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An Oscar Guide For Those Who Want to Play the Game

  • Jan 29, 2011
Oscar Nominees were announced and already we're seeing the same discussions of snubs, what people think will win etc.  I enjoy watching the Oscars and I enjoy the discussions.  Because I enjoy guessing and then eventually talking about what got snubbed or what have you.  It's fun stuff.  If it wasn't fun most of us wouldn't do it.  We wouldn't even pay attention to the nominees and then think, "Oh I hate the Academy Awards!"  If you hated it so much you wouldn't bother to pay attention.  So the guessing game begins.  We're going to take time in this review to talk about Oscar Nominees and then I'll explain a few things that can help those who do like to play the guessing game.  Before we get to that, let's talk a little about the Oscars as a whole before jumping into some things you might want to consider... and ultimately why ten Best Picture nominees isn't such a good idea.

Every year when I watch the Oscars and subsequently talk to my friends it's always the same old stuff.  "I can't believe this guy/girl/movie didn't win!"  Well, in most cases the problem is obvious... you're thinking about what YOU want.  The Academy Awards has NEVER been about the audience.  We get to watch, but it's more or less Hollywood taking a moment to honor themselves.  People tend to get mad about that, but I don't care.  The reason I don't care is because we all do the same thing all the goddamn time.  We expect people to praise us when we do a good job and honor us.  We expect people who don't care about us to care about us.  And we sit around for three hours at a high school graduation to watch our child's name get called... a moment that only last for three seconds but goddamn if the guy sitting in front doesn't applaud for our goddamn kid!

So you can't convince me that it's Hollywood being egotistical jerks.  We all do it.  And we all tend to think we're better than those around us to some degree.  There's always a good dose of, "I'm not better than this guy... but at least I'm better than this guy!" Mentality.

Secondly, I reject the notion that Box office has much to do with the nominees (it does now because the slots are open to ten but we'll get to that later in the second part of the review).  Since the Oscars were begun there have been a wide array of films that have not exactly earned huge box office receipts that have been nominated and won.  For many Forest Gump's and Titanic's and Lord of the Ring's there are movies like The Hurt Locker, American Beauty and The English Patient.  Successful, but not really that big in the box office department compared to their competition (and in most cases the "Best Picture" nominees hardly feature the highest grossing film of the year because... you know, there's that whole snobbery thing).  This is especially true if we go back into the past and look at some winners.  Movies that didn't really gross a lot but bested some of their competition (Annie Hall over Star Wars, for instance) and sometimes movies where they had an enormous gross and happened to win (The Sound of Music).  But recall that the Academy likes to live in the moment.  When Titanic won, for example, it was mostly because at the time it was a cultural phenomenon, not exactly because of its box office gross.  It was, at the time, a culture defining film. 

Sometimes the Academy can be a mystery.  And I tend to watch the show for that reason.  The last few years or so have been a disappointment because the winners were so blatantly obvious.  If you couldn't figure out that Crash would win over Brokeback Mountain... you're not playing the game.  If you couldn't figure out that they were planning to wait until Lord of the Rings The Return of the King was going to give the movies their due (you should've figured it out after the first film) then you're REALLY not playing the game.  These were obvious.  And while I'd probably NEVER pick Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King for Best Picture (I LOVE that movie by the way, but that doesn't mean I'd pick it for Best Picture) on a personal level... I knew the Academy would.  Why else would they give us a build up by nominating all three films without giving ONE of them the trophy?  And if they were going to do that... why not the last one? 

You see what I mean?  So let's take this in a simple manner.  Here are some things to remember for those interested in playing the game:

First and Foremost: Remember This Isn't About You
I know I kind of said this at the top, but it bears repeating.  We the people tend to think that anyone who doesn't agree with us are either stupid, misguided or just aren't getting it.  We forget that we're not the ones voting on the Best Picture and stuff.  An Academy of 6000 Hollywood Insiders are.  They're Directors, Producers, Screenwriters, Sound Technicians, Visual Effects Staff, Photographers etc.  People who work in the industry and know the industry.  They know how film is made, most of them have studied it and most others have a passion for it.  We're not dumb people, but we always go into the Oscar Race believing that what we think SHOULD win will be the film that ultimately does.  If I'd lived by this Logic I think I might've had a lot less fun. 

I mean, really, why should I get pissed off because say... Avatar lost the Best Picture Oscar?  I LOVE movies, it's why I don't care what wins the Best Picture Oscar.  Most movies that win are often forgotten anyway.  Does anyone really remember A Beautiful Mind that strongly, for example?  Probably so, but probably not as much as Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, right?  That was the big movie that year.  The one that wowed us and stuck out in our minds.  But it didn't win (obviously because they wanted to award the third one to represent the entire trilogy).  So if you're gonna play the game... you've got to first remember that just you think it SHOULD win doesn't mean it WILL.  Now, this doesn't mean you go against your instincts.  There's an odd and confusing history behind the Oscars, but one of them is definitely that the audience watching doesn't matter nearly as much as those who will go up on the stage and accept their award.  So kick back, relax.  If you love movies deeply... you don't care what wins that much.  Doesn't mean you can't have fun watching.

With that in mind also remember...

It's Also a Lifetime Achievement Award
Before he finally won for the 2006 film The Departed, people feared that Martin Scorcese was doomed to be like Alfred Hitchcock.  A redefining director who would never be presented with a Golden Statue.  They set up the presentation perfectly by having his friends Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg (both Best Director winners) and George Lucas give it to him.  The one thing they all had in common was that they went to film school together came out and redefined cinema in the 1970's.

The Departed isn't Martin Scorcese's best work.  It's an awesome movie and actually probably deserved Best Picture, but movies like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas were all better films.  But he was not awarded for any of them.  In part because Scorcese didn't have enough under his belt.  Very few directors will win for creating that one groundbreaking movie if they get nominated.  Case in point Steven Spielberg was nominated at least four times before finally getting one.  But back to the point, the reason Scorcese won for 2006's The Departed was because they felt Marty was finally due for an Oscar.  That Oscar isn't supposed to just represent The Departed.  It's supposed to represent Martin Scorcese's entire career!  It's supposed to be an award for EVERYTHING he's done for cinema.  It can be hard to guess, but this is actually more so why say... Christopher Nolan won't be given one any time soon (unless he makes something that really knocks their socks off).  Christopher Nolan, as far as the Academy is concerned, is just getting started (they're also snobs, and we'll get to that one too).  It's about seeing what else Nolan will do first.  When they feel like Nolan has reached the top of his game (or that he's overdue for something) they'll give him an award for it.

There's no category you see this happen with more than Best Actor or Best Actress.  They tend to give people an award in these two categories when they're at the top of their game.  It's why Tom Hanks won a couple in the mid 90's.  He was at the top of his game.  If you notice now, Tom Hanks has slowed down and hasn't really been as active as he was then.  On the other hand, you may also recall that Hanks was also nominated a few more times after Forest Gump... and given nothing.  Because the Academy also likes to share the spotlight with others.  They do this sort of,  "We've given him enough... time to move along."  So they pass him over because they've already given Tom Hanks his due.  Even if he does a knock out performance that's better than the other two he did (Saving Private Ryan).  And the limit is usually two.  After that it's, "You've had your time in the spotlight, let someone else have it!"

You know who will probably be an actor long overdue soon?  Johnny Depp. 

You know what else you should remember...

There is Snobbery All Over
There's a joke going around that you can always spot the Best Picture winner.  It's usually the most boring film on the list.  Usually intelligently constructed but often very dull.  Some people love them and they get cult followings while others begin to hate it.  My favorite episode of Seinfeld is the one where Elaine hates The English Patient.  I love it because I REALLY hated that movie.  It was boring as hell.  I use it to get to sleep at night (or give me nightmares, your choice).  It's long, it's dragged out and I keep feeling like nothing is happening throughout the ordeal.  Others really LOVE it, though.  Because it's intelligent and all that jazz.  And that's fine too (although intelligence is important in a film I find that a lack of entertainment is a great sin, but what entertains me may not entertain you).  The point is simple, however, they picked it because it has that nearly artsy bent they like that.  Remember it's also about honoring good film making too.

So how does snobbery play in?  In a lot of ways.  Remember that fiasco over The Dark Knight being snubbed for Best Picture?  The Academy felt it COULDN'T be because the goddamn film featured a guy running around in a batsuit.  That was really it.  They nominated it, instead for what I like to call "Bullshit Awards."  Stuff like Sound Mixing, Sound Editing and all the technical stuff that most people aren't quite as concerned with.  Categories where all the noisiest films are placed.  Although some films have remarkably good sound (Inception certainly does) it's one of those, "Nobody cares," categories.  The result from this was expanding The Best Picture Slot to ten so they could represent everything (in a very platonic way) without getting yelled at for their snobbery. 

They do this in other ways too.  By making sure that certain films can be nominated... but can't win.  The reason we got that joke that the movie that wins Best Picture is usually the most boring one is because to many of them the drama is the most important part.  Thus, a lot of action movies rarely get nominated for Best Picture.  They've got too many explosions... too many special effects etc.  If they ARE action they have to lack a lot of that stuff.  The exception that probably best proves the rule is The Fugitive.  It's an action film but in the Academy's eyes... not really (although this current generation of Academy voters would probably NEVER consider the Fugitive now... at least if there were still only five slots).  The Fugitive has enough drama and moments where Richard Kimble isn't running to make it stand out.  This means, Inception fanboys... your movie doesn't have a CHANCE of winning.  Don't pick it in your Oscar pool!

Likewise there's a little hint as to what will win Best Picture:

The Editing is Actually Important
Here is a bit of weird Oscar Trivia for you.  If a movie is nominated for Best Picture but is NOT nominated for Best Editing it won't win.  Ever.  It's true.  Look it up.  This year it means the movies that have the best chance of winning best picture are Black Swan, The Fighter, The Social Network, The King's Speech and 127 Hours.  The others have little to no chance because they're not also nominated for Editing.  It could just be an amusing coincidence but the Best Picture winner is always nominated for editing.  It doesn't have to WIN in the editing category... it just has to be nominated.  This means that Inception, Toy Story 3, Winter's Bone, True Grit and The Kid's Are Alright might not exactly win Best Picture.  This is more amusing trivia than anything.  Now back to the real stuff...

There Are Inside Political Influences
The Academy may be a game, but the Academy Voters are, by and large, just like anyone else... they can be persuaded.  There's no man that does this more so than Harvey Weinstein of the Weinstein company.  He used to be an executive producer at Miramax (he's the one who discovered such cult directors like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith--and headlined TONS of awesome movies we enjoy today).  He's notorious for running Oscar campaigns.  He ran a huge campaign for Good Will Hunting against Titanic... but he lost that one.

He DID however, run a campaign that netted Shakespeare in Love a Best Picture and he DID run a campaign that netted The Reader a nomination for Best Picture.  And he's often considered ruthless man in his campaigns.  Most of us were certain (still are) that perhaps Saving Private Ryan should've won that Best Picture Oscar for 1998.  But it didn't because Weinstein ran a campaign that more or less persuaded the judges to vote for it.  It was a lapse in judgment on their part (no one seems to remember the film quite as well).  But the point is simple... it's still a campaign and sometimes the people running them win.

There Can be OUTSIDE Political Influences...
This one is depressing.  And as you can imagine, there is perhaps no better example than Crash vs. Brokeback Mountain.  For 2005, Crash was awarded the Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain causing one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history.  What we saw from it was people wondering why what they clearly thought was a superior film did not win.  How could that happen?  Simple: Because as much as the Oscar LOVES controversy, they don't particularly like to give it an award all the time.  The Oscars will still play it safe.  Sure Crash was considered a controversial film, but consider what the controversy was for that film.  Racism.  A subject we've all been talking about forever and that film has tackled forever (mostly by Spike Lee alone).  It's controversial but the conventional wisdom holds true that you probably don't want to be a racist.  Thus because the general concensus is, "You don't want to be a racist, man..." the controversy isn't so bad when you see through those eyes.  The movie, in essence, became the safe bet.

If you recall, when Brokeback Mountain came out Gay Rights was at one of its pinnacle heights.  Gay Marriage was in the national discussion, we were discussing whether or not it should be a hate crime to murder gays and the media spotlight spent quite a bit of time on gays and lesbians come the end of Bush's first term when he proposed putting a ban on Gay Marriage.  In short, Gay Rights were relevant.  Extremely relevant and the Academy didn't want to step into that arena by awarding the movie Best Picture.  At least not with people screaming things like, "It's just a movie to forward the gay agenda!" and the like.  In short they didn't want to look like they were taking sides... and they didn't want to create a shit storm where people would say things like, "The movie only got it because it was about gay people.  If it were two straight people no one would've cared!" 

But that's okay because...

Sometimes the Oscars Will Give Compensation
There are times when the Oscar will split themselves or give out compensation when necessary.  By that I mean they'll make sure certain films take home something.  The Academy didn't think Juno should've won best picture... but they compensated by giving it a screenplay award. 

Going back to Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan... they might've given Shakespeare in Love the Best Picture... but to compensate and make sure Saving Private Ryan was honored in some way... they gave Steven Spielberg Best Director.  In short... they did a split.  Give one film Best Director to show people it's a completely relevent and good film to see... but don't give it Best Picture for some unknown reason.  The SAME thing happened with Brokeback Mountain and Crash.  They split it.  Crash gets Best Picture but Brokeback Mountain gets Best Director.  As far as the Academy is concerned it's considered a win-win situation.

They never used to even consider animated films eligible for Best Picture because they were animated.  Beauty and the Beast caused an uproar with its nomination... so they never did again until UP came out.  So to compensate they created the "Best Animated Film," category.

It happens in other ways too.  The Academy failed to nominate The Dark Knight for Best Picture but they made sure to give Heath Ledger Best Supporting Actor (contrary to popular belief, the Academy doesn't actually dole out a lot of Oscars to those who have passed a way).  This, means of course...

10 Nominations for Best Picture is Just MORE Compensation
So it comes to this.  Why is having ten best picture nominations such a bad thing?  Well, in the first place in a year like 2010 even coming up with FIVE Best Picture worthy films is hard to do.  Let's look at what was nominated for Best Picture and then Best Director for 2009.

The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

Now look at the Best Director Nominees

James Cameron for Avatar
Katherine Bigelow for The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds
Lee Daniels for Precious
Jason Reitman for Up in the Air

Now consider those five nominees for Best Director.  In spite of opening up the slots it was quite clear what movies they were really looking at.  The other films fall into the category of either, "You probably didn't hear about this one, did you?" (An Education or A Serious Man) or "This one is to throw the audience a bone," (clearly those are the two films The Blind Side and District 9) while another shows that "We can nominate animated films too!" ("UP").  For the most part it seems like they were looking at movies like Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious and Up in the Air.  Movies that were being rumored to be nominated for Best Picture before it became widely known that there would be ten slots.  Likewise, it also simply means that instead of four losers there are nine.

But it's an honor to be nominated right?  Not when there are ten slots.  Even looking at 2009 it was clear they really ran out of ideas of what to nominate for Best Picture.  So they started looking at films audiences like.  Films like District 9, UP and The Blind Side (seriously... The Blind Side).  Films that they never intended to nominate for Best Picture... ever, but that got in there because they simply had nothing else to choose.  Others like An Education and A Serious Man are clearly filler.  Other films chosen because they didn't know what else to choose.  I mean, let's be honest, the only reason The Blind Side got there was because it was labeled as a feel good movie, one that really resonated with a lot of audience members. 

This year they did the same thing.  If you look at the directors it's pretty clear what they were thinking for Best Picture.  Here are the nominees:

Black Swan
The Fighter
The King’s Speech
The Kids Are All Right
True Grit
Winter’s Bone
Toy Story 3
The Social Network
127 Hours

Now here are the directors:

Darren Arronofsky (Black Swan)
David Fincher (The Social Network)
Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)
David O. Russell (The Fighter)
The Coen Brothers (True Grit)

In short, those five for Best Director are the movies they REALLY wanted for Best Picture.  If Inception wins THAT'LL be the surprise, Nolan fanboys.  Not the fact that it doesn't.  But the point is that they're doing the exact same thing now.  When my friends asked me if I thought Inception would be nominated for Best Picture I told them it probably would... but only because there were ten slots.  Without those Ten Slots they wouldn't have nominated Inception at all.  It has EVERYTHING in it the Academy despises.  Stunning visuals, lots of action and noise and it committed that dreadful sin of coming out in the summer.  It's not dramatic enough.  Not "prestigious" enough, if you will.  Toy Story 3 is animated and that already exes it from being Best Picture because it's expected to win Best Animated Film.  As far as the Academy is concerned... why nominate an animated movie for Best Picture when it's already got it's own category?

The point is that it's hard to condense the hundreds of movies released in one year to just five really excellent ones.  They opened it up to ten because they wanted to make audiences feel included, not because they actually believe the other five are actually THAT good.  It was done only so that no one would bitch at them when a certain movie doesn't get nominated or counted as among what they think are the five best.  They did a better job selecting the ten this year, sure, but audiences should actually feel insulted.  It feels like a sort of, "SOMETHING you like is on there now!  So sit down and shut up!"  To put it another way, they don't increase the number of films that have a chance to win... they just increased the number of losers.  Why even bother to nominate say... Inception for Best Picture when it was clear they didn't want to to begin with?  Now, I don't usually say this but when the Best Picture list was condensed to just five films it actually WAS an honor to get nominated for Best Picture... or even just to see a movie you liked get put on that list.  Part of the fun of watching the Oscars (at least for me) has always been about guessing and seeing which of those five films is getting the most buzz and then talking about why it probably shouldn't have won (or should've) or something like that later.  With ten I'm still getting that.  For example, this year I'm hearing a lot about The King's Speech and The Social Network.  The race for Best Picture, as far as I'm concerned, is between those two films at the moment until I hear more and read more.  But we already know which five will NOT win.  They've just been given a cursory glance.  There's this sort snobbishness about it too, if you want a metaphor.  "Oh yes, we invited them... not really one of OUR people, but so and so insisted!"  In this case... the audience is the so and so who insisted.. 

Does that make sense?  It just doesn't add anything to the mix except the very empty feeling that we're being included when the reality is that we're not.  It has given certain movie goers the illusion that they think Inception or The Kids Are Alright or Toy Story 3 are movies the Academy is viewing as Best Picture material when in reality they come off more like pity nominations or fillers.  They're movies invited to the party but not welcomed.  It's like when you throw a birthday party and that ONE guy shows up (or in this case five) who you didn't want to be there but you put up with them anyway.  After all, you already know who it is you want to mingle with.

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January 29, 2011
"I cannot be with someone who hates a movie like the English Patient" LOL! (that's a classic Seinfeld episode) That said, pretty awesome analysis as usual, Sean. I am with you with what you have to say--I loved BLACK SWAN but I think the KING'S SPEECH will win best picture (even over THE SOCIAL NETWORK). Thanks for this...as you say, we all have to remember, it is not about us.
January 29, 2011
I'm going to put my money down on The Social Network for this one right now.  In terms of Awards season, this movie has so far come in and taken the Gold in every major awards show.  I think The King's Speech will be given some kind of compensation, but The Social Network also has veteran people behind it that haven't awarded yet.  David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin in particular are the type that might be "Overdue," and so they'll probably award them because it's their time.  It also has a sort of underdog appeal.  By that I mean... no one though The Social Network would be good to begin with.  When we first heard of it the majority of us said, "Who wants to see a movie about FACEBOOK?" and then were pleasantly surprised when the movie was actually good.

The King's Speech is good but The Social Network has that cultural relevency thing going for it that is also a safe bet.  It hasn't caused too much controversy, there isn't a whole slew of people pressuing them not to give in and that sort of thing.

On the other hand... The King's Speech DOES have Harvey Weinstein behind it.  He's really pushing that one and perhaps he's not doing so bad because the movie DID get 12 nominations.  So you do have that, at least.
January 31, 2011
Yeah, I pretty much agree with your observations. It is a tough call, but I heard THE KING'S SPEECH won some big ones in the 2011 SAG awards. I think judges like period dramas based on fact. Time to wait and see, I think this is the first time that I actually saw the majority of the films nominated save for 127 HOURS which I plan to rectify real soon...
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About the reviewer
Sean A. Rhodes ()
Ranked #7
I'm a more analytical person. I believe that the purpose of the review is not for me to give you my opinion but for me to give you an analysis and help you decide if you want to get it. If you reading … more
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