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It's Academic

Now that the Academy has revealed the Oscar nominees, can we just skip to the envelope?

Some random notes on the Oscar nominations, which were announced this past Tuesday

Avatar got a whole bunch of nominations. Guess I’m going to have to break down and see it now.

• The big news is that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the list of films nominated for Best Picture to 10. I don’t have a problem with this—what the hell, let’s get some more movies into the mix. But their reasoning is suspect. It boils down to boosting ratings for the Oscar telecast, what they used to call putting the cart in front of the horse. They believe that ratings have been slipping because the nominations were going to films that had not been popular hits, and therefore viewers didn’t care who won. Granted, it was ridiculous that The Dark Knight wasn’t nominated for Best Picture last year. But isn’t part of the point of an awards show to cast a spotlight on worthy films and say to people, “Hey, this was good, go see it”? If a lot of people didn’t see Milk, Frost/Nixon, or The Reader (to name three of last year’s nominees), it doesn’t mean that they had turned thumbs down on them, just that those films hadn’t played in their city or that there hadn’t been a zillion dollar publicity campaign to drive audiences to them.

There are more than enough People’s Choice-type awards that glorify movies on the basis of what was popular with general audiences. Just because audiences like The Blind Side is no reason to nominate it for Best Picture: People like to eat sausage and double cheese pizza, but that doesn’t mean we should tell them it’s good for them.

• On the subject of The Blind Side, I wish I could take credit for the remark by the NPR commentator who said of Sandra Bullock’s Best Actress nod, “I didn’t know you could get a nomination just for being annoying for an entire movie.”

• In application, though, the expanded list of Best Picture nominees really didn’t open up the field all that much. The most popular film of the year, Avatar, was all but guaranteed a nomination anyway. Most commentators agree that had there been only five nominees they would have been Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Up in the Air, and Precious.

Of the other five, only The Blind Side was a big hit. (Well, there’s Pixar’s Up, but it would have been nominated for Best Animated Film, and arguably doesn’t belong in both categories.) Far better a nomination for District 9 than Transformers 2, and putting An Education and the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man on the list will hopefully give those worthy films some extra attention.

• You know what the list of 10 really accomplishes? Each of them is from a different studio/distributor: 20th Century Fox, Summit, Weinstein, Paramount, Lionsgate, Warner Brothers, Sony/Tristar, Sony Classics, Focus, and Disney. Everyone got a piece of the pie except for the now-defunct Miramax (which did little more than flush out some of its leftover acquisitions) and Universal, easily the studio that had the least-awardable movies of the year. Or did you think that Vince Vaughn deserved a Best Actor nomination for Couples Retreat?

• The nominations have led theaters to bring back some of the films that had already played here. Excluding the movies that are already on DVD and those that haven’t been in general theatrical release yet (including the documentaries and foreign language films), all of the nominated films will be playing in local theaters as of this weekend.

• Given that so many movies rely so heavily on special effects, why is it that there are only three nominees per category for Achievement in Visual Effects and Achievement in Make-Up? If you want a way to parcel out some nominations to audience favorites, this is certainly the way to do it. Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen may be one of the worst movies of 2009, but even I wouldn’t argue if it got an Oscar for the one category it’s nominated in, Best Sound Mixing.

• Is anyone not happy that Jeff Bridges seems to be a lock for Best Actor? But consider this: Of the 13 major critics groups that give out awards, only the LA film critics picked Bridges as Best Actor. The others went mostly for George Clooney or Colin Firth. And none of them gave anything to Avatar or James Cameron, leaning instead toward The Hurt Locker and Up in the Air.

• Should there be separate Oscar categories for comedy? Most of the other groups do it, and the nominees in those categories are films almost completely excluded by the Oscars. On the other hand, I can’t seriously argue that there is any need for the Academy Awards to recognize The Hangover, It’s Complicated, or (500) Days of Summer, three of the Golden Globes nominees for Best Comedy.

• Of the films that received no nominations, the most surprising has to be Broken Embraces, which is not only by the Oscar-beloved Pedro Almodovar but is also a film about the craft of making movies. Bright Star, Jane Campion’s historical drama about the relationship between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, should have been nominated somewhere. And while I don’t know where I would place them, it would be nice to read somewhere on the list the titles of The Invention of Lying, Angels and Demons, Watchmen, and The Informant.

• My favorite nominee of the year, as always, is Randy Newman, up for two songs from The Princess and the Frog. I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t know if the songs are any good, but he always gives a funny speech and deserves all the awards Hollywood can throw at him just on general principles.

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