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Revisiting Academy Awards' best picture field: a perfect 10?

Let's give a high five to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for making the Oscars matter again. • Make it a high 10, one finger for each best picture nominee, for the first time since Bogie kissed off Bergman in Casablanca. • Interest in tonight's Oscars is greater than any in years, thanks to more crowd-pleasers than usual, in a best picture race doubled in size. The live telecast should pull its highest TV ratings since Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King swept the awards while cleaning up at box offices. • Somewhere in Beverly Hills, academy elites slap their foreheads, wondering why they didn't think of this before. • What if they had? • It's fun to consider, using factors that apparently influenced those five additional slots. • We can guess which of the 10 nominees would make a traditional, five-movie competition, based on the past, when popularity mattered less. That's also when mainstream moviegoers tuned out, without much personal investment in which film won.

Without expansion, we'd likely have a best picture race tonight between The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, Precious, Inglourious Basterds and An Education — critical darlings but marginal hits. (You can argue replacing the latter with Avatar, but the academy historically shows more love to British films than blockbusters.)

Four of tonight's other nominees — Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9 and Up — made the cut with particular appeal, in genre or demographic, that the Oscars have been accused of ignoring too long.

Only A Serious Man seems like Hollywood backslapping as usual. Which isn't bad since cynics predicted those extra five slots meant nominating twice as much snooty cinema. The addition of even one obtuse nominee suggests the academy won't completely pander to populist tastes.

Yes, comedies have been criminally snubbed by the academy for decades. A raunchy romp like The Hangover isn't going to be the new-rules trailblazer just because it's funny and made a fortune.

The academy also didn't stretch its newfound interest in sci-fi to include Star Trek, which is, after all, a makeover of an old franchise based on an older TV show. Voters are picky like that.

Still, wider standards are now set for best picture nominees in the future.

Here's what tonight's bonus picks suggest Oscar voters are ready to honor with a nomination, if not the big prize. Just for fun, we'll toss in similar movies that might have made the cut five and 10 years ago, if the field had been expanded then.

Bet you would've cared more about the results. That's what the academy is starting to understand.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

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WHAT THIS EXTRA NOMINEE BRINGS TO TONIGHT'S OSCAR PARTY

Avatar: A special effects blockbuster that audiences love, with artistry the academy typically honors only with technical prizes.

AND THE EXTRA NOMINEES (IN THE AVATAR STYLE) COULD HAVE BEEN:

The Dark Knight (2009)

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2005)

Armageddon (1999)

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WHAT THIS EXTRA NOMINEE BRINGS TO TONIGHT'S OSCAR PARTY

The Blind Side: A happy ending and surprising box office success, especially with women.

AND THE EXTRA NOMINEES (IN THE BLIND SIDE STYLE) COULD HAVE BEEN:

Mamma Mia! (2009)

Something's Gotta Give (2005)

There's Something About Mary (1999)

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WHAT THIS EXTRA NOMINEE BRINGS TO TONIGHT'S OSCAR PARTY

Up: For those times when a 'toon deserves more than just the best animated feature Oscar.

AND THE EXTRA NOMINEES (IN THE UP STYLE) COULD HAVE BEEN:

WALL-E (2009)

Finding Nemo (2004)

A Bug's Life (1999)

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WHAT THIS EXTRA NOMINEE BRINGS TO TONIGHT'S OSCAR PARTY

A Serious Man: The academy loves giving encores to previous nominees and winners — like Joel and Ethan Coen — or else making up for past oversights.

AND THE EXTRA NOMINEES (IN THE A SERIOUS MAN STYLE) COULD HAVE BEEN:

Gran Torino (2009) by director Clint Eastwood

Cold Mountain (2004) by director Anthony Minghella

The Truman Show (1999) by director Peter Weir

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WHAT THIS EXTRA NOMINEE BRINGS TO TONIGHT'S OSCAR PARTY

District 9: An off-the-wall pick suggesting Oscar is cool with new takes on familiar genres, if they sell lots of tickets.

AND THE EXTRA NOMINEES (IN THE DISTRICT 9 STYLE) COULD HAVE BEEN:

Wanted (2009)

Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2004)

Pleasantville (1999)

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AND THE NOMINEES WERE

2009: Slumdog Millionaire*, Milk, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

2004: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King*, Mystic River, Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Seabiscuit

1999: Shakespeare in Love*, The Thin Red Line, Saving Private Ryan, Elizabeth, Life Is Beautiful

* denotes winner

Tune in

The 82nd annual Academy Awards show begins at 8 p.m. Sunday on ABC.

Revisiting Academy Awards' best picture field: a perfect 10? 03/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 5, 2010 6:22pm]
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