This blog has become unexpectedly Oscar obsessed over the past month. Something I intend to rectify very soon. But, alas, here’s some more thoughts on this Oscar season.
Part of the fun of the Academy Awards is complaining about the Academy Awards, because we – the movie buffs – virtually never get the ear of the general population, but in regards to the Oscars, people will listen, at least with vague bored stares. We’ve all heard the tedious gripes about how the Oscars do not closely reflect the best film of the year nor do they ever reflect the favorite films of individuals or the general population. Yet, when anybody looks back on American cinema the Academy Awards are always the starting point. Most all of us, way before film school or college art courses, had a handy Oscar history book that absorbed our teenage imaginations (I doubt I’m the only one who has tried to memorize every Best Picture winner, am I?).
What the Oscars reflect is the zeitgeist of our cinema and, to a lesser degree, of our culture in this time right now. In 50 years, will people look back at Oscar nominees with disdain? Some. Surprise? Probably. Excitement? Of course. (Like finding out that 8 1/2 has an Oscar.) However, mostly, people will think the Oscars got it wrong. Like they always do. Not because the films aren’t good but because they will read as underwhelming and conservative to a culture that will have inevitably grown in terms of acceptance and liberalism. Two films that will probably play far more insipidly in those proverbial 50 years are Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, even though both seem so necessary right now. Therefore, when it comes to Best Director… the Oscars got it right.
This is not to say that Zero Dark Thirty or Argo are bad films. In fact, there’s a great deal to admire about both pictures. Considering the rubric of what makes a Best Picture winner, I wouldn’t bat an eye at Argo taking home the prize. Besides its being the current favorite, the film hits all the right beats. It’s a suspenseful story, with a tinge of historical respect, and a broad statement about togetherness sewn into its fabric. But more than anything, it’s a well done thriller that keeps people entertained. Argo is not a film that makes you think, pushes your buttons, or challenges what we have come to hope for. For as dark as it can be, Argo is a comforting film. Zero Dark Thirty on the other hand exists entirely BECAUSE of the zeitgeist. Its very being is predicated on an event that has defined our nation and consumed much of our popular thought. However, that’s precisely where the film goes wrong. By playing it safe, the film doesn’t define how harrowing a moment this actually was. If anything, in the future people will likely see this film and think, “So what was the big deal?” I find this is a lukewarm picture and its director should not be honored for taking such a neutral stance. That, I think, is what separate good directors from great ones.
All that said, the biggest news on Oscar nomination morning was the exclusion of directors Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck from the Best Director category. Some Academy members called this a “travesty” and Oscar bloggers wrote long explanations on “how this could happen.” As though the winds of buzz and announcement date changes made for a mistake to occur. Like Bigelow and Affleck “deserved” the recognition. To me, Oscar voters were left up to their own vices more than in the past. Without the benefit of the DGA awards to lean on, they had to look at pictures and think about which ones had the most unique directorial voice behind them. And those are the films they chose. In some ways, the Oscars have become a “Members Only Club” – a club that both Bigelow and Affleck are a part – and the inclusion of Benh Zeitlin and Michael Haneke was like replacing honored subjects with invited guests. In past years, this was commonplace. In fact, Quentin Tarantino was a newbie when he got in for Pulp Fiction. Zietlin and Haneke made pictures whose directorial vision was an integral part. They weren’t just lucky to be named.
To say that Beasts of the Southern Wild is more a “Benh Zeitlin” film than Argo is a “Ben Affleck” film would be glib. Likewise, Haneke seems the only man who could have made Amour while Zero Dark Thirty didn’t transcend in quite the same personal way, yet one is not more a “director’s vision” than the other. However, I do feel that you can proclaim with confidence that Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild are more personal, unique, and singular experiences. The kinds that come staunchly from their creators and only those specific people behind them. If for no other reason, they didn’t go through the Hollywood system to get made. Beasts (about hope in the face of despair) and Amour (about confronting the primal realities of mortality) are the kinds of movies, dare I say, that represent the zeitgeist in a way that is more challenging than comforting, and more socially relevant than might be obvious.
To me, the Oscars got it right this time. Fifty years from now – whenever that actually means – people will point to this year with interest. That’s a good thing. Intrigue is what should have defined 2012 in the movies (because even the “comforting” ones were darn compelling) and that’s the gateway that the Academy Awards history books will now provide.