My Oscar year started on the French riviera. It was cold and raining. Without the sunshine glimmering off the pavement we were instead teased by all of that sunlight in Rust and Bone, one of the more memorable films from Cannes. When you leave the cloistered confines of Los Angeles, you are no longer obligated to follow the rules we all live by unquestionably. Movie stars are pretty here, and young. Female stars are mostly disposable. What they’re wearing, how thin they are, whether they look old yet, who they’re fucking.
Leaving Hollywood every year around May is a psyche cleanser like no other. In other countries that bring films to Cannes there are fully fleshed out roles for women. Sure, not a lot of female filmmakers yet but stories about women share equal time with men. They don’t really play the same game of alpha male hero that we do here. In Cannes I saw Rust and Bone, Amour, Beyond the Hills, and Beasts of the Southern Wild, just for starters.
I’ll never forget the moment Beasts of the Southern Wild ended. I’d heard buzz about it from Sundance but was expecting the usual hipster rumination on the childman who can’t grow up. Or the manic pixie dreamgirl drug addiction story of redemption. Or the stylish thriller that has no plot. I didn’t expect such artistic daring. So when the beasts bow down to Hushpuppy at the end, I found I couldn’t breathe. No film had ever done that to me before – gone was my breath: breathtaking. The audience burst into spontaneous applause. They applauded again after the credits rolled. It wasn’t even a gala screening – it was for the stragglers. That was the moment I knew 2012 was going to be different.
That is what going to a festival now can offer you – the chance to see movies before they are over-analyzed, ripped apart then destroyed the re-assembled as whatever the marketing team thinks they can get away with. Amour was another film that overtook Cannes. Brilliant, powerful, undeniable – but polarizing. How could it not be. Love and death are beyond our control. Death means you are alone. Love means you aren’t. The big themes in Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild would only be the start of the deeper, emotional films that would dominate the year’s best. That was, until politics came into the picture.
One undeniable thing about 2012 was that we’d just re-elected our first black president. Obama had brought two books into the White House with him – Team of Rivals and the Bible. After 13 years of fighting and research to get Lincoln made, six years for Kushner to write the script, which at one time was 300 pages long. Daniel Day-Lewis’ careful research, Spielberg’s handling of the Mary Lincoln role in the capable hands of Sally Field — wow. It seemed to be the movie for the year, at least in America. Its themes about equality resonate every single day in our country. But the film was a hard sit. Long passages of beautifully written dialogue that you have to be paying close attention to. How much it moves you depends, I guess, on how much the subject interests you. But Lincoln isn’t really entertaining in the same way Argo was. The two together are like Chicago and The Pianist.
The truth is, I don’t care about the Oscars as an event — I hope that they can change the world. So when people say, relax, it’s only the Oscars and that’s true. Can the Oscars change the world? Probably not, especially when they themselves refuse to change. I always think if they CAN change themselves they can change the industry and eventually the world; we are too comfortable looking to Hollywood to define ourselves. For 85 years we’ve been doing this and for 85 years not a lot has changed. What keeps me at the wheel of this car wreck year after year is the tiny ray of hope that something might shift, even a little bit, in a different direction.
Of all of the people whose story would shape the Oscars in 2012 I didn’t think it would be Affleck’s. Now, we see the result of that and woe be unto the Academy if they should ever step out of line again. The consensus no-likey. The consensus will make them pay. The narrative took hold like wildfire – so much so that people who didn’t particularly notice Argo from the screener pile now had their favorite movie of the year. Where was that enthusiasm when the season began? But it’s the winner because it won the game of Oscar. As to how that sits over time, we’ll just have to wait and see. I think it gets better when you watch it thinking the director was snubbed than it would have otherwise. Rooting factor, they call it. It’s a really good movie, though. Not better than the others but damned good.
It is irritating to me that people keep bringing back my positive rave of Argo from back in September where I called it a perfect film and a “great fucking movie.” Those things were and are true. It’s just that three other movies came along that blew Argo away.
The painful part of this year was twofold. The first was how social networking turned the Oscar race into a reality-show style political election where films were picked apart limb by limb until voters had no option but to pick the safest, least offensive choice. The other hard part was seeing the “snubbed Ben Affleck” narrative take hold. I wish he’d gotten a Best Director nomination so that we would all know for sure whether that film would have been the consensus pick or not — it could have gone either way.
But the Affleck narrative bloomed into a culture that is more celebrity-obsessed than ever. It really hit the actors hard, too, because one of their own was rejected by the Academy for doing good work. That was probably an easy decision to override. It didn’t seem to matter that the directors the Academy did choose were artistically inclined, daring filmmakers like Haneke and Zeitlin. It is the kind of unpredictable twist in an Oscar year you can’t really explain to people in the years to come. “You see, there was this actor named Ben Affleck…”
We have to always try to remember that the Oscars don’t belong to us. This is the canon of films the industry has decided to designate as best. The ones we love we have to keep for ourself, protected in memory like everything else that too easily dissolves over time.
I have said goodbye to Richard Parker and thanked him. I know there will always be two ways of looking at this year. One is the better story. The other is not worth the time it takes to tell it again. They’ll always be two ways of looking at the Oscars. Remember the game and you can’t be heartbroken. Or as Bob Dylan would say:
Heart of mine so malicious and so full of guile
Give you an inch and you’ll take a mile
Don’t let yourself fall
Don’t let yourself stumble
If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime
Heart of mine.
The Oscar ceremony will unfold as it will. But a thank you to the readers of this site who have made a mostly painful year a lot more tolerable. And especially to my good friend Ryan Adams, without whom I am nothing but a useless ball of hysteria. Our podcasting partner and friend Craig Kennedy and to Marshall Flores for endless support and mathturbation, Erik Anderson for the laughs and podcasting, Tom O’Neil for keeping things exciting every minute of the day, David Poland who helped reign in the insanity, writers Brian Whisenant, Jackson Truax and Rob who helped out with the simulated ballot. And all of the great new pals we’ve met this year.
Outside here in Los Angeles the sun is shining. Summer hints it’s almost here. Before long I’ll be on a plane to the French Riviera and it will all start over again. I hope you all have a great night and have had as interesting a year as I have. I hope I can still love watching movies when the circus shuts down for the night. I hope we can still remember how it all went down when we zip up our pants and go home. I hope that movies will always be as good as they were this year. I hope that I can remember not to take it all too seriously. I hope that I can remember not to be fooled by my own mirages.