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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - At a recent screening for "An Education," as star Peter Sarsgaard and director Lone Scherfig moved through the crowd, a debate broke out about the movie's relationship between a 30-year-old man and a teenage girl in 1960s London.
"There's an ick factor," a thirtysomething female journalist said. "I don't want to see someone hitting on a teenage girl. It's creepy."
Standing next to her, a fiftysomething publicist begged to differ. "That's the way it was if you were a girl growing up in the 1960s," he said. "A man could come and sweep you off your feet."
As the awards season gets under way, the question about Scherfig's picture could easily be projected onto the entire field of contenders. Will voters embrace movies that make them feel good, or will they tilt toward the films that focus on uglier and, well, ickier truths?
Most years, the coterie that votes for major awards gets seized by a mood. Movies that fit that mood gain an edge; movies that run counter to it don't.
That was evident two years ago when "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" -- both laying bare man's baser tendencies -- swept through the season. And it was equally apparent, from the other side, when the cheer of "Chicago" trumped the bloody cynicism of "Gangs of New York" and the loneliness of "The Hours" in 2002.
This year, many Oscar pundits are going 10-slot crazy, wondering whether the additional five spots in the best picture race will go to the multiplex or to the art house.
Whatever answers emerge, it's clear that with an expanded field, voters will have to make tougher choices than usual -- if not when mentally filling out their list of 10, then when they start anointing movies from among that list.
With the widened field, there's a wider split between the feel-good contenders and the downbeat ones, between movies that depict the world as it is and those that show the world as we wish it to be.
Voters, for instance, will have to choose between the story of an inner-city girl whose stepfather has repeatedly raped her ("Precious") and an old man who takes a magical, life-affirming balloon ride ("Up"). They'll have to decide between a group of male bomb-defusers drawn to the nightmare of the battlefield ("The Hurt Locker") and a group of male friends drawn hilariously to the escapism of Vegas ("The Hangover").
This choice won't simply be a cultural statement. It's no accident that, as the studio specialty business withers away, nearly all the downbeat contenders ("Precious," "Bright Star," "The Hurt Locker") were made outside the studio system, while almost all those celebrating life's aspirational side ("Up," "Star Trek," "The Hangover," "Invictus") were made within it.
Studio specialty divisions once regularly made downbeat pics from inside Hollywood. But with a few rare exceptions (e.g., Focus' "A Serious Man"), there are no pictures like that in this year's race. A vote for the dark movies, then, could be read as a gentle rebuke to the studios for shuttering those divisions.
There are awards hopefuls that don't fit neatly into any one category. Last year, voters were able to have it both ways with "Slumdog Millionaire," which highlighted life's cruelties before giving way to a soaringly happy ending. (The picture also was a hybrid on the business side -- made within the studio specialty system but at arm's length.)
That path could lead voters, say, to "Up in the Air," which is a kind of "Slumdog" in reverse: a seemingly airy confection that takes a surprisingly dark turn. And it, too, is a hybrid -- made by Paramount but with the filmmakers given a lot more freedom than usual.
As its director Jason Reitman said, "It's not an indie film, and it's not a mainstream film."
He may be on to something. In this year of 10 best picture nominees, voters will find themselves pulled in more directions than ever. It may just lead them back to the middle.