A-List: Best Picture Nominee Slates - Part 1

By J. Don Birnam

July 14, 2016

They got the mustard out!

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This past year featured an unusually crowded Best Picture race, with up to 20 credible movies vying for a spot in the final list. Most of the ones in the conversation were worthy contenders, and I do not dislike even one of the ones that did make the cut (although I’m not sure I would have selected all of them over those that missed, but that’s another matter). Is this a particularly strong Best Picture lineup?

To answer that question, we will be taking a look back at the relative strengths of the Best Picture nominees slate in the last 15 Oscar years (from calendar year 2000, for which Gladiator won Best Picture in the 2001 ceremony, through calendar year 2014, for which Birdman won Best Picture in 2015). I’ll rank the years from the weakest to the strongest field, taking into account the quality of the nominees as well as of the movies that were left out of the conversation. Today we are not focused only on most deserving wins or upsets by any particular movie (I could go on for days about that), but simply about the nominee field as a whole.

An interesting hypothesis developed while we were researching and writing this column: generally speaking, weak movies tend to win in stronger years, and great movies find it easier to triumph in a weak field. It somewhat makes sense: when the field is very good and very crowded, a lot of movies split up the “quality” vote and a blander movie can sneak in. What does this mean for this past year’s Oscars? Perhaps that Spotlight, a good but not masterpiece-type movie, could win the Oscar, as the field is crowded with good movies.

As usual, tweet me your reactions here, if you care! I’ll also post images from some of these movies onInstagram.

Here we go…


15. 2004: Million Dollar Baby Steals It in Weakest Year in Recent History

In 2004, the Best Picture nominees were Million Dollar Baby, The Aviator, Ray, Finding Neverland, and Sideways. Not one of those, to be frank, is on anyone’s best ever Oscar nominees list. Coincidentally also the last time Chris Rock hosted the Oscars, the ceremony was a snooze-fest where all the top acting and writing prizes also went to a Best Picture nominee, something that hasn’t happened since and that shows the thin bench.

The movies themselves - a boxing melodrama, a musical biopic and a confused hero biopic, along with a quirky but forgettable indie comedy and a touching but formulaic literary history novel - are mostly to blame. The field was so weak, in fact, that Million Dollar Baby, released the last week of the year, swooped in to win it all - the latest released Best Picture winner in nearly 30 years to win with a post-November release.

One way in which the Academy could have improved the lineup that year would have been to nominate Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mindfor the top prize, but there was not much else to choose from, unless you wanted to see Collateral, Vera Drake or Closer among the finalists? It was simply a year to forget, and forget it we shall.

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