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A Supersized Oscar Season Begins

by David Cornelius

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced last summer that they were raising the amount of Best Picture nominees from five to ten - the first time the category would be so crowded since FDR was alive - movie buffs everywhere scoffed. Wasn’t this just an attempt at making up for the snubs of “The Dark Knight” and “WALL-E” a few months earlier? Wouldn’t a longer list dumb down the show’s top prize by opening up the gates to any old popular junk? Does this mean we’re going to live in a horrible, horrible world where “Star Trek” and “The Hangover” get top nominations?

The good news, at least, is that despite previous lead-up awards, “The Hangover” got a complete shut-out while “Star Trek” was limited to the technical categories. Better still, widening the nomination list opened the doors not just for smaller titles, critical favorites underseen by the public - precisely the opposite of the “champion the box office winners” goal that was on everybody’s mind. Critical faves “An Education” and “A Single Man” climbed into the top spot right alongside blockbusters “Avatar” and “Up.”

The best surprise of the bunch probably goes to “District 9,” the sci-fi sleeper hit that also turned out to be one of the year’s best; while its box office take was impressive, the movie has really turned into something of a cult favorite, and cult favorites rarely become Best Picture nominees. (It also nabbed Best Adapted Screenplay among its four total nods.)

Eyebrows were also raised, although not so positively, over the Best Picture and Best Actress nominations for “The Blind Side.” Its box office and Golden Globes successes led Oscar watchers to find these nods inevitable, although critics across the country still groaned to themselves - “Best Picture? Really?” - when it became official.

(More groaning was had over the two acting nods for “Invictus.” In a year when most of the too-obvious, underwhelming Oscar bait fell far short, it looked like this would, too. Guess not.)

“The Blind Side” and “A Serious Man” manage to point out the major flaw in the whole “ten nominees” thing: both are Best Picture nominees with only one other nod apiece. (“An Education” is close behind, at a mere three total.) The last film to pull off such a feat was 1994’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” which went up for Picture, Screenplay, and nothing else. Before that, however, you have to go all the way back to 1943, when, in the last year before the field narrowed to five, “The Ox-Bow Incident” earned a Best Picture nod as its only nomination, while fellow contender “In Which We Serve” earned just two nods.

In the 1930s and early 40s, this sort of thing was quite common. Granted, it wasn’t all the fault of a bigger field - usually there was some studio collusion at play, with honchos strong-arming their employees to vote en masse for a title that wouldn’t be much of a contender in too many other categories. Still, the ten-noms rule also left the door open for movies that were well received but not for too many specific reasons, just as with, say, “The Blind Side,” which people like for Bullock but not much else, or “A Serious Man,” which delighted fans of the Coens’ writing but for too few other reasons. In another year, both films would be happy with a single Actress or Screenplay nod; here, the new rule leaves the door open for that “well, I can’t really think of ten worthy films, so I’ll pad out my ballot with stuff I like decently enough” sort of contender.

Indeed, if this year were to be limited to five nominees, what would they have been? The best clue is to look at the five Best Director noms: “Avatar,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Precious,” and “Up in the Air.” You might be able to swap “Up” for one of those, but I’m willing to call those the five “real” contenders, with the other five nominated titles just along for the ride. To them, it really is a privilege just to be nominated, in a year where the Academy felt too gracious.

And come Oscar night, those extra five spots won’t cause much in the form of suspense. There’s no real chance any of those titles will become a spoiler for the top prize, no matter how far the announcers will try to convince you to stay tuned. It’s an “Avatar” versus “Hurt Locker” game, and don’t expect “An Education” to sneak in there any time soon.

The Academy’s other excuse for widening the field: ratings. Curiously, though, those ratings were bound to perk up anyway, with “Avatar” being a sure nominee even in a five-movie year. Will the Academy misread better ratings as public approval of a ten-nominee system? Let’s hope not. Let’s hope they’ll realize that a top nod for “A Single Man” does nothing for them. Let’s hope by this time next year, we’re back to arguing over which five made it, and which didn’t.

Other random knee-jerk thoughts on this Oscar morning:

- Kathryn Bigelow becomes only the fourth woman ever to be nominated for Best Director. She’s also a frontrunner to win, and deservedly so. Still, the only thing most media outlets want to discuss is how she used to be married to James Cameron, and isn’t that kooky?

- Lee Daniels becomes only the second black filmmaker to earn a Director nomination; the first was John Singleton for 1991’s “Boyz N the Hood.”

- “Up” becomes only the second animated movie to earn a Picture nomination, after 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,” even though, like “Beast,” “Up” failed to earn a Director nod, because we all know animated features direct themselves, right?

- “Up” earns the third straight Original Screenplay nomination for Pixar, and the studio’s sixth overall. Pixar also maintains their feat of earning a Best Animated Feature nomination in every year they’ve been eligible, going seven-for-seven.

- But no Pixar for Animated Short? Where’s the “Partly Cloudy” love?

- The Wallace and Gromit love makes up for it, though.

- “The Secret of Kells,” which has been building great buzz yet has barely been seen in the U.S., managed to sneak in for an Animated Feature nomination, thanks to a teeny eligibility-qualifying, L.A.-only release in December. (It opens wide in March.) Snubbed, however, is “Ponyo,” which suggests the Academy truly believes “The Princess and the Frog” is better than Miyazaki.

- Of the ten Picture nominees, only “Avatar” and “The Blind Side” failed to also earn a Screenplay nomination. (In their places among the ten writing nods: “In the Loop” and “The Messenger.”)

- Five movies manage to earn multiple acting nods: three for “Up in the Air,” and two apiece for “Crazy Heart,” “Invictus,” “The Last Station,” and “Precious.”

- This year marks only the ninth time in awards history that no Best Picture nominee was nominated for Best Costume. (Not vital information by any means, but a nifty fact nonetheless.)

- As usual, the music branch drops the ball. Missing from either category is Marvin Hamlisch, whose golden return for “The Informant!” got shut out. The rest of the Score noms are plenty fine (including pleasant surprises for “Sherlock Holmes” and “The Hurt Locker”), while the Song category only hints that had the branch not instituted the two-songs-per-movie limit in 2008, it’d be all Disney here.

- And even then, they picked two of the weaker “Frog” songs - clearly “Ma Belle Evangeline” is the movie’s best track. I suppose by picking “Down in New Orleans,” they hoped to talk Dr. John into an Oscar night performance. Ratings gold!

- Meanwhile, “Nine” tossed us this year’s “mediocre new song hastily written for an old musical just so we can hope for an Oscar” nonsense, and of course the Academy bit.

- A nod for “In the Loop” proves that the writing branch is paying attention.

- Among the many expected nominations for “Avatar” is Best Cinematography, which raises the question: how much animation and CG enhancement can a movie have and still showcase its original cinematography? A friend of mine joked that praising “Avatar” for its cinematography is, in his words, “like nominating Heidi Montag for ‘Best Knockers.’” I’m not sure it’s that extreme - there’s some terrific background shots used for source material here - but the point is well taken. How can something like “The White Ribbon” compete with CG-juiced fare like “Avatar” and “Harry Potter”?

- The much-loved “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” is shut out of the Documentary Feature category. Other favorites “Food, Inc.” and “The Cove” made it through, hinting it’s not the same “popular titles get shafted” problem from years back, but it does suggest the branch still leans toward more “Borgnine-friendly” fare.

- This year’s Ridiculous Phrase Thanks to the Tech Awards: “Oscar Nominee Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” You’re welcome.

The nominee tally:

9 -“Avatar,” “The Hurt Locker”
8 - “Inglourious Basterds”
6 - “Precious,” “Up in the Air”
5 - “Up”
4 - “District 9,” “Nine,” “Star Trek”
3 - “An Education,” “Crazy Heart,” “The Princess and the Frog,” “The Young Victoria”
2 - “The Blind Side,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” “Invictus,” “The Last Station,” “The Messenger,” “A Serious Man,” “Sherlock Holmes,” “The White Ribbon”
1- “Ajami,” “Bright Star,” “Burma VJ,” “Coco Before Chanel,” “Coraline,” “The Cove,” “El Secreto de Sus Ojos,” “Food, Inc.,” “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” “Il Divo,” “In the Loop,” “Julie & Julia,” “The Lovely Bones,” “The Milk of Sorrow,” “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” “Paris 36,” “The Secret of Kells,” “A Single Man,” “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “Un Prophète,” “Which Way Home”

A complete list of nominees can be found at the official Academy website.

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originally posted: 02/03/10 04:39:18
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