Oscar time, Oscar time, won’t you have these Oscars of mine? The Academy Awards annually represent a push-pull, in which one must either decide to become invested in them, ignore them altogether, or learn to stop worrying and love the prom. My own feelings towards them oscillate between options one and three, as I become intensely invested, only to be horribly disappointed by the nominees, but hopefully in the process learn to appreciate the little victories. This is distinctly more difficult when I’m actively rooting for a very likely winner (oh, the heartbreak of The Social Network), but, you know, I feel pretty good about this crop, even as the category to which I am most personally attached – Best Director – is kind of a mess.
Lincoln came away with the most nominations, twelve all told, and seems to be the one to beat at this still-early stage (the nominations used to be announced four weeks before the ceremony, but this year, there are still six to go). This is bolstering on several levels, not the least of which is due to my own affection for the film, which is immeasurable (he said, knowing he measured it to be the sixth-finest film this year). As much as this seemed at the outset to be the Oscar-baitiest of Oscar-baity films (and I’ve said my piece about that subject), the resulting film is everything one could hope for from such an effort – sharply written, beautifully performed, and unconcerned with catering to an audience who might not understand the political workings of its own era, let alone one 150 years past. Should it eventually win for the categories of Adapted Screenplay, Director, Actor, and Picture, it would not only be fitting, it would be a resounding tribute to a way of making films that is disappearing under our very feet.
Over the past decade, a slow erosion has taken place of studio-funded cinema, particularly that of a middle-budgeted, adult-oriented type. The result has been an Oscar race overrun not by the independent and foreign voices that have truly been guiding the art during this time, but by a very placid, unassuming quality of cinema financed outside of the industry but no less designed, and much more condescendingly so than the efforts of studios themselves, to be a part of it. Lincoln, the money for which was scraped together between two studios in a twelve-year effort on the part of Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner, is truly the kind of film we should be so lucky to reward any year, and which should certainly be rewarded this, one born as much from a group of artists (Daniel Day-Lewis, in the title role, is due no less authorial credit) as the genius of the system as it stands today.
Its competition is not insignificant, though distinctly different than what it was thought to be only yesterday. It was previously assumed that Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck would be nominated for their directorial achievements on Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, respectively, based on steady performances in previous contests, which would translate to intense competition for Best Picture (it is, historically, very difficult to win Picture without a directing nomination). Both were denied today. In their place rose David O. Russell and his Silver Linings Playbook, along with a stronger showing than expected for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (which received eleven nominations in total). Rounding out the Best Director category are Michael Haneke (Amour) and Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), making this the weakest year, from my standing, in this field in years. Sure, on the one hand, you have the truly great Michael Haneke getting his first nomination ever, which is pretty astounding for anyone who’s seen either version of his Funny Games, and nobody should ever take issue with a Lee or Spielberg nomination, but to place alongside them the perfectly energetic, but wildly inferior, Russell and Zeitlin is quite the curiosity. All of the films listed in this paragraph made the Best Picture grade, along with Django Unchained and Les Miserables, and while one must be thankful that the Academy’s director’s branch were not seduced by Tom Hooper’s dead eyes (a description applicable in every conceivable sense), one must simultaneously wonder what they found so lackluster in the work of Misters Affleck and Tarantino, leaving aside the whole issue of either Mister Anderson.
Paul Thomas, as I imagine some extremely-Catholic man must call him, was not nominated in either of his estimable capacities as the writer/director of The Master (gotta give love to Flight, of all things), though three nominated performances seemed to have sprung out of thin air from his film. Joaquin Phoenix’s nomination in the Lead Actor category is no small thing, given his rather dodgy relationship with the industry over the past four years, and especially his disparaging remarks about the Oscars this last fall. Add to that the absence of John Hawkes, who hasn’t been shy about discussing the extent to which he contorted his body to play the amiable, if not terribly interesting, lead in The Sessions, and it’s damn near a miracle. The edge appears to remain with Day-Lewis, though Phoenix is deserving in the kind of singular way the Academy is typically too scared to acknowledge.
Other appearances by Master actors are in the supporting categories, as both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams made the cut, though it is a shame censorship concerns will prevent the Academy from playing my favorite clips involving each (I’ll leave you to discern the Adams scene, but man would Hoffman singing and dancing be irresistible if not for all those boobies). I will be rooting selflessly for each in their respective categories, though I will not be sorry if Anne Hathaway returns to the Oscar stage in a more dignified capacity.
For the Lead Actress race, my Oscar pool bet is for Jessica Chastain, though my heart considerably further. I am distinctly apart from the majority of the critical contingent in finding Zero Dark Thirty to be a perfectly adequate film, but far less than anything it’s been made out to be (that it could be made out to be so many disparate things is no small part of its problem), and Chastain’s performance is precisely the kind of unanchored presence that perfectly sums up the film’s myriad issues. The only truly deserving member of the group is Emmanuelle Riva, not only for the physicality of her wrenching performance, but the great humanity she brought along the way. It’s lived-in and fully wrought in a way that extends well beyond the borders of the frame, and of the film.
The writing categories find the one nominee for the other Anderson, Wes, who by many estimations (my own included), made one of the finest films of the year with Moonrise Kingdom, and his Original Screenplay nomination (along with Roman Coppola) shows that the Academy was at least aware of its presence, if not sufficiently pleased to the point of putting it up with other Best Pictures. That they are the least-likely winners is no less dispiriting in a category that sees Mark Boal (ZDT) and John Gatins (Flight) equally fit to stand alongside them, Haneke, and Tarantino, though one is warmed by the increasing possibility of Haneke taking it. Amour performed well above expectations today, earning five nominations in total (Picture and Director being the most noteworthy), and while many Academy members will undoubtedly see that as a win unto itself, they should not be satisfied with merely giving it the near-certain award for Best Foreign Film, particularly as that category has never been anything near a certainty.
On the Adapted Screenplay side, Kushner should and likely will win, particularly against the comparatively paltry Silver Linings Playbook, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, and Argo. That I mostly like all of those films is besides the point – Kushner is king, he’s beloved by the industry, and he simply wrote one of the finest screenplays of the year, and his is the only one in that collection to be nominated here.
My great (realistic) disappointments were that Paul Thomas Anderson never had a chance, that Affleck was denied his very real chance, and that Anna Karenina was shut out even before it opened, so I was heartened to see some not-inconsiderable nominations on its part, particularly in the Cinematography category. In spite of the branch’s best efforts, that award has rarely gone to the most deserving, or even a mostly-deserving, winner come Oscar night, and the certainty of Life of Pi’s eventual win means it will elude them for yet another year. It’s not that Life of Pi is an unbecoming film, especially visually, but that the extent of its post-production tweaking means that ultimately only a sliver of its look was at the hands of Claudio Miranda. His Oscar will at least account for the Academy’s failure to recognize him for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But the Academy has never been one to make up mistakes to its cinematographers, at least to the extent it does its actors, and nobody is better equipped to testify to this than 10-time nominee Roger Deakins, competing this year for Skyfall.
So now then…what do these nominees say, if anything, about our cinema? Well, we’re at least acknowledging a foreign cinema beyond its designated sector, and Amour is by many estimations the finest film the world has had to offer this year. But I see an openness to a cinema that seeks not to merely represent the “real,” at least in the very staid way Hollywood chooses to do so. In one sense, there may be no film more “realistic” than Amour, but its particular sharpness and flirtations with the spiritual (Haneke’s sense of a greater morality is ever-present) set it distinctly apart from films like Zero Dark Thirty or Argo. The former is too proud of its journalistic qualities to effect drama, while the latter manages to be a joyful affair apart from its total disregard for the “truth” it claims to represent. The same could be said of Lincoln, but it announces very forcefully with its opening scene that the ecstatic truth it divines will be of greater value than any history-channel recreation it’s been deemed, in some circles, to be. Silver Linings Playbook exists in the same stratosphere, using very real concerns of mental illness as a launching board for what is ultimately a very fluffy (though highly enjoyable) romantic comedy; any personal objection one may have with that tack is perfectly understandable, even if it could claim no bearing on an understanding of the thing at hand. Life of Pi and Beasts of the Southern Wild should need no explanation of their pertinence to this trend, except to say that Lee, a master filmmaker, finds infinite more resonance in his fantasy than Zeitlin’s opportunistic rendering of the south, however admirable the latter may be in wrangling such a production.
Perhaps most importantly, viewing the Oscars purely for the horserace that they are, we always ask for them to give us something new in a season that has seemed so predictable these last few years, and so they have. The result certainly didn’t please me (as someone who derives much of his pleasure from the directing category, it’s a little disappointing), but hey, at least we’re talking. And at least they didn’t nominate that damn Tom Hooper.