The State of the Race: A Good Best Picture is Hard to FindDecember 28, 2012 • By Sasha Stone
“I once received a letter from an old lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read. I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up.” – Flannery O’Connor
Emotion, as many an Oscar pundit will tell you, is the key to finding your Best Picture winner. The question is, what moves you? Are you someone who needs a director to tell you how to feel with a rising score and a sympathetic sad sack who makes good? Or are you moved by a film that challenges the way you think? Or perhaps shifts your perceptions ever so slightly? What you respond to defines who you are, but it doesn’t necessarily make a film great.
When we talk about “Best Picture” we are talking about the movie most people can agree upon is best. We already know that doesn’t necessarily mean great. We know that doesn’t mean it stands the test of time either. The winning film is a snapshot of a moment in time. We can only hope that it is deserving of such an honor.
It’s a great movie and all but does it make you FEEL anything? This is the key question we Oscar bloggers rumble about at parties. “If grown men cry that movie will win,” my friend Hunter told me on Facebook. “It reminded me of the History Channel, something my husband likes,” my friend Susan told me on Facebook. “I kept waiting to feel something but I never felt anything,” another friend said. And on it goes. Emotion varies so greatly from person to person that it’s nearly impossible to pick a winner based on something so ephemeral, our passion.
According to The Wrap’s Steve Pond, passion is what gets a film nominated, but not what gets a film the win. Divisive films don’t win Best Picture. The more polarizing the film, no matter if it’s brilliant or not, the less of a chance it has to pull off a victory in a consensus vote. Of course, all of that could be trashed in an instant if this is the year a polarizing film won.
This year, that polarizing film is Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables. The long awaited screen version of the beloved musical is dividing critics and viewers squarely down the middle. You’d be hard pressed to get a consensus vote on this one for the win. It is love it/hate it. So much so that Tom Hooper was not nominated for a Golden Globe for director – and if there’s one group that should have been inclined toward that nomination, it’s the HFPA. They are, after all, the only major voting group that honors the musical. To be a strong contender, that nomination needed to be there.
Nine musicals have won the Best Picture Oscar:
The Broadway Melody (1929)
Going My Way (1944)
An American in Paris (1951)
West Side Story (1961)
My Fair Lady (1964)
The Sound of Music (1965)
Since the HFPA have been giving out director prizes, let’s start with Going my Way, which won there. Each of these films had a Golden Globe nomination for director. Whenever it didn’t, that signaled a potentially weak Oscar contender.
On the other hand, as its been pointed out before, precedents are true until they aren’t. The Les Mis fan base will not let this one be true so perhaps 2012 will be that year it is finally overturned. After all, we are dealing with a different set of circumstances this year – from the date change to the more than five nominees for Best Picture. In some respects, we might have to scrap precedent and start anew. Kris Tapley and Dave Karger are really the two most prominent Oscar bloggers right now predicting it to win. If that prediction holds to the bitter end (if Hooper doesn’t get a director nod it will not) then they get to collect the accolades.
Polarization also applies to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which lacks the all-important SAG ensemble nomination. Even if it’s true that the voters didn’t get the screeners in time, they did enough to nominate Jessica Chastain. So far, it doesn’t seem to matter what the reason is, the SAG ensemble nomination hasn’t failed in going on 15 years. Will that precedent be overturned this year to give that film the win?
It has its passionate advocates in the critics. Movie City News’ David Poland and Hollywood-Elsewhere’s Jeff Wells are two of its biggest champions. Poland, because he loves the film, and Wells because he’s hoping it might be one of two possibilities that will block Lincoln.
Then there’s the controversy with the film’s depiction of torture. Many are wondering whether or not that will hurt the film come Oscar time. Usually, if Oscar voters love a movie enough, if it MOVES them enough, the controversy will be meaningless. In this case, most people watching Zero Dark Thirty will do as critics did coming out of it, barely notice and wonder what all of the fuss was about. It’s possible that it could hurt the movie simply by making the audience not like Maya (Jessica Chastain) enough; that her character, who has been trained to believe that “enhanced interrogation techniques” work, is a distasteful person, especially being that she’s a woman and women are supposed to be, you know, saintly. Or slutty. Preferably saintly and slutty.
I am envisioning protests happening outside the Kodak for the film’s depiction of torture and if it goes that far, if the Academy will be accused of awarding a film that legitimizes torture, well, that’s something different. Noise will have to be made, more noise than is being made right now.
To my mind, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a film made by filmmakers who advocate torture; it is a film made about people who believe torture works, who use it to acquire the name that eventually leads them to Osama Bin Laden.
Still, Zero Dark Thirty was already a long shot because of two key points. 1) Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal won in 2009. That is too soon, probably, although not impossible. 2) the SAG ensemble nod means the actors have their hearts in unison elsewhere. Those two forces are, to me, bigger obstacles for the win than the torture controversy. In fact, the talk might perhaps make the film bigger at the box office, as Kris Tapley told me, therefore a bigger threat to win.
And then we come to Silver Linings Playbook, which has suddenly become a long shot pick because David O. Russell, like Tom Hooper, did not earn a Best Director nod at the Globes. Quentin Tarantino showed up there instead. Since Silver Linings Playbook was put in the musical/comedy category alongside Les Miserables, both of them suddenly become long shots because no film from that category has ever won Best Picture without the Best Director nod at the Globes except one, Driving Miss Daisy (and how long are we going to keep trotting that one out?)
Still, Silver Linings Playbook has two things going for it that the above do not. 1) The Weinstein Co. They are heading into potentially their third straight Best Picture win. Somehow I doubt they are going to let David O. Russell’s director nod slip through their fingers. I know they are competing against themselves with Tarantino, but I will be astounded if David O. Russell does not get a DGA and an Oscar nod for directing. A win is still a long shot, but it is a movie everybody likes and it will be Les Mis’ main competition at both the Globes and the SAGs. 2) that SAG ensemble nod is key. Everywhere I go I hear people saying they loved Silver Linings Playbook, probably more than any other film this year. Box office tells us otherwise, however, as it’s only barely cracked $20 mil up against Lincoln’s astonishing $120 mil and counting. But I can’t ignore what I hear people saying from all different walks of life. It is the ONLY movie I hear people talking about, incidentally.
Django Unchained is a film I think could do some damage in the awards race, although that too now has its share of controversy. Tarantino decided to tell his story without thinking about the potential ramifications. Such should be the freedom of artists everywhere. Spike Lee should be free to make that kind of movie if he wants to. However, now that it’s been called “offensive” by some members of the African American community might that means it dies at the box office? To me, it is Tarantino’s most entertaining film and that isn’t only my own buried resentment for my white ancestors. The torture porn helps me feel some sweet relief. I also think it’s just funny and I happened to enjoy Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz. I have found that I just like Tarantino’s movies. But for our purposes here, it’s still tough to say whether it will make it into the race. I suspect that it will, given that there aren’t five Best Picture nominees. The real question is whether that fifth slot for director (fourth and fifth if you think Ang Lee is vulnerable) will be taken by Tarantino or David O. Russell or Tom Hooper.
“Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” — Flannery O’Connor
Beasts of the Southern Wild might end up being too grotesque for voters, too ugly, not pretty, not idealistic, too much of a world that seems to embrace their poverty. That has made it a target for accusations of being a right wing fantasy. But the truth is, like many of these films we’re discussing, sooner or later you have to let go of political correctness and let the light back in. We can’t expect our films to remain artful and daring if they must adhere to being “right” for their times. Surely this has always been a concern with films – but in the case of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film that is pure poetry, that reaction seems extreme.
Conversely, Middle of Nowhere, Ava DuVernay’s elegant, exquisite think piece on the journey of a modern African American woman does do everything “right” and yet, because it has no controversy attached to it, it seems to be talked about less. Middle of Nowhere, incidentally, won Best Director in Sundance and yet, it’s not gotten anywhere near the attention or acclaim of Beasts of the Southern Wild, even though DuVernay is potentially going to be the first black female writer/director to get any sort of Oscar attention. We can’t reward films like Middle of Nowhere and we can’t reward films like Beasts of the Southern Wild, so where does that leave us? It isn’t the artist’s job to right the wrongs of society. It isn’t the member of society’s obligation to take its moral cues from art. We are free thinking individuals with very large brains. Here’s to hoping we can keep art free from our own agendas.
Life of Pi is one of the biggest surprises of the year. Aside from Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi is the other movie I hear people talking about. When I say “people” I don’t mean Academy members. I mean just regular folks. Life of Pi appears to have hit the right note with older males. Its reviews are decent, not great, it has no controversy attached it and it does nothing but make you feel good, unless you hated the movie of course. It also has a Globe nod for Director. But since the Globes and Oscar never match up 100%, the odds are one of those five will be selected out. So either Ang Lee or Quentin Tarantino will likely be left off Oscar’s five. But again, it’s worth remembering that this is an odd year, with ballots being pushed back. That alone might account for a 5/5 match-up with Globes and Oscar, which would put Best Director at:
Or not. Or David O. Russell or Tom Hooper push through.
Argo, like Silver Linings Playbook, is the real snake in the grass. If voters are going to turn off of Zero Dark Thirty, they’ll likely turn to Argo instead because it has no controversy attached to it – there was one, briefly, but it disappeared after Argo stopped feeling like a threat. But it is a threat because it has few haters and many lovers. Like Zero Dark Thirty it has very few negative reviews. It has also hit every necessary marker along the way – it made $100 million, it has a Globe nod for director AND a SAG ensemble nod. It is a film that will appeal broadly across the widest group. It is also flying under the radar and was only briefly the frontrunner back during Telluride, which means, it’s not a target for continual attacks as Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln have been. It is funny, suspenseful, moving and exactly the kind of movie Oscar voters love. Argo might start winning the larger consensus votes, like the Producers Guild and if it wins just one of those? All bets are off.
What appears to be missing right now for Argo is passion. Passion that comes with hatred will lose the Best Picture prize, but passion along with few haters is often what brings the win. Does it make you smile with your heart? Do you want to tell your friends to see it? Do you talk about how much you loved it? I don’t hear that so much with Argo — though there was a time when I did. All that matters is when voters see it and how well they remember it. Argo is about an invisible American hero who finally gets his due. That guy is Tony Mendez, CIA op who concocted the plan to rescue hostages in Iran (partnered with the Canadian government). That he is finally able to take credit for that is probably the most moving thing about Argo. Also, President Carter finally getting his due matters. Carter was lambasted for being too wimpy to rescue hostages, which cost him the election.
And that brings us finally to Lincoln. It’s hard for me to talk objectively about my favorite film of the year. I can talk about it as an Oscar pundit and tell you that it’s not only hit every marker but surpassed them all. It has broken records at the Critics Choice, Spielberg’s own record at the Golden Globes and the SAGs and is up to $120 million at the box office. It is currently the highest grossing film of the major Oscar contenders. That’s nothing to sneeze at and anyone who doesn’t consider Lincoln a major threat simply isn’t correctly reading the race. However, their dismissal of it actually helps it fly under radar and appear as the underdog when it is, in fact, anything but.
I can talk about how Spielberg is worthy of that third Oscar, to join that elite group of directors in Academy history who have won more than two. After thirty years of making films in Hollywood, from successes to failures, box office triumphs to box office failures, art films to blockbusters but never resting on his laurels and always trying something new to, for once, put his faith in his actors and his screenwriter has amounted to something quite special indeed. That it is inspiring people who never go to the movies to make the trek out to the multiplex is also quite an achievement. Did it set the world of critics on fire? Not really, although it’s hitting all of the top ten lists and has among the best reviews of the year. But Lincoln has something no other film this year has: the profound echo of history changing the way we think about our government now and our treatment of slaves then, and our mostly failed mission to ensuring equality and freedom for all. Yes, it sounds lofty and pretentious but Spielberg’s talky, dusty film is anything but. Yes, it’s hard for me to talk about Lincoln without gushing. I try, lord knows.
In the end, there are films that move us all, in different ways. The Oscar vote will tell us what moved the industry most. On January 3rd ballots will be turned in, and the DGA and WGA and ADG will all announce. The picture will either confirm what we know or destroy it. We’ll simply pick up the pieces and start again.
But let’s remember that art, like life, is messy business. We’re lucky to live in a country that allows us the freedom to express ourselves without worrying about repercussions.
“Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.” –Flannery O’Connor
Best Picture – The Frontrunners
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Metacritic rating: 86
Box office: off the charts, $120 million and counting
AFI – Top Ten Movies of the Year
Boston – Actor, Screenplay, Supporting Actress
New York Film Critics – Actor, Screenplay, Supporting Actress
National Board of Review - Top Ten Movies of the Year
Critics Choice – 13 Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Editing, Score, Costumes, Art Direction, Cinematography, Makeup, Ensemble
Golden Globes – 7 Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, Score
Screen Actors Guild – 4 Ensemble, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress
Metacritic rating: 86
Box office: $106 million and counting
AFI Movie of the Year
Los Angeles Film Critics – Screenplay
National Board of Review Top Ten Films
Golden Globes 5 Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Score
Screen Actors Guild 2 Ensemble, Supporting Actor
Zero Dark Thirty
Metacritic rating: 95
Box office: Great per theater average so far
AFI – Top Ten Movies of the Year
Boston – Film, Director, Editing
Los Angeles Film Critics – Editing
National Board of Review – Film, Director, Actress
New York Film Critics – Film, Director, Cinematography
Critics Choice – 5 Picture, Director, Actress, Screenplay, Editing
Golden Globes – 4 Picture, Director, Actress, Screenplay
Screen Actors Guild – 1 Best Actress
Silver Linings Playbook
Metacritic rating: 81
Box office: $21 million in 745 theaters
AFI Top Ten Films
Toronto Audience Award
National Board of Review 3 – Top Ten Films, Actress, Screenplay
Los Angeles Film Critics: Best Actress
Critics Choice: 10 Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress, Actor in a Comedy, Actor, Best Comedy, Supporting Actor, Ensemble, Actress in a Comedy.
Golden Globes: 4 Picture, Screenplay, Actor, Actress
Screen Actors Guild: 4 Ensemble, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor
Life of Pi
Metacritic Rating: 79
Box office: $78 million and counting
AFI Top Ten Film of the Year
Critics Choice: 9 Picture, Director, Screenplay, Best Young Actor, Cinematography, Art Direction, Score, Editing, Visual EffectsGolden Globes: 3 Picture, Director, Score
Metacritic rating: 64
Box office: broke opening day record for a musical, starts at $18 mil
AFI Top Ten Film of the Year
National Board of Review – 2 Ensemble, Top Ten Films of the Year
Critics Choice: 11 Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Costume, Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Makeup, Song, Acting Ensemble
Golden Globes: 5 Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Song
Metacritic Rating: 80
Box office: great opening day haul
AFI Top Ten Films of the Year
National Board of Review – 2 Supporting Actor, Top Ten Films
Critics Choice – 2 Picture, Screenplay
Golden Globes – 5 Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (2)
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Metacritic rating: 86
Box office: $11 million
AFI Movie of the Year
Cannes Film Fest - FIPRESCI Prize, Golden Camera, Prix Regards Jeune, Prize of the Ecumenical Jury – Special Mention
Deauville Film Fest – Best Film
Los Angeles Film Fest – Best Score, Best Supporting Actor
National Board of Review – 5 Best Breakthrough Performer, Best Directorial Debut, Breakthrough Performance – Female, Top Films
Sundance – Grand Jury Prize, Cinematography
Critics Choice – 3 Picture, Actress, Best Young Actor/Actress
Contenders that also made AFI”s Top Ten of the Year
The Dark Knight Rises
Contenders that also made the National Board of Reviews Top Ten of the Year
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Promised Land
Contenders that also made the Critics Choice Top Ten:
Films that really need some top level support to make it in:
The Dark Knight Rises
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Middle of Nowhere
Best Exotic Marigold Hotel