All this venting — well, my unscientific, non-journalistic rendering of it, anyway — is over a couple of problems. The first is about the state of the movies. And no matter what people say, that state is improving. The major studios are making fewer films and they're doing so in a way that's bringing more people to them. Theater attendance was up last year. The kids and geeks and horror freaks are somewhat guaranteed to be served. It's the grown-ups and grandparents who are feeling boxed out, which leads to the evergreen suspicion that they're not making movies like they used to.
This then gets into the issue of the Oscars' relevance. Adults feel alienated from the Best Picture nominees because they haven't seen them. Kids totally smell the producers pandering to them with "cool" hosts and stoned hosts, while their parents feel jerked around by another return of Billy Crystal, which is probably only a smart idea in theory, based on how out of shape his timing and general sense of comedy were. MacFarlane could turn out to be the right man for the job. But the line between withering and wry is fine, and my guess is that he'll abuse the power to cross it.1
This year's show already feels different, and not simply because of the left-left field choice of MacFarlane and the plan to mount a tribute to movie-musicals. For the first time in years, there's some organic suspense in a couple of the races themselves, and most of the nine movies are inarguable hits. Here are some predictions.
Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Les Misérables, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty
This is the best collection of movies since the field expanded four years ago. The gamut they run is wide, but their quality is high, too. The two best of the nine are Django Unchained and Amour. One is a historical epic that was made by someone who doesn't care for the retrospective neatness of history, but it's shocking how Quentin Tarantino mastered schlock that doesn't tip into abject tastelessness. It's easy to assume that Amour is here because so much of the voting membership is older than 60. But this is the most unflinching movie ever made about accepting the return on several decades of marital investment.2
Six weeks ago most people were talking about Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty as the front-runners and merely whispering about how the enthusiasm for Argo, in which Ben Affleck leads the charge, with Hollywood's help, to free Americans in 1979-1980 Iran, had kind of peaked and stalled. But then the nominations came out, and Affleck wasn't on the Best Director list, which shocked Hollywood. Neither was Kathryn Bigelow, who made Zero Dark Thirty. At the time, that was actually the bigger shock. The matter of what the movie was arguing or not arguing about torture seemed to overwhelm the movie itself, and what seemed like a snub began to seem like something more flagrant: It's as though Bigelow were being chastened. Now the movie, which is a hit, feels like something no one wants to touch, despite how well made it is. It went from the heroic tale of how the U.S. got bin Laden to a declassified memo that distorted the truth of how bin Laden came to be gotten. The movie doesn't have political-party politics, but the liberal voters among the Academy's 6,000 or so members might prefer something that makes them feel less queasy.
That apprehension would seem to lay the groundwork for a Lincoln cakewalk, but there are a number of things working against it. For one thing, this is not a great Steven Spielberg movie (it's very good, very conscientious). The star of the film, aside from the performances, is Tony Kushner's script and its delirious linguistic musicality and intelligent distillation of an array of conflicts down to two or three concentrated dramas. The movie is called Lincoln, but really it's about the law. And it isn't that Spielberg didn't do anything (those great House of Representatives scenes didn't direct themselves; nor did the tussles between Mrs. and Mr. Lincoln). It's that there's nothing thrillingly Spielbergian about them.
There's also the matter of accuracy. And it's not about the allegedly passive depiction of the Lincolns' black servants, Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) and William Slade (Stephen Henderson), whom the movie handles more slyly than it has been given credit for. Both were activist-organizers. The movie doesn't argue that they weren't. With Keckley, you always feel that she's sneaking off to do something important the way Clark Kent was often backing out of the Daily Planet newsroom. The matter of alleged inaccuracy involves something else. The movie features two of Connecticut's congressmen voting against the passing of the 13th Amendment.
On February 5, one of Connecticut's current congressmen, Joe Courtney, wrote Spielberg a letter pointing out that this isn't true, that all four of the state's delegates voted to pass the amendment, and asking that Spielberg find a way to correct the film in time for its DVD release. Two days later, Kushner wrote a response that appeared on The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog, acknowledging that all four delegates voted yes, which he totally knew, and that having two of the members vote no gave the movie some dramatic tension, which is why he didn't use the actual names of the two congressmen. That's not all Kushner said. He wrote the sort of letter that makes you sorry you said anything in the first place. (Courtney's response to Kushner conceded a tad, but he still wants a correction on the DVD.)
What this has to do with Lincoln's Oscar chances is unclear. If this is at all a controversy, it's not sexy enough and way too academic to be a total deal-breaker. Now, torture? Torture's a deal-breaker. But this is all to say that no one has anything challenging to say about Argo, not anything that has stuck. Take the airport climax. It's a shameless fiction (as is the movie's depiction of the Americans' downtime at the Canadian embassy), but there you are biting your nails as you roll your eyes.
The movie was already popular, but it's become a class cause célèbre. Yes, Lincoln is a movie about injustice, but it's a little too tidy. Not only are the slaves made equal, we are now living during the second term of a black president. There will be some voters who feel their work was done on November 6. But for a month and a half, the evil and travesty done to this young, rich, and famous white dude who once had a career, then didn't, yet now does again continues to haunt Los Angeles, and Sunday night someone's calling the exorcist.
Then there's Silver Linings Playbook, which seems to make a believer of everyone who sees it. It's got the ideal blend of tartness and heart, mania and clarity, Rocky and Little Miss Sunshine, Harvey and Weinstein. If any of the nine films comes from almost nowhere to shock the world, it's going to be the movie about the mentally ill strangers who enter a Philadelphia dance contest together. People feel great about humanity with Silver Linings Playbook. But in so many ways, Argo makes Hollywood feel great about itself.
Your Winner: Argo
Michael Haneke, Amour; Ang Lee, Life of Pi; David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook; Steven Spielberg, Lincoln; Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
This is a credible gang even without the notorious snubs. I'm not as besotted with Beasts as lots of other people — I see a conflation of magical realism and ethnography that doesn't make fireworks shoot out of my heart — but Zeitlin had a vision and his community of a crew made it happen. Haneke and Russell have made more challenging movies, but both of their nominated films still feel true to who they are as artists, especially Haneke, whose grim pas de deux might be the turning of an emotional corner. Lee can really do anything. Even when his movies don't work, I'm fascinated by what he sees in foreign people and places, chiefly America. Life of Pi works only because he captured something in that book that I didn't find when I read it. But I wonder what would have happened artistically if he and Spielberg had switched movies. Lee's impression of Kushner's script might have produced a less cozy legislative drama. And Spielberg could certainly have transformed the drippy spiritualism of Lee's movie into something you wouldn't mind leaving you wet.
The dismay over the perceived disses of Affleck and Bigelow has taken the spotlight off of these five. I've argued before that it's entirely possible the field of options was just too strong and the final tally was razor-thin. It's insane to think that if Spielberg wins, he'd be taking home Ben Affleck's Oscar. But people still don't think Jack Palance actually read Marisa Tomei's name, either.
Your Winner: Spielberg
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook; Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln; Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables; Joaquin Phoenix, The Master; Denzel Washington, Flight
Did anyone think Cooper would ever get a part that would let him play anything beyond the handsome asshole he's famous for playing? You always sense an intelligence in Cooper, but the reason he's become a star is that he's never forcing it on you. That's why he's so good in this movie: The asshole has a mental disorder and a broken heart. He has something a lot more exciting to act out than how he came to wake up in a Bangkok hotel.
From here on out, I declare that Jackman should appear only in musicals and only musicals that leave him red-eyed and mucus-y. That must be his genre, because once the last 100 minutes of this movie kick in and he looks like Little House on the Prairie–era Michael Landon and has fewer songs to sing, you almost forget he's there.
Phoenix doesn't have that problem. Phoenix won't let you forget anything about him. What he does in The Master is astounding and unlike any acting I've seen lately. You don't know whether to give him a prize or call the SPCA. Actors are often being compared to James Dean. But this performance is what Dean might have done if he'd lived to make movie no. 4.
If you missed Washington in Flight, you should correct that. Not because he's great — although he is — but because that kind of greatness isn't happening again anytime soon. We're running out of stars with personas that actually mean anything to us. Washington takes 25 years of being a star and reinvests it with the thing he's avoided: blame. This is a movie-star performance (albeit in a movie-of-the-week drama) that basks in both risk and guilt. Will we still care enough about, say, Robert Pattinson in 20 years to line up to see him drink his way to prison? Washington makes that a fair question.
But the Day-Lewis Oscar train left the station when photos of him as Lincoln began to circulate from the set. He makes great acting look as hard as great acting probably is. But he takes all of that work and sublimates it. You're never watching an actor. You're amazed by how little of Day-Lewis there always appears to be. It's not impersonation with him. It's Godly incarnation. And while it feels embarrassing and a little insulting to give that an award, it's the highest form of acknowledgment we mortals have.
Your Winner: Day-Lewis
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty; Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook; Emmanuelle Riva, Amour; Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Naomi Watts, The Impossible
This is Watts's second nomination, but it should be her fifth or sixth. I don't know another woman who puts her body through more for a performance without the suffering coming off as stunt work (or porn). She won't win, because as extraordinary as the movie's first half is, she's not in much of the second, and turning the Asian tsunami into a melodrama about how one well-to-do white family had the worst vacation ever is appalling.
The world has fallen in love with Wallis: She is effervescent, fun, and dresses like Tavi Gevinson dreamt her up. The actors branch thought what she did in Beasts was acting, and I'm not sure I agree — particularly with the movie's narration — but saying so at this point is like not believing in unicorns. So let's move on.
Jessica Chastain's big moment in her movie involves telling a boss (Kyle Chandler) that he'll look like a fool if he doesn't follow her instincts about bin Laden. It's a strong dramatic moment. But it's the falsest note in the film. It's as if someone thought she needed an Oscar clip to sex up the absorbing quiet in the rest of her performance.
At 85, Riva now has the face of a beloved grandmother, and you hate watching that face lose its rosiness, but, Amour argues, such is life. What she does here with remoteness is the emotional equivalent of that camera trick where an image appears to be getting farther away and closer at the same time. The further she gets from dignity the closer you feel to her. Lawrence, meanwhile, is the opposite kind of actress. Her face doesn't do much, but that voice — god, that honeyed, twangy, husked-up voice can do a lot with the right script, and, for her, this script is all kinds of right.
She and Chastain have been doing most of the winning among these five. But they've rarely faced Riva, and I think the Oscar race is the truest contest for these three. Will an organization whose average age is only a couple of decades younger than Riva acknowledge the universal truth of her sugarless acting? Or will it go for the bluntness and sex young Lawrence brings to mental illness? It'll be close, but a vote for Lawrence (or even Chastain) is a vote against the fortitude of your mother or your grandmother.
Your Winner: Riva
Alan Arkin, Argo; Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook; Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master; Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln; Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
That Waltz is the only man from Django in this category says how much the Academy likes him and was freaked out by Leonardo DiCaprio and the astonishing Samuel L. Jackson — who, like Watts, should have many more nominations than he has (just one). Waltz turns out to be the ideal speaker for a filmmaker who loves purple dialogue the way Prince loved rain. This crusty, OCD version of De Niro is the best De Niro we've had in more than a decade. He always sounds like he should be at the Meadowlands as opposed to cheering for the Eagles, but almost no one in that movie sounds like they come from Philadelphia.
Arkin is the most inexplicable of these five. What did he do here with this comic-relief part that appeals to actors? So many decades of wryness and cool have left me wanting to see him suffer a little. I'd like to have seen him and De Niro switch roles. And just to continue ranting for a moment: Who did Hoffman support? He doesn't have quite as much screen time as Phoenix, but all the galvanic force and eerie control in that movie comes from him. He's obviously here as part of an Oscar strategy. But that Best Actor Oscar for Capote was a character-actor-as-leading-man fluke. This category seems likely to remain his permanent home.
Meanwhile, Jones finds nothing but comedy in rectitude and moral snobbery. Even more than Day-Lewis's Lincoln, Jones's Thaddeus Stevens is the movie's humanist center. Never mind that he spends the whole thing looking like an unmade bed. He knows what's right, and so, I expect, do Academy voters. There is a not-that-remote chance that De Niro could pull an upset as part of a Silver Linings sweep, but then I don't want to see Jones's sour reaction when he loses, and neither, I suspect, does the Academy.
Your Winner: Jones
Amy Adams, The Master; Sally Field, Lincoln; Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables; Helen Hunt, The Sessions; Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook
Like Hoffman, Adams pretty much lives in this category, and her four losses were never robberies. She's brilliantly used in The Master. That tough purity of hers is corruption-ready. Like Hoffman, Hunt belongs in the leading race. It's obvious who in the film her sex surrogate is supporting, but this well-meaning but ho-hum drama is just as devoted to how that job affects the surrogate's marriage as it is to how that work improves the lives of her clients. Also: Her Boston accent's not bad.
Speaking of accents: What is Weaver's in this movie? She plays a Philadelphian who might never have been farther south than Baltimore or farther north than Camden. Yet she sounds like Edith Bunker in elocution class. But the stress and weariness in Weaver's face gets you mostly past that. Essentially, this is a two-woman race, and it's suspenseful. Will Anne Hathaway's remarkable extremely-close-up suffering and on-the-spot singing be enough to stop Sally Field from another classically mocked acceptance speech? Everyone loves both women except all the people who don't. Field is the first actor since Pete Postlethwaite to land a few punches on Daniel Day-Lewis, and the way she plays Mary Todd Lincoln's depression — like a needy, needling Sally Field — is clever. There's also the fight she put up to get this part, which everybody in the movie industry knows and which they'll find a touch guilt-inducing. I'm calling the upset: Oscar no. 3 for Mrs. Lincoln.
Your Winner: Field
The real future solution, if they'd accept, is to have Tina Fey and Amy Poehler host. When they made the Golden Globes worth watching last month, they used wit, self-deprecation, and an uncanny talent for putdowns that were neither limp nor catty. They're like two characters standing in the corner, stealing some major movie stars' classic Hollywood screwball comedy. They should be asked to come to the Oscars forever, thus settling the "are we being pandered to?" concern. Even Congress could agree to pass that bill.
If Amour was set in Laurel Canyon or somewhere closer to Los Angeles than Paris, its chances might be better. Look at The Artist, which put a bunch of French people in Hollywood and cleaned up last year. That impossible mix of parochialism and cosmopolitanism is working for Argo.