The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is a strange beast. It is like the Cerberus of awards-voting bodies: lots of heads with completely separate ideas but ultimately just one set of trophies to award. (Not that Cerberus handed out a lot of trophies - though I'm sure his ceremonies would have been a kick.)
With 6,000 voting members that include actors, directors, writers and editors, among others, it's often impossible to figure out exactly how AMPAS will vote come Oscar-nomination time. Dozens of prognosticators online and in print attempt to predict exactly how AMPAS will act. This year, it seems as though Cerberus was just too confused, made some very strange decisions and prognosticators were thrown for a loop.
Throughout the Oscar season, I'll be your guide through the various categories, doing my best to explain why certain nominees were given the nod, who will win in the high profile categories and fun facts behind the Oscars that you may not have known before.
For this inaugural post, let's break down the Best Picture category. This year, a rule change in the Best Picture selection process allowed for anywhere between five and 10 nominees to be chosen - all dependent on how deep the films' support was reflected in voting percentages. The new rule was created as a response to those who weren't fond of the 10-nominee rule - which, in turn, was created when too many populist films were shut out of the race under the ancient five-nominee rule. Ultimately, nine films garnered a nod, and boy is it a strange group.
The greatest theme of this year's Best Picture crop is nostalgia. Four of the nine films are specifically set in a long-past period, including the ‘30s ("The Artist"), World War II ("War Horse"), and the Civil Rights South ("The Help"). You've even got a film all about nostalgia and the double-edged nature of it in "Midnight in Paris."
Other films among the nominees take on the big issues - be it the reinvention of how baseball was played in "Moneyball" or 9/11 in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." Terrence Malick even attempted to explain how the universe came into being in "The Tree of Life."
The anomalies are the films that perhaps are best suited for the Best Picture race on paper: "The Descendants" and "Hugo." Both movies were directed by revered filmmakers and set in desirable locales. The similarities stop there. "The Descendants" is a humanist comedy/drama hybrid with moral ambiguity. "Hugo" is a children's film set in 3-D that serves as a cautionary tale about film preservation. Both films are passion projects, but both are also extremely different from their Best Picture compatriots.
While "The Artist," "Hugo," "Midnight in Paris," "The Help," "Moneyball" and "The Descendants" were long considered locks for nominations, Academy voters clearly let the waves of sentimentality wash over them when filling out their ballots. How else does one explain the inclusion of "War Horse," a film that plays like a Steven Spielberg parody that Spielberg himself didn't realize he was making? Or the inclusion of the emotionally manipulative "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," which had little to no precursor award support?
The true anomaly, however, is "The Tree of Life," a film beloved by critics. Most prognosticators (including one of the film's producers!) thought the love wouldn't carry over into the Academy, but both the movie and director Terrence Malick were recognized on nomination morning.
While several films had major critical support (including "Drive" and "Shame," two films of which I am personally a massive fan), the two biggest snubs according to the precursors were "Bridesmaids" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," both of which had massive support among the voting associations like the Producers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild. Both films also had major critical support, too, so their snubs were especially surprising.
While I can understand "Bridesmaids" not quite making it (while it was one of my favorite films, it just doesn't seem like a traditional Academy movie), passing up "Dragon Tattoo" is especially bizarre, considering the "Girl" herself, Rooney Mara, was nominated for Best Actress. Then again, these are the same voters who rewarded stodgy, traditional fare like "The King's Speech" over daring auteur-driven work like "The Social Network," "Black Swan" and "The Fighter" last year, so maybe voters' tastes are far more traditional than we'd assume (or hope).
As far as win potential, look no further than "The Artist." It's a silent film, it's black-and-white, it's incredibly well done with stellar performances, it's French and it is genuinely entertaining. It's a rarity that we should have a film that manages to be such a crowd-pleaser while also being truly marvelous.
It's possible "Hugo" or "The Descendants" could surprise, but I wouldn't put any stock in that idea. I think "The Artist" is the best film of the bunch and will win - despite those two things almost never occurring simultaneously. That in and of itself is enough to forgive a mediocre crop of Best Picture nominees - the end justifies the means.