By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 29, 2009 at 11:10AM
I'm having a devil of a time figuring out what this year's Oscar nominations for best picture are going to be. As the ballots are going out, I usually have a fair idea of the final five. But this year there are ten best picture slots instead of five. If voters had trouble coming up with their top five in the past, won't they have even more trouble filling out a ballot with ten?
A rash of movies that started strong but were hurt by bad reviews or box office or a lack of award group support may not wind up at the top of voters' lists: they include Broken Embraces, Nine, Bright Star, The Road and A Serious Man, which is dividing Academy voters with its idiosyncratic take on midwestern Jews in 1967. But if enough people love it, that may not matter. Here's why.
The preferential ballots are hard to guess, because it's not about which movies the voters like: it's which ones they like best. The final best picture nominations list will reflect the preferential ballots of the Academy. That means the movies that are given the highest-place votes on voters' ballots will wind up on the nominations list. If too many people vote for Star Trek or The Last Station as their ninth or 10th choice, that movie won't make the final list. That's because the PricewaterhouseCoopers folks start with 10 piles for best picture, keeping the titles with the most first-place votes and throwing out the films with the fewest first places. Then they go through the second-place choices, getting rid of the titles with the least votes. And so on through eight rounds.
In order for many Academy members' favorite titles to make the final 10, many other voters will have to feel passionately enough about them to put them at the top of their ballots. Just because plenty of Academy voters adore James Bond movies doesn't mean they vote for them for best picture. If some late-breaking titles disappoint, voters may add such films as The Messenger or District 9 in order to fill out their lists. But will they rank them as their favorites? That will tell the tale.
It's a lot easier to come up with the movies that might fill out the bottom of voters' ballots than to guess which ten will be at the top. Which titles do the most voters feel strongly, even passionately about? The top seven is fairly clear: Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Precious, Invictus, An Education, Up in the Air, Inglourious Basterds. But then what? Actors, by far the dominant branch, could vote for The Last Station, Crazy Heart or The Messenger. And does the Academy's built-in bias against animation bode ill for Up, Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox, which will likely turn up in the animation category? These titles might fill out a ballot, but will they lead it?