Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Best Picture

And here we are. With such a suspenseful and unpredictable Oscar telecast looming, it's perhaps disappointing that the big prize is already predetermined. But such is life.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Les Misérables
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty


But seriously, can we just leave it at that and move on? If you're unfamiliar with the narrative surrounding the extraordinary surge in momentum for Ben Affleck's hostage-crisis thriller over the past month, there's no point recounting it here. Attribute it to what you like – compensation for Affleck's Best Director snub, the fluky mechanics of the preferential voting system, Hollywood's love affair with movies about movies – but Argo has had this award sewn up for weeks.

Duty perhaps requires me to make a halfhearted case for a challenger, and I can locate three. Life of Pi is the technical juggernaut, and as voters find themselves ticking off boxes for Ang Lee's adventure film in the cinematography, visual effects, and sound editing areas, perhaps they'll be swayed to consider its overall merits for Best Picture. Silver Linings Playbook is the purest crowd-pleaser of the bunch, and if it somehow picks up steam in the various acting categories – wins in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor fields are entirely plausible – it could leverage that momentum into a run for the top prize. And Lincoln, initially viewed as the frontrunner in this race after receiving 12 total nominations, remains an impeccably crafted film about a hugely important time in American history, meaning socially conscious voters might be inclined to look in its direction.

But there's still that damn preferential ballot to consider. Sure, the aforementioned three films may pick up a smattering of first-place votes each, but how many of those ballots will have Argo ranked #2? It's such an enjoyable, populist movie that even those who don't love it seem to at least really like it. Affleck, of course, is ineligible for that Best Director trophy, so he'll have to settle for his third feature staking its claim on history. Argo is your 2012 Best Picture winner.

Let's see, we have nine nominees to dissect, and the telecast is a mere handful of hours away. Time to break these into tiers.

Tier 5: You're cute, but you don't belong here. I tried my best to like Beasts of the Southern Wild. It's well-intentioned, it has heartfelt regard for its characters, and it features terrific acting from Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. But its floating structure, in which the camera casually drops in on various residents of a Louisiana community called The Bathtub, is so haphazard that it's ultimately boring. It isn't until the film's second half – when an actual plot emerges – that Beasts of the Southern Wild snaps into focus, but by that point, the movie has already squandered most of the goodwill bought from Wallis' and Henry's natural, lived-in performances. The movie shows enough bursts of filmmaking talent to inspire intrigue as to what could have been, but in its final form, it's a borderline success at best.

Tier 4: Some editing required. The lasting memory of Life of Pi is an exhilarating, sublimely beautiful central passage that is bookended by extraneous fluff. Ang Lee does what he can, but the scenes that take place before and after that remarkable shipwreck and subsequent lifeboat journey feel comparatively lifeless. Les Misérables starts out strong, and once you get past its whipsaw editing and Tom Hooper's hectic camera movements, it's impossible not to get swept up in that magnificent music. But as the movie plunges on, it becomes a wearying experience, and once it transitions from intimate, character-based struggle to half-baked revolutionary politics, what's initially a captivating experience turns into a movie to be regarded from a distance. Your eye might admire the meticulous production design, and your ear may discern the varying quality of the (mostly good) singing, but you're never fully absorbed into its chaotic, screeching vortex. Those bland freedom-fighters may spout off about desire and despair, but Les Misérables ultimately induces exhaustion rather than passion.

Tier 3: Amour. Michael Haneke's unforgiving look at love and death gets its own tier, because it's unlike any other nominee, and any other Haneke film for that matter. It's bruising, unflinching, and generally agonizing. It's also flawlessly executed, marvelously acted, and deeply moving. How can an undeniably good movie be so difficult to watch?

Tier 2: You were glorious, and then you fucked up the endgame. For its first two-thirds, Django Unchained is an electric revisionist fantasy, as well as a delightful showcase in which a number of supremely talented actors are blessed with the opportunity to speak in the music of Quentin Tarantino's inimitable dialogue. Then two main characters die, the gunfights begin in force, the hip-hop starts blasting, and everything basically goes to hell. It's still highly watchable, but it nevertheless represents a severe downgrade from the brooding suspense and tense comedy that precede it. Argo's tumble into last-act melodrama is less drastic, partly because it's so skillfully edited, but it nevertheless feels like a betrayal of the nuance and wit that saturate its first 90 minutes. Still, it's a thoroughly enjoyable film from front to back, by turns scary, funny, and thrilling. It may not be the best movie of the year, but that doesn't mean it isn't a worthy Best Picture.

Tier 1: Varying degrees of excellence. In its own way, Silver Linings Playbook is as manipulative as Argo, but it's so genuinely romantic that I'll happily embrace its sentiment. Crowd-pleasers can easily come off as mawkish, but there's such messy vivacity in Bradley Cooper's and Jennifer Lawrence's lead performances – and such texture in David O. Russell's assured screenwriting – that every on-the-nose moment in Silver Linings Playbook rings completely true. Lincoln rings true as well, but it replaces broad comedy and manic drama with sly wit and quiet introspection. Steven Spielberg's latest opus takes its time, but as its stakes sharpen into focus, and as Daniel Day-Lewis' heroic performance builds in stature, it becomes a breathtaking reimagination of a crucially important slice of history. Yet as noble and grand as Lincoln may be, it's founded on immaculate, delicate craft, from the nimble word-smithing of Tony Kushner's script to the smoky atmosphere of Janusz Kaminski's cinematography to the sneaky scene-stealing of James Spader and David Strathairn. It's a movie about people coming together, so it's only fitting that its success derives from the efforts of a unified, wholly committed ensemble.

My ultimate choice for 2012's Best Picture, however, is Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's riveting account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The movie has been clouded by controversy, and that's a real shame, because regardless of your viewpoint on the film's historical merits, the enflamed conversation surrounding Zero Dark Thirty's politics has obscured the mastery that is the movie itself. A gripping, searing model of a director applying her craft with absolute authority, Bigelow's film is less about torture or authenticity than it is about dedicated men and women working tirelessly to accomplish their goals. And ironically, the controversy is a boon to future generations, because Zero Dark Thirty will be debated for ages, and that means that viewers will be compelled to investigate it. When they do, they'll find not just a critical document of a landmark historical event, but a bracing exemplar of pure filmmaking. And if the winner of the Best Picture Oscar is destined to be remembered, then by that metric, there is no other choice.

As usual, you'll have to wait until the Manifesto unveils its annual top 10 list. If nothing else, I promise that it'll go up sooner than last year.

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