The Academy Awards ceremony is coming up on Sunday, as you may have heard, and so the annual empty amusement of Oscar forecasting is at full lather. Picking winners is fun, of course, but pointless. For example, there are nine Best Picture nominees this year, all of them worthy. On what basis can it be said that Les Misérables, a full-blare Hollywood musical, is a better movie than Amour, a grim but gripping account of old age and death? Is the plush history lesson of Lincoln somehow superior to Life of Pi, an elaborate CGI exercise about a tiger in a boat? Comparing apples to Oreos is the fundamental flaw in Oscar competitions. And since there are now 5,783 Academy voters doing the winner-picking (in various guild alignments, for the most part), and since they’ve been buffeted for months by a typhoon of bare-knuckle lobbying, any pretense of simple meritorious selection is clearly absurd.
I don’t propose to pick any winners myself, but I have some thoughts.
It’s been puzzling to watch Ben Affleck’s Argo rolling up best-movie wins at the Golden Globes, the American Film Institute, various regional critics’ confabs, and even the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Argo is a good little movie, and Affleck, who also stars in it, is a skillful director. (He should have been nominated for his 2007 Gone Baby Gone.) The picture also has the advantage, from an Oscars perspective, of portraying Hollywood as a key player in a successful CIA rescue mission. But as a depiction of a notable incident in the age of jihad, Kathryn Bigelow’s altogether hypnotic Zero Dark Thirty blows Argo out of the water. Unfortunately, Bigelow’s film has been hobbled by ridiculous charges that it glorifies torture. (Hollywood wants you to know that it doesn’t like torture at all.) I find it hard to imagine Argo beating out ZD30…but not that hard.
Similarly handicapped is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, his most powerfully mature work, which has stirred up widespread fuss about its use of the word “nigger” (something that doesn’t appear to have bothered Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson, two of its stars). There’s also Michael Haneke’s Amour, which seems too bleak for a best-picture winner (it might more feasibly prevail in the Best Foreign Language Film category, in which it’s also nominated), and hometown boy Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which could be a little too staid for the glittery top honor.
It would be no disgrace if Les Misérables were the big winner—it’s a mighty crowd pleaser, and has raked in boatloads of money in its two months in release. But if any of the nominated films were to beat out Zero Dark Thirty (and one of them almost surely will), I would hope it would be Silver Linings Playbook, a very funny, very affecting comedy-romance that, rather amazingly, is on the verge of passing the $100-million mark in domestic grosses. I think this is a win that could happen. But what do I, like you, really know?
Emmanuelle Riva gives a heart-crushing performance in Amour. She turns 86 on Sunday, and in the heavily geriatric Academy there are probably many who fondly recall her star debut in Alain Resnais’ 1959 Hiroshima, mon amour. She would still be a deserving winner, though, beyond the pull of woozy nostalgia.
Of the other nominated actresses, Jessica Chastain plays a character in Zero Dark Thirty who isn’t really much of a character at all, and the irresistible Quvenzhané Wallis, of Beasts of the Southern Wild, is only nine years old, and may have other Oscar innings ahead of her. So Riva’s real competition here, I think, is Jennifer Lawrence, who deploys star quality beyond her 22 years in Silver Linings Playbook. Just as important, maybe, this seems to be her moment.
Denzel Washington and Bradley Cooper—as good as he is in Silver Linings Playbook—probably aren’t really in the running here. And Hugh Jackman, as good as he is in Les Misérables, might also be a bit of a stretch. Joaquin Phoenix is memorable—or at least memorably wack—in The Master, but it’s hard to envision him edging out Lincoln’s Daniel Day-Lewis, if for no other reason than…well, hey: he’s Daniel Day-Lewis.
Best Supporting Actor
Let’s immediately strike off Robert De Niro and Alan Arkin here. De Niro isn’t exactly testing his limits in Silver Linings Playbook; and Arkin, who’s fine but not a lot more in Argo, won an Oscar six years ago for Little Miss Sunshine, in which he was a lot more. Philip Seymour Hoffman makes quite a bit out of an annoyingly ambiguous character in The Master, but the movie didn’t make the sort of splash that Paul Thomas Anderson fans were anticipating. That leaves crusty Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) and Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained). Waltz gave a meticulous comic performance in Tarantino’s film—but he also won an Oscar just three years ago for Inglourious Basterds. So…a toss-up, I guess.
Best Supporting Actress
I’m not sure what Jacki Weaver, who plays the dithering mom in Silver Linings Playbook, is even doing here. And I somehow can’t picture Sally Field (Lincoln), Helen Hunt (The Sessions), or even Amy Adams (who has some flinty scenes in The Master) standing up to the supremely winning weepiness of Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables. And I’d be okay with that.
Ang Lee’s Life of Pi was certainly a digital eyeful, but it felt weightless, and slumped woefully at the end. Benh Zeitlin deserves a large nod of some sort for his first feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, but it didn’t do a lot of business (not often a plus in movie world). And as wonderful as David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is, it doesn’t have the stamp of a director’s picture. That leaves the great (but somewhat off-putting) Michael Haneke, whose Amour really is one of the year’s best films, and Spielberg—who already has three Oscars, but could always use a fourth—for Lincoln. If you were for some reason to ask me, I’d say the best director of the year was Kathryn Bigelow, for Zero Dark Thirty (which I thought also had the year’s best script, by Mark Boal). The movie is a prodigious mustering of complex narrative elements and many excellent performers in some very tough locations. But yo—Bigelow’s not even nominated. I’m sure the Academy had some convincing reason for this slap-down. I’d love to hear it.