For me, like for all cynical assholes, some things remain sacrosanct, even on my most cynical, assholic days. Those things are—you guessed it!—presidential election returns, the Olympics, and, most importantly, award shows of all shapes and sizes. Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, can’t get enough. (Look out, ESPYS, I’m coming for you when I retire.) I’m the kind of person who tweets at the New York Magazine culture blog about who got snubbed when nomination lists come out. My friends and I (aged 20, 21, and 22, respectively) made Oreos covered in gold sprinkles for this year’s Golden Globes. The point of all this is to say that I give the Academy Awards—musical performances, sound mixing awards, 1991 victory of Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas and all—the benefit of the doubt.
But you don’t have to be an asshole to be cynical about this year’s lineup. It was definitely not an awesome year for movies—for one thing, after a brief stint of post-The Departed-era sanity, we seem to have returned to an age of 120-minute duration minimums—but the Oscar nominations don’t even accurately reflect what (very real) merit there was in this season’s batch. You always expect at least a couple of what I’d call “Dreamgirls nominees” (not good, but Hollywood spent and made a fortune on them so Hollywood honors them). This year, snubs are not the exception but the rule—the list is blatantly bastardized. But (some of) the best stuff still has a shot, so bring some dessert over to my place this Sunday and we can cross our fingers and rave about Helen Mirren’s skin together.
Below are my thoughts on the best picture nominees. Read it if you want to know who I think should win and why. But even if you don’t, say it with me now: not Lincoln, not Lincoln…
N.B.: As you probably know, the best picture category was semi-recently expanded to include 10 nominees instead of five; however, there are still only five best director nominees, and since best director and best picture tend to go to the same film, the five movies in the best picture category that correspond to the five best directors are generally viewed as the five legitimate contenders. I have marked those five with asterisks.
directed by Michael Haneke
I hate to undermine my credibility from the get-go like this, but I didn’t see Amour. I promise that I will, just as soon as I’m done with these here midterms, but for now you’re on your own on this one. (I did see Haneke’s last movie, The White Ribbon, and that was very good! Sigh.)
directed by Ben Affleck
Maybe I’m just a sucker for ’70s period-piece costumes, but I loved this movie (based on a true story, about the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-1981). Affleck proved himself very worthy as a director, the ensemble cast was cohesive and convincing, and I was on the edge of my seat till the last (yes, even and especially during the tarmac car chase scene). Argo is a gripping, funny, linear movie with a (spoiler alert if you don’t know about history!) happy ending. A friend of mine told me that she didn’t like this movie because she thought it was “safe”—Affleck didn’t step outside the box or experiment with the form at all. That’s a fair criticism, but I’d say that these days, so few people are making safe movies well—so that they’re both respectable and genuinely enjoyable—that I think the movie didn’t need to do much more in order to be a serious accomplishment. Affleck got snubbed for best director, but in a big fat middle finger to the Academy, the Hollywood Foreign Press awarded him and Argo their highest honors at this year’s Golden Globes.
Beasts of the Southern Wild*
directed by Benh Zeitlin
I saw the trailer for this movie, about a young dreamer (Quvenzhané Wallis) living in a hurricane-stricken, isolated Louisiana bayou community, and decided not to see it in theaters because I was worried it was going to be something along the lines of Tree of Life. I was so wrong. Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t pretentious and plot-less—it’s probing and poignant. It’s beautiful-looking, Wallis is a superstar, and though I don’t think this movie has a shot at winning, it does a little to mitigate the presence of Life of Pi in the category.
directed by Quentin Tarantino
Oops, Quentin did it again. A multi-minute scene of an evil dog eating a slave alive. A graphic image of Kerri Washington taking a whip to her back. Leonardo DiCaprio ordering a slave to bash another slave’s head in with a hammer. Super violent (do NOT ask him about whether his movies might encourage real-life violence, I learned watching him on Letterman), super historically inaccurate. But (almost) fun and fast enough to warrant its 2 hours and 37 minutes. It’s no Pulp Fiction (or even Inglourious Basterds), and it’s not fit to win best picture, but it’s very solid, and at this point there’s pretty much no question as to whether Tarantino’s got his formula down.
Silver Linings Playbook*
directed by David O. Russell
Jennifer Lawrence, please! Did you know she was born in 1990? Follow-up: did you know anyone who’s basically our age could be so exquisitely beautiful? In all seriousness, Lawrence is the best part of this movie—a knockout in all ways. Bradley Cooper is super melodramatic, which I found grating, but his performance is still impressive. Russell is nominated for best director, which bothers me because I thought direction was exactly what was lacking in this movie. It’s very long, it’s rambling, and it felt a bit lacking in vision—almost like Russell didn’t focus on the best parts of the film because he wasn’t quite sure what they were. Plus, it frustrates me to think about him sitting in a room in Philadelphia “directing” Robert De Niro (who probably didn’t even have a script) as a die-hard Eagles fan, while not-nominated Kathryn Bigelow was in a helicopter over Pakistan directing a Bin Laden capture scene.
Life of Pi*
directed by Ang Lee
This is the one on the list that really gets me. Ang Lee was nominated for best director, which in theory makes Life of Pi one of the five real contenders for best picture category, which I know is ludicrous just from the number of floating candles in the trailer (that’s right! Didn’t see this one either). Yes, the CGI looks cool, but that’s why there’s a visual effects award. Plus, this has got to be Lee’s eighth best movie, or something, which is one reason why it’s criminal that he’s nominated for directing instead of Kathryn Bigelow, for whom Zero Dark Thirty is a career-defining achievement.
directed by Tom Hooper
Member the thing about me being a cynical asshole? Nothing—nothing—could stir that beast more than Les Mis. My taxi got into a little accident on the way to the movie theater, and I should have seen it as a sign of the train wreck I was soon to behold. I can muster some praise: for example, it’s impressive that so many non-musical people were able to master an entirely (entirely!) musical script. But I think at the end of the day, Hugh Jackman covered in fake poop in a Paris sewer singing from the bottom of his heart either floats your boat or it doesn’t, and I’m one of the doesn’ts. Also, whether you like the music or not, it’s unbearably loud in IMAX.
directed by Steven Spielberg
As a cinematic response to the end of slavery, Lincoln is just about the polar opposite of Django. It’s super epic, super cheesy, super Hollywood. A grand score; a Civil War surrender scene with a majestic white horse, Daniel Day-Lewis looking pensively out a window; Tommy Lee Jones playing a white senator who tearfully hugs his black wife when slavery is outlawed. The material is powerful, as are Day-Lewis’s and Jones’s performances, but if it was going to be corny, I wanted to really cry when the Thirteenth Amendment passed, and I just couldn’t get there. Plus, the character named “Mr. Slave” watching Lincoln walk down the long White House hallway toward the distant light on the horizon was much too much. This movie does not deserve to clean up on Oscar night, but it very well might.
Zero Dark Thirty
directed by Kathryn Bigelow
A friend said to me, on the subject of Paul Thomas Anderson not getting nominated for The Master, “It’s criminal, but expected.” The snubbing of Bigelow is criminal and unexpected. Under the supervision of some directors, Zero Dark Thirty could have been little more than a glorified episode of Homeland with a “Fuck yeah, America!” message. But Bigelow makes it extraordinary, and extraordinarily gripping. From the opening shot of a blank screen with 9/11 911 calls playing in the background, to the torture scenes, to the Navy SEALs on the plane to Osama Bin Laden’s compound, to Jessica Chastain’s muscle movements, her work is masterful. Hell, if the Oscars had a “best female director” category, they might even have included her. Hopefully Zero Dark Thirty will break the trend and bring home the best picture award even though Bigelow can’t get what she deserves.