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The State of the Race: The Ten Commandments of Oscar Watching

It’s a good time of the year to remind ourselves of what I consider to be the Ten Commandments of Oscar Watching.  It’s important to remember them because they are always forgotten. The truth is, there is no there there right now. There is a lot of hot air, a lot of people making sweeping assumptions and generalizations based on their own impressions of a film — or by talking to other bloggers and film critics at parties — or film festivals. But none of it is real yet. The race is fluid, not static.

Herewith, the Ten Commandments of Oscar Watching

1) Though shalt not predict a movie to WIN that has not yet been seen.  It’s tempting — I want to put Les Miserables and Lincoln right at the top but anyone who’s been at this a while knows that it’s not a wise thing to do. Sure, you can spit in the wind and maybe you’ll be right on down the road but it’s always better to go with what you know versus what you don’t know.  Right now I feel like three films can win: Argo, Silver Linings and Life of Pi. None of them have been reviewed by the majority of critics (which will make a difference in how they are perceived) and none of them have yet opened to the public (also makes a difference). They are all November releases, so we will know pretty soon how the majority of people will respond to these three films.  But it’s an even bigger gamble to say Les Miserables is going to win because as yet, no one has seen anything except the trailer. Ditto Lincoln, The Hobbit and Zero Dark Thirty.

Anne Thompson, Dave Karger and Steve Pond are still predicting Silver Linings Playbook to win because that movie’s cred does not come from one blogger’s own impression — it comes from the film’s successful reception in Toronto — the applause by the crowd and the audience award.  That was when that same group of folks knew that The King’s Speech was going to win — because of its reception in front of a much larger crowd.  It’s a valid call because of that.  I might disagree with them on the ultimate fate of the Silver Linings Playbook but I respect their basis for making that decision.  My feeling on Silver Linings is that it is a good movie, not a great one and that it loses what it has going for it once it abandons the mental illness storyline. So then it becomes a fairly predictable romantic comedy. That usually does not amount to Best Picture. But the acting is good enough that it seems destined for nominations for principal players.

2) Thou shalt not lose perspective because of one’s own biases. No one will ever convince me that The King’s Speech deserved to beat The Social Network — in the end, I never jumped ship with the film I thought should win but predicting what will win is different from hoping something will win — the emotional component to The King’s Speech trumped The Social Network because The King’s Speech was the one film in the lineup that made people cry. There were many dazzling visionary films up that year but what ended up standing out was the sappy factor — and it can never be underestimated.    Life of Pi, Beasts of the Southern Wild and to an extent, Silver Linings are all films that pack an emotional punch. One should never count out films that do that, even if they are roasted by the critics — take Extremely Loud, for example.  How this year rounds out is a story yet untold.

3) Though shalt not elevate one’s own importance.  It’s easy to sucked into the idea that you are important person because you have a platform to say what will and what won’t get an Oscar nomination.  The platform doesn’t translate to power. Sure, you can champion something small that no one has noticed. I remember championing In the Loop, Frozen River, Winter’s Bone and Margin Call and it was a thrill to see them end up with screenplay nominations.   But you can’t really kill a movie by planning a war to take it down. You just can’t.  The movie has the stuff or it doesn’t. Voting is done anonymously so no one owes anyone anything. They vote for who and what they like best.  They don’t think, oh, that Oscar blogger hated that movie so I won’t vote for it.  We advocate and sometimes someone may try to sabotage but only very rarely does it stick. Most of the time, it does not.  We should never falsely believe that we’re entitled to rail against a film before it opens to the public. To actively set out to take apart something other people worked so hard to create is a critic’s job, not an Oscar blogger’s job. We are supposedly here to figure out what will be nominated, what will win, or even what should win — but sabotage is not part of our job description and never should be.

4) Thou shalt not underestimate the greatness of a film because one does not recognize its effectiveness. Because I never really connected with the King’s Speech does not necessarily mean it wasn’t, for many people, a great film. I acknowledge this possibility when I look at a movie like Silver Linings, which didn’t quite do for me what it did for others though I still walked out of it thinking it was a good movie. There is no accounting for taste. We bring to films our current state of mind, our past, our hopes and dreams, our loves, our disappointments, our education — and all of those things combined equal what happens to us when we watch a film. Those inclined more towards life’s bigger themes might fall in love with Life of Pi. Those inclined more towards romantic love might fall for Silver Linings. Those who feel strongly about American history might love Lincoln, and those who like films that have absolutely no flaws will love Argo.  Where Oscar is concerned, the only thing that matters is what becomes the common denominator.

I respect Scott Feinberg as an Oscar blogger.  But I am not sure I agree with his police work on how Life of Pi will do in the Oscar race. He is underestimating its emotional power based on several conversations he had with a small sampling of people, but nothing he heard equals the way most of us read the film’s reception on Twitter.  A lot of people LOVE The Master but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily headed for a Best Picture win. That’s because the kinds of people who write about film — film critics — aren’t Oscar voters.  Life of Pi is a wait and see kind of film — wait and see what it does, where it goes. My sense of it is that if it’s hits, it hits big.  I don’t think, as Feinberg says, that it’s only a below the line movie.  It’s way too good for that. Ang Lee has already won TWO DGA awards and one Oscar for Directing. We don’t judge Oscar movies based just on what people at a party thought of them. We also judge them on the respect and position a director has in the industry. Hell, War Horse was nominated for Best Picture on Spielberg’s cred alone.  You don’t dismiss a film this good directed by Ang Lee that easily.

5) Never forget that the Oscars are not about Ms. Right but about Ms. Right Now. The zeitgeist is a slippery thing. You don’t really know it’s there until you see it right in front of you. So far, 2012 is a year of dazzling filmmaking all barreling towards the end of the year. The film will capture the zeitgeist this month might not be the same film to capture Oscar voters in February. In the past two years the two films that won were safe, nostalgic throwbacks — completely inoffensive vanilla. They were crowd pleasers with no rough edges.  Standing the test of time doesn’t mean it ends up on Sight & Sound’s top 50 ten years from now. Standing the test of time means in 40 years someone might say, hey, did you ever see this movie? It’s really great.  Oscar is not in the business of finding that movie. Sometimes it does by accident — like Casablanca, All About Eve, The Godfather I and II . But more often than not it doesn’t.

6. Thous Shalt Keep an Open Mind. There are two competing forces at work to call a film great. One is the critical reception and the other is the public’s.  The Oscar race has become like political elections — with nasty campaign tricks from all sides, which tends to result in the least offensive candidate winning the day.   But none of us can really say what Ms. Right Now will look like in two months. It will all happen much too quickly and the early awards will take their lead from the chatter about awards on the web. Then the industry will take their lead from the early awards.  Eventually, it becomes too predictable to be worthwhile.  We have one film right now that is being ignored across the board — Looper is a movie that might end up being both a success with critics and a success with the public but why aren’t the Oscar bloggers talking about it?

7. Thou Shalt Remember That Nobody Knows Anything The best Oscar bloggers don’t dumb it down but offer up endless possibilities.  If you look at what Guy Lodge is doing over at Gold Derby he doesn’t try to think like everyone else so as not to look foolish. He dives right in with original thinking.  That keeps the race fluid, not static, not useless and predictable. Sure, he doesn’t have the power to change the race particularly, but he’s not a lemming.  The only thing you risk by opening up perceptions is that someone might say you don’t know what you’re talking about.  But here’s the kicker, they don’t either. They pretend to know by hiding behind what everyone else thinks.  Why not go balls out? So people don’t think you’re the World’s Best Oscar Predictor. So what? We value not being ridiculed over original thinking and that is how we become the wall of noise.

8. Thou Shalt Remember that the trick is not minding. It’s easy to fall into the trap of taking things personally.  No one wants an automaton who doesn’t bring his or her personal feelings into the understanding of what makes a film great versus what makes a film bad. But if the Oscar voters like the King’s Speech, the Oscar voters like the King’s Speech. Taking it personally, as I did, only hurts the ball club.  It’s a silly little gold statue. It represents what 6,000 or so industry professionals “liked” best.  It’s a Facebook status update with the most “likes.” And the world keeps turning.  What it isn’t: a way to determine the best film of the year.  I still feel burned that Viola Davis didn’t win last year. She deserved to. But the trick is not minding. If you come here to the Grizzly Maze you must never forget what you’re dealing with. You must never forget the laws of Oscar.  They vote for what and whom they like best.

9. Thou shalt remember to love the movies thou loves. You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows and you don’t need the Oscar race to tell you what movies you like more than others. Go watch them for yourself. Decide for yourself and never let a silly game ruin what’s most important. Everyone always says they don’t believe in awards for art. And indeed, the Oscars are supposed to represent the highest achievement in filmmaking. We know that isn’t how they turn out. It’s a game and it’s played well by some people.  Because they can play the game well means they can win the game. But that’s all it means. Love the movies you love without apology.

10. Thou shalt trust thyself. If you are making your choice based on what you know versus false perceptions of what might be (as in, thinking a movie you haven’t seen will win everything) you will be headed down a better path than simply copying what other people think. Sure, you will be met with a lot of “no ways” and “you’re crazy” but at least there will be some diversity in thinking.  The person who ends up being right gets to be lifted up and showered with rose petals.  It’s nice to be celebrated.  But that’s nothing to build a proper foundation on.  Start with original thought and go from there.

Those are the commandments as best that I know them as of September 29, 2012.  If I change my mind I’ll be sure to let you know.