The 2009 race for best picture has moved into unfamiliar territory, and that makes picking a list of the likely contenders all the more daunting. No one really knows what direction the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may head this year with its expansion of the category from five to 10 slots. There could be major surprises.
Based on buzz and conversations with Oscar voters, it would seem that the surest things will be the National Board of Review best picture winner "Up in the Air," the much-talked-about "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," the Disney/Pixar animation triumph "Up," Quentin Tarantino's summer hit "Inglourious Basterds" and the critically acclaimed Iraq war drama "The Hurt Locker."
Based on award pedigree, the five other available slots could easily go to movies directed by academy favorites whose past efforts have already taken home the top trophy. That group includes Clint Eastwood's "Invictus," Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones," Rob Marshall's musical "Nine," James Cameron's 3-D extravaganza "Avatar" and the Coen brothers' quirky "A Serious Man."
Though all these films could arguably be called front-runners, all bets are off because with 10 slots voters could well indulge both their favorite dramas and their secret pleasures, particularly in a year that many believe is lacking in a wide range of obvious top-quality choices. Oddly, it seems that the more slots there are to fill, the less clear it is which movies will be anointed to fill them.
When the academy's board of governors voted unanimously in June to expand the number of best picture nominees from five to 10 for the first time since the 1943 race, which "Casablanca" won, it seemed like a swell idea.
After all, it widened the playing field, creating a possibility that many popular films, routinely overlooked, might find some love come Oscar time. Such 2008 hopefuls as "The Dark Knight" and "Wall-E" were cited as likely best picture nominees had there been a field of 10 last year. Now academy honchos are probably harboring a desire to see longshot blockbusters like "Star Trek" land a spot in the big 10 just to goose interest in the ABC telecast.
But not everyone is thrilled about the increased number of nominees, and, in fact, the drumbeat of discontent among the academy's rank and file has been building. This could affect how they vote.
Surprisingly, two producers of recent Academy Award winning best-picture winners who have films in this year's race say the new rule is unfair even though it is likely to help their chances.
"I don't like it. I don't think it's good for the awards. It's just not a good idea," says Graham King, who won an Oscar for "The Departed" and has co-produced (with Martin Scorsese) the much-admired best picture aspirant "The Young Victoria."
Peter Jackson, who won Oscars for producing, directing and writing "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" and has hopes to repeat for "The Lovely Bones," is also a naysayer.
"I'm not a fan. It creates an imbalance between producers and directors. It seems unfair that at least five [nominated] movies can't have their directors nominated," he says, referring to the fact that there are still just five nominees in the director category. "It doesn't make sense because it's the directors who are most responsible for the best pictures, not the producers. I suppose it's just to get TV ratings."
Summit Entertainment co-chairman Rob Friedman, who has a major player in the best picture race with "The Hurt Locker," points out that, through the intricacies of a new, complicated tabulation system, the voice of a majority of the academy will be heard, and that has not always been the case. "The interesting thing is how it will affect not only the nominations but also the eventual winner," he says.
In other words, with second- and third-place votes counting nearly as much as first-place choices in a close race, a dark-horse consensus winner could emerge.
Could well-crafted studio comedies such as "Julie & Julia" or "It's Complicated" figure into the newly expanded mix even though laughs are not often found in recent best picture contenders? How about smaller, acclaimed indie dramas such as "An Education," Tom Ford's very personal "A Single Man" or the last-minute Sony Classics entrant, "The Last Station"? What about well-reviewed sci-fi and fantasy flicks such as "District 9" or even Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are"?
With 10 slots, all of the above probably feel they could sneak in as easily as anything else.
And, based on conversations with academy members, there are also a couple of real sleepers.
With tremendous box office returns and increasing word of mouth, don't count out Sandra Bullock's little movie that could, "The Blind Side," which is gaining momentum daily, or Michael Jackson's concert rehearsal documentary, "This Is It," with its extraordinarily deep support within the academy.
Anything's possible in the brave new world of 10.
Pete Hammond's Notes on a Season blog can be found at TheEnvelope .com.