Thursday, February 21, 2013

Best Picture 2013: The Contenders

We all know how this is going to end. It’s been etched in stone for weeks. I’ve placed three films in this final category, but there is only one real contender here. Maybe you can make the case that one of the other two films could play spoiler on Sunday, but after a long, strange Oscar season, Best Picture is now Argo’s to lose. In fact, any other result would be a massive shock, since Argo has won just about every precursor race up to this point. And thanks to the increasingly drawn-out and political nature of the race, there will be little suspense during the telecast. That speaks as much to the predictable nature of the Academy as it does to its decreasing relevance in its own arena. These days, the significance of the Oscars encompasses little beyond a victory lap for the film that sweeps the guild cycle.
Perhaps someday Oscar voters will have been so inundated with the unanimity of the awards circuit and may opt for another film, if only to assert their relevance. But this is not that year. Once again, the Academy will give the Best Picture award to a skillfully made film lacking any distinctive factors and largely bereft of creative voice. After all, that’s the kind of film that’s built to survive the rigorous campaign required to reach Best Picture gold.
Most of us acknowledge the fundamental absurdity of the Oscars’ format for determining artistic merit and can therefore accept the inherent flaws of the process. But the largely sterile nature of recent Best Picture winners is making the Oscars harder to enjoy. Everything is subjective, but I would argue that until recently (as in the last 20 years, give or take), there was an honest attempt to reach a consensus on the most culturally relevant and aesthetically rich films, even if many don’t agree on what deserves to win. I may be fooling myself, but I nevertheless feel that the new Best Picture prototype is symptomatic of the ugly campaign process that the Oscars have become. At a time when the medium of cinema is clawing to stay afloat amid great competition with various other media, the Oscars represent a good gauge for how the industry itself fails to grasp what makes movies so distinguishable from other media and art forms. Alas, instead of highlighting films coursing with rhythm, ideas, and possibilities, it’s the shiny surfaces that win the day.
Lucky for the rest of us that the kinds of films that the Academy fails to recognize are still out there for us to see; which, when you think about it renders the Oscars nearly obsolete. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with hoping that the one institution charged with educating the masses about this wonderful world of movies that so many of us love will someday live up to that promise.

Life of Pi (***)
Though not as thematically dense as perhaps its source novel, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a visually fluid and deeply affecting chronicle of survival. Structurally, it’s a bit sluggish, particularly in the exposition-heavy scenes at the start, but once Lee sets everything in motion, the film opens up an incredibly rich canvas upon which its intimate tale takes shape. Life of Pi might have benefited from a less directness regarding its message about faith—which, quite frankly, can be at odds with the story itself—but the elongated mid-section set on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean is nonetheless a triumph of large-scale filmmaking and enough to forgive most of the flaws. Academy voters tend to respond to earnest and well-made epics such as this, but Life of Pi’s victories on Oscar night may be limited to technical categories, where it’s sure to perform well. But it’s worth noting that even though the film’s chances of winning Best Picture are slim, Ang Lee stands much better odds to take Best Director. (In fact, I predicted it.)
            The Bottom Line:  Expect Life of Pi to pick up many of technical awards (cinematography, visual effects, score, sound editing), and possibly even Best Director, but an upset in the Best Picture category is extremely improbable.

Lincoln (****)
Eschewing every dreaded convention of the standard film biopic, Lincoln is really a film about process. It takes you into the trenches of negotiation that many films of its kind ignore. The subject—the passage of the 13th Amendment—happens to be one of the most pivotal stretches in US history, but Steven Spielberg’s film is only concerned with these events insofar as how they have been painstakingly waged on a number of fronts at the level of government. At the center is Daniel Day-Lewis, whose performance, as I noted in my Best Actor prediction piece for Slant, “resounds through quieter timbres and softer movements than we're accustomed to from the actor.” Day-Lewis’s portrayal of one of the most revered figures in American history is both towering and nuanced. He renders the 16th President as a funny, manipulative, and deeply flawed man who nonetheless was a brilliant tactician and in the end a benevolent soul. Spielberg’s direction is much like Day-Lewis’s performance in that it is both toned down in some respects but no less thoroughly commanding. Lincoln is a challenging but exhilarating film, and while it would be my personal pick for Best Picture, its chances of winning the gold are very slim.
            The Bottom Line:  Although Lincoln is probably the only film capable of taking down Argo, it has proven too slippery and cerebral for the Academy. However, several years from now, I predict, voters may regret their choice.

Argo (**)
It's become a trend for presumed Best Picture winners to suffer serious critical backlash long before even being awarded the prize. In full disclosure, I saw Argo long after it had assumed the frontrunner position. Thus, I’m not ruling out that this condition may have colored my view of the film, because I found it shallow and ideologically misguided. (For more on the film’s “Otherness” issues, read Kevin B. Lee’s great essay.) But even if we put aside its overt racial pandering, Argo is still overcooked and underwhelming. It’s skillfully made, but to what end? Director Ben Affleck wrings so much false tension—the kind of movie fakery that the film lampoons but ultimately celebrates—that it may distract you from noticing that there is very little weight to the swift proceedings. The film offers at least one brilliant scene that intercuts a Hollywood press conference with news footage. It’s a wonderful moment on its own account, but it also articulates Argo’s greater failure to interconnect a bevy of themes that it only suggests topically. This hasn’t stopped every awards group from bestowing its highest honors on the film, making the Oscars merely a formality at this point. Strangely enough, too, Affleck’s absence in the Best Director category has helped Argo cement itself as the likely winner for Best Picture.
The Bottom Line:  Backlash or no backlash, Argo will win Best Picture on Sunday. It is as close of a lock as we’ve seen in years. And leave it to the Academy to reward the movie that celebrates the both the artifice and universal love we feel for movies.

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