What are the actual reasons that so many American film lovers keep coming back to the Oscars? Even those who know better (and this number is growing) still put stock in words like “Best Actor” and “Best Picture.” If you love movies, you can’t help but peak from behind your fingers and watch with anticipation on Oscar night. These awards mean something whether we realize that their fluffiness can turn us into democratized publicity-whores or not.
That said, the reason we come back to Oscars is precisely because they aren’t actually homogenized at all. Each year, the award ceremonies are little machines that promise typical fair but actually provide something different every time. That’s why the notion of an “Oscar movie” remains silly to me. What does Chicago have in common with No Country For Old Men? Or even The King’s Speech with The Artist? We continue to come back to the Oscars because they offer the hope that our little gem of a movie might – on the most off chance – get recognized. In some ways, it’s like the Olympics. We know that China and the US are going to win most of the medals, but there’s always that small possibility that another nation places, even for a Bronze. It’s rare, but it happens.
However, the Oscars do have a purpose and sometimes that purpose gets neglected or dragged around at will. Recently, voters have gone on the tides of Internet buzz or backlash towards an early “favorite.” That’s what, to my mind, makes the Oscar prediction websites so dangerous. They aren’t predicting so much as dictating. At what point will this mean that the whims of a few influential bloggers are deciding the fate of many great pieces of art? People – average moviegoers – put faith in these awards. They believe in them and trust them. It’s the job of Hollywood to use this show as a way to promote a certain kind of movie. One that inspires, shocks, excites, and teaches. One that promotes optimism and hope, but not goopy falsehoods.
So, what is a movie that actually should win Best Picture? This year it’s Lincoln.
This is not to say that Lincoln is by any means the best movie (whatever that means). It’s not even to say it’s in the top ten best films of the year. But it represents every single quality that the Oscars should celebrate.
Steven Spielberg’s an American auteur with lasting power, name recognition, and the passion to continue to push himself to do more and more interesting material. In an industry where so many go all-in only for the sake of fame and money, Spielberg sets himself apart by having the fearlessness to take risks, many of which continue to fail. For all his hype, he’s emerged as one of the more polarizing filmmakers ever to consistently work in Hollywood. Love him or hate him, you have to respect that he represents what’s great about an assembly-line art form.
Working from a script that prioritizes moments between conflicted individuals, Lincoln tells a classic dramatic tale. The performances are not simply hidden behind mounds of makeup. These are real actors, working. Every moment, on screen and off, they are working. And the images… well, the images are stunning. They don’t simply show us the story but paint a picture around the story. Janusz Kaminski’s frames give us more than what the script already tells us.
Lincoln, while small at heart, is also sweeping, epic, and muscular. The production design is well-researched and the costumes are detailed with precision. This film does what American movies do best by putting every penny of its millions of dollars on the screen in high production value and carefully choreographed set pieces. The filmmaking process, from storyboards to musical cues, pop off the screen. You can practically teach American film production entirely by using each element of this particular movie. Yet, somehow, the film remains personal and reflective.
Above all else, Lincoln is topical. We are in a conflicted time in America, where most people have finally come around to the notion that there are no easy outs. Every issue is difficult and we’re in this struggle for the long haul. Looking to the moxy of someone like Abe Lincoln, who faced turmoil with a human strength and vulnerability, can help make us believe in each other again. Maybe even believe in our leaders. One or two of them, at least.
Lincoln’s also imperfect. That’s part of what makes it so great. Perfect, in the immortal words of Tyra Banks, is boring. Imperfect art is what the Oscars should honor. Not movies with tightly-wrapped messages or easy answers, but movies that promote the difficulties of everyday life and the hope for a better tomorrow. Great films – Capra films, Lubitsch films, Wilder films – are not hopeless, but they also are never saccharin. They face a world that often throws lemons and they kindly scream for us to try our best to make lemonade.
I never thought I’d say this, but when Oscar night comes and Lincoln’s in the race against trendy picks like Silver Linings Playbook and Life of Pi (each with their own, far more specific, merits) I will root for Spielberg’s flick to take it home.