March 1, 2014

OSCARLAND: Why and Why Not? – Best Picture


We’ve taken a tour through Best Actress and Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, and Best Director, and that leaves one last major gold statue to be handed out.  As we have all along, we will assume that every nominee deserves to be there on merit, and we’ll pass on the numbers game of counting precursor awards.



WHY:  “It’s Time.”  Perhaps not the most unanimously praised film of the year, but certainly the most passionately advocated.  Not just film art, but a work of genuine historic importance.  A counterweight to Hollywood’s history of honoring movies like Gone With the Wind and Django Unchained (and pre-Oscars, Birth of a Nation).  Its ability to get 2d place votes in the Academy’s preferential ballot system has been underrated–and so has its ability to get votes from Academy members who haven’t watched their screeners (at least not all the way through), but feel morally obligated to choose it.  It would be an embarrassment to the Academy and the industry for it to be passed up in favor of a mere sci-fi spectacle or comedy.

WHY NOT:  The “Its Time” campaign may have backfired.  The Best Picture Or Bust strategy may have backfired.  Has had a target on its back since Labor Day.  Despite its power and seriousness, a flawed piece of drama.  Voters haven’t watched it.  The Oscars aren’t the Nobel Peace Prize.  There are other nominees about serious topics that are much more audience- and voter-friendly.  Considering the acclaim, a box office underperformer.


WHY:  The most feel-good of all the nominees.  An unexpected blockbuster.  Beloved by the Actors branch, which nominated it in every performance category.  A clear chance to pick up 2d and 3rd place votes.  David O. Russell has the Midas touch, and nothing awes Hollywood more.  Enough seriousness to avoid being “just” entertainment.

WHY NOT:  The studio never made the case that it was more than a comedy, and comedies don’t win.  All 4 of its acting nominees are likely to lose, and so is Russell.  Everyone got rich, so it doesn’t need awards too.  The third act was weak.  Damaged by criticisms that it brightened up the sadder true story.  Just lacks the gravitas (or appearance of gravitas) that a Best Picture winner should have.


WHY:  The perfect Oscar combination of knockout entertainment value and social awareness.  No one expected it to be a $100M+ hit.  A very likely vehicle to garner 2d and 3rd place votes.  Lots of support below the line.

WHY NOT:  Its studio abandoned it.  Hanks wasn’t nominated.  Greenglass wasn’t nominated.  In a different year and system, where it was 1 of 5 nominees, maybe it could have made a run, but this year it was buried in the 9-nominee clutter.


WHY:  Already going to win 2 of the night’s biggest awards.  Extremely serious topic dealt with in an emotionally involving, moving and even humorous way.  A natural for 2d and 3rd place votes.

WHY NOT:  The studio (a different regime than the execs who produced it) are in the Matthew McConaughey/Jared Leto business, not the Best Picture business.  Didn’t catch on with audiences.  Criticism from LGBT commentators hurt.  Along with Saving Mr. Banks (which was driven from the race), the true-life story that was most damaged by fact-police grilling.  Director wasn’t nominated.


WHY:  The most popular Best Picture nominee, by an enormous margin.  Made even seasoned industry professionals widen their eyes with awe at what they were seeing.  Successfully pulled off a nearly one-woman show, and that woman is one of Hollywood’s favorites.  Blessedly short.  Not everyone thought it was the year’s best, but hardly anyone didn’t like it–the perfect home for 2d and 3rd place votes.  Hugely supported by below-the-line technicians.

WHY NOT:  It’s sci-fi (i.e., Avatar didn’t win).  Already has all the money in the world (i.e., Avatar didn’t win).  A fabulous spectacle with no dramatic substance.  Didn’t employ a lot of actors.  The script wasn’t nominated, and that wasn’t an oversight.  Ultimately, just too–sorry–lightweight.


WHY:  The most original mainstream film of the year.  Created an entire world that was fantastically realized in every detail.  Broke new ground by creating a voice-only character that truly seemed real.  Spike Jonze is as much a visionary as Alfonso Cuaron, and more committed to telling emotionally resonant, psychologically complex stories.  May win Original Script.  Its fans are passionate.

WHY NOT:  Its fans are infinitesimal.  The average Academy voter is lucky if he/she even knows what an operating system is.  Made no money.  Jonze wasn’t nominated, Joaquin Phoenix wasn’t nominated, Scarlett Johansson wasn’t nominated.  Once it gathers its 1st place votes, likely to fall to the bottom half of the ballot.  Jonze isn’t a schmoozer.  The definition of “too cool for the room.”


WHY:  It would be hard to find a subject more relevant to Academy voters than aging.  Admirably uncompromising.  Alexander Payne is one of the most reliable filmmakers around.  Lots of support above the line, with nominations in 2 acting categories, and for its director and script.

WHY NOT:  The least financially successful nominee.  Paramount pushed Bruce Dern and June Squibb, and let the other nominations go.  “Uncompromising” isn’t necessarily a good thing where Academy voters are concerned.  Competing head-to-head with Philomena for the oldster vote, and it’s the least cuddly of the two.


WHY:  The nominee most likely to make Academy voters weep, and that’s not a small thing.  Perfectly suited to being watched on a DVD screener.  The Harvey Weinstein Oscar Machine (an audience with the Pope!).  A serious topic treated in the most audience-friendly way possible.  Quite successful within its limited release universe.  Aimed directly at the Academy demo.  Will get plenty of 2d and 3rd place votes.

WHY NOT:  Disparaged as a “TV movie.”  Not the breakout hit that The King’s Speech or Slumdog Millionaire were.  Judi Dench wasn’t available to campaign.  A little movie in a big category.  When your key campaign quote comes from Rex Reed, you’re in trouble.


WHY:  Martin Scorsese on an epic scale.  An important topic.  A great performance by one of the industry’s leading actors, and a spectacular ensemble beside him.  Much more box office success than many expected.  Underneath the frat boy comedy, a deadly serious autopsy of greed and the inhumanity it causes.

WHY NOT:  Only its partisans buy the “it’s more than a comedy” line.  People who don’t love it despise it, and that’s not the way to get votes below 1st place.  Not Scorsese’s best.  Endlessly long doesn’t mean “epic”.  Some object to the nearly NC-17 content.  To many, it feels amoral and even supportive of the greed it’s supposedly exposing.  Little below-the-line support.


12 YEARS A SLAVE.  Many voters who choose something else as their main pick won’t feel right about putting it too far down their ballots.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."