Zero Dark Thirty

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

“Argo” Slops Into First: Predicting the 85th Annual Academy Awards

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It’s a fitting conclusion (and how very “Academy,” too) to one of the most unpredictable Oscar races in recent memory. Argo, the standard procedural helmed by big-name Hollywood power player Ben Affleck, has emerged as the clear frontrunner for the Academy’s top prize after garnering major recognition from the likes of SAG, BAFTA, the HFPA and the DGA, all organizations with Academy crossover membership.

It’s putting a glum damper on my awards season because  Argo, a film which pales so miserably in the face of the other nine nominees, is merely succeeding on the misfortunes of its director-star. After the Academy “snubbed” Affleck out of the Best Director category, a sort of bourgeois, first-world rage swept through the voting community and they began lobbing awards at him like he was Peter O’Toole in Venus and everyone thought he was going to die before they had a chance to nominate him for anything ever again.

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I can’t remember a time a snub was so actively met with reactionary sympathy. It’s tough for a community to accept that one of its most successful members simply wasn’t liked well enough by the branch of Directors who decide the Academy’s Best Director nominees. So, then, what makes the Academy favor Argo more than, say, Zero Dark Thirty, a film with massive pre-awards season buzz (and five Oscar nominations to its credit this year) but also went without individual Academy recognition for its director, Kathryn Bigelow? Where Argo is a slick by-the-numbers procedural which reinforces stereotypically souped-up “American” ideals, Zero Dark Thirty uses the frame of one of the most momentous manhunts of all time to tell a much larger story about gender politics and the dangers of letting faith linger in the hands of the powers that be, forcing us to confront an uncertain future and false sense of security–an idea Argo works against. Where Zero Dark Thirty ends with its “climax” putting no one at ease and forcing our nation down a path with nowhere to go and no end in sight, Argo literally drapes an American flag behind a picture-perfect nuclear family standing on the porch of their suburban paradise. Argo creates idealized fantasy out of actuality, Zero Dark Thirty uses cinematic fiction to force us into a state of consciousness.

Is Kathryn Bigelow’s star not bright enough to warrant her vastly superior film taking precedence over megastar Ben Affleck’s? The sympathy votes for Argo that have been pouring in over the past month will carry it to Best Picture greatness on Sunday, but with that decision, are we deviating too far away from the medium itself? Industry politics have trumped the Oscar voting process for decades, but we can justify the Weinsteins campaigning for films like Silver Linings Playbook and The Artist because they’re products of quality. Argo‘s only legacy will not be that it was the best film of 2012; it will merely be the film that won because its director was snubbed; the film that is forgotten as soon as the ceremony is over, as it is a tool to award sympathy on behalf of a voter base that sees Affleck as invaluable. That’s all fine and perfectly acceptable, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

It’s not like the Academy’s next best in line is any better, as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a difficult pill to swallow at this year’s Oscars as well. Sure, its depiction of a nation intensely divided might have coincidental implications on contemporary (equally-split) societal mentality, but I find it difficult to accept that people are falling in love with the film as a film and not merely loving the historical events and happenings the film depicts. We can all agree that Abraham Lincoln’s dedication to ending slavery is admirable, but do we need a film to reaffirm our acceptance of the man and funnel such feelings into passive, built-in acceptance of a basic film structured around it? By default, Spielberg’s direction will take the top prize in the Best Director category, as will the film’s lead, Daniel Day-Lewis, for his portrayal of the ill-fated President. Expect some technicals to be thrown Lincoln‘s way as well, categories where its superiority as a production outweigh its strengths as a film.

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We’ve all known we’ll have to endure another acceptance speech/irritating assault on what used to be an intense love for Anne Hathaway as she wins Best Supporting Actress, but the Best Actress race is still precarious even to speculate upon, as its seems a new frontrunner emerges every day. After leading the race for months with Jessica Chastain hot on her tail, Jennifer Lawrence now faces a battle with Emmanuelle Riva, whose performance in Amour has seen its female lead ascend from the mere novelty of being the “oldest Best Actress nominee ever” to the ranks of a serious threat to win the category after her BAFTA win last week. Anthony Breznican’s survey of anonymous Academy voters in last week’s Entertainment Weekly also proved surprising as many of the interviewees indicated that they’d be voting for Naomi Watts’ brilliant performance in The Impossible. In fact, if we’re going by Breznican’s research polling, Watts is the frontrunner (and this is from the mouths of actual Academy voters). Seeing as Watts has been passed over countless times before and due to the fact that she hasn’t won a single major precursor award, I’d say she sits solidly in a position to upset both Lawrence and Riva (Chastain’s hunt is, unfortunately, all but dead at this point).

The Writers Guild Awards this past Sunday threw us for a bit of a loop when they announced Mark Boal as the winner for Best Original Screenplay for his Zero Dark Thirty script, whereas the Best Adapted Screenplay award went to Chris Terrio’s script for Argo.  If the Weinstein push has any power this year, it will be either in the Adapted Screenplay category or Best Supporting Actor, where Silver Linings Playbook has a shot at upsetting Lincoln or Argo on both accounts. Original Screenplay will go to Amour if the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty gets in its way of winning, as the media shitstorm stemmed largely from its script’s inclusion of torture scenes, many of which the masses have unfortunately come to misinterpret.

And that’s that. As we close out yet another Academy Awards, I can’t think of words more fitting to describe how I feel about this wildly unpredictable, fiercely enjoyable mess of an awards season; Argo fuck yours–wait, no: Argo, kindly go fuck yourself.

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Predictions:

Best Picture: Argo
Best Director: Steven Spielberg – Lincoln
Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
Best Supporting Actor: Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook
Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway – Les Miserables
Best Original Screenplay: Zero Dark Thirty
Best Adapted Screenplay: Argo
Best Film Editing: Argo
Best Animated Feature: Wreck-It Ralph
Best Foreign Language Film: Amour
Best Original Score: Life of Pi
Best Cinematography: Life of Pi
Best Visual Effects: Life of Pi
Best Sound Editing: Zero Dark Thirty
Best Sound Mixing: Les Miserables
Best Costume Design: Anna Karenina
Best Hair/Makeup: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Best Documentary: Searching For Sugar Man
Best Production Design: Les Miserables
Best Original Song: Adele – “Skyfall” in Skyfall

Top 10 of 2012: Why “Zero Dark Thirty” is the Best (and Most Important) Film of the Year

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It was in the way a few audience members clapped as Osama bin Laden is shot to death, and how more applauded immediately after the final cut to black. I just can’t wrap my head around why someone would feel such a celebratory impulse immediately after viewing Zero Dark Thirty, a film rooted deeply in the middle eastern conflict, whose focus is not the gratification one might feel about the idea of eradicating the most well-known terrorist of the modern era. Rather, it’s a film built on the foundation of certainty–one woman’s, in particular–that ends in an ominous haze of uncertainty. Uncertainty of our future, of our security, of our position as a noble force in the fight to defend our country. For those reasons, it makes the jeers, hoots, and applause (an indication of acceptance) from the audience which surrounded me all the more disturbing. For, you see, Zero Dark Thirty is not a reaffirmation of America in white, Middle East in black; it fiercely calls into question American morals just as often as it castigates those we fight against. Killing Osama bin Laden was a small battle won in a much larger war, and certainly isn’t presented as an end-all, be-all point of closure within the film. Zero Dark Thirty is, in direct conflict with what so many Americans want it to be, a most anti-“America, Fuck Yeah” film.

Zero Dark Thirty is based on “true accounts” from those directly (and some, perhaps more indirectly) involved with the killing of Osama bin Laden. It is not a “true” story as much as it is a true interpretation of events which most likely (but have not been proven) led to the extermination of one of the most hated men in the world. It’s true; Bigelow and Mark Boal (also her collaborator on 2010’s The Hurt Locker), spend a glaring amount of time focused on Americans using torture as a means to elicit information from captured Al-Qaeda members–as well as the boldfaced lies purportedly projected to the public regarding such tactics. It’s difficult to accept the events of Zero Dark Thirty as the truth, both morally and because the film is technically a work of fiction. Protagonist Maya (Jessica Chastain, giving the best acting performance of 2012) is a pseudo mash-up character birthed from various reports of individuals involved in the real hunt for Osama bin Laden, as are the events which lead to the payoff. It’s also, therefore, much easier to see the controversial scenes of torture as something beyond a simple endorsement, the same as Steven Spielberg’s reproduction of WWII-era death camps isn’t an endorsement of anti-Semitism. Spielberg wasn’t present for the Holocaust, and Bigelow wasn’t present during interrogations of captured Al-Qaeda members. That doesn’t, however, trivialize her right as an artist to include such scenes meant for greater effect.

If you’re looking to a film for truth, you’re simply misguided. As it is, it’s colossally difficult to reproduce the truth in a film like Zero Dark Thirty (or any film, for that matter) in the first place, as the vastness of its scope spans multiple countries, intelligence operations, and surveillance missions wrapped within a messy little ten-year timeframe. Thankfully Bigelow and Boal aren’t overwhelmed, able to pick and choose from their resources with what rings only as ease, crafting a remarkably effective collection of fictitious staging with real-world implications. As the film begins, we’re reminded of one of the defining events which set the entire mess in motion. An assemblage of audio from panicked phone calls placed at the World Trade Center on September 11th plays over a black screen at the beginning of Zero Dark Thirty, reminding us not only of the aura of facelessness which plagued that day (attackers, amassed victims, etc.) but also of the fear, a fear and uncertainty that can be heard in the voices of the callers that endures to this day. Our security is not guaranteed, even with the death of Osama bin Laden.

The actions leading up to Osama bin Laden’s death unfold through the eyes of Maya, who acts as a sort of conduit between the fiction of the film and the reality we endure in a world where the death of Osama bin Laden is more than just a narrative climax. She’s in constant conflict with herself, embodying a raging war of preserved morality versus getting results. She’s good at what she does, however, and the fact that she’s a woman in a male-dominated field doesn’t exactly help her showcase it. Her persistence and certainty is marginalized by the male characters in the film, who often mistake her youth for inexperience, her beauty as a distraction. But, as Maya tells a fellow officer who wishes to set her up with another agent, she’s “not that girl who fucks,” and isn’t one to take the influence of others (whether questioning her experience, her accuracy, or her sex life), even in a situation with all odds against her, to mean more than her certainty.

When her efforts lead her to an Abottabad compound where she believes Osama bin Laden to be hiding, Maya must endure a round-table of men who assess the payoff of her ten-year workload with a maximum “soft 60%” chance of yielding results. “It’s 100%. Ok, 95%, because I know certainty freaks you guys out. But it’s 100,” she butts in. Whether it’s sheer confidence or a diluted willingness to accept the best-looking outcome after ten years of tireless work isn’t necessarilly answered in the subsequent affirmation of her speculation. She was right, but the most powerful moment of the film comes at its conclusion as she’s being flown out of Pakistan. “Where do you want to go?” the pilot asks her as we cut to a close-up of her face, strained from sleepless nights and a decade of near thankless slaving. She remains silent, a few tears streaming down her cheeks as the film cuts to black, Maya never giving an answer. The power of these moments is colossal, and it’s here the film achieves its most profound effect. The world knows the gist of Osama bin Laden’s death. It matters that he’s dead, but the way he died is not entirely clear. Sure, it can be reduced to a bullet. But the process leading up to that bullet isn’t mapped out for us. We’ve seen one artist’s interpretation within Zero Dark Thirty, one which does not celebrate the would-be climax as a moment of pure ecstasy. This is not a film of triumph, but of fear and uncertainty; it’s an ugly pre, during, and post of the most notorious manhunt in history. The question the pilot asks Maya is one she can’t answer, for she knows firsthand that it is unanswerable. She’s seen ugliness on both sides. Torture from Americans, suicide bombings from members of Al-Qaeda. A neverending conflict of ruthless vigilance and moral duty, each defined differently by the sides who wield them. Yet, what yields results? Torture doesn’t lead to much, and 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 becomes an issue, as there is no foreseeable place to go. The next target gives us no time for celebration.

Zero Dark Thirty is most powerful when it is treated not as factual representation, but as a film, from which gleaning versus accepting should be your focus. It is, however, a film which seeks to insert itself into our reality, forcing us to question the parameters around us, and the morality of those in power. Immediately following one of the film’s many gruesome scenes of torture, we see a reassuring interview playing onscreen behind a few characters as he (within the diegetic realm of the film, mind you) lies about the country’s use of such deplorable tactics. There’s no proof that this is fact. Zero Dark Thirty might be fiction, but one with powerful reflective qualities. A mirror rooted in fiction, if you will. Do we gain greater meaning from the torture scenes? From seeing our President trying to cover up amoral actions performed for the preservation of the good of the nation? Are politicians complaining about the film’s depiction of torture because we’re uncomfortable that all of this might be true? The uncertainty is real whether in fiction or our reality, and forcing us to accept and confront the absence of closure following Osama bin Laden’s death is where the true terror of Zero Dark Thirty lies; It places us at war with ourselves.

Top 10 Films of 2012:

Note: The only film I haven’t seen that will most likely make an impact on this list is Amour, which I’ll be seeing on February 15th.

1

1 – Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow

2

2 – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by: Benh Zeitlin

3

3 – The Master
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

4

4 – Silver Linings Playbook
Directed by: David O. Russell

5

5 – Celeste and Jesse Forever
Directed by: Lee Toland Krieger

6

6 – Holy Motors
Directed by: Leos Carax

7

7 – Seven Psychopaths
Directed by: Martin McDonagh

8

8 – Life of Pi
Directed by: Ang Lee

9

9 – Django Unchained
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

10

10 – The Impossible
Directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona

And this, essentially, functions as my apology for hating on Kathryn Bigelow throughout the entire 2009-10 awards season. I still don’t like The Hurt Locker, but Zero Dark Thirty is a triumph of contemporary cinema.

The Road to Oscar; the Relevance of Originality in the Race

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There’s no denying the social and cultural force that the film industry has grown into for the American people. Ushering in new ideas, fantasies, and stories for a willing audience to indulge in, letting us live out the dreams that play over in our heads night after night, the film industry is a longstanding conduit between our reality and the “reality” we so desperately seek to inhabit in times of need. Movies are our escape, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences champions the very best of such devices year after year.

If we look back at past winners of the Oscar ceremony’s top honor, the significance of each year’s respective Best Picture to American culture is glaring. 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, a ravishing, colorful emotional epic of renewed perspective and undying hope for a better future paralleled the historic Presidential Election which saw Barack Obama give “power” in America a new face. A year later, The Hurt Locker not only attempted to delve deeper into Middle Eastern conflicts that took up a huge portion of topical discussion during the 2008 Presidential Election, but also catapulted a female director to the forefront of Oscar recognition. At a time when issues of women’s/gay/”minority”/civil rights in general were gaining momentum in the political arena, the Academy again asserted film’s social “relevance” as a sign of the times as Kathryn Bigelow (whether fully deserving or not) became the first woman to notch a win in the Best Director category.

The social climate of the nation has changed drastically throughout much of recent memory. The first four years of Obama’s Presidency haven’t gone over well with the American public. His election to a second Presidential term over Mitt Romney this past November proved the nation is divided almost evenly. The economic downturn (whether attributed directly to George W. Bush or diffused onto the shoulders of Oabama) has seen record numbers of unemployment, working families living in homeless shelters, and the disappearance of the middle class becoming a very tangible reality for average American households that form the bulk of the film industry’s consumer base. Thus, 2011’s Best Picture, The Artist, took us back to times of grandeur and prosperity; the silent era of Hollywood’s roaring heyday, when film stars were poster children for the prosperity of a nation versus a distant metaphor for the unattainable life so many Americans have given up dreaming about.

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Anne Hathaway, likely Best Supporting Actress winner in Best Picture contender “Les Miserables”

The road leading to the 2012 Presidential Election drove a wedge between Americans not unlike the Union/Confederacy split depicted in this year’s Lincoln, which chronicles a time in U.S. history bearing resemblance to the social climate we endure today. Slavery, violent opposition to the man we call President, and an increasing hostility between opposing views of social, civil, and economic ideologies make Lincoln a timely piece of perspective for contemporary unrest. It’s no surprise, then, that the filmis an early frontrunner to take the Best Picture prize in February. Les Miserables, another heavyweight contender, bears parabolic similarities to the Occupy movement, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo bringing up the rear with musings on the ever-sizzling conflict in the Middle East and the boiling pot of uncertainty that no politician, country, or war could put a lid on over the past decade.

The bleakness doesn’t wear off until we examine the latter half of 2012’s Best Picture contenders; i.e., the Silver Linings Playbooks and Beasts of the Southern Wild—multiple pictures that are still “in the race” but don’t stand a chance at taking home the Oscar come February 24th. Silver Linings Playbook and Beasts of the Southern Wild tap into an almost fantastical notion of optimism amidst tragedy, the former chronicling post-personal-meltdown recovery and the latter compartmentalizing pure, individual struggle of residents trapped within with a weather-ravaged, poverty-stricken, fantastical Katrina-esque village fighting oppression from a class of bourgeois oppressors. While Silver Linings and Beasts are adapted from other works, they capture the spirit of perseverance post-trauma. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence overcome adversity and create a unique emotional environment as “minorities,”  whereas little Quvenzhane Wallis, portraying a six-year old girl in Beasts, captures the “rebirth” of youth, her character forced to grow up (yet retain the undying spirit of optimism) in a world with no time for innocence or purity.

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Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones in the Oscar-worthy “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” that will most likely go unnoticed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

The thematic nature of Beasts makes me question why the Academy (and its precursor award brethren) hasn’t embraced a more fantastical branch of filmmaking 2012 was rife with. Films like Beasts, Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, and Holy Motors use their whimsical nature to make powerful statements on the persevering spirit of humanity in times of dire opposition. Grounded more in “reality” but still spiritually ambitious, films like Celeste and Jesse Forever, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Master, The Hunger Games, and The Grey delve deep into territory which sees humans overcoming obstacles far beyond their control. Celeste and Jesse Forever, being the most “human” of the bunch, sees a woman’s journey to spiritual homeostasis come after learning to cope with the absence of a lover while keeping him close as a “friend” in her life. It’s a task that seemingly pales in comparison to overcoming the psychological control of a cult (The Master), fighting back against an oppressive government (The Hunger Games) or finding true love amidst the end of the world (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), but one that shows the evolution of the human spirit endures even in the simplest of vignettes involving a boy, a girl, and the universal thread of love.

Another interesting contender (only for technical categories at this point, it seems, although Emily Blunt still has slight buzz for her supporting performance) is the sci-fi actioner Looper, about do-overs, internal strife, self-hatred, and the often intangible idea of fresh beginnings. The sentiment could be applied to anyone at any given time, but Looper’s insistence on ridding our reality of darkness and preserving it for fresh perspectives of change are, perhaps, the most “relevant” to the culture of 2012 America as we head into a second term with President Obama.

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Jessica Chastain, only slightly behind Best Actress frontrunner Jennifer Lawrence, struggles between her duty as an American and her impulses as a human in Best Picture contender “Zero Dark Thirty.”

The lack of “originality” in what’s vying for the Oscar for Best Picture this year frightens me a little. Out of the ten films Awards Daily (one of the most accurate prediction sites on the web) acknowledges are in the running for Best Picture (Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Flight, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom), only two are not “based” on some other form of media/socio-cultural figure or event (Moonrise Kingdom and The Master). With the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle naming Zero Dark Thirty their Best Film of 2012, and other precursors pointing to either Argo, Lincoln, or Les Miserables, The Master and Moonrise Kingdom find themselves somewhere near the bottom of the pack (if they pick up a nomination at all). Small buzz for Michael Haneke’s Amour, about aging, death, and the degenerative mental capacity that comes with them, has been building since its screening at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. While likely to win Best Foreign Language film but almost assuredly out of the Best Picture race, perhaps it taps into the most terrifying element of humanity, which is not oppressive governments or masked supervillains blowing up football stadiums; it’s the potential for human fracture, the potential for degeneration, the potential to “forget” the very things that make us who we are and, in turn, losing the ability to preserve the “feelings” of our times within original fiction that seems to be slipping by the Academy’s scope of interest in a time where “escape” is needed the most.