Additional nominees a welcome change

For the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the idea of awarding a single film the coveted title of best picture of the year has always been complicated. Sometimes the right film wins, sometimes the wrong film wins and sometimes the wrong film wins a record number of Oscars. No matter which film eventually takes top honors, however, there are always many left disappointed.

This year, after the Academy chose to nominate 10 films instead of the regular five, the biggest disappointment has already revealed itself, and there should be very few ­— if any — surprises when the winner is announced next month.

After numerous award shows, including the Golden Globes, audiences across the world and members of Hollywood have already been given a very realistic idea of which films are generally considered to be the best 2009 had to offer, and, for the most part, the recognition has been consistent.

Before the Academy announced its nominations on the morning of Feb. 2, almost everyone was aware that Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Precious and Up in the Air would be among those considered for the best picture Oscar.

All of these films have received largely positive reviews from critics, and most have earned respectable box office numbers over the past several months: These are the films everyone has been talking about.

It’s a safe bet that the Oscar will go to one of these four, even though the usual fifth slot had not been filled. In previous award seasons, the vacant fifth slot has been filled by an unlikely candidate. This wild card selection is typically a film held in high regard by audiences and critics alike but that nonetheless stands little chance of winning.

This year, that extra addition is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Though an entertaining film as well as one of the director’s best, Basterds is hardly an appropriate candidate for best film of the year.

The Academy is no stranger to nominating films without the requisite merit, oftentimes just to fill any holes to make for a solid five nominations, as it did in 2003 by adding Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Seabiscuit to the list of nominations when there was no chance they would beat The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which did win. Ultimately, the additions were unnecessary.

The issue of filling the bill is just one of the many problems the Academy has faced over the years, but it seems to be growing more problematic with the inclusion of five more films to the ballot.

This is not the first time the Academy has nominated more than five films; it was actually the trend during the 1930s and 1940s to have anywhere from five to 10 or as many as 12 nominees a year. The Academy switched back to a mere five films in 1944 and has continued that tradition until this year.

So why the change when the number five has worked well enough for over 60 years? There’s no denying the Academy’s good intentions to broaden the perspective of the Oscars to include films that are both critical and commercial succeses and not to solely honor serious art-house films as it has done in the past. The move will hopefully disrupt the Academy’s elitist mentality by engaging more audiences as well as more films in the ceremony. But ultimately, the addition of the other films just seems so unnecessary when it is clear which films have a chance to win and which are just filling up space.

The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, A Serious Man and Up are all excellent additions to the list of best picture nominees: Not only is each a noteworthy motion picture in its own right, but each also reflects a very wide range of cinema, as an awards ceremony should. Unfortunately, it seems they have only been included in the show since there is really no chance any of them can beat the likes of Avatar or The Hurt Locker.

To make the distinction between the two groups of nominees even more pronounced, the Academy has given all of the directors of the five front-runner films nominations for best director, a move that serves not only to confirm the Academy’s outright favoritism but also to isolate the other five nominees as categorically inferior.

If there was not such a clear division between the five likely nominees and the five other nominees, the variety presented could mean so much more, but there is no arguing the fact that there are still only five serious contenders for the best picture Oscar.