- The winner is usually the film with the most nominations
- More often than not, the winner is a drama and one with a romantic storyline*
- The winner tends to be a populist favourite (in the past 30 years only 3 winners have grossed less than $100 million domestically)
- The category that tells you the most about the chances of the five contenders is Editing. A film can win without Acting nominations (Return of the King, Braveheart, The Last Emperor), without a Screenplay nomination (Titanic), and even without a Director nomination (Driving Miss Daisy), but you've got to go back to Ordinary People to find a winner that wasn't nominated for Editing
So keeping all of that in mind, and remembering that buzz is always the defining factor, the nominees:
David Fincher’s film leads the nominations with 13 (a number few films reach) and also has the distinction of being the highest-grossing of the nominees. There's obviously a lot of love for this film both artistically and technically, but it's also the nominee that's been getting the biggest beating leading up to the ceremony. Now, it's hardly unusual for romantic epics to trump more critically acclaimed competitors (think of Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction, The English Patient over Fargo, and Titanic over L.A. Confidential, just to name a few), but for that to happen I think that there has to be a general feeling of audiences and critics being swept up in the grandeur of the bigger, glitzier film - and I don't think that that's happened with Button. Nevertheless, it can't be counted out as a threat to Slumdog Millionaire's potential domination.
Also Nominated For: Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects
Frost/Nixon's inclusion in the Best Picture race seemed inevitable even though there was relatively little talk about it. Compared to the amount of discussion inspired by the other nominees (both good and bad), this one seems like something of an afterthought. Although well-received by critics, I can't see any circumstances under which it could win Best Picture; it's a classic also-ran if I've ever seen one.
Also Nominated For: Director, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Editing
This year's dark horse is a biopic with a lot of relevance to current events and which may well benefit from a vote split between The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire. I don't expect that to happen, but I wouldn't be entirely surprised, especially since some are still feeling the sting of the great Brokeback Mountain versus Crash debacle of 2005. The film has been a hit with most critics but has hardly made a dent at the box office, which may hurt its chances.
Also Nominated For: Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Editing, Costume Design, Original Score
2008 wasn’t a great year in film, but even with its slim pickings The Reader has no place in the top 5 – and I say that as someone who liked it. Chalk this up to the power of Harvey Weinstein’s marketing push, but don’t count on it for the win. Weinstein's aggressive campaigning is likely to turn some people off, and the lack of recognition in the Editing category doesn't bode well.
Also Nominated For: Director, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography
The critical favourite seems to have it all but sewn up, though there are a couple of things working against it. It's spent the last couple of months sweeping awards, which have inevitably given way to the "over rated" rumblings. Feeding in to that is the manufactured controversies about the film in relation to the real slums of Mumbai and the effect of the film on the young actors who appeared in it. The other problem is, to put it bluntly, that the Academy tends not to favour films lacking in significant white characters (and don't point to The Last Emperor or Gandhi because the former features Peter O'Toole and the latter has Candice Bergen and Martin Sheen). That being said, the fact that Slumdog garnered so many nominations despite not being effects driven speaks well for its chances, because it suggests that the AMPAS nominated for pretty much everything it possibly could.
Also Nominated For: Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Score, Song (x2), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing
* This is true of the winners in general, though the past decade has seen few romantically inclined winners