The Best Picture Project – Argo, dir. by Ben Affleck

Oscar Statuettes(NOTE: This post has been slightly modified to serve as the Best Picture Project entry for 2012)

Since I started the Best Picture Project – so many years ago now it’s becoming somewhat pathetic how long it’s taking me to complete it – I’ve posted every year at Oscar time about the Best Picture race and my preferences for the films in the race.  In some ways, the post behaves very much as a true Best Picture Project post behaves and in that it tends to evaluate all the films and stands as my take on all the films.  Since that’s the usual plan, I’ll do my best to make sure that this one can be seen that way.

So here it is, the Best Picture Race 2012, as seen through the eyes of the Best Picture Project.

For starters it’s worth noting my ballot is incomplete.  In a race of 9 films, one of which is a French-language drama that really only saw limited release – the limits not reaching my hometown – it was always going to be a challenge to see all the films.  Never mind the fact some of the films just did not interest me or really didn’t seem, based on the critical opinion, and lack of love from other award-giving bodies, to have any chance of winning.

In this case I ignored Amour because, as a foreign language film, it has no chance of winning.  After all, no foreign-language film has won the top prize and it seems pretty doubtful this year will change any of that.

Additionally, I ignored Les Miz simple because, despite the hype and the box office, it never seemed to gain traction with the critics or assert itself as a real Oscar contender, beyond the performance of Anne Hathaway.  Yes, Hugh Jackman getting into the Best Actor race hints at some wider-spread support, but given other films got a lot more acting nods – including the not-nominated-for-Best-Picture The Master – it’s hard to say Hugh Jackman being there is really a bellwether of anything.  Given this and the fact it’s director, Tom Hooper – who made the fantastic The Damned United – failed to rate an Oscar nom, it’s dead-in-the-waterness seems confirmed.

Lastly, I ignored Life of Pi, mostly because I just didn’t want to see it.  This attitude was justified by the fact that while it’s been in the running for all major awards, it has not won any of them, and seems to rate a slot for being a technical achievement  as opposed to being loved.  If it wins anything, it’s likely to be down the ballot.

Of the six films I did see, I can easily reject two of them as being unworthy of the top prize.

First, and perhaps most heretical to some people, will be my exclusion of Lincoln.  While I was eager to see the film, given its pedigree, great critical reviews and box office, I was thoroughly disappointed.  Instead of finding it interesting and engaging, I found it stuffy and boring and unimaginatively directed, with the truly interesting parts weighed down by extraneous nonsense.  Worse, the parts meant to invoke tears, specifically Lincoln’s death, felt tacked on.  In a sense, the critical acclaim for Lincoln seems to me to be the same acclaim for Ghandi – because it’s about a great man, that makes it impossible to critically revile it, even when the critics should be completely suspect of it.  In my opinion, cutting about thirty minutes out of the film, starting with all the Mary Todd bits and nearly everything involving Lincoln’s son – not to mention the very beginning of the picture – could have easily turned this from a stodgy march into an extremely exciting thriller about the machinations and backdoor dealings of passing the 13th amendment.  All other items were completely superfluous.

Second, and heretical to a different group of others, is Django Unchained.  This was another film I went into eagerly and for the first half of the movie, my eagerness was rewarded.  I found that section moving and funny and very much a true Tarantino experience.  Except, once Django and King Schultz met up with Calvin Candy, the film became rote and simply went on a forced march to the inevitable blood-bath at the end.  Yes, Kerry Washington is gorgous and we could not get enough of her in the film, but after the skill of Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained was a real letdown.  Still, I do want to make special mention of one thing about the movie I loved: Christoph Waltz.  Between his two Tarantino picture Waltz has clearly established himself as a man of some real range and ability and if he doesn’t take the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, I for one would be outraged.

So, now that I’ve whittled the race down to four films, here is my Oscar ballot – if I actually had one – in order from least-favorite to most-favorite:

4.  Beasts of the Southern Wild, dir., by Benh Zeitlin

I liked Beasts of the Southern Wild, much in the same way I liked The Tree of Life.  It was lyrical, challenging, did not conform to the medium in the traditional way, was obtuse in a good way and was actually pretty moving.  But it’s not the kind of movie you just sit down to watch – it requires effort – which means while I liked and admired it, and was glad it didn’t fall victim to a need to be literal, I didn’t love it.  In another year I might’ve made a stronger case for it, but unfortunately, that’s not this year.

3.  Zero Dark Thirty, dir. by Kathryn Bigelow

I’ll be honest: as much as I liked Bigelow’s previous movie, the Best Picture winning The Hurt Locker, I liked Zero Dark Thirty better.  Yet, here it is only finishing third on my ballot.  Such is the vagaries of the Best Picture race year to year.  But make no mistake, Zero Dark Thirty is a fantastic movie, very dense and worthy of re-watching a couple times to pick up on everything in it and unlike other films that might win Best Picture but don’t rate even a single repeat viewing, this one does.  And just like Argo, another film you already know how it ends before you ever plop your ass in a seat, it was still engaging and brimming with tension, especially the long – in a good way – ending, where Special Forces takes the house almost without saying a word and eventually kills the bad guy.

Politically, I know I should be aghast at the ‘torture’ of the suspect at the beginning, and question whether they actually got useable information from him in real life – you know, the controversy everybody’s got their panties in a  bunch over – but I’m not.  First, I’m watching a movie and want it to play dramatically and if torturing that guy is what it takes to get my rocks off for the sake of dramatic tension, then so be it.  I mean, it’s not a documentary and therefore 100% fidelity to accuracy is not necessary.  And really, the second an actor appears onscreen and starts pretending to be somebody else, we’ve accepted compromises and faithfulness to reality is out the window.

Second, I’m actually not all that turned off by the ‘torture’ onscreen because it didn’t seem all that bad.  Yes, they water-boarded him, and yes, they humiliated him, and yes, I know all those things are unpleasant.  But really, they didn’t look life threatening.  It looked about as bad as middle school.  Although, to be fair, I will say the particular suspect he did look as if he’d been beaten – which did not happen onscreen – and I don’t think beating suspects is cool at all.  However, for the movie, if it was needed, then so be it because at the end of the day it has to play as a movie and it does.

What shocks me about the film in any way is Kathryn Bigelow not rating a Best Director nomination.

2.  Silver Linings Playbook, dir. by David O. Russell

I liked the Silver Linings Playbook.  I know some people want to deride it as little more than a romantic comedy, but if that’s true, that little-more-than part was important.  I found the film sweet, but edgy, the performances engaging, the characters likeable and relatable.  To put it bluntly, the movie seemed far more real and wise about modern love and marriage than most other movies and it spoke to me.  So for all those reasons I rate it number two on my list.  Did it get to number two because I think it was better than Zero Dark Thirty?  Not really.  Did I think it was worse?  No.  Did I think they were as good as the other, neither worse nor better?  Yes.  Then why does it go one slot higher?  Because it was 40 minutes shorter, that’s why.

What really is amazing about the film is just how much you get to see Bradley Cooper isn’t a one note actor.  For many stars, they spend their careers playing versions of the same character and the acclaim with which they receive depends on whether that character was right for the film.  But I think when you look at the career of Bradley Cooper, you can see that while he does find himself typed into the pretty-boy/bad-boy mold, you can also see he’s not an actor of limited range.  Consider that he was in Wet Hot American Summer as the gay, but not ‘out there gay’ camp counselor, that he was at his smarmy best in Wedding Crashers, was smarmy in another way in The Hangover, and had that magnificent transformation in Limitless.  Throw all that on top of the Silver Linings Playbook and you can see the guy has some real talent.

Of course, Jennifer Lawrence was great as well, but I’ll hold off on the plaudits just yet because I don’t know if it’s because she’s a good actress or it was simply matching her talent up with a given role.

Despite being largely an also-ran in every other awards race, I think Silve Linings Playbook might actually a better-than-expected chance of winning Best Picture.  After all, not only did it receive four acting nominations, which would indicate broad support amongst the largest group of Academy voters – the actors – one of those nominations was for a performance that was only okay, at best.  To my mind, the fact that Jackie Weaver snuck into that race for a an okay performance, and not an Oscar-okay performance, I think it hints at some serious wide-spread support amongst the Academy.

1.  Argo, dir. by Ben Affleck

For me, Argo was clearly the Best Picture of the year – hands down.  I saw it the week after seeing The Master and while The Master left me cold on first blush and intriguing much later on, Argo excited me from the very moment I picked my butt up from the seat.  After all, it took a subject that people of my generation seem to know very little about – yes, I was alive during the hostage crisis, but if you were to ask me why we have a beef against Iran right now, I’d say it was because we’ve always had a beef against them – and informed, in a general way, and also entertained.

Better was that even knowing how the crisis turned out ahead of time – I don’t think anybody made a secret of the fact the hostages wound up escaping – didn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the film.  Yes, it helped that some dramatic liberties were taken with the story, especially the ending, but in the end, I think that is the mark of a good film, that even when you know how it will end, that even when you know how the story will conclude, you are still so engaged it still works as an edge-of-your-seat thriller.

Uniformly the performances of the actors playing the hostages were good.  None of them really had a large enough part to stand out above the others – in an ensemble of eight or so, plus the ambassador and his staff, you can’t expect it any other way.  Obviously, on the Hollywood side of the equation with there being only John Goodman and Alan Arkin, it’s a bit easier to get more screen time.  As lauded as Alan Arkin is, though, for his part, John Goodman was equally as good.

If there was one drawback to the movie at all, one thing I could change, it would be Ben Affleck.  No, he doesn’t offend me as an actor, because while Robin Williams got the Oscar for Good Will Hunting, Ben Affleck actually had the better performance in that film.  But I’m torn on his performance because, while he naturally nails the Hollywood portions of the film, he’s a little light in the hostage-extraction portions.  Part of me believes if he was replaced by an actor with a little more dramatic muscle, the movie might have been just that much better.  Another part of me believes that if you replace him with a better dramatic actor, then the humor of the other sections loses steam.  In the end, it’s enough that the movie was fantastic to begin with and to change him would only, at best, make the movie a little more fantastic, i.e., it’s a wash.

For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.

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