Ideally, an annual review of Best Picture nominees covers a large spread of potential zeitgeist defining ideas and representations. Part of what a year represented also depends on a plurality of other moods and ideas that make up, together, a large majority. The Academy might not choose an overwhelmingly representative favorite – and in the age of more than five nominees, the job is more challenging and without “coalition” the majority rules without mandate. So perspective is required to temper the idea that “the winner best represents the gestalt for the year”: a slim majority winner might doom an otherwise close runner-up to a shelf the annals of film history. In a winner-take-all event, no other method exists, unless the Academy can choose from only two candidates. But this defeats the purpose to spread film across media spectra and reach more people with a slew of “good” movies released that year. The cataloguing of [as of 2015, 528 films] tells the story of the industry from front to back and top to bottom. Of course, since the invention of the moving picture, millions of producers have gathered casts of actors and crewpeople to make films that span the world and decades of compounding history. Narrowing a year’s worth of film to any small number is reductive, whether five or ten or somewhere in between. And yet the exercise lives on.
The Blind Side is an additive to a recipe for which no one asked. Its inclusion on a list of ten required nominees startled the film’s producers. Admittedly, Sandra Bullock – in an Oscar-winning performance – worked this script to suck some message out of a dry rock, but the rest of the film felt as if it was both condemning stereotype and profiting from it. The screenwriter, adapting a thoughtful Michael Lewis book, took liberties with protagonist Michael Oher’s story to better serve an emotional manipulation that asked the reader to ignore a white savior motif in favor of a triumphant and soft-spoken boy who could not have “survived” on his own without the help of the White Man. The verisimilitude of this assumption is lightly racist and heavily manipulative, to the point where, once the initial do-gooding wears off, the audience roots for Oher’s success in spite of his supposed saviors. That the Academy felt this to represent 2009 speaks to their lack of faith in American emotional intelligence and an overall infantilism toward race.
A prevailing story, in 2009, painted The Academy as scrambling to fill the expanded field (from mandatory five to ten) after almost 65 years of tradition. The “tenth” spot, which may have represented 20% of a selective field in years’ past, now only represented 10% pre-vote, and without “coalition,” like some parliamentary systems, the winner might best represent the mood with under 11% of the vote, as a true vote of no-confidence with repercussions that entomb it – in 2009’s case – The Hurt Locker (rightly so) to the highest heights of film lore. In doing so, the crowded residual field means even less by comparison, as if five of these films polled near zero. The field of ten approach also demonstrates that the combination of now five or more films might join together to paint a majority disjointed canvas for the year. The Blind Side was not one of them.
In years since, The Academy has shifted to a variable method that requires a minimum of five films and a maximum of ten films, with some discretion in between. The freedom of choice allows for more nuance and an extra layer of fight. More fight is better for the liberal meritocracy that chooses for America what best represents America, because if at least the choice is “wrong,” the right to choose among a crowd is distinctly American. While The Hurt Locker captured a temporal thesis rooted in American conflict, the story felt non-manufactured, pushing visceral emotion through characterization, without white savior forcing it out. Other films practiced distinction: Avatar, for its technological advancements, which while revolutionary, were not representative; District 9, for its take on South Africa not through a solely apartheid lens; Inglourious Basterds, for its Tarantino revisionism that asks the reader to forsake pure fact for symbol; two films about a direction (Up and Up In the Air); and a better film about personal experience, Precious, which did not rely on tried and failed motif to ask the audience, “do you care?” Either not enough or just enough.