Monday, October 25, 2010

Oscar Race - Where is the Critical Bar Set?

The only significant event of the Oscar race this week was Eastwood's  Hereafter wide release being greeted with middling reviews and weak box office.  It looks out of the race except for the several big name boosters in its corner, most vocally Roger Ebert. This leads some to declare it a dark horse thanks to the more forgiving expanded Best Picture category. So with everything else in a holding pattern buzz-wise, now seems like a good time to explore the question: Exactly how bad can a film be and still land a Best Picture nomination?

I'm going to try to answer this as objectively as I can, so that means leaving personal grudges aside (You got off easy this time, Erin Brockovich). Seems to me the fairest way to rate the quality of recent nominees would be to take an average of the two main sources for critical consensus: Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.  Also, let's look at just the last decade, since data from before then is spottier and less relevant to current Academy tastes.

The Ten Worst Reviewed Best Picture Nominees of the Last Decade

So what does this show us about how to slide into the Best Picture line up without overwhelming critical praise? Well for starters:

Stay Fresh - No film has managed a nomination without maintaining a fresh rating (60%) on Rotten Tomatoes. So Hereafter is going to need divine intervention to get nominated with its 51%. Films like Shutter Island, Conviction and Secretariat, although they didn't have the critics doing cartwheels, aren't quite out of it yet with their ratings in the sixties.

Be Divisive - If a film is going to get in without overwhelming support it has to at least have pockets of critics crying "Masterpiece!" Films like Moulin Rouge and Gangs of New York may have had noisy detractors but they had equally noisy people declaring their greatness. Crash got some scathing reviews but none of them could top Roger Ebert's beating the drums for the film for months on end.

Look Like an Oscar Nominee - When The Reader side-swiped the much better reviewed Dark Knight out of the Best Picture race it was a mystery to exactly no one as to the reason. The Reader is about Nazis; the The Dark Knight is about Batman. No contest. Look at the list above again. Everyone one of those, with the possible exception of Moulin Rouge, fits nicely into safe ideas of what an Oscar nominee should be. If the Academy is going to go out of its way for a film it has to at least look great on the surface.

Make Bank - You can underperform with the critics or at the box office, but you can't do both. If movies like Gladiator and The Blind Side hadn't been box office sensations there is no way that they would have come with in a mile of Best Picture nominations on quality alone. If a movie has blockbuster status then voters will bend over backwards to cut it some slack.

* Crash's rating is missing from metacritic. If the site updates the info I will update the chart.


  1. I suppose the other arguments are correct but I strongly agree with the looks like an Oscar Nominee part. There are such clear set rules on what type of films get nominated- Inception has zero chance. Also I love how every year there is this cute movie nominated just to show what diverse people the Academy has- Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, Up etc. but the more typical film always wins.

  2. Very good piece.

    I think expanding it to 10 changes the game. I don't like the idea of 'worse' films making the cut, but more divisive ones would keep things interesting...

  3. After The Blind Side got nominated last year, I believe that everything is possible.

  4. Good to see some numbers on this, thanks! I'll be interested to see how this turns out, most of the films I've heard Oscar buzz about aren't on general release yet, it's a little frustrating.