What If... Best Picture Was Expanded to a Strict-10 System in 2009?
Welcome to another edition of What If…Oscars Edition. You can access the previous editions here. In this ongoing series, I’ll take a look at several Oscar scenarios throughout history and try to answer the unknowable question of “what if things turned out differently?” Using best judgment and a bit of hopeful fun, we’ll look at the possible ripple effects one result can have on the course of Oscar history.
Oscar obsessives let out a collective sigh of relief in 2009 when the Academy announced that they would be expanding the number of nominees in the Best Motion Picture category from a strict five to a sliding scale up to ten. After decades of classic movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Psycho, Rear Window, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Do the Right Thing, and The Dark Knight ending on the outside looking in, the chances for great movies to get the recognition they deserved was now much higher.
But this solution only opened one door while it closed another. Now, instead of having a confirmed five nominees, we had to guess which eight to ten films would get nominated. It never seemed fair that some years would have eight nominees, and then some years would have ten, especially since we live in an age where you could easily pick dozens of worthy additions. The Academy eventually relented again and expanded to a locked-ten system for the 2021 Oscar year.
But what if we didn’t have to live through nearly a decade of guessing how many films would be nominated for Best Motion Picture, and instead, the Academy immediately switched from a strict five to a strict ten system? What films would have taken those final spots in the years when we didn’t have ten nominees? Let’s travel down that rabbit hole and find out!
2011: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
We start off with the 2011 awards season as Oscar voters were giddy during the first two years of the expanded era. They slightly slowed down in the third year, leaving one vacant spot, which I think would have been David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Fincher was only a year removed from the immense success of The Social Network, and some voters might have felt some sympathy for him being beaten by Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech. His adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel garnered a PGA, DGA, and WGA nomination during the precursor season, and eventually won the Oscar for Best Film Editing, and got Rooney Mara nominated for Best Lead Actress. The film was also a box office success, grossing over $100 million despite running nearly three hours long and carrying an R-rating.
The next closest competition was likely Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which had huge European support evidenced by its eleven BAFTA nominations compared to just three from the Oscars.
The sting from the loss of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy wouldn’t last long for the British voters, as their favorite fictional super spy came to play with a billion dollars at the box office and the best reviews in franchise history. Sam Mendes’ first outing at the helm would also receive a PGA nomination, a huge haul at the hometown BAFTAs, and a slew of supporting acting nominations for Javier Bardem and Judi Dench. The film would also receive some out-of-character Oscar nominations, such as Best Cinematography and Best Original Score.
Skyfall’s inclusion is also helped by The Master being the next batter up, which proved to be an odd film for voters to swallow. Paul Thomas Anderson was surprisingly snubbed in the screenplay category after three previous nominations, with the central trio of actors being the only thing people could agree on.
2013: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coens already received two Best Picture nominations in the expanded era, with A Serious Man barely making it in 2009 and True Grit dominating with ten total nominations in 2010. They also had No Country for Old Men win the whole damn thing in 2007. Inside Llewyn Davis received some of the best reviews of their careers when it debuted in May at the Cannes Film Festival. It would go on to receive best picture nominations at Critics Choice, AFI, and the Golden Globes, as well as receive a screenplay nomination from the BAFTAs. Of course, getting a Best Picture nomination without a corresponding directing, writing, or acting nomination is a mighty challenge. But if there’s anyone that could have overcome that, it would be the Coens.
2014: Foxcatcher & Gone Girl
2014 would mark the first of many subsequent years where Academy voters would start to settle down with choosing their Best Motion Picture nominees. The first vacant spot easily goes to the film that was shockingly left out, which is Foxcatcher. Bennett Miller already had two previous Best Picture nominations with Capote and Moneyball, while also receiving a Best Director nomination, along with screenplay and acting nominations.
The next spot would once again go to David Fincher with Gone Girl, which was surprisingly close to being completely shut out if not for Rosamund Pike’s deliciously vicious performance. But the film was a box office hit and displayed enough precursor recognition, such as a PGA and WGA nomination and a hefty haul from the Critics Choice.
2015: Carol & Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
Another year, another shocking omission, this time being Todd Haynes’ Carol, which had amassed universal acclaim since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival. The film still received six nominations, so several delegations within the Academy definitely liked it. The ugly truth might have to do with the film’s homosexual storyline, something older voters might not have wanted to embrace.
The final spot was probably a showdown between Straight Outta Compton and a certain space opera. Of course, The Force Awakens was a late-breaking entry into the awards season, so it wasn’t eligible for a few critics’ lists. The film was so last-minute that the Critics Choice held a special vote to nominate it in the 11th position for their Best Picture category, a move that was met with some raised eyebrows. Star Wars would also find itself on the AFI Top 10 List, and receive a decent haul of craft nods at the Oscars, including a surprising nomination for Best Film Editing. Oh yeah, it also became the highest-grossing film domestically (not adjusting for inflation) and was the dominant cultural talking point at just the right time.
2016 is an incredibly hard year to predict, as several so-so Oscar contenders had a decent shot at that last Best Picture slot. Jackie, 20th Century Women, and Silence were the likely finalists, with Martin Scorsese’s religious epic probably being the closest. Just like The Force Awakens, Silence was an incredibly last-minute entry into the awards race, but it was still able to be listed by both the AFI and NBR. Scorsese was also on an unprecedented Best Picture streak, with five of his six movies released this century being nominated for the top award. Just like the Coen brothers and Inside Llewyn Davis, I feel that Scorsese had enough clout to just squeak in by the skin of his teeth.
2017: I, Tonya
This year’s Best Picture lineup is one of the best of all time, so we don’t have to look back at any of the original nominees with disdain because they took away a spot someone else deserved more. The last vacant spot is a close call between I, Tonya with its acting nominations/win and Best Film Editing nomination, and The Florida Project, which had all its potential carried by Willem Dafoe in Best Supporting Actor. Tonya was also probably on the verge of other nominations in Costume Design and Makeup/Hairstyling (only three nominees in this category), so it seems likely it had a leg up on that elusive Best Picture nomination.
2018: If Beale Street Could Talk & First Man
After a historically great year, things inevitably went back down to normal levels. In a cruel twist of fate, Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins, the two top dogs of 2016, didn’t get swept up in the Oscar honeymoon period and found themselves on the outside looking in with their next films. Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk still won Regina King Best Supporting Actress and landed a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. And Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic was unfairly curbed by the American flag controversy, relegating it to the craft categories. But with Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Mary Poppins Returns being the only other viable contenders, I’m certain Jenkins and Chazelle could have pulled it off.
2019: Knives Out
On paper, The Two Popes would seem more likely to take the final slot since it had two acting and a writing nomination. But if Nightmare Alley and CODA taught us anything last year, Oscar voters mostly vote for the films they’re passionate about, and I don’t think anyone was clamoring for The Two Popes to be included. I actually think it was extremely lucky to get every nomination it got, probably being the final member for each category.
The film that had some of the most passionate feelings behind it was Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, which was a box office smash that delivered an original spin on a well-worn genre. AFI, NBR, PGA, and Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture are further bits of evidence. It would have also been nice to see all The Last Jedi haters cry just a bit longer.
2020: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom & One Night in Miami
As the year of the pandemic, streamers like Amazon and Netflix should have dominated the conversation. Granted, they did receive a combined 3/8 of the Best Picture nominations, but they left a lot on the table. Things would have been better for them in this alternate reality, as Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Amazon’s One Night in Miami would have made it in. Both had acting nominations, with Miami getting into Best Adapted Screenplay, and Ma Rainey winning Best Costume Design and Best Makeup.