It is rare when competition over the Best Picture award is as tight as it is this year. It has been half a decade since the Academy expanded the Best Picture nominee list from five candidates to almost ten, in the interest of increasing the ceremony's declining TV ratings. Yet the ultimate winners are usually still very easy to predict. This year, however, it is hard to figure how the academy will weigh 12 Years a Slave vs. Gravity. Each a masterpiece in its own right, the two films represent a difficult choice for the judges, one that will be (at last) interesting to watch as it unfolds live on our TV sets this coming Sunday.
Contrary to common belief, though the list of Oscar nominees does reflect recognition for cinematic achievements, the choice of award winners is mainly an educational, sometimes political one. This is especially true of the past two decades, if you have been following Oscar results for a while. The voting members casting their nods for each of the coveted golden figurines are usually senior citizens who committed themselves to favor sermonizing discourse over challenging the status quo. In simpler words, the Oscar judges will usually vote for movies that tell us how to live or who to admire, rather than vote for a film that tinkers with things that people – especially Americans – believe in.
This, in my opinion, makes Oscar results incredibly easy to predict. This conjecture (which is solely mine, I admit) provides insight into the award choices in almost all categories. Take, for example, the ceremony conducted on February 2011. There was a plethora of great movies competing against each other – from Chris Nolan's imaginative and sophisticated Inception to the Coen Brothers sharp reimagining of the classic western True Grit. However, only two movies that year were competing on the definition of leadership – David Fincher's The Social Network and Tom Hooper's The King's Speech. It was obvious that the Academy would vote for one of the two, as these were the only nominees that were making a strong statement, rather than just providing entertaining escapism. Nonetheless, even between the two, it was clear the Academy would vote for The King's Speech over The Social Network. The reason is simple: While the latter shows Facebook's leadership as a group of backstabbing, cynical youngsters – the former puts King George VI as the unlikely, admirable leader of Great Britain during World War II, the undisputed era of righteous and justified warfare. While David Fincher leveraged The Social Network to challenge the status quo of the nature of leadership, Tom Hooper's envisioning of King George VI provided America with someone worth admiring. This naturally pulled the Academy's vote toward The King's Speech, making the prediction an easy one.
Sometimes the competition calls for compromise. On February 2006, 3 of the nominees were challenging the viewer to view a known historic event/character through an unusual prism. Nonetheless, it was clear that the winner would be none of those, but rather, either Brokeback Mountain or Crash. Each of the two films was promoting greater social acceptance and compassion. Brokeback Mountain focused specifically on gay individuals in conservative society, while Crash was an over-the-top mosaic of every conceivable American social conflict. The Academy simply couldn't make up their minds out of excitement, so they split the honors – Brokeback Mountain got best director, while Crash took home the best picture Oscar.
Another curious case was in the ceremony on February 2012. None of the nominees had a very clear sermonizing statement (except The Help, which was too sugar coated for the serious subject matter). So the Academy simply voted for the most light-hearted, least political or philosophical nominee of the bunch – The Artist, a sweet, fun tribute to the silent film era. The year 2007 yielded films that were particularly fun to watch competing during the Oscars. Every single best picture nominee was like a sharp knife, slicing mercilessly at every status quo. Forcing the Academy Awards judges to cast a taste vote rather than a social responsibility vote for these 5 poignant nominees (No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Juno, Atonement, Michael Clayton) was like watching a dog chasing a red dot with great frustration. The judges went for No Country for Old Men, one of the most unusual best picture winners ever, and a revealing one too.
So what is so special about this year? As mentioned above, the winner will probably be either Gravity or 12 Years a Slave. The former is an exciting tale of the triumph of will. The realism in Sandra Bullock's tale of survival is the stuff from which truly great, inspirational and motivating films are made. Her story is a perfectly balanced allegory for battling grief, hopelessness, and loneliness. On the other hand, 12 Year a Slave, Steve McQueen's third film (my favorite young director), is the Schindler's List of movies about slavery, and should have been made a long time ago. For the Academy, though, the film represents a goodbye kiss to anything lovable about the Old South. Never in my life have I watched a movie that depicts slavery in such a way that now makes me cringe in horror at the thought of enjoying Gone with the Wind again. The Golden Globes have already voted for 12 Years a Slave, but will the judges at Hollywood dare to destroy the last remnants of romanticism left in the Old South? Either way, they would be voting between two extremely innovative, instant classics.