Oscar picks annually bring the moan and groan

That annual, almost sacred, predawn rite that trumpets the Oscar nominations is perhaps the most anticipated seven or eight minutes of the movie year. But whatever fleeting moments of warmth and elation it generates are quickly doused by skeptics and naysayers. Almost immediately, the recriminations begin: The snubs. The oversights. The gall! You hear it every year: Why on Earth did they nominate that?

Remember the battles over “Braveheart”? The clashes over “Crash”? And “Titanic,” which blew everything else out of the box office water, was either one of the worst, most overwrought best picture winners in Oscar history or a three-hankie sensation that nailed every emotional and expository note. “L.A. Confidential,” the uncontested critics’ darling of 1997, ended up submerged in “Titanic’s” wake.

This year, those singing the praises of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” call it an affecting meditation on star-crossed romance that raises the bar on CGI magic, while detractors have likened it to the Hindenburg of short-story adaptations — a bloated melodrama floating on a premise lighter than air. “The Reader,” too (if not “Milk” and “Frost/Nixon”), has raised at least as many eyebrows as it has elicited pleasant surprise.

If no one can agree on what makes a good movie, even one that ends up receiving the ultimate of Hollywood awards, can a film truly be described as the year’s “best picture” without a broad consensus to back it up?

“I don’t think the best picture, in any given year, is necessarily the best picture,” says film critic and scholar David Thomson, who has written more than 20 books about the movies. “The Oscars are a foolish but entertaining game, and we all get caught up in the game. But it’s extremely dangerous to think they mean anything beyond a projection of what the industry would like to think about itself.”

Thomson cites the year “Crash” won best picture as particularly controversial. “It’s always hard to interpret the winners,” he says, “but you could say that the Academy flinched from giving it to ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ “

Depending on whom you talk to, “Brokeback” either suffered from Academy homophobia, was overrated or simply the victim of a savvy marketing campaign by “Crash” distributor Lionsgate.

After the awards ceremony in March 2006, Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan noted to MSNBC that “you could not take the pulse of the industry without realizing that this film made people distinctly uncomfortable.” In an article published in Entertainment Weekly in November 2007, “Brokeback” co-screenwriter and producer Diana Ossana reflected on the film’s loss of the top award, saying that “several people told me they know a lot of Academy voters who just refused to see the film.” To which co-writer Larry McMurtry responded: “What are they afraid of?”

“There’s no pleasing everyone,” says Brad Schreiber, a longtime critic and screenwriter whose essays appear on the Entertainment Today website. “But in some cases, the prizes and nominations really do puzzle a lot of those in the film community, whether critics or not.”

The so-called injustices of the Academy have even challenged the civility of some of its most respected filmmakers, when “it’s an honor to be nominated” turns to latent scorn. Sidney Lumet, who received an honorary Oscar in 2005 after five failed nominations, told the Associated Press in 2006 that “on two occasions, I got so pissed off about what beat us. With ‘Network,’ we were beaten out by ‘Rocky’ for Christ’s sake.” (Among the other films “Rocky” beat out: “All the President’s Men” and “Taxi Driver.”)

It’s remarkable how many people in the industry — and the burgeoning number of critics, many of them self-appointed, who judge their output — have long believed that Oscar nominations, and the awards themselves, are often given to the wrong projects. This year, especially since the nominations became known on Jan. 22, it’s happening again.

“Some of the front-runners have been extremely divisive, like ‘Benjamin Button,’ ” says Karina Longworth, former editor of the blog Cinematical, who writes about film for Spout.com, the Huffington Post and Filmmaker magazine. “And ‘Revolutionary Road’ and ‘The Reader’ also split critics quite a bit.”

Isaac Chotiner, in the New Republic, was more blunt: “The real disgrace here is that ‘Benjamin Button,’ an unwatchably boring and bad film, was given 13 nominations,” citing the movie’s “lone accomplishment” as “using special effects to make Brad Pitt look as young as he did in ‘Thelma & Louise.’ ”

The snarky website Defamer might have taken the vitriol to a new low when in the wake of the Oscar nominations announcement, it lauded “the (Academy) members’ fine taste in snubbing the utterly despicable ‘Revolutionary Road,'” citing a litany of justifications, including “an unofficial rebuke to (director Sam) Mendes and those audience-flagellating hacks who follow him, cheaply defying the basic laws of art, entertainment and taste.” Ouch!

“Slumdog Millionaire” has remained largely above the fray, Longworth says, because the people at Fox Searchlight learned a few things when they grappled in recent years with how to position a pair of low-budget gems, both of which ultimately received best picture nods.

“They saw what they were able to do with ‘Juno’ to promote an underdog film to audiences and voters, and they were building off what they did with ‘Little Miss Sunshine,'” Longworth says.

“All three are extremely crowdpleasing, as opposed to films that require more introspection or deal with unhappier issues. Oscar voters, just like audiences, are looking for escapism. But it’s a little disingenuous to promote these films as the little engine that could when they’re actually being sold by large corporations.”

For J. Todd Harris, who votes in the AMPAS producers’ branch, the fundamental questions when it comes time to cast his ballot are whether the movie was “a transformative experience, does it elevate the art of filmmaking, and does it hold its own against the best pictures ever?

“I really liked a lot of the movies, but when push came to shove for my saying, ‘Could this be the best film of the year?’ the options seemed limited,” says Harris, the former president of Davis Entertainment Filmworks, with three dozen producer credits to his name.

Whatever it is that makes one movie a best picture winner and another one an also-ran is, of course, perhaps Hollywood’s greatest imponderable, and no doubt the cause of its biggest headaches. “There’s that intangible that no one can bottle or even produce on a regular basis, or we’d all be zillionaires,” says Kathy McCurdy, a founding member of the Location Managers Guild of America, who managed shoots for “Valkyrie” “Transformers”and the latest “Star Trek” installment.

A best picture winner, McCurdy says, is a film “that carries the audience away on pure feeling, that unites everyone who sees the film all around the world, that reaches someplace inside a viewer that is universal.”

“Slumdog Millionaire” may be one such film, says Michael Sragow, author of “Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master” (Pantheon Books, 2008), a biography of the director of “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

“When you see ‘Slumdog,’ you know it’s going to be a huge audience film,” says Sragow, chief film critic at the Baltimore Sun and a regular contributor to the New Yorker. “What really sells it is that it has this core fable that everyone can relate to, this rags-to-riches story with a huge romantic element.”

Sragow, who hated “Titanic” and admits he was in the minority of critics who disliked “Juno,” says movies that are not critically acclaimed but get Oscar nods anyway prove the point that Academy voters are “a pretty independent bunch.”

Independent in more ways than one, notes Thomson. “The best work being done in America has gone over to the independents,” says the San Francisco-based writer. “Once upon a time this country made best pictures, and huge numbers of people went to see them, and we’ve gotten away from that. It’s tragic.”

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