There's a widespread sense that the Academy's strange, unanticipated decision to expand the number of Best Picture nominees to ten this year is a response to the lackluster slate of five they submitted last year. As the folks at Movieline optimistically note, if there had been ten nominees last year, the list would almost certainly have included Wall-E and The Dark Knight (which they, and I, would have considered good news), Doubt (perhaps somewhat less so), and maybe even The Wrestler. (Movieline imagines Vicky Cristina Barcelona might've gotten the tenth nod; my guess might be Rachel Getting Married.) Would such additions have improved the list of those made the cut (Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Reader)? I think so, but only because that list was so weak.
This feels like a particularly sorry case of fighting the last war. The list of nominees the year before last was actually relatively strong: No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Juno, Michael Clayton, Atonement. Would that list have benefited the addition of Into the Wild, American Gangster, In the Valley of Elah, Ratatouille, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age? I'm going to say no, and that's not even taking into account the diluted value of a nomination in such a crowded field. Ten nominees is an awful lot.
On average, the only way to ensure that better movies are nominated is for the Academy to exercise better judgment. If you embrace the logic that those choosing the nominees need to be protected from their own dubious discernment, it points rather emphatically in the direction of ignoring the awards altogether, which is presumably not the message the Academy intends to send.
Two other quick observations:
1) Movieline suggests, again optimistically, that adding more nominees would not have affected the outcome last year, though I'm not so sure. Slumdog Millionaire presumably benefited from the fact that it was up against a vote-splitting slate of self-consciously worthy, earnest nominees: three adapatations (Frost/Nixon, The Reader, Ben Button) and a biopic that drew heavily on an already-Oscar-approved documentary (Milk). Would more popular, and (to my mind) more inventive, competitors such as Wall-E and Dark Knight have siphoned away enough Slumdog votes to enable Milk to win on a wave of liberal high-mindedness? Perhaps not, but I wouldn't count out the possibility.
2) Today, in Other Shoe news, the Academy announced it would be dropping the Irving G. Thalberg lifetime achievement award from the ceremony--gotta make room for all those Best Picture clips!--and, in some circumstances, dropping the Best Song category as well. The latter also seems a response to last year's awards, when Bruce Springstein's heavily favored theme for The Wrestler somehow failed to be nominated. Here again, the assumption seems to be that the Academy can't be trusted to get it right, though the solution is an opposite one: Don't let them nominate anything! I won't pretend I don't see the appeal...