Baron: Ah, I see we've reached the "Sean Fennessey heartlessly trolls everyone" phase of this roundtable. Where to begin here? Use of the questionable phrase "Oscar bait" aside — Mark Harris, we miss you! — it seems incredibly strange to describe this year's crop of likely nominees as "down-the-middle." Silver Linings Playbook, for instance, may be at heart just another likable '40s-era screwball comedy, but (a) man, do they not make enough '40s-era screwball comedies anymore, and (b) do you really think any other director — including David O. Russell himself at any other point in his career — could've pulled it off? This was a movie with disaster — and terrible dancing! — written all over it. Think about that pitch meeting for a second: There's this guy … he's violently bipolar, hits his mother in the face … he meets a promiscuous widow … also, there is a dance competition … and everyone is obsessed with one of the most cursed and plagued and insular sports franchises in human history … That's a winner for a studio? I don't think so. That movie succeeded by the grace of god and Jennifer Lawrence. (I rate the latter higher, but smart people will disagree — please don't kill me, Molly Lambert!) Similarly, it seems unfair to throw Beasts of the Southern Wild onto the Little Miss Sunshine Whimsical Schoolbus of Indie Wonderment, or to recognize Zero Dark Thirty as anything but the bluntly unique accomplishment that it is. We may know that the bad guy dies in the end, but part of the brilliance of that film is in the way it otherwise shows us just how much we didn't know and still don't. (Like, for instance: Jessica Chastain is more molten ball of flame than human.) Not for nothing does this industry so badly need Ellison's Annapurna Pictures right now — without her, we would be looking at a world in which Kathryn Bigelow and Paul Thomas Anderson are directing car commercials for cash.
That said, if you want negativity, here goes some: If Les MisÚrables wins Best Picture, I'm burning the whole Academy down. Last year's Old-Hollywood-Is-Magic-and-Also-Silent! horror show seems to have made the world forget the craven injustice that was Tom Hooper's The King's Speech winning over Fincher's The Social Network (to say nothing of Aronofsky's Black Swan, Russell's The Fighter, and even the Coen brothers' increasingly winning True Grit) in 2010. But I fear this has a chance of happening again: Hooper's Les Mis is a brightly colored pyre of money and talent, a tale told by — well, not an idiot, but a baldly sentimental guy — full of sound and comically overwrought stage sets, signifying nothing. It's movie shot almost entirely in off-kilter close-ups, haunted by the earnest, A-student, theater-kid ghost of Anne Hathaway's Fantine, whose coughing death-rattle sounded a lot like Best … Supporting … Actress in the theater I was sitting in. I will pay any of you Los Angeles natives to crash the Oscar ceremony this year and start a "Hand! Jobs! Hand! Jobs!" chant in honor of Amy Adams's steely performance in The Master instead. The fact that Paul Thomas Anderson's astonishing Master has already been reduced to campaigning for the The Tree of Life Is Just Happy to Be Here spot is depressing — doubly so in a race in which the empty and idea-less Les Mis seems destined to join the deserving Lincoln at the front of the line.
OK, deep breath. Flight seems to have fallen mostly out of contention, probably rightly so, but Denzel Washington's fearsome performance in that movie should continue to be mentioned alongside Daniel Day-Lewis's flawless Lincoln. I was persuaded by Mark Harris this summer of the fundamental inhumanity of an Oscar campaign for Beasts' Quvenzhané Wallis, but they should make up an award for her anyway. Best Voice? It is a really good voice. We have talked a lot about Ben Affleck's bare chest, and hardly at all about Matthew McConaughey's in Magic Mike — a performance for which the New York Film Critics Circle just awarded him (it?) Best Supporting Actor. This is something beyond a long shot (maybe if voters were allowed to touch?), but it would be a nice acknowledgment for an actor who is having an improbably great year. And finally, let's figure out a way to get Fiona Apple onstage singing This Is 40's "Dull Tool," because I can't think of a more bitter or effective antidote to whatever Seth MacFarlane will be doing up there:
What did I miss, Mark?
Lisanti: In Sean's defense, I did entice him to participate in this roundtable by promising that he could be the guy to throw a bucket of icewater on anyone who got too exuberant about this year's movies, so he's just doing his job. He's also the designated "scared to death that Django Unchained will be a disappointment" guy in the office, and is already building up a head of lukewarm steam for Star Trek Into Darkness in 2013. Some players accept the thankless roles and execute them with merciless efficiency.
Having finally seen Zero Dark Thirty last night, I feel like it's time to revise the contenders list from yesterday:
The Best Picture Winner Will Be One of These
Zero Dark Thirty
Some People Will Continue to Pretend This One Has a Real Shot, But If We're Thinking Clearly About It, Come On, It's Just Nice for the Academy to Validate Your Lifelong Love of Musicals, Right?
Here Are Some Other Very-Good-to-Excellent Movies That Will Be Somewhere on the Final Ballot
Silver Linings Playbook
How Many Sand-Ladies Does a Profoundly Damaged Soul Have to Plow to Get a Much-Deserved Oscar Nomination Around Here?
I Really Wonder
Life of Pi
Pick One, But ONLY One
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex, But Not at the Dolby Theater on a Sunday Night in Late February
The Dark Knight Rises (in a fruitless re-release engagement to stir up last-minute support)
By my calculations, that will give us between eight and 10 Best Picture nominees, only two of which actually matter. We have a good old-fashioned knife fight, folks. And I hope this isn't merely the Shiny Object Effect I mentioned earlier talking, but right now I'm taking the side that has four-eyed night-vision goggles and machine guns over the horses-and-bayonets gang. Walking out of the screening last night, it wasn't hard to see why the momentum is with Seal Team Six at the moment; if the (wrongheaded) complaint about Lincoln is that it's like sitting through a history lesson — You know what? Tony Kushner can write all the history lessons, forever — Zero Dark Thirty is like having a current-events class put a knee on your throat and pour water up your nose until you ace the pop quiz it's screaming in your face. It's visceral and thrilling, superior to BP-winning The Hurt Locker in almost every way. And maybe it won't triumph in the end, but man, I'm not betting against it or Kathryn Bigelow 24 hours after my interrogation.
Now that we've solved the Best Picture problem (you're welcome), let's run it back to some of the individual performances. Daniel Day-Lewis and Denzel are mortal locks, and deservedly so. (Denzel's the only reason to see Flight.) Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Paul Thomas Anderson (I'm giving him Affleck's presumed spot, because there needs to be some order in the universe) should be locks for The Master in their respective categories, as should Amy Adams and her kung fu handy-grip. (You give ONE DISTURBING UNHAPPY ENDING IN FRONT OF A SINK WHILE WHISPERING LADY MACBETH STUFF IN A CULT LEADER'S EAR and it's all anyone wants to talk about.) And speaking of tight grips, I don't know exactly how this happened, but Anne Hathaway was awarded Best Supporting Actress during the first commercial for Les Mis, halfway through her head-shaving, and she's not giving it back, it's got her tear-drenched hair all over it. (Disclosure: I have not yet seen the movie, but her fingers already feel so tightly coiled around the Oscar that it's become impossible to imagine a world in which she relinquishes it. She'll bite Sally Field, she doesn't care how many children she's buried; watch out. Also: Good for her. I love Anne Hathaway.)
And yeah, can we talk about Matthew McConaughey for a second? If there were a way to search for old e-mails you've written, I could probably find one I sent after Magic Mike that said, "This is going to sound insane because I think he let a stripper-size lizard in chaps with breakaway ass-flaps do half his scenes, but McConaughey might get nominated for an Oscar for that movie." I have a sneaking feeling that's going to happen, and it's going to be glorious. If you can slip Jonah Hill in through the Supporting Actor back door, you can probably figure out a way to get JK WINNIN in there. Let's party. And invite Jason Clarke from Zero instead of Bobby D, because actions involving cashing paychecks with Fockers written on them should have consequences.
I can't spell Quvenzhané, so she's out. (Let's call it the Curse of Q'orianka Kilcher.) I apologize for being dumb and for being predisposed against child actors ever winning anything. Best Actress is a coin flip between SLP's Jennifer Lawrence and ZDT's Jessica Chastain, who seamlessly transitioned her Be In Everything strategy from 2011 to a Be In The Best Thing one in 2012. It's got to be Chastain, right? She caught her terrorist without repeatedly sleeping with him. There's a degree of difficulty to this that must be acknowledged.
Before I close this out, let's put it out there again: Are we really going to let Ben Affleck squeeze Anderson out of the directors' race? I mean, it may not play out exactly that way, but if Affleck's name is on the short list for his extreme competence in finding the pulse in international airline boarding procedures and Anderson's isn't, ineffectual hissy fits shall be thrown, by me, probably in a department store that offers discount family portraits. And yeah, I think I want Bigelow to storm the stage in body armor again and leave with two handfuls of gold, but I also need PTA in the five-way reaction shot when it happens. (I dreamed a dream: Spielberg, Bigelow, Russell, Hooper, and Anderson. Sorry, Ben and Ang.)
OK, I'm done. Molly, please get into this Silver Linings Playbook situation. I know you have complicated feelings about it and David O. Russell, whom I love with the unbridled passion of a thousand angry headlocks, even when he gets into the fairy-tale ending business.
Lambert: I have VERY complicated feelings about David O. Russell. I think it is hard to have any other kind of feelings about him. I think he is a genius, and also probably an impossible person to deal with. I hated the first half of I Heart Huckabees so much that I almost walked out until I started to love it tremendously halfway through. I think Russell's dialogue is sometimes too mannered and shticky. I also think he gets that life is fraught with hilarious traps, most of which you set for yourself. I loved certain parts of Silver Linings Playbook so much that I found it hard to reconcile the things I didn't like at all. It was a bipolar movie that abruptly slapped a happy face on mental illness at the very last second. I expected a '70s downer ending or some kind of long cringe, but it was smiles all around.
I'll admit I am more annoyed by the buzz around Silver Linings Playbook than the actual movie, which I thought was good, but nowhere near as great as The Fighter. Bradley Cooper's performance is incredible and revelatory and Jennifer Lawrence was good, but I already knew she could be good because I have seen Winter's Bone. The sort of astonished "gee-whiz, and she's got chops too?" tone of the raves for her seem condescending to me. Like, wow, isn't it incredible she's not a bimbo? Which, to be fair, is what the role of Tiffany is all about. But let's state the obvious: She's too young and it constantly took me out of the movie. Harvey Weinstein told David O. Russell he thought she was too young for the role!
David O. Russell just admitted he wrote Silver Linings Playbook with Vince Vaughn and Zooey Deschanel in mind, so just picture that alternate universe. In the book it's based on, both Tiffany and Pat are 40, which morphed in Russell's imagination into a barely legal widow. Everyone kept alluding to this mysterious maturity and agelessness in J. Law's performance, but it's "unnaturally wise and mature for her age" like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. Lawrence doesn't look older than 22, which is how old she is. It just seems weird that everyone keeps bending over backward to justify casting such a young actress in a role clearly meant for an older one. I get that her Tiffany had a tragic life and grew up too fast and it's supposed to be messy and uncomfortable, but I kept wondering if Russell knew what kind of uncomfortable it made me. The same kind as Spanking the Monkey, which is about a guy who's afraid he wants to fuck his mom.
My most legit gripe is that I did not enjoy the make-or-break dance sequence! Me, who loves musicals! I wish there were more dancing in Les Mis! I rolled my eyes at the Singin' in the Rain reference because it's so gauche to directly point to a movie you're trying to emulate (especially when it's a classic). The dance sequence was a choppy mess, much like the training montages were the weakest part of The Fighter. David O. Russell is just not a masterful visual stylist. He's extremely competent, in a '90s indie movie way that I can appreciate. But I need more than that in a dance sequence. I wanted to feel something watching it, and from what I can tell everyone seems to have felt something, and that makes me feel vaguely sad. But then I went home and watched the ballet from West Side Story and remembered that I am the only sane person. It's everyone else who's crazy.
Obviously I want Zero Dark Thirty to whomp Lincoln because nothing could be more satisfying to me than a Kathryn Bigelow war thriller about a badass ginger crushing Spielberg's staid ode to everyone's favorite Manic Pixie Dream President. Here's the main thing I've realized. David O. Russell wanted to cast Vince Vaughn and then later settled on Bradley Cooper, who he thought could do it based on the intense anger he showed in his performance in Wedding Crashers. Last year Woody Allen cast Rachel McAdams and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris because he was such a big fan of Wedding Crashers. At the end of the day, we are all just Wedding Crashers. The Oscars have always been disappointing and unjust. Let's rate what movies we will probably watch on TBS eventually between airings of Wedding Crashers.
The Syndicated on TBS Award:
Argo: When you think about it, it's a lot like Con Air.
Silver Linings Playbook: With the profanity trimmed for television, it'll play even more like a screwball comedy set in a heightened Preston Sturges–ish world.
Les Mis: It's the songs, dummies!
Fennessey: Molly, I have bad news. Our foremost Oscar sage and also my favorite hate-follow, Bret Easton Ellis, has weighed in on the Best Picture race and decided its future.
Now, BEE is one of our most valued reactionary warlocks, an evil prognosticator incapable of sensitivity and built for embeds but not emotional engagement. But in his ritualistic late-night tweet-splurge, there's an essential truth: The Oscars isn't about what you like,1 or what critics like, or what's good, empirically or not. It's about what a group of relative strangers thinks is worthy. And worthiness is a flimsy construct. For some, that means stolid hagiography. For others, it means audacious instant history. But for most, it means feeling good while watching a movie, and feeling even better when that movie ends. While watching Silver Linings Playbook, I felt as good as I have all year. I saw it in a perfect movie theater with a great person on a wonderful day and I fell deep into Bradley Cooper's trash bag. But that happy ending, that 360-degree spin-kiss, that dewy-eyed realization of mutual I love you ripped me right out of the moment. It pissed me off. (I realize happy endings are supposed to make you happy. This is probably my issue to cope with elsewhere.) But I'm not so broken as to not see that that ending might work on other, more well-adjusted people. Silver Linings Playbook isn't just feel-good. It feels good about being feel-good.
The other interpretation of Ellis's note would be that the long-tail narrative of predictive Oscar-ing always works in negative. What seems obvious often isn't and underdogs become champions because everyone loves a loser. Just ask Pat Solitano. Let's for a minute imagine that Zero Dark Thirty does pull out this win. After 2009's The Hurt Locker victory, that would make Kathryn Bigelow the commander of two Best Pictures in a four-year span. This is essentially unheard of in Academy history. The closest non-Godfather gap I track is the five years between David Lean's towering triumphs, The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957 and Lawrence of Arabia in 1962.2 Which is to say, Bigelow is potentially entering the pantheon conversation. So please allow me to return to Bret Easton Ellis's Twitter account.
Now, admittedly, BEE is gaming the system by ignoring Bigelow's one true masterpiece, 1991's Point Break. (Righteously snubbed in the Best Skydiving Sequence category 20 years ago.) And the above tweet was preceded directly by a hateful, misogynistic troll-note meant only to provoke. But his point is taken: Bigelow has had an uneven career. Another Bigelow picture Ellis failed to list is 2000's The Weight of Water, which is almost certainly the worst movie to feature Sean Penn with Elizabeth Hurley cavorting on a yacht in a white bikini. Before The Hurt Locker, Bigelow was a kind of gearhead industry filmmaker. Not a hack or a for-hire gun, but a visceral genre director working to expand the reaches of schlock cinema. (See: her 1987 debut, Near Dark, a vampire Western about how your family is always sucking the blood from your neck.) For context: Her last movie before The Hurt Locker was a turgid 2002 submarine drama called K-19: The Widowmaker. So what changed? Bigelow translated the musculature and intensity of her previous films to a fist-to-face reality. Grandeur was replaced with intimacy. Skydiving with IEDs. Vampires with terrorists. Is it enough to make her, suddenly, the most decorated filmmaker of her generation? We don't know yet. What we do know: The Oscars, naturally, like narrative. People get their turns. This truly is an egalitarian process, perhaps too much so. Bigelow's had hers. It may have been too soon and not for her masterwork. But that's how it goes. Unless, of course, Les Mis destroys everything, leaving little but a charred Eagles jersey, Osama bin Laden's beard, a stovepipe hat, and an empty mason jar of torpedo juice in its wake.