Oscar Breakdown: Best Picture

By  · Published on February 26th, 2011

This article is part of our Oscar Week Series, where you will find breakdowns and predictions for all of the major categories.

This Sunday’s 83rd Annual Academy Awards will be the second year in a row featuring ten nominees up for Best Picture, and once again that means a list inflated with titles that have zero chance of winning the award. No one really believes the idea was a good one, but it caters to a wider array of movie fans happy to see their favorite of the year get nominated. The five “actual” contenders this year are Black Swan, The Fighter, 127 Hours, The King’s Speech, and The Social Network with those final two films as the front-runners.

The nominees are listed below with my prediction for the winner in red…

Black Swan

Why It Was Nominated: Darren Aronofsky’s latest proved that audiences will actually buy tickets to watch pretty young women make out in a highly sexual, nub-flicking manner. He also crafted a horror movie in the guise of an art film featuring an accessible turn from a notorious “acquired taste” of a director, as well as featuring probably the year’s best and most challenging female role. These facets combined with critical raves and a hundred million dollar box office gross made it a no-brainer for nomination.

Why It Might Win: Natalie Portman is as much of a lock as you can get for Best Actress, but the film is also drawing immense acclaim for Aronofsky. If that doesn’t lead to a Best Director win for him (which it won’t) voters may wish to reward him with a win here instead. There’s also the voting split factor between the two most likely winners… if the split between The Social Network and The King’s Speech is even enough it may leave room for a third place pic to wind up on top.

Why It Might Not Win: While Aronofsky and Portman receive well deserved accolades the film as a whole can be problematic. Its structure, tone, and genre placement is all over the map for many viewers. Barbara Hershey’s character in particular acts like a melodramatic shriek-fest who often pushes what should be real drama into the realm of Mommy Dearest absurdity.

The Fighter

Why It Was Nominated: David O. Russell’s latest proved he could direct a film without yelling at Lily Tomlin. He also produced a movie that invigorated a stale genre with new life thanks to a winning combination of four incredibly strong performances and the benefit of being based upon a true story.

Why It Might Win: This film’s chances match Black Swan’s for the same dual reasons. It’s most likely going to win at least two awards for acting, but Russell won’t be going home with the Best Director statuette. Instead his film might squeak by as a third choice that breaks a tie between the two front-runners.

Why It Might Not Win: Most critics and audiences exit the movie praising the performances and some select scenes, but few are making a claim for the film’s overall greatness. It’s being viewed as a solid film lifted higher by the actors involved. Besides, there can be only one Best Picture winner per sport and Rocky already laid claim to this one.


Why It Was Nominated: Christopher Nolan’s latest proved that smart, original, and big-budget are words that can actually be applied to the same film. He also ended up with one of the year’s biggest hits. Some people believe the whole ‘ten Best Picture nominees’ idea was a response to The Dark Knight being shut out of the race two years ago and that the nom for Inception is to make up for that imagined sleight. Instead this appears to be occupying the same slot as was held by Avatar last year reserved for box-office behemoths (although this is a far better film obviously).

Why It Might Win: There’s always the chance the Academy decides to reward the box-office the same way it did Titanic back in 1997. James Cameron’s film was in no way the best of the nominees (LA Confidential anyone?), but it was crowned king of the world nonetheless.

Why It Might Not Win: Inception generated multiple conversations about the film’s logic, or lack thereof, but as time moves on a backlash of sorts has grown regarding plot holes and inconsistencies in Nolan’s world. And by this point people may have grown sick of wondering whether or not the goddamn top falls.

The Kids Are All Right

Why It Was Nominated: Lisa Cholodenko’s latest proved that audiences will actually buy tickets to watch pretty older women express their love for each other verbally. Her film also moved the idea of an non-traditional family into the mainstream of familial comedy by <gasp> showing that families with same sex parents are no different from the “norm.” Smart comedy plus strongly written roles brought to life by fantastic actors equals Oscar nominations.

Why It Might Win: Crash’s Marisa Tomei-sized upset over Brokeback Mountain in 2005 is viewed by some as a sleight against quality and gay-themed films, so you could argue the Academy might award this film the Oscar as a mea culpa. You’d lose that argument of course, but you could still try.

Why It Might Not Win: Best Picture is as much about the director as the actual Best Director prize, but this movie belongs more to the actors and screenplay. It’s also the second lowest grosser on this list, and with the exception of last year’s win for The Hurt Locker the Academy is on a three decade long streak of giving the top prize to box-office hits.

The King’s Speech

Why It Was Nominated: Tom Hooper’s latest proved that Colin Firth can turn even the otherwise mediocre into something somewhat magical. The film has also captured the hearts and minds of critics’ groups around the country with its fantastic central performance from the lovable Colin Firth, two strong supporting roles in Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter, and a real-life tale of overcoming life’s challenges.

Why It Might Win: If you’re a gambler this is the one to put your chips on (although I prefer the riskier bet of one of the the next films on the list) as most folks think it’s a lock. The number and types of awards it’s already picked up are usually indicative of a win at the Oscars, and it leaves an audience with the Academy’s preferred response of elated inspiration. Plus it’s coming out in a kid friendly version in a week or two!

Why It Might Not Win: At the end of the day, a few good performances aside, the movie is not all that special. Hooper, who was inexplicably nominated for Best Director, could have been replaced with any number of people without altering the final film.

Find out who I think will take the top prize…

127 Hours

Why It Was Nominated: Danny Boyle’s latest proved that high energy editing, acting, and music can make even a mundane “trapped for five days with a crushed arm” story interesting. Aaron Ralston’s ordeal that resulted in him severing his own arm off in a bid for survival is as fascinating and inspirational as it is terrifying. Boyle captures much of that thanks in large part to James Franco’s charismatic and emotional performance.

Why It Might Win: Boyle took the top prize two years ago with Slumdog Millionaire, so we know the Academy already has an attraction to his energetic style of mixing fast paced visuals with jaunty music. They’re also big fans of his relentlessly positive and poppy themes.

Why It Might Not Win: Once again, this is an example of a film being overshadowed by a single performance within. Franco is a big personality and he seems to garnering most of the notices when people speak of the film.

The Social Network

Why It Was Nominated: David Fincher’s latest proved that a smartly scripted and highly entertaining movie about the world’s biggest social networking site still isn’t enough to convince me to join Facebook.

Critics and audiences fell for this movie in droves and quickly labeled it the film of a generation. It’s actually less about a generation than it is about society in general, but the sentiment remains that it captured something special.

It’s Fincher’s most accessible film helped by a brilliant script, strong performances across the board, and a loose adherence to reality.

Why It Might Win: Fincher’s film has picked up an incredible amount of awards from critics and guild groups around the country.

Why It Might Not Win: The King’s Speech has picked up the more important ones.

Toy Story 3

Why It Was Nominated: Lee Unkrich’s latest proved that even an emotional retread with two fantastic scenes can still pluck viewers’ heartstrings all the way to the bank if it’s stamped with the Pixar name.

The animation kings got their first Best Picture nomination last year with Up, and they earned one again this year through a combination of technical, artistic, and financial achievements. They’ve proven once again that characters don’t have to be flesh and blood to be emotionally affecting.

Why It Might Win: Highest grossing film of the year? Check. Annual release from the untouchable boys club that is Pixar? Check. CGI wow factor combined with string sense of nostalgia? Check. Michael Keaton being awesome (even if it is only in voice form)? Check.

Why It Might Not Win: The inclusion of animated films in the Best Picture category is a nod to the general quality of Pixar releases, but it’s still a stunt only allowed by the ten nominee scenario. Were this a five film race Toy Story 3 wouldn’t even be in discussion. And let’s be honest here… it’s basically Toy Story 2 with a far better and more conclusive ending.

True Grit

Why It Was Nominated: The Coen Brothers’ latest proved that “remake” isn’t a dirty word, that the good ones can sometimes surpass the original in quality and entertainment value, and that Matt Damon is an awkward spanker.

The brothers Coen continue to surprise critics and audiences alike with their ability to move from one genre to the next changing up tone and atmosphere along the way, and by bringing the Western back into the public eye they’ve achieved something only Kevin Costner seemed capable of in the best couple decades.

Why It Might Win: The Coens are an unpredictable pair, and they already pulled off what many consider to be an upset with No Country For Old Men’s victory over There Will Be Blood in 2007. Plus, the Western is a true American genre and they brought it back in a big way.

Why It Might Not Win: It’s tempting to point to the godawful CGI throughout the film as reason enough for it not to win the top prize, but it’s actually the somewhat casual tone that works against it here. The film is an uneven mix of Western drama and comedy that works better when mining for laughs than when it’s reaching for emotional connection. The ending scene with a grown up Mattie Ross being the perfect example… goodwill for a young teen doesn’t automatically translate to an unrecognizable adult face looking for emotional payoff.

Winter’s Bone

Why It Was Nominated: Debra Granik’s latest proved that even a little-seen indie film can find a seat at the Best Picture table when it’s made with care, grounded with strong performances, and features a hot blond named Winter.

This tale about a young woman in the Ozark mountains struggling against everyone around her in an effort to find her drug dealing father is a moody, dark, and highly immersive feature. It oozes authenticity from beneath every dirty fingernail and pair of overalls.

Why It Might Win: Everyone loves a good David vs Goliath story right?

Why It Might Not Win: This is the lowest grossing film of the ten nominees, and that means this is as close as it’s going to get to the Oscar. As with The Kids Are All Right the honor here is in being nominated, but the Academy is aiming to reward films with a much higher recognition factor. Plus, while Lawrence’s performance drew raves and earned her several follow-up jobs no one seems to be rushing to offer Granik a comic-book film for her resumé.

Who do you want to win?

Join us for:

Our 3rd Annual Oscar Live-Blog-a-Palooza

Check out our predictions for:

Best Documentary Feature

Best Director

Best Adapted Screenplay

Cole’s $100,000 Oscar Predictions

Best Supporting Actress

Best Supporting Actor

Best Original Score

Best Animated Feature

Best Lead Actor

Best Lead Actress

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.