And here we are again. There are two films that were screened in Cannes that will very likely be named by many authorities as two of the best films of the year but are also two that don’t fit the Academy’s formula for what defines a Best Picture contender. Why? Because one is an animated film and the other a genre movie. While it’s true that Gravity and Life of Pi managed to make the cut in previous years, they are both heavy on emotion and character, while depending heavily on visual effects.
Quick primer on how Best Picture works for those who don’t know the history (it is confusing to many). In 2009, the Academy expanded their Best Picture lineup from five nomination slots and five nominees to ten nomination slots and ten nominees. In those magical years the wide array of films that were selected prove that the Academy members can expand beyond their comfort zone if given enough room.
In 2009 and 2010 voters were given ten nomination slots and ten Best Pictures. There were two films per year directed by women. There were several films nominated about women. There were animated films (Up and Toy Story 3) and genre films (District 9, Avatar, Inception). Sure, the male hero feelgood drama still dominated but there was room for more than just that.
Beginning in 2011 and up to present, the Academy has done away with the ten nomination slots and shrunk it back down to five. They still allow for more than five Best Picture nominees (an even 9 except last year). Voters had to stick to five nominating slots, making it nearly impossible for an animated film, no matter how good it is, to get a Best Picture nod.
This is the single reason that Inside Out can’t be considered a likely Best Picture nominee. The chances of it making the top five lists of enough voters is slim to none. Not only that, but it has to compete with Pixar’s other movie coming out this year, the Good Dinosaur which will feature state-of-the-art visuals as well, and will be more traditionally about your misfit male hero. Pixar against Pixar.
Once again, it would behoove the Academy to open up the Best Picture race and make it a REAL race again. While it’s true that ten sort of obliterates the unification of Best Picture and Best Director or any film ever sweeping the Oscars again, it does help address the way Hollywood has changed.
Devin Faraci wrote a nice piece about Inside Out where he says how much more meaningful the story is because the stakes are higher:
As the two emotions try to make their way back to Headquarters they are shocked to discover that Riley’s Islands of Personality – the emotional epicenters of who she is, and the things that define her as a person – are unstable. More than unstable, some of them begin to completely fail, falling away into the Memory Hole, from which nothing returns. Joy and Sadness have to get back to Riley’s Headquarters before all of the Islands collapse, changing her into someone unrecognizable.
These stakes are enormous. The world isn’t going to end, no one is going to die and the future of the human race aren’t on the line here, but the film firmly establishes that what’s going on inside Riley’s head is important. The film established that Riley is a good kid, and that Riley deserves something as basic as a smile on her face. Watching the movie – often through a film of tears – I cared more about whether Riley would keep playing hockey than I cared about whether Chris Pratt would escape the dinosaurs at my previous night’s screening.
Stakes come when we care about characters, and the biggest stakes are how things will impact those characters. We all know that Sadness and Joy will eventually make it back to Headquarters, but will they get there in time to help Riley maintain the things that make her her? And how the heck will they manage to make the journey in time? As each Island of Personality crumbled and collapsed I felt more tension and concern than I did seeing a hundred CGI cities laid waste over the last few years.
When a film cuts this deeply it’s worth considering it as one of the year’s best, whether it is animated or not.