Late 2012 saw what looked like an unusually competitive Oscar race shaping up. At various times, The Master, Silver Linings Playbook, Argo, Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln were all being posited by somebody, somewhere, as Oscar front-runners (with Django Unchained lurking in the shadows as a tantalizing unknown). Now that the ceremony is less than a week away, the dust has settled and it is clear that we are looking at a three-way race between Lincoln, Argo and Silver Linings Playbook. Here are my thoughts on the race:
The main contender: Lincoln
Late last year, the smart money was on Lincoln to win big at the Oscars. Consider all of the superficial things it has in common with the typical Best Picture winner – it’s a period piece, it’s based on a true story, it stars British acting royalty, it features a pedigree of highly respected talent that includes many former Oscar winners, it’s aimed at adults, and it was both a critical and commercial success. More importantly, Lincoln makes Americans feel good about themselves and America. It’s typical Spielberg in the way that it offers, in the words of Chicago Reader critic Ben Sachs, “reassuring patriotic sentiment.” It’s about a U.S. President who healed a deeply divided nation, and it can appeal to virtually everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike. Lincoln himself is the closest an American President has ever or will ever come to sainthood. His efforts in ending the Civil War and passing the 13th Amendment are universally regarded as heroic. As in most of his period films, Spielberg invites us to project ourselves back in time and imagine that we would be on the “right side” of history (in this case by supporting the President) if we were in the shoes of his characters. We are invited to scoff at backwards 19th century attitudes regarding racial and gender inequality, personified by the foppish Fernando Wood, and congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come as a nation since then. Lincoln has lost momentum in the Oscar race, however. Since Argo was a surprise winner at the Golden Globes last month, Ben Affleck’s movie has gone on to sweep the Guild awards and establish itself as a clear front-runner at the Academy Awards.
The front-runner: Argo
Argo has the true story/period piece credentials of Lincoln, as well as the reassuring patriotic sentiment. I think Argo is also the more crowd-pleasing film; Lincoln is a talky history lesson that feels like a filmed stage play whereas the more overt comedy and suspense of Argo should make it more accessible and entertaining to Oscar voters. While it has made less money than Lincoln (which some see as a strike against it), Argo‘s still a certified smash with a gross of well over $100 million dollars. But here’s Argo‘s secret weapon: it’s a film about the ingenuity of Hollywood (just like last year’s Best Picture winner, The Artist) and we all know that Hollywood loves to “vote for itself.” Plus, George Clooney produced it, and everybody loves that guy. The fact that Ben Affleck has not been nominated for Best Director is causing some to single-handedly write off Argo‘s Best Picture chances but I’m going with the conventional wisdom and saying that Argo will take home the top award. Spielberg will have to settle for Best Director (since Lincoln was a long-delayed pet project, we’ll call it his “Quiet Man prize”).
The dark horse: Silver Linings Playbook
Silver Linings Playbook isn’t entirely absent of problems for me: for one thing, it dubiously suggests, Benny and Joon-style, that the best cure for a mentally ill person is to fall in love with another mentally ill person. But, as I recently watched this formidable rom-com for adults, I felt, with each passing scene, that my usual critical reserve was gradually falling away and I was eventually won over completely. Watching the awesome dance montage set to the Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash version of “Girl of the North Country” was a magical – even soul-thrilling – moment, and by the time the film reached its inevitable-but-still-immensely-satisfying conclusion, I have to confess that I even shed a tear or two. Some pundits have this pegged as a potential Rocky-like spoiler. In its favor: David O. Russell, unlike Ben Affleck, actually has a Best Director nomination, and the movie has also been nominated in all four acting categories – a big-time rarity. But I’m thinking that, among the major categories, Silver Linings Playbook will probably only be snagging the trophies for Best Actress and, less certain, Best Supporting Actor.
The long shot: Zero Dark Thirty
In contrast to Lincoln and Argo, Zero Dark Thirty is anything but reassuring. It has drawn intense criticism from both liberals and conservatives (a sure sign that it’s doing something right). It’s a dark and disturbing film about a secretive organization, the CIA, waging an invisible war on an ill-defined adversary using a variety of technology that is mostly beyond our comprehension. It invites us to have a dialogue about the efficacy of torture and the toll of war in the 21st century, and asks Americans to question who they are and where they’re heading as a country. Its contemporary relevance has made it both a lightning rod for controversy as well as something of an important cultural event. ZDT actually won more year end critics’ awards for Best Picture than Lincoln or Argo. But remember what happened the last time a dark, critical favorite/zeitgeist movie went up against a more populist, feel-good period drama at the Oscars? That’s right – The King’s Speech TROUNCED The Social Network in all of the major categories. The only real question: is the torture-controversy backlash against ZDT so strong that Jessica Chastain will lose out on the Best Actress Oscar she deserves to either Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook or Emmanualle Riva for Amour?
The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-genre-film-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Django Unchained
I suspect Quentin Tarantino will take home the Best Original Screenplay Oscar though. Django has simply made too much money for him not to win this.
The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-foreign-film-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Amour
If there’s one thing that’s a sure thing about this year’s Oscars, it’s that Amour will win Best Foreign Film. It seems to be a new tradition that a single “foreign film” is designated as one that will sweep all of the awards (from the critics’ groups at year’s end through the Oscars in February) so that a specific filmmaker can be feted by Hollywood for a few months. Last year it was A Separation‘s Asghar Farhadi. This year it’s Haneke.
The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-indie-film-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Beasts of the Southern Wild
A carpetbagger rewrites Hurricane Katrina so that FEMA are the good guys and New Orleans a racial utopia? The images and narration are a sub-Terrence Malick imitation by way of a Levi’s jeans commercial. The music’s pretty good though.
I’m indifferent to seeing The Life of Pi. I would rather put a lit cigarette out in my own eye than watch Les Miserables.
Here are my final predictions:
Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis): Lincoln
Original Screenplay: Django Unchained
Actress and Supporting Actor: Silver Linings Playbook (Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro)
Supporting Actress: Les Miserables (Anne Hathaway)
Here are my personal numerical ratings for the Best Picture Oscar contenders:
Zero Dark Thirty: 9.8
Silver Linings Playbook: 7.6
Django Unchained: 5.9
Beasts of the Southern Wild: 5.2