Sunday, February 24, 2013

2013 Oscar Extravaganza - Seth MacFarlane Presents Three Hours of My Most Flamboyant Nightmares

A big question for the cinema this year, presumably ignited here by Andrew O'Hehir, was whether or not it was dead. I say it is not. At this point in our lives, it is likely that our discussion of contemporary film has slowed, yes. This is all part of the simplification of the form: movies are, as capitalism demands, increasingly industrialized and thus visibly homogenized, but that didn't stop studios from releasing some surprisingly satisfying fare. It's just that most of it is juvenile and we aren't juvenile anymore. Between a spate of typically strong indie efforts, as well as numerous underrepresented and mostly unseen genre flicks, this was actually a decent year. Certainly nothing that merits the apocalyptic cries of Internet culture journalists.

Something that does not help this argument is the Oscars. In the last decade they have fallen somewhat out of vogue, their ratings considerable but still falling from previous peaks. They are routinely mocked by just about everyone watching, be they notable pundits and Twitter laymen. Once the most visible accumulation of notable events in the preceding year's film output, the glitziness of the Oscars has never felt less like a way to celebrate movies, but rather the increasingly burgeoning mantle of celebrity culture. Oscar has never been about the films, of course, nor the performances therein. The problem is that even in a year where the categories are relatively strong, the illusion doesn't hold up anymore - the ceremony is often too frothy and hokey and out-of-touch to accurately represent the championing of some Very Serious Drama. At a point in our lives where most of us are probably too grown up to derive much enjoyment from the Academy's three hour barrage of in-jokes and lame skits, it is increasingly up to us to develop our own film culture, which some simply don't have the time to do without the Oscars' guiding hand. No shame in that. I will probably always watch these goddamn things, because I love the formulas and analysis that go into championing a Best Screenplay, Actress, Picture. I just don't place much faith in them, regardless of the quality of their selections.


( ) Amour
(x) Argo
(x) Beasts of the Southern Wild
(x) Django Unchained
(x) Life of Pi
(x) Lincoln
( ) Les Miserables
(x) Silver Linings Playbook
(x) Zero Dark Thirty

What's What?: Not a whole lot of surprises here, short of Amour. Good to see that Beasts rode that wave of early-release goodwill. Argo is surely the final step in Ben Affleck's ascension to Hollywood omnipresence and a clear favorite; it's easily accessible (much more so than cerebral but occasionally bulky Zero Dark Thirty), politically relevant, and partially about the film making process. Silver Linings Playbook has been the beneficiary of a savvy, extremely slow rollout c/o the Weinsteins, playing on the synergy between word of mouth and eventual expansion. Django is simply proof that Tarantino is too big for Oscar to ignore anymore, even at the lower point of his powers. Life of Pi is mostly a technical cause celebre, but never ignore the allure of a simple feel-good message. I'm done talking about Lincoln, but never started with Les Miserables, which is loved publicly but has also left a lot of people feeling exhausted and shouted at. I wanted to catch it, but I felt like I spent my entire year watching movies that were 150+ minutes, and my interest was not great enough for what I hear is an exceptionally loud two-point-fiver. Sorry, Anne.
What's Missing?: I feel that most of 2012's best fare is non-Oscar material: genre films, technological treatises too avant-garde for AMPAS, honest romances. They've managed to honor some pretty solid picks this year, a much more consistent bunch than last year's collection at least. Nearly all of them are predictably large, with Amour and Beasts representing the only efforts under twenty million dollars, but what else would you expect from a film industry ceremony designed to lavishly celebrate how great the film industry is? That said, I can think of few other films I saw this year that are reasonable Best Picture fodder. It might have been nice to see some recognition for Killing Me Softly, which is only as unsubtle as some of its potential competitors and about twice as audacious. So - congratulations to this year's voters for striking a handsome balance between "quality" and "not weird" for this year's nominees.
What's Winning?: As before, probably Argo. Ben Affleck has been picking up awards effortlessly. One must never doubt Spielberg throwing his heft around, however. Lincoln is the most nominated film of the year and its backers, though waning in enthusiasm, are numerous. Silver Linings Playbook is circling these two, however, given its current reign as the crowd pleaser of the field. Zero Dark Thirty was looking pretty good up until that "does this support torture?" debate. Everything else is way back in the dust, even though the Weinsteins are campaigning the shit out of Django Unchained. Tarantino is just too polarizing for the Academy - they need them mostly safe, and though Django is his least incendiary picture, it's still way too much for that gaggle of doddering old farts.
What Should Win?: My enduring passion for Haneke tells me that Amour would probably be my choice, even though I haven't seen it. Beasts of the Southern Wild is my favorite of this crop, probably, a film that continually increases in my estimation when others (ZDT, Playbook) have shown a bit of wear and tear.

(x) Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
(x) Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
(x) Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
( ) Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
(x) Denzel Washington, Flight

What's What?: These five were locked up pretty early on, with only Denzel Washington's spot threatened by John Hawkes' excellent performance in The Sessions. Without commenting on Jackman's committed transformation for Les Miserables, this is a strong selection of competitors. Most of them are unfortunately betrayed by the shortfalls of their vehicles, but their own strengths remain evident. Bradley Cooper embodies the character, appearing at all times as if there's a nervous itching under his skin; you can feel the manic energy mounting, Cooper (and his character) entirely aware of how unstable it makes him. Joaquin Phoenix throws up an actorly bag of tricks on the screen, gnarled angles and cryptic haunted glances galore. He's a bit ridiculous, but totally indelible. In contrast, Washington epitomizes the natural, tapping into the simultaneous swagger and devouring self-hatred that a life led under the influence brings about; like Daniel Day-Lewis, he never appears if he is acting. And DDL...well, come on. The man is not immune to missteps (Nine) but his successes are so towering and complete that they are immediately forgiven. What human is perfect, anyway?
Who's Missing?: I wasn't expecting many strays to bust up this group, a carefully selected blend of eager golden boys and venerable favorites. Hawkes is a sad omission, but where is there room for him? Two of my favorite performances this year were Logan Lerman's beleaguered, bright Charlie in Perks of Being a Wallflower and the pained adolescent narcissism Dane DeHaan anchors Chronicle with, but men that young are rarely recognized in this category. Around 40 is when actors really hit their stride, taking plum parts in important dramas that will surely earn them Oscar attention. (Bradley, Joaquin, Hugh.)
Who's Winning?: DDL. Give him a manly hat from days gone by and he'll pull a statue out of it, no questions asked. He makes it all look so easy.
Who Should Win?: As a feat of decontextualized acting prowess, DDL. In terms of acting as a functional asset to the film in which the performance is contained, Bradley Cooper. Day-Lewis, Washington, and Phoenix all brought their A-game to films that couldn't fully support or showcase them. Day-Lewis is stuck in permanent monologue, Washington is scuttled by odd bouts of script cheesiness, and Phoenix could have played the character any way he wanted for The Master's depth of thematic investment in him.

(x) Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
(x) Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
( ) Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
(x) Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
( ) Naomi Watts, The Impossible 

What's What?: This category is basically The Jennifer Lawrence Show, with Jessica Chastain angrily glaring at her from the third row. To be honest, I don't think either of them are being rewarded for their best work. Lawrence is an impressive figure, but she could use a little more experience, especially in timing and voice. The magnetism of her performance in Silver Linings Playbook is occasionally compromised by some bum notes. Chastain's problem is that Homeland and Claire Danes are doing this character so, so much better, more clearly delineating the manias that keep its central figure in constant pursuit. Her affect is too airy, not fierce enough, and her grasp on the character occasionally feels tenuous and uninformed by the narrative chronology. Quvenzhane Wallis is expressive and a perfect fit for Beasts' delicate tone, and her contributions to the film are much more deliberate and valuable than this dumb article might suggest, in case you are unaware of the importance of play-acting for children in her age group. She is obviously not aware of all of the film's subtext, but grown actors aren't always either. Didn't catch The Impossible, primarily on the basis that centering a story about the Indonesian tsunami around a well-off white family seems both limiting in scope and insulting to the 170,000 people who died there. I'm not a huge Naomi Watts fan, anyway.
Who's Missing?: Meryl Streep! Just kidding. Hope Springs was cute and all, but it would have been a joke to nominate her for it. And The Streep is no joke! I didn't see a lot of memorable female roles this year, sadly. A few that I might have missed out on include Rust and BoneAnna Karenina, Middle of Nowhere, and Celeste and Jesse Forever. Can I write in Anna Paquin for Margaret?
Who's Winning?: Jennifer Lawrence has brought unstoppable charm to all of her public appearances and her star has risen even faster than Chastain's; The Hunger Games and a well-loved, financially successful romcom in one year is the best a 22-year-old actress could hope for. Unfortunate for Chastain, because at 35, she's getting ready to leave the age range where women are typically rewarded a Best Actress trophy. And she deserves one, if not for this performance. Riva is kind of a dark horse here - she won a BAFTA, the movie has a surprising amount of heat (five nominations for a foreign film is extremely rare), and most people feel that her performance is head and shoulders above the rest. She may be a spoiler.
Who Should Win?: Oh, gosh. Emmanuelle Riva? Why didn't I watch Amour?! Because Berkeley didn't get it? Must be. Among the three performances I saw in this category, Wallis' is my favorite, but I do agree that there's an aspect of frivolity to awarding a nine-year-old an award that could significantly boost the career prospects of an older performer. Then again, what is this ceremony honoring but frivolity?

(x) Amy Adams, The Master
(x) Sally Field, Lincoln
( ) Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
(x) Helen Hunt, The Sessions
(x) Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

What's What?: Jacki Weaver??? She cries once in the first five minutes of the movie, spits out about a dozen dull lines, and then looms in the background for the rest of the movie. Her abilities, so readily demonstrated in Animal Kingdom, are done no favors by this shallow role, and the nomination is a greater indication of AMPAS's love of Silver Linings Playbook than any acting aplomb on her part. Amy Adams, like everyone in The Master, has crafted a well-observed and channeled character that surely crackles with subterranean depth, if the film would only let us get to it! (I sort of wish she and Laura Dern had traded roles, but that's neither here nor there.) Helen Hunt is great, evincing just enough emotion without betraying the importance of her businesswoman persona. Sally Field kind of overdoes it. But all of this is irrelevant because Anne Hathaway's going to win!
Who's Missing?: The movie is an unqualified disaster, but The Paperboy gave us some of Nicole Kidman's most vibrant work in a long time. She's a burst of color and heat, always in sync with the tone of the movie, even when the tone is muddled by its own incoherence. Jessica Chastain, like last year, was nominated for her lesser effort; she's a perfect aesthetic fit for Lawless, both her performance and the film gritty with just a touch of imaginative mystery. Not really feeling the love for Ann Dowd, who I'm sure is capable but is given absolutely nothing to work with by Compliance.
Who's Winning?: Hathaway, in probably the biggest lock of the night. The hype that has coalesced around "I Dreamed a Dream" is so great that I don't even want to see the movie anymore. There is the phantom of a chance that her occasionally obnoxious self-effacing public persona might detract from her chances, but it didn't stop Mo'Nique, who didn't even campaign and still won. I like Hathaway - she's proven herself to be talented, eloquent, and at least reasonably human. But calling your ticket to Oscar gold "eh" in public? Come on.
Who Should Win?: Helen Hunt's performance is my favorite in this field. It's a shame that she's been MIA for so long - I imagine that part of it is the backlash after what some perceived to be an undeserved win for As Good as it Gets. She is by far the most consistent part of an underdeveloped, occasionally wobbly film. 

(x) Alan Arkin, Argo
(x) Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
(x) Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
(x) Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
(x) Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

What's What?: Fun trivia - this is the only time in Oscar history that an acting category is filled by previous winners, some recent and some from many moons ago. There was an obvious rush to honor some Hollywood greats this year, and that meant handing out a couple of slots that far more accomplished work deserved. Not to desecrate the holy names of Alan Arkin or Robert De Niro, but both roles are more or less there because they have to be. There's nothing exceptionally intriguing, challenging or exciting about either the characters or the performances; they're good, but that sort of undistinguished "good" that most people forget about within the next year. Christoph would have been nice to see him nominated again, but for something other than Landa 2.0. The characters are different, to be sure, but the mannerisms and skillset the movie requires of Waltz are exactly the same. Plus, he gets way too much screen time for a "supporting" part. Philip Seymour Hoffman is reliable, but we've seen him do insidious piggy charm in his sleep. And Tommy Lee Jones - what a grump, amirite? He sure doesn't like to smile! I dunno, I'm just avoiding having to talk about Lincoln more.
Who's Missing?: I was all about Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained. He puts forth an extremely intelligent, complex depiction of Stockholm Syndrome, a performance of a performance that slave/sycophant Stephen has danced through for so long that it's curdled everything about him. Matthew McConaughey had a banner year, turning in best in show performances in Killer Joe and Magic Mike and acquitting himself handsomely in Bernie and The Paperboy. A spot of recognition for a long-belittled actor flexing his abilities in unexpected ways isn't so much to ask, I think, especially because everyone in this category has already gotten some AMPAS love. In a fantasy world where things I irrationally love are rewarded by the public at large, Scoot McNairy might have gotten attention for Killing Them Softly. Michael Fassbender almost salvaged his senseless character in Prometheus through force of chilling android presence alone. This category is an embarrassment of riches this year and I wish we'd seen some new faces.
Who's Winning?: Tommy Lee Jones is where I've got my money, but the final result is less of a sure bet than the other acting categories. Everyone else but Arkin, whose part is straight-up TOO slight to be rewarded further, is a potential threat. Waltz may have won recently, but sometimes Oscar is down for double dipping, especially when the roles are so similar. PSH and deNiro can never be discounted.
Who Should Win?: I guess I'd give it to Hoffman. I'm having a hard time getting excited about this field, especially because there are so many good supporting performances this year that didn't get the attention they deserve. But again: good work is its own reward.

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