Ben Affleck

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

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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.

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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)

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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

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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

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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

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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

Musing on “Argo” and the Globes; What Does this Mean for the Oscars?

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I liken Ben Affleck’s direction of Argo to that of a monkey using a brush to paint a smiley face. For what I assume some of you might think are the “right” reason, that’s the worst comparison in the world. Affleck has proven himself as a skilled filmmaker both in front of and behind the camera, spinning webs of cinematic greatness whilst honing focused, almost dialectic perspective on his prior features based in Boston, a town he’s largely familiar with (he spent a great deal of his young life in Cambridge). Of course, I’m not likening Affleck’s aptitude to that of a zoo animal. I merely think it’s the reception of his latest work, however, that makes it hard to see him as anything but an awards season actor-turned-director spectacle. Something unexpected from an unexpected source (in this case, not an entirely unexpected source, just one on a much bigger scale than what we’re used to, considering Argo has grossed in upwards of $100 million).

It’s hard to not compare Affleck’s awards season run these past few months to that of Kathryn Bigelow’s during the 2009-10 pre-Oscar period. Bigelow’s nomination and subsequent win for Best Director not only marked the Academy’s first official recognition of a woman in that category, but, for me, cemented the Academy’s existence as a purely cyclical machine of self-generating, self-whoring, pathetically pandering publicity. I assume this isn’t a surprise to many. I just wasn’t so readily accepting of Bigelow’s triumph that year as the rest of Hollywood seemed to be. At every commercial break, I recall the announcer touting the category for all it was worth: “Will Kathryn Bigelow become the first ever female to win for Best Director? Find out in thirty minutes.” Her gender became the go-to talking point of that year’s Oscars. Does that make her any less worthy? In some cases, yes. The Academy, perhaps nominating her based on merit alone, placed her there in a collective vote. But, her gender was marketed and exploited to generate hype which would eventually become self-fulfilling. In essence, her gender was her defining trait that night (It’s also interesting to note that Bigelow was given the cold shoulder from the Academy this year, indicating that the initial excitement of decorating a woman who directed a decent film four years ago has long since worn off).

While Affleck possesses little in the way of such “unique” aspects to define his presence on the awards circuit, his actor-turned-director status as well as his general likeability within the industry undoubtedly contributed to his name being thrown around this Oscar season. Alas, he wasn’t nominated in the category he was (at one time) largely expected to win (or at least give Steven Spielberg a run for his money). So, what went wrong? It’ll be interesting to see how Affleck’s combined Oscar snub/Globes takeover plays itself out, seeing as (as much as I don’t want to admit it) the earlier-than-usual deadline for Academy nomination ballots most likely played a huge factor in his lack of a nomination.

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The Globes usually hold little influence over the direction of awards season. They rarely have power to dictate what gets nominated at the Oscars, but often reaffirm the direction Academy members should take as they cast their ballots by reflecting what countless other guilds, critics circles, and Oscar season awards shows already have. Since Oscar voters weren’t able to see who won at the Golden Globes before voting, a very prominent piece of the usual awards season puzzle was missing. I’m not saying the Globes and Academy are mutually operational, it’s just that Affleck’s “snub” seems too huge to ignore when Argo gobbled up major accolades on Sunday (Affleck won for Direction, the film won in the dramatic category). If the timetable for the Globes ceremony and Oscar voting was “normal” this year, I think we’d be looking at a very different Oscar picture, one that included a lot more Ben Affleck and a lot less Benh Zeitlin.

So, does Globes success bode well for Argo at the Oscars? Maybe. Arguably, Argo is a more, how shall I put this, “worldy” film than Oscar juggernaut (and current frontrunner for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actor) Lincoln, its appeal stronger as a “Globes” film than an “Academy” film. The Academy will most likely still side with Spielberg, but the outpouring of anger from various Oscar pundits, critics, and general audiences alike has me infinitely baffled. It’s one thing to create something new out of source material as David O. Russell did with Silver Linings Playbook. It’s another to competently direct a glorified Wikipedia article, which is exactly what Argo is. It’s universally appealing, superficially suspenseful, reaffirming of traditional American values (that last shot? Come on.), and ultimately an adequate procedural. Argo does what it needs to do; it tells a fascinating story. It doesn’t however, take a historical occurrence and give it a “new” face for the medium as, say, The Impossible has done with its retelling of the events surrounding the 2004 tsunami. The Impossible uses the frame of true events to tell a much larger, cinematically rich story, making connections a simple A-leads-to-B recreation can’t. And that, my friends, is a choice of direction. Although, it’s unfair to hate a film for what it hasn’t accomplished, for what it hasn’t done, and what it is not.

If anything, the HFPA’s love for Argo could very well act as a major catalyst for the first write-in Oscar since Hal Mohr’s win for Best Cinematography in 1935. Is it allowed right now? Nope. But, there’s buzz within the industry that that’s just what Academy voters are planning to do for Affleck, but I’m not so certain the push is strong enough to overthrow Spielberg’s current position out front, or to warrant a compete overhaul of voting rules since write-in voting hasn’t been allowed for decades. For starters, Argo isn’t exactly filmmaking of the highest order–even its most vocal supporters would agree to that. It’s certainly not a film that will define an era as, say, films like Citizen Kane or Bonnie and Clyde. It’s not a monumental achievement for the medium, and certainly not worthy of taking away recognition from the likes of Zeitlin, Lee, and Russell. People seem to be more frustrated that their predictions were off thanks to one-two sucker punch snubs of two early Oscar frontrunners. At most, Argo has the potential to gain some sympathy votes in the Best Picture category, making it a viable contender to take on Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook, the latter of which I think is poised to upset as well (the power of Weinstein got Jacki Weaver and David O. Russell surprise nominations in their respective categories. It can’t be denied).

I just so desperately want to think of Ben Affleck as a brush-equipped platypus or sloth; now that’s impressive.

Argo: A Mixed Bag of Conflicted Ideals and Smooth Action

Americans love watching other Americans win; whether it be at the Olympics, cheering on a pissed off housewife as she berates a retail worker for an extra 20% off, or in a power struggle of Western values against Middle Eastern opposition. Countless international conflicts, thirty-three years, a fake film, and six would-be-hostage escapees later we have Argo, an ambitious (if problematic) two hour wank to a “winning” America from director-star Ben Affleck. If you find yourself complaining about the “spoiler” just revealed, chances are you grew up with a “Jem” lunchbox and/or didn’t pay attention in history class; you’re not Argo’s target age demographic, and shame on you for being a waste of space (and tax dollars) in mid-80s elementary school.

Turmoil amidst foreign affairs in the Middle East lingered as the Vietnam War ended, the purple haze of the hippie generation wafting away, the legacy of the 1970s lingering as the dust settled; The stage for Argo is set amidst an era which ushered in a uniquely aggressive American perspective on foreign affairs and the United States’ role in international crises, one that’s hardly containable within a white picket fence crafted with optimism and a neighborly “hello.”

This post-“American Dream” America serves as only a pseudo centerpiece for the glorious buffet of cultural critique Affleck initially serves up. The bulk of the film is a systematic retelling of the “Canadian Caper” rescue mission of 1979, the remaining course a condemnation of America’s world presence as a vigilant virus of socio-cultural-politcal domination. Burka-clad women snacking on KFC, inept Government employees, and a nation easily distracted by the celluloid escape/fandom fantasy of Hollywood come to mind as pieces of the diverse American identity Argo seems to hate.

Affleck spends plenty of time attempting to convince us that America—Hollywood in particular—is filled with capitalistic, power-tripping pigs, but by the same token the artifice of the film industry is credited as the saving grace of the six American lives stranded in Tehran after a Revolutionary mob storms the U.S. Embassy, the Canadian Ambassador agreeing to shelter them in secrecy. C.I.A. specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) enlists the help of movie industry power players John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to craft an elaborate plot to “fake” the production of a film (press kits, magazine articles, table reading and all) which will scout locations in Tehran, allowing the six potential rescuees to pose as members of the crew for their secret extraction. Still, capitalist Hollywood/blood suckling America rears its ugly head; “If I’m going to make a fake film, I’m going to make a fake hit,” Chambers asserts.

Much of the action revolving around the rescue itself is exciting, if rather formulaic. There’s no doubt Affleck is a skilled filmmaker. His ability to harvest thick wads of newfound suspense from historical molds with well-known, pre-established outcomes is a testament to his precision and tact as a director. But, after the smoke clears, I’m left clawing for traction, searching for an auteuristic mark amidst the sheen of suspense for suspense’s sake. It makes for a fun ride but a muddled message—especially when the outcome is already rooted in the history of reality.

Affleck breaks the “Tell me something I can’t look up on Google” rule with Argo, but ultimately the biggest problems I have with the film are its wishy-washy, conflicted values. On one hand scenes of increasingly hostile, violent tension between the United States and Iran pepper the film with a sense of impending doom. On the other, it’s a film hell-bent on assuring us that as long as you live in America, everything is going to be OK. The sentiment is inspiring, but simply doesn’t bode well–especially with the climate of contemporary foreign affairs. Scenes of Iranian officials declaring revenge upon all parties (including Canada) for their involvement in the rescue are sprinkled throughout the closing moments of Argo, bringing the reality of worldwide conflict crashing through the dream veneer the celebratory comfort the success of the mission provides. For a moment you find yourself thinking that this is a film that finally gets it; a film which touts happiness as the fleeting, momentary emotion that it is. The world is not perfect, and Hollywood processes real-world conflict into spectacular fodder for a willing audience. In the ideal world of Argo Mendez returns to his home, embraces his wife, reunites with his son, and all is right after a wave of Uncle Sam’s magic wand. The biting reality Affleck dangles over our heads for the majority of the film, however, proves problematic as it begs to reroute that sappy conclusion at all costs.

Argo is a ultimately a prelude to contemporary American sentiment, to the War on Terror, and to every ignorant New Yorker who smashed the windows of Persian-owned restaurants after 9/11. It’s a film that fully acknowledges that the world isn’t full of rainbows and sunshine—never has been, never will be. It’s a stark reality mainstream film tends to generalize far beyond the scope of any real-world implications. Glimpses of such critique are present in Argo, but the overarching, influential hand of Hollywood control destroys any effects it might have had thanks to a hokey ending and melodramatic tricks. Argo ultimately falls victim to too many fantastical “fixes” that force the film out of touch with the reality it so desperately seeks to correct. Argo might end with a macho movie icon embracing a hot blonde while the American flag flies conspicuously in the front yard of their suburban home, but reinforcing the traditional pageantry of idealized American values means nothing in the face of those pissed off Iranians whom actually informed the world that “Canada will pay.”