10 Best Picture Slots On This Year's Oscar Ballot

The first round of Oscar ballots gets mailed to Academy members Monday. Entertainment reporter Kim Masters talks with Steve Inskeep about what movies are in the mix. This year there will be 10 nominations for Best Picture as opposed to the usual five. Nominations will be announced Feb. 2.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. The drama that is awards season is revving up in Hollywood. Nominations for the Golden Globes have already been announced, and today, the first round of Oscar ballots go in the mail to Academy voters. Reporter Kim Masters is covering this story. She's at NPR West, our studios in California.

Hi, Kim.

KIM MASTERS: Hello, Steve.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should remind people that there's been a change in the Best Picture category this year in the Oscars.

MASTERS: There is. There will be 10 nominees instead of the usual five. The Academy, I think, was hoping to drum up some excitement, because in the last few years, we've had things like "No Country for Old Men," which may be worthy pictures, but not exactly huge hits. And they're hoping to get more popular movies into the category, and therefore there would be some rooting interest, which would bolster the ratings for the Academy Awards telecast.

INSKEEP: Oh, my gosh. This is going to be as controversial as the Bowl Championship Series in college football, I would imagine. So quality films are crowding out too much of the attention. They want to make sure that a couple of blockbusters get in there, is that what you're telling me?

MASTERS: Yes. Last year, the feeling was if only "The Dark Knight" could've been nominated, then more people might've watched. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MASTERS: I'm not making it up, Steve. This is the truth. So there's a question now as to whether the telecast is sort of the tail wagging the Oscar dog at this point.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm just curious. You are a movie viewer, as well as someone who covers the movie business. Do you think there are 10 movies out there worth an Academy Award nomination?

MASTERS: Well, listen, in reality, every year when there have been five, there's usually three, maybe, that people think are contenders and the other two that kind of get the courtesy nomination. So this year, it's going to be only more so. So already, we kind of know not only which movies are the top contenders, but possibly even - based on my Oscar watchers that I happen to like - which one's going to win. But then the good news for the Academy is the one that seems to be the frontrunner right now is going to be a very large hit. Can you guess?

INSKEEP: "Avatar"?

MASTERS: Yes.

INSKEEP: Just wondering. Wondering if that might be it.

MASTERS: I mean, look, we have a group of movies that we think are going to be - "Up in the Air" has done very well in the awards, the George Clooney movie, which, you know, is very topical with the subject of layoffs being featured in there.

INSKEEP: "Up in the Air"?

MASTERS: Yes. And, you know, "Hurt Locker," the - which is set in Iraq and very suspenseful. That has gotten a lot of awards attention. But "Avatar" sort of does the thing that a lot - you know, happens a lot. It bursts on the scene late. We all knew it was coming. There was a lot of skepticism. And it's considered to be a very transformative film in terms of the medium and a very special experience. It's been screened at the Academy in recent days, and it was - it played like gangbusters.

INSKEEP: You mean transformative in terms of the computerized special effects...

MASTERS: Yes, right.

INSKEEP: ...going to a new level.

MASTERS: The - yes.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to a little bit of "Avatar," which is set in the future on a moon called Pandora.

(Soundbite of movie "Avatar")

Mr. STEPHEN LANG (As Colonel Miles Quaritch): You're not in Kansas anymore. You're on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen. Respect that fact, every second of every day. If there is a hell, you might want to go there for some R&R after a tour on Pandora.

INSKEEP: Sounds like an Oscar right there. Best Actor, maybe. Who knows?

MASTERS: I don't think "Avatar's" up in the acting categories, and that's one of the hurdles it has to overcome. The biggest bloc of voters in the Academy is made up of actors. And as you may know, many of the characters in "Avatar" are very tall, blue creatures based on what used to be called motion capture. The director, James Cameron, is calling it performance capture. Why? Because he wants those actors to know this is acting. This is not animation. Now, oddly...

INSKEEP: Even though it is computer-enhanced? That's what this is. People are moving around...

MASTERS: Well, it's computer-generated. It's not computer-enhanced. These actors performed with a bunch of sensors all over. He devised a new thing. Part of the new thing of the movie is these big head rigs with a camera that's right in the face of the actors so that you get more facial nuance and you avoid what they call the dead eye look. But the point he wants to make is this is a performance. They're saying it's the prosthetics of the 21st century.

INSKEEP: Well, let me just ask, though. Is there a possibility here with this expanded Best Picture category to cast some attention on some films that maybe are not high art, but they do tell a great story?

MASTERS: Yeah. I mean, there might be some obscure, artsy films in there, but there could also be movies like "The Blind Side," which has made Hollywood happy because it's just a simple, old-fashioned kind of story. And it's been a big hit. It's a fun movie. And it's not, you know, effects-driven and full of comic book characters. And Hollywood really needs to believe after a very difficult year that a movie like that can work.

INSKEEP: Kim Masters hosts "The Business" on our member station KCRW. And she is our nominee for best reporting and analysis in 2009.

Kim, thanks very much.

MASTERS: Oh, thank you so much.

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