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Left out were acclaimed movies that did sell a few tickets: The Dark Knight, the highest-grossing film since Titanic, and the Pixar instant-classic WALL-E, which had the top rating among critics of any 2008 release. Another animated feature, DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda, was brimming with brio; and didn't Iron Man parade as much filmmaking skill as any of the nominated five? Not to mention, except skulkingly, under one critic's breath, Speed Racer.
Stodgy types might dismiss these last five as genre films sophisticated updates of the cartoons and B-movie action fodder with which Hollywood used to corral the kiddies at Saturday matinees. But, first of all, those unpedigreed items today outshine much of the solemn epics produced in the '30s and '40s. And second, the five chosen films of 2008 were all examples of a different kind of genre: the nobility-in-distress art-house drama. Ever since the mid-'90s, when Miramax Films' Harvey Weinstein figured out how to win Oscars by assiduously promoting movies of elevated angst, the ceremony has been limited mostly to validating this very narrow film taste.
Yes, the three installments of The Lord of the Rings were nominated, and the last one won; but no episode of the Harry Potter series has been recognized, though they reside in popularity and quality just below the Tolkien trio. Judd Apatow has created his own genre, reviving comedy with his species of bromance; should that not have got some official nod? I might've slit my wrists if Mamma Mia! had been nominated last year, or Twilight. But why not give notice to a wider range of movies?
The critic in me would like to see Best Picture nominations for foreign-language films and documentaries. But the Academy-board poobahs aren't trying to make room for more gnarly little art-house entries. They know that more people watch the Oscars in years when truly popular movies are among the finalists. The biggest ratings in the past 15 years have been when Titanic and LOTR: The Return of the King swept to victory. Ratings were up a bit this year; but if two big audience favorites, Slumdog and The Dark Knight, had gone head to head, the numbers might have been astronomical. This decision is all about ratings.
And money. With the expansion from five to 10 finalists comes a pushing back of the dates when the nominations will be announced (Feb. 2) and the awards show is held (March 7). That gives an extra two weeks for viewers to see the films that might be in contention and for studios to place ads in industry papers. (Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, which make their big money through these ads, may see a bonanza next winter.)
One thing the Academy knows that the public doesn't: which films placed six to 10 in the Best Picture voting this past year. If the lower five slots had all gone to artsy fare like Doubt and Revolutionary Road, you can be sure we wouldn't have heard today's announcement. So the Academy must want Oscar night to be moderately reflective of the movies that real audiences came to, saw and were conquered by. It won't be the People's Choice Awards, but it won't be the Independent Spirit Awards either. And for that we can be guardedly grateful.