The members of the Motion Picture Academy are still filling out their ballots, but right now the Anglo-Indian melodrama Slumdog Millionaire is the strong favorite to win the Oscars for Best Picture, Directing and Adapted Screenplay. It has already snagged top prizes from the producers', directors', writers' and actors' guilds. It's also earned nearly $80 million at the domestic box office--far more than the combined take of three of its Best Picture rivals, The Reader, Frost/Nixon and Milk. (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which absent Slumdog might have been the film to beat, has grossed more than $120 million.) Though set in Mumbai, Slumdog has become a new American idol. The other films may as well sign up for Biggest Losers Ever.
All five finalists are fine films. But The Reader, Frost/Nixon and Milk aren't so much movies as TV movies: sensitive explorations of major political themes, little pictures on big subjects. It's the stuff more likely to show up on HBO than at the AMC multiplex. Why does the Academy keep citing these (excellent) little movies over the (excellent) big ones, whose scope and excitement can't be duplicated on the small screen? (See the 100 best movies of all time.)
One reason is that Academy members are a tad older than the target audience for action-adventures, however elegantly crafted. It's not that Hollywood folk don't get these films; after all, they made 'em. It's that they don't think the grand-scale technical skill lavished on a Dark Knight or an Iron Man is as honorable as the spectacle of two guys talking--as long as one of them is Richard Nixon.
Really, any old-timer will do. Except for Slumdog, all the Best Picture finalists are set wholly in the past. Aaah, Harvey Milk. Oooo, Nazis! Members feel simpatico to films that remind them of when they were actively engaged in politics--and in moviegoing.
Moviegoing is exactly what separates the audience from the Academy. You, dear ordinary cinephile, go to a theater and sit in a big room with a big screen on which, you hope, big things will happen. Those things are called movies. But the Academy balloters, by and large, aren't true moviegoers; the movies come to them, on DVD screeners. When the members, many of whom are on the set for 12 or 14 hours a day, do their Oscar homework, they want a retreat from the pyrotechnics they've been creating. They want dramas that are important yet intimate, stressing method and message. Those things are called TV shows.
That's why, in the films and performances that are honored, the Oscars have become more like the Emmys. And why the Academy Awards, which used to be the highest-rated entertainment program of the year, could hit a new low with its Feb. 22 broadcast. Now, if Slumdog were battling The Dark Knight for Best Picture--sort of Dharma vs. Goliath--that would be a can't-miss fight.
And yet in the 2009 Academy slog, as in the best old romances, there is a redemption angle. If Slumdog wins, the Hollywood establishment will have rewarded a foreign film, partly in Hindi, with no familiar faces, just a snazzy mixture of art and heart--and a movie that the audience, not the Academy, made into a hit. Isn't that worth tuning in for?
One other bonus. In India, the TV ratings should be huge.
CRITIC'S PICKS: Here's your TIME reviewer's annotated Oscar ballot. But these predictions (not preferences) come with a caveat: Don't bet your bailout bundle on "expert" opinions. You'd do just as well with a Ouija board