It's now been about four hours since the Academy Awards nominations were announced. You can find other posts about them, including a look at where you might see the films, below. But as I have chewed on the nominations, the biggest message remains: Oscar hates television.
With "The Dark Knight" and "WALL-E," Oscar had a chance to nominate two crowd-pleasing and high-quality films for best picture, ones that would have brought a large TV audience to the Oscars telecast next month.
"Dark Knight" topped the U.S. box office in 2008 and was loved by critics. (It was one of my favorite movies last year.) While Heath Ledger's nomination was a no-brainer, the movie also deserved consideration for picture and director (Christopher Nolan), and possibly for additional acting honors.
"WALL-E," meanwhile, had picked up a major critics' award for best picture and topped the Rotten Tomatoes rankings of wide-released films for 2008, with a 96 percent favorable rating. ("Dark Knight" was second with 94 percent.) And, according to Box Office Mojo "WALL-E" ranked fifth at the 2008 box office. (Between "Dark Knight" and "WALL-E" were "Iron Man," "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Creaking -- er, Crystal -- Skull" and "Hancock.") So it was also a crowd-pleaser whose contending for best picture would have drawn other people to the Oscars telecast.
If, that is, it had a best-picture nomination.
The motion picture academy has once again decided that it looks better and more art-conscious by nominating a lot of films that will never have the box-office clout of the two films I am praising here.
It has done so although that will hurt its TV ratings. But the movie industry has long looked down on TV, regardless of the fact that many of its nominees have television resumes, even though movie profits are helped by sales on DVD and pay-per-view. It would rather act like a more elevated form of entertainment, even as TV consistently produces powerful art of its own.
The movie business is like some land-rich but money-poor English nobleman lording his title over a wealthier, but arriviste, cousin.
I know, it shouldn't be about the money. And I'm not saying it should be. I am saying that there were two praiseworthy films that also made buckets of money. And the academy's overlooking them suggests that it is uncomfortable honoring certain kinds of films -- big box-office movies in both these cases, and animated films in the case of "WALL-E." (There is a separate category for animated films, but that's a way of pretending to honor animation while suggesting it is a lesser thing than a best-picture nominee.
Now, we could also argue about the individual merits of the movies that were nominated, and I would be happy to do some of that. "Milk" would be on my best-picture list, but I would argue for "Dark Knight" and "WALL-E" over "Slumdog Millionaire" (although I liked that film, too) or "Frost/Nixon" (which was a disappointment).
But I would much rather we were arguing in February about "Dark Knight" or "WALL-E" as potential best-picture winners , not as movies that were shut out of the big nominations in January. And that we carried that argument to the telecast.
Oscar knows that its TV show is in trouble, and it has been trying to improve its fortunes through such moves as having Hugh Jackman as host. ("Australia" may have been a dud, but to millions he's still Wolverine.) But a better move would have been to pick movies that do what movies are supposed to do -- present great art, and do it in a popular way.