Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011

Best Picture

Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

Last year, for the first time since 1944, this category boasted 10 entries instead of the familiar five. The idea, spurred by the exclusion in 2009 of The Dark Knight, was purely mercenary: to encourage the inclusion of hit movies, not just the usual specialty fare, and thus lure their fans to watch an Oscar show whose ratings had been in decline for decades. The 2010 list of 10 included its share of popular genre pictures: a World War II epic (Inglourious Basterds), a science-fiction thriller (District 9), a sports weepie (The Blind Side), a buddy movie from Pixar (Up) and, of course, the highest-grossing film of all time (Avatar). At the end of the night, the Academy gave its top prize to The Hurt Locker, the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner ever. But Avatar got plenty of air time, and the show's ratings did enjoy a bounce.

Among the finalists announced on Jan. 25, the only two designed to please a worldwide audience, rather than critics or the Academy, were Toy Story 3 and Inception (the first and fifth highest-grossing films of the year, respectively). One was an ideal blend of cartoon comedy and dramatic storytelling, the other a splendidly devious narrative. Neither will be named Best Picture — Toy Story 3 because, to an Academy membership overwhelmingly populated by folks who make their living in live-action movies, it's just a cartoon, and Inception because it's just too darned thoughty. Besides, the voters rationalize, both pictures will get their party favors, the Pixar movie for Best Animated Feature, and Inception in some of the many craft categories (visual effects, film editing, sound mixing and editing) for which it has been nominated. And if the members had really liked Inception, they would have nominated its maker, Christopher Nolan, as one of the year's five best directors.

True Grit, another sizable hit with 10 nominations, including Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor and Supporting Actress, could get shut out in all those categories, settling for the door prize: a cinematography statuette for Roger Deakins, a nine-time nominee who's due for a win. Most of the other titles fit the usual-suspects definition of Oscar nominees: indie-ish films about unusual families (The Fighter, The Kids Are All Right, Winter's Bone) and biopics, either inspirational (127 Hours, The King's Speech) or quirky (The Social Network). The ringer is Black Swan, which will win for, and perhaps only for, Natalie Portman.

The morning line sees a horse race between The Social Network, which earned eight nominations, and The King's Speech, with a top number of 12. The Facebook movie won most of the critics' group citations as well as the Critics Choice and Golden Globe awards; The King's Speech pulled off a surprise victory on Jan. 22 as best picture from the influential Producers Guild of America. Does that win foretell the Oscar? The PGA award has correctly anticipated the Best Picture Oscar for the past three years running (The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men). But the three years before that, the Guild chose a different film: Little Miss Sunshine, not The Departed, in 2007; Brokeback Mountain, not Crash, in 2006; and The Aviator, not Million Dollar Baby, in 2005. So in recent history, the PGA's batting average drops to .500.

Vectors can change in the five weeks between Jan. 25 and Feb. 27; The King's Speech has some momentum, and its distributor is Mr. Oscar Maneuverer himself, Harvey Weinstein. But for now, the smart money is sticking with the smart young men of The Social Network.