2013 Oscar musings

It’s been an odd couple of weeks since the Oscar nominations came out, and an odd Oscar season in general, really. This has been one of the more tidal awards seasons, with constantly shifting front-runners and also-rans, as well as a slippery moving goalpost on just what is going to win the damned Best Picture trophy on February 24.

First, we had Argo. It had the luck of being the first film in everyone’s eyes simply by coming out first, but not so soon that it would be forgotten (Hi, Moonrise Kingdom!). Argo was released on October 12, five months ago as of today, and is still in theaters. It was the prohibitive favorite for quite a bit, with the prevailing wisdom that it’s the sort of thrilling political potboiler crowd pleaser that is suspenseful, competently acted and directed, and has that slight jingoistic tinge (without overpowering the average viewer) that makes it stick in the public consciousness.

But then the other films started to come out. Lincoln was born into the world with a slot for a gold statuette, what with its prestige biopic leanings and Steven Spielberg-ness (coupled with the fact that it’s actually pretty good, thanks mostly to Daniel Day Lewis and Tony Kushner and Spielberg finally dialing back his maudlin tendencies that ran roughshod over its opening scenes and then thankfully faded to the background). Lincoln is another political potboiler like Argo, just in a fundamentally different way. We always knew Lincoln would be oppressively Oscar-y. We didn’t know it would also just be good. Silver Linings Playbook continued David O. Russell’s career revitalization as an actors’ director and seemed to be poised to fill the Little Miss Sunshine quirky Best Picture role. Les Miserables and Django Unchained were looming on the horizon, though it was difficult at the time to believe that either film had the chance to take home the big prize.

By the close of 2012, Argo had lost quite a bit of its steam. Lincoln’s prestige voters were coming out in force, and the critics were losing their minds over the quality of Zero Dark Thirty, marveling at Kathryn Bigelow’s late stage career renaissance as an incisive (albeit fictional) representative of modern war in the Middle East. We still all thought Argo was a strong contender, but more of a second tier contender, something akin to the Coens’ True Grit, a strong film that would get a good amount of nominations but probably not win anything major. We all thought Affleck was likely to get a nomination for Best Director, at least partially because Argo is certainly well directed (or at the very least competently directed) and we still can’t quite get over the fact that the guy from Glory Daze, Reindeer Games and Gigli is actually getting good stories on the screen as a director, even if his personal shortcomings as an actor are still prevalent (as a side note, he was actually nominated for Best Actor at the BAFTAs, which is entirely mystifying to me). Hollywood likes Affleck because he’s the embodiment of hack turned artist, a redemptive story not unlike the sort of Oscar bait that actually wins awards (I’m still looking at you, The King’s Speech), but it seemed like a nomination would be enough, at least for this film. The race would be between Bigelow and Spielberg, with Affleck, Ang Lee and likely Tom Hooper rounding out the category.

Then, as we all know, the nominations came out. With no Tom Hooper (this is fine). And no Ben Affleck. And no Kathryn Bigelow, with the Academy opting instead for newcomer Benh Zeitlin of Beasts of the Southern Wild fame, David O. Russell, and Michael Haneke, riding the wave of the surprise juggernaut that is Amour. So that was that. Lincoln was officially going to win everything, Spielberg would take his third Best Director Oscar. Zero Dark Thirty was crushed by its mostly manufactured torture controversy, and it seemed like the Academy wasn’t quite ready to forgive Mr. Affleck for his past actorly transgressions. Films like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook and Amour got some extra exposure, which is nice (I wouldn’t have seen Amour if not for its surprise nominations, and I loved the living hell out of that movie), and this is the first good Spielberg film in a decade, so there are worse Spielberg films to glorify.

But we had a good six weeks between the release of the nominations and the actual ceremony, which would provide for plenty of time grandstanding about the inevitability of Daniel Day Lewis and the travesty of Bigelow and Affleck’s snubs. Of course, the other major part of this is the litany of awards shows happening during this period, from the Golden Globes to the individual American guild awards (Screen Actor’s Guide, Producer’s Guild of America, Director’s Guild of America) to the BAFTAs, among the information dump of individual critic circles’ awards without actual ceremony. And something weird was happening. Argo was winning basically everything. Affleck won Best Director and the film took Best Drama at the Golden Globes. It won Best Cast at the SAG awards (basically the closest you get to Best Film for the SAG awards). Affleck won Best Director at the DGAs. Argo won the Producers of the Year award from the PGA. It also took both awards at the BAFTAs. It won everything. Now, I haven’t exactly taken the time to see when votes were cast for these awards, so it’s not necessarily the case that votes were cast as a backlash against the Academy nominations (they are the big dogs, after all). Sure looks like that from the outside, though.

So here we are. Argo has literally all of the momentum right now, and seems poised to be the first film since Driving Miss Daisy to pick up the Best Picture Oscar without even being nominated for Best Director. Of course, in our current climate of 5 Director nominees versus 5-10 Best Picture nominees, it was bound to happen again sometime, and could conceivably become something closer to the norm. Now, this is not at all a done deal. We could get to next Sunday and Lincoln could still win everything. It’s looking like Spielberg is the only real contender for Best Director regardless of whether Lincoln or Argo takes down the big one. And yes, at the end of the day the Oscars don’t matter nearly as much as the level to which the Academy takes itself seriously. But for those of us who love film, it’s a fun night to watch and see if the professionals in the industry feel the same way you do. It’s also fun to analyze what it all means for the future of the Oscars and the future of film itself. The Oscars are famous for being the stodgy old coots who just stick to safe biopics (A Beautiful Mind, The King’s Speech) or films about how awesome film is (2011 was particularly lousy with reflexive “Isn’t film awesome!?” movies like Hugo and The Artist) while choosing to generally decry science fiction, big blockbusters or animated films regardless of quality (The skipping over of The Dark Knight in 2008 is essentially what led to the expansion of the Best Picture category beyond 5 films). We want to see the Oscars evolve into a more accurate reflection of our cinema climate. We want to see films like Children of Men or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Wall-E get their due, because they are entirely deserving of praise. When that actually happens (if it does at all) will be hard to say, but it is undeniably fun to watch and to predict and to speculate, so I’m just going to keep on keeping on.

An actual prediction article will be coming later in the week. Until then, friends.