Mister Tee wrote
But I'm not certain that's what Sabin meant by his original remark. Is it possible he meant the best picture race in '88 is similar to this year's? If he clarifies, I'll be glad to weigh in.
I was referring to Best Picture contenders. Imagine winnowing it down to five! Even with an expanded roster, there’s a sense that we’ll know which film will end up coming out on top once the nominations are announced and we can do the math and figure out which one is ‘Rain Man’ (ie, the one with all the boxes checked).
Okay, to tackle from that angle:
Yes, 1988 was a year that, like this year, had many many candidates. Films that weren't among the best picture five but had been very well-reviewed and/or decent box-office successes: Big, Bull Durham, Gorillas in the Mist, A Fish Called Wanda, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. All but Roger Rabbit were screenplay-nominated (and Zemeckis' film had a DGA nod). In mid-December, there was no consensus whatever on the ultimate best picture choice. Early pundits pointed to Mississippi Burning, for its "message", but reviews were more tepid than expected. The magazine Seven Days (whose entertainment coverage soon migrated to Entertainment Weekly) touted Dangerous Liaisons, as being in the spirit of the previous year's Last Emperor. But Rain Man became the favorite in early January, partly because of winning the Globe, but more because it turned into an astonishing box-office success, one that well outperformed the rest of the field. (Peter Bart said it was the MGM film that finally, in pure dollar terms, broke Gone with the Wind's gross total.) The way the nominations broke out -- with Accidental Tourist and Liaisons missing director, and Mississippi Burning and Working Girl failing at screenplay -- best picture became a fait accompli, but I think it was settled even before that.
But you've got me thinking that there are only these very few years where the number of candidates is truly vast, and that this situation frequently results in chaotic nominations. Here in 1988, the DGA nominees were Rain Man, Mississippi Burning, Working Girl, A Fish Called Wanda and Roger Rabbit. Three repeated as best picture/director nominees but only one got screenplay, one got director/screenplay only, and Roger Rabbit got nothing -- with Tourist and Liaisons popping up as surprise best picture candidates, and Last Temptation of Christ a complete wild card in director.
1995 was a similarly wide-ranging year -- I've noted many times that there are about 30 films I could recommend from its releases -- and there we had the insane omissions of Apollo 13 and Sense and Sensibility from director, Leaving Las Vegas not getting its expected best picture nod, Babe popping up as a film/director candidate despite no DGA mention, and Il Postino -- which seemed a classic lone director choice -- unexpectedly parleying its DGA nod into a best picture candidacy. When you totted all that up, Braveheart -- a movie taken so unseriously that Entertainment Weekly didn't even have it as a best picture possibility in its Oscar Race Begins issue -- became the statistically likely winner...a position it cashed in on Oscar night, though may of us hoped/believed otherwise right up to the opening of the envelope.
1999 sort of fell into this over-stuffed category as well -- we can all look at The Talented Mr. Ripley, Being John Malkovich, Boys Don't Cry, Election, Magnolia and Three Kings, and wonder why they weren't in the best picture chase. But voters kept things fairly staid that year -- four of the best picture nominees got film/director/screenplay nominees, and, by leaving out all the other hipper movies, they made it fairly easy for American Beauty to triumph.
After that, I'd say 2012 was the next year where we were faced with just too broad a field, and we all know what happened there -- chaos in film/director. The year had a different outcome, though, compared to 1988 or 1995: the old rules suggested Argo was a loser there, thanks to its directing miss; the race should have been down to Lincoln or Life of Pi. But customs had loosened over recent years, and Argo emerged triumphant.
I'm wondering if that's going to be true this year as well, in spades: people are already trying to toss films overboard for missing SAG Ensemble, or falling short at the Globes. I think the combination of way too many notable entries, the radical membership changes of recent years, and the ongoing disconnection from precursor tradition will make this a year of surprises in more places than we've come to expect.