I was afraid. I was very afraid.
As the clock ticked down to 5:38 and 30 seconds Tuesday morning (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is nothing if not precise), I found myself, as a partisan of the Oscar's sea change from five to 10 best-picture nominees, getting increasingly worried about how it would all play out.
Instead of the broad audience pictures the academy was hoping for, would the membership end up voting for 10 niche items? Would (bite your tongue at the very thought) something like "The Hangover" get one of the coveted slots? With an arcane voting system no one so much as claimed to understand, anything seemed possible.
As it turned out, and not for the first time, I worried for nothing. The academy membership ended up using their second five choices wisely, giving an intriguing variety of films the unlooked-for opportunity to put "Best Picture Nominee" on their publicity material until the end of time.
One of the interesting things about the Big 10 is that it feels fairly simple to pick the five films that would have been nominated if the system hadn't changed. Paralleling the five best-director choices, the Original Five would have been "Avatar," "The Hurt Locker," "Inglourious Basterds," "Precious" and "Up in the Air." These were also the films that received the most nominations, ranging from nine each for "Avatar" and "Hurt Locker" to six apiece for "Precious" and "Up in the Air." And if the eventual best-picture winner isn't one of them, a lot of people will faint dead away.
Of the Second Five, only one film, the Coen brothers' comically melancholy, just about indefinable "A Serious Man" fits the feared 10-nominee stereotype of a worthy but bleak film that not many people have paid to see. But the Coens have long been academy favorites: Their "No Country for Old Men" won best picture, and they've been nominated four times, including this year, for original screenplay.
"An Education," though its box office is roughly on par with "A Serious Man," is a more audience-friendly small picture, graced by a nominated screenplay from Nick Hornby and a classic star-is-born performance by Carey Mulligan (a lead-actress nominee) so irresistible it propelled the film into the Big Ten.
Two of the Second Five - "Up" and "The Blind Side" - do fulfill the academy's wish: They are major-audience pictures with more than $600 million in domestic gross between them. Although I am one of the few Americans able to resist the putative charms of "The Blind Side," I like the idea of an earnest, popular film contending for the big prize. And my reservations are more than balanced by my delight in seeing the wonderful "Up" become the first animated film to get a best-picture nomination since the form received its own category, something that likely would not have happened under the old system.
Perhaps the most unexpected choice in the Big 10 was the unusual "District 9," a surprise hit with more than $100 million in domestic gross that adroitly mixes science fiction and social commentary. By picking this film over its more conventional genre cousin "Star Trek," the academy demonstrated a willingness to go beyond the obvious that is always welcome.
Paradoxically enough in a year when "The Hurt Locker's" Kathryn Bigelow is poised to be the first woman to win for best director, the academy missed the boat on two films directed by women, denying best-picture, -director and -writer nominations to Jane Campion's "Bright Star" and Nora Ephron's "Julie & Julia." These films couldn't be more different, but they were top of the line in their chosen spheres, and it's too bad the voters didn't see it that way.
Aside from those omissions, the writers as always had an especially eclectic slate, which included giving an original screenplay nomination (as well as a supporting actor nod for Woody Harrelson) to the well-liked Sundance veteran "The Messenger." Even more unexpected was an adapted nomination for the rapid-fire dialogue of the British "In the Loop," an echo of the nomination of "In Bruges" last year.
As to the academy's occasional problem children, the foreign language and documentary committees, one is doing splendidly while the other could use some help.
After considerable tinkering, the foreign-language committee has hit its stride with an impeccable list of five, including Cannes favorites "A Prophet" and "The White Ribbon," Berlin winner "The Milk of Sorrow" (the first nominee from Peru) and two other highly regarded works, Israel's "Ajami" and Argentina's "The Secret of Her Eyes."
Although the five documentaries nominated are all fine films, they are also all serious and somber works dealing with the world's problems. None of the lighter films on the committee's shortlist, including "Valentino" and "The Beaches of Agnes," made it to the final five, and don't get me started about the way the delightful "Anvil" didn't even make the short list. It wouldn't hurt this earnest group to lighten up, even just a little.
In some ways, the most surprising and heartening of the academy's dozens of nominations was the selection of Italy's "Il Divo" as one of the three best achievements in makeup for masterfully turning actor Toni Servillo into Italian politician Giulio Andreotti. A sensation in its home country and all but unseen here, the inclusion of "Il Divo" shows a willingness to cast a wide net that, though not always an academy trademark, certainly appears to be one now.