That the Best Picture category's “Will it be six or will it be seven?” question was settled as close to 10 as possible without actually being 10 isn't merely a mark of how much of a mess this year's Oscars are. It's also proof positive that, despite paying lip service to the hundreds of films “eligible” to be nominated for Best Picture, by the time publicists and studios have had their say, there are never more than maybe two dozen movies in the mix. If nine movies in this hardly vintage year could reach the minimum requirement of being listed first on five percent of all ballots, then frankly the bar isn't high enough. Even if the board of directors fixes what they've broken and revert next year to the five-deep slate, no matter how heartening it is for fans of The Tree of Life (which exists in an entirely different league from the rest of the other nominees) or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (ditto), it can't seem like much of an honor to be nominated now that the category's perverse sliding scale has revealed just how limited Oscar voters obviously see their pool of choices.
The distended slate should've also foreshadowed an “anything goes” year the likes of which we haven't seen since Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas-lite bested Abigail Breslin's anti-Tantrums and Tiaras and Brad Pitt's illegal maid making touchingly “universal” bonehead decisions in the desert. But again, Oscar has evidently found a way to convince itself that there are really no decisions to be made about it. As Mark Harris just put it, with beautiful precision and just the right amount of contempt: “This was a year in which (voters) walked into a restaurant, looked at the menu, and decided that none of the main courses appealed to them. So instead, they ordered dessert.” Sure, who can blame them in a year the Screen Actors Guild saw fit to serve up Minnie's chocolate pie as their blue-plate special?
Well, we can. Almost every Oscar blogger has pointed out that each Best Picture nominee this year is reflective, preoccupied, or otherwise hopelessly mired in the past. Some movies wrestle with it more honestly than others, but even Steven Spielberg's sometimes fascinating, sometimes stultifying War Horse feels like an act of psychological regression from a director who spent the last decade exploring the parameters of his artistry like no other populist filmmaker. (The efforts from Scorsese and Woody Allen don't seem so recalcitrant because they're both dealing with things that clearly occupy their thoughts often in the here and now.) But Oscar voters don't want to cope with anything perceptibly wrestling. They'd rather make a shallow statement on behalf of froth. So be it. Even though most voters are apparently old enough to remember the days when they were working on sets much like those depicted in The Artist, that also means they're old enough to have completely forgotten the movies Weinstein's cinema-illiterate “valentine” doesn't pay tribute toward. Since The Artist seems to play best to those with little knowledge or regard for the art of silent cinema, it can't lose.
Will Win: The Artist
Could Win: The Help
Should Win: The Tree of Life