Look at the movies up for consideration this year. There's "The Master," a movie some found brilliant and others found hard to watch or even understand. (It's this year's "Tree of Life.") There's "Django Unchained," a movie that's prompted numerous controversies over its extreme violence, its provocative language, and its irreverent treatment of a still-raw wound in American history. (In Oscar terms, it's this year's "The Help.") There's "Les Miserables," which has moved some viewers to tears and others to frustration. There's summer indie hits "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild," movies about childhood that some adored and others abhorred -- were they precocious and precious or patronizing and petulant? And then there's "Zero Dark Thirty," a movie that provokes love/hate responses from the same people (that is, critics who are dazzled by the spy thriller's technique but appalled by its refusal to condemn the use of torture by American intelligence operatives).
In its apparent love for controversy, the Academy is only echoing its choices of recent years. Last year's top prize went to "The Artist," a movie few people wanted to see because it was silent and in black-and-white; the film beat such hotly-debated films as "The Help," "Tree of Life," "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (a movie accused of exploiting the 9/11 tragedy) and "War Horse" (a movie that probably wouldn't have been nominated had it not been directed by Steven Spielberg). The year before, the consensus choice of critics, "The Social Network" (hailed for its up-to-date form and subject matter) lost out to "The King's Speech" (a crowd-pleasing movie that critics dismissed as formulaic Oscar bait, with its posh British accents and period flavor). Three years ago, there was "Avatar," which polarized critics with its mix of pioneering 3D visuals and cliched plotting; the consensus choice of moviegoers, it lost to "The Hurt Locker," a little-seen movie that critics loved but which also prompted debate over whether it honored or dishonored American servicemen fighting overseas.
And on and on -- to 2008, when the two top movies ("No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood") were both polarizing movies with endings that made viewers want to throw their Cokes at the screen. Or to 2006, when "Crash" (a movie viewers found either profound or facile) beat "Brokeback Mountain" (the critical consensus choice, albeit a movie about a controversial topic). Or to 2005, when "Million Dollar Baby" (a movie accused of glorifying euthanasia) beat the more conventional biopic "The Aviator."
It wasn't supposed to work like this. The change in Academy rules four years ago that expanded the Best Picture category from five slots to as many as ten was supposed to increase consensus by creating room for more populist movies (that is, movies popular enough among audiences to draw viewers to the ratings-challenged Oscar telecast) that still enjoyed critical acclaim. Movies like Christopher Nolan pictures (like "The Dark Knight," a huge blockbuster that was also a critical darling, whose 2008 snub prompted the rule change). But instead of making it easier for critic-approved box-office hits to get nominated, the new rule just made it easier for movies with a small but passionate following to make the cut; after all, if there are 10 competitors instead of five, you can break into the winners' circle with a much smaller plurality of votes. Under the new system, then, movies with a broader but less intense base of support are more likely to be also-rans. (As for Nolan, his 2010 smash "Inception" was nominated but failed to win major prizes, and his 2012 feature, the acclaimed and popular "The Dark Knight Rises," isn't even on Oscar's radar.)
The Academy, of course, takes its cues from the critics' groups that define the race in December and January by winnowing down the field of eligible movies and picking their own winners. And critics tend to like polarizing films. Unlike typical weekend moviegoers, who seek escapism and the reassuring comfort of the familiar, the critics (who see five movies a week and have grown tired of the familiar) long for fare that's unique and challenging. That doesn't mean that some critics aren't just as vulnerable to groupthink as audiences-at-large are. To take a (possibly unfair) example: Some critics declare "Beasts of the Southern Wild" an act of poetic genius, either because they truly think it is or because they don't want to be thought too obtuse to appreciate it. Others call it a pretentious jumble, either because they genuinely don't like it or because they don't want to be seen as lapdogs to the first group. The first group sees the backlash and start a counter-backlash, reaffirming that the movie is a work of genius best appreciated by other geniuses such as themselves, with the churlishness of the second group only confirming the brilliant insight of the first group. The debate itself catches the attention of awards voters, and when that pile of screeners arrives in the mail, with too many movies to see before voting, they'll pop in the DVD of "Beasts" before they watch, say, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" (to pick a little-seen movie that earned raves but did not generate a noisy, attention-grabbing dispute), if indeed they watch "Perks" at all. Which is why, on Oscar night, you're more likely to see "Beasts"' untrained child actress Quvenzhane Wallis on the red carpet than "Perks'" Emma Watson.
Actors in these polarizing films stand to benefit, too. When the Oscar nominations are announced this week (on Jan. 10), you can expect to see such names as "The Master'"s Joaquin Phoenix (and maybe Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, too), "Les Miserables'" Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, "Django'"s Leonardo DiCaprio, and "Zero Dark Thirty'"s Jessica Chastain.
Then again, if these movies are truly polarizing, they risk alienating equally passionate groups of voters and allowing more consensus-minded choices to fill the vacuum. After all, the other movies expected to do well with the Academy this year are Spielberg's "Lincoln" (with star Daniel Day-Lewis a shoo-in), Ben Affleck's "Argo" (a hit that's likely to earn the once-disgraced "Gigli" star his first directing nomination), and the modest indie hit "Silver Linings Playbook," which is almost certain to land a nomination for the can-do-no-wrong Jennifer Lawrence. In a movie year whose biggest awards contenders are also its most bitterly fought-over, there's room for victory for all-American heroes like Honest Abe and Katniss Everdeen.