Two years ago, the Academy decided to up the number of Best Picture Nominees at the Oscars from 5 - which is the number it had been since 1944 - to 10. I applauded the idea at the time, and I still think that 10 nominees is valid. It allows for more variety to break into the Best Picture Lineup. For me, the last two years have mostly been a success in that regard. If we assume that the 5 best picture nominees NOT nominated for Best Director are the ones that would not have gotten in with only five nominees (and we don't know this, but it's better than any other measure we could name) the 10 films to get nominated over the past two years that would not have been nominated are: The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, A Serious Man, Up, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, Winter's Bone. My personal opinon that The Blind Side wasn't really worthy aside, I don't see any of those films as an embarrassment to the Academy. In fact, I think they pretty much did what the Academy wanted them to do - to get more audience friendly blockbusters (Blind Side, District 9, Up, Inception, Toy Story 3) and some smaller indies (An Education, A Serious Man, The Kids Are All Right, 127 Hours and Winter's Bone) into the race when previously they would not have been. Yes, I think us serious film buffs would have liked to see more foreign language or even a documentary sneak in, but beggers can't be choosers. The system worked.
But now, the Academy has decided to do something different this year. They have done research for the last 10 years, and determined that the film that leads the way coming out of the nominating round gets around 20.5% of the first place votes. They have decided now that to qualify for a Best Picture nominee, any film needs to receive at least 5% of the first place votes. The minimum number of nominees will be five - and then any film that more than 5% of the vote beyond those five will get a nomination up to a maximum of 10 films. So some years, we'll get 5 nominees, some years 6, others 7, others 8, others 9 and once in a blue moon 10. The number will change every year, and we'll never know how many nominees there will be until nomination morning.
The Academy has made some dumb decisions in the past, but this has to rank as one of the dumbest. Pick a number - whether it's five or ten - and leave it at that. I argued in favor of 10 Best Picture nominees before they decided to go with that for one simple reason - I, along with every other critic in the world, makes up a top 10 list every year. If we can find 10 films a year worthy of praise, than so can the Academy. It makes comparison easier for everyone. But I would prefer 5 nominees to a floating number. That's just silly.
I have defended the Oscars in the past, and will continue to do so. Whether they name my favorite film the best of the year (like in 2006 with The Departed), nominated it for Best Picture, but not give it the top prize (like in 2009 and 2010 with Inglourious Basterds and the Social Network), give nominate it for other awards but not Best Picture (like 2005's A History of Violence) or completely ignore it (like 2008's Synecdoche, New York), I really don't care. The value of the Oscars is that they set the terms of the debate we have every year as to what constitutes the "Best" in movies. The other awards, be they the Golden Globes or Critics Awards, and all those Top 10 lists, wouldn't exist without the Oscars. Whether you love their choices or hate them is irrelevant. It's the debate that matters, and it's looking back years later to see what they got right and what they got wrong - and they've done a lot of both over the years.
This floating number of nominees doesn't change that. But it complicates matters greatly. Already, I read too many pieces every year about how Oscar bloggers are not debating the films themselves, but their awards chances. That they spend too much predicting how Academy members will vote, and not what they think is the best. And it's true, they do. With this floating number, it's only going to get worse - much, much worse. And once again the debate on the merits of the movies themselves will take a back seat to their Award chances - and moreso than ever before. When it comes to the Oscars, as with most things in life, I say Keep It Simple, Stupid. A floating number of nominees, based on percentages of votes that no one outside the Academy can see is the exact opposite of simple. It's needlessly complicated. Pick a number, and stick with it.