Over at The Film Experience, Andrew recently wrote about the reactions to nominations for critically-reviled films, especially when other films that were beloved missed out. It's an excellent dissection of the situation, and he makes the vital point that we should celebrate the fact that the Academy will look outside the Best Picture box when rewarding certain craft achievements. Yes, it's easy to make the comparison that The Lone Ranger earned two nominations this year when Blue is the Warmest Color was completely shut out, or that Three 6 Mafia has won more Oscars than Alfred Hitchcock. But that doesn't mean that they weren't worthy of consideration in those categories.
Here's a great example: the 2007 Best Visual Effects category. The nominees were:
The Golden Compass
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Now, I wouldn't go to bat for any of these as particularly great movies. Transformers had some terrific "robots-go-smash!" pleasures, but was marred by complicated, nonsensical mythology. That latter problem plagued At World's End as well, and the PotC franchise was feeling tired by that point. The less said about The Golden Compass, the better. And critics generally agreed on these points: the Metacritic scores for The Golden Compass, At World's End, and Transformers were (out of 100) 51, 50, and 61, respectively. Decent, but not what would be associated with the phrase "Academy Award nominated."
Yet it's important to remember that Best Visual Effects is not an endorsement for the entire film; it's not like the Academy was really calling Transformers one of the very best films of 2007. This is going to sound silly and super-obvious, but the nomination is solely recognizing the achievement in visual effects. Whatever one thinks of Transformers as a whole, you have to admit that the effects were certainly among the best of that year. The same goes for At World's End: the effects were exciting and impressive, and definitely worthy of the nomination. (Of course, The Golden Compass ended up winning, for reasons that I simply cannot explain)
It's generally in the technical categories that these films score their Oscar nominations. More specifically, Best Original Song, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Make-Up and Hairstyling, and Best Visual Effects are where you see "bad" films show up the most often. But the qualities that are nominated are sometimes the best parts of those films. Sure, Adam Sandler's 2006 comedy Click was terrible, but the old-age makeup that landed it its sole Oscar nomination was worthy of the recognition (I won't say the same for Norbit, which earned one the next year). 2008's Wanted - the Angelina Jolie-starring movie about hit men - won't be on many people's best-of lists for that year, but the nomination it picked up for Best Sound Editing highlighted the film's excellent use of sound effects.
So ultimately, I agree with Andrew's piece: it's not fair to judge any particular Oscar nomination as an endorsement for the quality of the entire film (accept for the ones that actually are, such as Best Picture or Best Animated Feature). I personally would rather see stellar work from an otherwise awful movie be recognized over non-noteworthy work from a Best Picture nominee just because the latter film is considered better overall.