The Oscars tend to twist us film critics and writers into pretzels of varying paradoxical silliness. There are film writers who truly love the Academy Awards and genuinely embrace them each late winter as a glamorous celebration of the art, craft, and business of (mostly) Hollywood movie magic.
There are just as many film critics who pay not one whit of attention to the Oscars, dismissing them as self-congratulatory PR fluff that turn what little artistic expression is left in the film industry into a horse race. And there are many who make their living reporting on, handicapping, and predicting the winners—for them, this is The Busy (Moneymaking) Season.
(And no, despite the wagging stupidity of mainstream entertainment “news,” there will be no “Nate Silver of the Oscars.” To suggest so for anything other than a cheap headline shows an utter misunderstanding of a) how the Academy Awards voting works, b) what Silver does, and c) numbers.)
But most of the rest of us are stuck somewhere in the lumpy middle. We know full well what the Oscars are, how they work, and why they really shouldn’t matter, and yet… We end up paying attention in part because love, hate, or ignore them, the Oscars are a big part of the mainstream movie year, a gaudy, gold-lamé-draped elephant in the room.
And we writers pay attention because—and here’s where I put my cynicism right out on the table—people, readers, Internet clickers are very interested in the Oscars. In addition to everyone’s general love of movie stars playing dress up, for most folks who don’t go to the movies every week or try to see the majority of new, major releases, the Oscars provide a “catch up list,” a cheat sheet: “here are the ‘good’ films you should have seen in 2012.”
In that sense, the Oscars become like the World Series or Super Bowl for people who like baseball and football but don’t closely follow the regular season. The nominees become the films, film makers, and actors people will be talking about around the metaphorical water cooler, whether or not they actually go and see them.
Which brings us the usual flurry of post-nomination indignant, bitter, angry anti-Oscar rants about how our favorite films didn’t make the cut. Mainstream movie-goers bitch that popular hits like The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, and The Avengers didn’t get nominated for Best Picture, while us snooty critics whine about the Academy once again overlooking what we consider to be the truly “good” films—especially the smaller, more independent-minded fare.
All that said, there are some decent films in the 2013 nominee list, as well as a couple genuinely great ones—five of the nine Best Picture nominees made my own top 25 list*, which isn’t a bad percentage given how out of sync with the mainstream my film tastes have become.
Oh sure, there’s the usual dollop of pandering, Oscar-baiting crap among the nominated films: I find Flight and Denzel Washington’s nominated performance in it to be little more than “okay” on its way to a feel-good, cop-out ending; Silver Linings Playbook is likable-but-hollow rom-com pap dressed up in faux hipster auteurship; and with each passing week after I saw it, I found myself filled with an growing, burning, loathing for Life of Pi.
And there are several “big” films with which I have some issues, including Lincoln (because, for lack of a better excuse, it’s just so Spielberg-y) and most thrillingly, Zero Dark Thirty for the intellectual and moral questions it raises. (The fact that I have thematic issues with it makes it all the more interesting to me.)
And I remain baffled by Django Unchained, or rather, as a huge late-period Tarantino fan, by my completely lackluster response to it—I need to see both Zero Dark Thirty and Django again soon to sort out my moral take on the former and figure out if there are genuine reasons other than knee-jerk, superficial pop flash behind everyone’s love of the latter.
As for the rest, I loved Les Miserables–I’m not sure it’s that great of a film top to bottom, but as a longtime fan of the stage musical, the screen version sure as hell pushed all my buttons; I think Argo is terrifically crafted; and most of all, Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild are evocative, impressive works of art—they truly are two of the best films of the year.
Would I liked to have seen The Master nominated for Best Picture? Absolutely. Should Kathryn Bigelow and Paul Thomas Anderson have gotten Best Director nods instead of Ang Lee and David O. Russell? Of course. But is my heart gladdened by the inclusion of the delightful Pirates! A Band of Misfits in the Animated Feature category? Indeed! (Is it a little disheartening that Disney’s rote Brave and Wreck-it-Ralph also predictably got in? Yep.)
But running down that list of my “likes” in the Oscar nominations gets at what is, for me anymore, one of the only reasons the Academy Awards still matter: A lot more people will go see Amour or rent Beasts of the Southern Wild and Pirates! now simply because they got nods. Many in the mainstream, film-going public are not going to find Beasts and Amour (oh, especially Amour) easily accessible films—they are, in very different ways, challenging and non-conventional.
That, however, is the main redeeming quality of the Oscars these days: that for all their predictable promotion of mainstream, crowd-pleasing fare, they usually do find room for some daring films, and in doing so the Awards shine a slightly brighter spotlight on those works, at least for a few months, until they inevitably lose out and disappear back into the lower regions of peoples’ Netflix queues.
(The same goes for Zero Dark Thirty to an extent, though I think the film’s SEAL-thumping “Kill Bin Laden!” rah-rah marketing and “does it make the case for torture?” controversy provides enough of a hook that people would have checked it out anyway.)
It’s along those lines that my only real disappointments in the nominations are the exclusion of Ann Dowd’s amazing work in Compliance from Best Supporting Actress (where she could easily have replaced either Helen Hunt or Jacki Weaver), and the over-looking of Stephen Chbosky’s wonderful adapted screenplay for The Perks of Being a Wallflower (from his own novel). (Goddamn you again, Life of Pi.)
I wasn’t shocked that the brilliant The Master didn’t make the Best Picture list—it’s an intentionally difficult and alienating film. (Though Joaquin Phoenix’s Best Actor nom is a pleasant surprise.) But while we knew by November The Master didn’t have much of a chance, Dowd and Perks were in the running right up until this week. I’m sad they didn’t get in—not just because I feel those films and their performances deserve recognition, but because for a few brief fleeting weeks those two tremendous works would have been that much more on film lovers’ tongues, and that much closer to their DVD players.
* So where the hell is my Top 25 list of 2012 films? I’ll have it up in a couple days! Also on the way in coming weeks are full reviews of most of the Best Picture nominees.