This Sunday will see the world of cinema lovers (with the exception of only the most jaded and humourless) turn its gaze to the glitz cabal that is Hollywood, Ca. to see the dishing out of the little golden (now plated) statues. It is supposed to mark what the American Academy of Motion Pictures has deemed the greatest achievements on the Silver Screen in the last twelve months. But it is, of course, so much more. It will be long, silly, glamorous, bloated, and, on the whole, artistically irrelevant. But it will be there, and it will be dominant, and it will be, essentially, all about the movies. What matters is that for all of the cynicism and schmaltz, the designer gowns and the toupees, the Academy will be awarding many extremely talented artists. They may not be the right ones, but self-regarding, socially conservative Hollywood will do what they do best and be loud and colourful about it. There is no need to take it seriously in order to enjoy it. In fact, I’d worry if you did take it seriously. But it has the power to make a career or two, it could fully resurrect another, and it will, undoubtedly, get many things obviously wrong. This is because the Academy is not a deified beast; it is a conglomeration of a few thousand industry bods, and they are just as susceptible to whim, sentimentality and the lure of a good headline as the rest of us. So don’t be surprised if Emmanuelle Riva wins Best Actress solely on the basis that she turns 86 on the day of the ceremony. Hollywood, more than Hans Christian Andersen’s publisher, loves a good fairy story. The Oscars are rarely utterly predictable (last year being one of the times when it was, and the Artist was favourite for a long while to clean up the major trophies). And even where they are utterly predictable, there have been enough surprises in the past to keep you guessing until the name is read out (Marisa Tomei beating Vanessa Redgrave and Joan Plowright in 1992 springs to mind). This year, despite there being some sure-fire winners (rumour has it that Daniel Day Lewis’ Oscar has actually already been cast in the form of a small golden Abraham Lincoln) the Oscars is as open as it has been in many years. It is an exceptionally strong year for acting, both in the male and female categories; Best Director is wide open, and only recently has a favourite emerged for Best Movie, (and that film is so unremarkable it will still be difficult to believe it will win several hours after it has won). So let’s have a look at some of the most interesting Oscar contenders.
And this is the favourite: an enjoyable but somewhat run-of-the-mill thriller, bolstered by two boisterous supporting performances from John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Ben Affleck, who directs, gives a measured performance in the centre of it all, leaning heavily on the clichés of both the strong silent type and the chaotic, failing personal life. It is largely forgettable; it swims by swiftly and shortly afterwards the wake has gone with it. And it is now favourite for Best Movie after inexplicably clearing up the big prizes at all the major awards of the season. Its success is so inexplicable I had to go back to watch it again, fearing I may have had a blackout during the first screening. But I hadn’t, and it remains a mystery. Argo is all about the preposterous (although apparently true) nature of the set-up – a CIA operative (Affleck) enrols the help of Hollywood to rescue some left behind countrymen in the 1977 Iranian coup by setting up a location-scouting trip for a fake film (the Argo of the title). The problem is that once that preposterousness begins to gain traction – once you realise characters have faith in it and that the plot will be carried out – it settles into the well-worn garb of just another mid-level thriller. It is not rubbish. It does its thing well. It gets in, doesn’t waste time with long scenes, or deep characters, or strange twists, and it gets out again; rather like Affleck’s character. It is a country mile ahead of that other seventies-set spy thriller, Spielberg’s Munich (2005), which the feel of this film will remind some of with its old-school tension-building devices and big moustaches. But as far as CIA movies go it is a long way from carrying the weight of Doug Liman’s Fair Game (2010), a serious look at the CIA that demanded more from its script, its actors, and its audience than Affleck’s regular, light-weight, award-laden movie.
Much conversation has been had about the fact that Argo is now favourite for Best Movie, and yet Affleck is not nominated for Best Director. The Academy has not given Best Movie to a film where the director was not nominated since Driving Miss Daisy in 1990. And it was even rarer before that. So there is a doubt in commentators that Argo will carry on this most unlikely conquering campaign. But here’s the thing: Argo is just as unworthy a winner as Driving Miss Daisy was, so it wouldn’t be off-script for it to win at all. And if there are two institutions conservative Hollywood love watching films about, it’s the CIA and Hollywood.
The sad thing is, that if Argo wins, it will actually be the least worthy winner of any of the nine films nominated for Best Picture. The best film of the nine that was not made by Michael Haneke takes the subject of international relations with a marked degree of seriousness.
The Hunt for Oscar
Zero Dark Thirty is the best film (not made by Michael Haneke) on the list, and is a more rounded and engaging movie than director Kathryn Bigelow’s last film, (Oscar champion The Hurt Locker), which was a more fragmented and detached experience (although still powerful). Using the same grainy, handheld techniques, Bigelow tells the extremely complex story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, seen through the complexly drawn arc of Maya (played superbly and subtly by Jessica Chastain). The film has courted controversy since its release – firstly by right wing commentators in the US who, forgetting the oldest maxim of publicity, tried to sink the film and Obama by spreading lies about the film’s access to classified materials. These lies have been debunked, but what is difficult to ignore are those who claim the film is an apologia for torture techniques in the war on terror. Bigelow has quite rightly pointed out that depicting something is not necessarily supporting it. But Bigelow’s decision to make a more conventional narrative by attaching the audience to a sympathetic character is the thing that makes it very difficult not to sympathise with these criticisms – the detached approach of The Hurt Locker would have cut the argument off at the knees. The dubiousness of its stance on torture aside, it is an impressive piece of film-making, a first rate thriller and scores highly in all the areas where Argo crawls over the line. Zero Dark Thirty is Orson Wells to Argo’s Danny Kaye. It tells a complex story that stretches a decade at a rattling pace and never seems gung-ho, aggressive or, well, particularly American.
The Return of DeNiro?
There is a reason why Robert DeNiro’s greatness is a thing of legend: because it was so substantial and because it was so long ago. He has had shots at regaining his considerable screen presence in the last few decades – he is charismatic in Heat, excellent in A Bronx Tale, and hardly the unfunniest thing in Meet the Fockers. But he made his career creating characters with varying degrees of mental illness, varying intensities of delusion. The stories of these great characters have often been about how they deal with the other damaged people in their vicinity. From Travis Bickell to Rupert Pupkin to Mike Vronsky, DeNiro has given us damaged people, and in the process iconic characters. In David O. Russell’s excellent Silver Linings Playbook he is not only the best thing, but he is the best he’s been in decades. And the reason is he is playing a character damaged by the world around him, and he is trying to find his way – just like Travis, just like Pupkin, just like Vronsky. Indeed, his character here could be any of those great roles, aged and suburban, settled with a dysfunctional family after decades of therapy, turning his obsessiveness onto the Philadelphia Eagles. The stars are the excellent Jennifer Lawrence and the (ever-so-slightly) miscast Bradley Cooper. Both are very good – and Cooper could have fooled a lot of people into thinking he was a heavyweight had he not had the bad luck of having to act opposite DeNiro. DeNiro gets into the marrow of this broken, desperate man; a failure, knowledge that he is most likely a joke to everyone he loves just a skins-depth away. It is his film, and nobody in the Best Supporting Actor category comes close to him.
Director Russell, in a category strangely missing Paul Thomas Anderson and Kathryn Bigelow, could snatch the big one, and Jennifer Lawrence will be close to the Actress nod.
For the Love of Haneke
But Jennifer Lawrence won’t win it, because Emmanuelle Riva will. It is rare for the Academy to nominate a foreign film for Best Picture as well as Best Foreign Film, as they have done this year with Michael Haneke’s Amour, and it is testament to both the film and Haneke’s oeuvre that they have done so. The film is far and away the best of all those nominated; Riva’s performance is scented with such gracious complexity that it moves beyond the realms of cinema, to the shading of Rembrandt’s ageing figures who carry their lives and disappointments with them in the paint that makes their skin. Lawrence’s plucky troubled showcasing is good, but we’re talking about the difference between acting and art. And it is all in the hands of the world’s finest living director. Haneke is now, after Hidden and The White Ribbon and now Amour, the successor to Ingmar Bergman, who is the greatest documenter of the human experience cinema has ever known. Amour, the third of his masterpieces, will not win Best Picture, as it will win Best Foreign Film, and the Academy will deem this enough of an accolade, and this is why so many people don’t take the Oscars seriously: because the Academy doesn’t take it all that seriously. It just thinks it does. At the other end of the scale of seriousness, of course, is the garish, oafish, bloated work of a certain Mr Tarantino.
After that dazzling early success Tarantino seemed to squander his talent by listening to the puerile voice in his head rather than the one that might have encouraged him to grow up and do something important. The flashes of verve and the moments of sublime craft that were on display in the messy Inglorious Basterds (which is less a film and more a montage of exquisite and overlong scenes) has here been provided with a proper story line. It’s cinema at its most blustery, but still it’s difficult to see this as Tarantino fulfilling his potential. It is brash, idea-full (overfull, in fact), it sags ominously in the second third, and Tarantino still believes the press that hails him as a writer of great cinematic speeches – that may have been the case in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but Christophe Waltz could do with fewer lines here for fear of repeating his turn in his previous Oscar-winning Tarantino collaboration. The use of the pejorative term for African Americans never numbs in the way Lenny Bruce might have hoped, and it becomes so frequent in more than one scene it is almost discomfortingly comical. But it is a film that takes more seriously the historical context of the hero’s quest than Tarantino took Nazism in Inglorious Basterds, and you can’t help but think his hellish depictions of plantations in Django Unchained, if not close to the reality of the thing, are powerful representations of that reality, and so qualifies Django Unchained as the most artful film nominated for Best Picture. Still, it’s a pale homage to the gruesome insanity of the 1966 film from which it takes its name.
But unless Tarantino has become unusually popular in Hollywood recently, and it’s been kept a secret from the world-at-large, this film is not good enough to be undeniable in the Best Picture category. It is long (shave the last half hour off, and about six scenes from the middle and you might have yourself a great weird western) and it is ugly and it is chronically stylised, a comic book romp drenched in crimson. Christophe Waltz has a good chance to bag his second Oscar, although he did it for a Tarantino character the last time and the patter is very much the same, even if the character is a good guy this time. That films like this get nominated at all is probably accolade enough for an Academy that likes to think it’s awarding artistic achievement when so often it is far more mainstream than that. For all of its flaws, however, it is the better of the two films nominated that tackle the theme of American slavery.
So, it’s very much what you’d expect. It’s big and worthy and is held together by a central performance of unusual power. It is something quite extraordinary that we are so used to not recognising Daniel Day-Lewis on screen that we now take it for granted. Day-Lewis has expunged centuries of caricature and Yankee deifying in his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, and is complete, from his lumbering walk to his sensitive voice. Unfortunately the film is no more successful than Spielberg’s other venture into this area of history and subject matter, Amistad; an awfully disappointing TV-movie of an epic than relied too heavily on the fantastic performance of Anthony Hopkins as the aged John Quincey Adams. Like Amistad, Lincoln is swamped by a schmaltzy John Williams score heavy on the Arlington bugle and sparse of actual rousing melody. Also like Amistad, Spielberg uses the inherent drama of courtroom oratory to stand in for the narrative dullness that is all around it – here in the form of chaotic Congressional debate. For a film taking on such a momentous punctuation mark in the American story, there is a great hollowness to it, something that echoes all the more for Day-Lewis’ great performance in its middle.
Day-Lewis has been cleaning up throughout the awards season, and rightly so. He will win the Oscar for Best Actor, as surely as Lincoln dies at the end. Sally Field has been touted by some as a favourite for Best Supporting Actress, and it is unlikely that the Academy voters will mark her down for her dominating moments of over-acting. And Tommy Lee Jones is also being touted as favourite for the Best Supporting Actor. He is given very little to do, really, other than be grizzled and determined, and occasionally close his eyes in profound disappointment, and then later on in profound redemption as his life’s work becomes realised. Spielberg could get the patriotic vote. The fact that the film is being lauded in ways it does not deserve makes me wonder if this might not an opportunity for Hollywood to congratulate itself on ending slavery in the same way it did when Philadelphia ended AIDS. Lincoln is a film dripping in its own importance and grandiosity, and that could be enough to get the votes across the board. And talking of patriotic grandiosity…
It is no easy task to transfer a stage musical to the screen. It is an even greater task to do so to the inevitable cawing of armies of passionate fans across the globe. So Tom Hooper, fresh from his success with the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, has chosen, it seems, to do little other than film the stage production. Les Miserables is big, it is bold, it is loud and it is a hugely enjoyable and moving cinematic experience. Some of the main performances are simply stunning – and Hugh Jackman can consider himself extremely unlucky to have pulled this off in a year when Daniel Day-Lewis is embodying the home nation’s Greatest Ever President. Jackman will never be better than this – and it’s quite likely few actors could even get anywhere near him in this role. Anne Hathaway is excellent and may have delivered one of the endearing classic moments of all cinema with her close-up rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. Eddie Redmayne, also, is superb. The major saw thumb is Russell Crowe who seems completely out of place and looks as though he is relieved to be throwing himself from a bridge toward the end just to get out of having to sing whilst figuring out what to do with his arms. The real star, however, is not cinematic at all, but is the captivating score from Claude Schonberg. It is a towering achievement, with that pumping swirling arpeggio that weaves throughout the soundtrack one of the most primal emotive sounds in popular culture; it is simultaneously one of the most soaring, uplifting, tragic and gushing pieces of music ever composed. For all of its faults, this big screen version of one of the classics of musical theatre will live long in the memory and sit comfortably in the canon in years to come with the likes of Bart’s Oliver and The Sound of Music.
However, only Hathaway will win any of the big prizes. Her performance is exhausting to watch, but also it will confirm her as the heavy-weight authoritative female lead actor of her generation – like Nicole Kidman once was and Julia Roberts before that – something she has been working up to from her breakthrough in the Princess Diaries but only really looked capable of achieving with her magnificent performance as an early-onset Parkinsons sufferer in Love and Other Drugs. It certainly won’t be the only Oscar of her career.
There was some surprise that director Tom Hooper missed out on a nomination for Best Director, but largely the faults with Les Miserables are his. Hooper has failed to come to terms with the temporal needs of cinema and how they are very different to theatre. The straight transference of one to the other needs some attention and the film judders without it.
The Other Beasts
It would be wonderful if Best Director went to Benh Zeitlin for his gritty fairy tale Beasts of the Southern Wild. But it will almost certainly go to Spielberg, who after leading the Jews out of Schindler’s garage has now emancipated America from the shadows of its own past (I’d have more respect for his Lincoln if it was actually called Frederick Douglass).
Benh Zeitlin’s gritty fantasy has filled the role of (magical) dark horse at this year’s awards. There were audible gasps when Emma Stone read out the name of nine year old Quvenzhane Wallis to take her place among the nominees for Best Actress (which makes her the second youngest nominee ever and would make her the youngest ever winner). Beasts of the Southern Wild is most obviously a modern fairy tale, a myth for the industrial age, a bold allegory in the most obvious sense (not a criticism) that borrows much of its atmosphere and sentimentality from Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. There is an ominous edge to it that comes directly from the perceived peril of a child’s eye view, and a palpable discomfort whenever the real, adult world encroaches upon the fantasies of the central child character, Hushpuppy. The film ends up as a children’s crusade that has an ambiguous link to the origins of time, an Ecclesiastical notion of the cycle of existence, and the interconnectedness of everything. It is a humanist Bible story, a Cajun folktale. And for that Zeitlin deserves his chance. But his nomination will probably be enough.
Life of Pi is a big and glorious film that will go down in history as the film to have the least return for eleven nominations (most of which are in technical categories). The Academy would really be showing itself up if it gave Ang Li the director’s statue after passing him over for Brokeback Mountain, one of the biggest (and most predictable) scandals in modern Oscar history (Gay cowboys! Whatever next!?!).
Naomi Watts gives one of those performances that are straight out of the old school for Hollywood Actresses file in surprisingly touching disaster flick, The Impossible. Much like actresses back Fay Wrey’s day used to have to do, she is beaten, tugged, pulled, punched, kicked, drowned, drugged and more, all in the name of her job. She delivers an exhausting performance, hangs in the centre of the film like a bruise, but she won’t win either. Neither will most critics’ film of the year, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, because, oddly, it’s hardly been nominated for anything. Joaquin Phoenix’s mesmerising performance will not out-grimace Abraham Lincoln. In millennia to come aliens will land on a wasteland earth and discover documents pertaining to the Academy Awards, and then they will find an old DVD of The Master, and then they will see on Wikipedia that The Master won no Oscars, and they will laugh to each other, and they will burn all evidence that the Oscars ever existed whilst dishing out copies of The Master to all the other of their species to prove that humans were once capable of greatness.
And the winners will be…
Should Win: Zero Dark Thirty Will Win: Argo
Actor in a Leading Role
Should Win: Daniel Day Lewis Will Win: Daniel Day Lewis
Actress in a Leading Role
Should Win: Emmanuelle Riva Will Win: Emmanuelle Riva
Actor in a Supporting Role
Should Win: Robert DeNiro Will Win: Tommy Lee Jones
Actress in a Supporting Role
Should Win: Anne Hathaway Will Win: Anne Hathaway
Should Win: Michael Haneke Will Win: Steven Spielberg