So with ten days to the Oscars and voting for the actual awards almost over, I am absolutely confident in saying…Daniel Day-Lewis will win Best Actor.
And that’s it.
Here’s why I’m completely unprepared to go any further, Alex. It has to do with my top five movies of the year, as I had gone on record stating that Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty were two masterpieces, almost flawless. But a few weeks after that pronouncement, this is how my Best of 2012 list finished, and this does not include Amour, Holy Motors, or Life of Pi, none of which I’ve gotten to see yet…
2. Silver Linings Playbook
3. Argo/Zero Dark Thirty
4. The Master
In short, Hollywood unveiled four of the greatest movies I’ve seen in my lifetime (plus one of the most complex and intelligent artistic mind**ks ever in one season), and they’re all up for Best Picture.
Now I breathe with excitement about the 24th…good…then continue.
The brilliance of Silver Linings Playbook and Argo has to do with their meeting one of my favorite cinematic maxims, as pronounced by Robert McKee: “Give the audience what they want, but do it in a way they don’t expect.” Zero Dark Thirty was a film that brilliantly met every expectation of mine. Lincoln met them, then surpassed them. David O. Russell, Ben Affleck, and Chris Terrio flipped my expectations on their heads with the intelligence and emotion they poured into their films, especially the former quality. These are two very, very smart motion pictures, which adhere to conventions of style and genre while traveling to places not many movies go.
Silver Linings Playbook deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally…, and other diamonds of the rough field of romantic comedy. We’ve been bombarded by so many quirky films about quirky characters that I expected more of the same, and what I got was a throwback to the 1930s screwball love stories, a tale of opposites attracting, an intellectual with a deep-rooted sense of humor and an outspoken fireball of a dream girl with none of the manic pixie about her mixed up with intricate plotting, a note-perfect script full of fantastic lines, and Robert De Niro giving his finest performance in almost two decades. And Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence being nothing but superb. AND David O. Russell, whom I have come to realize might be my favorite living director along with Spielberg, Scorsese, and PTA. The music critic George Starostin once wrote that the perfect world is not a world without problems but a world which is perfectly interesting, of the unusual and eccentric and surprising always breaking in on our everyday constant reality. David O. Russell’s movies continually offer such a worldview, mixing the real and the delightfully absurd in just enough doses to make us feel the magic happening along with the characters, and his happy endings—and this film certainly has one—always feel organic and earned.
But Argo surprised me even more…I went in wanting a variation on The Day of the Jackal with more human emotions and a few laughs. I got that. But what I also got was one of the more subtly devastating and unsettling examinations of the United States committed to film, a depiction which finds Affleck (And why did it take him so long to get behind the camera, where he excels in spades? Why?) following, keeping pace with even, the footsteps of his hero, fellow ignored-by-Oscar director Sidney Lumet. The deeper theme of Argo builds up slowly, from the opening narration through the attack on the Embassy and the construction of Tony Mendez’s plan as dialogue is delivered by a varied, inscrutable cast revealing a little of themselves at a time. Then, as Affleck, perfectly hidden behind shaggy hair and a thick beard, wanders through the insanity of a party at the Beverly Hilton while those he is trying to rescue quake for their lives, the dichotomy became clear…
I was confronted with a narrative in which a country full of people who are doing reprehensible things but are perfectly sincere, honest, and forthright about it is in opposition to another country, the United States, in which dishonesty and deception are ways of life, in which no one is completely forthright with each other and one of the most powerful and memorable industries, as well as the government, are based on bullshitting and equivocation, in which everyone resorts to subterfuge and lying almost simply because they can. Hannah Arendt wrote of the banality of evil. Argo is a film about the banality of dishonesty, about a culture where dishonesty is the rule…and how that country can face travail and ruin, at least on the ethical level. The same way that Where the Wild Things Are perfectly captured the exact feeling of being a child, Argo perfectly captures the everyday deceiver and dissembler in all of us in a way so few works of art accomplish. People have tweeted that one day, this will play on double bills at the New Beverly and elsewhere with Zero Dark Thirty. Of course it will. Argo is a film about the conditions that led to the world of Zero Dark Thirty and its consequences…I almost think of them now as one giant epic. And this makes Argo more of a relatable film than Zero, despite the latter’s documentary realism and the former’s pronounced aesthetics. Maya never changes as a character. Tony changes…he makes decisions in the third act which go against the grain of what everyone else in the movie is doing, and those decisions, as organic as the happy ending of Silver Linings, make an audience want to cheer.
So now I can’t begrudge Argo any awards. It deserves them. And Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow deserve to spend Oscar night together drinking Scotch and champagne and laughing it up as they watch someone else collect the prize one of them in all likelihood should have won. The only award I can’t fathom was the SGA ensemble, because Argo has no traditionally standout acting apart from Affleck and a witty John Goodman (Alan Arkin is deliberately playing a caricature, which is what the movie required), while Cooper, Lawrence, De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, everyone in The Silver Linings Playbook was inspired and at full powers.
But my point with those two mini-reviews was that now the race is wide-open with no certainties in the call. Indeed, I have no wish to call Best Picture until they open the envelope at the end of the night. I can’t shake how the people voting for these awards did not nominate Argo for many categories the first time around, but no other movie seems to have the love or momentum. Only Zero Dark Thirty has roused passion and it is a passion of contention. I’m hoping, of course, that the Academy will clue in again to the glorious achievement of Spielberg, Kushner, and Day-Lewis in giving the big prize, but we will have to see. Life of Pi could sneak in. Harvey Weinstein could orchestrate a behind-the-scenes final push for The Silver Linings Playbook. I just don’t know what to think, and that’s exciting.
Here is what I DO think…
Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis for the third go-around. Give him three more in the next two decades. He deserves them all. The greatest of our generation.
Actress: Emmanuelle Riva has been gathering steam for what by all accounts is a towering performance, but I have to see this in the end as a two-person race between Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence, whom I wish could tie like Streisand and Hepburn. Chastain was beyond superb, but as I mentioned before, her character, in keeping with the aesthetic world of Zero Dark Thirty, does not arc or change over the course of the film except to grow better at her already single-minded job. Lawrence not only has an arc, but also gets to be witty, emotional, and as relentless as Chastain, all of which could make her more of a favorite.
Supporting Actor: I wish Philip Seymour Hoffman had this one sewn up, but there’s no enthusiasm for The Master. Alan Arkin could ride the Argo momentum, but his performance was the least of the five, so not likely. Tommy Lee Jones has gotten lots of deserved attention…however, in the end, I’m leaning towards Robert De Niro. De Niro showed he still has his remarkable combination of intensity and restraint…he never enters into ham mode…and his performance is of the same nature as Lawrence’s except while she (and Cooper, who would have had a chance if not for DDL) goes all in for romantic emotion, De Niro’s character is based around a certain sagacity, a wise fool type…one of the archetypes of the supporting actor.
Supporting Actress: Sally Field, masterfully portraying in just a few scenes the passions and instabilities of Mary Todd Lincoln, could win…but Anne Hathaway almost has this as sewn up Day-Lewis. All it took was four perfect minutes.
Director: I have no idea? Zeitlin is clearly in the “honor just to be nominated” category, Haneke is too much an unknown quantity, Russell’s direction was perfect but restrained in a way the Academy doesn’t always get behind. That leaves Lee, who apparently used 3-D better than any director ever has apart from James Cameron, and Spielberg channeling John Ford and William Wyler. Then again, since the big nominees aren’t inspiring significant love, Russell or Haneke could emerge as a compromise choice, though the award really should be Spielberg’s. He made a film about ideas and the political process and people sitting in chairs talking for two and a half hours mesmerizing.
Writing: Adapted Screenplay NEEDS to go to Tony Kushner. That would be the one great crime of the night if he lost out For Original Screenplay, to continue the tradition of giving this award to great filmmakers who otherwise would not have Oscars, Michael Haneke will probably triumph over Wes Anderson (maybe next time…) (And it’s times like this I am glad Bigelow and Boal have much-deserved Oscars already.).
Animated Film: Wreck-It Ralph is not only a delightful Disney movie, but also is the first family film to recognize how our generation is becoming parents. A charming, uproarious take on the values Walt Disney spent his life celebrating with lovely animation and sterling voices. I would pick it over Brave…
Another film with a feminist princess and kick-ass female characters. Way to go on these, Mickey!
And further I would give Animated Short to Paperman to complete the love for this fine double feature.
I’m running out of time and I’ve almost hit 2,000 words, so a rapid run-through…
Score: John Williams, aged 81
Song: In all likelihood “Suddenly” because the Oscars love it when Broadway people write for the movies…Rodgers & Hammerstein, Sondheim, even Lord Andrew all have statuettes. Although as fine as “Suddenly” is, “Skyfall” is a better song, and “Safe and Sound” not being nominated is as lousy as when “The Wrestler” wasn’t nominated
Visual Effects: The Avengers will get the Academy recognition for making a billion dollars.
Foreign Film: Amour. Foregone conclusion.
Editing: Lincoln…or Zero…or Argo…or Silver…one of them! (Going by the old Editing/Picture corollary, even though that didn’t work two years ago.)
Documentary: I have heard wonderful things re: Searching for Sugar Man, and it also isn’t going to unsettle people the way Argo and ZDT get away with it…although How to Survive a Plague has gotten an unexpected new boost just before voting.
All the rest…as big a mystery as Best Picture. We’ll see.
Well, I can definitely agree with you that Daniel Day-Lewis and Anne Hathaway are going to win Oscars. Both of them became frontrunners for their respective awards from the moment their films began filming, and neither has really encountered much resistance in their march to the Dolby Theater. They’re about as safe a bet as you can find in what has been a crazy Oscar season, but there’s one more category that is almost as locked up: Best Picture.
Despite Ben Affleck’s snub in the Best Director category, Argo is going to win Best Picture. No film that has won top honors from the Broadcast Film Critics’ Association, Golden Globes, Producer’s Guild, Screen Actors’ Guild, and all-important Director’s Guild should lose Best Picture at the Oscars. Admittedly, there’s only been one other instance of a film winning Picture without a Directing nomination in the past seven or eight decades (Driving Miss Daisy in 1989) but that statistic is not going to slow down the momentum that Argo has picked up over the past month. Affleck will get his Oscar for being a producer on the film, joined on stage at the end of the night by fellow producers George Clooney (yes, really) and Grant Heslov.
Unhappily (for me at least), I think Argo will be about as well remembered in a generation as Driving Miss Daisy is now.
My wife and I caught up with Affleck’s front-runner last weekend and found it profoundly mediocre. The film elides around larger social and geo-political problems, wastes time with a tired “ain’t Hollywood silly?” segment, and needlessly throws fictional obstacles into the final act in order to ratchet up the tension. I found some sequences quite well done, especially the storming of the American Embassy that opens the film, but it is for the most part a middling, by-the-numbers thriller that does nothing particularly well or poorly.
That it is an easy front-runner in a field of Best Picture nominees this strong is honestly somewhat baffling, even to an experienced Oscar-watcher like me. Certainly films that I think are middling win Best Picture all the time (I would rate recent winners The Artist, The King’s Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire as middling films, to say nothing of complete shit like Crash), but I can usually understand WHY a film wins. Best Picture winners usually succeed because they are particularly good at drawing a strong reaction from their audiences, most often suspense or swooning. The Artist won last February because it was wildly entertaining, a lark for the ages with nothing on its mind but making people feel so good that they forgot the world’s worries. Two years ago The King’s Speech surged past early favorite The Social Network because audiences found a deep well of empathy and pride in the struggles of King George VI that the other nominees could not compete with. I don’t know what Argo does better than any other nominee, but its mix of pedestrian thrills and limp laughs, with a strong dose of the implication that Hollywood helps save lives, will win the day.
That win will be a real damn shame, because this was a really great set of Best Picture nominees in what was an even better year for film. My two favorite films of the year, The Master and Moonrise Kingdom, were relegated to also-ran categories, but Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty are both exemplary pieces of the sort of dark, thrilling, and deeply reflective films that Hollywood is capable of when working at its highest level (I’ll have more to say about those two and few others in a future article). I’ve yet to see Amour (you and I have plans to watch it sometime in the next week), but I suspect it will share the same rarified air that I put The Master and Moonrise Kingdom into. Lincoln was an outstanding piece of Oscarbait, filled with excellent acting and even-better writing elevating dry parliamentary politics into a ringing endorsement of America’s best ideals. It’s as close as Spielberg has yet come to making a John Ford film, and it would make a much better and more timeless Best Picture winner than Argo. I’ve expressed my thoughts about Beasts of the Southern Wild and Les Miserables in our last bit or correspondence, and still have need to tackle Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook, but even with those misses or omissions this is a field that is better than its ultimate winner.
Ben Affleck’s absence does leave the Best Director category wide, wide open, though. Literally every major televised award has gone to Affleck, who cannot win here. So the ultimate winner will be getting something of the ultimate consolation prize, but it will be anyone’s guess as to who that winner is until the envelope is opened. Steven Spielberg could collect his third award, but Lincoln seems to be losing support with every passing day and I just don’t know that there are enough voters who love the film. Another former Best Director winner, Ang Lee, is also hanging around here. Lee helmed the film with the second most nominations and is clearly very well-respected in the industry. Michael Haneke and Benh Zeitlin are also lurking, outsider art-house directors on opposite ends of the spectrum. They are separated by decades in age and by leagues in artistic temperament, but both clearly have a good deal of fans within the Academy. But I think Director will ultimately go to David O. Russell’s work on Silver Linings Playbook. It’s not very showy direction from what I can tell, but Russell has suddenly become a favorite of the Academy. In the past three years he has collected two nominations each for Picture, Director, and Screenplay while guiding seven different actors to nominations. Silver Linings Playbook is obviously a popular film with audiences and voters, Russell has never won, and someone has to. So I think it’s him.
Real quickly, I will run through my predictions and personal favorites in the rest of the major categories.
Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln. A near-mortal lock that was discussed above. I would pick Joaquin Phoenix for his titanic performance in The Master. It’s a performance that will live for the ages.
Actress: Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. She’s been in the lead for most of the season, is in a popular film, and her win would be a coronation for a budding superstar. Emmanuelle Riva might stand a shot at the upset, but I think this is Lawrence’s to lose. My pick would be Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty, who showed an unsettling mix of resolve and moral disengagement in her hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained. Weird, right? This would be two Oscars in a row for two Tarantino films (and a lot of people would argue that the roles are largely the same), but that’s my guess. Honestly, I think anyone but Alan Arkin (what a waste of a nomination; that slot should have gone to Leonardo DiCaprio) could win this category which is as unsettled as any I can think of in recent memory. My favorite here is Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance in The Master, playing a flawless, strange duet with Joaquin Phoenix.
Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway for Les Miserables. Another mortal lock. As you may have guessed, my favorite here is Amy Adams for The Master. What can I say, I have to love that film where I can, and her ability to utterly control any scene with just a flash of her eyes in the background was a remarkable reversal of her usual screen persona.
Original Screenplay: I sort of have no idea? My best guess might be Tarantino’s sloppy, audacious, and remarkable work of Django Unchained, but I won’t really feel anything like confident about this award until it’s handed out. My favorite is Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola’s beautiful and moving writing for Moonrise Kingdom. If that wondrous little film can win such a big award I will never cease feeling happy about it.
Adapted Screenplay: Unfortunately, it will be Argo. I’ve gone on enough on the subject, but strike up another score for mediocrity. The best work to me is inarguably Tony Kushner’s brilliant job of marshalling Doris Kearns Goodwin’s comprehensive Team of Rivals into a comprehensible mix of hagiography and morality play.
I’ll finish off by running through the rest with minimal comments.
Cinematography: Life of Pi
Production Design: Anna Karenina
Costume Design: Anna Karenina
Sound Mixing: Les Miserables
Sound Editing: Argo
Score: Life of Pi
Song: “Skyfall” – Skyfall (you’re NUTS for thinking this will lose)
Visual Effects: Life of Pi
Make-up and Hair: Les Miserables
Foreign Film: Amour
Animated Film: Wreck-It Ralph
Documentary: Searching for Sugar Man
Feel like shouting me down about Argo?
Only in the sense that I think it will hold up better than you think it will, and that Kushner has this in the bag…it would be TOO INSANE not to give it to him. Otherwise, how can I disagree? We got spoiled gloriously in 2012. I don’t think we’ll see another year this great for at least a decade…and that’s worth celebrating.