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
Life of Pi
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.
MY IDEAL BALLOT
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