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OscarMatters: Oscars Resurrected?

With 2009's awards season about to ignite, it is time to analyze the ups and down of the recent rule changes, including what truly benefits from the expansion of Best Picture nominees and how this affects representation of cinematic excellence.

This season is welcoming various alterations to Oscar's typical format. And with those changes, comes along yet another blogger, here at PopMatters, hoping to bring a fresh perspective to the race and intriguing new content to you, the readers.

There have been many cheers and jeers thus far this year, mostly surrounding the controversial resurrection of the 10-Best-Picture-nominee voting format from decades ago. Not since 1943, when Casablanca won Best Picture, has the Academy allowed more than five nominees. But I have to ask...is it truly such a travesty?

We will not be able to gauge that answer just yet -- nor will we ever reach a consensus, I'm sure. What's good for one is seldom good for the other among awards enthusiasts. With each award body comes a slew of supporters, followed rapidly by a sea of lambasters. For example, I tend to love the Independent Spirit Awards (nominees announced Tuesday, December 1st, FYI) for their representation of fine films and performances that will go completely unrecognized throughout the remainder of the season's awards derby. Other indie enthusiasts, however, have decried in recent years that the Spirits have become too mainstream, as if attempting to pander to the AMPAS in some way. This argument came to a head in 2005, when Brokeback Mountain and Crash, among others, scored important wins.

I empathize, but I find it difficult to bemoan when Frozen River's Melissa Leo, who in my opinion turned in the most extraordinary performance of the leading ladies last year (both nominated and overlooked, although Sally Hawkins was a close runner-up for Happy-Go-Lucky) won the award. Should her performance have been snubbed simply because she was heading for Oscar? I think not.

And so the cycle continues with the bitching and ranting of commenters and bloggers across the web, stating that nominating 10 films for Best Picture somehow tarnishes the category. (As if we all have not ranted in any given year about what wrongfully missed the cut -- especially last year.) Frankly, this year is loaded with impressive feature films, and if we were to revert it to 5 slots, I think some of the more deserving would be snubbed. This was a genius move, in my eyes. Although the change may or may not have been fueled by the omission of The Dark Knight (or WALL·E, one of my favorites), and intended to allow high quality mainstream fare such as this year's exceptional Star Trek to have a fairer shot, the ultimate result will benefit a wider variety of pictures.

Whatever the motives, I will certainly be pleased if one of this year's best-rated films, The Hurt Locker (not entirely coincidentally, my numero uno of the year), scores a nod. Some have argued that although Kathryn Bigelow might have managed to grab a Best Director nomination and possibly even making history by becoming the first woman to win in this category, her magnificent film could have been edged out by the weightier titles from the latter half of the year. (And a lone director win is damn near implausible.) So this rule benefits Locker, which is both a summer release and an indie feature that, through the assistance of critics awards in December, could emerge as a frontrunner if all goes well.

Another summer indie hit (and favorite of yours truly), (500) Days of Summer, could sneak in as a nominee, while in any other year, it would have been restricted to Best Original Screenplay hopes. Naturally, it is aided greatly by being a product of Fox Searchlight. That indie studio favorite was behind films which scored consecutive nominations over the past three years, including a juggernaut of a win last year with Slumdog Millionaire, resulting in 8 Academy Awards overall.

And then, of course, there is the Sundance Film Festival crowd favorite, Precious, which has all but guaranteed itself nods in several races. Though, had this been a five-nominee year, I suspect it would have been the perennial indie nominee nonetheless. But again, that is what I am embracing here: there's not a perennial indie nominee, but the opportunity for multiple indie nominees to succeed with nominations they deserve.

I can already imagine how great it might have been in years past. There are endless perspectives about how elitist the races could have been or how much more tepid they would have been rendered, had the Academy's "safe picks" (aka the motion pictures which were relegated to #4 or #5 on their voting ballots) made it in. In my eyes, a film like Frozen River could have been among the 10 nominees, while in others, we could have seen dreck like Gran Torino alongside finer work. (Sorry, Eastwood fantards. I actually loved his performance, which stunned me after denouncing his 2004 nomination. But that film's screenplay was a disaster, and the amateurish acting of the Hmong characters did not warrant the film to be an Oscar player.) Other possibilities include the aforementioned WALL·E and The Dark Knight, as well as The Wrestler and possibly a foreign feature, such as The Class. All-in-all, those ten (no, I am not considering Torino) would have made for an overall sturdy lineup.

Thinking back further, take a look at 2007 -- arguably the finest year for films this decade, in many circles (not mine). That BP lineup was one of the most diverse and appeasing set of five. Yet, if they allowed 10, I would assume that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (since Julian Schnabel was the lone director nominee) would have scored a nod. Ratatouille, one of the year's most acclaimed, would've been a likely candidate, too. In addition, I could see Hairspray receiving its only Oscar nomination, in large part because it had managed an ensemble nod from the actors' guild. Although, the lack of nominees elsewhere is telling, Grand Hotel actually WON in 1932 with not a mention in a single other category.

And in 2006, my personal favorite year of the decade, an already strong top five could have been expanded with such gems as United 93 (Paul Greengrass was the lone director, after all), Pan's Labyrinth, and, of course, one of the most controversial snubs most of our generation has ever seen: Dreamgirls. Me? I was more upset about Emily Blunt not getting a Supporting Actress nomination for The Devil Wears Prada or Thank You for Smoking/Jason Reitman being robbed of an Adapted Screenplay nod to care about that. But still, it is difficult to argue against its notoriety, and it would indubitably have been recognized there, accompanying its other 8 nominations elsewhere.

The larger inquiry many have though is whether or not this will amplify viewership for the ceremony. The selection of Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin as this year's hosts has delighted many, no doubt. They are co-starring with Meryl Streep in It's Complicated, sure to be a rom-com box office smash this winter. And both will surely bring the funny. (Note: Originally, Tina Fey was considered as a co-host alongside Martin, but was allegedly opted against due to her writing commitments with 30 Rock.) But will they bring any new viewers?

In contrast to that lauded announcement, one larger decision has disgruntled many, including myself. As of this upcoming ceremony, we will no longer have to withstand tributes to legends with an Honorary Oscar segment, thus cropping the running time down. But I believe that decision was made under the assumption that the honorary award is for the legend, and not for the viewers. Suffice it to say, that was woefully misguided. We, the Oscar fan community, happen to enjoy seeing greats like Peter O'Toole and Sidney Lumet, et al, get their due. This year's recipient, Lauren Bacall, was robbed of that televised moment. Instead, it was presented at a ceremony free of telecast -- much like the Creative Arts Emmys, where reality and guest acting awards are presented, which Kathy Griffin lovingly branded "the Schmemmys". Congratulations, Ms. Bacall, here is your Schmoscar.

The minor rage that inflicted was softened, however, by the jubilant state of the Animated Film category. This year, for the first and only other time since 2002, there will be five animated features nominated. I practically humped my monitor in sheer delight. I recall back in 2006, it was so close; the rule requires there be at least 16 animations, if not more, to qualify for five slots. I could see the potential five in my head: Happy Feet, Cars, Monster House, Flushed Away, and Over the Hedge. And then, Arthur and the Invisibles was declared ineligible, since it contained too much live-action material. I was upset, because Flushed was superior to Feet, and thus robbed. (My friend Barbara felt the same way, except in regards to Hedge.) But this year...there are 20! Yes, not "just enough to qualify", but "a nifty buffer zone of filler". If one or two are ruled out, at least there are still enough eligible films in contention.

This year, in particular, was a wise one in which to enact the rule, too. With Up, Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, Ponyo, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs; the as-of-yet-unseen-by-most Mary & Max and A Town Called Panic; etc., it would have seemed damn near impossible to narrow the list down to three. And it does not bother me that there will be filler in the race, so long as there exists more representation of brilliant animation.

All things considered, an eager anxiety has consumed me for this upcoming week. Tomorrow, the Spirit Award nominees will be announced, oftentimes signaling which indie contenders have a better shot than others. And then, on Thursday, the race officially begins when the National Board of Review announces their picks for the year. Usually, the winner of Best Film is just a nominee, but in the past two years, the winner also nabbed the Oscar as well. Which trend will continue this year? I would be most wary of Invictus, which, winner or not, will almost surely land on their Top 10. They have a major appreciation woody for Clint Eastwood. I similarly suspect that if it doesn't win the top prize or Eastwood is not their Best Director choice, either Morgan Freeman or Matt Damon could win Best Actor or Supporting Actor, respectively. Or the Screenplay will win Adapted, but that's never as telling, as most of their recent Screenplay selections were snubbed by the Academy. Ha, what fun!

I will make more official predictions on that later in the week. But with the Spirits being closer, I think it's best to ruminate on the possibilities there first. So, I hope you enjoyed my first article here on PopMatters, and check back later for my thoughts/predictions for tomorrow's nominees!

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