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The State of the Race: At War, In Love

So the multitude goes, like the flower and the weed
That wither away to let others succeed;
So the multitude comes, even those we behold,
To repeat every tale that hath often been told.

–A poem President Lincoln loved enough he once said about it, “I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is”

Most of the time, Oscar voters and audiences do not put the year’s best films in the context of our time. We throw around words like “zeitgeist” and “timely” and “relevant” but what we really mean is that we can find something in them that applies to the world around us. It can sometimes be the world defined by a filmmaker — taking place in another time, in another country. Or it can be a world defined by history.

More people know about the daily comings and goings of Lindsay Lohan than they do the ongoing war in Afghanistan, brought about by an eager beaver neocon presidential administration using the war on terror as their battle cry. Soldiers and civilians continue to die as we wait out one more long year before troops will be pulled. This, the last wave of the Bush administration legacy. That legacy, it seems, has birthed the films most likely to compete for this year’s Best Picture Oscar.

Lincoln is about the Civil War but it’s also about the ongoing conflict between the two Americas, about a savage, brutal and senseless war over slavery and how opposing side defended “white power” by murdering one of our greatest presidents. When President Bush left and President Obama ran for office, the McCain campaign had the choice to use Obama’s race against him or not. McCain nixed it. He warned that heading in that direction would be dangerous for the Republican party. That’s how they tell it in Game Change, anyway. But four years later, a slow economy gave rise to fear and hatred of the kind not seen since the Civil War. Though planned by Spielberg and Tony Kushner a decade earlier, Lincoln found himself once again in the middle of a fight between North and South, red states and blue states. His words echo like screams in a rock canyon right up to now. It isn’t just Spielberg’s popularity bringing people to the multiplex, and it isn’t just the good reviews, but it’s the lanky leader himself, our true north, showing us the way.

Spielberg rightly wanted to release the film after the election so that it wouldn’t become a lightning rod for either side. The Republicans in Lincoln’s time stood for freedom. Today, they stand for anything but. Aaron Sorkin said of 2012 that it was the most divided the country has been since the Civil War. It remains divided.

All 50 states have applied to secede from the union at the behest, no doubt, of the lunatic fringe on the right who have now become mainstream, the Rush Limbaughs and the Glenn Becks. Look at this list and know how alive racism is in this country, for even after Bush led us into two catastrophic wars, lazily allowed 9/11 to happen on his watch and sunk the country into the worst recession in modern history, one million signatures to secede from the United States. Gone is patriotism, gone is standing by the elected president. But it will come as no surprise that the South is where racism is alive and well and has the highest number of signatures. Texas alone has over 100,000. This is something none of us has ever seen in the 150 years since Southern fanaticism killed our greatest president.

If bloggers, critics and voters are going to sacrifice that kind of relevancy, popularity and box office for reasons like, “I didn’t like the ending,” or because they say it’s too talky or it’s a procedural, it’s “homework” or whatever else, what then must we do? We must turn to what drives the other organ in the body: the heart.

If their hearts aren’t inclined towards rewarding a decade-long labor of love that resulted in a masterpiece, coming at the height of a notable American director’s long career, with the best performance of the year, and the best screenplay, there is no choice to but to once again try to figure out what will be merely the most well-liked movie across the board to win. Well-liked, as in, the heart want what it wants. Two years of this now means there’s no reason to expect them to stop now.

Les Misérables is about the student uprising LONG AFTER the French Revolution, the underclass unseating the monarchy in France. It’s about that, but many will also see it as a comment on our occupy movement, though markedly more violent and urgent. It is about that in the abstract. Unlike Lincoln, it does not dive into the conflict of the time but uses that conflict as a set piece for a rousing, emotional musical with a love story in it. There is no denying that it’s a rich vs. poor and there’s no denying that it, like Oliver, could be just what the people need to help heal the hurt now being felt all over the world, not just in America. Oliver won Best Picture in 1968, the same year that Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot.

However, Les Misérables is tricky because it is, in many ways, a bold experiment for film. Though many are familiar with the musical, there is the aspect of it being wall to wall singing with no breathing room for dialogue or traditional character development. Many believe that the Victor Hugo book gives it depth and gravitas and that the emotional response to it will drive it home to Best Picture. Tom Hooper would join an elite group of directors who’ve won Best Director and Best Picture for a musical. Robert Wise is one — he directed two musicals — Leo McCary who directed Going My Way and Milos Foreman, who directed Amadeus.

Although none of these were all singing musicals, last year was the first time a silent movie had won the Best Picture Oscar, in decades, much less one directed by a French person; precedents are made to be broken. But so far, Les Misérables as it’s the only film in the Best Picture race right now with not a single review online, which means that its appraisal could go either way. Oscar pundits are banking on rave reviews based on the stacked screenings over Thanksgiving weekend.

One of the best reviewed films of the year is Argo, which has made $100 million without breaking a sweat and, though entertaining, also reminds us of our “crippling” sanctions against Iran and the constant nuclear threat, which have gotten worse since Tony Mendez colluded with the Canadians to free the hostages in Iran. Though not directly related to the War on Terror Bush left us, there is no doubt that our relationships with Iran has only worsened since 9/11, and remains the primary bone of contention by Senator John McCain and others who wish to prove the Obama Presidency is bad for foreign relations. Since the events in Argo took place during the Carter administration, President Carter’s slandered memory also hangs over Argo like a ghostly reminder of bad things can get.

President Obama’s presence hangs over the proceedings on Zero Dark Thirty the same way Carter’s is felt in Argo, except with a little more skepticism. Kathryn Bigelow’s astonishing new film doesn’t take a partisan side but it still echoes the failures of the Bush administration, the fallout from what Bigelow’s last movie, The Hurt Locker, expressed so mercilessly — this continues to be an unwinnable war with an unseen enemy, only now the military and the CIA have to worry about PR. It is even sweeter that this time around Bigelow found a worthy female character to frame her film around. The only female character, in fact, who leads any of the major Oscar BP contenders.

That makes it all the more relevant in our post-2012 election culture because, for the first time in a long time, support for women’s rights issues translated into a fierce coalition which ultimately resulted in many more women getting elected to office than ever before. While Bigelow’s female lead doesn’t strap on the talking points from the feminist movement or even the Obama administration, it is telling that not once in Bigelow’s film does her lead stand behind a man, trust a man’s opinion over her own, or feel the need to strike up a romance with a man, “I’m not the girl who fucks,” she says.

Zero Dark Thirty is unflinching, uncompromising look at our obtrusive role in the middle east and in the war on terror, what lengths we go to to protect our homeland, what kinds of tactics we used to find Bin Laden. And how, at the end of the day, war is dirty business. Like The Hurt Locker it crushes you at the end because Bigelow and Boal offer us no relief. We got Bin Laden but we aren’t safer. The war rages on. The two films are the only major Hollywood films that really get to our enduring conflict not just with a world we don’t understand and can’t change but with ourselves, what we’ve become, what we now do to other human beings. The capture and assassination of Bin Laden is not more satisfying than the news of the deaths in 9/11. It doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t repair the damage. We bandage ourselves up and we limp onward. In Jessica Chastain’s miraculous performance this inner conflict rages. Other than Abraham Lincoln himself, there isn’t a more interesting protagonist this year.

The State of the Oscar race is that we find ourselves at a crossroads once again. We have gritty and meaningful films that define this American life. And we have films that explore the human condition, the endless reach for deeper meaning in our own mortality. Movies like Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, Moonrise Kingdom, Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild chase the poetry, the beauty, this mortal coil in unquestioningly memorable ways. We are at war, yes, with other countries, with ourselves.

Through the fog of war, however, love might find its way. As voters reach for the movie that takes them away from everything else, from my perspective, that movie could be Silver Linings Playbook. Because it is the one in the bunch that is beloved by most, hated by few, and makes you feel good when you come out of it. It has the benefit of a director who has never won before, a lead actress who might win, and that ending that makes people want to hug themselves. That’s powerful medicine.

For my money, though, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln continues to tower over the competition. The thing I like the most about it is that no one really thinks it can win. They don’t think it can win for all of the reasons it should win. Who would have ever thought that the scrappy underdog would be a Spielberg film?

The one movie I’ve revisited lately that should not be ignored is Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. While the first viewing of it left me a little cold, a second viewing reminded me of the great writing, original characters and permanent charm. It is every bit as feelgood as Silver Linings and Beasts of the Southern Wild though its buzz seems to have died down. To me, looking back on this truly memorable year for film, I feel sure Moonrise Kingdom will be remembered.

We are just about to start in with the critics awards and from here on out, Oscar watchers. Stay frosty. The car will speed so fast downhill we will not be able to catch our breath and when we come out the other side we will look back in amazement at all that happened, all that didn’t, and wonder what it even means anymore to call anything “best.” These filmmakers have delivered so much richness to our ailing eyes, our war-torn spirit and our aching hearts. We owe them nothing so much as our attention, and perhaps, our gratitude.

Cheat Sheet

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Les Misérables: It’s a tough sell, a non-stop-singing movie filmed mostly in close-up. It will divide audiences. Some will love it, some won’t. But it appears to be big enough and bold enough to earn many nominations, and has a winning, standout performance by Anne Hathaway. It played to enthusiastic crowds in New York at guild screenings. Les Misérables is one of the most popular musicals in history. Fans of the musical will flock to theaters to see it.

Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow and Marc Boal deliver the second film of her proposed “war on terror” trilogy. With a brilliant, focused, intense lead performance by Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty is a truthful, exacting story on the Osama Bin Laden raid.  It is one of the best films of the year.

That Lincoln has made $62 million before even reaching wide release should make voters take notice. For a long, talky movie about US history, to make that kind of box office is nothing short of miraculous. But it’s more than box office. There are reports of people crowding theaters, sold out shows, even people sitting on the stairs inside the theater to watch it.

Life of Pi
Though it earned its share of bad reviews, Pi is the other film people are talking about out there in the world. Spiritually moving, thrilling and yet another notable advancement of 3D technology. It takes a director of Ang Lee’s talent to have conceived a dream world in three dimensions that highlights nothing as sinfully indulgent as tiny raindrops gently dripping off what feels like the ceiling. It also made money.

Silver Linings Playbook: While at first it seemed “too light,” now it seems like that lightness i may be its strongest selling point. After the intensity of Les Mis and Zero Dark Thirty, heavy feels to be what most movies are relying upon. But Silver Linings is buoyant, exuberant, and that makes it Lincoln’s biggest threat, I think. Its five Spirit Award nominations bode well for the long haul.

Moonrise Kingdom: a big win at the Gotham’s for Best Picture and five Spirit Award nominations is just the ticket to jolt this film back into the race. It always looked like a promising prospect but buzz had seemed to die somewhat. Now it’s back.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Benh Zeitlin keeps winning stuff, well deservedly, for his great, great work.  Gothams and Spirit Award nods keeps Beasts in the conversation.

Middle of Nowhere:  Four Spirit nominations for Ava DuVernay’s film. Hopefully that will be enough for Oscar voters to take notice.

Strongest Contenders so far:
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
Life of Pi
Les Misérables
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Moonrise Kingdom

Will need passionate support:
The Dark Knight Rises
Anna Karenina
Cloud Atlas
The Promised Land

Coming next:
The Hobbit
Django Unchained

Best Actress


Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty – Chastain plays Maya, a CIA op recruited out of high school to hunt down Osama Bin Laden. It is one of the best performances of the year because the entire film rests on her capable shoulders. She isn’t supporting a male character, but is carrying the whole movie. This is virtually unheard of in Hollywood nowadays, but especially so in the Oscar race.

The Strongest Contenders:
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Marion Cotillard, Rust & Bone
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina

Needs passionate support:
Emayatzy Corinealdi, Middle of Nowhere
Emanuelle Riva, Amour
Leslie Mann, This is Forty
Meryl Streep, Hope Springs

Best Actor


Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables – one of the best things about Les Miz is Jackman’s hollowed out performance. His singing is also impressive.  He can probably crack Best  Actor.

Daniel Day-Lewis, the more people see Lincoln, the more they are singing his praises. His buzz is doing anything but die down.

Strongest Contenders:
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Denzel Washington, Flight
Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
John Hawkes in The Sessions
Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables

Will need passionate support:

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Richard Gere, Arbitrage
Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock

Still to come:
Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained

Best Supporting Actor


Albert Brooks in This is 40 – Brooks failed to even earn a nod for his work in Drive, but he gives a more thorough performance in Judd Apatow’s film.  Both he and John Lithgow give memorable supporting turns as the two dads in Apatow’s warm and sentimental tribute to his family.

David Oyelowo in Middle of Nowhere – he’s kind of hot stuff with a pivotal role in Lincoln, but was also in The Help last year and will be in The Butler next year.  He just earned a Spirit Award nomination.

Matthew McConoughey, Magic Mike – the first real ripple in the awards race just gave him a boost for his work in the Steven Soderbergh film.

Strongest Contenders:

Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Alan Arkin, Argo
Dwight Henry in Beasts of the Southern Wild
John Goodman, Flight
John Goodman, Argo

Sight Unseen:
Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained

Best Supporting Actress


Anne Hathaway – her performance in Les Misérables, even though short, is so impressive it’s mind-boggling.  She’s better than the entire movie that follows her performance.  No one else seems likely to beat her.

Lorraine Toussaint in Middle of Nowhere – armed with a Spirit nomination, Toussaint just stepped forward out of the crowd.

Ann Dowd, Compliance – another great supporting turn that just got recognized by the Independent Spirit Awards.

Strongest contenders:
Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
Sally Field, Lincoln
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Amy Adams, The Master
Kelly Reilly, Flight
Maggie Smith, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

  Best Director


Kathryn Bigelow – what a triumph for Bigelow to come back with a second brilliant film about our relationship with the middle east, the war on terror and this time, Bin Laden. That she has made a film with a female central lead makes it all the more poignant.

Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild – just got some indie love from the Gotham’s and the Spirit Awards.

Strongest Contenders:
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Ben Affleck, Argo
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Longer shots:
Tom Hooper, Les Mis
Robert Zemeckis, Flight
Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom

Still to come:
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

Will need passionate support:
Michael Haneke, Amour
Joe Wright, Anna Karenina

Original Screenplay

Strongest contenders:
Marc Boal, Zero Dark Thirty
Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom
Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Michael Haneke, Amour
Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere
Nicholas Jarecki, Arbitrage
Rian Johnson, Looper

Still to come:

Django Unchained

Adapted Screenplay

Strongest contenders:
Tony Kushner, Lincoln
Chris Terrio, Argo
David Magee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar, Beasts of the Southern Wild
William Nicholson, Les Misérables

Dark horse possibilities:

Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises

Still to come:

Fran Walsh, Philipa Boyens, Peter Jackson, The Hobbit

Oscar flashback:


The last time Steve Spielberg was nominated for Best Director was in 2005 for Munich. He was nominated alongside Ang Lee who was nominated for Brokeback Mountain. Munich was the defactor frontrunner heading into the race, the sight unseen winner that never quite lived up to the hype. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain remains to this day one of the most rewarded film by the guilds that did not win Best Picture – Ang Lee won both the DGA and the Oscar for directing, the PGA but not the Eddie or the SAG ensemble, both went to Crash (famously). If they are both nominated this year they will be DGA and Oscar nominees together again.  Ang Lee has won two DGA awards and one Oscar. Spielberg has won three DGA awards and two Oscars.  Crash was the film that famously won Best Picture against those two magnificent directors.   If Spielberg wins this year he will join Frank Capra and William Wyler as the third director who has won 3 Oscars. John Ford still holds the record with 4 [wikipedia]

Status Updates:

The Hobbit screens starting November 30, 2012. No word yet on Django Unchained but it will have to start screening soon.

Upcoming Calendar Dates to watch out for

November 30
Killing Them Softly

Award Dates

December 3, 2012
New York Film Critics Announce
Producers Guild starts voting
December 4, 2012
Directors Guild starts voting
December 5, 2012
National Board of Review announces
December 7, 2012
 Los Angeles Film Critics announce
December 12, 2012
 SAG nominations announced