Casual and obsessed moviegoers alike tend to have a love-hate relationship with the Academy Awards. On the one hand, we feign to hate/not care about the Oscars and all the stupid decisions they make. Yet much though we profess disgust, we obsess over this ceremony for weeks on end, and the outrage that we express every year only confirms how much power we’ve given the ceremony. My own thoughts on the Academy Awards are mixed. On the one hand, I of course get frustrated when middle-of-the-road dramas somehow take home all the major trophies while legitimately great films go unnoticed. At the same time, I fully realize that to a large extent, this is inevitable. Tempting though it may be to complain that the awards are political or biased, we should remember that those two adjectives also apply to just about every decision-making process run by humans. It would be nice to think of some ideal scenario where a group of experts have managed to come to some objective consensus, but you’re always going to have individual voters swayed by their own baggage. In the case of the Oscars, we also have to remember that these are the awards that Hollywood essentially gives itself while the rest of the world watches. The members of the Academy don’t have that much in common with each other apart from a shared desire to make the whole ordeal look respectable without alienating their massive audience. As a result, the films that generally end up winning usually have two things going for them – they look important on the surface, and they make their target audience members feel good about themselves.
This is why, even when I pull out my hair to see middling efforts like The King’s Speech or A Beautiful Mind walk away with statues, I understand why it happens. These are movies that seem to discuss serious subjects even when they only reduce those subjects to easy sentimentality. The members of the Academy want to maintain the impression that they’re honoring respectable films (which is why you so rarely see genre films break into the race), but they’re rarely willing to give their prize to a film that might actually challenge or upset viewers. Of course you’ll occasionally get an exception – 2007’s unabashedly nihilistic No Country for Old Men was a particularly welcome fluke – but more often than not you’re going to find strictly middle-of-the-road fare. That doesn’t mean the Best Picture winner is always undeserving – after all, plenty of legitimately great films also happen to be uplifting. But more often than not, the Best Picture Winners are simply fine – movies that you would happily watch on DVD but promptly forget two weeks later.
With that in mind, below is my analysis of this year’s nominations. I’m not going to run through every category, because this post is long enough as it is, but I will cover the Best Picture and Best Score nominations (given the blog’s title, how could I not?). We’ll start with the former: below are my thoughts on each of the nine films nominated for Best Picture this year. I’ve divided each film into two sections – one discussing the film’s likelihood of winning the award, and the other discussing my own thoughts on the film’s merits. Members of the Academy vote by assigning a ranking number to each film on the ballot, with 1 being their first choice and 9 being their last. I will be doing the same here – in the “Will it Win” column, 1 represents the film with the best chance of winning, while 9 represents the film with the worst chance. The same logic applies to the “Should it Win” column – 1 means the film is my personal pick of the lot, and 9 goes to the film I consider the least deserving of recognition. I probably just made that sound way more complicated than it should, but you’ll get the gist as you read. So without further ado:
The Best Picture Nominees (in Alphabetical Order)
Will it win: I’d like to say it had an off-chance, but it seems extremely unlikely. I don’t believe a foreign language film has ever managed to pick up the Best Picture Oscar, and the films that have probably come the closest (Cinema Paradiso and Life is Beautiful) have been far more uplifting than Haneke’s agonizing endurance test. It’s a triumph of the film’s near-unquestionable quality that it managed to get a Best Picture nomination in the first place, but I have a hard time seeing such an uncompromisingly brutal film drawing the widespread appeal needed to win this (also, considering the Academy’s large majority of geriatric voters, I wonder how many people are actually going to want to celebrate a film that reminds them of getting old and dying). Likelihood: 5
Should it win: It wouldn’t be my first choice, but it would be a very deserving winner. Michael Haneke’s famously merciless camera-eye forces us to look at death and old age straight in the face, without any of the sentimental mediation that film usually offers us. No music, no cathartic monologues, and no closure – just bed pans, sponge baths, and malfunctioning motor skills. My only reservation, as I mentioned in my piece last week, is that it’s hard not to wonder what a viewer can get out of Amour that can’t be had from two hours in a nursing home. At the same time, most of us hesitate to visit nursing homes even when our own family members are there. If Haneke achieves nothing else, he succeeds in forcing us to look at something that most of us pretend won’t happen, even though it very likely will happen to both our loved ones and ourselves. My vote: 4
Will it Win: Oddly enough, it’s looking like the favorite right now. When Ben Affleck didn’t receive the directing nomination, most people assumed the film was out of the running, but Argo has picked up seemingly every other major award in the lead-up to the Oscars. Moreover, it looks like the biggest crowd-pleaser of the year – it’s managed to balance critical acclaim, strong box office, and a relative lack of controversy despite the fraught political ramifications of its subject. As a film that flirts with realism and political import even as it does nothing but satisfy its audience’s desires for thrills and feel-good closure, Argo pretty much ticks off all the requisite boxes of past Best-Picture winners. The fact that it’s a movie in which Hollywood literally saves the day certainly doesn’t hurt its chances with group of voters who are always eager for a little more self-congratulation. My guess is that the Academy will give the directing award to Spielberg and give Argo Best Picture. Likelihood: 1
Should it Win: No. Don’t get my wrong – taken as a popcorn thriller, Argo is more than effective. For most of its running time, the film is gripping without going over the top, and funny without detracting from the seriousness of the subject. And in the opening scenes, Affleck actually takes an admirably even-handed approach to the material. The film incorporates real news footage to remind us why the kidnapping happened in the first place, and while the Iranian revolutionaries are certainly the villains in this story, Affleck at least has the respect to give their actions context. But that carefully balanced approach goes out the window in the last act. In a ridiculously contrived (and blatantly fictionalized) climax, Affleck’s protagonist turns into a lone wolf hero operating against both meddling government officials in Washington and cartoonishly evil Iranian security guards in Tehran. Obviously no Hollywood movie can be expected to follow the reality of historical events completely, but there’s something supremely unsettling about turning still-living people from the recent past into snarling villains for the sheer sake of narrative momentum. It might be more understandable if the film clearly presented this material as a stylized fiction, but Argo frames its ridiculous climax through the same docu-realist aesthetic that it uses for the actual real-life events. The result is a film that sacrifices any deeper insight it might have offered for superficial thrills. My vote: 8
Beasts of a Southern Wild
Will it Win: I wouldn’t put it at the top, but I’d put it in the top 4. The film does have a few major obstacles to overcome. First, because Beasts went into relatively wide release earlier in the year, a lot of the initial acclaim has died down (this is why studios usually save their Oscar hopefuls until the end of December). And while everybody loves an underdog, the fact that the entire cast and crew is made-up of unknowns might put off voters more inclined to vote for friends and peers they already know and respect. At the same time, Beasts is one of the best-loved films of the year, and much like Slumdog Millionaire a few years ago, it pulls a neat trick of being a serious film about poverty (check) that nevertheless provides its audience with a big heaping serving of cathartic uplift at the end (check plus). If the film starred, say, Will Smith as the father, it would be a shoe-in (though much weaker as a film). As it stands, Beasts is a potential dark horse but I don’t see it unseating Argo. Likelihood: 4
Should it Win: Well … yeah! As I’ve stated a few times at this sight already, this is my personal pick for the year’s best film. What makes Beasts so remarkable is that it does follow through with feel-good bursts of emotion, but it doesn’t compromise its gritty integrity to reach that point. In an ideal world, all the Oscar-winning crowd-pleasers would be this excellent. My vote: 1
Will it win: I severely doubt it. Even if Tarantino hadn’t been glossed over for the Best Director nomination, the idea that this controversial genre pastiche could garner enough widespread support necessary for a win is extremely unlikely – I’m surprised (albeit pleasantly) that the Academy nominated it at all. As I mentioned earlier, the Academy tends to have a strong aversion to genre pictures, even when they’re as critically acclaimed as The Dark Knight or Skyfall. Tarantino’s auteur signature and the historically sensitive subject may have been enough to let voters to feel ok nominating this one despite its roots in violent Spaghetti Western/blaxploitation thrillers, but I doubt those factors will be enough to net Django a win. Add to that the (unfair) accusations of racism that have plagued the film from he start, and I suspect that most voters will stick with a film less likely to upset people. Likelihood: 8
Should it win: I certainly wouldn’t be upset to see it take home the statue – Django ranked high in my year-end list, and it sure would be deliciously ironic to see Hollywood award a film that so viciously attacks Hollywood’s own history of racial representation. Plus if it wins, future Oscar ceremonies might feature clips from both Django Unchained and Gone with the Wind in the same “great moments in Oscar history” montages – how great would that be? My vote: 2
Will it Win: Almost certainly no. By far the poorest reviewed entry in the best picture nominees, most people are surprised it even secured a nomination. It did win a Best Musical/Comedy award from the Golden Globes, but internationally beloved musicals tend to have an edge with the foreign press, however poorly executed they may be (see Evita – or rather, don’t). Hathaway will probably win the best supporting actress award for her acclaimed Fantine, but it’s hard to see the film securing anything else. Likelihood: 9
Should it Win: God no. Les Miserables, to its credit, gets better in its second act, but the first half of the film rivals The Phantom of the Opera as the worst execution of a stage musical as a major motion picture. I appreciate the desire for realism, but Tom Hooper’s version of realism is antithetical to a rock-opera like Les Miserables. Lead actors haltingly choke out melodies that need to be belted, big crowd number descend into chaos, and all the while the orchestra never seems fully in-synch with the singers. Maybe this is more “real,” in that it’s probably closer to what it would actually sound like if starving peasants and factory workers started singing. But as we’re already suspending disbelief enough to accept people randomly bursting into song, surely we can also suspend disbelief far enough to accept that they can also sound good when they sing. And this is to say nothing of the constant barrage of unnecessary Dutch angles and extreme close-ups for actors who are already going into histrionics, or the editing choices that seem to flat-out ignore the rhythm of the music. For whatever reason, a lot of these problems resolve themselves once the action moves to Paris in the second act, perhaps because so many of the young actors who appear here have actually had professional training in musical theater. But it’s not enough to redeem an opening act that seems to do everything in its power to sabotage the material. My vote: 9
Life of Pi
Will it Win: Rather unlikely. The film is well-loved, but I don’t think anybody loves it enough to put it at the top. In some ways the film checks off most of the Oscar boxes – literary prestige, feel-good ending, dazzling filmmaking – but it has the built-in liability of being based on a book that a lot of people have read and loved. That sounds like a good thing, but often it means that voters attribute the film’s larger qualities to the novel rather than the filmmakers. Lee did a rather spectacular job of making the film his own regardless of its source, but Yann Martel’s novel still casts a heavy shadow over the film, fair or not. There’s an odd chance that this will get a director win for Lee, given that it’s such a virtuosic display of directorial vision, but even here I suspect voters will lean toward Spielberg or Haneke. Likelihood: 6
Should it Win: Again, it wouldn’t be my first choice, but I’d be happy if it happened. It’s not a perfect film – Lee over-simplifies some of the book’s central questions in ways that result in some awkward scenarios (particularly with the tiger, who seems much more like a walking symbol here than he did in the book). But it’s such a viscerally thrilling moviegoing experience, and it would be nice to see the director get some love that he should have received for Crouching Tiger and Brokeback Mountain (though he at least won a directing Oscar for that). My vote: 3
Will it Win: When the awards were first announced, this looked like the favorite, and it still has a lot of points in its favor. To begin, Lincoln is leading by a wide margin in nominations and it has won widespread critical acclaim. The fact that it’s a Spielberg drama, written by Tony Kushner, that stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln should make this a done deal. Yet the qualities that have endeared the film to many of its critics – its general lack of grandstanding, a restrained tone, and willingness to look at ethical ambiguities – might also hurt its chances. The sublime burst of catharsis that Oscar voters generally favor isn’t here, leaving Lincoln as a film that a lot of people admire but few people seem to love. It still has a strong fighting chance, but I’d be a little surprised if this won over Argo. Likelihood: 2
Should it Win: Lincoln is a movie with many strong, admirable qualities, and if it nets Spielberg another Oscar or two, I won’t be upset. But while the film exercises admirable restraint for the bulk of its running time, Spielberg falters in significant ways that are hard to overlook. Some of the flaws are forgivable – any subplot involving Lincoln’s family detracts from the more compelling story about the 13th Amendment, but I can understand the desire to humanize Lincoln as a character. Less forgivable is the way that the film marginalizes the experiences of African-Americans even as it feigns to celebrate their emancipation. It’s particularly egregious when the 13th Amendment finally does pass, and Spielberg devotes far more time to the white senators’ celebrations than he does to the actual African-Americans who are directly affected by the amendment (I won’t spoil it, but a final close-up on Tommy Lee Jones’ face is actually borderline offensive). It’s still an intelligent, well-meaning film, and Day-Lewis is indeed phenomenal, but it’s hard not to be unsettled at yet another film about slavery that exclusively celebrates exceptional white people. My vote: 6
Silver Linings Playbook
Will it Win: This, Lincoln, and Beasts are the three most likely dark horses, and several months ago, I might have said Silver Linings Playbook had the best shot. It has a lot going for it – it’s well-loved, it features serious subject matter, and it’s funny and uplifting enough to leave anyone happy at the end. The fact that the Weinsteins are making such a strong push for it also helps its chances considerably. But the movie doesn’t seem to be picking up much in the awards leading up to the Oscars, and the general consensus that the film sells itself short in its last act is a huge hurdle. Ironically, the crowd-pleasing aspects of the film might actually be its undoing – if it loses, it will be proof that even the Academy has its limits when it comes to forced happy endings. Likelihood: 4
Should it Win: It’s a cute movie, but no. I suppose I’m echoing the consensus here, but the first half of the film is such a real and raw look at mental illness that it feels like a cheat when the film shifts into lighthearted romantic comedy territory. There are scenes in the film that are as brave and painful as any in David O Russell’s career, but seeing how good Russell can be only makes it that much more disappointing when he settles for Hollywood hokum in the end. My vote: 7
Zero Dark Thirty
Will it Win: Most likely no, though there’s a slim chance. It’s one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, and the film won a handful of major critics awards in late December. But the negative campaigning done by people convinced the film is pro-torture seem to have backed Zero Dark Thirty into a corner. It doesn’t help that the film has what is easily the bleakest worldview of all the nominees (and in a year where a Michael Haneke film was also nominated, that’s saying something). Where Bigelow’s Hurt Locker was at least able to sell itself as a tribute to the brave men fighting overseas, Zero Dark Thirty is quick to deny any such patriotism. Americans soldiers aren’t vilified, but the film doesn’t shy away from their brutality, nor does it oblige us with a justification for that brutality. Zero Dark Thirty is a film that denies catharsis, closure, and anything resembling an uplifting message. Acclaimed though the film may be, that’s an awful lot for Academy voters to take. Likelihood: 5
Should it Win: No, unless the award could somehow only go to the last 30 minutes. For all of its admirable qualities, much of Zero Dark Thirty embodies one of the lowest trends in contemporary moviemaking – contrived Hollywood conventions masquerading as hard-biting realism. Despite the intense attention to grim and gritty aesthetics, this is nevertheless a standard thriller about a lone wolf genius fighting against an incompetent system. Everybody who isn’t Maya is a stupid bureaucrat who either makes reckless decisions or gets in the way of the one genius who knows how to find Bin Laden. It’s also the sort of movie where people convey narrative information by getting into screaming matches in office hallways, and Jessica Chastain, so great in other roles, is frankly terrible when she has to yell. But the film’s pivotal raid on Bin Laden’s headquarters and the aftermath is such a perfect piece of pure cinema that it’s almost enough to make up for everything else. Far from the jingoistic spectacle audiences might crave, Bigelow instead maintains a tone of chilly anxiety, lingering on the terrified children and innocent casualties that result from the Navy Seals’ raid on Bin Laden’s compound. It’s a powerful enough piece of filmmaking that it makes me inclined to forgive everything that precedes it, and it renders any claims that the film is pro-torture or pro-military ludicrous. My vote: 5
Thoughts on the Best Original Music Nominees
The Oscar for Best Original Score is frankly, something of a joke. I don’t meant that dismissively – plenty of legitimately great scores have won the award – but there’s a reason that winning a this award has almost zero impact on a composer’s standing in the industry (for proof, look at how many recent Oscar-winning composers’ careers dried up immediately after winning the statue). The problem with the award stems from a problem that plagues every award from the non-major categories – it’s chosen by people who by and large have no idea what they’re voting for. Most people who work in the film industry has some idea of what constitutes a great picture or a great director, but how many actors understand the difference between sound mixing and sound editing? And more pertinently, how many costume designers, makeup artists, actors, writers, or production designers understand the difference between best original score and best song placement? Few viewers actually pay attention to film music when they watch a film, and I doubt many voters bother to educate themselves before voting on this award. This means that while the Music Branch itself is generally intelligent (and strategic) about the scores it nominates, the rest of the Academy often goes in with no memory of the music in question.
This means that the score that wins Best Original score almost always wins for one of five reasons. Either:
A) The award is being used as a consolidation prize for a Best Picture nominee that isn’t going to win anything else.
B) The award is attached to a Best Picture nominee that’s sweeping every other major category.
C) The award goes to a score for a film full of memorable songs that voters mistake with original score (though in recent years the Music Branch has added new rules to prevent this from happening)
D) The award goes to a composer who is famous for something other than film music (i.e., an acclaimed concert composer or a former rock star)
E) The award goes to a score that is so prominent in the film, even laymen are inclined to remember it afterwards.
Of the three, only E actually has anything to do with the merits of the score in question, and even this has more to do with music’s prominence than its quality. Sometimes it works out that legitimately great scores still win the award, but when it happens it’s almost more of a happy coincidence. So with those qualifications in mind, here are my own thoughts on this year’s Best Original Score nominees.
Will it Win: Unlikely. If Argo sweeps all the awards there’s a chance that the score get carried along for the ride, but I’m guessing that the winners will be more spread out this year. Moreover, the score in Argo is so minimal that few voters are likely to remember it even existed. Likelihood: 5
Should it win: No – in fact, of the five, I’d say it’s easily the weakest contender. Desplat did some marginally interesting things with the score that didn’t make it into the film, but onscreen it’s generic mood music that only comes to life during a schmaltzy closing scene. Ironically, Desplat delivered a much more intelligent and purposeful score for the other Oscar contender about conflict in the Middle East – Zero Dark Thirty. My Vote: 5
Will it Win: It has a decent chance just by virtue of the enormous role it plays in the film itself. Due to the meta-theatrical nature of Joe Wright’s production, the Dario Marianelli’s score often features directly in the story itself. Musicians walk onscreen playing the score during set changes, and elaborate dance sequences are painstakingly choreographed to the music. But the score has two major obstacles – it isn’t particularly emotional, and the film itself isn’t very popular. It’s rare for a score to win if its film hasn’t at least been nominated for Best Picture, and Anna Karenina wasn’t even a critical or commercial success. Those factors will make it hard for Marianelli to take home another statue. Likelihood: 3
Should it win: While it isn’t my favorite, the score is a deserving contender. Marianelli is an accomplished composer, and his music for Karenina is appropriately detailed and authentic to the period. But like the film itself, the score is also a bit too mannered and restrained for its own good. While Marianelli writes an impeccable pastiche of late Romantic Russian music, he rarely allows the music to open up in ways that might actually make us feel something for the character. This of course is no doubt an artistic decision of sorts, but it’s one of the many artistic decisions that keeps the film from working as more than a novelty project. It’s hard to shake the sense that the score is treating the entire enterprise as an extremely elaborate joke, and while that’s fine to an extent, at some point you have to give us a reason to care about the characters. My vote: 3
Life of Pi
Will it Win: Odds certainly seem to be in its favor. It won the Golden Globe equivalent and it seems to be sweeping every other film music award. It’s also exactly the sort of film that voters tend to love – prominent but not overbearing, ethnic but not alien, intelligent but not inaccessible, emotional but not saccharine. It helps that the music plays for long stretches without any competition from dialogue or sound effects, almost ensuring that voters will remember it after the fact. Furthermore, the score is attached to a Best Picture Nominee that likely won’t win any major awards, which makes it prime material for a consolation prize. The fact that it’s also the year’s best score almost seems like an afterthought. Likelihood: 1
Should it Win: Yes – didn’t you read what I just said? I already raved about the score in my Best of 2012 post a few weeks ago, but Michael Danna’s exquisitely detailed music is both beautiful and profound. Danna is one of Hollywood’s most underrated composers, and however meaningless the Oscar might be as a barometer of talent, he deserves the accolades all the same. My Vote: 1
Will it win: I doubt it. Williams is a favorite within the music branch, but his enormous fame has backfired on him in popular circles. Too many people see him as a square fuddy-duddy who writes the sort of old-fashioned music Hollywood music we’re supposed to turn our noses at. This is of course a completely unfair characterization, but it seems to have stuck for Academy voters throughout the past decade and a half. Moreover, his music for Lincoln plays a very muted role in the film, and on the few occasions where it is noticeable, it arguably does more harm than good. Still there’s a chance that the Academy will realize they aren’t going to have John Williams forever, so Lincoln may end up winning out of deference to one of the last living film music masters. Likelihood: 4
Should it win: No, with a qualification that the music itself is beyond repute. If this were a best composition award then … well I would still give it to Life of Pi, but Lincoln would be a worthy contender. Williams has written a beautiful and intelligent piece of Americana, but the music functions poorly in the film itself – when it isn’t whispering inaudibly, it’s goosing up scenes that should speak for themselves with swelling sentimental strings. I don’t blame Williams so much as I blame Spielberg for pushing him in this direction, but the result is nevertheless an unfortunate as film music. My Vote: 4
Will it Win: It’s a reasonably long shot, but not an implausible one. Again, it’s rare for a film that wasn’t nominated for any of the major awards to pick this one up, especially when that film was a genre piece. But Skyfall is an enormously popular film with both critics and audiences, and people who ordinarily don’t even mention music have singled out Thomas Newman’s score for its effectiveness (the fact that the music is so loud in the audio mix helps considerably). While die-hard John Barry fans seem to want Newman’s head on a spike, general audiences seem to be won over, evidenced if nothing else by the enormous sales for the soundtrack album (especially impressive considering that Adele’s song isn’t even on the album). Skyfall is also a film that many members of the Academy probably wish they had nominated, so I can easily see them showing the film some love through a Best Original Score Oscar. Likelihood: 2
Should it Win: I have my reservations about the score, mostly because I hear so many missed opportunities to dig deeper into the franchise’s rich musical legacy. But the score does succeed in bringing something fresh to the table, and I’m impressed with the way Newman balances his own distinct personality with the classic Bond idioms. And while my heart (and my bet) is on Life of Pi, it would be nice to see a score win, not because it is attached to a Best Picture nominee, but because people genuinely like the music. My Vote: 2
And that, my chums and chumlettes, is Movie Music Musing’s last word on 2012. Thank you all again for reading. Expect more reviews of recent films in the weeks to come, along with other various odd thoughts that occur to me (and of course your suggestions are always welcome). Here’s to 2013!