What really makes a best picture at the Oscars

It’s time for the movie “Superbowl” otherwise known as the Oscars, and viewers from all over the world will be tuning in to see what movie will win the Best Picture of the year award. However, over the last few years a certain pattern has become more and more evident.

While the Oscars have always been elitist, this trait has become much more prominent as only independent or lesser known artsy films are being nominated for the Best Picture category. In fact, one might even go so far as to propose a theory about what it actually takes to win or lose an Oscar.

Movies that are guaranteed to win an Oscar will either 1) kill a main character (“Braveheart,” “Gladiator,” “American Beauty”); 2) be about an “issue” like a living will or racism, etc. (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash”); 3) make an attractive actor or actress ugly (“The Hours,” “Monster”); or 4) have a big name director who hasn’t won an Oscar yet (or been honored enough for his work) attached to the project (“The Departed,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Unforgiven”).

Movies that usually lose Oscars will 1) have a happy ending or utilize humor (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Juno”); 2) use a big budget or make a lot of money at the box office as big money will not usually win the coveted award (“Lord of the Rings,” “Pirates of the Caribbean”); or 3) have won some sort of cultural status due to popularity (“Star Wars,” “Pulp Fiction”). And that’s not even addressing the lack of recognition comedy films get at all which was bitterly parodied by comedians Jack Black, Will Ferrell, and John C. Reilly at the Oscars in 2007. At least animated films finally got their own category.

Using those criteria, however, one can evaluate this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominated films and predict a winner.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

PRO: They made Brad Pitt (“Troy,” “Read After Burning”) ugly and old! Not to mention, the talented Pitt has never won an Oscar for any of his previous movies. And the same can be said for the director David Fincher who is known for such legendary films as “Se7en,” “Fight Club,” and “Zodiac” without a single Oscar to his name. It doesn’t really have a happy ending either.

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CON: It was probably the most mainstream film of all the nominees and it certainly made the most money at the box office at $119.1 million. It also spent a lot of money on special effects and makeup (though certainly the best makeup job ever seen for realistically aging actors). Also, Brad Pitt is always a popular draw and that might be its weakest link.


PRO: It’s a drama about one of the most notorious politicians of our time and it certainly doesn’t end well for that main character. It’s also directed by the highly acclaimed Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind, “Apollo 13”) who has received many an Oscar nomination in his day.

CON: It’s boring. This isn’t ancient history that the movie deals with after all, and the audience already knows most of the story. Ron Howard has given up his truly entertaining film work (“Cocoon,” “Willow,” “Backdraft”) in favor of these dramas he’s obviously hoping will win awards, but a boring movie commits a cardinal sin for which he may never be forgiven. He has also already won an Oscar for his work on “A Beautiful Mind” so there’s no real need to honor him once more this time around.


PRO: It’s an issue movie and it stars Sean Penn (“Dead Man Walking,” “Mystic River”) who has become another Oscar-oriented actor and director. But it is the director of this film, Gus Van Sant, who could win the real sympathy vote here. He has made such great films as “Drugstore Cowboy,” “Good Will Hunting,” and “Finding Forrester” without a single Oscar win.

CON: Sean Penn has already won an Oscar for his work as an actor in “Mystic River.” And since “Brokeback Mountain” didn’t win an Oscar on the basis of a similar issue alone, this film probably won’t win one either.

“The Reader”

PRO: It’s an intriguing drama with great performances by big name actors based on a best-selling book that was once an Oprah book club pick. This is also the third film made by the director Stephen Daldry and his third Oscar nomination. Every film he’s made has been nominated (“Billy Elliot,” “The Hours”), but he hasn’t won an Oscar yet. Then there’s the fact that the talented Kate Winslet who leads this film has never won an Oscar herself either. She’s been nominated 6 times since 1996 for such films as “Titanic” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” but has never managed to take an award home.

CON: It’s a bizarre tale of seduction and a Nazi trial. Hardly anyone bothered to watch it in the theaters and as a result it made the least amount of money at the box office of any of the nominated films. Winslet will likely win the Leading Actress award, but this film will probably get passed over.

“Slumdog Millionaire”

PRO: Director Danny Boyle has made some remarkable films like “Trainspotting,” “Millions” and “Sunshine,” but he has never taken home an Oscar. This film has already won 7 Baftas (the British equivalent to the Oscar) and a Golden Globe for Best Picture (the usual precursor tell-all for Oscar winners). It has also been nominated for 10 different Oscars and when a movie sweeps the categories in nominations alone, that’s always a good sign. It has also generated so much buzz that it has become the dark horse that is surprising one and all.

CON: Despite the drama and tragedy inherent in the story, this movie has a happy ending. And thanks to the buzz, it’s been getting more and more viewers and racking up a surprising box office tally of $88.1 million so far. Whether these are strong enough to detract from the winning streak this film has already generated for good reason remains to be seen.

While “Slumdog Millionaire” seems to be a shoe-in to win the award, there could always be a surprise winner that takes home the award despite the odds, much like “Crash” did in 2006. If anything, the real competition rests between “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” These two films really are the best of the nominees that this year had to offer in cinemas, as can be seen by the fact that they’re both still playing at the theaters while most of the other nominations have long since disappeared.

Even though the Oscars may come and go, truly great films should be enjoyed on the big screen. So regardless of who wins or loses, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” are two great films that viewers should take the time to watch at the movie theater while they can.