In a year when my favorite films were unusually art-house dominated, my top choices either weren't on the ballot ("Poetry," "The Arbor") or didn't have a prayer ("Take Shelter," "Melancholia," "Of Gods and Men"). It's hard to get too excited about a Best Picture race led by "The Artist" and "Hugo," films I admired but did not rapturously adore the way their most ardent fans do.
But it's also hard to complain about most of the lineup. "Midnight in Paris," "The Descendants," and "Moneyball" are probably the best of the bunch; any one of those would be this category's best winner since "No Country for Old Men."
"The Help," not a great film, is nevertheless a gratifying nominee, satisfying two vastly under-served audiences: African-Americans and women. Both groups tend to be under-served at the Oscars as well; in the entire history of the awards, Viola Davis is only the second black woman ever to receive a second Oscar nomination (after Whoopi Goldberg), and she would be only the second to win Best Actress (after Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball").
My greatest satisfaction came from the lower categories, particularly Best Original Screenplay, where Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo received a bid for their "Bridesmaids" script. Though it's easy to be distracted by poop jokes and pratfalls, it's actually a humane and timely piece of writing, about a woman who loses her business and fears falling behind her upwardly mobile best friend. It combines sensitivity and hilarity to achieve a great recession-era catharsis.
After widespread criticism for its expansion to 10 Best Picture nominees, the Academy amended its rules, now requiring a film to receive number-one or two votes on 5% of ballots to qualify. The result: nine nominees. Doesn't it seem like a lot of fuss just to trim one nominee off the ballot?
Moreover, the Academy expanded Best Picture after "The Dark Knight" and "WALL-E" were snubbed in 2008, but even with nine they still ignored this year's most acclaimed blockbusters: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" and "Bridesmaids."
What did they nominate instead? "War Horse," which wasn't one of the best films of the year, and wasn't even Steven Spielberg's best film that month. With notable snubs in the writing and directing categories, even the Academy seemed to know it wasn't really up to snuff. I think it's time to return to a five-nominee system.
Other categories seem entirely unnecessary. I think it's about time to consolidate Best Sound into one category; this year four out of five of their nominees overlap.
Best Original Song has only two nominees this year, and as satisfying as it will be to see "Flight of the Conchords" vet Bret McKenzie win an Oscar (unlike most recent winners, his songs from "The Muppets" actually contributed significantly to the film), it's getting harder and harder to justify the award's continued existence. Last year was especially poor; Randy Newman won for "We Belong Together" from "Toy Story 3," which was basically a reheated version of his "You've Got a Friend" from the original "Toy Story."
No, what hurts the most is that Tilda Swinton was slighted for her brittle, tormented work in "We Need to Talk About Kevin," which would have been the best performance nominated in any category this year, and just two years after she was ignored for her boozy brilliance in the thriller "Julia." She won Best Supporting Actress for "Michael Clayton" four years ago, but she has yet to receive a nomination in the lead race. By now, she's well overdue.