This year's best picture nominees, announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last week, were a refreshingly diverse mix of films: big studio movies mixed in with indie flicks, relentlessly cerebral fare mixed in with some more sentimental choices. The Academy's recent decision to expand the best picture field from five to up to ten has had the positive effect of allowing a wider variety of films to get nominated, but that doesn't mean that the way they vote on their final ballots has changed much.
It's obviously difficult to say that the Academy always does X, Y, or Z; that they always prefer this kind of movie; that they never vote for that one. But if there is one fairly consistent pattern to their preferences when it comes to best picture, it's this: they like voting for movie that are easy to feel about.
This doesn't necessarily mean movies that make them feel good, although that's also often the case. Inspiring fare with a happy ending often lands pretty well with voters, which shouldn't be surprising, since that's what viewers tend to like across the board. The Artist was a delight, The King’s Speech delivered on its promise to inspire by overcoming a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, and Slumdog Millionaire ends on a dance sequence. But even No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker, clearly the most artistically meretricious and complex films to have been awarded the prize in recent years, make pretty blunt points: No Country is a ruthless parable about greed and violence that isn't as unsettling as its main competition, There Will Be Blood, while The Hurt Locker’s anti-war stance becomes increasingly obvious the longer you watch its self-destructive protagonist.
Consider, for instance, the most controversial Best Picture race since Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan: 2005, the fateful year that Crash beat Brokeback Mountain, the clear favorite. I haven't encountered a single person in years of reading film coverage online who thinks that Crash was the superior film, and yet its victory makes sense in hindsight: Brokeback’s entire artistic project is to make its viewers realize that epic romance is not a uniquely heterosexual experience; that the gay men on screen aren't so different from them, even if they face different challenges. It asks its viewers to open themselves up to something that might be new or difficult, but that is ultimately deeply worthwhile. Crash, on the other hand, is the kind of movie that pats people on the back for not being quite as racist as the characters it depicts. No wonder the middle-aged, male-dominated Academy flocked to it, and away from the gay cowboys.
This year, we've seen something similar happen, even in advance of the ceremony: The Master, one of the year's most complex films, was overlooked outside of its actors, while Zero Dark Thirty, one of its most morally challenging, received a number of awards, but not one for its director, Kathryn Bigelow (who also directed The Hurt Locker, and won an Oscar for it). It has also been beset since its release by brouhaha in the press and from Academy members themselves over its depiction of torture, which only makes up a small portion of the movie. This shouldn't be surprising: the film makes you doubt yourself and the institutions in which you live. It is specifically designed to make viewers uncomfortable.
On the other hand, Argo, Les Misérables, Silver Linings Playbook, and Lincoln are all fairly easy to feel about. Playbook and Lincoln may be a little morally ambiguous than the preceding two, but ultimately they're about the triumph of the human soul, either through love or nobility of purpose. And that’s something the Academy can always get behind.