Friday, January 25, 2013

A Calm, Rational Look at This Year's Oscar Nominees: Part 2: The 2012 Crop

In part one, I went over the recent past – every year dating back to 2005 – to explain my feelings about the Oscar race. As is typical, I defined each year by their best picture nominees – and I will do so again for 2012. I argued that the rule change in 2011, that made a floating number of nominees between 5 and 10, where each film had to get at least 5% of the #1 votes resulted in a lineup devoid of the more interesting choices they made in the two years prior. I stand by that. But can the same be said of 2012?

If I’m being honest, the answer is both yes and no. The lineup this year is a strong one. And it did contain two films types of films they didn’t nominate in 2011 – a foreign film, Amour, and an indie darling Beasts of the Southern Wild. And yet, if I’m being even more honest, a film about aging and death like Amour plays well to the Academy’s aging base, and Beasts of the Southern Wild is the type of indie the went with in the past – even before expanding to more than 5 nominees. What is missing is a true blockbuster film. And given that it received 5 nominations and was
hugely critically acclaimed, could anyone argue that Skyfall would have looked out of place as the 10th nominee? And if you look the other way, at a auteur film like the Coen’s A Serious Man which got nominated in 2009, a 10th spot could have easily have gone to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master – which got the love of the actor’s branch with three nominations – or Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, one of only two films nominated for its screenplay but not for Best Picture (the other, Flight, would fit in as well, but that is a more typical Oscar bait movie). I think any of Skyfall, The Master or Moonrise Kingdom would have fit in nicely with the field, and wouldn’t have “diluted” the honor of being nominated – but hey, that’s just me.

But here’s why I like this slate of nominees more than I did 2011’s. This year, you have 9 films nominated that got people talking. The “safest” choices nominated were Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi and Lincoln. But two of those films – Lincoln and Argo – made over $100 at the box office, and both have certainly stirred up debate – not just movie debate either, but real world debate about their politics and the history that they show. That’s a good thing. Life of Pi will likely also make $100 million (and is a HUGE hit worldwide), and has passionate supporters, and really is a call for religious tolerance, that has again spurred debate. Silver Linings Playbook may “just” be a romantic comedy, but it is a more flat out screwball comedy to be nominated than anything in recent memory. It may well be the safest of the choices – the most insular – but it also speaks to some on a profoundly personal level. You cannot argue with that.

The other five nominees are not as safe – and have inspired lots of debate, again outside the normally insular circles of the movie world. Is Beasts of the Southern Wild a quietly profound movie about childhood or a condescending one that as some have called it no more than “poverty porn”? Is Quentin Tarantino’s take on race relations in Django Unchained angry, brave and necessary, or exploitive of America’s own violent past and the people it seeks to “empower”? Is Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty a movie that endorses torture, or does it show, out of necessity, what America did during the war on terror, and let audiences decide if it was worth it? Is Les Miserables a moving musical that took a huge risk that paid off by having the actors sing live, giving the film a rawer, realer feel than most musicals, or is retrograde gender stereotyping with horrible singing ane even worse direction? And finally, is Amour a deeply humanist film about the lengths people go to for love, or the story of a man who insulates himself from the outside world out of shame and self-pity, before he lashes out at the one closest to him?

The films inspire debates, and passions, on both sides. Last year, I didn’t talk to a single person who passionately loved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or War Horse. There were a lot of respectful appraisals (like my own), but no one really seemed to love either. And no one really seemed to hate either UNTIL they got nominated for Oscars. Then all of a sudden, they were awful – the worst films ever nominated, etc. Last year, I didn’t understand how these two films made it into the Oscar lineup – something I cannot say about any of the nominees this year. They all have passionate supporters – and passionate detractors – and the debate they have inspired is refreshing.

But the debate can also be infuriating at times. I have never understood why some people feel the need to attach some sort of personal cause to films winning the Best Picture Oscar. The people who made the films, and the people in charge of the Oscar campaigns, sure – I get that. It’s their job. But many in the media – and many fellow bloggers – feel the need to separate themselves into teams, and spend more time lobbing bombs at each other’s favorite films, than actually discussing why they think “their” film should win. I’ll never understand why some feel the need to attack Lincoln on a daily basis. On the other side, I’ll never understand why some feel the need to praise Lincoln daily either - and lob bombs at whatever film (mainly Silver Linings Playbook) that may be able to overtake it in the race. Reading it is simply exhausting – I have no idea what it would be like to live this way.

Let me be clear here – I too root for my favorites to win every Oscar night. This year, if I had my way, Amour would win Picture and Director and Jessica Chastain would join The Master trio of Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams as acting winners. Other than Chastain though, and perhaps an outside shot for Hoffman, I won’t be seeing my favorites win. If I had to choose a second and third Best Picture choices, they would be Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained – two other unlikely winners. So I guess I’m on Team Lincoln – since of the “likely winners” that include Life of Pi, Argo and Silver Linings Playbook, it is clearly my favorite.

And yet, I won’t get too worked up if Lincoln loses. As more time passes, I increasingly try to look through the eyes of someone like me – who 50 years from now will good back and want to watch every Best Picture winner, just like I did. What will they see when they watch a Best Picture winner? No film since The Departed in 2006 won the Best Picture Oscar and was also my favorite of the year – although 2007’s No Country for Old Men was my number 2 film of the year, and 2009’s The Hurt Locker was number 6. None of 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, 2010’s The King’s Speech and 2011’s The Artist made my top 10 list in their respective years, but I think all are solid choices. Why? Because I see someone like me watching all three of those films in 50 years and still admiring them – or at least enjoying them. I see them still enjoying the exuberance of Slumdog Millionaire, still admiring the performances of The King’s Speech and still admiring the nostalgia of The Artist. They may well, like me, think that something else among the nominees was better, and be mystified by some of the films that were not even nominated. But I can almost guarantee you they won’t be as bored and mystified as when they get to other years in Oscar history. My list of the worst Best Picture winners would include Gladiator, The English Patient, Chariots of Fire, Oliver, The Sound of Music, Tom Jones, Gigi, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Going My Way, Mrs. Miniver, The Life of Emile Zola, The Great Ziegfeld, Cavalcade, Cimmaron and The Broadway Melody. None of those films – nor even Crash – are anywhere near as bad as those 16. And none of the nominees from this year are as well. Looking back at Oscar history, there are many great films that have won the best Picture Oscar (All Quiet on the Western Front, It Happened One Night, Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, Casablanca, The Lost Weekend, The Best Years of Our Lives, All About Eve, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Apartment, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, Midnight Cowboy, Patton, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, Amadeus, Platoon, The Last Emperor, The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, Schindler’s List, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, The Hurt Locker). But add these great films to my list of awful ones, and you still only get slightly more than half the Best Picture winners of all time. Most films that win the Oscar are fairly mainstream, respectful, middle brow entertainments. We may wonder how Rocky could beat Taxi Driver, Network and All the President’s Men, or how Ordinary People could beat Raging Bull, how Dances with Wolves beat GoodFellas or How Green was My Valley beat Citizen Kane, but when you look at the films that did win, not in direct comparison to the other, acknowledged masterpiece, can you really say that any of them are “bad” films? They aren’t. They are very good – just not the masterwork the other one is.

The Oscars SHOULD be a fun time of year for movie lovers – a time when we all get together and discuss what we loved about the films we saw in the last 12 months. That is what I try to do each and every year – and for the most part, I succeed. I’m looking forward to this year’s Oscar ceremony – and I really don’t care who wins.

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