Friday, March 05, 2010

The Oscars just got bigger

Sunday night the 82nd annual Academy Awards are airing at 8 p.m. on ABC, but this year the notoriously long award ceremony is going to be a little different. This year the Best Picture category has been expanded from five to 10.

It is a curious decision, especially when paired with the choice to have two hosts, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. There have been two hosts in the past, but it just seems like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided since they were doubling things they should also double the hosting duties.

Many reasons have been batted around as to why the category was expanded. The change could be an attempt to return the show to its roots. Up until 1943 the best picture category featured 10 films. It could be possible that the academy is attempting to honor that tradition.

The more cynical interpretation of this move is that it is motivated by ratings. The academy has been struggling for years to keep a balance between nominating quality commercial films that mainstream audiences will be familiar with alongside art house and independent cinema that the general moviegoer may not be familiar with. By expanding the category by five, there can be an even split between the two groups. In theory more people will watch with more familiar titles nominated.

This struggle between commercial films and art films goes back for decades. If we dig further back in Academy Award history we will discover that not one, but two Best Picture awards were given out at the first ceremony in 1929. “Wings” won Most Outstanding Production and “Sunrise” won Most Artistic Quality of Production. Essentially, this comes down to best film as a spectacle and best film as art.

If we are bringing back old ideas, this seems like one that should have been dusted off as well. Both big-budget commercial films and art films when done well are equally valid and both should be honored. It certainly would be helpful this year.

Easily the most spectacular, visually stimulating film of 2009 was “Avatar,” a film that is an extraordinary technical achievement. I'm not sure it is the best film of the year, but it certainly would be a lock for a Most Outstanding Production award. This would then make way for a movie like “Precious,” “Up in the Air” or “A Serious Man” to take the Most Artistic Quality of Production.

The reason the two separate Best Pictures categories were probably tossed out in the first place is that you inevitably encounter gray areas. Just look at this year's nominees for evidence. “The Hurt Locker” and “District 9” can be viewed on a purely surface level as rousing spectacles, but there's a second level to these films that raises them to artistic achievements.

Of course, we only have the one category, which means that we will mostly likely get a repeat of “Titanic,” the last film “Avatar” director James Cameron directed. Everything else reeks of deja vu. “Avatar,” just like “Titanic” before it, is the most expensive film made to date and has gone on to become the highest grossing film of all time at $2.5 billion worldwide.

When Cameron won Best Picture for “Titanic” in 1998 he proclaimed himself the king of the world. Chances are come Sunday he'll still reign supreme. But I'm hoping for an upset. I'm on team “Hurt Locker.”

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