Monday, February 25, 2013

Wrapping up the 2012 Oscar Year

I ended up writing more about the 2012 Oscar season more than I have in the last few years. The reason for that is simple – this year was far more interesting than most. Oscar years 2006-2011 felt like they were over pretty much before they started. By the time the nominations were announced, which pretty much already knew what was going to win the major awards. The snubs on nomination morning were usually to films and performances that no one really though were going to win – just ones they thought would be nominated.

I mean really, did anything every truly challenge The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech or The Artist during their awards reasons? When Dreamgirls was snubbed on nomination morning, The Departed became the frontrunner and never looked back. The Hurt Locker had to overcome Avatar, but the whole David vs. Goliath campaign was really more of a media thing than anywhere else. Even though the critics obviously preferred The Social Network, we all knew The King’s Speech was winning, right?
So the 2012 season became the most contentious, controversial season since 2005 – the Crash vs. Brokeback Mountain year. This season took a series of bizarre turns, and saw some particularly nasty examples of campaigning all season. The journey Argo took to the Best Picture prize is truly bizarre. It came out of the gate strong at Telluride, and continued strong in Toronto, until Silver Linings Playbook unexpectedly won the People’s Choice Award, and Argo already starting looking like an also ran. It sat back and watched, quietly accumulating box office, as first Life of Pi, than Lincoln and finally Zero Dark Thirty came charging into the season, and looked like the more legitimate Best Picture contender. When the reviews hit, and the awards started piling up, it looked like Zero Dark Thirty may well be your winner. Then three idiotic U.S. Senators effectively “Swift Boated” the film out of the Oscar rate in a pathetic (and successful) attempt to draw media attention onto themselves. When the nominations came out, and Kathryn Bigelow was NOT nominated for Best Director, and the film had a disappointing 5 nominations in total, its fate was sealed. It never recovered.

On nomination morning, Affleck was also snubbed in the Best Director category, and Argo’s chances looked slim. It seemed like Life of Pi, Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook had taken the lead, and would be duking it out for the Best Picture prize. And then, a bizarre thing happened. The Broadcast Film Critics and Golden Globes – two groups who had already cast their votes BEFORE the Oscar nominations came out, but gave out the awards AFTER, both gave Argo Picture and Affleck director in the span of a few days after the Snub. All of a sudden, people started feeling sorry for poor, poor Ben Affleck, who was so cruelly snubbed by the Academy. People tried to come up with reasons why the Academy snubbed him – he was an Actor Turned Director (nope, sorry, it didn’t stop Olivier, Beatty, Redford, Costner, Gibson et al for getting nominated, and in most cases winning, or their first or second film – and Argo is Affleck’s third), or the line about “You can teach a monkey to be a director in a day” in the Argo screenplay (seriously, who comes up with this shit). The combination of this new found sympathy for Affleck, and the momentum garnered by the wins at the Critics’ Choice and Golden Globes, started a wave of Argo support that never subsided for the rest of the season, as it rolled through one guild ceremony after another. Add in another politician (this time Connecticut congressman Joe Courtney, who was supported by – surprise- Ben Affleck in 2006 - although the Argo campaign was shocked and appalled anyone would suggest they had anything to do with it) did his own part to swift boat Lincoln – and more importantly, screenwriter Tony Kushner - out of the race with an inconsequential story about how Lincoln changed how Connecticut voted on the 13th Amendment – and demanding an apology BEFORE the Oscars. What is extremely odd to be is not that both Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln were attacked during the Oscar campaign for their “historical inaccuracy” – that comes with the territory – but that after these two films were taken down, in part BECAUSE of those historical inaccuracies, that voters embraced Argo, which had more historical inaccuracies than Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty put together. But I suppose when you have U.S. Senators and Congressmen complaining, the Academy takes notice, and when you have a former Canadian Ambassador complaining, no one cares. C’est la vie.
I’m not saying that Argo should not have won because of its historical distortions. I’ve defended the film, saying that Affleck and company made decisions based on storytelling to make a better movie – and I’m Canadian. Spielberg and Bigelow did the same thing in Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty. I do find the double standard extremely odd though.

Anyway, it’s just another reason why I’m mystified at Argo’s Oscar win this season. I suppose some will accuse me of being too hard on Argo all season. Not true. I’ve never wavered in my opinion that Argo is an excellent thriller/Hollywood comedy, expertly crafted by Affleck, written by Terrio and acted by the whole cast. Although it certainly wasn’t my favorite film of the year (The Master was) or of the nominees (that would be Amour), I always saw Argo as “good enough” to win Best Picture. 50 years from now, people may wonder why Argo beat the films it did, but when they watch it, I still think they’ll be entertained – and that’s about all I ask for these days.
No, my being mystified by Argo winning has to do with other factors. For one thing, it’s genre. It is essentially an extremely capable caper film – not unlike something like Ocean’s 11, except I suppose its more “important” than that film because they’re getting hostages out of Iran, and not stealing money for a casino. Still though, movies like Argo do not win Best Picture most of the time. The only like-minded film among the previous 84 winners I could find was The Sting – in 1973.

And looking at the nominations also doesn’t support Argo. It got the 5th most nominations – Lincoln had 12, Life of Pi 11, Les Miserables and Silvering Linings Playbook both had 8, before Argo with 7 – and no film below the 3rd most nominations had won the award in decades. Also, Argo became only the 4th film in 85 years NOT to have its director nominated – and two of the previous three happened very early in the Academy’s history. 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy was supposed to be the exception that proved the rule. No I don’t know what to think.
Time will tell if 2012 is more of an anomaly (which I think it was) or a new standard. But undeniably, people are going to look back at 2012 as a strange Oscar year. Argo winning Best Picture, with no Director nominated. Ang Lee winning his second Best Director Oscar, even though none of his films have ever won Best Picture. Daniel Day-Lewis becoming the first actor in history to win Three Best Actor Oscars – and for a movie it doesn’t seem like the Academy liked all that much (it went 2 for 12 on Oscar night). Jennifer Lawrence becoming a very young Actress winner at age 22 – and for a comedy no less. Christoph Waltz going two-for-two on nominations for Tarantino films. The only acting winner that doesn’t seem slightly odd is Anne Hathaway – and hers was undeniably the most divisive film in the bunch.

I think they’ll also wonder how Terrio’s fine, thriller script beat Kushner’s complex, elegant prose in Lincoln. How Pixar can seemingly win for anything not related to Cars. How Searching for Sugar Man won the documentary Oscar when normally they go for IMPORTANT movies, and it was obviously the least IMPORTANT doc nominated. And as happens all the time when there’s a tie, they’ll wonder what the rules are, and what the odds of an exact tie among over 6,000 voters are.
So did the winner’s “deserve” to win? I don’t know. Very few of my favorites won, but wanting the Academy to validate your own taste isn’t the best way to go about figuring out worth. There are so many films released every year that most people are always going to prefer something else. I’m on record as saying Argo will take its place among the middle of the 85 films to win the Best Picture Oscars. It’s not one of the best, and it’s not one of the worst. It’s right smack dab in the middle (I’ll post my updated rankings of all Best Picture winners later this week – I haven’t done so since before Slumdog won). Strangely, Ang Lee joins a very short list of directors who won, whose film didn’t win Best Picture, where I actually prefer the Picture winner to the Director (other examples – All the King’s Men, whose director lost to Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives and The Godfather, whose director lost to Fosse to Cabaret – although to be fair, I’ve missed some early Director winners, where they Academy split the awards). Still, Life of Pi is a stunning visual achievement, so while I would have voted for Zeitlin or Spielberg or Haneke among the nominees, and many others NOT nominated, it’s hard to get too upset by it.

Daniel Day-Lewis is a worthy winner for Lincoln – in fact, he’s one of the best winners in recent years, even if I prefer Joaquin Phoenix. Jennifer Lawrence was a firecracker in Silver Linings Playbook, so I won’t complain too much, even if I like Chastain and Riva more. Waltz was brilliant in Django Unchained – even though I would have voted for Hoffman, and think not nominated co-star Samuel L. Jackson was just as brilliant. Anne Hathaway did a fine job in Les Miserables, so no embarrassment there.
In the below the line categories, the one that stands out to me is Chris Terrio winning for Argo. Sorry, this easily should have been Lincoln, and history will bare me out of this one. Django’s win for Screenplay was deserved – for me anyway, I understand why the choice is controversial in some circles. Amour ranks as one of the best Foreign Language winners ever. Searching for Sugar Man one of the most entertaining docs ever to win. Brave, a gorgeous animated film, even if Frankenweenie was better, and Wreck-It Ralph more fun. It’s hard to argue with the visuals of Life of Pi – cinematography and visual effects winning – and Mychael Danna’s score was beautiful. Les Miserables below the line wins – for Makeup and Sound Mixing were also worthy. Anna Karenina’s costumes were wonderful. Lincoln’s art direction meticulous. Skyfall was a great song. And the dual sound editing winners – Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty were very different, but equally excellent. All in all, while I would have chosen different winners in many categories – and would have nominated different films in most – I don’t think the Academy really embarrassed themselves with any of the wins this year. Nothing stick out like a sore thumb like say Renee Zellweger winning for Cold Mountain or Gladiator winning for Visual Effects, or In a Better World for Foreign Film or Avatar for cinematography, to pick on some recent embarrassing winners.

So another Oscar year in is the books – and frankly, it couldn’t come soon enough. While this was an interesting year, the whole process is still dragged on far too long. I do hope the Academy moves up the ceremony date by a week or two next year, so we can all move on with our lives quicker than we did this year. The Oscars are what they are. As I say all the time, winning an Oscar doesn’t make a mediocre film great, and losing doesn’t make a great one mediocre. And winning an Oscar doesn’t automatically mean a film becomes overrated. For better and for worse, 2012 will always be known as the year of Argo for many movie fans, so now it faces the near impossible task of being seen as the “best of the year” among film fans, few of whom use the same standards to judge what exactly that means. The Oscars, as always, set the standard for movie fans to debate the merits of their favorites – and it’s a debate that never truly ends.

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