I’ve spent this column space looking at the Oscar race and trying not to offer any of my opinions about how the whole thing was shaping up.
But now the Oscar race is almost over, the voting deadline has passed, and there’s little else to do but judge the outfits, open the envelopes and listen to the speeches. So, I think it’s time I stated my opinion about the film that now seems poised to win Best Picture.
After important wins from all of the industry guilds, including Producers, Directors and, most perplexing, Writers, Argo seems to be the obvious frontfunner for Sunday night’s biggest prize. Considering the strength, depth and individualistic voice of most of the other nominees, this, in my humble opinion, is a depressingly mediocre choice.
Neither the most intelligent nor the most audacious film in the running by a country mile, the only thought in Argo’s head is to entertain. Not inspire. Not provoke. Not challenge. It demands absolutely nothing from an audience. It only wants you to like it. It only wants to thrill you with near-misses and countdown clocks and airplane runway chases. And it really does thrill.
It’s a well-crafted, white-knuckled actioner with all the thematic weight of The Avengers, except it has a 70’s aesthetic that many have been confused for actual artistic vision. It’s a good movie.
The problem I always have with the Oscar race is that the Academy bills itself as honoring great movies. Real achievements. And with plenty of great movies and real achievements to choose from, the fact that the industry appears to be falling all over themselves to honor a merely good one seems difficult to understand.
Except that it isn’t. It’s just business as usual at the Academy Awards. Given the choice between films that push boundaries or execute bold visions and a nice, safe film that doesn’t piss people off, the Academy will always go with the latter. That’s what the victories for The King’s Speech and The Artist were about. And so it looks to be true this year.
The great snub has made Best Director non-nominee Ben Affleck Hollywood’s biggest cause celebre since “We Are The World”. Their vote, as it has been communicated ad nausem through the latter half of the season, is put forth to right a wrong… correct a massive injustice; rescue the overlooked and under-appreciated underdog.
Ann? Punch me in the face. (And my undying love to anyone that recognizes where that line came from.)
The Academy’s directing branch didn’t snub Ben Affleck. They simply did exactly what they’ve been charged to do and identified, despite the percussive noise of campaigning and talk of supposed “locks”, five singular pieces of directing vision.
The director’s branch tried (almost certainly in vain) to steer the rest of the Academy towards more thought-provoking work and films with extraordinary vision and strong, authorial voices.
Life of Pi
What do I mean by that? Just as there is a different authorial voice from the works of Jonathan Franzen and Danielle Steel, so too does a film carry the voice and aesthetic of the person who directed it. After all, in film, the directors are the chief storytellers.
It isn’t always just shooting a scripted scene (coverage, close-up, coverage) and cobbling it together in an editing room. It’s taking every filmmaking technique or element at your disposal and using it, even bending it, to tell a story in a distinctive and idiosyncratic way.
I’ll keep my examples mainstream and modern and not go all “film nerd” on you, but think of any film by Joel and Ethan Coen, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, Danny Boyle, James Cameron or even (and God help me, but its true) Michael Bay for example.
From the design, cinematography, pacing and soundscape, there isn’t a doubt whose directorial voice you’re absorbing. You know what a Coen Bros. film looks and feels like and would never confuse it with, say, a Wes Anderson film, even though those filmmakers have often been described as “quirky”. That is because of their singular authorial voices.
The nominees for (notice the official title) “Best Achievement in Directing” are…
Michael Haneke, Amour
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
From Amour’s austere and precise directorial work, Life of Pi’s use of 3-D in to immerse us in quiet moments of loss and pain and Silver Lining’s nervy, off-kilter footwork to the thick and pastoral weight of Lincoln and the astonishingly surreal window into Bathtub survival in Beasts, the films nominated in the directing category this year could only have been made by the directors that made them. Their voices are that distinct and rich. Oh my God, so rich.
That is the achievement they were looking for. Frankly, that is the achievement I’m looking for. So all of the talk of an Affleck snub strikes me as ridiculous campaign spin.
If Argo’s director weren’t such a famous actor, it would be impossible to know for certain who directed it. Gone Baby Gone, The Town and finally Argo are all very competently made. But after three films, there’s still not a characteristic Affleck vision screaming through. That’s not an insult or a slight, just an objective observation. He simply hasn’t found his voice yet.