Since when has awards season become anything but a polite recognition of talent amongst peers? It’s an honest question that hasn’t been answered too honestly as of late. This is one of the few awards seasons that’s rarely had the misfortune of dragging on, up until the very end at least. In past years we’ve become accustomed to knowing the winners weeks, sometimes months in advance with fatalist certainty. That sense of inevitability didn’t settle in until after the guild awards spelled out the clear favorite: Argo. The present mood shouldn’t be so murky, as most people I’ve met rather like Ben Affleck’s film, and I’ve come across none who have risen to absolute hatred.
So why is all the critical angst suddenly bubbling to the surface to smear a film few people have much of a problem with? The simplest answer is that nobody likes to feel trapped, even if they don’t have much issue where they’re being kept. This may indeed be a different story if some other film were in Argo‘s place, but the frank truth about the film, and what it makes it so unexpectedly resonant with the masses, is that it’s a true and honest studio picture. It’s in the subtext, down to its thrilling cinematic climax, and the film would be a lie without that mix of political tensions and Hollywood polish.
The hostility towards the film isn’t that it’s the frontrunner, but that it became so towards the end of such a whirlwind season. A year where there’s no clear winner is every Oscar blogger’s dream, and it came so close to coming true this year. Then the PGA, DGA, and WGA all rang up Argo‘s name, and thus the pent-up joust of sudden dissatisfaction was unleashed. This isn’t to say that the film is infallible, myself wishing the characters in Chris Terrio’s script were fleshed out a little better. For that matter, I don’t even consider Ben Affleck’s film to be the best nominated. Stacked against Amour, Zero Dark Thirty, and yes, even Silver Linings Playbook, the film would fall fourth on my ballot.
Isn’t it something, though, that we can chock up four films in the Best Picture race that absolutely deserve to be there. True, Amour and Zero Dark Thirty‘s placement in the final batch is very much thanks to the expanded field. Even so, I remember last year’s pack of nine as something of an unimaginative bunch, The Tree of Life being the only brave inclusion, and The Artist being the only one I truly loved. Michel Hazanavicius’ film had the race in its grip since Cannes Film Festival the prior year, with some notable bumps along the way, including an odd reaction at Telluride. Argo‘s had its bumps too, but favor has switched up amongst contenders so many time this season that whichever film comes on top on Sunday has overcome plenty obstacles.
This is all to say that there remains, to my eye, no clear and undeniable winner. Even the term “winner” deserves to be in quotations, because the Academy has taken some bold risks in the majority of its nominations. Silver Linings Playbook has remained a strong presence since taking the Audience Award at Telluride, and has defeated the stigma of an off-beat comedy to work its way into the hearts of Academy members, not to mention my own. It’s not about the war overseas, but rather the war at home that we all fight every day. It’s not about mental illness, but trying to find connection and optimism in a world of universal social awkwardness.
There also remains a strong movement going for Life of Pi, an epic story of faith and survival that pushes the technology of the medium to new visual extremes. In my mind, it surpasses Avatar for how bravely and dynamically it has expanded the boundaries of what can be shown onscreen. I’m not the biggest fan, but if Ang Lee were to take home a prize for this achievement, I would applaud his most ambitious technical accomplishment.
I’m still not the strongest proponent of Lincoln, but Steven Spielberg’s film has been through a tough season. Many felt it was gaining momentum as it rose to a whopping $176 million domestic gross, but as the late phase season has pushed on, the film’s chances have dwindled to where it may only take one award home on Sunday. In spite that, Daniel Day-Lewis will still become the first man to take home three wins for Best Actor, solidifying his place in film history as one of the most committed artists of the craft. The film, too, is a heady attempt to depict one of America’s national icons in the most honest light possible. Judging by the consensus of every other writer at the site, who am I to say they failed?
Les Miserables… yeah, you know I don’t want to talk nice about this one. I’ll set aside my prejudice to acknowledge how massive an undertaking it was in the first place. Tom Hooper and his crew were handling one of the most difficult musicals to adapt to a cinematic medium, without the aid of spoken word transitions. Further complicating their task was the introduction of live-recorded singing, a tricky proposition that, in spite the limiting effect it had on the visual aspects, was a bold new choice for the medium. As an experiment, history may indeed look back on it as a failure, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Even I must admit it holds one of the most uniquely arresting images of the year.
That a Quentin Tarantino film is able to muscle its way into any Oscar season speaks to how much respect there is for the director. It’s hard not to like a man who so clearly loves movies, and that passion comes overtly through his films. Django Unchained sees the director again tackling a provocative subject, and one America would maybe rather not look at. He constantly risks burning all his bridges to the ground, and yet has time and again come out the other end with audiences cheering his protagonists on. I’ve never gotten through a Quentin Tarantino film without cheering his endings, in spite the many shortcomings a number of them have had. The guy knows how to stick a landing.
The fantastic journey for Beasts of the Southern Wild began over a year ago at Sundance, and since then its spirited band of supporters have not given up on it. It parallels Life of Pi‘s story of survival and faith through fantasy, but perhaps with purer potency for its naturalistic craft and passionate family values. It’s a film about preparing the next generation to seize the world, and in the Academy recognizing the distinct talents of breakthrough artists Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar, and Quvenzhane Wallis, along with the many unmentioned standouts of the production, these names will certainly not fade away anytime soon.
An even shorter journey between festival and Oscar, and perhaps the more outstanding achievement, Michael Haneke’s Amour is in prime position for a surprise sweep. A foreign language title from a director known for making his audiences uncomfortable seems the most alienating prospect in this or any year, but boiled down to the bare essentials, Amour is a universal story of love and loss. Romance and mortality is the most eternal contradiction that Haneke took no easy routes in portraying, nor did he put up any barriers between us and the characters. They could be our mother and father, or grandmother and granfather, or indeed us. It’s where we’re all going, and the film profoundly affects anybody who touches it. It may have made the cut on the will of #1 vote passion, but now that voters have been compelled to watch it, Amour is ready to seize its viewers and perhaps yield a surprise win for the greatest performance of the year, hands down.
If any film’s been treated poorly by this season, it’s Zero Dark Thirty. The film started its run in early December with the National Board of Review, not often an exact measure of a Best Picture winner, but a significant first step, nonetheless. As the film’s release slowly approached, however, the film got inexorably caught up in politics of the ugliest and most forbidding nature. Accusations of glorifying torture merely by depicting blew the story grossly out of proportion, and sadly grew to define the film’s run. By the time it hit wide release, it was too late for audiences to weigh in. Bigelow’s absence from the director field hurt her more than it did Affleck, and though the film’s strong box office success is nothing to scoff at, attention has morosely left it in the dust.
It’s a shame, but not a total one, since the film still has the opportunity to crop up with an award or two on Sunday night. Be it for Editing, Sound Editing, Original Screenplay, or Actress, any would be a deserving get for this iron-clad work of determined filmmaking. Rather than place a moment in the past, dissect a family dynamic, or take us on a fantastic journey, Zero Dark Thirty brings us up to speed on the painful present. We’ve spent time, money, blood, and will power overcoming this time in our existence, and are now left with the task of moving on. Bigelow has done more to mediate our present political grievances than most… hell, any other director working today. We can’t honestly say the Academy doesn’t love the movie. They nominated it, after all.
That’s the conclusion I reach for even films nominated outside the big race. There’s a large enough faction of the Academy which believes these films are worth commending for their achievements. Anna Karenina is honored for its astonishing production values. The Master is present for its versatile performances. Even silly trifle Mirror Mirror is here for the impassioned as ever costumes of the late, great Eiko Ishioka. With luck, Sunday night will remind us that this hasn’t been a season of malice. Whomever takes the gold home, there is somebody out there who truly believes they deserve it. The only wrong answer is one nobody believes.
And in the spirit of optimism, here are my top ten Oscar nominated films this year. Feel free to leave your own in the comments!
10. Moonrise Kingdom
9. The Sessions
6. Silver Linings Playbook
4. Zero Dark Thirty
2. Mirror Mirror
1. The Master