24 February 2013

Oscar Unchained

Was it really only a year ago that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences dusted off Billy Crystal and then handed its top prize to a French silent movie? I wish I could say the past 12 months had brought some clarity to the events of the 2011 awards season, but to be honest, I still don’t understand what happened last year, and I think it’s best that we just move on. Fortunately this year’s Best Picture slate is an unusually interesting one. I wouldn’t say the movies are necessarily better than usual—there’s only one film in the field of nine that I’m particularly enthusiastic about and nothing that I like as well as The Tree of Life or Hugo from last year’s group—but nearly all of them are worth talking about at some length.

It’s also been an interesting year for the Oscar horse race. Normally the Best Picture race follows a predictable pattern: the Directors Guild of America announces its nominees for Best Director in early January, during the first round of Oscar voting when the nominees are selected. The Oscar nominations then come out in late January. Generally four of the five nominees for Best Director (give or take one) match the DGA slate. The DGA then selects its winner in early February, and the vast majority of the time, the winning director goes on to take Best Director at the Oscars and the corresponding film wins Best Picture. This pattern has held in 31 of the past 39 years, including the past six in a row. But this year the Academy moved its nominations announcement up two weeks, and chaos has ensued. The major consequence of the date change was that DGA nominations were not released until after the end of the nominations period. This provided an interesting test case of a chicken-and-egg question that avid Oscar watchers have been pondering for years: Do the Oscar nominations match the DGA nominations because the DGA’s picks directly influence the nominations, or is it merely a function of both groups being part of the same population of industry professionals?

I’d always been in the latter camp, but this year’s nominations provide some evidence for the view that Oscar voters have looked to the DGA for guidance. This year only two of the five DGA nominees, Steven Spielberg for Lincoln and Ang Lee for Life of Pi, were nominated for Best Director by the Academy. Shockingly, two of the leading candidates for the award, Argo’s Ben Affleck and Zero Dark Thirty’s Kathryn Bigelow were left out, along with Tom Hooper of Les Misérables. Instead, Lee and Spielberg were joined by Michael Haneke for Amour, David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook, and first-timer Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild. All eight films were nominated for Best Picture, along with Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

With Affleck and Bigelow out of the running, it appeared likely that Lincoln, a narrowly focused film about an embattled president engaging in questionable legislative horse trading to bring affordable health insurance to all Americans abolish slavery in the United States, would win the top prize, but then things took another turn: Argo started winning everything in sight, including Golden Globes for Picture and Director, British Academy Awards in the same categories, the Producers Guild of America award, the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Ensemble, and yes, the DGA award. No movie has ever won all these prizes and not gone on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, so Argo looks poised to become only the second film to win Best Picture without a nomination for Best Director since the latter category was expanded from three to five nominees in 1936. Driving Miss Daisy (1989) was the other, beating out DGA and Best Director winner Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July. Affleck is only the third DGA winner not to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, joining Spielberg (for 1985’s The Color Purple) and Ron Howard (for 1995’s Apollo 13). Lincoln fans can take heart from the fact that in both of those years the Academy selected a different film for Best Picture and Director (Out of Africa/Sydney Pollack and Braveheart/Mel Gibson, respectively). On the other hand, two other previous DGA winners have seen their film win Best Picture while losing Best Director, Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) in 1972, who lost to Bob Fosse (Cabaret), and Rob Marshall (Chicago) in 2002, defeated by Roman Polanski (The Pianist) in one of the few truly shocking upsets of recent years.

Argo is one of those movies that’s almost impossible to dislike—or at least it was until it became the Best Picture frontrunner and suffered the now mandatory backlash. An old-fashioned Hollywood thriller, Argo tells the story of how a CIA operative played by Affleck engineered the rescue of several American diplomats trapped in Iran during the 1979 revolution by having the group pose as a film crew. The film’s critics will complain that it’s shallow, unoriginal, and historically inaccurate—and of course, they’ll be right on all counts. But it’s an enjoyable movie that at least manages to avoid endorsing a jingoistic view of history, and it would be no worse than an average Best Picture winner. If Argo or Lincoln somehow fails to win, the likely beneficiary is Silver Linings Playbook, a romantic comedy about mental illness that achieved the rare feat of being nominated in all four acting categories and has the campaigning might of Harvey Weinstein in its favor. It also has the advantage of being another movie with broad appeal that very few people dislike. (Except for people who comment on Oscar blogs. They hate it.) It’s hardly Russell’s best work, but it does manage to breathe some life into a troubled genre, and I won’t be upset if it wins (I’m more or less indifferent among Argo, Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook. The most fun years to follow the race are the ones where you’re not emotionally invested—either one way or the other—in any of the frontrunners). I can’t quite say the same about about Beasts of the Southern Wild, an incoherent mixture of ethnography and magical realism that didn’t do much for me. Still, I’d much rather see Beasts take the top prize than Amour, the lastest slice of human misery from the overrated Haneke. I keep swearing that each Haneke film I see will be my last, but for some reason, people keep giving the guy awards and I get suckered into another one. Ugh.

Life of Pi
and Les Mis remain unseen by me, which leaves us with the two most controversial films of the lot, Bigelow’s Bin Laden: The Movie and Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in the Antebellum South. Zero Dark Thirty, as you may have heard, has attracted some criticism from journalists and politicians over its depiction of some of the events leading up to the capture of Bin Laden, specifically over whether the waterboarding of a key suspect was truly instrumental in locating Bin Laden, as the film seems to suggest. I don’t know the answer to this question, and neither do the vast majority of those opining about it. And ultimately it’s not that important: to reduce the debate over torture to the question of whether it “worked” or not is to have already ceded the moral question. And more generally, the question of historical accuracy in fictional films, like many recurring conversations, is dull and tiresome. But unlike Argo or Lincoln, or even something like Oliver Stone’s JFK, which its director explicitly positioned as a fictional “countermyth” to the bogus official version of the Kennedy assassination, Zero Dark Thirty has been defended as accurate, by both Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who have used phrases like “film as journalism” to describe their movie, thereby positioning it as the definitive account of the events that led to the killing of Bin Laden, and claimed the film is “neutral” as to the efficacy of torture (strawman arguments like “depiction is not endorsement,” etc.). I’m not sure the “film as journalism” shtick is much more than a marketing strategy gone awry, but the insistence on neutrality as if it were an intrinsic virtue is irritating at least, and seems cynically designed to lend weight to a superficial film that wants to have it both ways (see this brilliant post from the always excellent Richard Brody on Zero Dark Thirty as an example of the “dogma of ambiguity” in art cinema). So while I’m not quite willing to go the full Greenwald, the movie certainly doesn’t not endorse torture, and if I were an Academy member I’d feel a bit queasy about voting for it.

Django Unchained, on the other hand, is easily the best film in the field, and my second-favorite American movie of the year (see the bottom of the post, below the picks, for my provisional Top 10 list). Tarantino’s film has attracted some flak for its offensive language, extreme violence, and, unbelievably enough, historical inaccuracy. The language question is unlikely to be resolved here, but I will say that building a fence around offensive words merely increases their power (must we be doomed to continually have to relearn the lessons of the past? I guess we must). But the complaints about violence are misguided and those about historical accuracy are flat-out idiotic. (Yes, the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t founded until well after 1858. Also, Rick Ross hadn’t been born yet, and Hitler didn’t actually die in a French movie theater.) Both violence and anachronism are crucial to Tarantino’s aesthetic strategy in Django, which involves rearranging the tropes of the western to explode the racial underpinnings of the genre. As some of the more astute commentators have noted, the violence against slaves is depicted realistically while the violence against whites is pure genre fantasy. A definitive reading of the film would take a lot more time and space than I have today, but let it suffice to say that while Django is a messier film than Inglourious Basterds, it might ultimately be more radical in its implications.

Picks and preferences (where applicable) can be found below. This is the toughest predictions year I can remember. Of the 24 categories, I generally get somewhere between 16 and 19 right. I’ll be surprised if that number isn’t lower this year, possibly much lower. I’m reasonably confident that Argo, Daniel Day Lewis, Anne Hathaway, Adele, and Michael Haneke (for Foreign Language film) will be going home with Oscars tonight. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.

Best Picture

Even after the nominations were announced, it appeared that Lincoln was the prohibitive favorite, but upon finally seeing the film, I thought it might be too talky and not emotionally engaging enough for the Academy. In other words, it wasn’t Spielbergian enough.

Will win: Argo
Should win: Django Unchained

Best Director

The lack of a nomination for Affleck leaves this category wide open for once. The few precursor awards that Affleck didn’t win mostly went to Bigelow, so there’s not much to go on here. Spielberg seems like the safest pick, which would make him only the fourth director in history to win three of these, joining fellow Hollywood legends Frank Capra, William Wyler, and John Ford (the only four-time winner). Anyone except Zeitlin could win here—even the chilling possibility of a Haneke victory can't be entirely dismissed. But I’d watch out for David O. Russell.

W: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
S: David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Best Actor

Daniel Day Lewis appears poised to become the first man to win three Best Actor awards. This is the toughest “should win” call on the board, but I’ll go with Day Lewis by a hair over Joaquin Phoenix.

W: Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
S: Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln

Best Actress

This began as a three-way contest between Jennifer Lawrence, Emmanuelle Riva, and Jessica Chastain. Chastain’s character in Zero Dark Thirty was something of a cipher, and I don’t see that movie winning any headline awards, which leaves a two-woman race. Riva turns 86 today and would be the oldest winner of any acting Oscar ever, beating out Christopher Plummer from last year, but I think Lawrence edges her out.

W: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
S: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Best Supporting Actress

It occurs to me that I’ve now given Amy Adams at least three Oscars. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

W: Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
S: Amy Adams, The Master

Best Supporting Actor

All five nominees in this category have won at least one acting Oscar, which I believe is unprecedented. Anyone could take this, but my guess is that Tommy Lee Jones squeezes past Robert De Niro and Alan Arkin.

W: Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
S: Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master

Screenplay, Original
W: Django Unchained
S: Django Unchained

Screenplay, Adapted
W: Argo
S: Lincoln

Animated Feature
W: Wreck-it Ralph

Documentary Feature
W: Searching for Sugarman

Foreign Language Film
W: Amour

W: Skyfall
S: Skyfall

Production Design
W: Anna Karenina
S: Lincoln (have not seen the other four nominees)

W: Argo
S: Zero Dark Thirty

Visual Effects
W: Life of Pi

Costume Design
W: Anna Karenina
S: Lincoln (have not seen the other four nominees)

W: Les Misérables

Sound Mixing
W: Les Misérables
S: Skyfall

Sound Editing
W: Argo
S: Django Unchained

Original Score
W: Life of Pi
S: [no pick in protest of the ongoing uselessness of the AMPAS music branch]

Original Song:
W: “Skyfall,” Skyfall
S: “Skyfall,” Skyfall

Animated Short
W: Paperman

Live Action Short
W: Curfew

Documentary Short
W: Inocente

And finally, my Top 10 list for 2012. I only saw a few dozen films last year, so this will no doubt be up for revision at some point. The two films at the bottom, in particular, feel more like honorable mentions. Also, I have yet to see any of these a second time, so the order is subject to change as well.

1. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S.)
2. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, Hungary)
3. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France)
4. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, U.S.)
5. Bernie (Richard Linklater, U.S.)
6. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)
7. This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
8. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
9. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, U.S.)
10. Skyfall (Sam Mendes, U.K.)