Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Mea Culpa: Why I Was Wrong (Sort Of) and The Oscars Should Go Back to 5 Best Picture Nominees

Back in 2009, when the Academy announced a significant rule change – that they were increasing the number of films nominated for Best Picture from 5 to 10 – most people thought it was a bad idea. I was not one of those people. My logic, and it remains sound to me, was that few critics do a top 5 list at the end of the year – they all do a top 10 list. Therefore, if critics could come up with 10 worthy films to single out in a given year, so could the Academy. Given how the previous Oscar race went – when two films that were hugely popular with audiences and critics – The Dark Knight and Wall-E – failed to get into the Best Picture lineup, and the Academy instead with five safer “Oscar” films – Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Reader and Frost/Nixon – only one of which (Slumdog) could be said to have enjoyed close to the same level of audience and critical support, I thought that expanding the field would allow a more diverse lineup into the race. The hope was that by going to 10 nominees that films that normally would not get nominated because either because of their genre (like The Dark Knight or Wall-E) or too small or too foreign, etc. could get into the lineup, thus bringing a more diverse array of films into the fold. Films that may not only satisfy more mainstream audiences, but also far less mainstream audiences as well.

To me, 2009 proved that the experiment could work. In addition to the five films that probably would have gotten into the lineup anyway (based on the somewhat dubious assumption that Picture and Director would line-up 5-5) of Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Precious, Inglorious Basterds and Up in the Air – the Academy found room for 5 completely different kinds of films - an animated film – Up – a crowd pleasing sci-fi action film – District 9 – a hugely popular inspirational sports film – The Blind Side –a tiny indie from a largely unknown director –An Education - and a strange auteur film – the Coens A Serious Man. These are precisely the type of films that normally never broke through into the Oscar race for Best Picture – but did so in 2009. The following year, I think the result were similarly encouraging. In addition to the five Picture-director nominees – Black Swan, True Grit, The Fighter, The King’s Speech and The Social Network – the Academy also found room for a smaller film from a female writer/director – The Kids Are All Right – a huge sci-fi audience pleaser – Inception – a claustrophobic experiment by an Oscar winning director– 127 Hours – another animated film – Toy Story 3 – and a tiny indie by a largely unknown female director – Winter’s Bone (which still features the best work Jennifer Lawrence has ever done). The system, it seemed to me anyway, was working. The biggest fear I had about expanding the field from 5 to 10 nominees would be that instead of 5 typical “Oscar” films being nominated, we’d get 10. The results of the first two years largely put my fears to rest.

But then came 2011. The Academy had listened – which they shouldn’t have – to the criticism that having more than 10 nominees somehow diluted the honor of being nominated for Best Picture. So they instituted another rule change. Now, anywhere between 5 and 10 films could be nominated – but each nominee had to reach a minimum threshold of #1 votes in the nominating round to qualify. In each of the next three years, nine films qualified for the Best Picture race. And sadly, what I feared would happen has undeniably been happening since – instead of 5 typical Oscar films being nominated, we’re now getting 9 nominated every year.

In 2011 the five picture-director nominees were The Artist, Hugo, The Tree of Life, The Descendants and Midnight in Paris. The four non-director Best Picture nominees were The Help, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Moneyball and War Horse. In 2012 the Picture-director nominees were Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lincoln, Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook – and the non-director Picture nominees were Argo, Django Unchained, Les Miserables and Zero Dark Thirty. This year, the picture-director nominees are American Hustle, Nebraska, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street, while the non-director nominated Pictures are Her, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena and Captain Phillips. See what happened there – with the new rules of requiring films to get a certain percentage of #1 votes, the nominees retreated back into the realm of safer – “Oscar” movies from what they were in the first two years of the experiment.

I didn’t worry too much about it in 2011. I reason that while they didn’t nominate a great summer blockbuster like District 9 or Inception like they did the previous two years, they didn’t really have a chance to – what were they going to nominate the last Harry Potter film? Rise of the Planet of the Apes? The most logical summer blockbuster they could have nominated was actually a comedy – Bridesmaids – but again, the Academy has limits on how broad they will go. They also didn’t nominate an animated film – but then again, Pixar made Cars 2 that year that didn’t deserve the praise, and although I love the film that did win the animated Oscar that year – Rango – it was hardly a Best Picture player. If they didn’t find room for a quirky auteur film like A Serious Man back in 2009 – it may be the most acclaimed of those was Lars von Trier’s Melancholia – which the Academy was never going to respond to and even though Nicolas Winding Refn had a huge critical hit in Drive, he still wasn’t the type of name director who could really drive (sorry) a film that violent into the Oscar race. No room for a tiny film like Winter’s Bone? Probably because Take Shelter or Martha Marcy May Marlene failed to connect with audiences at all.

I was more concerned last year – when the Academy really could (and should have) found room for a blockbuster like Skyfall or the a quirky auteur film like Moonrise Kingdom – two films you could easily see making it into the lineup back in 2009 or 2010, but by 2012 they became, once again, depressing also-rans and never-gonna-happens, just like they were in when the Academy only nominated 5 films. Interestingly, they did find room not just in picture but also director for Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild – and it was those inclusions that kept me from complaining too much last year.

This year, we can at least be happy that a film like Spike Jonze’s Her cracked the lineup, which probably would not have happened in a 5 nominee year. But instead of reaching for smaller, more offbeat films like Inside Llewyn Davis, Before Midnight or even Fruitvale Station, they went with more Oscar bait – Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena and Captain Phillips. Yawn.

In a typically excellent piece by Mark Harris, he points out that expanding the Best Picture lineup has actually narrowed the number of films that get nominated down. In 2013 – only 12 films got nominated in the top 8 categories – Picture, Director, the four acting categories and two writing categories. Of the three films that didn’t break the best picture lineup, only Before Midnight for Adapted screenplay was a lone nominee in the top 8 – August: Osage County picked up two acting nominations, and Blue Jasmine picked up two acting nomination, and a screenplay nod as well.

Harris wonders where all the “lone” nominees have gone? This year, that could have include Robert Redford for Best Actor, James Gandolfini for Supporting Actor, Oprah Winfrey for Supporting Actress or Inside Llewyn Davis for Original Screenplay. Instead, the Academy stuck to the 9 films they nominated for Best Picture for pretty much everything – between them, they got 16 acting nominations and 8 writing nominations. The Academy has seemingly gotten lazy – they liked American Hustle, so they nominate it in all four acting categories. They admired the performances for Dallas Buyers Club, so threw it into the Screenplay and Picture categories as well. Last year they were also lazy. I liked the performances in Silver Linings Playbook as much as anyone – but Jacki Weaver? Come on! What was it about Alan Arkin in Argo that made him standout even for co-stars like John Goodman and Bryan Cranston let alone anyone else they could have nominated? I don’t agree with every conclusion that Harris reaches – I still don’t think having more than five nominees “dilutes” the prestige of being nominated – but I do agree with much of it.

Another reason to abandon the system for the former 5 film one is a problem I honestly did not consider when the change was announced in 2009 – and that is the Preferential system for voting for the winning Best Picture. No longer is it the film with the most votes wins, but now you rank the Best Picture nominees from 1-9 (or however many nominees there are) and slowly the films get winnowed down – dropping the film with the lowest number of votes and redistributing, until one film reaches 50% of the vote. This has mainly resulted in fairly safe best picture winners in the past four years. The only somewhat daring choice the Academy has made in this time The Hurt Locker back in 2009 – and I cannot help but wonder if that film would have won if it were not pitted against Avatar – not because of the much discussed former spouses going head-to-head – but because that year really seemed like a referendum on what the Academy wanted to be known for – small, character driven films or huge spectacles. I don’t have much of a problem with The King’s Speech, The Artist or Argo – but none of them are the least bit daring or the tiniest bit controversial – they play it safe all the way through – and that seems to be what wins now. This year, I cannot help but worry that something as minor yet agreeable as American Hustle will trump a singular artistic vision like 12 Years a Slave – simply because it’s harder to dislike American Hustle – so as the number of films in the race get winnowed down, it picks up more and more votes and eventually wins.

So, back in 2009 when I supported this system, was I wrong? Yes and no. I was wrong because I didn’t foresee the impact of the preferential ballot would have on the winning films. Has it made a huge impact? I don’t know, but I think I would rather the winner be more based on passion that consensus (there is always going to be a degree of consensus with any winner, but I would like to see it have less impact). I also didn’t foresee the problem Harris points out – that by widening the number of best picture nominees, we would actually get fewer films in the conversation for all the awards.

But I wasn’t wrong in thinking that each year has more than 5 films that can support a Best Picture nomination – and deserves to be discussed. Back in 2009, I said that the system would be a success if they nominated a wider array of films than they usually did – and no matter what you think of the individual nominees in 2009 and 2010 (and no, I wouldn’t nominate The Blind Side either) – I think they mainly accomplished that. Those Best Picture lineups seemingly had something for every type of movie fan, which I think is a good thing. But since they have instituted the new rule of having to get a certain percentage of # 1 votes, the Academy has slunk back to their old ways, and nominated more and more safer, more traditional Oscar films. Did Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, War Horse, The Help, Les Miserables, Philomena or Dallas Buyers Club really need to get nominated for Best Picture?

So to me, after 5 years of this experiment, I have to say that I no longer see the point in it. I think they had a good thing the first two years, and then screwed it up. And if they aren’t going to go back to the system that gave us Best Picture nominees as varied as A Serious Man, Winter’s Bone, Inception, District 9, Up, Toy Story 3, etc. than they should go back to the old system. If the Academy insists on playing it safe every year, at least we can go back to a system where it’s harder to crack the Best Picture lineup and you’re not just awarded for showing up – which seems to be what happens under this current system.

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