Dogtooth made it into Best Foreign Language or that The Illusionist made the final cut for Best Animated, my disappointment at such exclusions as Christopher Nolan for Best Director, Andrew Garfield for Best Supporting Actor, Tron: Legacy for Best Soundtrack and especially Lesley Manville for anything at all just increases my frustration with the whole process.

It’s difficult, of course, to squeeze the best of the year down to just five. But there’s one category where, for the past two years, this hasn’t been such an issue, and that’s the biggie, Best Picture. Last year, for the first time since 1943, there were ten nominations for this most prestigious honour, and the question most people have been asking is “Why?” I actually think this is a good thing, for a number of reasons: here’s what they are.

It’s really hard just to narrow it down to five

Everyone, from Quentin Tarantino to Stephen King, makes end of year lists, and those lists generally have at least ten films in them. Ten does seem to be the nice, round number, and our society, in everything from analysing popular music with a weekly chart to the ramblings of talk show host David Letterman, puts a peculiar weight on the top 10, as opposed to the top 5 or the top 47. So having a top 10 makes sense from the perspective of keeping society happy, if nothing else.

Oscar is pretty terrible at picking the best out of a list of five

You do wonder sometimes what possesses the 6,000 or so members of the Academy. Sure, it’s not always possible for voters to see all of the nominated films in every category, even all of the best picture nominations. But given how often voters managed to look at a list of five nominations and pick the worst film out, maybe it’s best to have a longer list to pick from. For example, in the twenty years prior to the change last year, the Academy made a number of horrendous cock-ups, the biggest of which was this:

1994

Nominated for Best Picture:

Quiz Show: Robert Redford’s fantastic take on the quiz show scandals of the Fifties, with a stellar cast and a fantastic script

Four Weddings And A Funeral: the finest example of the British rom-com of the past twenty years, which not even Andie MacDowell could screw up

Pulp Fiction: Quentin Tarantino’s split narrative, featuring iconic performances and lots of talk about Belgian burgers

The Shawshank Redemption: not even those horrible More Than Freeman adverts can tarnish the memory of what many consider to be the greatest film of all time

And the winner was Forrest Gump, which peddles a fairly naive message at best and does it in a fairly condescending way. Tom Hanks got an award for being an idiot – he was in good company in that respect. But while you’re at it, also consider the following travesties of justice:

1997 – Titanic sinks a host of much better films, including L.A. Confidential, Good Will Hunting and even The Full Monty – was everyone afraid of James Cameron?

1998 – Shakespeare In Love somehow beats Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, among others, even more mystifying when Spieberg got Best Director

2001 – Amazingly The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, Gosford Park and Moulin Rouge! all conspire to lose to A Beautiful Mind. Ron Howard has managed to make some great films in his career; this was not one of them.

2002 – Chicago beats Gangs of New York, The Pianist and yet more Lords of Rings, and we all have to wait another four years to finally get Martin Scorcese the Oscar he deserves

2005 – The simplistic, horribly naive Crash got the award over Brokeback Mountain, Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich and Capote. Probably because everyone in the Academy was in Crash.

On almost a third of occasions in just twenty years, the Academy voters succeeding in giving the award to exactly the wrong film, partly because it’s been difficult for the good and bad to show clear separation, and it’s easier for a poor film to gain momentum when there’s not much competition. Last year, The Hurt Locker might not have been the best film, but it was a long way from being the worst of the ten – in a smaller field, Avatar might have been able to gain enough traction to beat out the competition.

There are actually more than five good films this year

Let’s face it, my Casablanca might be your Dude, Where’s My Car and vice versa. (Based on the above, if it is then you’re probably a paid up member of the Academy.) None of us will ever come to a consensus on these things, but hopefully most of us recognise a general standard and level of quality that makes material stand out from the crowd. We might not agree that the best film wins, but generally you can divide the category into those that you wouldn’t mind winning, and those that would make your blood boil. This year, 127 Hours and The Kids Are All Right, while being OK as films in their own right, would be at Crash levels of nonsensical if they picked up the giant bald gold man, but pretty much everything else in the category is worthy, and hopefully picking up most of the quality will help the award end up in worthy hands on the day.

The Oscars do get people back into the cinema

For some reason, the thought that a film is packed full of quality actors, well directed from a word perfect screenplay doesn’t encourage people to queue up to see it, but as soon as the possibility raises itself that a film’s producers might get their sweaty palms on a small gold bald guy, then instantly it becomes the must-see event of the millennium. The King’s Speech might have been doing extraordinary business on this side of the pond, where its hardcore Britishness has seen people practically queuing round the block,  but it’s not done much in the US – until the nominations were announced, of course, and the fact that it topped the list with twelve noms has seen its box office up by two-thirds day on day. Most if not all of the films on the list deserve to be seen in cinemas; making the list ten rather than five means that some quality films will hopefully also get quality sized audiences as well.

Well, there you have it, my two penneth on the big category. At this point, I’d like The Social Network to take the big prize this year, although I think The King’s Speech might give it a run for its money, but the next month will be fascinating in terms of the swings and roundabouts of the Oscar race. Check back for more random opinions between now and February 27th.

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