In another, earlier career, I spent seven years as a marketing executive in auto racing and after nearly four decades covering movies, I've finally found a parallel between a stock car race and the Oscar Derby. For 2009, at least, the Oscar race for Best Picture will have what in NASCAR parlance are called "back markers." They're cars and drivers who have no chance of winning but fill out the field.

As a close look at last year's Best Picture Oscar field shows us, it's hard enough to fill out a five-place ballot with potential winners. With 10 slots to fill out from this year's list of 274 eligible feature films, there will be titles in the bottom five that have no business being included in a best-of competition in any year. In another, earlier career, I spent seven years as a marketing executive in auto racing and after nearly four decades covering movies, I've finally found a parallel between a stock car race and the Oscar Derby. For 2009, at least, the Oscar race for Best Picture will have what in NASCAR parlance are called "back markers." They're cars and drivers who have no chance of winning but fill out the field.

As a close look at last year's Best Picture Oscar field shows us, it's hard enough to fill out a five-place ballot with potential winners. With 10 slots to fill out from this year's list of 274 eligible feature films, there will be titles in the bottom five that have no business being included in a best-of competition in any year. As I've written here before, the Academy made the bonehead decision to double the number of Best Picture nominees because it wanted to get some big audience movies in the mix, movies with stars or, at least, fans. Movies like last year's overlooked 'The Dark Knight.'

The Academy poobahs may get their wish: there are so few 2009 movies with what we Oscar snobs call "Oscar-worthiness" that a popular success like 'The Blind Side' might slip into the No. 10 spot, and carry its lightweight star Sandra Bullock with it. That would have the likely effect of expanding the TV audience. But it wouldn't distinguish the Academy Awards.

There is already an awards show for fan favorites. It's called the People's Choice Awards and its 2009 nominees for Best Picture are 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,' 'The Twilight Saga: New Moon,' 'Star Trek,' 'The Hangover' and Sandra Bullock's earlier hit 'The Proposal.' Safe to say, even with 10 spots open on the Oscar ballot, none of these movies will make that list.

NineBy Friday, all of the potential Oscar contenders for the year will be in theaters, their bones -- their 'Lovely Bones,' in one case -- picked over by critics and placed somewhere along the collective critical spectrum of quality. Already, questions have been raised about Rob Marshall's adaptation of the Broadway musical 'Nine,' a star-studded affair that had long been considered a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination. But the early reviews have been mostly negative -- devastatingly negative in the case of such essential outlets as the Los Angeles Times and New York Times.

The Best Picture contingent cannot afford a key loss at this point. And 'Nine' isn't the only one on the bubble. Peter Jackson's much-anticipated 'The Lovely Bones' has been badly panned in early reviews, earning a score of just 44 on a scale of 100 at Metacritic.com. Will either of these damaged goods show up in the Oscar field? The voters may have no choice but to either include them or pander to the Academy plea for a nomination for a broad-audience movie.

At this point, all signs -- that is, critics waving their Top 10 lists and group awards like banners at a Tea Party rally -- point to 'Up in the Air,' 'Avatar,' 'The Hurt Locker,' 'Precious' and 'Inglourious Basterds' as movies Academy voters must see. They also like 'An Education' and 'A Serious Man,' and, if they had their way, they might fill out two or three spots from the year's list of first-rate animated features.

It's widely assumed by Oscar watchers that the expanded Best Picture ballot will make room for Pixar's 'Up.' But among critics (and, believe me, Academy voters' tastes are more aligned with critics than with 'New Moon' and 'Blind Side' fans), there was also greatness in the animated features 'The Fantastic Mr. Fox,' 'Coraline' and '9.' Nominating any of these for Best Picture will blow a hole through the credibility of the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and none of them can win. But the new field demands its back markers.
CATEGORIES Oscars, Awards