It is looking less and less likely that there will be any shifts or surprises in the last act of the 2008 Oscar race. The DGA is really the only group that can turn it around. Announcing their nominations on the 8th of January, with ballots due the day before, the DGA is still the most reliable predictor of the Best Picture race.
It is the best because even if the directors don’t match five for five (sometimes they don’t) the movies that the DGA helmers represent DO get nominated. The only reason I can think of for this is the demographic makeup of both groups; the working directors are mostly male. The Academy members (though they don’t release their demographics) are assumed to be mostly male. White, upper middle class and male.
The PGA, the WGA and other groups are going to be more diverse in every sense. This is why, I have always believed, the DGA has the one ring to rule them all. On the other hand, things are changing within the Academy and thus, the final picture might change.
The past two years, for instance, have shown mismatches, like Sean Penn being nominated for the DGA but Into the Wild, and Penn, shut out at the Oscars. That means that if even if, by some miracle, Christopher Nolan or Andrew Stanton are nominated for the DGA, they might not be nominated for the Oscar and their films might not be represented in the Best Pic race – it will come down to a good old fashioned guess.
As we always say, the race is a fluid one, not a static one – which is why who won what and when can only give you a vague idea of how it might go but does not predict nor guarantee how it will go. Things happen, perceptions change. Right now, though, if feels safe to go with the obvious for Best Picture, and they are:
This is a slightly irritating conclusion because, in reality, two of the very best films of 2008 have been The Dark Knight and Wall-E. These are the two films that will come to define 2008. Two films yawn back to the olden days, Frost/Nixon and Milk – sure, they illuminate our times but they are films about the ’70s, really.
Two films are stage play adaptations – Frost/Nixon and Doubt. Slumdog, Wall-E and The Dark Knight are about right now. Benjamin Button is a universal story for all time – it’s a film that could be released in any era and be as good. Putting them all in context is tricky.
Ask yourself, which film would you cut from the obvious five if you want either of these two, or even Revolutionary Road, in the mix?
A while back I asked a few of our friends to define Best Picture — that post, and all of the intelligent comments, is here. But I thought, for the sake of it, we could revisit the answers.
Anthony Breznican, USA Today
This is a good question: What is ‚ÄúBest‚Äù supposed to mean? To me, the best (that word again) way to describe it is by acknowledging how hard it is to define. The best runner is the one who crosses the finish line first. The best PICTURE? ‚Ä¶ Far more subjective and slippery. So the best film must be the one that makes the question irrelevant; it‚Äôs the one that makes you sit up in your seat and say, ‚ÄúThis is the best picture I‚Äôve seen this year!‚Äù without the need for hand-wringing, politicking, or for-your-consideration ads. It‚Äôs the movie that surprises, takes risks, tries to say something from the heart, and walks out of the theater with you and, ideally, stays by your side a long time. The best picture is the one you can have the longest conversation about at dinner afterward. The best picture is the one that you could watch again right away as soon as the credits end. The best picture is the one that makes you say ‚ÄúWow‚Äù the loudest.
Damien Bona, author of Inside Oscar and Inside Oscar II:
The Best Picture race should be about my five favorite movies of the year so right now the frontrunners would be ‚ÄúParanoid Park,‚Äù ‚ÄúFlight of the Red Balloon‚Äù and ‚ÄúLes Chansons d‚Äôamour.‚Äù
But, seriously, I think the finalists for Best Picture should not be necessarily the most critically acclaimed films of the year, nor the most popular. Instead, they should be those that people who work in the Hollywood film industry honestly consider the foremost films of the year. These are the people who make up the bulk of the Academy membership and I want voters to be true to themselves ‚Äì and their instincts for liberal humanism.
Thus, when the nominees include movies generally dismissed films by critics or cineastes there shouldn‚Äôt be wailing and the gnashing of teeth.¬† Whether the Academy‚Äôs choices intersect those of film critics or exist in parallel universes is irrelevant. Victories by a ‚ÄúGladiator‚Äù or a ‚ÄúCrash‚Äù and nominations for the likes of ‚ÄúFinding Neverland‚Äù and ‚ÄúThe Green Mile‚Äù ‚Äì films which weren‚Äôt exactly critical favorites ‚Äì provide a mirror to the mind-set of those in the industry. And that‚Äôs a good thing, and as it should be. For instance, ‚ÄúThe Greatest Show On Earth‚Äù is generally disparaged as the worst Best Picture winner ever, but I love how its Oscar success encapsulates the political, cultural and social milieu of Hollywood in early 1953.
What I find disheartening is when buzz indicates that a film is probably not all that well-liked in the industry, but scores a nomination because of an aggressive Oscar push (eg, ‚ÄúGangs Of New York‚Äù) or because it has a certain snob cachet due to intense aggrandizement by some strident film reviewers (eg, ‚ÄúThere Will Be Blood‚Äù).
In short, the Best Picture race should be about the five movies a plurality of the Academy truly thinks are the year‚Äôs finest.
David Carr, NY Times, The Carpetbagger, author of The Night of the Gun
Best picture should embody the magic of the craft, with everyone involved, most especially the director at the height of his or her powers. It should be the kind of movie that is so good that it brings both civilians and the critical vanguard together.
Scott Foundas, LA Weekly
Your question, I fear, is no more answerable than a Zen koan, because, of course, the very idea of a ‚Äúbest‚Äù (which you quite appropriately put in quotes) picture is so subjective/negotiable, while even the ‚Äúideal‚Äù notion a ‚Äúbest‚Äù picture depends entirely on who you‚Äôre asking. I suppose an agent or manager‚Äìand probably many a studio executive‚Äìwould tell you that the ‚Äúbest‚Äù picture of any given year is, if not the single highest-grossing (because, surely, few would be crass enough to think that SHREK 3, PIRATES 3 or SPIDER-MAN 3 should take home the Oscar), one of the more profitable films that can be deemed at least partly respectable. On rare occasions, the obvious ‚Äúbest‚Äù picture from the industry standpoint‚ÄìTITANIC, LORD OF THE RINGS‚Äìis also the year‚Äôs monster grosser. But even in other years, the movie that goes home with Oscar is almost always the highest-grossing of the five that get nominated.
Ask a critic what the ‚Äúbest‚Äù picture of the year was and you‚Äôre likely to hear the name of some obscure experimental film or a five-hour, black-and-white political drama from Poland. That, of course, always leads to grousing from some pundits (albeit nobody even remotely connected with Awards Daily) that critics are elitists terminally removed from the taste of ‚Äúordinary moviegoers.‚Äù To which I can only say: Guilty as charged! The notion that the opinions of a critic‚Äìwho, if he or she is doing his job properly, sees a few hundred movies a year‚Äìshould align with those of a moviegoer who may see no more than a couple of dozen movies a year is so preposterous that one wonders how it ever came about in the first place. Of course, you might also ask a critic what the best picture of the year is and hear THE DARK KNIGHT, which might in turn send some of those very same pundits into a tailspin.
If we‚Äôre talking specifically about the Oscars (as I assume we are), it‚Äôs that old Hollywood conundrum: Most of the suits‚Äìand a great many of the filmmakers who work at the studio level‚Äìview movies primarily as a business from which they hope to make heaps of money. But because they also feel guilty about the heaps of money they make (which has lead to the creation of an entire sub-genre of Hollywood movies about people of great wealth who, by some act of divine intervention, learn how the other half lives and, in turn, how empty/meaningless their lives really are), these same people like to talk about the ‚Äúart of cinema‚Äù and, every once in a while, to make a movie that isn‚Äôt targeted entirely at hormonal teenagers with wads of disposable income. As the critic David Thomson points out in the introduction to his very fine new book, HAVE YOU SEEN‚Ä¶? (an excerpt of which appears in this week‚Äôs L.A. Weekly), this exact dilemma was present right at the founding of the Academy, which, in its first year (1928) gave two different Best Picture awards‚Äìone for ‚Äúoutstanding picture‚Äù to the WWI aviation drama WINGS, and one for ‚Äúunique and artistic picture‚Äù to F.W. Murnau‚Äôs SUNRISE. The first was a popular hit that stayed in theaters for over a year‚Äìcall it the TITANIC of its day. The second has endured as one of the masterpieces of the cinema, even managing to land a place in the coveted IMDB top 250, no matter that it lags a couple hundred places behind the likes of THE MATRIX and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION.
But already by 1930, the Academy decided that ‚Äúbest‚Äù picture should be a monolithic entity, and the results since then have, simply put, tilted in the direction of the ‚Äúoutstanding‚Äù rather than the ‚Äúunique and artistic.‚Äù ‚ÄúUnique and artistic‚Äù may get you a nomination (for recent examples, see THE PIANO, LEAVING LAS VEGAS, THE THIN RED LINE and THERE WILL BE BLOOD), but those are the cases for which the phrase ‚Äúgreat just to be nominated‚Äù seems to have been invented. So, to divine the ‚Äúbest,‚Äù you end up with this unholy algorithm of box-office success added to critical plaudits, multiplied by some vague sense of sociopolitical relevancy, and divided by that mysterious ‚Äúx‚Äù factor also known as career appreciation. I‚Äôm not going to list here all of the cases in which some cinematic landmark has been bested for Best Picture by a movie that, even at the time, seemed less than classic but which somehow jibed with the cultural moment or allowed the Academy to recognize some long-overdue Oscar bridesmaid. And who knows? Maybe there is someone out there who really does think IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is a better movie than BONNIE AND CLYDE, much as I suspect he would hesitate to raise his voice in ¬†a crowded room.
Funny enough, just a few hours before I received your email, I was having a conversation with a publicist from a prominent mini-major distributor, who was trying to convince me that the Academy was getting hipper to the times, because ‚Äúa decade ago, a movie like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN would never have won Best Picture.‚Äù ‚ÄúA movie like NO COUNTRY‚Äù was this publicist‚Äôs euphemism for a bleak, violent movie with an unresolved ending. And that‚Äôs the kind of conventional wisdom that, before you know it, gets turned into a Sunday Arts feature by a newspaper editor who knows less about movies than the average publicist. Of course, you can look back a lot further than a decade to find bleak, violent, morally ambiguous movies like UNFORGIVEN, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, PLATOON, THE DEER HUNTER, et al., all of which, to some extent, took home Best Picture because their time had come. Some were even, arguably, the ‚Äúbest‚Äù pictures of their respective years, but as with so much about the Oscars, that seems almost irrelevant. Awarding UNFORGIVEN was a way of telling Clint Eastwood that the industry took him seriously as a filmmaker, while lauding SILENCE sent a memo to horror filmmakers that they were no longer the Elijahs at the Academy‚Äôs table. The Oscar for Platoon said that we had finally come to terms with Vietnam as it was experienced by the soldiers on the ground, just as THE DEER HUNTER had acknowledged the war‚Äôs impact on the homefront. I‚Äôm sure nobody knows better than the movie-mad Martin Scorsese that his Best Picture (and Best Director) Oscar came for one of his most proficient but least interesting films, because one more snub and he‚Äôd have turned into the Academy‚Äôs own Susan Lucci. And while I may think NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is one of the Coen brothers‚Äô best films, I‚Äôm also of the mind that they would have won last year even if they had directed THE DEPARTED (but not BURN AFTER READING). After getting invited to the dance for BARTON FINK and almost but not quite making it into the winner‚Äôs circle with FARGO, their number was up, lest they become the new Martin Scorsese.
Best Picture at the Oscars also comes with another important caveat: The award really ought to be called ‚ÄúBest American Picture,‚Äù because despite the handful of foreign-language films that have managed to eke out nominations over the years, the Oscars in general and Best Picture in particular are mainly a way for the American film industry to pat itself on the back for a job well done. Foreign films are no more present for the average Oscar voter than they are for the average American moviegoer, and so it‚Äôs only fitting that those few foreign pictures that have captured the Academy‚Äôs heart‚ÄìCROUCHING TIGER, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, IL POSTINO‚Äìare the ones made in such a recognizable Hollywood idiom that they scarcely need subtitles. This wouldn‚Äôt be relevant were it not for the fact that the Academy fancies itself a global institution, with its token (and reliably short-sighted) foreign-language award and its much-ballyhooed global broadcast in some triple-digit number of countries. Take, for comparison purposes, the annual European Film Awards, an event that would very much like to be considered the Oscars of Europe. When I attended that ceremony for the first time last winter, I found it in some ways just as absurd as its transatlantic counterpart, and yet the differences between the two ceremonies were striking: At the EFAs, the winners really did represent a diverse cross-section of contemporary world cinema. (The big winner that night was the Oscar-ignored 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS.) The acceptance speeches were pithy, concise and generally lacking in tawdry emotion and gratuitous self-indulgence. The badly scripted comic banter of the hosts, while not completely eradicated, was kept to bare minimum. And instead of splashy, overproduced production numbers, the musical entertainment was provided by the pompadoured Finnish rock band known as the Leningrad Cowboys. As one well-known European filmmaker said to me that night with a mixture of envy and disgust, ‚ÄúTo put on a show like the Oscars, you have to be convinced that you‚Äôre living in the center of the world.‚Äù Fair enough, but the fact remains that, just as Hollywood movies dominate the local box office in most foreign markets, the Oscars are watched by a great many more television viewers around the world than the European Film Awards.
All of which, I suppose, begs the question: Why spend so much time thinking and talking about the Oscars if they‚Äôre just one elaborate parlor game? The answer is that, frustratingly, the Oscars do occasionally get things (Best Picture included) right. And even when they don‚Äôt, they still matter in the sense that an Oscar win‚Äìeven a nomination‚Äìcan bring so many more viewers to a movie than might have seen it otherwise. It can also do marvelous things for a filmmaker‚Äôs career. The Best Picture nomination last year for THERE WILL BE BLOOD in some way legitimized a movie that, up to that point, was hovering precariously between being the pet enthusiasm of those darn obscurantist critics and a bonafide new American classic. When Mike Leigh‚Äôs SECRETS & LIES was nominated in 1996, it put Leigh (who had already been making movies for 25 years at that time) on the radar of American audiences in a way he had never been before, and the movie itself went on to become the highest-grossing, worldwide, of his entire career. Whether the Academy deserves to wield such power is another question entirely‚Äìone that could just as soon be asked of the American Film Institute, the IMDB, or any of the other sacrosanct organizations whose lists of ‚Äúbest‚Äù films are accepted by so many as statements of fact. And I think you know that I speak as someone who believes the Oscars are nothing to spend weeks and months soothsaying about. But the point is that the Academy‚Äôs power is real, and even if it has seen its TV ratings slipping as of late, it will not soon be abdicating its throne. So we watch‚Äìeven if from a careful remove‚Äìand wonder and hope that, every once in a while, the stars will perfectly align.
Mark Harris, NY Times, author of Pictures at a Revolution
What should the best picture race be about? The most popular movie of the year? No. If you believe that, go stand in the corner. Or go sit in the press room of the People‚Äôs Choice Awards, where you can complain that the Academy robbed ‚ÄúSpider-Man 3‚Ä≥ and ‚ÄúPirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man‚Äôs Chest‚Äù of the top prize. (Although this year, I would be very happy to see ‚ÄúThe Dark Knight‚Äù in the final five.) The most critically acclaimed? About 856 different film critics‚Äô circles seem to have that covered‚Äìand I don‚Äôt think their track records are all that much better than the Academy‚Äôs. The most successful at meeting the goals it sets for itself? No, because what if those goals are mediocre? Execution counts for more than anything, but I don‚Äôt think you can ignore ambition, degree of difficulty, originality of approach, or deeper cultural resonance. If I were a voter looking at the final five, I‚Äôd ask myself which movie I was most held by while I was watching it, which movie stayed with me the longest, and which movie I most wanted to see again. And if I came up with three different answers, I‚Äôd probably allow the movie that stayed with me the longest to break the tie.
Dave Karger, EW:
I like to think of the Best Picture nominees as the five movies that would go in a time capsule to be unearthed 100 years from now. They should be the five movies that define the year. Not necessarily the movies that the most people saw, but the ones the most people will remember.
Tom O‚ÄôNeil, Gold Derby, author of Movie Awards
Ideally, the best picture race should NOT be about the most critically acclaimed pic because we can‚Äôt trust the critics. That group is too heavily male (more than 80 percent) and too often blinded by testosterone rushes, damning great sentimental flicks as gooey chick flicks, etc.. When they form mysterious gangs, they can go trotting off in bizarre directions like the year they all picked ‚ÄúMulholland Drive‚Äù for best picture. Jeeez, even its director David Lynch admitted he didn‚Äôt know what the hell that movie was all about. We can‚Äôt let the box office decide what‚Äôs best picture either or else we‚Äôll end up next February with ‚ÄúBeverly Hills Chihuahua‚Äù being top dog at the Kodak Theater. So can‚Äôt we all just agree to leave the decision to Sasha? That‚Äôs fine by me. Then ‚ÄúDark Knight‚Äù will slay all rivals, including, hallelujah, that winy lil Chihuahua.
All of our Oscar bloggers are fools because we‚Äôre chasing something that doesn‚Äôt exist. We know, really, deep down, that there‚Äôs no such thing as a best picture. Only once in the history of showbiz awards have all of the major industry awards ‚Äî the Oscars, Globes, guilds and critics kudos ‚Äî agreed that, yes, this is the best picture of the year. It was 1993: ‚ÄúSchindler‚Äôs List.‚Äù However, that same year the People‚Äôs Choice Award ‚Äî which was still decided by national Gallop Poll back then ‚Äî went to a different Spielberg flick, ‚ÄúJurassic Park.‚Äù So just when all Hollywood finally made up its damn mind and said, yes, a best picture does exist and this is it, the rest of America piped in and said, ‚ÄúWrong!‚Äù
So it‚Äôs all up to you from now on, Sasha. That means we can finally shut down all these Oscar websites and I can stop blogging and go back to what‚Äôs really important: watching my ‚ÄúSweeney Todd‚Äù and ‚ÄúDreamgirls‚Äù DVDs.
David Poland, Movie City News:
‚ÄúIdeal‚Äù doesn‚Äôt exist in a popularity contest. I think there is a percentage of Academy members who think of ‚Äúbest‚Äù the way a film critic does, but even critics prioritize based on things like popularity and ambition. But it is different things to each person, as in any conversation. These 6000 people give an award, a snapshot in time that even
they would often change a year or more later. There is no ‚Äúbest,‚Äù except for each of us.
Kris Tapley, In Contention
I think ideally, Best Picture is exactly what it says. But that‚Äôs really utopian. Subjectivity is a real issue that will always get in the way of defining a ‚Äúbest‚Äù film in a given year. What we‚Äôre left with is an opportunity to showcase milestone achievements or, in the right circumstances, time capsule representations of the season. I definitely don‚Äôt think that ‚Äúbest‚Äù should ever translate to most critically acclaimed or even most popular, but in the case of the Academy, it should be the honest majority ‚Äúwinner‚Äù of some 6,000+ opinions that are, themselves (and again, ideally), taken seriously. As if, right? But ideally, the Academy takes its role seriously and leaves politics and buzz at the door in favor of the easy task: picking the film that was the most expertly crafted achievement of the year throughout they various films the AMPAS chooses to recognize.
But that‚Äôs like Halley‚Äôs Comet.