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These Were the Films That Benefited Most from the Oscars Expanding the Best Picture Category

The Oscar field may shrink to five nominees again, leaving some aspirant movies out in the cold

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body that hands out the Oscars, is reportedly mulling a switch back to five Best Picture nominees only, as an expansion intended to get more blockbusters into the mix is widely seen as a failure. (Though several of the Best Picture nominees from the past year were financially successful, only one, American Sniper, crossed the $100 million threshold seen as the difference between a success and a blockbuster.) The committee that makes the rules wants to see big hits in the mix; meanwhile, the people who vote on Oscars can’t seem to find any.

For six years, the expanded Best Picture field may not have made room for significantly more smashes, but it did allow many more movies to claim they were Oscar favorites, even if they may have only come tenth in the voting. It’s been an interesting and at times confounding change in how viewers think about the Best Picture category, flooding prognosticators with significantly more movies to address. Looking ahead to a potential future with five nominees a year and back on the effects of recent rules changes, it’s worth considering what movies got a clear boost from the expansion. If the change in nominations had never happened, what films’ low nomination tally or un-Oscars-y subject matter show would have been left out in the cold?

  • 2009

    TriStar Sharlto Copley in District 9

    The first year of the expansion saw a fairly clear-cut division between the favorites and the also-rans. Nominees including An Education, District 9, and A Serious Man were nominated in fewer categories and seemed far less freighted with Oscar narratives than the five films whose directors got Best Director nominations. (Among the five less likely nominees were only the second animated Best Picture nominee ever, a critically drubbed weepie about race relations, and a sci-fi pic.) It was a field in which the favorites were easy to suss out, leading to questions only one year in as to why the field had been expanded at all. If there were only five nominees…

    Would have been nominated: Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, Up in the Air

    Would have missed out: The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, A Serious Man, Up

  • 2010

    Fox Searchlight Natalie Portman in Black Swan

    Another year with some movies included that seemed from their nomination tally like clear afterthoughts, including the worthy Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right. But this was a bit closer of a year; several films had evident deep support, including, in a bit of serendipity for those who supported the Best Picture field’s expansion, a Christopher Nolan movie. (Nolan’s Dark Knight missing a nomination led directly to the field’s expansion.) But with an eventual four Oscar wins, Inception seemed like a strong enough contender to, ironically enough, have been nominated even in a field of five.

    Would have been nominated: The Fighter, Inception, The King’s Speech, The Social Network, True Grit

    Would have missed out: 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right, Toy Story 3, Winter’s Bone

  • 2011

    Touchstone Pictures Jeremy Irvine in War Horse

    Evidently frustrated with the field including well-made but little-seen independent movies, the Academy changed its rules again this year, guaranteeing a field of between five and 10 nominees that would change size to accommodate only those movies with deep support. Conventional wisdom went out the window, though, when the nine “movies with deep support” came to include surprise nominee Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as well as Cannes-ratified uber-indie The Tree of Life. That film got its director a nomination that, in a year with five nominees for Best Picture, would likely have been a hat-tip to his artistry that stood alone.

    Would have been nominated: The Artist, The Descendants, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball

    Would have missed out: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, The Tree of Life, War Horse

  • 2012

    Columbia Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

    Another year of nine nominees was, for once, one in which each film seemed to have relatively broad support. All films had key nominations, whether for their directors or cast, and all but two seemed in line with some general tendency of the Best Picture field, whether towards feel-good history or big, splashy production. The inclusion of French geriatric drama Amour and micro-indie Beasts of the Southern Wild was in both cases a surprise, though surely not what the ratings-craving Academy Awards body had had in mind. And the attacks on Zero Dark Thirty damaged the film so much that its nomination, too, seemed like the consequence of an expanded field.

    Would have been nominated: Argo, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook

    Would have missed out: Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Les Misérables, Zero Dark Thirty

  • 2013

    Paramount Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

    Nine nominees once again, and perhaps the most successful of the Oscars’ recent slates at getting in a real mix of huge financial successes (Captain Phillips, The Wolf of Wall Street) and beautifully-crafted oddities (Her). None of these films seem overwhelmingly likely, given their overall level of Academy support, to have been included in a five-strong field.

    Would have been nominated: 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Nebraska

    Would have missed out: Captain Phillips, Her, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street

  • 2014

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    Warner Bros. Bradley Cooper in American Sniper

    The two most-talked about movies of the past year are two that seemed to sneak into the Best Picture field, after the first five. Selma got only two nominations, with one for Best Picture; it seems unlikely to have made it in a five-strong field. So, too, did a lack of early enthusiasm around American Sniper, a film that opened, and broke, relatively late, seem to make it an also-ran until its presence at the Oscars felt necessary. Though there are many arguments for returning to five nomineesnot least that whatever the Oscars thought they were trying to do in terms of honoring blockbuster, they did not achievea look back at those films that found unexpected acclaim and were nominated for Best Picture despite lower profiles shows a set of intriguing, worthy films that have made the past six Oscar seasons far more provocative.

    Would have been nominated: Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Whiplash

    Would have missed out: American Sniper, Selma, The Theory of Everything

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