The Oscar race in 2012 has boiled down to heroic characters leading the charge towards best picture. Heroism takes the form of a man overcoming his bi-polar disorder, another man saving the child of a prostitute, a CIA op doing as instructed to get Bin Laden at all costs, a freed slave wreaking havoc on white racist America, a teenage survivor of a shipwreck who confronts his faith, another CIA op who utilizes the magic of the movies to fool the Iranians and rescue hostages yet never gets to take credit for it. A tiny girl upon whose shoulders rests nothing so much as preservation of identity, and a brave president who faced down a government that did not want to amend the constitution to make slavery forever free.
This wasn’t a year where darker antiheroes were welcome. The Master was too complicated and Zero Dark Thirty is just barely tolerable in the midst of such idealism. Both impulses inhabit us yet we reach for one or the other as the world around us changes. This year, we had not only one of the most contentious elections in recent US history, but we discovered a still-ugly side of America, one that was ready to secede from the union after the nation’ first black president was re-elected. We discovered citizens who took to twitter to call our newly elected president a monkey, with frequent, casual uses of the N word. That word would come to overtake Django Unchained almost entirely, and would be brought back in Spielberg’s Lincoln to show a part of ourselves we’d hoped we left behind. But 150 years isn’t as long as you’d think for minds to change.
We are a country at continual war. The war for gun control rages on, with President Obama, clothed in immense power, attempting to pass the most sweeping gun control legislation in history. It has no hope of passing. But this year the pulse of our democracy was clearly felt — the drumbeat pounded through social networking, through the Occupy movement and has now infused the Oscar race with what they like to call on Tumblr, social justice.
Politics suddenly matters. It has all but consumed Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, a film that has the unfortunate luck of telling a story that is so controversial to even give an opinion on it forces you to take a side on torture. What Zero Dark Thirty really does is portray the high cost of capturing Bin Laden. We are asked whether we think it was worth it and, in that questioning, what we think about torture. Is there anything you wouldn’t do to get the guy who ordered the attacks on 9/11? Many people feel that way. But many in our government and around the world would like to see an end to what they consider crimes against humanity. Zero Dark Thirty falls square in the middle of that debate, the killing of Bin Laden is still so fresh and wet you can’t touch it without smearing the blood around.
Now, it’s nearly impossible to separate the greatness of the film from the enormity of the controversy that has surrounded it and yet the main character Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, is the hero of the story — a complex hero perhaps — but the only one unwilling to quit until she gets her man.
The blogosphere has been in a flutter this year with hearts divided all over the place. Those who shout the loudest seem to think that Lincoln is “too boring to win Best Picture.” No other movie had people at the New York Times actively advocating against it. I’ve never seen them do that, in fact, like the former Carpetbagger David Carr who faced off with A.O. Scott to argue about a film Carr hates. Moreover, there was yet another video where they interviewed reporters at the Times to find out just how much all of them hated Lincoln. Jeff Wells at Hollywood-Elsewhere has made no secret about launching an “anything but Lincoln” campaign. The film has become the frontrunner, the candidate about to win the presidency and the people, some of them, are trying to knock it out in hopes of helping a different film win. Yes, it’s silly, but welcome to the Oscar race in 2012.
The film that most seem to settle on as the least offensive of the bunch appears to be Ben Affleck’s Argo, which would have no problem taking the frontrunner’s spot right now if Affleck had gotten a director’s nomination. His entire fan base has lifted him up as a martyr for the cause, the only man who could BEAT LINCOLN! Once Zero Dark Thirty appeared to be zapped, first by controversy and next by the lack of a director’s nomination (I would argue that the lack of the SAG ensemble nod hurt it the most) Argo would have to be it. Suddenly it was the Mitt Romney — not the best candidate to take on Lincoln but the only one that CAN win. For some reason, those opinions has cooled to the other alternate choice, Silver Linings Playbook, and are now full throttle Argo.
Meanwhile, if you run the numbers you will find two things. The first, Lincoln still has it by a mile. The second, maybe the numbers are meaningless.
We already know that judging films isn’t like judging politicians. Where Americans only had two options, Obama or Romney, the Oscar race offers up nine Best Picture contenders — Beasts of the Southern Wild and Life of Pi are beautiful refuges from the others. Art is not politics. We are not electing leaders to help fix our country. The industry is supposedly choosing the best achievement of the year. In the end, though, human nature is human nature and there isn’t much of a way around that. Zuckerberg crystallized our thought process when he put a like button on Facebook. “Like.” That is really how people vote and there isn’t any way around that. High achievement doesn’t mean anything because, in the end, liking it matters so much more.
Lots of people like Argo but more importantly, lots of people like Ben Affleck. In the Oscar race the least offensive almost always wins, particularly once they expanded the field from five to ten, and from ten to an unspecified number. The more Best Picture contenders, the more spread out the vote, the more the least offensive, general consensus pick wins. That thinking favors Argo probably. It might also favor Silver Linings Playbook and it might favor Lincoln.
The Lincoln voters are a solid group and probably somewhat unwavering. The remaining voters who didn’t like Lincoln (the Jeff Wells and the David Carrs) will be split up between three films, I figure: Argo, Silver linings Playbook and Les Miserables. If any of the three of them didn’t have such strong support it might kick some power towards one specific one. Les Mis and Argo both won the Globe.
What Argo has going for it: The charm offensive of George Clooney (producer) and Affleck (writer, producer, actor). You can imagine the kind of sway they have at parties, for instance.
What Silver Linings has: Do I need to say his name? He’s the dude who had Arianna Huffington host a party for the King’s Speech and had Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter or daughter endorse The Artist. They don’t have the golden boys Affleck and Clooney but they have immense power and two back-to-back Best Picture wins on their side.
What Les Miserables has: An incredibly passionate fan base.
People who are currently predicting Argo really have the wrong opponent in mind when considering Lincoln; Argo isn’t going up against Lincoln, it’s going up against Silver Linings, Les Mis AND Lincoln. That’s not even considering the obvious love for Life of Pi, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour.
Lincoln has yet to win a single major award and yet the numbers back it up. The British liked Argo so much they nominated Affleck for Best Actor. They didn’t like Lincoln enough to give Spielberg his only snub. If they hold hold sway over the Academy now, as many suspect, it’s possible this could be Lincoln’s only true ding — here in America we like our President Lincoln. Like a lot a lot. Doesn’t mean the Brits do.
Our Oscar wonk Marshall Flores built an exhaustive chart that I want to share with you. He traced Best Picture winners all the way back through Oscar history and ranked them in terms of most nominated per win.
It turns out that it breaks down like this:
1 time in Oscar history, the film with the 4th most nominations won: Chariots of Fire
10 times in Oscar history a film with the 3rd most nominations won Best Picture.
17 times in Oscar history a film with the 2nd most nominations won Best Picture.
57 times in Oscar history a film with the 1st most nominations won Best Picture.
How do our films rank this year?
2. Life of Pi
3. Silver Linings Playbook and Les Miserables
5. Amour, Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained
6. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Argo would have to make history twice — first by winning without a Best Director nomination (one time since the DGA first formed, 3 times in Oscar history) and second, by being the film with the 4th most nominations winning (which has happen only 1 other time in Oscar history).
What Flores said:
After doing some digging through the annals of Oscar history (thanks Filmsite.org), I built a simple chart listing the BP nominees from every year and the number of total nominations each film received. Then I ranked each BP nominee according to its total nominations, using a dense ranking system (which, unlike a typical competitive ranking system, does not insert ranking gaps as a result of ties. For example, if a BP lineup of three films, A, B, and C respectively garnered 5, 5, and 4 nominations, dense ranking would result in films A and B being tied for first and C in second place).
Some findings worth mentioning: in addition to 66% of BP winners having been the nomination leader in their respective years, I found that 87% of BP winners were either the nomination leader or the runner-up (the only two exceptions in the past 30 years were Silence of the Lambs and The Departed), and that nearly 99% (!!) of BP winners were at least ranked in the Top 3 of total nominations. In fact, the *only* film to have won BP and not be ranked in the Top 3 was Chariots of Fire, whose 7 nominations placed it 4th behind Reds (12), On Golden Pond (10), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (9).
|Best Picture Winner||Total nominations||Total wins||Nomination rank|
|Mutiny on the Bounty||8||1||1|
|The Great Ziegfeld||7||3||1|
|The Life of Emile Zola||10||3||1|
|You Can’t Take It with You||7||2||1|
|Gone with the Wind||13||8||1|
|Going My Way||10||7||1|
|The Best Years of Our Lives||8||7||1|
|All About Eve||14||6||1|
|From Here to Eternity||13||8||1|
|On the Waterfront||12||8||1|
|West Side Story||11||10||1|
|Lawrence of Arabia||10||7||1|
|The Sound of Music||10||5||1|
|The French Connection||8||5||1|
|The Godfather, Part II||11||6||1|
|One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest||9||5||1|
|The Deer Hunter||9||5||1|
|Kramer vs. Kramer||9||5||1|
|Terms of Endearment||11||5||1|
|Out of Africa||11||7||1|
|The Last Emperor||9||9||1|
|Driving Miss Daisy||9||4||1|
|Dances with Wolves||12||7||1|
|The English Patient||12||9||1|
|Shakespeare in Love||13||7||1|
|LOTR: The Return of the King||11||11||1|
|No Country for Old Men||8||4||1|
|The Hurt Locker||9||6||1|
|The King’s Speech||12||4||1|
|The Broadway Melody||3||1||2|
|All Quiet on the Western Front||4||2||2|
|It Happened One Night||5||5||2|
|How Green Was My Valley||10||5||2|
|The Lost Weekend||7||4||2|
|All the King’s Men||7||3||2|
|An American in Paris||8||6||2|
|My Fair Lady||12||8||2|
|A Man for All Seasons||8||6||2|
|A Beautiful Mind||8||4||2|
|Million Dollar Baby||7||4||2|
|The Greatest Show on Earth||5||2||3|
|Around the World in 80 Days||8||5||3|
|The Bridge On the River Kwai||8||7||3|
|In the Heat of the Night||7||5||3|
|The Silence of the Lambs||7||5||3|
|Chariots of Fire||7||4||4|
|Total Nominations||Total Wins||Nomination Rank|
|% Nomination Leader -> BP Winner||65.48|
|% BP Winner in Top 2||85.71|
|% BP Winner in Top 3||97.62|
Gold Derby’s Tom O’Neil told me that a producer friend of his, who is never wrong, says it’s Argo’s to lose. Argo is probably the film that appeals more broadly to international audiences, those who especially would not appreciate Lincoln. Or so it goes.
Whenever I think of Argo possibly overtaking Lincoln, though, I think about Silver Linings Playbook with its four acting nominations and a director nomination. Is love for Ben Affleck so strong it can overcome that? Does the Academy also love Affleck that much? Is the film’s inoffensiveness its greatest strength?
In the end it seems silly to turn judging works of arts into number crunching. And even worse to compare opposing films as teams or candidates. In the end, this is all a matter of opinion — however many of those opinions align will define 2012’s Best Picture of the year.
The one thing that’s interesting about this year to Oscar statisticians is that the outcome will really put the precedent stats to the test. When it was Social Network versus The King’s Speech the critics’ stats were put to the test. The critics unanimously loved The Social Network but those stats failed. It didn’t matter that 2010 made Oscar/critics history because the film that voters liked was the film that voters liked. It really is as simple as that.
The first test of the consensus will come from the Producers Guild then the Writers Guild, the SAG and finally, Oscar.
Like the other great films we’ve seen come and go in the Oscar race it is impossible to convince people to like a movie they just don’t like. No matter how many times I write about how great Lincoln is, there those who are going to scratch their heads and say, it was just a bunch of people sitting around talking. I have learned my lesson by now. Since it can’t really be about “best” it has to be about numbers, statistics and all of those things that won’t break your heart when you see how they turn out.
At the same time, we are living through a time when there is a danger of our Best Picture winners becoming so bland as to render the race meaningless. Just read a “Lincoln isn’t Jewish enough” piece in Jewish Journal and a “Lincoln wasn’t black enough” piece in Salon. It is as though for a film to win Best Picture it must satisfy everyone or it becomes too divisive to win, opening the door for the most inoffensive, vanilla film to win. It just so happens that nearly all of the nominees this year are wonderful films. Who can complain about that?
Best Picture: Lincoln (alt. Silver Linings)
Best Director: Steven Spielberg (alt. David O. Russell)
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (alt. Hugh Jackman)
Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook (alt. Jessica Chastain or Emmanuelle Riva)
Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables (alt. Sally Field, Lincoln)
Best Supporting Actor: Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln (alt. Christoph Waltz, Django)
Original Screenplay: Amour (alt. Zero Dark Thirty)
Adapted Screenplay: Lincoln (alt. Beasts of the Southern Wild or Argo or Silver Linings)
Editing: Argo (alt. Zero Dark Thirty)
Cinematography: Life of Pi (alt. Lincoln)
Costumes: Anna Karenina (alt. Lincoln)
Sound: Les Miserables (alt. Skyfall)
Sound Editing: Django (alt. Zero Dark Thirty)
Production Design: Life of Pi (alt. Lincoln)
Makeup: Les Miserables (alt. Hitchcock)
Score: Life of Pi (alt. Argo)
Visual Effects: Life of Pi (alt. Avengers)
Song: Skyfall (alt. Suddenly)
Documentary Feature: the Gatekeepers (alt. 5 Broken Cameras)
Foreign Languge: Amour