I can honestly say I was one of the people happy to learn that the Academy Awards were going to expand to ten Best Picture nominees. My favorite films that stood a chance of getting into the top 5 never came through and I figured more nominees meant more good films being recognized. I was right to an extent. Films like District 9, Winter's Bone, and 127 Hours that would normally get nowhere near the Best Picture podium saw nominations alongside more traditional Oscar tastes. After two years of guaranteed nominations for ten films, the Academy Awards announced a new voting scheme that would provide anywhere from five to ten nominees depending on votes. The goal is to be voted number one on at least five percent of the ballots to even be eligible for Best Picture. The scheme gets more complicate than that (if a front runner secures a certain percentage of the vote, the number two votes on those ballots count as number one votes), but that's the gist of it.
The result in the first year of the new scheme is nine nominees for Best Picture: The Artist, The Descendants (haven't seen), Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo (saw, did not review or care for), Midnight in Paris, Moneyball (saw, so not the target audience), The Tree of Life, and War Horse (did not see). How the awards fell just shy of ten nominees we'll never know. We'll also never know for sure which film was on the brink of that Best Picture nomination that looks so nice on a DVD/Blu-ray cover.
But we sure can speculate about which films were the likely contenders. Here are what I believe to be the four most likely contenders for that tenth slot.
I just heard the sound of a hundred web browsers closing. Allow me to explain. Though Rango only received one Academy Award nomination (Best Animated Feature), it has done very well on the awards circuit. It won top honors at the Annies, the BAFTAS, the Broadcast Film Critics Awards, National Board of Review, Online Film Critics Society (totally not relevant but fun to point out), and Visual Effects Society Awards. The only film to beat it at other ceremonies, The Adventures of TinTin, did not receive a single Oscar nomination. Furthermore, Howard Shore would have been a lock for Best Original Score had he submitted himself for the nomination; he chose not to.
What we're dealing with here is trends. Animated films have been doing better in the Oscars since the introduction of Best Animated Feature. Films like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up have been nominated in key categories on the strength of solid stories, good box office return, and incredible polish. True, those are all Pixar films, but the point still stands.
Rango did well at the box office, had a strong story, and was incredibly polished. Critics liked it, audiences liked it, and animation and visual effects professionals liked it. If Shore submitted himself, the music branch would have had the film on their minds, as well. I'm not saying that every year with a guaranteed ten Best Picture nominees would have included an animated feature. I'm just saying that I think a stronger push from Rango's studio could have earned the film some surprising nominations.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy could (and arguably should) have been a contender in a number of categories. Sure, it was nominated for Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. It could have also been recognized for Costumes, Art Direction, Editing, Direction, and Picture. In fact, the BAFTAs did just that. They even nominated the film for Cinematography and Sound.
It's easy to see how a period thriller of Cold War paranoia with a strong ensemble cast and clever execution could have been a Best Picture nominee. The voters who would go for this are the same voters who helped secure Winter's Bone four nominations last year. I can only say it was a matter of momentum that stopped this film short. An earlier release would have meant more discussion of the film before the nominations were due.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
There is a case to be made about momentum and the Academy Awards. Last year, David Fincher's The Social Network spent much of the awards season as the frontrunner until The King's Speech suddenly dominated the conversation. The year before that, the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo made great headway in a Best Actress campaign for star Noomi Rapace. The time seemed right to recognize the Stieg Larsson series with some Oscar glory.
The way the nominations fell down puts The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the interesting position of previous near-misses like The Dark Knight and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. How do films get so many key nominations over Best Picture nominees and yet fall out of the running for Best Picture?
In the case of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, great editing, cinematography, sound mixing/editing, and actress were not enough to get Best Picture votes. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close got more votes Best Picture and only wound up with one additional nomination. The Help did the same thing with three acting nominations, two of which are in the same category. A film that the technical branches and the acting branch rewarded in such key categories seems like it probably was close to getting in for Best Picture.
Another odd choice, but it makes sense in a strange way. Bridesmaids was a huge box office hit. The screenplay and Melissa McCarthy's show-stealing performance have been talked about since the film came out. As unlikely as those nominations seemed in the spring, they made sense by the fall and came true in the winter.
What no one expected was how much some of the big precursors would like the whole film. The Producers Guild nominated the film for Best Picture, the Screen Actors Guild nominated them for Best Ensemble--the equivalent award to Best Picture--and the Writers Guild nominated the film for Best Original Screenplay.
Bridesmaids is not the kind of film you can easily imagine the Academy Awards going for. Yet, if you followed the key awards trends, it looked like the film was gaining momentum at the right time. It fell short of a Best Picture nomination in the end, but didn't go down without a fight.
So which one was it?
Barring a squirrely occurrence like the not-nominated Young Adult being the number six slot in Actress, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Editing, and Director, I would have to say the most likely contender for that tenth slot was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The BAFTAs went gaga for it in the early voting round, putting almost the entire cast on the longlist for Actor or Supporting Actor in their tiered voting. It snuck in seemingly out of nowhere for Best Actor and Best Original Score at the Oscars, showing a wide range of support in different branches for the film. The political content seems fresh and relevant even in the period setting of 1970s Cold War espionage. It's also a very stylish film hinging on a unique flashback concept that would appeal to the film as art voters.
Sometimes it's fun to work these scenarios out.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.