Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Oscar Season Diary #9: ’12 Years a Slave,’ the PGA Awards, and the Dangers of Expectation

PGA-tie-618x400So much of the film industry is driven by expectation.

Studios expect box-office returns. Audiences expect to be entertained. Critics expect to be impressed.

Most Oscar bloggers and awards season pundits place themselves outside of these categories. Most of us have no interest in the business side of the industry, nor do we elect to be as willingly passive as those who think going to the multiplex on a Saturday night is an excuse to switch your brain into idle mode.

We chug along on the perimeter of the industry, poking and prodding at the seams of awards season, championing our favorite films of the year and (sometimes) throwing the others under the bus, because we expect the Academy’s taste to coincide with quality, not whichever film happens to press the least amount of buttons to fall in line with a safe consensus.

The most dangerous thing about awards season, however, is the baggage that expectations can place on prognostication. It’s not a particularly important part of the actual awards, but predictions and expectations are often the push that gets the ball rolling.

Usually, by mid-January, all of the guilds and critics circles have announced their annual set of winners, and the consensus generally tends to funnel into a single lane. By this time last year, Argo was set firmly ahead of the pack, and a year before that The Artist was sitting pretty in a similar position.

If this weekend’s Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild ceremonies proved anything, it’s that the immense quality of the films released in the calendar year have interfered with the industry’s ability to come to that dreaded (but necessary) consensus.

The SAG (the largest voting base of any industry guild, with about 120,000 eligible voters) often aligns with the film with the broadest appeal (in essence, the film that’s easiest for its members to come to a consensus on), which, for 2013, is unmistakably American Hustle (Lupita Nyong’o, however, was able to notch a win over Jennifer Lawrence, plunging the predictability of that race further into oblivion once again).

As all prepared to stick a fork in 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, the seemingly-impossible happened: the PGA announced its first-ever tie, awarding top honors to both films at its awards ceremony last night. Not only were Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron’s respective films kept alive in a race they’d otherwise fallen behind in, they were actually catapulted ahead of American Hustle just as it was gaining the upper hand.

We’ve got the Directors Guild of America left, and their top honor will likely go to Alfonso Cuaron for his work on Gravity. That would, effectively, place Sandra Bullock’s one-woman show in prime position.

Alas, what have we learned? Expectations are limiting and evil, especially in such an unpredictable Oscar year. Just take a look at the likes of Inside Llewyn Davis and Saving Mr. Banks, two films largely expected to dominate this year’s race, but only mustered a paltry three Oscar nominations between the two of them–not a single one in a major category. Again, this goes against what our expectations would tell us. Both Emma Thompson and the Coen brothers have excellent Oscar track records–both are winners–and worked on films that were immense critical successes. 2013 taught us not to listen to history, generally a fail-safe way to predict the Oscar mentality.

The tide could very easily shift toward 12 Years a Slave, bringing the narrative of the season back full-circle onto itself. When you think about it, the path is always uncharted, it’s just the critics, guilds, audience wallets, and pundits that determine who lives and who dies in the race. After all, the hype machine is to blame for building up most of our expectations and then violently shooting them down. It happened with Silver Linings Playbook last year, nearly happened to 12 Years a Slave this year, and is (most likely) currently unraveling American Hustle‘s late-race dash for Best Picture.

rs_560x415-140118172006-1024.Lupita-Nyongo-SAG-011814_copyIt’s a constant circle of self-made praise. Each publication–from Variety to Entertainment Weekly to Awards Daily–wants to be there at the start of glory. They want to champion the buzzy film-that-could that comes out of Toronto, Venice, and Telluride. They want to advance the narrative, and gain traction for pin-pointing excellence.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but this essentially kills any genuine reaction from general critics (the “legitimate” ones are usually already at these festivals, and are doing their fair share of feeding the hype monster) and audiences, as they’re either over-hyped to the point where it’s impossible to be impressed, or they’re unable to think for themselves and merely pile on the praise to fit in with the tide that’s been crafted around them. It’s a self-starting, self-destructive bubble.

12 Years a Slave is, on paper, a film that seems a fitting Best Picture for the 2013 calendar year. The Academy appointed its first female black president and made numerous efforts to diversify its voting base by inviting more women and people of color than ever before.

It only makes sense, then, that a film like 12 Years a Slave would be championed as a harbinger of change, as the perfect vessel to carry us through this monumental year for change.

As evidenced yesterday on Twitter as the film was announced as one of two PGA winners, many champion the film because they say it’s a symbol of hope for minorities in the United States. I’ve always had a problem with this, seeing as the film is a triumph in its mere existence, and doesn’t need what is essentially a majority award to justify its presence.

According to the LA Times, the Oscar voting base is overwhelmingly white and male (90% white, 75% male). If 12 Years a Slave were to win with these voters, the only thing it proves is that the film is playing into the majority’s taste, and isn’t really triumphing over the majority, then, anyway. Do not let the film be a symbol of “hope,” as that is a false appropriation of credit. All this means is that the film received the white majority’s approval, and played to their tastes. If it wins, the film will win as a great film, and should not be used as a tool for validation of race or presence. If hope lies in the hands of playing to the majority’s fancy, freedom for the minority voice is a missing part of the equation, as objectification then becomes the issue.

Again, people’s expectations for the film are that it must be the harbinger of hope simply because it was crafted by black hands, stars black actors, and is adapted from a book written by a prominent figure in African-American history. It is a marvelous film that should be championed because it does represent the minority voice, and represents it extremely well.

12 Years a Slave is a moving, powerful work of art that both challenges the majority stylistically and thematically, but to demean its value by validating its greatness at the hands of a white male-dominated is an insult to what it stands for.

The seething, lurking, ever-present tentacles of expectation have no right to impede 12 Years a Slave‘s existence as a cinematic landmark.

Advertisements

AMPAS Best Documentary Feature Shortlist Revealed

Stories-We-Tell-Sarah-Polley

Vying for the five nomination slots are the following films:

The Act of Killing
The Armstrong Lie
Blackfish
The Crash Reel
Cutie and the Boxer
Dirty Wars
First Cousin Once Removed
God Loves Uganda
Life According to Sam
Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
The Square
Stories We Tell
Tim’s Vermeer
20 Feet from Stardom
Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington

Of those, I’m expecting The Act of Killing, Blackfish, 20 Feet from Stardom, and Stories We Tell to make it in. Though the Documentary Feature category is usually the most difficult for me to predict, I’ll throw Dirty Wars out there as my prediction for the fifth slot.

Stories We Tell is getting the ball rolling quite nicely, as it has recognition from the NYFCC Awards and the Satellite Awards thus far, though Blackfish is a legitimate contender that’s gotten its fair share of public exposure (thanks to a buzzy theatrical run and a telecast on CNN earlier this year).

Personal Film Awards/Will The Academy’s 2012 Leave a Film Industry Legacy?

reg_1024.OscarsRdCpt.mh.022213

A mere nine hours from now, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will have awarded Argo its top prize, making it statistically one of the weakest winners in the history of the Oscar ceremony. It heads into the Best Picture race without a foreground position in other key categories, most notably without a Best Director nomination.

Only three other films in the 85-year history of the Oscars have reigned supreme over their respective year without a Best Director nomination; Wings (1927/28), Grand Hotel (1931/32) and–most recently–Driving Miss Daisy (1989/90). Argo will become only the fourth exception to the Director nomination/Picture win rule, but lacks the cultural relevance and staying power of those it joins the ranks of. By next week, after Argo‘s rental profits are raked into their respective hawker’s pockets, the film will fall into obscurity, becoming notable only for the reasons it won Best Picture versus its legs as a quality film. Argo‘s legacy is already sealed as a film that made a late-season sweep at the biggest industry pity-party on record. The “snubbing” of the film’s helmer, Ben Affleck, has unfortunately translated into industry backlash against the Academy’s Director’s Branch, which simply didn’t think his work was strong enough to warrant a nomination. If he’d made it into the category, would Argo still win Best Picture? The 2012/2013 Awards Season would appear vastly different if so, with Lincoln likely taking top honors at precursor ceremonies and guild awards alike. This year’s Oscar race is reaffirming only in the sense that Ben Affleck’s likability within the industry, strong enough to guarantee his subpar film the industry’s top honors, will prove beneficial to continuing his transition from mega-star to definitive auteur. Affleck’s skills as a director are undeniable. The Town and Gone Baby Gone reek of quality craftsmanship which, to some degree, is partially why Argo is such a disappointment. Where the two Boston-set pictures reflect a director with a keen sense for location (Affleck is personally connected to the city), culture, and dramatics, Argo feels like a massive exercise in painting-by-numbers, with easily interchangeable direction without a personal mark. Argo will be forever known as the procedural that could, a film with merits based only on the misfortune of its director, who really didn’t deserve anything in the first place. The film’s successes tonight will be empty, remembered only for the pitiful circumstances surrounding them.

ben-affleck-argo

What we must remember, however, is that the Academy’s decision is not binding–at least in a cultural sense. Crash might have trumped Brokeback Mountain in 2005, but where the latter gave a nation perspective, the former gave us a  Showtime series cancelled after the first season. The Kings Speech might have been the perfect frame for its actors to shine, but The Social Network held a mirror to a generation. The Academy has a tendency to make in-the-moment decisions that don’t necessarily highlight the “important” films of their respective eras. Audiences and academia have embraced such films as the “better” offerings of their respective years, making them the unofficial “Best Picture” in their own right. We remember Brokeback Mountain and The Social Network–hell, even Black SwanJuno, There Will Be Blood, Mulholland Drive, etc. have all taken on more prestige and cultural prevalence than their respective year’s Academy-designated Best Picture.

Which films from 2012 will we have to look for to fortify the year’s presence for future generations? Films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour are too small-scale with little commercial appeal, as they’re difficult to grasp in many ways (Beasts for its artistic oddities, Amour for its insistence on eliciting negative reactions combined with a complex structure). Django Unchained will be remembered as an interesting blip on Tarantino’s map, but withstanding little beyond that. Lincoln is a film drawing more on an audience’s affections for its real-life subjects than its strengths as a film, and Les Miserables is eye and ear candy with built-in nostalgia, forgotten beyond the late-night rooms of aspiring drama majors until the next incarnation of the it-needs-to-die-already musical comes along in 15 years. This leaves us with Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty, and Life of Pi. Silver Linings Playbook and Life of Pi are both based on previous works of fiction, already with built-in audiences. Both films offer fresh takes on their source material (crafting “cinematic” casings for them) and yielding high box-office returns (both grossing over $100 million domestically). They’re quality productions and will prove popular at retailers after their DVD releases, but Zero Dark Thirty will emerge as 2012’s crowning achievement as future generations look back. The film is notorious for its depiction of our government using torture as a means to gain information, but it doesn’t lead to much. The only thing the death of Osama bin Laden proves–at least in the world of Zero Dark Thirty–is that steady enduring unrest doesn’t have a solution solvable by putting a bullet into human flesh. So, then, where you “want” to go (as a nation, as a society, as a world power) becomes an issue, as there is no foreseeable place to go. The next target gives us no time for celebration, and the uncertainty of the United States’ position in the world is a questionable state of reality future generations will be living as they reflect back on Kathryn Bigelow’s film.

It’s difficult to accept the Academy as a cultural preservator for this reason, or maybe films that withstand years and decades have simply disappeared from production slates. When was the last time we saw a Bonnie & Clyde, a Sunset Boulevard, a Casablanca, a Psycho? Only time will tell if our spectacle-laden society has actually produced anything worthy of standing the test of time next to such classics, but Argo and its industry pity-win will be lost in the shuffle come April.

I’d also like to present my personal film awards for the prior cinematic year. Every film I’ve seen (released in the United States from January 1st through December 31, 2012) had its fair shot at breaking into one of the categories I’ve designated below. I’ve limited the number of nominees in some categories and expanded them in others (*makes jack-off motion at Academy*), but for the most part I’ve kept the numbers pretty standard. The bolded people and films are the winners. Enjoy.

Motion Picture

1 – Zero Dark Thirty

2 – Beasts of the Southern Wild

3 – The Master

4 – Silver Linings Playbook

5 – Celeste and Jesse Forever

6 – Holy Motors

7 – Seven Psychopaths

8 – Life of Pi

9 – Django Unchained

10 – The Impossible

Close Calls: Flight, Rust and Bone, Amour, Your Sister’s Sister, The Sessions, The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, Prometheus, Magic Mike, Damsels in Distress, The Grey, Pitch Perfect, The Deep Blue Sea, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables

Actress

Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook

Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty

Quvenzhane Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild

Rashida Jones – Celeste and Jesse Forever

Naomi Watts – The Impossible

Close calls: Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone), Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea), Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)

Actor

Hugh Jackman – Les Miserables

Denzel Washington – Flight

Denis Lavant – Holy Motors

Joaquin Phoenix – The Master

Matthias Schoenaerts – Rust and Bone

Close Calls: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), Jack Black (Bernie), Colin Farrell (Seven Psychopaths), John Hawkes (The Sessions), Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)

TheMaster_JoaquinPhoenix.png.CROP.rectangle3-large

Supporting Actor

Phillip Seymour Hoffman – The Master

Dwight Henry – Beasts of the Southern Wild

Christoph Waltz – Django Unchained

Matthew McConoughey – Magic Mike

Tom Hiddleston – The Deep Blue Sea

Close Call: Guy Pearce (Lawless)

Supporting Actress

Sally Field – Lincoln

Kelly Reilly – Flight

Anne Hathaway – Les Miserables

Emily Blunt – Looper

Rosemarie DeWitt – Your Sister’s Sister

Close Call: Ari Graynor (For a Good Time, Call…)

Director

Benh Zeitlin – Beasts of the Southern Wild

Paul Thomas Anderson – The Master

Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty

Leos Carax – Holy Motors

Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained

Close Call: Gary Ross – The Hunger Games

zero-dark-thirty-kathryn-bigelow

Screenplay

Silver Linings Playbook

Celeste and Jesse Forever

Zero Dark Thirty

Amour

Your Sister’s Sister

Seven Psychopaths

Close Calls: Flight, Django Unchained, Beasts of the Southern Wild

seven-psychopaths-img03

Cinematography

The Master

The Impossible

Rust and Bone

Life of Pi

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Close Calls: Django Unchained, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables

Production Design

Anna Karenina

Beasts of the Southern Wild

The Impossible

Les Miserables

Prometheus

Close Calls: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Lincoln

Visual Effects

Life of Pi

Prometheus

Looper

Rust and Bone

The Impossible

121121_MOV_LifeofPi.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-large

Costume Design

Anna Karenina

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Django Unchained

Lincoln

Les Miserables

Close Calls: The Girl, Life of Pi

 

Hair, Makeup, Prosthetics

Holy Motors

Hitchcock

Lincoln

Les Miserables

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Close Call: Prometheus

Editing

Silver Linings Playbook

Holy Motors

Zero Dark Thirty

The Master

Django Unchained

Foreign Film

Rust and Bone

Holy Motors

The Deep Blue Sea

Amour

Holy Motors

Someone’s Hot For Oscar; Predicting the Academy Award Nominations

Photobucket
To begin this year’s Oscar predictions with continued harping over last year’s pitiful excuse for an Academy Awards ceremony would be to completely demean the conspicuously-outstanding American cinematic offerings 2010 served up. But to hell with that, I’m in the mood for bitching, and Kathryn Bigelow and Sandra Bullock still personally owe me for the distress they caused in my life around this time last year.  I’ll most likely be taking my tears and backhanded compliments elsewhere this year, particularly casting shade on what, if the Golden Globes are any indication, could potentially turn out to upset even last year’s Oscar telecast as one of the worst in the AMPAS’ longstanding (and long-respected) history.

The problem I’ve had with the Academy for quite some time now is their increasing insistence on insulting their many followers, not unlike myself, who somehow find it within themselves to hinge what is basically their entire lives on a single telecast that’s gradually making its way down from being the precipice of artistic recognition to a night full of industry favors upheld by a “we need to like you so people like us” nomination process. If last year taught us anything, it’s that giving into societal agendas and journalistic ideals of catchy headlines (First Woman Wins Best Director!) for free press has apparently turned into the Academy’s game.  I mean, absolutely no one but a casual moviegoing public who didn’t see much more than the commercially-friendly The Blind Side could possibly even begin to consider Sandy’s performance as 2009’s crowning achievement of female performances.  The fact remains that Sandra Bullock is a crowd-pleasing, widely-appealing ‘star’ and not a gifted actress. She’s an essential part of what makes Hollywood a business; she’s marketable, relatable, likeable, and just rubs America the right way in general, making it easy for the AMPAS to align themselves with her.

All bitching aside, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that this year’s race to watch out for is Supporting Actress, a category that’s generally one-sided and ultimately locked months before the nomination process even begins. No clear frontrunner has emerged amidst a group of women whose performances are as brilliant as they are ambiguously fitting for both the Lead and Supporting categories (I’m looking at you, Lesley Manfield and Hailee Steinfeld). Both could fall into either category depending on how the Academy chooses to dole out the nominations this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they give both potentials a spot in the Supporting category to make room for some powerhouse players in the Lead category (I’m thinking Moore, Kidman, Williams, and even Swank as an outside pick have a shot this year).  Amy Adams is the only definitive lock at this point, with Melissa Leo potentially creeping in as the category’s alternate. The case of Mila Kunis, on the other hand, is one that has me scratching my head a bit; Her work in the film clearly pales in comparison to what she’ll potentially be up against, seeing as she’s the obligatory “let’s fit the seeming frontrunner into as many categories as possible to up its tally” acting nomination this year. Her’s is neither a girthy or substantial role at all with literally not much for her to work with. A sufficient turn, but nothing Oscar-worthy. I do love me some sweet lips, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like her role is one which is enhanced by  the atmospherics and diegetic emphasis placed upon it, not necessarily by the output of Kunis herself. It’s a role anyone would have been nominated for if they were casted in it simply because of the containing film’s momentum going into the nominations, it just so happens Mila was lucky enough to get it. You can’t forget about Helena Bonham Carter either, although something’s telling me she could be the surprise snub (although rightfully so) of the Awards this year.

Photobucket

Keeping up with the ladies of 2010, Lead Actress should prove no less exciting than Supporting Actress will be. Annette Bening and Natalie Portman have been locks for months now, and not a thing will change that by come tomorrow morning. I’m confident in placing Kidman as the third in line as of right now, with Moore trailing just behind her. The fifth spot, however, is a complete toss-up. It’s hard to say who exactly would “fit” in with the typical awards season momentum going into the nominations (seeing as not one other performance has consistently garnered accolades across the circuit), but at this point I’m most inclined to say Michelle Williams (interchangeable with Lesley Manville or Steinfeld, if one or both are not placed in Supporting, with Moore as the other alternate here as well) is the likely holder of the fifth spot. I’d be entirely unsurprised if Jennifer Lawrence or even Hilary Swank made their way past Williams despite their earlier-in-the-year releases losing the majority of the buzz they’d garnered. This fifth spot becomes entirely crucial to Portman’s road to a win on Oscar night as well, seeing as a win is most likely for her if both Leading Ladies from The Kids are All Right snag spots (Bening is a lock, Moore is up in the air) as the Academy could likely split if this is the scenario.

The men’s race has been pretty low-key this year, seeing as veteran mainstays (Jeff Bridges, Robert DuVall) each gave expert turns in crucially-timed-and-released pictures that pandered directly to Oscar voters. James Franco is likely to sneak into the fifth spot based on the director’s namesake on his performance’s containing film alone, trailing just behind Jesse Eisenberg and Colin Firth for their respective turns in Lead roles. Supporting male is, for the second year in a row, the least enticing of all the acting categories this year. Christian Bale obviously leads the pack in terms of buzz coming off of his crucial win at the Globes, and putting your money on Geoffrey Rush as a potential nominee wouldn’t be a bad idea either. The rest of the slots are a complete toss-up, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who could potentially fill the rest of the slots, ranging anywhere from Jeremy Renner in The Town to even Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right.

Best Director should also prove to be an interesting race albeit a tad predictable in terms of the nominations. I can’t see anyone other than Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell, Tom Hooper, David Fincher, and Christopher Nolan even coming close to snagging a nomination slot aside from the slight chance that The Coen’s might edge out Russell.

Photobucket

The now-all-inclusive Best Picture race is proving to be a tad more exciting than last year’s as well, with about 11 or 12 of the year’s best films all realistically vying for the coveted 10 slots. Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, The Fighter, The King’s Speech, Toy Story 3, and True Grit are all definitive locks and that’s no surprise to anyone; it’s the remaining 3 slots that have me stumped. I can absolutely see the Academy pandering to the Indie crowd they sort of drastically alienated over the past two years and giving both Another Year and Blue Valentine (I can dream, can’t I?) some love, and placing Inception atop the package as a finishing touch to please the masses. A long outside guess has me thinking The Town or 127 Hours could sneak in there as well.

But if the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that the AMPAS are growing increasingly more liberal with their classification choices in many major categories (ahem, going as far as to consider Kate Winslet’s performance in The Reader as Leading and placing The Blind Side alongside Precious and An Education in the Best Picture category) and that’s ultimately what I think this year’s major categories will come down to as well; how the Academy decided to classify certain performances over others. But I can’t say I’ll be surprised at any of what unfolds tomorrow morning, just elated that neither Kathryn Bigelow, Sandra Bullock, and Kate Winslet will be  without cause for celebration come 5:30 AM.

PREDICTIONS

Best Picture

Black Swan

The King’s Speech

The Fighter

Inception

The Kids Are All Right

The Social Network

True Grit

Inception

Blue Valentine

Toy Story 3

Outside Shots: Shutter Island, Another Year, Winter’s Bone

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right

Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole

Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right

Outside Shots: Hilary Swank Conviction, Jennifer Lawrence Winter’s Bone, Hailee Steinfeld True Grit

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Colin Firth, The King’s Speech

Robert DuVall, Get Low

Jeff Bridges, True Grit

Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network

Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine

Outside Shots: James Franco 127 Hours

Photobucket

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams, The Figther

Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech

Melissa Leo, The Fighter

Mila Kunis, Black Swan

Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Outside Shots: Lesley Manville, Another Year

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Christian Bale, The Fighter

Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech

Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right

Andrew Garfield, The Social Network

Jeremy Renner, The Town

Best Director

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan

Christopher Nolan, Inception

David O. Russell, The Fighter

Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech

David Fincher, The Social Network

Outside Shots: Mike Leigh Another Year, Martin Scorcese Shutter Island, The Coen Brothers True Grit