How much of an Oscar race is spent in aimless soul searching? Faint rumblings of the race start up just after Cannes Film Festival, word breaks out with conversation after Toronto in September, and it only escalates from there. This is all well before the Academy announce their nominations, or even precursors begin to trickle in. We won’t truly have a clear view of the race until the National Board of Review announces their winners, truly kicking off awards season and solidifying films as palpable threats in the races. Hugo was far from a sure thing until the National Board of Review awarded it top commendation in November, giving it the necessary surge to grab a handful of deserved technical achievements at the Oscars three months later. It’s clearly not the inarguable temple of Oscar fortune telling, but it is one of them.
The three months prior to the game are a race of mood adjusting and tidying of the several possible avenues this season could go down. Alex has already presented a rather definitive field of all the films that could take the prize, and the top four in particular will certainly be shuffling around one another as the race intensifies. But often a more deciding factor than the films themselves is the world forming around this year. After all, the Academy Awards is inevitably an American institution, and as such there will be reflexivity regarding the mood and politics of the country at this time. Much as we all wish this were an honest and disciplined representation of the very best of this year in film, the Academy has reminded us time and again that it doesn’t work that way.
The race is decided by charismatic campaigning, prevailing zeitgeist, and the amount of passion the films are able to provoke. The Tree of Life‘s nomination last year was no mistake, and I’m rather confident The Master will be nominated for precisely the same reasons. The people who love it are outspokenly passionate about it, but it is also playing to a very different year from 2011. Just as last year was a nostalgic throwback to the past, highlighted by The Artist, Hugo, and Midnight in Paris, this year seems to have jumped off the couch and into action. Though many of the films deal with historical periods, they represent, for the most part, a forward-thinking attitude that keenly matches the concluding mood of the presidential race.
Though there’s plenty to argue regarding exactly what The Master is about, it could easily be seen as the story of a man trying in vain to take control of his own life, in spite being steered by a self-motivated guide. I do think the Weinstein Company jumped the horse by moving The Master up from October, which Argo is steadily proving to be prime placement in the Oscar season. The buzz for Paul Thomas Anderson was huge in September, but has dissipated a bit since then, so it’s mostly a matter of just how enthusiastic the Academy is about it.
It’s hard not to agree with the vibe that Argo is likely to take Best Picture, especially given its political placement in this year. It’s not a horribly pessimistic film, often shooting for humour and optimism in a situation that nearly everyone onscreen believes is a no-win scenario. That positive attitude is the reason the film’s had such strong response from both critics and audiences, because it refuses to cop to cynical inclinations, even in such a terrible situation. The way the country was back then is very similar to the way it is now, and the idea that we can still make the best of things is one I feel people will still want to believe at the end of the season, especially given how the film has tended to stick with people long after they’ve seen it.
That said, we could see all that change very soon with the three strongest opponents to the throne entering theaters. The one that’s already reverberating in conversation is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which actually holds weight in the race for more than just being a historical piece from Spielberg. This isn’t the same kind of automatic praise that was lauded onto War Horse, but actually holds ground in the moment. Though it’s set nearly 150 years ago, the similarities between civil rights disputes then and now are quite sharp. LGBT prejudice today, though not nearly as radical, has a close similarity to prejudice against black slaves in the 1800s. The Republican party has markedly reversed its sway since then, conservatives leading the bigotry nowadays. Lincoln could prove to be either a sad statement of how far we’ve fallen, or an encouraging sign of hope for the future.
I feel the most divisive film of the season, however, is likely to be Life of Pi, mostly due to its heavily stylistic backbone over narrative propulsion. There will be many who express disappointment with it as an adaptation, often having difficulty finding a clean way into the bulk of its narrative. It could also easily be one of the strongest players, given Ang Lee’s masterful visual comprehension of a story rather difficult to translate to the screen. There’s a high place of respect in the Academy for breaking new cinematic ground, and Life of Pi occupies that spot as neatly as Avatar or Hugo. It’s a survival story, so wherever the crowd of people saying “cinema is dead” are, they may cling to it as their rally cry of astounding creativity.
Less are likely to see Silver Linings Playbook as remarkably original, though it could surprisingly be the one that spoils the game. It’s not a story of epic isolation or groundbreaking historical events, but it does bring a more domestic conflict that might catch on with audiences and Academy members looking for something more low-key. It has the Weinstein backing that’s led to two consecutive Best Picture wins, and it’s Audience Award win at Toronto further endears it as a more comforting film than many of its competitors. That charisma could backfire and make it appear too aloof to be taken seriously as a frontrunner, but it should certainly have plenty sympathy going its way in the meantime.
As for the films which have yet to hit with screenings, I’m not so certain Les Miserables or Django Unchained will translate into the competition for wildly different reasons. Though the latter looks to be an incredibly lavish production, there’s no hiding the controversy Quentin Tarantino is digging into here. Effective as Tarantino has been in tackling the subject of prejudice, often through violent juxtaposition of race or ethnicity, Django Unchained is currently positioned as a no holds barred action spectacular. While that is guilt-free candy for most moviegoers, I’m not sure the Academy will be quite so welcoming beyond the numerous craft nominations its period nature allots.
Being of a period nature doesn’t automatically cut a film off from cultural relevance, but it might in the case of Les Miserables. The film has a lot going for it, between being adapted from a widely beloved musical and being directed by Tom Hooper, winner two years ago for The King Speech. It’s the kind of film I expect audiences to cling to massively, but its conflict may be too far removed from the present zeitgeist. In a year where many are looking for reasons to feel optimistic, the tale of universal misery might have trouble arousing the kind of joyous enthusiasm as other films in the race. In other words, it depends on whether it’s focused more on “a dream in time gone by” or “the future that they bring when tomorrow comes.”
Of course it’s impossible to think Les Miserables won’t be make the nomination, and there are plenty on the outskirts of the field that could find their way easily onto the list. Moonrise Kingdom still has a passionately optimistic following that I believe will push it forward in the late days of the season. Amour too has many proponents eager to add some international diversity onto the list, showing the field’s not such closed American bubble. On the opposite of that, Zero Dark Thirty could swing in late in the season guns a blazing to match Argo with one of the country’s most recent victories. And hey, that Beasts of the Southern Wild flick’s still got some firepower in her to shine through the race. If nothing else, Benh Zeitlin still has an Indie Spirit Awards free for the taking.