Oscars 2012: Why ‘We Bought A Zoo’ Deserved A Best Picture Nod

Nine films are nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year, begging the question: who deserved a tenth spot on that list? “Oscars 2012: 10 Spot” answers that question, as the MTV Movies team highlights some of 2011’s greatest films and argues why they deserved a nod as the tenth Best Picture nominee.

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Front and center at the 2012 Oscars is a heartbreaking film — one nominated in five categories, including Best Picture and Best Actor — about a family reeling from the tragic loss of its matriarch. The father is at a loss as to how to pull his children — the elder acting up, the younger not quite mature enough to grasp the enormity of unfolding events — up from the depths of grief and move them toward something resembling a new normal. The patriarch’s eventual solution? A wild adventure. The result? A family learning, at times happily and at times with tears, to be whole again.

I’m talking, of course, about “The Descendants.” Here’s the thing: there was a second film this past year that followed a largely similar story arc (far more successfully, which is to say far more gut-wrenchingly and believably) and yet it hasn’t factored at all into awards-season chatter. The film in question is “We Bought a Zoo,” and it absolutely deserves a Best Picture nomination.

Co-writer/director Cameron Crowe pulls off the impressive trick of spinning what could have easily devolved into a maudlin cryfest into an affecting film about loss and trial-and-error recovery. Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a man who recently lost his wife to cancer. His son has just been expelled from school, and if it weren’t for the help of his precocious 7-year-old daughter, he might not be able to get his kids dressed and their lunches packed each morning. Things are not going well. A change is needed. And so, just like the true story on which the film is based, Benjamin hauls his family away from town and into a new house — one that just so happens to be planted in a deteriorating zoo.

Listen, I can tick off all the ways this movie is one of my favorites of the year. Damon gives perhaps his most mature, fully developed performance to date. The supporting cast is richly drawn and there are a whole lot of laughs throughout. The soundtrack, like all those in Crowe’s films, rules. What I’ve really been thinking about recently, though, is why “Zoo” didn’t pop this awards-season while “Descendants,” which struck me as phony and featuring a loathsome egomaniac of a main character (albeit one portrayed ably by George Clooney), has become an Oscar sweetheart.

Do the old white guys who comprise the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences not like Crowe? Well, they have nominated him three times in the past, and he won once for his “Almost Famous” screenplay. Do voters believe movies featuring a colorful cast of animals are just a little too Disney? Do they have a selective aversion to earnest films, favoring something unbearably schmaltzy (Best Picture nominee “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”) over the sweetness and realness and movie magic-tinged verve of “Zoo”?

Silly questions, all. There’s ultimately no parsing the behind-the-scenes scheming and in-front-of-the-buffet-table glad-handing that separates an Oscar darling from an Oscar never-was. So screw it. I’ll just look forward to the arrival of “We Bought a Zoo” on DVD in April.

The MTV Movies team has the 2012 Oscars covered! Stick with us for everything you need to know leading up to the awards show, and on Sunday, February 26, tune into MTV.com at 5:30 p.m. ET for our three-hour red-carpet live stream and updates on the night’s big winners.