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How To Predict An Oscar Winner

Two days away from the 2010 Oscars, it’s clearly time to get into the appropriate spirit!

As I promised a few days ago, it’s time to break out the infallible formula to predict an Oscar winning movie.

A Best Picture Oscar winning movie, that is. It’s the catch-all and be-all as far as I’m concerned, and the one that gets the most notice and importance… so that’s what we’ll get into.

beverly hills ... that's where I want to be. living in beverly hills. beverly hills ... rolling like a celebrity.
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The Best Picture Oscar is the most interesting category of them all, and the hardest one to predict as it includes everything… so just one little thing going a little against the grain, and you lose it.

(We’ll see if the Hurt Locker controversy is one such thing, enough to throw off an otherwise deserving movie… let’s hope not.)

Now, it’s all too easy to be shallow and list all the things that supposedly make an Oscar bait movie:

  • hooker with a heart of gold
  • disabled kid wins over people
  • genius with underlying madness

You know… exploitative formulas.

So let’s not go there, it’s not what’s Really Going On. Let’s dig a little deeper than that. Here’s my list of three fundamental elements of a Best Picture winner movie:

1. THE ELEMENT OF TRUTH

This is the most important element of a Best Picture winner. The Academy recognizes, whether consciously or unconsciously, that the film to represent the best the film industry has to offer, has to have integrity, and Truth in it.

Usually the nominee with the most recognizable ‘Air of Truth’ will win out.

Buddha on ShroveTuesday
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It doesn’t necessarily mean that the movie has to be based on a true story, although it often helps to imbibe the whole story with that unmistakable sense of the Truth.

This element is really where the writer shines. If the Truth isn’t already there in writing, it’s difficult if not impossible to insert it during production.

For a full explanation, check out this recent recent blog post on the Element of Truth.

2. NOT PRIMARILY A GENRE FILM

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This is pretty obvious, but still very important in homing in on the eventual winner.

Comedies generally don’t win Best Picture. Neither do horror films. Nor do scifi or action films. Not even war films, unless they carry a very strong and important sentiment that help transcend the genre.

And it’s understandable; Academy members want to give recognition to the movies that stand out from everything they themselves do every day of the year. And so recognizing movies that ‘break the mold’ elevates the whole industry, or so it’s seen. A rising wave lifts all boats, and so on.

Even The Dark Knight couldn’t really overcome this principle, as excellent and deserving it would have otherwise been as a movie in its own right.

However, there IS an exception to the rule!

A comedy CAN win, but only when it’s not primarily a comedy or just for fun and giggles (e.g. Tootsie).

So even a genre film can stand a chance IF it introduces an important new theme, a new angle into something familiar, an unknown story… if it reveal something big that resonates with the human condition.

We’ll see if Avatar’s themes will be big enough to give it the nod. Even for the most profitable film in history, overcoming the ‘no genre films‘ principle will be tough.

3. EXPOSES A HUMAN FLAW (AND OFTEN TRIUMPHS OVER IT)

This is where the Oscar hopeful writer can only hope that the execution delivers, because it’s now all up to the execution. Will the director ‘get it and deliver it’, will the actors rise to the challenge, will it all click together as a whole?

The most memorable part of that winning movie will be some form of human drama the audience resonates with.

The movie that powerfully exposes a human flaw, and a compelling way to triumph over it, captures the hearts and minds of any cynical audience.

As Dustin Hoffman has said:

“We humans are all flawed, flawed, flawed, flawed, flawed, flawed, flawed!”

As a two-time Actor In A Leading Role winner, he would know.

Dustin Hoffman
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In fact, Dustin Hoffman’s stunning performance in Tootsie is the perfect example of exposing a human flaw and an innovative way to overcome it.

A Beautiful Mind is another great example of this. Russell Crowe is so good at flaw & triumph, Mel Gibson sometimes as well… even though he hasn’t quite hit it yet besides Braveheart. Daniel Day-Lewis is another flaw-exposing leading man.

Forrest Gump is another memorable winner that won due to this leading quality.

AND THE WINNER IS…

Out of the three principles, the one with the most Truth usually wins out. For instance, 1992’s Unforgiven won over fierce competition from Howards End, A Few Good Men, The Crying Men and Scent of A Woman.

The academy members are no dummies, they make films themselves and know what’s truly outstanding. (in fact, Outstanding Picture was the early unofficial moniker!)

A great performance alone, or great subject matter alone cannot make the ultimate Best Picture type of movie. But all these together, or at the very least 2 out of 3… and you’ve got the winner.

This year, Avatar and Hurt Locker will be very strong. Although Avatar will be suffering from the The Dark Knight syndrome and may therefore not completely clean up.

PS. Note to fellow Finns: If executed well, and accepted as a nominee, even Mannerheim could stand a fighting chance in 2012 (as a Best Foreign Film contestant, at the very least). On paper, Mannerheim hits an easy three out of three! So let’s give it a chance while they’re getting it off the ground, shall we? 😉

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