Here I’ll try and distil the elements that make a film a shoe-in for a Best Picture nod.
1. Be a stereotypical, foreign (ideally British) film
The Academy loves to put across the idea that it’s a highly cultured organisation that goes beyond Hollywood and is open to films from across the globe. However, the Academy also has a strong aversion to subtitles (plus they have the Foreign Language Film category), so British film is the best of both worlds. It helps if the film adheres to any of the number of stereotypical views that Americans have of us Brits (anything to do with drinking tea or the Royal family), so period costume dramas in particular are a good bet.
Examples: Atonement, (2007), The King’s Speech, (2010, winner)
2. Have an IOU from the Academy
Throughout the history of the Oscars, there’s been a rich tradition of overlooking people who definitely deserve recognition. Martin Scorsese was the latest wrong to be righted when he was finally awarded Best Director in 2006 for The Departed, which also won Best Picture. Even if the film doesn’t have a director or lead actor or actress with a long history of being jilted by the Oscars, all is not lost. Series of films also apply – the first two The Lord of the Rings films were nominated but failed to win, leading to a virtually inevitable win for the final instalment of the trilogy, given the critical praise and astronomical box office takings over the course of the three films.
Examples: The Departed (2006, winner), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003, winner)
3. Be extremely serious
Film is a very serious business. A few laughs are okay, but straight-up comedies are an absolute no. Occasionally, a light-hearted, humorous movie will get a nod, just to try and prove that the Academy selection committee aren’t the soulless monsters they so clearly are, but these are very rarely real contenders for the award.
Forrest Gump won in 1994, but The Curious Case of Benjamin Button also earned a nomination, despite being a very similar premise, but with all the humour and jovial moments sucked out and replaced with a fatalistic narrative that was so depressing that it made fellow 2008 Best Film nominee The Reader (about a Nazi war criminal) look like a veritable laugh-a-thon. The more serious (or exploitative, depending on how cynical you are) the subject matter, for example the Holocaust or 9/11, the more the Academy seems to pay attention.
Examples: Winter’s Bone (2010), The Reader (2008)
4. Milk history for all it’s worth
These films can be divided into two main types:
Here, a famous person’s life is condensed down into a handy feature-length chunk. Major, bid-budget biopics tend to be quite well received critically, which always helps. They are often led by an Academy approved actor (Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady this year, for example), capable of capturing their subject’s mannerisms with eerie levels of accuracy, and the story tends to write itself, as said famous person will have presumably led a fairly interesting life, or at least bumped into a lot of other famous people, otherwise they probably won’t have a biopic in the first place. The Academy is a fan of biopics as they demonstrate they are a cultured organisation whose interests span from other arts such as music, all the way to politics.
Examples: Capote (2005), Ray (2004)
The Stalinist approach to history
When Soviet Union Premier Joseph Stalin wasn’t committing unspeakable atrocities against his own people, one of his favourite pastimes was altering history to suit his version of events. As much as Hollywood hates communism they’re guilty of doing pretty much the same thing, and over at the selection committee they seem to bloody love films that do it.
Most of these historical dramas are referred to by studio press releases as ‘troubling’ or ‘harrowing’, but really, nobody, least of all the Academy, wants to have the dark side of their nation’s history shoved in their face. That’s why this kind of film always has a relatable everyman protagonist who transcends whatever racial/ social/ economic injustice is rife at the time to make sure that each individual audience member feels no guilt for, say, slavery or the genocide of Native American Indians, and just blame everybody else.
Examples: Dances with Wolves (1990), Avatar (2009)
5. The odd-one-out
Finally, and making the rest of this article virtually redundant, is the odd-one-out. Almost every year, without fail (especially since the category was expanded from five films to however many the Academy want – ten in ’09 and ’10, nine this year), one film will crop up which will cause pretty much everyone to say ‘Wait, what?’ If there’s one thing the Academy apparently hates, it’s being called predictable, so they love to just throw one out there. It can be an unusual choice for a variety of reasons – not fitting into any of the major categories established above, generally poor reviews, or the fact that nobody has seen, and in some cases, heard of the film.
Examples: The Cider House Rules (1999, nominated in favour of The Matrix and Fight Club), The Blind Side (2009)
Now that we’ve outlined what exactly needs to be in a film in order to get a nomination for Best Picture, let’s see how this year’s list of nominees hold up: