A panel of experts discusses the 2010 Oscar ballot

From five to 10

Undoubtedly one of the most unique features about this year’s Academy Awards is the opening up of the best picture category from five films to 10, a move back to the original number prior to 1944.

For film studies co-ordinator and associate professor Philippa Gates, the change seems to be driven by a desire to not only be inclusive but to increase viewership.

“It was definitely an interesting political move on the part of the Oscars and I see it as part of increasing the sort of brand size and helping to generate a second set of viewership for these films,” said Gates.

“It seems politically motivated more than just artistically motivated.”

The best picture list this year has incorporated blockbuster hits like Avatar and Inglourious Basterds, a move that communications and film studies graduate Laura Carlson agreed is likely meant to make the traditionally art-centred awards show more appealing to a variety of viewers.

“I think they wanted to put the 10 nominations out there so that people have seen more of the movies. There are big blockbuster movies and people have seen those so that’ll give viewers the motivation to watch [on Sunday],” she noted.

Originally coined the “Dark Knight effect” by some film experts, many believe the move was in direct response to the exclusion of the hit The Dark Knight from the nominees last year.

“That’s what people are saying,” said contract academic staff English and film professor Peter Kuling. “But Star Trek didn’t get in there so the ‘Dark Knight effect’ didn’t really happen.”

Kuling also noted that Up was nominated in both the best picture and best animated feature film categories, a doubling-up which may have been caused by the inability to select enough films for the ballot.

Third-year film and English student Wade Thompson agreed, explaining that this year was not the right year for the change, noting that there weren’t enough films to merit it.

“At the beginning of the year it seemed like a good idea, but now knowing the movies that came out there were not worthy enough of being nominated…. The motivation was viewers, they need the ratings,” said Thompson.

The picture, director split

Only three times since 2000 have the Oscars seen a split between the movie winning for best picture and best direction; but with the inclusion of James Cameron’s Avatar and Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker, it seems that this could become the fourth.

Carlson noted that an interesting factor that may contribute to this is the story created by Cameron and Bigelow’s history, having been married for several years.

“The split is creating the opportunity for a narrative with Cameron and Bigelow, so a lot of people want to take part in voting on that,” she explained.

The prediction is that Avatar, with its cutting-edge visual effects, may take best picture and Bigelow may be the first female recipient of the best director award, with only three other females ever being nominated before.

For Thompson, best director appears in the bag for Bigelow, because it would make Oscar history.

“She’s got that completely working in her favour and she’s got it.”

Gates agreed, noting Bigelow’s impressive artistic portfolio, stating “they owe her.”

She went on to explain that awarding Bigelow with best director will help the Academy feel more comfortable selecting blockbuster Avatar, the obvious choice for best picture due to its ground-breaking nature and popular appeal.

“How can you not give an award to a film that has earned more than Gone with the Wind [when adjusted for inflation]?” she explained.

While Gates argued that the notion of awarding Quentin Tarantino for either category may be “scary” to the Academy given the off-beat nature of his films, Kuling suggested that this year may be the chance to finally recognize him for his past work, including the classic 1994 film Pulp Fiction.

“It’s a way to say, ‘We passed on Pulp Fiction so long ago and this may be the only best picture you have for the next 10 years’,” he noted. However, Kuling agreed with fellow panelists that there would be a split in the categories regardless, slating Inglourious Basterds as picture and Bigelow as director.

Speaking to the nature of the Oscars in general, Kuling explained that while it is hard to determine the winners in advance, those not rewarded in one category will likely be rewarded elsewhere.

“Whatever they choose to reward will domino across all other categories. What happens here affects what happens there, and we’re all debating that chain reaction,” he explained.

The actors

This year, the actor categories range from best actor, which seems locked up, to best actress, which seems open for the taking.

As far as actor is concerned, it was an easy agreement that Jeff Bridges will win with Crazy Heart.

“Even if he wasn’t good in the movie … it would be a make-up Oscar anyways,” said Thompson, explaining that Bridges’ sheer talent and body of work makes him most worthy of the nod.

Gates explained that had Bridges not been nominated, the Oscar probably would have gone to Morgan Freeman for Invictus, explaining that runner-up Jeremy Renner of Hurt Locker lacks the experience and George Clooney of Up in the Air lacks Academy respect.

In the category of best actress, a clear winner was less easy to decipher. While Sandra Bullock has been suggested for the hit The Blind Side, there is also the possibility that veteran actress Meryl Streep could finally get her due recognition for Julie & Julia.

“I think Sandra Bullock has the Julia Roberts factor behind her, which is powerful,” said Thompson, noting her America’s sweetheart persona and her role’s similarity to that of Roberts’ in Erin Brockovich (2000).

Gates expressed skepticism however, noting that the Academy likely feels Streep’s recognition is overdue, particularly with two movies out this year. “There’s a lot of guilt up there for Streep. I think Hollywood feels that they owe her and this is her year,” she said.

While Streep and Bullock seem to be frontrunners, Carlson noted that “there’s always a surprise,” adding that it often seems to be in the actor categories, which could prove profitable for An Education’s Carey Mulligan, who has received a lot of recent attention.

Supporting actors Cristoph Waltz of Inglourious Basterds and Canadian Christopher Plummer with The Last Station were singled out.

Kuling explained that the category is tricky because as veteran actor Plummer gets older, this may be one of the last chances to recognize him, but it is hard to deny the excellence of Waltz’s performance.

As for supporting actress, while the actresses from Up in the Air and Maggie Gyllenhaal of Crazy Heart gave remarkable performances, it seems most likely that the Oscars will follow suit with the Golden Globes and recognize Mo’Nique’s performance in Precious.

“They owe Precious something big,” explained Gates, noting that this may be their opportunity to give the film a nod. “The public wants it.”

The voting procedure

The Academy is composed of film industry professionals who vote on the various award categories. There are some limitations though, with colleagues only allowed to vote for their peers; in other words, only actors and actresses can vote for the acting categories and only directors can vote for direction.

However, the best picture category is open to all members of the Academy. The ballots are tallied by a group of accountants by hand. While previously, all Academy Award polling has been done by having each voter select one nominee, with 10 best picture nominees the Oscars have moved that category to a preferential voting system in which each voter casts a ballet ranking each picture from one to 10 in terms of inclination. Often a winner will end up with less than 50 percent of the vote; however, whether this has occurred or not is never revealed.