Return to Five Best Picture Nominees

Before Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President David Rubin passed the baton to Tracee Ellis Ross and Leslie Jordan to announce the Oscar nominees yesterday morning, he said something that caught my attention more than any nomination did. He said there were nearly 9,500 voting members of the Academy. First of all, 9,500 is an enormous number, greater than the number of undergraduates at your typical Ivy League school. Second of all, it feels like a clear sign that the Academy has gotten bigger, just as it meant to do. This 2012 article from the Los Angeles Times says that the Academy had about 5,700 members at the time. This is roughly a 167% increase in a decade, and given that AMPAS has made a point to include people of color, women, younger individuals, and/or international members, that’s genuine diversification. Obviously the Academy has a ways to go here, and to their credit I think leadership is intent on growing equity even if that means slowing the rate of new invitations. But it means that the process the Academy began after the 81st Academy Awards, a ceremony which has lived on rent-free in the mind of AMPAS and the Oscar-watching public alike, has proven its worth. The group that would rather have had Frost/Nixon and The Reader than The Dark Knight and WALL-E is no more. (I am truly a Dark Knight agnostic, but Jiminy Christmas is Frost/Nixon a turd.)

The fear of backlash sends AMPAS leadership scrambling. Even if they had nominated The Dark Knight for some more prestigious awards than what it took, they still would have had to contend with #OscarsSoWhite at some point. The backlash in not nominating enough blockbusters for Best Picture mean that they unveiled a Popular Oscar category; there was so much backlash for the Popular Oscar that they rescinded it. This is a commercial, public-facing business. It’s filled with people whose aim is primarily to please an audience. It is not entirely surprising that AMPAS has been a reactive and not a proactive organization in these tumultuous years for its industry, and in the fashion of reactive groups they have been scattered as a general rule. Depending on your preferences, the results of AMPAS doing that old ANDY’S COMING! meme have even been positive on the whole. I like that there’s been a push to diversify a retrograde old group, and on the whole we’ve seen greater diversity in nominees as well as winners. I’m on the record saying that I think Jane Campion is going to win Best Director; a victory for Campion would mean consecutive female winners of Best Director for the first time in Oscars history. The sausage has been made in excruciatingly public fashion, but on the whole I can’t say it tastes worse than it did ten, twenty, thirty years ago.

In short, the biggest problem with AMPAS was its antiquated and prejudicial membership. Now that the project to diversify the membership has been committed to and will continue to bear fruit, it seems to me that it’s time for the Academy to scale back some of the more pointless changes of the past decade. Expanding the Best Picture field to ten (or more than five) nominees was a change that was made in fear of backlash. The point was to ensure that The Dark Knight or a movie like it would be able to enter the Best Picture field. Since then, that’s…kind of happened? But not really? Maybe you could make the argument that Black Panther got in the sixth or seventh spot as opposed to the fourth or fifth one in 2018, but AMPAS has not made it easy to know. These people do not release vote totals—if I were them, I wouldn’t either—and so we have to backform opinions about which movies really were the most popular of the year. We’ll come back to this in a second.

Everyone has their pet opinion about what will save the Oscars, or make it relevant like it’s still the 1960s, or at least remind them more of what the Oscars were like when they were 23. (It slays me that so much Oscar coverage comes from people in their late thirties and early forties who are obviously just dying to have a cultural tentpole like what they remember from when they were younger…then again, who else would cover this stuff? No one my age cares.) I don’t pretend that the number one change I’d like to make to the Academy Awards would make more people care. I just think it’s a change that the Academy should make, because it doesn’t hurt anyone to remove a vestigial organ.

AMPAS should revert to a five-movie field for Best Picture. If the Best Picture field is like the playoffs in sports, then the ten-movie field is like expanded playoffs in baseball, the Play-In Tournament in basketball, or college football bowl games played before Christmas. All we’re looking at is a way to include things of lesser quality because it benefits someone the vast majority of the public doesn’t know or care about. And just like no one who follows the NBA—let alone the people who derive their living from it—believes that the Play-In is the playoffs, no one really thinks that most of these movies have a chance at taking home the big prize. The Oscars should be like the NBA Finals, or at least the conference championships. If you’re going to have a competition and prizes, make the competition and prizes feel worthwhile. Right now, the ten-picture field is about as compelling the NBA TV series.

I’m not as old as your average Oscar obsessive (yet, sigh), but even I’m old enough to remember a time when what didn’t get nominated for Best Picture was interesting. The dream for the Academy Awards is a race between two movies where no one quite knows where the wheel will stop; if they are opposed to each other in some way, so much the better. Which tremendous artistic achievement would win for 2007, No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood? For 2009, would low-grossing, reality-humping Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker win, or would it be Avatar, literally the highest-grossing movie ever? Which high-concept drama would win for 2014, Birdman or Boyhood? If you’re stupidly lucky, you get something like 1967: which kind of commentary on the rapid changes of the 1960s would win out between In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, or The Graduate? A great Oscar race can, I believe, elevate the way we view the film itself; The Deer Hunter benefits from Coming Home and The French Connection benefits from The Last Picture Show. However, this is unpredictable. First of all, it typically requires at least one great film (2014, 1978) and preferably two (2007, 1971), and it’s rare to even get one. Second, it requires a genuine race; as much as you could wonder about whether The Tree of Life would triumph over The Artist, the latter film seemed like the clear front-runner for the entire 2011 season.

What’s far more likely to happen year in and year out is a more general “snub.” Some movie that people believe should have gotten a Best Picture nomination will not get the Best Picture nomination, and that’s fodder for discussion. It’s one of the reasons why I think the College Football Playoff structure has been a little wimpy in its four-team stage; arguing over what team should be fourth is just not nearly as interesting as arguing over which team should be second. Deciding which Oscar movie should be tenth in a Best Picture field has never been as compelling as deciding which Oscar movie should be fifth, and in rewarding more movies the Oscars are just eliminating drama. People like to complain. They like to grouse about things, especially the stuff they don’t have any control over. I’m not saying that AMPAS needs to play the heel, but there’s not much evidence that aspiring to being a face instead has done much for them. The Oscars ought to drop the ten-picture field and revert to a five-picture field, trusting in two things. First, that a more exclusive field for the top prize will make it more desirable and drive more discussion. Second, that the far larger and more inclusive electorate they’ve developed will choose The Dark Knight instead of The Reader or Frost/Nixon whenever the time comes.

The most common counter I’ve gotten to my belief that the Oscars should have five Best Picture nominees is that doing so is most likely to emphasize the middlebrow, male, and white options that used to dominate the awards. My response is that the Oscars are still primarily rewarding those options, and that when they don’t, it’s a sign that support was so overwhelming for the film that we really didn’t have to worry about it.

Here’s some personal cathexis. I’ve gone through year by year in the greater-than-ten era and tried to backform a five-picture field. In order to give this the sheen of quantitative respectability, I’ve guaranteed a spot for the actual Best Picture winner, the film with the most wins, and the film with the most nominations. In the case of ties, which are frequent, I’ve tried to name as many films from the original ten as possible. Generally speaking, I try to follow director and editing nominations where possible, as well as high nominations totals regardless of overall wins. I’ve also tried to order the films by what “place” they would have finished in based on results.

The best film of the bunch gets dropped here in A Serious Man, as well as animated darling Up, but 2009 was really about crowning The Hurt Locker. Someone who’s been online longer than I have been could make a very interesting study of people who rejoiced about The Hurt Locker winning then but now lament that top-grossing films don’t get enough love.

Despite not getting a Director nomination for Inception, that film combines total wins and nominations in a way unparalleled by any other movie that year but The King’s Speech. In this iteration, films focused on women are entirely eliminated from the field. This is still before serious Academy membership changes.

One of the worst Oscar Best Picture fields since, like, the 1930s gets even worse here with the exclusion of Moneyball and especially The Tree of Life. As we do this, you’ll find that representation tends to get a little better, but that doesn’t mean AMPAS gets better at choosing good movies.

This one came down to which movie with the French title would squeeze in, and ultimately I figured that despite the (extremely correct) lack of Director nomination for Tom Hooper, the rest of Les Miserables seemed stronger than Amour. Once again, the best movie is excluded from the BP field.

The Wolf of Wall Street sneaks in here over Captain Phillips and Dallas Buyers Club, which are both pretty close to it. Gravity remains the Cabaret of these Academy Awards.

This is a case when the Oscar backlash against Selma probably would have worked against it on the whole; as it was, it still didn’t garner much love from the Academy. I’m also assuming that American Sniper, due to its box office plus Clint Eastwood, would have filled the final spot.

Really looked for a way not to include Room, but in the end I couldn’t quite get there. Despite losing Brooklyn, this is still probably the most balanced year we’ve had thus far in terms of representing movies about men (The Big Short, The Revenant) and women (Fury Road, Room), with an ensemble featuring both in the middle in Spotlight.

We lose the people of color pretty hard in the back end of this one, which gives me some pause. On the other hand, this is what I mean when I say that the films at the bottom really feel like token gestures rather than real contenders. Everything they have (acting nods, screenplay nods), Moonlight and LLL and Manchester have…but Arrival and Hacksaw Ridge have technical nods.

Probably the hardest one to fill out, because The Shape of Water really was dominant overall. We lose Call Me by Your Name and Lady Bird but keep Get Out; both of the excised films were always more critical darlings than they were loved by the Academy.

On the other hand, I only had one spot to fill here, because The Favourite and Roma both had ten nominations. I went with Black Panther. Fewer nominations and in less showy categories, but it won big at SAG, and Black Panther was just a more popular film by basically any metric. I think it makes it as a phenomenon.

The nerds keep their comic book movie here, although literary types lose Little Women and dads lose Ford v. Ferrari. All the same, you can’t take away the giant win for Parasite that must have had something to do with the internationalizing of AMPAS, and I think they may just hate Greta Gerwig.

We lose a film about an Asian family, as well as one about an African-American legend in Fred Hampton, but we keep the Nomadland and Promising Young Woman, as well as the buzziest film about deaf characters since, what, Children of a Lesser God? Again, the right answer is emphatically to drop Mank, but the Academy wouldn’t let me!

What should we take from all of this? My interpretation is basically that if we assume the winners stay on, you get to keep some of the better films of the past several years which also happen to be about people of color: 12 Years a Slave, Moonlight, Parasite. The primary issue is that we lose more films about women in the final register, but this is a problem that the Academy is still in the process of fixing, and if we’re being real with ourselves, may struggle to ever fix. Films about men simply overwhelm the Best Picture field, while films about women tend to garner Lead Actress and screenplay nods and not much else. This is an issue which needs fixing, but I don’t think it requires the supersizing of the Best Picture field to solve.

The same is true of the Academy’s basic allergy to picking great commercial movies. I don’t pretend that The Tree of Life and Amour are going to win, and there are film bodies I trust and admire far more than the Oscars who give those films their due. All the same, I hope whatever sickness compels these people to come out for The King’s Speech, The Artist, and Argo in consecutive years isn’t catching. I’ve often cursed the 2010s in Best Picture history as being especially noisome, with some huge number of bad movies claiming the top prize. It seems very likely, looking at things from this angle, that we might have had better movies chosen if there weren’t so many to choose from. I’ll grant that 2008 is one of the last years we had for monoculture in this country, and that maybe the Oscars were always doomed to falter for attention because monoculture couldn’t last. But surely it’s not pure coincidence that we all started to wonder “Will the Oscars pick a movie normal people have seen?” once the number of choices for Best Picture doubled. They can change the rules, and they ought to give a long, hard, and favorable look to the idea of a Best Picture field with just five movies.

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