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Best Picture: What If There Were Only Five?

Life of Pi by Dean WaltonI was just looking as a series of graphic Best Picture prints designed by Dean Walton and my mind wandered into a geeky Oscaroborus that I couldn't break free of. The series of prints is referred to as a "full series" but there's only five: Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Misérables, and Lincoln. Um. There are nine Best Picture nominees this year, Dean!

It got me to thinking. I don't even think those would have been "the five", had there been just five. It's not so easy to discount Argo, Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Silver Linings Playbook given the final vote tallies. I think we might have had a year of 3/5 Picture/Director split year. Or even gasp 2/5... which has happened before believe it or not.

Way back in 1955 the Best Picture nominees were: Marty, Picnic, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, The Rose Tattoo, and Mister Roberts. The directors branch felt quite differently going with only Delbert Mann (for Marty) who won and Joshua Logan for the big hit Picnic (we recently discussed that film and its Broadway revival) from the Best Picture list. Otherwise the director's branch threw their support behind David Lean's Summertime, John Sturges' Bad Day at Black Rock and Elia Kazan's East of Eden

But back to the here and now.

It's easy to twist yourself into pretzels devouring your own tail in trying to chase the "what if..." of five nominees. My guess is it would have been Argo, Lincoln, Life of Pi, Les Miz, and Silver Linings Playbook... but maybe that's too simple of a guess? We'll never know but it's fascinating to wonder. Number of nominations doesn't always tell the story -- remember when Four Weddings and Funeral crashed the Best Picture party in 1994 with only one other nomination to its name?!. What if it was Argo, Beasts, Lincoln, Les Miz, and Silver Linings Playbook with Life of Pi taking over the long held title of "Most Nominated Movie Ever Without a Best Picture Nom"? That dubious honor currently belongs to a great great movie known as They Shoot Horses, Don't They (1969) which won nine nominations but miraculous fell short of a Best Picture nod. (If you've never seen it you should drop everything and get right to that. It's better than almost all of the real Best Picture nominees)

Which five films do you think would have been nominated under the traditional system? Would Amour have been the first foreign film Best Pic nominated since Crouching Tiger (as it is know) or would we still be waiting for a subtitled picture to enter the race again?

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Reader Comments (51)

I love They Shoot Horses, but there's no way it's better than Z. :)

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

I meant... better than everything except for "Z"... um. i just realized i haven't seen "Z" but it's better than the other ones!

January 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R


January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterErik

I would say Argo, Lincoln, Life of Pi, Les Misérables, and Silver Linings Playbook.

I think Beasts and Amour are just too small and underseen to break into a 5-picture field, and ZD30 and Django would've been done in by their late releases and controversy. Just one opinion.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJonny

It's four years in, and I still hate the move away from five nominees. As amazing as it is that movies like Kids Are All RIght, Toy Story 3, Tree of Life and Amour are get to be Best Picture nominees, I can't bring myself to consider them "real" best picture nominees.
And I would accept a dozen Frost/Nixon-Benjamin Button-filled lineups just to know what the "real" best picture nominees are every year. (And I will file this under "things I should just get over, for crying out loud.")

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

I think Dark Zero would have gotten in of Pi....big call I know.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBroooooke

Probably Life of Pi, Lincoln, Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRenton

I've been thinking:

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook

ZDT's noms just don't make it feel like it actually had BP support. Then again, Les Miz's do. But Beasts had such surprise support. I don't know. That's my best guess.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJake D

Jake -- I agree that ZDT's nods don't show a clear path to "Best Picture" but then Les Miz's don't totally either given the lack of Dir, Screenplay, Cine or Editing but because it has so many nods i tend to think it would've squeezed in for a 3/5 type Pic/Director year.

Mike -- but then you're assuming that they wouldn't have been nominated and I'm not sure in all of those cases if that's correct. But that's why it's so crazy-making to try to figure it out.

January 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

This year is a great example of why the new system works, but everyone seems to want it to fail. I'm thrilled we have these nine. With that said, I thnk your guess is absolutely right, but that means only a 3/5 match with Director. Were Argo and Les Mis strong enough? No idea.

A week ago I would have said Argo wasn't guaranteed, but now it looks to be in the #2 slot (or higher?) for BP. I still think it underperformed for a reason with the Academy. Love this crazy year... (Now watch something crazy like Beasts take BP. OMG that would be amazing.)

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I do think Les Mis would have pulled a Dreamgirls this year and ended up outside of the top 5. My guess:

Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Of course, it's hard to know how the season's buzz would have been shaped if it had been known all along that their would only be five nominees. As much as they deserve it, the fact that up to 10 films could be nominated is what dragged them into the conversation in the first place. I just think they would have been dismissed from the possibilities list, or weeded out, much sooner had they each been vying for one of five slots. So, in a 5-nominee year, it's also highly likely that Affleck or Bigelow would have made the director lineup, given the assumed non-presence of Beasts and/or Amour (more people abandoning those ships and returning closer to the consensus). Amour would probably have done for Haneke what Talk to Her did for Almodovar (Director/Screenplay noms, with the win for the latter).

And I'll leave it at that. It's all a guessing game, obviously, but fun to think about how things could have shifted under different circumstances.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRJ

1. Lincoln
2. Life of Pi
3. Argo
4. Silver Linings Playbook

then I dunno... controversy killed ZDT, Les Mis is a very divisible film (though that didn't stop The Reader) and I doubt Beasts, Amour and Django would've gotten all this support without the expanded field

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterfr

Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Les Mis Dreamgirls-ed out, Amour and Beasts as lone director nominees in a rare 3/5 split. Django wouldn't have had a prayer.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRax

I think the following four are certainly in the top 5:
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook

As for the fifth slot, it could have been any of the others except Django Unchained.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRic

Thank you Mike for articulating that. I feel the same way but was ashamed to make mention of it, especially given how awesome it is that so many great art films that would once have been passed over are now getting noms.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLateef

I've thought about this a lot too (tragic, I know).

with BEASTS the lone Director nod.

I think LES MIS would be like DREAMGIRLS - lots of nominations but not Picture. AMOUR might seem an odd choice, but it would seem weirder for a foreign language film to get significant nominations like Actress, Director and Screenplay and NOT get Picture.

Of course there could be a 3/5 match with Director, in which case ZD30 in place of AMOUR. (You know that Harvey would have somehow managed a Director nod for David O Russell in whatever scenario!)

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

My picks are the same as yours Nathaniel, but an even more interesting question is what five would've been nominated under the old system AND the old Oscar timetable? With the Guild nominations coming first and influencing the Oscars, I think think the five you mentioned would be solid and it's possible Affleck would've been nominated over Zeitlin in that scenario.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJase

This is my favorite pointless Oscar game and oh how I wish they would go back to five! Nathaniel, from what you've seen and heard as an insider now (let's not even debate your new awesome status. "Nathaaaaniel, it's Neecole" is proof that you've arrived!) is there any chance they'll ever go back to five? This top heavy Best Picture roster is just so...ungainly. And silly since there are always nominees we know don't have a chance and are never in the conversation (is anyone really talking about Django?)

OK so here are my guesses for each year.

2009 -- Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, Precious, Up in the Air (the rare all five Picture/Director matchup).

2010 -- The Social Network, The King's Speech, The Fighter, True Grit, Inception (the common odd-man out in Director with Aronofsky subbing for Nolan of course).

2011 -- The Artist, Hugo, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, The Help (another odd-man out with Malick replacing Tate Taylor).

2012 -- Argo, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi, Les Miserables (Hooper is the expected odd-man out and Affleck is the unexpected one).

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAkash

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

I'm saying this based on how the votes may have gone this year, and they just cut off the four that got the least amount of votes. Either way, 'Beasts' would've slid in where 'Les Miz' was supposed to go and half the people would've flipped out and the other half would've been overjoyed. So pretty much, nothing would've changed. Either way, I think 'Beasts' or 'Amour' would've ended up in the final five, but not both.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJames C.

It's interesting that people think ZDT because to me that's a clear outlier once we saw that Bigelow was out (it being such a director's film) and the no ensemble nod with SAG suggesting possibly not exactly robust actor's branch support.

the only ones i feel positive didn't make the top five are DJANGO and ZDT.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Yeah, I agree that it would probably have been:

Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook

However, since Les Miz is clearly the weakest link in this top 5, it's possible it could have been snubbed ala Dreamgirls, and with that established, I'll actually go out on a limb and say that Zero Dark Thirty would NOT have been the next most likely, as many assume it to be. I genuinely believe that Amour would have had that fifth slot in the case of a Les Miz snub, making Zeitlin the odd man out Best Director nominee. The reason I'd pick it over Beasts is because it seemed to have more momentum leading into the nominations (BAFTA nods, critics' prizes, and the fact that it was just being seen and therefore fresh in most voters' minds), and the reason that I think both would have gotten in over Zero Dark Thirty is because that's a film that underperformed in general (not just with Bigelow's snub), whereas both Beasts and Amour overperformed on all accounts. Zero Dark Thirty was fading just as the ballots were being filled, whereas Amour was on the rise at the time.

So yeah, I know I put way too much thought into that, but I do think that if Les Miz was not in the top 5, Amour would have been the one to take its place.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEdwin


Les Miserables


Silver Linings Playbook

Zero Dark Thirty

I think ZDT had the momentum leading up to the close of Oscar voting. If the voting period was going on now, I think it is possible it wouldn't get in at all, in which case I think the 5th spot would have been taken by Pi. 6 weeks ago ZDT was the toast of the town.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

There's absolutely no way Life of Pi would not have made the top 5. It got nominated for more than it was expected to, which is what I think is most revealing in determining something like this. If it had been expected to get 11 nominations, that would be one thing, but a lot of people (myself included) were only predicting it for 6 or 7 nominations, so its actual total of 11 indicates that this indeed was a top 5 nominee. Les Miz got almost exactly what it was expected to, give or take a nomination, while Zero Dark Thirty arguably got less than it was expected to (in addition to Bigelow's snub, it didn't get in for Cinematography or Sound Mixing when a lot of people were predicting it for at least one of those categories). Back in the days of 5 nominees, having nominations for Actress, Original Screenplay, Editing, and Sound Editing definitely did not always go hand-in-hand with Best Picture. The total haul for Life of Pi definitely did.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEdwin

You must include: Argo, Lincoln, Silver Linings, and Life of Pi. Like absolutely.

Then fifth spot is tough, but I actually think Amour.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterZach

1. Lincoln, Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty (descending order, with the first two a virtual tie).

Nat, you feel POSITIVE that ZDT didn't make the Top 5? Wow, that's...I don't know what to say. I can accept that you may think it's #6, but the idea that Amour or Beasts of the Southern Wild would have been nominated ahead of ZDT seems too far-fetched. Just because they got Best Director nods? Haneke and Zeitlin seem exactly the sort of odd-man-out types that the director's branch likes to nominate, like Kieslowski, Almodóvar, and Lynch (twice as odd man out!). And if a SAG Ensemble nomination + Best Director nomination equaled Best Picture nomination, then Billy Elliot and Being John Malkovich would have made the final cut. Yet you would have its SAG ensemble nomination (okay, win) be the sole distinction keeping Argo from being the "outlier" you think ZDT is.

Okay, there have been plenty of times where I doubted you and ended up regretting it, but this...I don't know. Fortunately for me, there's no way you can prove you're right unless the Academy starts releasing vote totals.

2. Mike in Canada "hates the move away from five nominees" and doesn't consider the obvious additions "real nominees." I wonder how many people in the late '40s "hated the move away from ten nominees" and pondered which five movies were robbed of a nomination. Hating on the expansion only presumes that the way it was for 65 years was the "right" way—and you presume that mostly (if not entirely) because that's the only way you knew it to be up until a few years ago. (Not that I'm going to say that the new way is the "right" way, either.)

In the end, it matters more to us obsessives than to the rest of the world, who over time will only remember who won and maybe who they thought got robbed. Does anyone remember that Fatal Attraction was a BP nominee? Or Prizzi's Honor? Does anyone remember The Dresser at all?

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJ.P.

Probably top 5 would look like:

Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNika

I actually find it far more interesting to speculate about what possible nominees 6-10 might have emerged in past years had current voting rules been in place. What else, for instance, might have been a Best Pic nominee in 1992? or 2001? or 1978?

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJason Cooper

"Argo" and "Lincoln" - for sure. "Life of Pi" - too (too many nominations, I think, in other categories). "Silver Linings Playbook" - also, 4 nominations for actors, and for editing, screenplay and director? It's in. "Beasts..." and "Amour" wouldn't be nominated ("Amour" - in "Seven Beauties" style, which was nominated for foreign language film, director, screenplay and actor, but not for best picture). So the last spot is between "Les Miserables", "Django" and "Zero Dark Thirty". I suppose that "Les Miserables" wouldn't be nominated - as "Dreamgirls" wasn't (which also had two acting nominations). I think that "Zero Dark Thirty" would have easier to get in than "Django" so my 5 would look like this:

"Argo", "Lincoln", "Life of Pi", "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Zero Dark Thirty"

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSomeone

Nathaaniel: the crazy 2/5 Picture/Director split happened on four other occasions too: 1954, 1962, 1963 and 1966. So many lone directors each time, they actually outnumbered the 'coupled' directors!

I'm still ambivalent about the move from 5 to (up to) 10 Best Picture nominees. But I'm becoming acclimatised to it. One thing that's weird about it is that, while it's now easier to get nominated for Best Picture, it's presumably harder to win.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

I think Les Miz is a Dreamgirls and Beasts is a Lost in Translation.

Silver Linings Playbook
Beasts of The Southern Wild
Life of Pi.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Beasts of the Southern Wild would definitely be in. It got sufficient support to get a nomination for a first time director, and to get a 9 year old among the nominees for best actress (in a very crowded year). I just can't see how it would miss the best picture lineup.

I also don't believe in Les Miz: It didn't get nominations for Director, Screenplay, Cinematography or Editing. And we all know it'S a divisive film.

Life of Pi, on the other hand, got nominated for every single award it could aspire to. Many people were predicting it to miss Screenplay and it didn't, and Ang Lee got nominated when perceived locks like Affleck and Bigelow missed.

My guess would be:


January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBenmat

Edward: Fascinating titbit about the '62 split, too - three of the five Best Picture nominees - The Music Man, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Longest Day - were not nominated in the Directing, Writing or Acting categories. Can you imagine that ever happening nowadays?

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

Zero Dark Thirty
Silver Linings Playbook
Life of Pi

Though Beasts got Director and Actress I am willing to bet that those were the 5th slots in the nominations, it 'just' made it in those categories.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrami (ramification)

Jason that's a fun game, Thelma and Louise was definitely the 6th spot in 1992, 2 best actress nominees, director, editing, screenplay, cinematography, how in the world did it miss out on Best Picture. Maybe the Fisher King would have made it that year too and Boyz N'The Hood

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrami (ramification)

The five best pictures selected would be : ARGO, LINCOLN, LES MISERABLES, LIFE OF PI and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.
That´s all!

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterErick Loggia

Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook

Lincoln and Pi are both clearly in based on nomination tally (I don't know why anyone is even considering a Pi snub, there's nothing about it's nomination tally and general enthusiasm that would indicate that). Silver Linings showed up in almost all major categories and had Harvey Weinstein behind it, it was in. I also think it's safe to say that Argo would have gotten in despite Affleck's absence in the Best Director category given that it's won everything and the Academy generally isn't one to go out on a limb about things.

As for that fifth slot I think people are being way too quick to assume that Beasts wouldn't have gotten a BP nomination. First of all, it actually pulled off the six year old Best Actress, so the acting branch was clearly enthusiastic about it. It also managed to get a screenplay nomination in the extremely competitive adapted category even though it's not an overly "literary."

Beyond that, the film would be very abnormal as a "lone director" film. When a director gets in without a BP nod it's almost always a case of the director's branch honoring a veteran auteur (Mike Leigh, David Lynch, Almodovar, etc.) or a foreign film (Meirelles, Schnabel, etc.). Haneke's nomination would fit well within this tradition but Benh Zeitlin wouldn't.

In general, I think Beasts would have been this year's film in the "little film that could" choice. It's more than obvious that a ton of people in the Academy were turned off by ZDT both because of the torture thing and just because it's kind of a cold movie. It doesn't make any sense that it would get a BP nod without a best director nomination, the Academy at large NEVER goes for more challenging fare than the director branch. Hell half of the "lone director" nominations have been for movies like United 93 and City of God which were just too violent and/or controversial for the wider Academy. Les Miserables makes a little more sense on paper, but its absence in even technical categories like Cinematography and Editing make me think it could have easily pulled a Dreamgirls. The Academy just doesn't like musicals as much as people seem to think they do.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMJS

Funny thing is, I am not even sure Argo would have made it. I think its momentum was almost all due to The Snub. I don't think its #1s was as many as say Lincoln, Pi, Silver Linings, and even Beasts or Amour.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkin

Edward: Fascinating titbit about the '62 split, too - three of the five Best Picture nominees - The Music Man, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Longest Day - were not nominated in the Directing, Writing or Acting categories. Can you imagine that ever happening nowadays?

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

With the Argo momentum, the critics choice awarded it the day of the "snub" meaning the votes were already in and the globes were just a few days later. Surely the love was there way before and we just didn't realize it.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJonn

yah I think with when the voting periods were, the 'snub' didn't really impact the results. Argo is just devouring the awards circuit right now.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrami (ramification)

I love the new system. I mean, there are SO MANY movies released every year, and isn't it true that studios are releasing more and more every year? It's just insane to narrow that down to 5. Plus, now that it's not automatically 10, you really need a decent amount of love for a film to get it nominated. This year is a pretty good lineup, although I think it would be tighter and more credible with 8 nominees, leaving off Django, but that's just me.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

This year is much harder to determine "The 5" than the previous years of the new system. The only locks I think would have been Lincoln, Argo, and Silver Linings Playbook, and the only one I can't see getting in is Django.

Zero Dark Thirty had ALL the momentum going in to the end of Phase 1, but the overall support turned out softer than expected. Les Mis has the nominations, but it's REALLY divisive despite passionate support. Life of Pi also has the nominations, but were people really crazy about it in Best Pic? I think a "lone director" slot for Ang Lee makes a whole lot of sense given the background of that film. Foreign films usually don't break into Best Pic unless they're huge hits - and even then it takes a weak field (Amelie and Pan's Labyrinth couldn't pull it off despite multiple noms outside of the foreign ghetto), but Amour got into one big category that makes it look like it had broad support: Best Actress. Beasts has the same nominations as Amour, but still feels too small... but that Best Director nod is telling.

I think it would have been: Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Les Miserables, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, with Life of Pi pulling a Dreamgirls and Zero Dark Thirty being #6.

However it would have gone, though, I think this year is all the better for the expanded field and having all nine of the Best Pictures in the conversation.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Come on! There's no way that "Life of Pi" wouldn't be nominated for best picture with nominations in 10 different categories. It is evidently liked by the whole Academy. Sure - it hasn't got any acting nominations but this is this kind of film that couldn't have any (unless there was no competition in the best actor category and Suraj Sharma might have "sneaked in"). "Dreamgirls" had 8 nominations - but only in 6 categories (because 3 of these nominations were for best song). "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" had 9, but the best picture lineup was stronger that year than it is now ("Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid", "Z" and "Midnight Cowboy"! With "Anne of Thousand Days" - that isn't as great as "Horses" but nevertheless is very good! I haven't seen "Hello, Dolly", but still!). 3 of those nominations were for acting which "Life of Pi" couldn't have got (but I can bet that this movie has support of some members of actors branch, despite that fact).
"Argo", "Lincoln", "SLP" and "Life of Pi" are surely the 4 frontrunners, only the 5th spot is questionable.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSomeone

Les Mis would have never gotten in. I know you love the film but it would not have made top 5

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGerold

re. Edward's comment - the '62 split is even more fascinating, because three of the five Best Picture nominees - The Music Man, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Longest Day - weren't nominated in the directing, acting or writing categories. Can you imagine that happening today?!

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

Five that should be: Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Moonrise Kingdom

Five that would be: Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Argo, Les Miserables, Life of Pi

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Silver Linings
Life of Pi
Les Miz

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterzig

according to the amount of nominations each best picture nominee got I think:

Zera Dark 30
Life of Pi

But since Harvey is the man behind SLP, that Russell movie would probably sneak in

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

Hm ...

1. Lincoln
2. Silver Linings Playbook (clearly had huge support if Jacki Weaver got that nod)
3. Argo
4. Zero Dark Thirty
5. Amour

January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Would Amour have been the first foreign film Best Pic nominated since Crouching Tiger (as it is know) or would we still be waiting for a subtitled picture to enter the race again?

You mean "subtitled picture not directed by Clint Eastwood," right?

January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGuy Lodge

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