Monday, January 28, 2013

Thoughts on Why/How 'Argo' Became the New Best Picture Front-Runner

With a win for the Producers Guild Award earlier in the day and then a Best Ensemble win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards (an award that could be more interesting, but more or less becomes SAG's version of Best Picture every year) later that night, Argo has seemed to have vaulted to front-runner status amongst the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. This comes only a few weeks after people seemed to think Affleck's snub in Best Director was a death knell for the film's chances (documented earlier in the month here). But when Affleck won the Golden Globe for Best Director - and the attending crowd gave him a standing ovation as if he were Jimmy Valvano - moods shifted toward Affleck and Argo. This has been an interesting development for me for two reasons: 1) Upon the announcement of the Oscar nominations, it was Kathryn Bigelow's snub that got the most press, and you would have thought she would have been the beneficiary of the sappy "oh-we-didn't-nominate-her-so-lets-award-the-film" sympathy; and 2) The sudden rush by Hollywood toward "Let's get Affleck an Oscar!" seems to ignore the fact that Affleck already has an Oscar ('97 Original Screenplay, Good Will Hunting).

So why the change of heart toward him? There are several reasons. First and foremost, Argo is very good. I thought it was one of the ten best of the year and so do many others. It's stirringly taught, very well acted (though, for the fucking life of me, I don't understand why the only person they want to showcase for that is Alan Arkin) and directed with the steady hand of a filmmaker far more specialized than someone who is only on their third film. But let's be real here. Oscars are rarely won on merit - they're mostly won on stories - media-generated narratives that will give the Monday morning newspapers the chance to sprinkle in a nice headline and a great cover shot. So, what is the story with Argo? Have people really fallen for Affleck that hard? That's certainly a possibility. Oscar has a very long history of going out of its way to show affection toward good looking male movie stars turned directors, which explains why Kevin Costner, Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood all have Best Director Oscars, while Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles don't. (Now, that doesn't totally apply here since Affleck can't win Best Director without a nomination, but its fitting that Affleck may win the second Oscar of his career - for producing Argo - while his contemporary, Paul Thomas Anderson - a filmmaker Affleck specifically name-dropped in his Globe speech - still doesn't have any).

So has everyone just fallen in love? I think its something a little more complicated than that. After all, Argo did come out all the way in October, and if the love for it was really this fervent, why was their the sudden lull in enthusiasm in December/early January? The Oscar season essentially sounded off when Argo came out to huge fanfare last year, and the fact that the season has come full circle and come back to Argo suggests something to me that's a little more sinister. To me, it's less important to think about why Argo is now the front-runner, and more about why the other films that used to be at the front of the line now are not. So let's go through the rounds and see why certain films - and there have been more this year than usual - took their place atop the mantle and then subsequently fell off.

Lincoln (released Nov. 16)
Probably the most anticipated film of the season, Lincoln was released to blisteringly great reviews and when Affleck was left off of Best Director, it seemed like it was Lincoln's year to dominate. Not to mention that Lincoln has six nominations in the major categories, while Argo only has three. So, how did this movie lose its thunder? In a lot of ways, the fact that Spielberg was the only major player to make the cut in the big shake-up in the Best Director category may have gained the film a little bit of resentment. Spielberg may be the most overexposed film director of all time, and I think there may be the feeling that we've given him enough credit (and really, many film lovers have felt that way for a while), and we don't need to rig the system by eliminating the competition. In a lotta ways, Argo may be getting a head of steam toward Best Picture because people are upset that they want to give it Best Director, but can't. People have been told that Lincoln is the best for too long. It's too prestigious and too obvious a choice - it has the feeling of a movie specifically made just to win awards. Ironically, I think Lincoln may actually still be even with Argo if Affleck had managed to sneak in.

Zero Dark Thirty (released Dec. 19)
While Argo getting snubbed in Best Director may have given it a underdog-like boost in the media storylines, Bigelow's snub was a much more devastating blow. It came at the culmination of a feisty tug-of-war between the film's fans (Zero Dark may have gotten the most hyperbolic "best of the year!" boasts - and most of those came before people got a chance to see it) and the film's critics (a smaller, equally as rabid group that shunned the film's apparent approval of torture methods). By the time people were actually given the opportunity to see it, they were either upset about the waterboarding, or upset about being waterboarded by over-enthusiasm. Zero Dark's meteoric plummet from front-runner to non-contender is particularly interesting since all of the outcry over Bigelow not getting nominated was swept under the rug once Affleck won the Golden Globe. As I said, this time of year we migrate toward the stories that are better, not the films.

Silver Linings Playbook (released Nov. 16 - though not wide til two weeks ago)
I'm throwing this one in here even though it has never really been a "front-runner", as we tend to define it (ie, for the previous three films, there was a point where it seemed like a lock - never so with Silver Linings). At the same time, its an overwhelming crowd-pleaser that managed to load up eight nominations, and it wouldn't shock anybody if it managed to come out on top. The eight noms (which seemed like more than expected) gave the film a nice boost which was accompanied by the Weinstein Company FINALLY giving the film a wide release after nearly two months of being in limited theaters. The Weinsteins sure are shrewd this time of year, but it seems to me that they have unloaded the chamber on this one, as it still hasn't made it to the summit. Likely, it never will.

Now, I don't mean to sound like Argo is definitely going to win. Thoughts can change between now and February 24th, and we already thought Zero Dark Thirty was a lock less than a month ago. After all, if we concede that Lincoln will win Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and (probably) Best Director, is it crazy to think it can win Best Picture too? I don't. Argo is in front now, but for reasons that have very little to do with cinema. There's still time for one more shift if there is one, and I think that this current maneuvering has made the Oscar ceremony next month suddenly more exciting than it had been when the nominations were initially released. How will Argo handle the home stretch? I believe the Weinsteins and Spielberg will have their say before things are decided officially.

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