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Will Oscar Wake Up With a 'Hangover' Next Year?

It's the most talked-about film of the summer. It has left audiences roaring and critics smiling. Its box office numbers are through the roof, and it’s showing legs after more than a month in theaters.

But can "The Hangover" wake up to a best picture nomination next February?

I’m not going to say "yes"– at least not yet. Let me just say that its chances are better than you might think (and certainly much better than that of finding a tiger in your Vegas hotel room.)

Here’s why.

When the Motion Picture Academy announced last month that next year’s Oscars will feature 10 best pictures nominees, it turned the Oscar race into an entirely different ballgame. (Or perhaps an entirely different “ball” would be a more appropriate way to put it.)

While the Academy did name 10 best picture nominees for much of the 1930’s and the early 1940’s, it has limited the best film contenders to just five for more than sixty years now. Oscar pundits (such as myself) have generally learned to predict most of the five film nominees before the nominations are announced, but we’re careful to mention a few alternate choices and longshots which could make the cut.

For instance, earlier this year I correctly called four of the five nominations. My fifth slot prediction “The Dark Knight” was left out, but I had mentioned the eventual nominee “The Reader” as being a longshot. (“The Dark Knight” presumably finished sixth in the Oscar voting.)

What will be fascinating next year is that the sixth place film WILL be a best picture nominee, as will the films ranked seventh through tenth in the balloting process. And while Oscar watchers will still try and predict all 10 best picture nominees, there will be far more room for surprises and downright shocks.

Unconventional Oscar films like “The Fugitive,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Babe,” “The Full Monty,” and “Little Miss Sunshine” have managed to break into the top five in recent years. Imagine how many underdog films might have finished in the top 10, without anyone knowing except for the accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers? Especially in weaker years when Academy members struggled to find even five Oscar-worthy films?

Take the year of 2007, when “No Country for Old Men” beat out “Atonement,” “Juno,” “Michael Clayton” and “There Will Be Blood” for the top prize. If five more films had to be cited in that unmemorable year, what would they have been? “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” would have been a good bet, as would “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” From there on it would have been anyone’s guess, with “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Ratatouille” and “Hairspray: The Movie” being the most logical contenders. Good films, but all far from traditional best picture material.

Go back another two years to 2005, when “Crash” was named best film over “Brokeback Mountain.” “Capote,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and "Munich" rounded out the category. If there had been five more films in the bunch, it’s fair to say that “Walk the Line” and “The Constant Gardener” would probably have been included.

As for the other three slots – it’s conceivable that the likes of “King Kong,” “March of the Penguins” or even “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” could have found their way to the Kodak Theatre on Oscar night. Again, well-done films, but hardly what we’ve come to expect in the best picture line-up.

I can name countless other examples of popular popcorn films that might have finished in the top 10 in best picture voting in recent years. Here are some more examples.

2006: “The Devil Wears Prada”

2004: “The Incredibles,” Spider-Man 2”

2003: “Finding Nemo,” “Love, Actually,” Bend It Like Beckham”

2001: “Shrek,” “Legally Blonde,” “Bridget Jones’ Diary”

1999: “Notting Hill,” “Toy Story 2”

1998: “There’s Something About Mary”

1997: “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Men in Black”

1995: “Toy Story,” “Heat”

1992: “A League of Their Own”

1991: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “City Slickers”

1990: “Pretty Woman,” “Dick Tracy”

1989: “Batman,” “When Harry Met Sally”

1988: “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Big”

I can’t be sure that all of the above films finished in the top 10 in Academy voting, but if they didn’t, they must have come close.

Getting back to next year’s Oscars and the prospects of “The Hangover,” it will largely depend on how strong a film year 2009 turns out to be. It’s difficult to say right now, as most of the serious contenders are typically released at the year’s end. If the Oscar nominations were announced today, “The Hangover” would be undoubtedly be on the short list, as would the animated feature “Up,” the Johhny Depp gangster drama “Public Enemies” and the Michelle Pfeiffer period piece “Cheri.” If we see a surge of great movies released in the fall, Academy members will probably forget about the effects of “The Hangover.” If many of those highly anticipated films fail to deliver or die at the box office, voters just might remember it.

Whatever happens next year, the Oscar race for best picture will be more exciting than it has been in decades. Ten nominees will mean more variety, more representation, and more surprises. More big Hollywood stars (and some unknowns) will be in best picture nominees, and they will be more likely to attend the awards ceremony.

The 10-way race also means that the margin of victory for the winning film will likely be smaller, and the chance of an upset winner even greater. (Just as “Rebecca” defeated “The Grapes of Wrath” for best film of 1940 and “How Green Was My Valley” triumphed over “Citizen Kane” for top picture of 1941.) Who knows – if last year’s Oscar race had featured 10 nominees, it’s conceivable that a split vote by the more serious films could have led to an upset victory for “The Dark Knight.”

So even if “The Hangover” doesn’t make it as a best picture nominee, I guarantee you that some Academy members will wake up the morning of the nominations, trying to figure out exactly what happened during the voting process.

That’s one thing that the Vegas oddsmakers wouldn’t dare to bet against.