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The State of the Race: Argo Takes Back the Lead



And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’ 
” – Bob Dylan

Jeff Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere threatened to jump off the Santa Barbara pier last night if Lincoln had won the Producers Guild. He was dead serious. Welcome to the Oscar race in 2013.

Before Toronto, Argo hit the Telluride Film Festival, where it was received with standing ovations – it was a surefire crowdpleaser with enough gravitas to take it through awards season. The charming and affable Affleck was hard to resist even then as he did something I had really seen him do during The Town — he put himself front and center. Affleck is that guy men and women love — hell, children and dogs love. And in 2012, Affleck IS the Oscar story.

After Silver Linings Playbook beat Argo at the Tortonto International Film Fest, all of the pundits put Silver Linings at the top, save for a few of us. For me, Argo seemed like a film that could go all the way but it was missing a key ingredient, that “Oscar story” to give voters incentive to pick that movie over the array of other movies we’d seen so far. Silver Linings took the buzz away from Argo. Silver Linings was “The Karger pick.” Would the Weinsteins have a three-peat and win Best Picture again for the third year running?

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln was shown at the New York Film Festival after a viewer at an early screening saw it and said “it’s just a bunch of people in a room talking.” Wells at seized upon that and had his Spielberg take-down ready to launch. Turns out it was a wasted effort on his part as, despite the great reviews for Lincoln, the writing and acting awards, Spielberg did not get rewarded as director. No take-down needed. Lincoln just kept getting nominated everywhere which gave pundits and critics a false sense of a Goliath. The truth is that anyone looking more carefully could see that Lincoln was an unlikely a winner as ever hit the Oscar race — even with as much going for it as it had it was and is a film about ideas. Films about ideas don’t win film awards because awards don’t just hand a gold statue over to filmmakers; they reward our collective enthusiasm at a fixed point in time.

Despite that, many loved Lincoln and called it the best film of the year. To date, it has made $166 million dollars. Its producer, Kathleen Kennedy is the most nominated producer at the Oscars with zero wins. Its writer turned a giant book into a beautifully written screenplay that not only reminds us of how difficult it was to even pass the 13th amendment but how much inequality is still around us in America today. The lead actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, built an Abe from whole cloth, carefully stitching together who he thought the man had to be to do the things Lincoln was famous for — pardoning deserting soldiers from the Civil War, allowing his children to run wild in the White House, his kindness to animals and yes, his evolving ideas about equality — though he, like most back then, did not believe blacks were equal to whites, he was moving in that direction. “Freedom first.” It is a vivid and memorable masterpiece. And yet, it hasn’t won any major awards.

That made pundits like Dave Karger, Steve Pond, Kris Tapley, Tom O’Neil and others grapple for what COULD win. They felt Lincoln COULDN’T. The movie that burst onto the scene to knock out Lincoln was Les Miserables which seemed to have everything Lincoln did not — it was pure hard-charged emotion, singers filmed in close-up singing live. It was so moving, in fact, that Gold Derby declared that Les Miserables would sweep the Oscars, Tapley concurred, Karger too. Les Miserables was the film to beat. Except that they all said this before the reviews came out. The reviews for Les Mis turned out to be the most divisive of all of the films up for Best Picture. That could only mean one thing: it was divisive and if there’s one thing you can’t be it’s divisive.

Somehow, because it was a frontrunner, Lincoln then by default became divisive. Some people HATED it suddenly, especially when they imagined it winning awards. No one seemed to feel the need to hand Spielberg the brass ring again. That urge to reward is like the urge to push — you can only keep it at bay for so long before your muscles take over. The New York Times featured two video segments of reporters, and David Carr, trashing Lincoln.

But when Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty hit, pundits called it “the Argo killer.” Once critics saw Zero Dark Thirty, it shot up in esteem, winning the New York Film Critics award and every other award in its path. THAT was the movie to beat. David Poland said “Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a movie, it is THE movie.”

It looked as though Kathryn Bigelow might break ranks with Oscar history and possibly win again, even though she’d just won in 2009. The only critic who seemed to notice that little detail about torture was New York Magazine’s David Edelstein. He said it was a movie Dick Cheney would love. Huh? Everyone said. What’s that? Before long, anti-torture activists and writers went on the attack, some even before seeing the movie. Critics went on the defense — some claiming it’s art and should therefore not be touched, and some denying that it shows torture “working.” The more the denials came, the harder the activists stepped on the gas, up to and including Ed Asner and Martin Sheen who called upon the Academy to boycott the film.

The debate about Zero Dark Thirty continues to rage — the fact of the matter is that the film doesn’t advocate torture. The filmmakers did not set out to make a piece of propaganda. But they also didn’t realize the big pile of shit they were about to step into. In fact, most of us seeing the movie early didn’t realize it either. It has to do with a tiny piece of information gotten from a “detainee under duress.” The White House doubts the information can be trusted, since it was taken from a “detainee under duress” but the film shows that the information was to be trusted, torture was used, torture worked. Bigelow and Boal were working from first-hand accounts, sources who say this was how it went down. The problem is, the truth is still under seal and a whole bunch of other people say it didn’t happen. Zero Dark Thirty is a film that should be appreciated on its own as a masterful work of art by one of the most talented directors of our time, and the torture conversation is still one worth having.

Zero Dark Thirty’s sudden rise and fall is something I’ve never seen go down in the 14 years I’ve been covering the race. Twitter has become a “problem,” shall we say, in all things and its having an impact this year in the awards race as people form teams and advocate hard for the films they like. When Zero Dark Thirty was winning one award after another it was called “the Argo killer.” Because it was, in all ways, a deeper, harder, more brilliant film about finding and killing Bin Laden, the only film in the race with a female lead who wasn’t attached to a male, it made Argo look like child’s play.

But the controversy knocked Zero Dark Thirty out of the winner’s spot and suddenly the critics, who had embraced it passionately, jumped ship like rats and their default film couldn’t be Lincoln (too talky, too boring) and it couldn’t be Les Mis (divisive) and it couldn’t be Silver Linings Playbook (a romcom?) so it would be Argo, the least divisive, most enjoyable, general audience crowdpleaser.

But how could it be Argo when no one really had any passion for it to begin with, other than it was a good movie and Ben Affleck had finally gotten it right? (I actually think The Town is a better film overall and my favorite of his). What Argo was missing was an “Oscar story.” Well, that story was delivered by the stork when Oscar nominations were announced. A wacky date change and a confusing season turned out snubs for Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck. Bigelow was still made to stand in the corner, but a surprising narrative emerged, “poor Ben Affleck.”

When Ben Affleck won director and picture from the Critics Choice Affleck got not one but two standing ovations. He and the film repeated that win at the Golden Globes. Even my 75-year-old father who pays no attention to the awards race at all knew Affleck had been snubbed. “Poor Ben Affleck” became the narrative and it would prove tough to beat.

The Producers Guild was meant to settle things. Last night’s awards were to show which direction the race was headed in — the film they all picked was Argo. It has no baggage, no controversy, no New York Times videos talking about how unlikable it is, no bloggers trying to take it down, no sudden exposes written in fancy lit journals trashing its subject matter, no bad reviews — just a sad story of a director who made good but who then got snubbed by the mean old folks in the directors branch.

Argo may go on to win the DGA. It might even win the SAG ensemble tonight. It might win all of the guilds, even the Writers Guild award. But to win Best Picture is still has to:

  • Become the first film in all PGA/Oscar history to win without a director’s nomination.
  • The second film in Oscar history to win with the 4th most nominations
  • The second in 65 years of Oscar/DGA history to win Best Picture without a director nomination (the fourth in 85 years of Oscar history)

Voters don’t look at those stats because the heart wants it wants. They merely check off the film they like best. And this year it was once again, as it’s been since 2009, the least offensive film of the bunch, the least divisive, wins.

The “poor Ben Affleck” Oscar story is a powerful one. They don’t have impoverished Indian children to rescue, nor a silent movie from the brink of obscurity, nor a stuttering king, but they have an extremely likable director in an extremely likable film who got snubbed by 300 or so of the directors. And that, I fear, will drive this baby home.

Probably the DGA is just going to confirm this, but if someone else manages to win there we’ll have another shift in this race. I don’t think the Oscar voters will see fit to reward Steven Spielberg if they aren’t going to reward him at the DGA. Since the Oscar for directing can’t go to Affleck, it will have to go elsewhere, perhaps Benh Zeitlin will win. Perhaps Ang Lee will win.

The outcome is still uncertain, but there seems to be a better chance than there’s ever been that Argo will be named prom king. I mean, Best Picture of the Year.

The best part of the Oscar race isn’t when they’re picking winners. It’s when the possibilities are endless and those of us dream the impossible can become possible. It’s funny that it almost never turns out that way. There are many Argo and Affleck fans who believe just that event is unfolding before their eyes. There are still Les Miserables fans who are holding out hope that their movie will win. There are also many Silver Linings Playbook fans and Life of Pi fans who are hoping that their movie will win.

And then there are those of us patron saints of lost causes who believe that the best film really should win. The masterpiece. The only great art is divisive art. Thus, the consensus vote will never lean that way. Sure, sometimes they line up beautifully but most of the time they don’t.

Movies like Lincoln, The Social Network, Hugo are the ones we here at Awards Daily champion not because they’re winners or ever going to be but because they are films you can dive into many times, come back up for air, dive in again and find more to see. Complex, perhaps difficult to access, not readily consumed in one sitting — those are cinematic achievements that will ultimately mean more to film history than what a few thousand can agree upon. On the other hand, it’s hard not to turn around and not find a great movie this year — they have all been so, so good.

This year I learned that Jimmy Carter was never able to take credit for freeing hostages in Iran. I was reminded that the debate about torture still rages on and will define our past as much as our future. I found inner peace and a triumphant sense of immortality in Life of Pi. I saw that an artist can still feel free to take enormous risks without worrying about fitting in or winning awards, as Benh Zeitlin did with Beasts of the Southern Wild.

I learned that sometimes taking a big risk might not pay off, as Tom Hooper did with Les Miserables, but that risk was still worth taking no matter if it becomes the “general consensus pick” or not. I learned what the definition of love really is in Amour and perhaps a little about laughter in Silver Linings Playbook. I was disturbed and entertained by Django Unchained so what does that say about me?

And finally I learned that, after 40 years directing films, an artist has emerged in Steven Spielberg. He made the movie no one ever thought he could — shying away from being a crowdpleaser and taking the more difficult, least sentimental route. Lincoln is a masterpiece. If you didn’t get that the first time through watch it again. You will be richly rewarded, I promise. “Not enough epic scenes!” the crowd shouted. “He should have ended it with Lincoln walking down the hallway!” They complained. Despite the fact that Lincoln probably won’t win Best Picture or Best Director, it is the one movie that has confirmed to me what I already knew about the awards race: the films themselves are their own reward.

The trick is to remember that the movies you love are not race horses, nor politicians, nor football teams but vivid collaborations of artists who give more than they get. The trick is to remember that a film not winning an Oscar doesn’t define that film’s greatness in any way, but merely takes a mirrored snapshot of who were were once and what captured our fickle hearts. The trick is not minding.