This coming Tuesday, Jan. 24, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce nominees for its 2011 awards. In at least one large-looming respect, the slate is by definition unpredictable. After two years of fielding ten nominations in the Best Picture category (as opposed to five every year between 1944 and 2008), the Academy has rejiggered the rules in a way that means we not only can’t predict what will be nominated—we can’t predict how many films will be nominated. Could be five, could be ten, could be anywhere in between. The elusiveness inheres in the new requirement that, in addition to accumulating a lot of points in the overall nomination voting, a film has to be the first-place choice of at least 250 of the Academy’s several thousand active members. We can be fairly confident of a few films that will qualify: the charming specialty number The Artist, a black-and-white silent movie about the era when talkies took over the medium; The Descendants, a warm but not at all sappy or gooey comedy-drama of a family in crisis, in paradisiacal Hawaii yet; and Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s first-ever movie for the family market, a 3-D tour de force and another picture hearkening back to the dawn of cinema. The outlook for critical faves such as The Tree of Life, Melancholia, and Drive is much more problematical, especially with such conventional Oscar bait as The Help and War Horse chomping noisily at the bit. I’ve pretty much given up on the idea of my own top film of 2011, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, showing up anywhere but perhaps the Best Actor category (all hail George Smiley, I mean Gary Oldman). Astoundingly, the actors’ guild failed to extend a Best Ensemble nomination to that film’s world-class cast—and the ensemble award is often predictive of what will take Best Picture on Oscar night.
Meanwhile, I’ve recently pored over the tally sheets from the Jan. 7 awards voting by the National Society of Film Critics Awards, so I can fill in some gaps in the original report I posted. Nothing world-shaking. This wasn’t one of those years when a film scored by far the greatest number of points on the initial Best Picture ballot, only to lose much of its voting strength—and the award—on subsequent votes. (That happened to Saving Private Ryan, in both Picture and Director categories, in 1998.) See, NSFC rules hold that to win in any category, the candidate must achieve a plurality of points and appear on the ballots of a majority of the members voting. Since there’s no prior slate of nominees, and members are free to vote for any three candidates they choose among myriad possibilities, the arithmetic can get spread pretty thin and first-ballot victories tend to be rare.
In the latest contest for Best Picture, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life outpointed its closest competitor, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, 33 to 29 on the first ballot. With 48 members participating (remarkable: that’s only eight shy of the current membership total, 56), a film needed to have support from at least 25 voters (doesn’t matter whether it’s a first-, second-, or third-place vote). No film came close. Tree of Life got 18 votes; Melancholia, 13. At this stage of the voting, all proxy ballots—the votes of members not present at the voting site (nowadays, New York City landmark Sardi’s)—drop out. This year (as with Saving Private Ryan), apparently much of the constituency for Tree of Life must have been out-of-towners; its point score dropped to 28, on 11 voters’ ballots. Melancholia stood firm, scoring exactly the same number of points it had the first time, 29, on only one fewer ballot than before, 12. With the voting population drastically reduced on this second go-round, that was good enough to qualify as a majority. Melancholia by a nose; Tree of Life first runner-up.
Minutiae: 32 films got some kind of vote on the first ballot for Best Picture. On the second, there were only 15. Numbers three through eight on the first ballot were: Hugo (25/12), The Artist (24/11), the Iranian film A Separation (23/10), A Dangerous Method (22/11), The Descendants (18/9), and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (13/7). On the second and decisive ballot the order changed to A Separation (20/11), Hugo (17/11), The Artist (13/7), A Dangerous Method and the long-shelved Kenneth Lonergan picture Margaret (both 6/3), and The Descendants (5/3). Make of that what you will.