With the Academy Awards quickly approaching, we're going through each of the major categories and pretending we're Academy voters. Forget who will win, we have a decision to make.
The Nominees: Steven Spielberg for Lincoln, David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook, Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Michael Haneke for Amour, Ang Lee for Life of Pi
Ben Affleck will win! Well, he totally would if he was nominated. But, inexplicably, the guy behind the likely Best Picture winner wasn't nominated for Argo, a strange and mysterious oversight that might suggest that he still has a bit of Gigli stink lingering on him after all these years. It's a shame for him and a shame for us, as Affleck's nomination would have made for a tidier category. Odd as it may sound, if he was nominated he'd likely be the winner. He won the Directors Guild award, after all. And the BAFTA. Oh,and the Golden Globe. So, yeah, were Affleck in this category it'd probably be all sewn up. But he's not. And, oh man, neither is Kathryn Bigelow. Tough category this year.
Anyway, whether or not Affleck would win doesn't mean I'd vote for him. Argo was great, one of my favorite films of the year, done carefully and smartly and with plenty of uncynical attention paid toward telling a story in an entertaining, audience-pleasing (and audience-rattling) way. But it was also pretty straightforward, and I've heard rumblings that Chris Terrio's script was so good that anyone could have made it into a good movie. Who knows if that's true or not, but I'm a whim-based Academy voter! Truth doesn't matter, only the whisperings on the wind. So as much as I like Ben Affleck and cheer on his career reinvention and am excited to see what he does next, I don't know if he's quite earned himself an Oscar yet. Plus, I don't know that Argo would be getting quite as much attention if it was directed by, say, Ridley Scott. We're all maybe inflating our grades just a little bit to help out one of our star athletes.
Lincoln was stately and also smart, and Spielberg cast beautifully and was wise to hire a great like Tony Kushner to write the script. But Spielberg suffers from one major flaw as a director, and it's on bad display in Lincoln: The man just does not know when to end a damn movie. Like A.I. puttered to a wheezy end several scenes past where it could have concluded beautifully, Lincoln misses a perfect opportunity to end on a poetic sigh — Lincoln walking out of the White House on his way to Ford's Theater — and continues on into an awful fake-out with Lincoln's son in a different theater and then Lincoln dying in bed and flickering in a candle flame and ugh. It's too much. It's silly and pandering, as if we couldn't understand the gravity of the death without Spielberg bonking us over the head with it. I blame the last ten or so minutes of Lincoln for why I can't vote for Spielberg this year. Anyway, he's justly won twice before, so it's not like he's getting shut out in the cold. He made a good film that ended poorly. Ah, well.
We all know Ang Lee is talented, and he actually did manage to make something stirring and thoughtful out of what could have been utter treacle, so he deserves accolades for that. He also did a wonderful job of breathing life into CGI, which can often feel cold and removed. Life of Pi was a surprisingly enjoyable film, and I can see why he's on this list. But... Lee does let the movie yaw into some hokey pseudo-spiritual checkout line philosophy toward the end. He gets points off for that. And, frankly, I just didn't love the movie. It was good, way better than expected and gorgeous to behold, but that's about all I can say for it. Ang Lee knows he's good, he's got an Oscar, and that'll have to be enough this year.
David O. Russell made a nice little romantic comedy that he obviously has some personal connection to, but he cut corners and let the movie list ever so slightly into sappiness. This is not his best work, by a lot maybe, and that's all I'll say about that.
So we're down to the two real indie guys. On the one hand we have Haneke, the venerable Count Dooku of foreign torture cinema, and on the other there's fresh-faced first-timer Benh Zeitlin. Haneke's Amour was a brutal, terrifying, but oddly humane film about the end of life, one that left me rattled for days. It was depressing as all get out, but also hopeful in a mysterious, clinical way. Meanwhile Zeitlin made a great big rambling fable of a thing in Beasts, a jubilant and reverent myth about nature and the nation, the tidal South in particular. It's a daring, wildly creative feat for a first-time feature director, wrangling this huge elemental tale into the confines of a film and coaching a team of non-actors to some fine, expressive performances. Part of me wants to vote for Zeitlin just to encourage the guy, to say, "We see you and like what you're doing now go do more of it." But, an Oscar can also change a filmmaker's career in unwelcome ways, forcing them into the mainstream and blowing them up too quickly. So that makes me hesitant.
Haneke is older, and Haneke has made many fascinating films, gripping and gutting stuff. Maybe he deserves the award. I know, I know, a lot of his work is deliberately cruel, shaming the audience for having even dared to watch the movie. And there is an argument to be made that Amour's sentiment is false, that it's a ploy to get viewers to care so he can punish us even more. I get why people are put off by his movies. But doesn't that also make him even more interesting? Isn't this the kind of boundary-stretching stuff we're supposed to be rewarding? I say yes. So I somewhat gingerly cast my vote for Haneke while giving Zeitlin a firm pat on the head and a hearty "Well done."