This year marks the second of the expanded Best Picture category and, while there are many worthy nominees, there is no clear favorite.
Several movies can be eliminated straight away as serious contenders for the Best Picture Oscar: “The Kids Are All Right,” “Toy Story 3” and “The Fighter.” They are all fine movies, but none of them have serious chances at the nod.
While “Kids” has a lesbian family at its core (voters love that sort of thing), the last comedy to win Best Picture was in 1998 (“Shakespeare in Love,” unless you count the 2006 “Crash” selection as a sick joke — I sure do), an especially weak year for movies. “The Fighter” includes a gritty drug drama, but “Rocky” was the last sports nod, so count that out. And, let’s be honest, it’s not going to be “Toy Story 3.”
The strongest contenders are “The Social Network,” “Inception” and “True Grit,” with “The King’s Speech” as a dark horse candidate.
“The Social Network” is probably the strongest choice: It’s relevant and well-conceived, and David Fincher has never won an Oscar despite critical acclaim. However, in some ways its relevance may work against it. Zuckerberg comes off as an unlikable jerk throughout the movie, and Facebook’s shadowy beginnings may be a little sordid for the Academy to feel great about voting a movie about those beginnings as the year’s best.
The second strongest contender is “Inception.” Christopher Nolan is also without an Oscar title despite several strong efforts, including 2008’s stellar “The Dark Knight.” “Inception” is the type of undercover think-piece voters like to make themselves feel good because they “get” it. Also, it’s a movie about making movies, which is always a crowd pleaser. The ambiguity of its ending and possibly its blockbuster popularity could prove to be tripping points — witness the near-shutout of “Avatar” last year after many predicted a slew of awards — as the Academy looks to set a distance between its taste and that of the movie-going public.
“True Grit,” my pick for second-best movie of the year (behind the pitch-black “Black Swan”) rounds out the field of favorites. The Academy is fond of the Coen brothers, but may have awarded them the Best Picture a little too recently for a repeat. That being said, the movie is a masterpiece of a Western, with some terrific gallows humor and memorable lines filling in a classic plot that hews slightly closer to the source material than its predecessor. While “Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!” may be quotable fodder for the next few years, I doubt the movie will walk away victorious.
Given the paucity of a clear big-budget favorite, “The King’s Speech” has a puncher’s chance of sneaking off with the nod. More of a sports movie (in the thematic sense) than a period drama, the movie contains enough levity and personal triumph that the movie could beat out the big boys for the Best Picture. That, and the fact the actors dress funny (don’t underestimate this as a feature — “Chicago” won Best Picture once, for crying out loud) may mean this is our winner for 2011.
I doubt my favorite (“Black Swan”) is light enough to walk away with the win, but I think 2011 provides one of the best and least predictable slates of Best Picture nominees in recent memory.