Correction to This Article
A Feb. 18 Arts article incorrectly implied that the movies "Cleopatra," "Hello, Dolly!" and "Alamo" won Oscars for Best Picture. They were all nominated in that category, but none of them won the award.

Chasing Down the 'Best'

From left, Alan Arkin, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear in Best Picture nominee
From left, Alan Arkin, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear in Best Picture nominee "Little Miss Sunshine": Sure, your heartland relatives might like it, but where's the grand view? (By Eric Lee -- Fox Searchlight)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2007

It's a yearly ritual as dependable as Punxsutawney Phil himself -- the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents the Oscar for Best Picture and is greeted with a single, unified response: Huh?

Next Sunday, no matter which breathless producers we've never heard of take the stage to thank more producers we never heard of (but didn't make the cut to be up onstage), a fair amount of outrage, confusion and high dudgeon will surely be abroad in the land.

"Little Miss Sunshine"? Cute, quirky, warmhearted, sure, but where's the sweep?

"The Departed"? Certainly an example of Martin Scorsese returning to Grand Guignol form, but where's the deeper meaning?

"Babel"? Sweep, yes, and some fabulous performances, but do fuzzy-headed notions about the randomness and violence of life really qualify as deeper meaning?

"The Queen"? Veddy tasteful, veddy smart, veddy high-toned. But where's the scope?

"Letters From Iwo Jima"? It's got it all -- scope, sweep, ambition, deeper meaning. But . . . where's the audience?

When the nominations were announced last month, the hue and cry went up immediately. Many critics gnashed their teeth (another yearly ritual) when at least three of the very best films of the year -- "United 93," "Children of Men" and "Pan's Labyrinth" -- were shut out in the Best Picture nominations. And Joe and Jane America felt vicariously dissed when a huge audience favorite didn't get the Big Nod. The hit musical "Dreamgirls" was good enough to earn eight nominations in six categories, but apparently not good enough for the award that common sense suggests would follow from such esteem.

We ask it every year, but here we go again: What the [insert favorite invective here]?! Just what do Academy voters mean by "Best Picture" anyway?

I've always had a pet theory that the Best Picture category has been more about the film business than the film arts, which is why so many technical and artistic achievements -- your "High Noons," your "Taxi Drivers," your "Quiz Shows" -- get overlooked in favor of mainstream box-office earners ("The Greatest Show on Earth," "Rocky," "Forrest Gump"). It's the rising-tide notion of Best Picture, which is that the Academy likes to reward movies that got audiences talking that year, thereby getting them to theaters and into movies in general.

I call it the My Dad in Des Moines formula. If my dad -- a man of conservative, wholesome, mainstream taste -- calls to say he's heard he absolutely must see "Little Miss Sunshine," for example, that's the sign that the movie has jumped from quirky niche comedy to a part of the national cocktail party conversation, something we all have to see in order to be culturally literate. (According to the My Dad in Des Moines formula, "Little Miss Sunshine" would be this year's sure winner.)

The ineffable blend of art and commerce has always characterized the Best Picture category, which started out as two categories when the Academy first instituted the awards in 1927. That year, they handed out an award for Best Producer ("who produced the most outstanding motion picture, considering all elements that contribute to a picture's greatness," according to Academy criteria) and Best Production Company ("which produced the most artistic, unique, and/or original motion picture without reference to cost or magnitude").

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