E: 2013 has proved to be one of the more challenging Oscar seasons in memory. Some seasons, dreary after dreary award show passes with the same four actors and the same clump of producers. But this year, three of the top six categories are in complete chaos! Amazing! It makes my job harder here, but it’s going to make the ceremony WAY more interesting. Much as I enjoy them, this year it’s not just going to be about the gowns and speeches; there are some genuine mysteries here. Ladies and Gentlemen, fasten your seatbelts – like the lady says, it’s going to be a bumpy night.
Let’s start with the slightly smaller categories, shall we, and get bigger from there:
Best Adapted Screenplay
And The Oscar Goes To:
Chris Terrio, Argo
How Certain Am I?
If Not Him, Then Who (IE, The Guy Who Is About To Be Criminally Robbed):
Tony Kushner, Lincoln
It’s An Honor to be Nominated:
Lucy Alibar and Behn Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
I’m sure it’s obvious that if I were giving out the Oscars, this one would go to Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner for his adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Lincoln is poetry on the screen and in the lips of his players. The beauty of its words makes you weep for a time when people spoke with such pointed wit and laconic wisdom, brought such fulsome words to their lips. It amazes. Character is what shines through those words, character and philosophy and ethics; more than merely beautiful, the words reveal the truth within.
Argo, on the other hand, lacks both poetry and character. What it brings to the table is tense construction and strong narrative, attributes I don’t discount. But why is there only one acting nomination from this film? Because the script doesn’t define the characters well enough. It doesn’t surprise with depth or feeling. Even Alan Arkin’s filthy tongued film producer is a man you’ve seen so many times before.
And yet, chances are excellent that it will ride the swell of good feelings for the delightful and oh so wronged Ben Affleck right to the podium. Both the Scripter (for literary adaptations) and Writers Guild Award awards have gone Terrio’s way. And, yeah, it rankles, more than any other expected win or loss. Silver Linings makes us laugh, makes us cry, and makes us feel for its characters (and did actually pick up the BAFTA – the British Academy Awards). Life of Pi awes us. Beasts of the Southern Wild mystifies us with its dream-like strangeness, with the complete world it presents. Lincoln lets us bear witness to the truly extraordinary. Argo brings a clear, comprehensible, exciting story, and it’s looking very much like that will be enough.
Best Original Screenplay
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
How Sure Am I?
The Paid Pundits Alternate Choices:
Michael Haneke, Amour
Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty
The Rest of the Best:
Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom
John Gatins, Flight
Let me say right now, this is a tricky category. Bloody, brilliant Quentin Tarantino has his detractors and his acolytes both. His win at the Golden Globes signaled Tony Kushner’s lack of momentum; it was widely assumed Kushner had the adapted category sewn up, and since the Globes don’t differentiate, it was thought his brilliance would carry over. Granted that the Hollywood Foreign Press is a small group, and their membership doesn’t overlap with other voting bodies, it was still a strong burst of momentum for Tarantino to win there. Since, he’s picked up the BAFTA award, but lost the WGA to Mark Boal.
The Academy likes Quentin enough to nominate him personally five times, and his films more often than that; he has a single Oscar for writing Pulp Fiction. He last was nominated for writing Inglourious Basterds, where he lost to Mark Boal and The Hurt Locker. (Were either Boal or Tarantino to win, they would join a select group; only 4 writers have won more than once in this category.) Best Original Screenplay is where the oddballs get rewarded, the more unique voices. If the Academy isn’t quite ready to endorse your vision on a full scale, this is the place for it. Quirky writer/director Wes Anderson fits perfectly into this stereotype, as do former nominees/winners Charlie Kaufman, Diablo Cody and Christopher Nolan. They’re too exciting to ignore, exactly, but the older-skewing Academy isn’t always ready to let them win. This is also a good place to reward a film which might not get notice elsewhere. You can certainly make a case for Boal or Haneke, but Haneke should be rewarded with foreign film at least. Zero and Django could pick up acting awards, or this could be it. It would be unusual for a foreign language script to win a writing Oscar, though not unheard of; this has happened perhaps 5 times, most recently in 2002 for Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her.
Zero Dark Thirty has had such a difficult, controversy-provoking run. Even before the movie premiered, there were people in government making a stink about how much access to classified material the filmmakers had. And then there’s been the huge debate centered on the film’s depiction of torture. Was the film claiming that torture produced the vital evidence that lead to Osama Bin Laden’s killing? Did it, in essence, prove that torture was worth it? Unlike filmmaker Ben Affleck, who admitted to compressing and shifting the truth for purity of narrative, Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow promoted their film as being almost a work of journalism, and touted their tremendous research and attention to detail. I can’t help but feeling that this has worked against them in the Oscars generally and in the screenplay race in particular – and certainly in the U.S. Senate, because the particular piece of information the movie shows being obtained by torture is known not to have been. Perhaps in 24 and Alias it’s okay to show a brutal interrogation produce actionable intelligence, but in a serious, thoughtful, journalistic film? No. I don’t think that’s the face that liberal Hollywood wants to show to the world. Of course, Tarantino’s bloody epic isn’t a pretty face, either – but it doesn’t claim to be history.
It’s worth noting that Gatin’s Flight excels in what Argo lacked; it not only boasts an exciting narrative, but also unique characters established in quick bursts of brilliant, distinctive dialog. Congratulations on your nomination, Mr. Gatin; you would have gotten my vote.
Best Supporting Actor
Picking A Name Out of A Hat
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
How Certain Am I?
40% – Which is to say, not at all.
Next Highest in Pre-Cursor Award Wins:
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
You Can’t Count Out:
Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook
What a marvelous cast of characters this is! Each man has at least one Oscar to his credit already; DeNiro has two. From Django‘s charming, philosophical bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz tracking for criminals throughout the ante-bellum South and West, to the hypnotically charismatic Lancaster Dodd bending the weak minded to his will in The Master, to Lincoln’s fiercely principled, acid tongued abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. While those three have garnered the most awards, there’s no counting out the steel balled, foul mouthed movie producer who helps set up Argo‘s fake movie (and is responsible for its second most quoted line, “Argo-f**k yourself”), or DeNiro’s awkwardly loving, OCD suffering, Eagles-obsessed father. Anyone who’s seen Silver Linings, in fact, will never forget DeNiro running through the neighborhood in his pajamas. His character’s a delight, he hasn’t been nominated since 1993’s Cape Fear, and that’s why most of the pundits on self-hyped awards site Golderby and even Entertainment Weekly’s betting on him to win even without picking up a single significant precursor award.
I have yet to see an actual rationale for this consensus, so I’m dubious about it. It’s possible, of course. Any of these five guys has a real shot, and I absolutely never say that, because it’s never true. That said, here’s my rationale for narrowing things down. When I talk about pre-cursor awards, it’s not because you “need” to win x or y to snag an Oscar. It’s because the pre-cursor awards shows the progress of public opinion within the film community, and so it helps Oscar watchers like me track the all important buzz and momentum that propels one nominee past the other four and on to the stage. Especially where some groups overlap (the guilds, the BAFTAS) the other awards give us a picture of how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members will vote. If DeNiro does win, it won’t be because there’s an overwhelming majority desire amidst Academy members and the Hollywood community to reward him for doing exciting work again, or we would have seen that throughout the awards season; it will be because that desire exists just enough more than the love for the other four nominees.
A DeNiro win would be a great story, but it’s folly to take the idea of a great story and reason out from there. “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if” does not equal “that’s totally going to happen” but sometimes people can get so caught up in the story that the happy ending in their head seems inevitable. I’ll cheer if it happens, and it’s not outside the realm of the possible; there’s just no reason to assume it will. There’s no reason to assume anything here. Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Critics Choice (Broadcast Film Critics); Christoph Waltz won the Golden Globe. Then Tommy Lee Jones won the SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild), and Waltz won the BAFTA. With two major awards, that gives Waltz the slightest edge in my book, but I’m not sanguine about this at all. He’s the most recent winner of the five, which more often than not works against a nominee.
You might wonder, “hey, E, if the largest voting block in the Academy is composed of actors, why isn’t the Screen Actors Guild the best indicator of how the Academy will vote?” Great question, and here’s the answer: because SAG, my friends, is massive. The Academy has an exclusive membership of around 6000, and only about 1200 of them are actors; SAG-AFTRA’s numbers best 165,000. Even if all 1200 actor Academy members are also members of SAG, it’s too small a sample for correlation. There are no critics in the Academy, just creative and technical artists, so while they’re influential bodies, we don’t have actual overlap with the Broadcast Critics or with the Hollywood Foreign Press.
So all in all, I am so much looking forward to the moment when Octavia Spencer takes her sassy self to the stage and reads off this card. Should Waltz be the winner, he’ll give a clever, probably metaphorical speech with profuse thanks to his partner in crime, so to speak, Quentin Tarantino.
Best Supporting Actress
Just Give Her the Damn Award Already:
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
How Sure Am I?
If Not Her, Then Who?
Sally Field, Lincoln
Rounding Out The Category:
Amy Adams, The Master
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook
Why, you might ask, do I have two-time nominee and former host Anne Hathaway – who has owned this category from her first notes in the Les Mis trailer – at a mere 80%? Her aching, un-pretty performance of dying prostitute Fantine – and Fantine’s big song, “I Dreamed A Dream” – made millions forget about Susan Boyle and weep along in anguish. This is not merely the sorrow of someone whose life hasn’t turned out as she hoped; it’s the bedrock cry of a woman who faces her life’s end. Hathaway starved herself – eating two squares of oatmeal paste a day – in order to truly look starving. Oh, and did I mention she’s got a pretty fantastic voice? She’s paid her dues, which can matter; I’m sure some people think the Academy owes her just for dealing with somnolent co-host James Franco. She’s been nominated and had huge critical acclaim before. Her mother played the role on stage, for heaven’s sake. She’s won the Golden Globe, the Critics Choice/Broadcast Critics, the SAG, the BAFTA. How could anyone beat her?
Three words: Anne Hathaway fatigue.
And if anyone’s going to take advantage of that fatigue, it’s going to be industry legend (and Stephen Fry crush) Sally Field. After all, she’s won each time she’s been nominated before. She’s an industry fixture, she’s still working in her 60s, and we like her, we really really like her. Grief stricken, fierce Mary Todd Lincoln is a dream role; she’s a tiny doll, a prim paper doll bristling with rage and despair. I’m not saying I actually think it’s going to happen; I just think it’s a tiny bit further inside the realm of possibility than most people imagine.
Australian Jacki Weaver picked up her second nomination for her nervous, understanding, appetizer-making wife and mother in Silver Linings Playbook; a normal, loving woman coping with a household of moody men. (Amusingly enough, her first nomination came for Animal Kingdom, in which her grandmotherly smiles belied the ruthless determination of a crime family boss.) Amy Adams, now on her fourth nomination, plays a steely, manipulative, Machiavellian wife to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Master; Adams has a sweet, maternal expression and a round, perpetually pregnant belly that mask her pitiless ambition. I’m curious when it’s going to be Adams’ time; if you look at those four characters (chatterbox sister-in-law, naive nun, strong sassy girlfriend, cult-promoter) it shows a pretty impressive range. This, however, does not appear to be that time.
And then there’s Helen Hunt, picking up her second nomination as well, the first since 1998’s Best Actress win for As Good As It Gets. It’s funny, isn’t it, how for some people, there’s just that one magical nomination for that one magical role which vaults them into Hollywood royalty (if only for that night), while others (like Adams, or Julianne Moore, or Glenn Close, or Peter O’Toole) can wrack up nomination after nomination and still never win? Still best known for her iconic sitcom work, Hunt proves her Oscar wasn’t a fluke with her lovely, matter-of-fact sex surrogate in The Sessions. Honest, funny and moving, Hunt doesn’t merely introduce costar John Hawkes’s nerve-damaged polio victim to sex, she shows us how to live in our bodies, no matter what that body is.
These are all terrific performances, and you should see them all (oddball anti-Scientology The Master, in fact, has timed its video release for two days after the Oscars) despite the fact that it’s lovely, graceful Anne Hathaway who’s the overwhelming favorite to pick up this year’s statuette. I hope she gives a variation of her Golden Globes speech in which she thanked Gidget’s Sally Field for forging the way forward, for providing a pathway for the Princess Diaries‘ doe-eyed ingenue to transform herself into an adult, with all the complexity and agony that involves.
And The Oscar Goes To:
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
How Certain Am I?
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
There For The Party:
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Denzel Washington, Flight
Be prepared for Daniel Day-Lewis to join the lofty Hollywood company of Meryl Streep and Walter Brennan by picking up his third Oscar. Here are some things that are pretty remarkable about this (aside from the obvious fact that it’s an exceedingly rare accomplishment). Walter Brennan won three times (in the space of five years) for supporting actor; no one out there has three leading actor statuettes, not yet. For that matter, if DeNiro does pull out a surprise win, he’ll have earned his third Oscar too, but two will be supporting statuettes; winning here would make Day-Lewis the most honored man.
At 17 nominations, Streep is nearly perpetually nominated, perpetually acknowledged to be the best, but rarely wins because her own overwhelming talent acts against her. And of course no one seems ready to let her surpass the great Katherine Hepburn’s record of 4 leading actress Oscars in 12 nominations. Now, Daniel Day Lewis, on the other hand, has barely made 17 film in his entire career, his total reaching 19 only if you include the ones in which he barely appears; he fairly quickly reached a point where he could choose what to star in, and he’s been supremely picky about his material. He now has five nominations (almost a crime when you think about his un-nominated roles in The Boxer, The Age of Innocence and The Unbearable Lightness of Being; consider this an excellent opportunity to rent great films if you haven’t seen them) and soon to be three wins, a pretty amazing ratio. In fact, he’s made only ten movies in the more than 20 years since he first won the Oscar for My Left Foot. And because he chooses those films with care, they’re almost all exceptionally good. The son of a classicist and husband of a playwright is charming and a great presence; be ready for a cleverly referential, smart and funny little oddball speech should the slender Mr. Day-Lewis ascend to the podium as expected. And who knows, maybe some producer or writer in the audience will see last year’s Best Actress Meryl Streep hand over that award (as tradition dictates) and say, hey, just imagine what those two could do together!
You have to go back to the critics awards – the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics groups – to find an awards giving body who hasn’t chosen DDL. Their picks, respectively, are Bradley Cooper and Joaquin Phoenix. The most decisive moment in the race – if you’d like to look at it like a horse race – was the exclusion of John Hawkes from Oscar’s shortlist for his work as handicapped journalist Mark O’Brien in The Sessions, clearing the way almost certainly for Day-Lewis. Of course Hugh Jackman picked up the Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy or musical for his work as the heroic Jean ValJean; that was a decisive point in the race, because it knocked out first time nominee Bradley Cooper (bipolar Eagles fan Pat Solatano) from real contention. Then first-time nominee Jackman failed to follow his Globe with wins at SAG or BAFTA, which would have indicated the necessary support to dethrone DDL.
Now, you may remember the Oscar ceremony a decade ago when Daniel Day-Lewis was expected to pick up an Oscar but didn’t, and so say, “why not a repeat of 2003, E?” Well, I’ll tell you why. Much of the attention that year centered on a race between Day-Lewis for Gangs of New York (Bill the Butcher, shudder) and Jack Nicholson for his work in the Alexander Payne comedy About Schmidt. And at the last minute, The Pianist‘s Adrien Brody snuck in to wrest the award away, a delightful and well-deserved surprise for what seems, so far, to be a career-high performance. Though Brody hadn’t won any of the precursor awards, he benefited from the vote-splitting between Day-Lewis (who won the SAG and BAFTA) and Nicholson (the Golden Globe). There’s no such battle for the lead here.
No, Joaquin Phoenix is going to have to be content with creating a truly original weirdo as The Master‘s violent, fractious acolyte, an addict and desperate searcher. Since the actor highly disdains the Oscar game (despite being nominated twice before for Gladiator and Walk the Line), this probably isn’t a burden. Like Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington is a tw0-time winner (though once in a supporting role) with 6 nominations; though it won’t get him closer to his hero Sidney Poitier’s record of three (one honorary, two competitive), Washington’s role as an alcoholic yet heroic pilot manages to score his first nod since 2001’s Training Day. Of course for Hugh Jackson and Bradley Cooper, picking up their first nominations as two very different reformed convicts must be thrill enough; neither man normally makes the sort of film Oscar notices. Headlining the The Hangover and Wolverine may bring in the big bucks and the title of People’s Sexiest Man Alive, but now these two know they have the industry’s respect, too.
And the Oscar Could Go To:
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Just How Sure Am I?
35% (Not Sure at all)
If Not Her, Then Who:
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
There For the Party:
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts, The Impossible
What a doozy this category is. Whose name is Jean DuJardin going to read? At least one thing I can say with certainty, anyway, is that unlike Supporting Actor, all five of these actresses cannot win. There’s no indication (barring an Adrien Brody-like mega-surprise) that second time nominee Naomi Watts or 9-year-old indie phenom Quvenzhane Wallis will take the statuette come February 24th. Though each has appeared on shortlists, and topped critics organizations, neither has taken an important prize before-hand. No matter how wonderful each performance is (and Watts is particularly amazing as Maria Belon, the mother swept away by tsunami, battling desperate injuries), not everyone can win. And any parent will recognize the astonishing feat of building a movie around a six year old. Oh, they can play pretend like gangbusters, throw themselves into character with an ease and abandon difficult for adults, but think about this. How do you get a child to say exactly what you want them to say? How do you get them to memorize tens of pages of dialog and lengthy monologues before they can even read? People like to say that children aren’t real actors, but chew on that thought for a minute before denying Wallis her due recognition.
But on to the three women with an almost equal chance of taking this award. Actually, first let’s look at the awards before the big award, and then the women who’ve picked them up. If you look at the important precursor awards, none have a perfect record when it comes to Oscar. The BAFTAs matched up with Oscar six of the last ten years; SAG has exactly the same record, though their picks are surprisingly different. When they agree, it’s a sign that there’s an overwhelmingly popular candidate (a la Helen Mirren or Natalie Portman). This is not that year. BAFTA can signal a late switch in momentum, as with Marion Cotillard and Meryl Streep. On the other hand, between the two categories of Drama and Musical/Comedy the Hollywood Foreign Press has picked the right winner 10 out of the last 1o years; the only blip in their impressive record came from awarding Kate Winslet for Revolutionary Road instead of The Reader. Even more impressively for the Hollywood Foreign Press, you have to go back to 1963 to find a best actress winner who wasn’t nominated for a Golden Globe. Of course, figuring out whether the comedy winner or the drama winner (this year, Lawrence or Chastain) is going to take the prize can be trickier.
And BAFTA winner Emmanuelle Riva – the most obvious candidate to be this year’s Adrien Brody – wasn’t nominated for a Golden Globe. Or for the SAG award, for that matter. These omissions don’t pose an impossible barrier, of course (after all, a Pope hadn’t resigned in nearly 600 years; the unexpected does happen) but a barrier none-the-less. You could say that means her nomination is a fluke; because, however, one of the only times Riva’s been in the mix, she won, we could as easily deduce that she’s an important factor we can’t underestimate.
Before Riva’s win at BAFTA, I’d been ready to make my prediction for Lawrence without reservation, thinking that momentum was clearly moving her way. Though it’s more typical for a dramatic role to take Best Actress, Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook has her share of dramatic moments as Tiffany, a young widow burying her grief and anger into sex addiction – and anyway it’s easier for a woman to win with a comic role than a man. In addition to picking up her second nomination, Lawrence has had a banner year; her other performance of 2012 carried a little movie called The Hunger Games. Not only did that movie make more than 400 million dollars (the third best of last year though normally a chart-topping number, beating the latest Bond and Tolkien blockbusters), it tops the list of action heroine films, doubling the take of the number 2 film, 1991’s Terminator 2. It’s 13 on the all time box office list, and the only movie with a female lead in the top 25. Oh, and? The reviews were great. In other words, she’s picked up the YA crown from Kristen Stewart and stomped the hell out of it. Lawrence is powerful, she’s sexy, she’s young, she’s got serious chops and the box office to back it up. And, oh yeah, she’s charming and hilarious. Have you seen her accept an award? Or go on a talk show? Read a print interview? Girl is ridiculous. Enough said.
On the other hand, she’s really, really young. Not as young as 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis (who plays indignantly precocious Hushpuppy in the indie fable Beasts of the Southern Wild) but at 22 the youngest woman ever to achieve two nominations for Best Actress. And clearly, Lawrence’s support does not reach all the way across the board or she would have won more of the precursor awards. (She did just pick up the Independent Spirit, but that’s not necessarily a good sign since there’s rarely overlap with Oscar.) Perhaps some don’t see her as serious enough. For drama, the Golden Globe went to Jessica Chastain, another It Girl (albeit one without a blockbuster franchise, while Lawrence has two) also looking at her second nomination. For her role as the determined CIA agent who ruthlessly followed a single lead for a decade till she brought down Osama Bin Laden, Chastain beat Lawrence and octogenarian Emmanuelle Riva at the Critics Choice awards. (She also had one of my favorite lines of the year, about her single-minded devotion to work: “I’m not the girl who f**ks. It’s unbecoming.” Maya is the anti-Tiffany.) And then there’s Riva, who just picked up the BAFTA for her work in Palme D’Or winning Amour, a film that traces a woman’s descent into senescence and the havoc this wreaks on her family and especially her marriage.
So what’s the factor that tips this race in the right direction? Is it Riva’s age and the pathos of her work? She turns 86 February 24th. (She and Wallis are by turns the oldest and youngest females ever nominated for Best Actress.) Surely an Oscar would be a pretty good birthday present and a great story; it’s tempting to believe that the BAFTA signals she’s the one. Is it a desire to reward Kathryn Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty, which could go win-less if not for Chastain? Chastain made a strong statement in her Globe acceptance speech about her role model, director Bigelow, and in light of that woman’s snub for Best Director, their story might resonate with voters. Of course, Silver Linings Playbook isn’t guaranteed any wins, either, so the same argument could be used to boost Lawrence over the line. Will voters decide she’s too new and daffy, or does the old adage hold true, that male academy members vote for the man they want to be and the woman they want to sleep with? Lawrence probably has that edge – plus, she has Harvey Weinstein in her corner, as we’re reminded each time she wins an award and thanks him in the same breath as her parents and brothers. Who do you have to kill to get J. Law an Oscar, Harvey? Because it’s time to kill.
And The Winner of Ben Affleck’s Oscar Is:
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
How Sure Am I?
If Not Him, Then Who:
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
The Other Spoiler Nominees:
Michael Haneke, Amour
Behn Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
It’s no surprise to my readers, or to anyone else who follows the Oscars, that Haneke, Russell, and Zeitlin were not supposed to be nominated here. Everyone expected helmers of the other best picture candidates – Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow and Tom Hooper – to fill out this list. Oh, maybe you guessed that Harvey Weinstein could help sneak Russell in, or that the popularly controversial Quentin Tarantino could blast his way onto the list, probably at the expense of Hooper. But no one saw first-timers Zeitlin and Austrian Haneke coming. In fact, no one even saw their movies coming. But there you go – with 9 best picture nominees, you’re going to leave out at least 4 of those directors.
Unless the Academy wants to really show that they feel they didn’t make a mistake – thus going with, say, Russell, who must be doing something right or he wouldn’t have actors in all four categories (a feat not seen since 1982’s Reds) this award will likely go to one of the top-name directors who did make the short list. Haneke will like see his reward not merely in the nomination (an unexpected honor) but in a win in Foreign Film (usually accepted, at least, by the director). And to say that someone like Zeitlin, who made this movie with non-actors, must be honored just to be nominated? This goes way beyond the usual cliche. It’s one thing for Hugh Jackman, one of the biggest stars in the world to say it; it’s quite another for a guy who toiled on his first tiny movie without even the likelihood of a theatrical release to take part in this night. Really, it’s almost a miracle that he beat out two former winners and a few other of the biggest names in the business. Enjoy every minute, Behn Zeitlin! You made a beautiful film and you ought to be damned proud even if it doesn’t win a blessed thing.
This still leaves us with a big, weird problem. Argo is the undisputed favorite for best picture, despite (or in part because) of Affleck’s snub. (The theory is that actors are banding together to help put Argo through, on the idea that he wasn’t taken seriously as a director because he’s also an actor. Interesting, consider that he won the Directors Guild Award, which isn’t voted on by actors.) Though it happens with some regularity that a movie wins best picture without winning best director – Chicago and Crash are recent examples – it’s only three times in the 85-year history of the Oscars that a film has won without its director even being nominated. The only modern example of this was 1990’s Driving Miss Daisy. (In a fascinating coincidence, the actor statuettes that year went to current nominees Daniel Day-Lewis and Denzel Washington.) That year, the directing award went to one of the two best-known directors on the list: Oliver Stone for Born on the Fourth of July, who had previously collected an Oscar for Best Picture winner Platoon.
It’s probably the safer bet to pick Spielberg (whose film toted up the most nominations with 12), but I can’t help thinking if the Academy were so in love with Spielberg’s film, then it would be in contention to win Best Picture. So far, it hasn’t picked up a single guild award and, more than any other indicator, the guilds show us how the Academy will vote. Of course, you might have a lot of Academy members feeling bad about not supporting the movie itself who then decide to support Spielberg in this race. Now, Life of Pi hasn’t won anything either, but it’s very clearly a director’s movie with a sweeping, glorious vision. It has eleven nominations on its score card, though none for acting. It’s spectacle. Where Spielberg pulled back from the most fraught moments, Lee pushed forward for poetry. Both directors have been in this position before: Ang Lee has never helmed a Best Picture winner, but he did pick up the directing statuette for controversial gay-love-story Brokeback Mountain (as well as the foreign film for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Spielberg, meanwhile, picked up his second direction win for Saving Private Ryan, which famously lost Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love.
I honestly don’t even know what to say about all this; I’m going to guess that all the acting nods and his name recognition put Spielberg over Lee by a tiny margin, though I wouldn’t be surprised by either one. Actually, I’m kind of mad at myself for not being brave enough to say Lee. It’s difficult to choose, really, because Ben Affleck has picked up every single possible directing award; the Golden Globe, the Broadcast Critics, the Director’s Guild Award, the BAFTA; and so there’s basically no evidence to support anyone else. Again, I can’t wait to see what name gets called.
And the Stick It To the Academy Award Goes To:
How Certain Am I?
Here For The Party:
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
Earlier, I gave you the second most quoted line in Argo. Are you ready for the most quoted conversation in Argo? Prepare to hear it a lot this Oscar telecast: “Doesn’t anybody have a better bad idea?” “This is the best bad idea we have.” In a year of truly brilliant film-making, the awards community has utterly lost its collective mind for this edge-of-your-seat thriller. Back in December, everyone wondered. Would it be Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, or Zero Dark Thirty? Or could the crowd’s love for Les Mis overwhelm critical hauteur? Nope. The best idea everyone seems to agree on is Argo.
I have a multi-pronged theory about this, which readers of this space have heard me explain before. In brief, it’s this: take a well made, plot driven thriller, set in a topically-relevant historical period. The context is morally complex, but the story and characters aren’t. Finally, add in the fact that the story reflects well not only on America but on Hollywood (hurray!), and that the humble, popular director was snubbed in his category, and you have a suddenly unbeatable phenomenon.
Will 2013 be remembered as a year that Oscar got it right? I know I’ve been grumbling, but I certainly did like Argo. It’s partly that I fully expected the movie to be that one level better, and I was disappointed; and also that I just plain liked a lot of these other movies more. Surely it’s not popular among serious thinkers on film to say so, but I loved Les Mis – I love the performances, the emotion, and yes, I love the music. I know it’s fashionable to sneer at earnestness, but I don’t. I love a movie that can make me feel. I want to be moved.
And I was more than moved by Lincoln; I was awed. Not only was I astounded by what our 16th president achieved, but I was devastated (as a student of American history) to see just how different our country’s reconstruction would have been had he lived. So much promise wasted in bigotry and revenge, all for the lack of one man’s guiding wisdom (and the strength of a crazed assassin’s bullet)!
Silver Linings Playbook was more than just the best date movie I’ve seen in a long time; it’s a beautiful story of how as family and friends and lovers we struggle to support each other through mental illness, through grief and through financial upheaval. Over and over it punctures our sense of what our lives are supposed to be, and brings to light the universal strain of normalcy.
Life of Pi enthralls us with its majesty and spiritual quandaries. Who are we, at our core, and what is necessary to allow us to live with ourselves? Beasts of the Southern Wild weaves an enchantment around its viewers, with its strange fantasy of childhood independence and strong sense of place. Django Unchained – well, the revenge Western cartoon wouldn’t make my short list, but in its favor are vivid, colorful characters (some deeply endearing) and the unspeakable tension that only Quentin Tarantino can deliver. Zero Dark Thirty sets our national burden of vengeance on a single pair of slim shoulders, and watches as they never bow. And then there’s Amour, the heartbreaking story of love that lasts longer our frail bodies do.
At what price vengeance, so many of this year’s movies ask. How do we live in the long game? What do we trade our lives for? How do we carry out our ends, how do we compromise, how do we achieve our lofty goals without compromising the people (or the nation) we long to be? Can we lie? Can we bribe? Can we ignore the plight of others? Can we torture, and still remain righteous, unchanged? This has been a beautiful year to be a film-goer, and this is the perfect occasion to reflect on all we’ve gained this year sitting in the seats of a darkened theater.
When they accept their award, producers George Clooney, Grant Heslov (the team behind Good Night and Good Luck, and The Ides of March) and yes, Ben Affleck will thrill the crowd with their exuberant, generous joy. Their words will be self-deprecating, humble and meaningful. Even their beards will charm you. It’ll be a lovely note to end an exciting evening.
And holy cow, there it is. As far as the rest of the categories go, I think we all expect Adele to take best song for her glorious “Skyfall”; I’d love to think the spectacular Bond film can also win for it’s glorious cinematography, but it’s going to have trouble with that tiger in the lifeboat. (Also, as this article points out, the actual cinematographer’s name isn’t on the ballot, so folks who might otherwise like to reward 10 time nominee Roger Deakins might be too snobbish to vote for a Bond movie.) Life Of Pi ought to capture Visual Effects; how could it not? Wreck-It Ralph won the PGA and the Annie (the animation industry’s animated feature award, plus four other Annies including vocal performance for Alan Tyduk, woot!) but personally I’m finding it a surprising result considering the competition of blockbuster Brave and critical darling Frankenweenie. Will the average Academy member follow that guild award? Because they could just as easily follow the Golden Globes, BAFTA, the Editors Guild and the Cinema Audio Society and give the award to Brave. Anna Karenina has a great shot at costumes; period films and beauty take the stage there, and this one’s got both in abundance. All in all, this looks like a year that’s going to spread a lot of love around, and perhaps justly so, because there is just so much to love about the movies of 2012. Let the Oscars inspire you to rent and go to the theater, for these nominees and for so many brilliant genre films (The Hunger Games, The Avengers, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, etc.) the Academy routinely overlooks. Go forth and watch movies!