THE LONG SHOT: Making the 10 work for you

Posted by · 9:01 am · September 23rd, 2009

Coraline*This is the first installment of “The Long Shot,” a new weekly Oscar column from Guy Lodge here at In Contention.

At some point last week, I snapped at a commenter for rather benignly suggesting that, with the clarity granted certain contenders by the festival season, we could now call 7 of the newly expanded 10 Best Picture slots securely filled in mid-September, thus leaving us a full four months to find another three.

Going by that rationale, less than one new contender a month could emerge — roughly keeping pace with the film-going habits of many Academy members.

It was a fair enough theory, I suppose, and I shouldn’t have responded with as much snark as I did — though I will always adhere to the no-fun theory that a film cannot be decreed a “lock” before it is seen.

(Is “Invictus” a “Million Dollar Baby” or a “Space Cowboys” waiting to happen? Can “Nine” possibly match its ostentatious pedigree? What in the name of God is “Avatar?” Such are the tensions that make the season worth following.)

But I think the main reason the theory got on my nerves had nothing whatsoever to do with the commenter’s reasoning, and everything to do with the dispiriting possibility of it actually being true. Because if all the much-ballyhooed widening of the Best Picture category amounts to is a catch-all solution to ensure that every frontrunner gets its due — thereby handily making the Oscars more predictable and less particular into the bargain — then I’ll regretfully turn my back on the annual institution that has fascinated me since the second grade, move to Paris and track the Cesars instead.

As spectacularly wrong and confoundingly unimaginative as the Academy could be in the days of five nominees, the greater exclusivity of the number did imply a kind of collective thinking on the part of its members. That shocking (and, from where I was standing, rather gratifying) “Dreamgirls” snub three years ago plainly meant something, just as it meant something when they threw in a curve ball nominee, be it “Ghost” or “The Thin Red Line.”

The White RibbonThe Academy was taking a stand on these films, even if we couldn’t quite determine what that stand was.

A 10-nominee slate consisting merely of the year’s (or more likely the last quarter’s) most lavishly campaigned prestige product would reveal precious little about the Academy morphing moods or prejudices from year to year, in which case the experiment could be declared a failure. Still, there are ways they can use the less selective format to show more idiosyncratic judgment, though it’ll require a broader reach on their part.

Nobody very much likes the idea of quotas, and with fair reason: they skew the playing field and diminish underdog achievement. A casual suggestion by British critic Ryan Gilbey earlier this year that the Academy expand the Best Picture field to six slots, reserving two for foreign-language fare, wasn’t met with great enthusiasm on these pages, though its arguably a less drastic measure than the one AMPAS has since taken.

But whether they realize it or not, people have been thinking in unofficial quota terms ever since June’s bombshell was dropped. The 10 will allow more chances for animated films, they say, yet the only title getting mentioned as a contender is “Up.” Why not the similarly acclaimed (and arguably more deserving) “Coraline?” Because, when push comes to shove, only one slot — if that — is seen as available for such fare.

Such subconscious narrowing has been applied to other minority branches of cinema seen as now having a greater chance of representation on the ballot. I’ve made no secret that my foremost hope for the new format is that it will allow a larger foreign-language presence, yet people have already limited that discussion to a scant two long-shot titles distinguished from the gem-laden herd by Cannes awards alone: “The White Ribbon” and “A Prophet.”

Capitalism: A Love StoryDocumentary hopes, meanwhile, are seemingly being pinned on Michael Moore alone, making the Academy’s choice less along the lines of, say, nominating “Capitalism: A Love Story” or “The Cove” for the (hypothetical) token “doc slot,” and more akin to nominating Moore’s film or ditching the “doc slot” for this particular year. The latter would probably be the more honest approach, but it doesn’t bode well for diversity in the Oscar 10.

So as we head into the thick of awards season, whereupon a select group of titles will get trumpeted more than any other, voters need to look at the expanded category less as a way to hurt as few feelings as possible (the producers of “Dreamgirls” lived to fight another day, after all), and more as a chance to get more personal than ever with their choices. Loved “35 Shots of Rum” but don’t know anyone else who’s even heard of it? Stick it on anyway. Had a blast at “Whip It!” but don’t know if it’s Oscar material? What have you got to lose?

If enough voters take such an approach to their ballots, there’s no telling what consensus might emerge on off-the-radar titles. It could result in some awful choices — who knows, perhaps a lot of Academy members out there really harbor a secret passion for Tyler Perry — but at least they’d be theirs, and not just from the chocolate box of pre-approved favorites. That, more than any solitary, tokenistic inclusion of a primed art house pearl or summer smash, would qualify the 10 as a success.

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13 responses so far

  • 1 9-23-2009 at 10:09 am

    Loyal said...

    I do believe I’m the commenter in question, the poor victim of your outrage. Heh.

    The easiest way for me to assess the situation this year is to look back to last year and the “almost ins.”

    Doubt – those acting noms were quite telling
    The Dark Knight – the reason we’re in this situation now
    WALLE – Same as above
    The Wrestler – on the strength of Rourke’s performance
    Either Changeling or Gran Torino – In Eastwood We Trust

    If we’re able to pick with such clarity at least 7 or 8 of the 10 nominees of last year, certainly the same can be said for this year or any given year.

    Does it make it less fun? Of course, the idea of a snub and coming in 11th place isn’t nearly as shocking as coming in 6th.

    But the idea that 5 additional slots will suddenly open up the race to all sorts of surprises is for me, unlikely. That said, Febuary 2nd will be no less exciting for me. Just more (twice as much in fact) of the same.

  • 2 9-23-2009 at 10:17 am

    Michael said...

    This is a wonderful article Guy. I also wish the academy would not limit themselves to nominating the preconceived movies that everyone expects them to do. If anything I wish they would only nominate 5 preconceived safe expected “oscar” movies and then nominate 5 completely off the wall and awesome but unexpected films (like Paranormal Activity, Julia, Inglorious Basterds, Drag Me to Hell, Where the Wild Things Are) that would not necessarily be considered “Oscar” films but would widen the range of what is considered best in cinema (which honestly cannot only be dramas, biopics, war movies, and the occassional musical). More genre movies need to be represented! I know this will never happen but that would be such an awesome surprise if something off the wall did actually slip in.

  • 3 9-23-2009 at 10:30 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Great commentary, and it echoes the final sentiment of my “Memo to the Academy” last year:

    5) Make it about you
    Too often I feel — and I don’t believe I’m alone — that your decisions as a collective seem to be representative of a desire to reflect the zeitgeist, or at the very least, short-sighted and, ultimately, softly remembered artistry. It is a characteristic that haunts your 80-year legacy, each season’s ultimate slate of winners painfully resembling a time capsule rather than an impassioned vote of the year’s greatest achievements. It is why films such as “Raging Bull,” “Citizen Kane,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Rules of the Game,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and the whole of Stanley Kubrick and Charlie Chaplin’s catalogs, true game-changers of your trade, were left without Best Picture honors. So when you sit down to tick off five of the year’s best, do so with a sense of individualism. Don’t set out to make a statement with “Milk” and/or “Doubt.” Don’t steer toward “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” or even “The Dark Knight” (to contradict my first point) just because it seems like the thing you’re supposed to do. Take a stand. Be yourself. That, my friends, is a much more compelling statement.

  • 4 9-23-2009 at 11:34 am

    red_wine said...

    Guy, the trouble is still that eventually, 1 member gets to nominate only 1 film due to the weighted ballot system. I would actually prefer a points system for nomination rather than final voting.

    Now suppose the doc branch, some 300 of them. Now with 10 nominees they know they can get a doc in. So if all of them vote no.1 for say Capitalism, it gets in. But suppose most of them have Up In The Air marked as no. 1 & Capitalism marked as no. 2, their vote to Capitalism won’t even be counted.

    In a way I think this 10 nominee thing might still surprise us, because you can almost be sure that almost 75% no. 1 votes might comprise of either Up In The Air, Precious or An Education(yeah, that’s how predictable they are). Left are 1500 ballots for 8 other movies.

    I think the academy members who don’t fall prey to the expected cliched choices will determine a few of the nominees. If the entire animated branch seriously wants their craft to be represented, all of them could vote no. 1/2 for Up/Coraline and see it happen.

  • 5 9-23-2009 at 12:11 pm

    billybil said...

    Great article and great comments. Certainly much to consider. Looking back at the history of the Oscars, and the hind-sighted errors of their ways, of course it is always intriguing and telling what is chosen and what is not. I know many experienced film watchers and educated film admirers feel so strongly about what is best and what is not but, for me, the Oscars have always been a reflection more of the BUSINESS OF ARTISTRY in American films and not about true, creative genius. For that reason, I find it utterly fascinating – more so than I do the deeply personal, extremely “informed” choices of many other organizations. Why AMPAS – these small groups of industry members – make their choices is always fascinating and worthy of discussion, trying to figure out how/why it played out the way it did. Like it or not, these are the people who make our popular American cinema what it is – and their unique choices reflect a consensus of compromise that is telling indeed. I do hope we don’t see 10 typcial “Oscar” films (as so clearly identified by Michael above) nominated this year . I would LOVE to see what genre films these Hollywood professionals would consider the best of 2009 because that would be just that much more fascinating.

  • 6 9-23-2009 at 12:19 pm

    Michael said...

    I remember when you wrote that memo Kris and I think that was also excellent writing and couldn’t have been any more spot on considering last year’s lackluster nominees. I hope the same doesn’t happen this year but I personally feel like there are better movies that have already come out this year (that aren’t necessarily oscar movies) then what had been released last year. If the academy chooses to recognize more than the normal expected few, then we will see if increasing the nominees to 10 was worth it or not.

    and red_wine, I had no idea that was how the nominees were selected. I must admit I feel like that is a very backwards sounding system and would also prefer a points system as you suggested as well.

  • 7 9-23-2009 at 1:21 pm

    SHAAAARK said...

    I think next year will be worse than this year in terms of the ten nominee situation. Due to the shake-ups and uncertainty in the arthouse market, less Oscarbait has been produced this year. Things that would normally be in the hunt (Creation, The Last Station) are struggling to get distribution. Exciting, imaginative works like The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds are being talked up as contenders. There is no Ron Howard prestige film. All of this bodes well for the season.

  • 8 9-23-2009 at 2:38 pm

    Encore Entertainment said...

    I do believe that Coraline’s brilliance is worthy of at least some consideration.

  • 9 9-23-2009 at 3:13 pm

    Loyal said...


    The cycle will begin anew come Sundance. But we have Shutter Island, Green Zone, Toy Story 3, The Town (follow up to Gone Baby Gone), one-half of the Harry Potter swan song, Inception, The Fighter, The Conspirator, Hereafter, maybe Tree of Life if its delayed.

    It’s a manageable, if somewhat bland Hollywood list. Here’s to the films no one has heard about.

  • 10 9-23-2009 at 9:50 pm

    Jeff said...

    Thank you for lauding “Coraline.” It was a sublime film and should be nominated for Best Picture. (Even if there were just five instead of ten!)

  • 11 9-24-2009 at 8:44 am

    Marvin said...

    Coraline is not better than Up. Anyhow, you got me thinking that, were I an Academy member, my top yearly choices would always end up in nothing. Had the 10 nom. rule been implemented this year my picks would have been 1. Synecdoche, New York 2. Milk 3. Cloverfield 4. Encounters at the End of the World 5. Pineapple Express 6. Happy-Go-Lucky 7. Vicky Cristina Barcelona 8. The Wrestler 9. Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay 10. Gomorrah Now, how many of those do you think would’ve stood a chance of being nominated?

  • 12 9-24-2009 at 12:32 pm

    Michael said...

    I agree with you Marvin, it seems like the Academy as a whole doesn’t want to just throw films out there that aren’t going to count so they tend to stick with what they are told is the best. Not saying that “oscar” movies are not good, but they have become almost a cliche. What happened to the days when movies like The Exorcist, Alien, Carrie, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, etc. were getting nominated for some of the top awards. And don’t get me started on all the comedies that consistently get overlooked. There are great movies being made independently, in foreign cinema, and even in the studio system but every year there are less than 20 films that are even considered a possibility to be nominated for best picture, and now with the list going up to 10 I fear the final result will be even more lackluster and unexciting than ever.

    I did also want to comment that if the ten films for best picture had been implemented last year, my list would have also included your #1,2,3,6,7,8,and 10.

  • 13 9-24-2009 at 8:55 pm

    A.J said...

    I wonder if any of the top 5 from past years wouldn’t have been nominated with 10 nominees. With the nominating system it’s conceivable…