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Another Year, Another Race

(this post comes from Darren Mooney of The Movie Blog)

Oscar season is on us again. Although, to be fair, it's been going since at least November last year. It's something of a tradition that, the closer we get to the awards themselves, the more certain the outcome seems. To a large extent, that's still true this year. The vast majority of pundits seem to have settled on the belief that George Clooney will pick up the Best Actor award, Christopher Plummer will pick up the Best Supporting Actor award and Meryl Streep will take home her first Best Actress Oscar in quite some time. While there are those who would disagree with these assessments (for example, I think Viola Davis might pose a credible threat to Streep), those are the broadly-agreed major categories. However, the announcement of the nominees last week threw the Best Picture race into a bit of uncertainty, creating the impression that The Artist doesn't quite have the award locked down.

Again, I'm going to concede that I still think The Artist will take the award, if only based on the sheer logistics of the thing. I think that, despite being a black-and-white silent film, it has the broadest appeal of the nominees. Indeed, that may be precisely because of the same "simplicity" and "shallowness" that the inevitable backlash repeatedly brings up. If allegations of mistreatment of child actors couldn't keep Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire from the award, I can't see "it's too light" keeping The Artist off the podium at the awards itself. Indeed, it's been doing very well over the course of the awards season, with the Directors' Guild Award serving as the latest feather in its cap. Honestly, I still see it winning in the Best Picture and Best Director categories.

But I'm not certain.

And that's the joy of this year's race. Up until the nominations were announced, Alexander Payne's The Descendants had been the movie's primary contender for the award. It was essentially competing as "counter-programming", a movie more typical of the Academy's tastes in recent years. It's the respected and relatively niche indie contender, of the same pedigree of recent winners like No Country for Old MenMillion Dollar Baby and even The Hurt Locker. It's a film that the Academy can award if they don't want to seem either too populist (with The Artist very well-liked, even among those who don't love it) or too nostalgic (being the strongest contender that isn't about cinema itself). It provides a nice focal point for those members who tend to steer away from the crowd-pleasing fare. Even with only five nominations, I think it has enough clout to be considered as a potential contender.

Of course, most Oscar races tend to be "two horse" races. Last year it was The Social Network against The King's Speech, while we all remember Avatar against The Hurt Locker. Personally, I never saw either race as especially close, if only because of the institution's pre-existing bias towards and against certain types of films. I think that The Descendants and The Artist is a much tighter race because they offer a fairly similar choice. Neither is especially "modern" (The Social Network as against The King's Speech) and neither is a picture in a genre the Academy dislike (Avatar was a blockbuster science-fantasy). However, even beyond that, I think the race is more interesting due to two of the other Best Picture nominees - one as a serious contender, and the other as a potential upset.

The announcement on Tuesday revealed that Martin Scorsese's Hugo had picked up twelve nominations, something which surprised me a bit. I had expected quite a few, but no more than eight, to be entirely honest. Although none of these were in the major acting categories, picking up the highest number of nominations at the ceremony does mark you out as a solid contender. Given that the highest number of nominations ever received at the awards was fourteen (for the Best Picture winners Titanic and All About Eve), that's no small accomplishment for Scorsese's film.

Statistically speaking, there's evidence to support a link between the Best Picture Award and the film with the most nominations. Looking at the last few years, The King's Speech had twelve nominations and won Best Picture. The Hurt Locker and Avatar both had the most nominations at their ceremony. Slumdog Millionaire upsets the trend, with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button having more nominations, but the previous year had There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men tied. I think that it's impossible to count Scorsese out. So, even with three front-runners, I think it's a tighter race than we've seen in quite some time - and I wouldn't be surprised if any of these three won. After all, we're used to a five-picture race, but with a frontrunner and somebody behind, and then the rest of the pack scatter. This is kind of exciting.

However, there's one more possible contender I refuse to count out of the race. Truth be told, I didn't even think it was in the race until the nominations were announced, and - even now - I think the chance of a Best Picture or Best Director win is small, but not outside the realm of possibility. I am talking about Tree of Life. It was a film that not only managed to surprise people with a Best Picture nomination, but surprised a lot of pundits with a Best Director nomination for Terrance Malick. It was at least as big a surprise as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close getting a Best Picture nomination, one I can proudly say that I predicted. However, Tree of Life is a potential contender, and ELIC is not, for one simple reason.

Anybody with a grasp of the voting habits of the Academy knows that it is practically unheard of for a film to win the Best Picture award without at least a Best Director nomination. Driving Miss Daisy is the most recent example, and the other two are the very first winner (Wings) and the only film to win Best Picture without any other nominations (Grand Hotel). Incidentally, this is why I dislike the "more than five Best Picture nominees" thing, because it's the five that could win and a bunch of also rans, but I'll spare you that rant. The point is that we can, thankfully, count out ELIC at this point in the race.

On the other hand, Tree of Life came completely out of nowhere. Even the people who liked it didn't expect the Academy to like it. And the Best Director nomination indicates that they loved it. Malick is one of those directors who has been working in Hollywood for a very long time, but has never won an Oscar. The closest he came was a nomination for The Thin Red Line. While his history of being snubbed isn't nearly as controversial as the way Scorsese was treated or Christopher Nolan has been treated, it is possible that the Academy might take the opportunity to recognise him.

I admit the possibility is downright remote, but the love for the film is a big surprise. I'm happy for it, and I enjoyed it (even if I didn't love it), and I think there's no way to tell how interested or disinterested in the film the Academy actually is. It isn't as if the two leads were ever contenders for the acting awards, although both Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt are nominated for their work elsewhere. Personally, I don't think it will happen, but I could see Malick and/or his film winning on second or third preferences if the three-way race between The ArtistHugo and The Descendants doesn't give a clear winner on the first ballot.

All in all, I think this might be the most exciting Best Picture race in quite some time...

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