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On the Hunt for Best Picture: America Comes Roaring Back

Oh America, what a big beautiful loser you are. Our giant lumbering paradise is so complicated, isn’t it? We can’t really be saved by John Ford movies, Levis, Marilyn Monroe and our precious life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Every time you turn around there is another evil to be conquered. What other country could celebrate the landing of Curiosity on Mars and hours later absorb a hate-filled shooting in Wisconsin because the shooter was too uneducated to tell the difference between Sikhs and Muslims. Oh America. You great thing, you catastrophe.

You can sometimes interpret history through the lens of Oscar. Some years seem in direct contact with the events of the day, and other years feel like a total disconnect. Movies take us out of reality anyway, don’t they? But if you glance over the 1970s, for instance, you’ll find a much more thoughtful selection of films because the generation who controls the voting at the Academy were younger, more daring voters. Or maybe audiences were smarter. Or maybe film critics had more influence. It’s hard to say why the 1970s still towers over any other decade that came after it. The exception was the two years the Academy decided on ten Best Picture nominees. 2009 and 2010 offered up maybe the best selection of Best Picture contenders since the 1970s. Last year we were back on target with the usual Academy oeuvre, with a few notable exceptions.

The last two years of the Oscar race the films have no particular unifying theme other than a central male figure at a crossroads between failure and success. This trait marks the last two Best Picture winners, dug up from the UK and France, leaving the American film industry wondering what could have gone so terribly wrong that we’re getting beaten in our own back yard. Even with daring films being made by American filmmakers like David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Darren Aronofsky, and Christopher Nolan (who is half-American) no consensus about a native could be reached within the industry. Perhaps this is because Americans area forever innovating. It is in our DNA. The Europeans, those who’ve taken over our Oscar contest, insignificant though it may seem, are more interested in telling good, traditional stories. And you know how the Academy demographic like good, traditional stories. They like them so much they vote for them, going on eight decades now. But this year, the race already feels soaked in dreams of a better America, or nightmares of an enduring one.

When I look at the three most promising contenders so far, Moonrise Kingdom, Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Dark Knight Rises I see films that celebrate the better things in our country, the revival of a dormant ideal. I also see a common theme, rebellion. In Moonrise Kingdom, the two adolescents escape the trappings of the society that defines them to blaze their own path and redefine who they really are. In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the characters break free of both the structure of civilization and the “help” that’s offered to get them out of their way of life; this has invited all sorts of “commentary.” Neither film is meant to be taken literally — both dwell in the minds of imaginative storytellers and both present a magical realist sense of what defines identity in America.

The Dark Knight Rises, like Beasts of the Southern Wild, has become a lightning rod for people who are loathe to take any film on a symbolic level. But it too has a more vital message underneath the spectacle and it comes when Bruce Wayne disposes of the world of privilege and funnels that back into social welfare. Batman is a rebel protector, himself an American myth. He is the only superhero in 2012 who absorbs how bad things can get. In Christian Bale’s Batman we see someone who really understands the grave nature of the job; saving our world? Practically impossible. By the end of The Dark Knight Rises, Gotham is in ruins. Helping the underprivileged, the film says, is a way to better the world, not by maintaining the status quo.

Still to come are more films that also dwell in those themes — The Master, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln — at least four films offered up by some of this country’s most vibrant filmmakers. The Master, though I haven’t yet seen it, appears to be about the fumbling towards a savior who can “fix things.” Django Unchained will be Tarantino’s furious take on slavery. In typical deconstructionist fashion, Tarantino will rip down our preconceptions and paint the subject with his own neon colors. Of all of the films released this year the one with the most testosterone heading in belongs to a woman. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal will be on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. And Lincoln revives the worthy story of our nation’s greatest President. Supposedly, our country is now as divided as it was during Lincoln’s presidency. That makes the film all the more timely. It will be quite something to watch Lincoln under the Obama Presidency. No matter what the wingnuts say, how hysterical their continual rejection of our first black President, nothing can take away the historical significance of his election. That makes Lincoln all the more timely. Lincoln was a Whig, which was like the Republican party back then and they were all thoughtful, educated men. Nothing like the poor representations of that party today. Can you imagine a Rick Santorum back in Lincoln’s day? He would be laughed out of town.

There are promising suspects that take place elsewhere, like Anna Karenina, and Les Miserables. There will be fantasy and spirituality, along the lines of Tree of Life — meditations on existence, like Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi.

Either way, we are only a couple of months away from seeing what our likely Best Picture will be. You have to go back to 2004 to find a Best Picture winner that either didn’t open early in the year, hadn’t screened at Cannes, Telluride or Toronto. That film was Million Dollar Baby, which was ushered in late and hit the sweet spot — sentimental and emotionally sticky and not The Aviator.

But since then, with the blogosphere erupting with prognostication and critics, all of whom get to see movies early anyway, the strategy for releasing films tailor made for the Oscar race (or not) has had to improvise, adapt and overcome.

The Artist – Cannes
The King’s Speech – Telluride
The Hurt Locker – Year prior
Slumdog Millionaire – Telluride
No Country for Old Men – Cannes
The Departed – early release
Crash – early release
Million Dollar Baby – late comer

Telluride has not yet announced what films will be playing there so we can’t yet roll the dice about what film might win Best Picture. Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and The Master are all opening relatively soon. By our reckoning, all three could be contenders.

Is there room for a surprise like Million Dollar Baby now? Of course. It’s just a harder maneuver to pull off. There are a lot of prying eyes now. Many more than there used to be and it’s harder to hold a movie from them. But it’s possible a last-minute reveal will be our Best Picture winner but it would be an anomaly. The Globes, the PGA and the DGA all do their voting at the same time (roughly) as the Oscar voters do and thus there isn’t a lot of wiggle room. Those movies have to be seen early — after they pushed back the Oscar date they made it virtually impossible for a last minute movie to scramble a win. Million Dollar Baby being the one exception since then.

But we remain open minded for a surprise or for the Best Picture winner to present itself very soon.

The Frontrunners That Have Been Seen:

Beasts of the Southern Wild - directed by Behn Zeitlin (Fox Searchlight)
Moonrise Kingdom – directed by Wes Anderson (Focus Features)
The Dark Knight Rises – directed by Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros)

Darkhorse: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - directed by John Madden – Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy*

Most Promising, Sight Unseen:

Les Miserables – directed by Tom Hooper, starring Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried, Anne Hathaway (Universal)
Lincoln – directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Disney/Touchstone)
Zero Dark Thirty – directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Sony/Columbia)
The Master – directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Weinstein Co)
Django Unchained – directed by Quentin Tarantino, starring Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz (Weinstein Co)
Anna Karenina - directed Joe Wright, with Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Kelly Macdonald, Emily Watson, Olivia Williams.(Focus Features)
Not Fade Away – directed by David Chase with James Gandolfini, Brad Garrett (Paramount Vantage)
Argo – directed by Ben Affleck (Warner Bros)
Flight – Directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by John Gatins, starring Denzel Washington, Melissa Leo (Paramount)
Life of Pi: Directed by Ang Lee (Warner Bros)
The Hobbit – directed by Peter Jackson (Warner Bros)
Cloud Atlas – Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, starring Halle Berry, Tom Hanks (Warner Bros)
Hyde Park on Hudson directed by Roger Mitchell, starring Bill Murray and Laura Linney (Focus)

Dark Horse Long Shots: 

Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O. Russell, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper (Weinstein Co)
The Sessions directed by Ben Lewin - Helen Hunt, John Hawkes
Inside Llewyn Davis – directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Gravity – directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Amour- directed by Michael Haneke
Rust & Bone – directed by Jacques Audillard
Cosmopolis – directed by David Cronenberg – Robert Pattinson*
Trouble with the Curve – directed by Robert Lorenz – Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams (Warner Bros)
The Impossible – Juan Antonio Bayona – Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor (Summit)
Hysteria – directed by Tanya Wexler – Maggie Gyllenhaal (Sony Pictures Classics)
Won’t Back Down – directed by Daniel Barnz – Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Holly Hunter (Fox)
Therese Raquin – directed by Charles Stratton starring Elizabeth Olsen, Jessica Lange

*Seen, at Cannes or already opened to public.

70 Comments on this Post

  1. Blockbusters everywhere. Woot!

  2. Chinton

    Love this article. It does feel like a very crowded year for well known Directors. I just hope all the upcoming movies live up to their expectations – particularly Les Miserables.

    One of the most interesting things about this year is the BEST ACTRESS category… who is their to be nominated?? Especially now that Carrie Mulligan is out for Great Gatsby (Although to be honest I was even wary about her after the trailer). I can count Marion Cotillard, Laura Linney, Helen Hunt… WHO ELSE?

  3. joeyhegele

    Very well written Sasha. Looking at your list of the Best Picture winners from 2004 to the present, I would say the common factor they all had was they made people cry. The three exceptions to that are the more violent films like The Departed, No Country For Old Men, and The Hurt Locker (which coincidentally are the three best winners of the past 12 years). The Academy loves a film that makes them cry out of sadness or happiness. That is certainly how The Blind Side and Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close were bale to earn nominations, and how all those winners (minus the three exceptions I mentioned) were able to win over more cinematically impressive films.

    It is for this reason I still put good money on Les Miserables winning Best Picture. It is a beloved musical with an amazing cast and a well liked director, but most importantly it is a story filled with many opportunities for the audience to cry. Heck, just the teaser trailer with Anne Hathaway singing I Dreamed A Dream made me choke up. You better believe the whole film is going to be really working the tear ducts of Academy voters.

    Obviously weepy films do not always win, but the emotionally reserved films have to be more all-around impressive than their emotional competitors. Make sure you take that into consideration Sasha when analyzing the upcoming Oscar competition.

    Thank you for all the great work you do at AwardsDaily. I am really looking forward to this Oscar race. We seem to have an embarrassment of riches with the crop of high quality films this year.

  4. Guy Lodge

    Perhaps this is because Americans area forever innovating. It is in our DNA. The Europeans, those who’ve taken over our Oscar contest, insignificant though it may seem, are more interested in telling good, traditional stories.

    There are exciting points in this piece, Sasha, but the above statement seems off the mark to me. To speak of European cinema by bracketing only the films that penetrate the Oscar race is as reductive as holding up The Blind Side or The Help (which are nothing if not “good, traditional stories,” and vastly popular ones to boot) as all-encompassing representatives of American cinema.

    No, someone like Gaspar Noe has no place in the Oscar conversation, so he doesn’t count. But then, neither, at present, does an American like Kelly Reichardt, whose recent work is more esoteric and adventurous than that of some of the recently Oscar-nominated filmmakers you name as prime US pioneers. So where does that leave us? There’s innovation and traditionalism in every national cinema. That a significantly wider spread of American film makes it through awards season than European (or Asian, or South American, or African) film is surely down to cultural proximity rather than any innovation/tradition divide across borders.

  5. I’ve been hearing a lot of great buzz about The Impossible being a real year-end sleeper, and particularly Naomi Watts’ performance.

  6. I paused at the same excerpt as Guy Lodge. What a claim! What basis do you have for this? I think you’re talking about the international films that get nominated for Oscars, which says more about the Academy’s taste (for traditional stories, whatever that means). We need to stop conflating the history of the academy awards with history of film at large, and stop confusing film criticism (despite the many claims: “I am not a film critic”) with pleas to Academy voters.

  7. julian the emperor

    Bravo, Guy Lodge. Well said.

  8. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    “I think you’re talking about the international films that get nominated for Oscars”

    hey, I think you’re right. This is an article about the Oscars on an Oscar site.

    Guy, kasper, julian,
    Nobody’s saying ALL international movies are trying to tell traditional stories better than Hollywood can. The point is, they have being doing it just often enough to usurp the prize from the best American directors, who are often making movies as daring — and as ‘foreign’ to the Academy — as anything anywhere in the world.

  9. If only Sasha Stone decided what to nominate <3

  10. Pretty sure that Gravity has officially been pushed to 2013. So maybe next year.

  11. No chance for “To The Wonder” then?

  12. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    Nobody has seen enough of To the Wonder to know what to think. Nary a clip, teaser or still.

    The fact that it’s not been snatched up and readied for US distribution is a clue that there could be concerns about whatever the heck it is.

  13. John G.

    Just so you know, although Lincoln ran for US Senate as a Whig in 1854, he ran as a Republican in the famous Lincoln-Douglas senate election and as a Republican in the 1860 presidential election. The party was actually originally founded in 1854, and Lincoln was instrumental in crafting the early party’s institution and agenda. He was the first Republican to be elected president and only the party’s second nominee after John C. Fremont (1856). It’s much more correct to classify him as a Republican than a Whig.

    Your comment about Rick Santorum is not even close to historically accurate – Santorum would be one of the most measured and moderate political figures in “Lincoln’s day;” the Radical Republicans of the mid-19th Century were fire breathing ideologues who make the Tea Party look dignified and urbane. Anyone familiar with events such as the caning of Sumner or with circumstances such as those surrounding the impeachment of Andrew Johnson could never accuse politicians of that era of civility or thoughtfulness.

    For anyone bemoaning the current polarized political atmosphere, do not harken back to the Civil War era – we were killing eachother for our inability to compromise, and over 750,000 people died.

  14. U.S.A! U.S.A!

    The Oscars, whether or not they originated this way, are now an international institution. Sasha, you seemed to have no trouble with Slumdog Millionaire wiping the floor with directors like David Fincher, Gus van Sant and Christopher Nolan – who wasn’t even nominated – back in ’08/’09, and it was a British and Indian production with very little American major talent involved.

    ‘America Comes Roaring Back’

    It’s not about nationality. It’s about the quality of the films. I’m totally for great American cinema being celebrated by the Academy, but totally against it happening as a result of patriotism or a national bias.

  15. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    John G.

    whoa, that was sobering.

    Radical Republicans are still fire-breathing ideologues and they still don’t hesitate to kill 750,000 people whenever they feel threatened and panic. They just go to places like Vietnam and Iraq to do the murdering now.

    And the difference between now and the mid-1800s is that radical Republicans constitute the entirety of those in office.

  16. John G.

    Once again, check your history. “Radical Republican” refers to a specific historical movement within the party that lasted from 1854 to 1877. They had a specific agenda (primarily focused on the abolition of slavery) that became obsolete after Reconstruction, so I’m pretty sure they don’t constitute the entirety of those in office in 2012.

    The entire history of the world did not occur in the last 12 years alone, people.

  17. murtaza

    what about MUD is it not releasing this year?

  18. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    John G. ok ok.

    Here’s my point. ‘Republican’ doesn’t mean the same thing today as it did in the 19th Century and neither does ‘Radical Republican.’

    I could say Michele Bachmann is a radical Republican and none of my friends would frown about it. Because they’re more interested in what I’m trying to say and not treating me like I’m failing an audition for Jeopardy.

    [I went back and made 'radical' lowercase, alright? Thanks.]

  19. John G.

    What I’m objecting to is the instinct by people who know very little about American history to casually glorify the past and assume everything was smooth sailing until Bush/Obama/Clinton/Reagan was elected. By no means are you the only ones doing this; I see it every day. But it’s a complete misrepresentation of historical trends.

    It’s easily to lazily write on a blog about how great everything used to be and how the ‘crooks these days’ would be laughed out of the room by imaginary elder statesmen. The problem is that this is completely incorrect. Rick Santorum would be on the far left in ‘Lincoln’s day’ and he would never survive the combative atmosphere. He is almost certainly more ‘educated and thoughtful’ than most people elected in the Civil War era, to the contrary of what Sasha wrote about him in a throwaway line here.

    I am not a supporter of Senator Santorum in the slightest – I disagree with him on many issues – but we get nowhere by holding today’s political figures to fictional standards from historical misunderstanding. Things were not better back then. They were much, much worse.

  20. Thanks for the sobering lesson John G.

  21. Vejayes

    Yes, the Europeans are now better at making “American” films than Americans.

    Personally, I’d love to see an “authentic” foreign film win the big prize. And I’m not talking about Americans making faux European films like The Tree of Life.

  22. For your Dark Horse long shots you can take off Gravity, since its opening is for 2013, not 2012.

  23. Vejayes

    But change is good, right?

    In two years, after Beasts of the Southern Wild wins for 2012 and another movie with a mainly black cast wins for 2013, there will be an AD article on how the “Whites Come Roaring Back.”

  24. I can only echo Guy’s comments.

    Whilst I agree with your overall sentiments, I don’t understand either your categorisation of European cinema or what could be described as being innovative.

    Firstly, it has to be said that it is only American influence that determines which European films are adopted over the course of an Oscar season. There’s no doubting there is no shortage of dynamic American filmmakers currently working but American cinema, if it were being judged generally, is first and foremost dominated by branding and franchises. The narrow selection of British and European cinema that American audiences open their eyes to bears little relation to what is produced across the continent – and their presence during recent Oscar seasons is attributable more to the American interests that propel them forward than anything else. Speaking as a Brit, our national cinema is arguably healthier at present than it has been for a long time, but much of our best work simply does not travel across the Atlantic. Films like Hunger, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Never Let Me Go (made by a very talented American director that has been unable to make a film in the US for eight years), Bloody Sunday, Fish Tank, The Deep Blue Sea etc. slip by barely noticed whereas the more anadine ‘prestige’ cinema – the likes of The Queen, The King’s Speech, virtually any cookie-cutter Merchant Ivory/Richard Curtis-scripted comedy – is the way most Americans like their international cinema. They are picked up by Hollywood studios and packaged accordingly. The Oscars may have been recently won by non-American filmmakers, but their success is entirely down to American adoption and promotion. The fact is the Academy is no more interested than the average American (or even the average American blogger for that matter) in the work of Haneke, Von Trier, Audiard or Wong Kar-wai than they were in recognising Kieslowski or Yang twenty years ago, or Ozu or Bergman before that.

    Maybe there still is a capacity for innovation in the collective American DNA as you term it. My experiences in America have been fantastic and I love travelling there, but the world’s impression of mainstream America is one of narrow-mindedness, ignorant of much of the rest of the world – and whilst that may be a gross generalisation, it’s also not exactly inaccurate. And for truly original, innovative cinema, you should probably be casting your gaze a whole lot further than David Fincher or Martin Scorsese (love them both though I do). Both have certainly made challenging films in the past, but the fact you could even contemplate describing Hugo as ‘daring’ just demonstrates how narrow the conversation is even among those that yearn for a more diverse cinema because you still want it in a very recognisable, safe form.

    For a piece that purports to champion innovation, the alternatives offered are still only half a step removed from the norm. Where is the talk of the promise shown by Sean Durkin? Jeff Nichols? Kenneth Lonergan? Kelly Reichert? Debra Granik? Andrew Dominick? Or for that matter, Terrence Malick, arguably America’s most innovative, challenging director? All have made significantly more daring – and, in many cases, superior – films to the likes of Scorsese, Tarantino and Fincher in recent times.

    Ultimately, the kind of change your article (and much of your coverage of the past Oscar season) seems to be calling for is only a slight sideways step from what the Academy already recognises. The kind of minor change that just plays a little closer to personal preference. Certainly not the kind of wholesale change that would reward genuinely innovative, original work – whether it be produced in the US or further afield.

  25. ^ Dominick is Australian.

  26. New Zealander actually – the point is he’s working within the American system.

  27. Also, were the Academy really any different, more vibrant or daring in their choices in the 70s than they are now?

    Best Picture wins for Patton, The Sting, Rocky, The Deer Hunter and Kramer vs. Kramer during that decade would suggest they were just as susceptible to familiar sentimentalism as ever.

  28. Touché – but we’ll take him…

  29. “Inside Llewyn Davis” has also been pushed to 2013, no?

  30. Bryce Forestieri

    I agree with Alec 90%. That dude’s my nikka <3

  31. jeremy09

    Tom Hooper to win it all CONFIRMED

    We’ll always have the Olympics. USA! USA! USA!

  32. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    Best Picture wins for Patton, The Sting, Rocky, The Deer Hunter and Kramer vs. Kramer during that decade would suggest they were just as susceptible to familiar sentimentalism as ever.

    That’s a weird little argument, Alec.

    Take your pick of the 5 least daring films (in your opinion) of the 70s and hold them up against the 5 “least daring” of other decades and see what you think.

    Then take the 3 or 4 best films of the 70s and weigh them alongside the 3 or 4 best of any other decade.

    I wouldn’t trade you 8 Best Picture winners from the 90s for 3 from the 70s. Casablanca and Rebecca are the only Best Picture winners from the 1940s that I’ll ever watch again. Ever. You can have the other eight.

    That’s twice today that you take a valid specific observation about individual films and then try to dilute the point with ridiculous broad stokes, attempting to argue that it doesn’t hold true for the whole decade — or the entire planet! And then pooch out your lip about how the statement is spread too thinly. You’re the one doing the thin spreading, dude.

    The King’s Speech is one incident. Nobody says every international director is trying to replicate its Oscar success.

    Chinatown, The Exorcist, The 2 Godfather films, The French Connection — and yes, Patton is powerfully subversive too. Those BP winners represent an incredible span of thrilling filmmaking rarely if ever matched in any other Oscar decade. Where are the Chinatown and Godfather of the 1980s or 1990s?

    You’re trying to say the 70s wallow in familiar sentimentalism on the basis of Rocky? Have you ever even seen any of the sappiest Best Picture winners from the 60s and the 80s?

    oh my god, you’ve noticed that every decade has a few duds that win Best Picture. Shock! That’s not the point.

    The point is the 1970s gave us 40 out of 50 Best Picture nominees that represent an extraordinary explosion of brilliance.

    But hey, go right ahead and wiggle Patton around on a stick as proof that the 70s are awash in sentimentality.

  33. Personally, I am just sick of people complaining about sentimentalism. There’s nothing wrong with that. Last I checked people were sentimental beings. It doesn’t make films LESS realistic. More movies (and filmmakers in general) could use real humanity and emphaty. That’s what’s keeping so many of American (although it’s not really a US specific problem) directors from greatness.

  34. over more cinematically impressive films.

    Like what?

    Personally, I think either Les Miserables or Beasts of the Southern Wild will win. Both sound like great movies that many people, including the Academy, will enjoy.

  35. Bernard

    Interesting thoughts, but a few comments:

    1. As another commenter noted, Gravity won’t be out until 2013.
    2. I think Avengers has to be considered, at least, a dark horse – arguably better reviewed than The Dark Knight Rises and, I believe, a comfortable choice for a ‘populist’ spot ala The Sixth Sense, Avatar, The Blind Side or District 9.
    3. I would be beyond shocked if Hysteria, a mediocre box office performer with mixed reviews, made any major award waves at all…

  36. jeremy09

    I had been more impressed with Beast of the Southern Wild is the shaky cam wasn’t half as flat-out horrendous as it was. There’s a great film in there, I just wish I could have seen more of it.

  37. “Where are the Chinatown and Godfather of the 1980s or 1990s?'”

    The Silence of the Lambs

  38. steve50

    While the choices in the 70s may appear better, they really pale when viewed in the context of the entire field of films that didn’t win and usually weren’t nominated.

    1971 is one of the best examples of crowd-pleaser-over-art:
    winner – The French Connection (well-acted, shot and (esp) edited)
    losers – A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show
    “yikes – history will see this” nominations: Fiddler on the Roof, Nicolas and Alexandra
    NOT nominatedSunday Bloody Sunday, The Go Between, McCabe & Mrs Miller, Carnal Knowledge, Walkabout

    1970 had embarrasing nods to Airport and Love Story, ’73 had A Touch of Class in the BP run, but not Last Tango, and so on.

    Only ’72 was solid with The Godfather, The Emigrants, Sounder, Cabaret and Deliverance – the only year I could live with the entire BP list. It wasn’t the list I would have chosen, but an excellent one. But 1972 was a banner year for filmmaking and almost impossible to niminate a bad movie.

    So maybe there were more influential critics or more film savvy audiences (I wouldn’t say “smarter”), but the year end harvest was so much broader. And oscar has always been a bit “off”, even in bumper years.

    another note
    “I am just sick of people complaining about sentimentalism.”
    …now you’ve made me cry.

  39. jeremy09

    ’75 was my favorite batch of Best Picture noms. Altman’s best in Nashville, Limut’s second best in Dog Day Afternoon, Spielberg’s classic Jaws, my favorite Kubrick in Barry Lyndon, and the great One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which although it’s my least favorite, it’s one of the best 70s chamber-dramas-about-the-Zeitgeist, with a stunning ensemble cast and one of Nicholson’s greatest performances.

  40. julian the emperor

    Good comment, Alec.

    I think you hit the nail on the head. Of course, you are right. Hugo is not a daring piece of work, not in the slightest (only in the narrowest possible sense of being “daring” in relation to Scorsese’s other work, as it defied expectations for what a Scorsese movie could be). The same goes for Fincher. It is not daring to do films like TGWTDT or TSN. They are big mainstream films, no question. But the thing about Hugo and TSN is that they also happen to be very GOOD films. Daring is not a criteria for creating good, even great movies. It is often an important ingredient, sure, but not a necessary one, per se.

    But if you want to acknowledge daring cinema you shouldn’t go by Scorsese, Fincher or Eastwood or any of the other typical objects of mainstream critical affection, you should look to Reichardt, Granik or Lonergan, as you propose. I wholeheartedly agree.
    They are truly the ones not afraid to tell a story that shies away from convention, that are thematically rich and intricate. They even dare to be slow and contemplative (an almost forgotten art. I would like to see Fincher do “slow”…is he even able to?)

  41. steve50

    Yes, compare ’75 or ’72 to any decade in the 80s or 90s (pick one or put ‘em in one big old pile). I don’t know if it’s the machinations behind the oscar race that’s made the results weaker or the lack of abundant product. Maybe it’s the way films are championed now, where a film is determined to be a BP nominee before it’s even released (and I mean you, Les Mis). I also remember watching good films constantly, all year round.

    The whole process seems controlled – no room or tolerance for mavericks. Last year was a perfect example where the frontrunner was presented as something daring. By the time it was realized to be somewhat less than that, the train had already left the station.

    That will only get worse with late in the year pile-ups of releases and advanced voting deadlines. And fewer truly great movies, of course.

  42. How have I made a ‘weird little argument’ Ryan? The point I was addressing was Sasha’s earlier assertion that the Academy was more daring in its choices in the 70s. By the examples cited above, I judge that they went with the same, safe ‘Academy-type’ choices five times out of ten. I’m not saying they aren’t still good films – I personally love The Sting – but when you have as rich a decade as that, it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that a lot of the best work was overlooked back then in much the same way as it is now. Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, McCabe & Mrs Miller, Don’t Look Now, The Exorcist, Chinatown, Network, A Clockwork Orange, Nashville, The Conversation, Mean Streets, Barry Lyndon, Jaws, The Last Detail, All the President’s Men, Badlands, Taxi Driver, The Long Goodbye, Days of Heaven, Apocalypse Now…. Some of these films received nominations, even one or two minor awards, but a lot of them didn’t and there certainly isn’t a Best Picture winner among them. When you’re beaten to the prize by The Godfather or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, one really can’t argue. But when you lose to Rocky or Kramer Vs Kramer, you have all the evidence you need to know that the way the Academy votes has always been the same. There was no brief period of enlightenment during the 70s – and if it seems that way because a couple of those winners happened to be particularly exceptional, do those wins really seem any different in retrospect to the likes of a No Country for Old Men or a Hurt Locker stealing in against form in more recent times?

    Maybe you simply didn’t read the earlier comment correctly and thought I was writing derogatively of the 70s as a decade of filmmaking (“the 70s are awash in sentimentality”??? Honestly, how do you come up with that from a remark about voting habits? I don’t think I even touched upon the filmmaking legacy of that period, much less characterise it one way or another). Although this doesn’t excuse your customary desultory tone, I’ll simply say read more carefully next time. If you still think that decade’s actual Best Picture winners – which is what we were talking about – represent a progressive, forward-thinking voting body then fair enough. Personally, I think they had no more than a 50% strike rate – and even in the remaining five years I would still have to say there were occasions when there were better films they could have chosen.

  43. Bryce Forestieri

    Hey they nominated Cries and Whispers in ’74 now there’d have to be death treats for that to happen. There was something going on in the 70’s to my mind for that to ever happen. Seriously…Cries and Whispers

  44. The best picture winners of just about any year cannot be described as “daring.” In 2007, for example, a film like No Country for Old Men winning can be partly explained by: there simply wasn’t A King’s Speech to stand in its way. And how daring is it for the AMPAS to choose a film like No Country for BP, when its derivative of a film the Coen bros. made 25 year previously: Blood Simple? What would have been daring would have been to recognize them back then.

    There were simply more “cooler” and memorable films picked as BP winners and nominees in the 1970s, because there was better product from Hollywood, that was supported by audiences, during that decade. The ultimate winners were all popular choices and hardly the most innovative as already mentioned.

  45. I’ll second the call to not count out “To the Wonder.” If there’s one lesson we learned last year it’s that Malick is so well respected that even his least “safe” movies can get him a best director nod in a seemingly decided field.

  46. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, McCabe & Mrs Miller, Don’t Look Now, The Exorcist, Chinatown, Network, A Clockwork Orange, Nashville, The Conversation, Mean Streets, Barry Lyndon, Jaws, The Last Detail, All the President’s Men, Badlands, Taxi Driver, The Long Goodbye, Days of Heaven, Apocalypse Now…. Some of these films received nominations,

    There you’ve said it yourself. How can you possibly say these films were “overlooked” if almost all of them got multiple nominations, including Best Picture, and won Oscars in many categories? Why are you stuck on the one winner for Best Picture?

    In her second paragraph Sasha clearly outlines the sort of Academy contenders she likes to see:

    The exception was the two years the Academy decided on ten Best Picture nominees. 2009 and 2010 offered up maybe the best selection of Best Picture contenders since the 1970s.

    “The best selection of contenders.” — Sasha is talking about years in which the entire Best Picture category packed with beauties.

    What kind of dream world do you inhabit where The Excorcist wins Best Picture? That masturbating-with-a-crucifix scene would’ve made a sweet clip on Oscar Night in 1973. Please tell me what masterpiece you would rather have seen win BP than The Sting? Amarcord? Mean Streets? I love those movies, but how about you come back down to planet Earth.

    You’re focused on the 5 BP Winners you find deficient. Although how you can claim Patton, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Deer Hunter, and Kramer vs Kramer are sappy duds, I cannot understand.

    Kramer vs Kramer was emotionally wrenching, but it’s not a cheap tear-jerker. It’s intelligent, mature and intensely felt. Maybe you’re above all that, but many film lovers would disagree with you.

    Fact is, 1979 — coming at the tail end of the decade, was an uncharacteristically weak year, relatively speaking, on the cusp of the blander 80s. There were only 3 realistic Best Picture contenders to choose from.

    Would it look more sophisticated in retrospect to have had Manhattan or Apocalypse Now win BP? Maybe. But Kramer vs Kramer absolutely deserves to be among my top 5 films of 1979. What else have you got for me, Alec? Alien winning Best Picture? I adore Marriage of Maria Braun, but let’s be real. The only three movies that could have reasonably won BP in this universe were Manhattan, Apocalypse and Kramer v Kramer. I think they made an extremely respectable choice. Obviously you don’t but then you seem to think Patton is sentimental snot too.

    You’re fixated on 5 BP winners you don’t care for and sneering that they’re typical Oscar fodder. I only see one Best Picture winner from the 1970s that I don’t like, and that’s Rocky — a movie that many of the snootiest cinemaphiles love.

    But more importantly, You’re gnawing on 5 BP winners you think are junky and I’m looking at 40 out of 50 Best Picture nominees from that decade that rank among my favorite films of all time.

    It’s a pity your glass is half empty. Mine is 80% full.

  47. Ryan! Re: 1979 Best Picture – All That Jazz!
    But I really adore Kramer Vs Kramer and Apocalypse Now. 3 out of 5 isn’t bad considering I didn’t particularly care for any of the nine nominees last year.

  48. That’s a lie, I liked The Help but I’m all about ‘Southern women triumphing through friendship’ as a genre in itself.

  49. steve50

    Watching between Ryan and Alec and I’m thinking – you guys appear to be arguing the same thing from different sides.

    Alec is right that AMPAS has never been pioneering in its choices for BP. Winners and most noms always represented the middle of a very safe road, just as they do now. To Ryan’s point, yes, those same winners/noms, mediocre as they might be in their own years, outshine the 80s and 90s “best” (I’m with you on the exception being Rocky.)

    The problem with arguing that is that the markets in question are different, education levels of the resp. audiences are not the same, attention spans have shrunk, and critical analysis has all but been wiped out by grading systems in the form of stars, thumbs or grade school report card scoring.

    To survive, the mainstream industry has dumbed down the product to keep the dollars coming in on the first 2-3 weekends. Sentiment has to be easy and orgasmic and controversy is severely frowned upon in the N American mkt, never more openly than at awards time. Awards go ONLY to the nobel and upstanding.

    The 70s style of artistic film rebel, inspired by European filmmakers of the two previous decades, now rarely gets studio support because the current general audience has been trained to wince whenever something requires thought or presents a moral quandry.

    In the 70s, we talked about troublesome films, sometimes to death. You saw them more than once, often switching teams with each viewing, because it was only a couple of bucks and the film usually played for a month or so, then went to second run, then repertory screens. This is where the 70’s filmography came from.

    Now – and it started in the 80s – films became expensive to make, to market and to see. You went once, made up your mind on the spot, assigned 1 to 5 stars, and the film was gone from the screen in about 2 weeks.

    That lack of attention has now started to show in filmographies of recent decades. It’s chicken-or-egg time – Is it the industry’s fault for steering audiences into more calm, predictable and profitable waters or is it an increasingly spoiled and lazy moviegoer?

    I’m guessing that it’s all a matter of what the public wants, and just as you get the government you deserve, so do you get the cultural legacy you have earned.

  50. I feel like there is a misunderstanding here. I think you both agree that the 70s were great. Taste is subjective so he sees that 5 BP winners seemed like traditional AMPAS movies to him, you don’t see it that way. But everyone agrees it was a great decade for the movies.

    (I think all decades are a great decade for movies, there are always great movies)

  51. The movie of the year remains THE AVENGERS, perhaps because it is the movie we most need right now. Superheroes are a fantasy construct. We love them because they are often ordinary (or at least recognizable) human beings with a fantastic alter ego capable of amazing things. Of course, most of us have an alter ego, the way we say ourselves or would like to, yet this alter ego never gets to save the world. It is a fantasy, and wish fulfillment is one of the most important usages of pop culture entertainment.

    It is a film of the present, of 2012. While many people bemoan those years when the most critically lauded movie fails to win, even though few people saw it, I tend to get irritated when the Oscar goes to a great movie that in no way was embraced by the people. Hey, I love NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and THE ARTIST, but they are hardly movies that define their years (OK, maybe amongst certain critical circles they do, but I’ll digress.) LORD OF THE RINGS, FORREST GUMP, PLATOON, THE GODFATHER, BEN-HUR, GONE WITH THE WIND. Yes, these were the movies of their years. THE AVENGERS would be so, as well.

    I love 3D. I do not remotely understand those critics who treat it as some sort of blasphemy toward cinema. The best 3D movies (AVATAR, TRANSFORMERS 3, and HUGO) would lose so much without that thrid dimension, why would you want to take that away? We’ve seen 3D before, but nothing like the way it has been mastered in these last few years. THE AVENGERS, liek these others, gains with the third dimension, so I give it that.

    THE AVENGERS is a thoroughly upbeat, positive piece of entertainment. Don;t get me wrong, I love what cHRIS nOLAN HAS DONE WITH THE bATMAN movies, but I’m getting tired of the cliche that “dark” necessarily equals “good”. Much as they saw comedy is harder than drama (I’m not saying it is, but…) thus one might contend that it is harder to make a great film full of joy and delight than it is out of darkness and gloom.

    What Marvel has achieved over the last few years has been a terrific, highquality series of films, and this movie is the culmination. Much as Harry Potter deserved some Oscar appreciation last year as a nod to consistency of quality, so too does Marvel deserve a nod this year.

    But really, THE AVENGERS is a movie that we need right now, becauseit actually speaks to a fantasy that most of us would like to see, yet the mere humans of this earth cannot seem to achieve: it is the story of diferent people of different backgrounds, beliefs and abilities coming together to solve the world’s problems. In the real world, the leaders we have put forth to protect us are so petty and divided that they cannot unite for the common good. In the real world, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Thor, etc., would all get their own little followings and beunable to unify together. Heaven forbid, we have science and religion working together, like Iron Man and Thor. Ultimately, the fantasy we want most right now is to see unification for the common good, and that is the central theme of this picture.

    As a result, THE AVENGERS for the win.

  52. Best Actress? Did somebody mention Best Actress? Well, we’ve seen Qu’venzhane Wallis and I sure hope she gets nominated.

    And believe it or not Viola Davis may be back up at the plate with “Don’t Back Down”. Serious,urban, social themes…hmmm…SEEMS nominatable. And the Academy might, I said, MIGHT want to make up for what happened last year with her and “The Help.”

    “Won’t Back Down” ISN’T going to be “The Help” You can count on that. Looks like a serious social drama.

    And Helen Hunt has been getting all these career raves out of Sundance. And ditto Marion Cotillard out of Cannes. For “Of Rust and Bone.”

    Laura Linney is Tom O’Neil’s #1 pick for “Hyde Park on the Hudson.” And there’s Keira Knightley looking likely for “Anna Karenina.”

    That’s five right there. And they all have in common that they’ve been nominated before. And Helen Hunt and Marion Cotillard won.

    Only newcomer to that group is the adorable, brilliant Qu’venzhane Wallis.

    So that may very well be the line-up.
    Laura been nominated three times and never won.
    Viola twice and never won.

    I think that’s an interesting group. Two African-American actresses. THAT would be a FIRST wouldln’t it?

  53. Love this thread. Over the years as a reader and not a poster I have found it fascinating that so many people continually bash their heads against the brick Academy wall complaining that the Best Picture nominees and winner aren’t what they would have chosen or aren’t deserving – as if all of us have some common set of film judging values.

    I love that the Oscars create such fantastic arguments and discussions. The Oscars are embarrassing for giving best picture to The Greatest Show on Earth or Cimarron or Crash (which they are) or ignoring The Dark Knight. And this – and so much more – is great fodder. But they are who they are. They sometimes like films you don’t. They are mostly older white men and vote as such. That’s who AMPAS is. Love them, learn to accept them, have fun arguing about it, but PLEASE stop bashing your head against the brick as if they suddenly ill become something they are not. The wall isn’t going to give and it hurts to watch to you do it.

  54. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    I appreciate you guys helping to moderate and negotiate a peaceful settlement :)

    They’re right, Alec. We’re not far apart in how we feel about the nominees and winners of the 1970s.

    Can I just respectfully point out … don’t take this as further confrontation, please… But consider this.

    In the list of titles that you name among the films you think were more deserving BP winners, there are several instances where you seem to be saying two of your preferences should have won instead.

    See what I mean? How can you be troubled that The Last Picture Show, A Clockwork Orange and McCabe & Mrs. Miller didn’t win BP? Do you wish there had been a 3-way tie for Best Picture that year?

    I understand what you’re saying. You think any of those 3 would have been a better choice than The French Connection. (??) But I gotta say, if you’re unable to pick just one of them as the most victimized movie of 1971, then it’s hard to see how you can blame 5000 Academy members for failing to agree with your vague preference, right?

    Your list has several occurrences when you name more than one film per year as your preferred “overlooked” movie.

    We all love Chinatown. But dyou seriously think it’s such a travesty that The Godfather II won instead? c’mon now.

  55. Anna Karenina. That is all.

  56. I’m sorry I came to this so late! Great piece, of course, and Sasha’s description of The Master is dead-on. And if Alec’s point about Oscar choices being stodgy in the 70’s is backed up by The Deer Hunter, then I gotta disagree with his logic. That’s a 3 hour epic that unspools not with lavish costume and period immersion but brutal war scenes and domestic drudgery, pain, and despair.

    As to Guy’s point about Kelly Reichardt, how is she particularly progressive? I don’t see how stripping action or cinematic excess makes for an advanced piece of filmmaking. Efficient, maybe, but I get the impression that her goal is to take a story and pull it back to the absolute basics, which can be admired but calling it adventurous reads (to me*) as a reaction against what you perceive are cinematic excesses, not plausible appraisals of Reichardt’s work.

    *I know .0001% as much about film as Guy, so trust him on this. I’m just confused by his view.

  57. Reform the Academy

    “Ryan Adams / August 8, 2012

    But more importantly, You’re gnawing on 5 BP winners you think are junky and I’m looking at 40 out of 50 Best Picture nominees from that decade that rank among my favorite films of all time.
    It’s a pity your glass is half empty. Mine is 80% full.”

    The 70’s can kiss my ass! I might save The Godfathers, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Star Wars…but I’d definitely trash The French Connection, The Exorcist, Dog Day Afternoon, and Taxi Driver.

  58. Reform the Academy

    # of good (B or higher) contenders by decade

    1940’s- 16
    1950’s- 12
    1960’s- 10
    1970’s- 7
    1980’s- 10
    1990’s- 14
    2000’s- 20 (though of course the 10 nominee years play a significant role here)

  59. Re. 1971, it really doesn’t trouble me per se that The French Connection won ahead of McCabe or Picture Show or Clockwork. Yes, my personal preference would be for McCabe but the ‘bolder’ choice would’ve been one of the other two and as one of the other readers pointed out, The French Connection was the bigger commercial success of that particular group (though in all fairness, that probably seems a pretty radical choice now in itself).

    The reason why my assessment focused on the BP winners is because that remains the ultimate litmus test for AMPAS voting and I still say they played it just as safe back then. If we are taking nominated films into account (and you’re quite correct, Sasha did reference the full selections of 2009 and 2010), then by that rationale you would arguably find just as many laudable non-winning choices from the last ten years (at least in terms of considering films we perhaps regard as non-Academy friendly).

    Just this past year, we had evidence of opposite extremes among the nominees. That The Tree of Life (probably the most esoteric BP nominee in living memory – and one that also received a directing nom) lined up alongside outdated racist, middlebrow pap like The Help or tailor-made Oscar-bait like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close points to two wildly different voting imperatives.

    In 2009, one of the years Sasha cites, we may have had something as unexpected as Inglourious Basterds but this was countered by the anadine likes of The Blind Side.

    Even looking back at some of the real travesty years when films like A Beautiful Mind or Crash won, the rest of the field included the likes of Moulin Rouge!, In the Bedroom, Brokeback Mountain, Munich, Capote. Heck, even Lynch got nominated for Best Director for Mulholland Dr.

    I’m not suggesting that all of these films stand comparison with their 70s counterparts (although I believe some do) but I wasn’t comparing the singular or collective works of the decades in the first place. I just think that the foundation of the Academy was exactly the same back then and their voting mentality hasn’t changed or become more conservative – it is as it has always been.

    And no, of course I take no exception to Thr Godfather Part II winning BP (it happens to be my second favourite film of all time) and I don’t believe I simply dismissed any of the other BP winners as “junky” (please stop misquoting me/embellishing my words out of context BTW – I notice you decided to lump Cuckoo’s Nest in with the films I supposedly regard as “sappy duds” when what I wrote was actually the opposite). That list of films does not necessarily point to my preferences – it’s there to simply highlight films that were bolder or more daring across a timespan when other films were winning, whether they be good, bad or indifferent. In some cases, it was right that the winning titles took the main prize, whether they seem like more traditional choices or not. One of the many great things about both Godfather films is the way they seemed simultaneously beholden to classical tradition and yet daring and modern at the same time. In the case of Kramer Vs Kramer though, whilst it may not be a bad film exactly (and I appreciate that you are evidently a fan – which is fine), it’s certainly not a great one in my eyes and would definitely fall into what would now be categorised as shameless Oscar-bait. But it beat one of the most important and lasting works of any national cinema in Apocalypse Now and the gulf between the two is immeasurable. There you have a film as daring and ambitious as has ever been made – a monumental achievement that in some respects redefined a genre, if not the medium as a whole. And the BP went to a maudlin little domestic life lessons tearjerker.

    If the Internet had existed back then, the blogosphere would’ve exploded with rage and this site would’ve been ground zero.

  60. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    I notice you decided to lump Cuckoo’s Nest in with the films I supposedly regard as “sappy duds” when what I wrote was actually the opposite).

    I missed that. Sorry. I was writing fast, trying to assemble what you said from memory and made a mistake. I’ll go back and strike that title out.

  61. Jesse Crall – re. The Deer Hunter

    This film always seems divisive. I appreciate that it has it’s fans but for many, it’s a deeply problematic film. For the first hour, I think it’s superb – a fascinating depiction of kinship and the kind of working class community that has since evaporated. But when it arrives at the war sequences, the level of implausibility and casual racism on display derails the picture entirely. And though the scenes that follow when De Niro returns home are poignant and well-handled, the dishonesty of the middle stretch has already done its damage. That the film ends with ‘America, America’ – even if only in a quiet key – doesn’t help either. The film contextualises that particular war in a manner that is horribly ignorant and however good the performancs are, what that film said about American attitudes toward Vietnam has always been very disturbing – though the conciliatory tone of the ending is probably reason enough as to why the Academy would choose to recognise it and not something like Apocalypse Now (and, likewise, why they would go for Platoon a decade later but not Full Metal Jacket).

    It’s a pity that Cimino virtually disappeared after 1980 though – he was a real talent and the much maligned Heaven’s Gate is a extremely good film (and far superior to The Deer Hunter).

  62. I notice you decided to lump Cuckoo’s Nest in with the films I supposedly regard as “sappy duds” when what I wrote was actually the opposite).
    I missed that. Sorry. I was writing fast, trying to assemble what you said from memory and made a mistake. I’ll go back and strike that title out.

    ——————-

    Fair enough.

  63. really enjoyed moonrise kingdom.

  64. Proud to be an American but when it comes to art, science, medicine, technology I say may the most brilliant win regardless of country of citizenship. The Academy Awards are a celebration of the best in film period. Not the best in American film. At least they shouldn’t be.

  65. rufussondheim

    Sad to see so many dismiss Breaking Away from 1979. It’s my favorite of what I think is a pretty strong year of nominees (I’m not a fan of Apocalypse Now but I do recognize how well it’s made, it’s just not my thing).

    All That Jazz is objectively probably the greatest musical designed for the movies except Singin’ in the Rain (although I do prefer Once)

    Kramer vs. Kramer is probably the greatest family melodrama from that time and, let’s face it, I can’t think of a social issues family drama that’s been inarguably better since then.

    And we also have Manhattan, which would finish #2 if you were to get a ranking of Woody Allen’s films from a mixture of people.

    Altogether it’s a really strong year, but often gets maligned because the male-dominated film critics like to side with the supermacho Apocalypse Now over the sensitive male in Kramer. What law says you always have to side with the super macho?

    But going back to Breaking Away, I think it’s a near-perfect gem. Now I know that the Rocky films usually get credit for creating the modern template for the sports movie, but I could put forth a perfectly argued piece that the credit should go to Breaking Away instead. It only came out a month after Rocky 2, but its structure has been copied religiously far more than Rocky has (or even The Bad News Bears)

    I think Breaking Away gets a bad rap because it has been so mercilessly copied. And let’s face it, it’s not that challenging. I fell in love with it when I was 11, but I watched it in the last ten years and it was just as affecting. But it’s genuinely heartfelt and it earns the tears when we get to the improbable ending.

    Now I could never argue that Breaking Away is as important as Apocalypse Now or provides the great dialogue of Manhatten or the innovative musical numbers of All That Jazz or the first-rate performances in Kramer vs. Kramer, but I love it more just the same.

  66. @John ur absolutely right

  67. Jeremy09

    Alien was the best film of ’79, but fat chance a genre slasher film will ever be nominated for BP, much less win.

  68. Reform the Academy

    Alien can suck my balls!

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