At a certain point each year – typically after the month of September has come and gone – the more committed of movie audiences begin to keep an eye out for the guaranteed host of “Oscar-worthy” motion pictures, movies that are released towards the end of the year in the hopes that they will be remembered and then recognized by the board of voters responsible for dishing out that ultimate symbol of Hollywood royalty – the Academy Award.
It is a little sick how Oscar has taken such a firm influence over how success and prestige are measured in the motion picture industry – it is so intrinsically a part of Hollywood society and lore that we cannot help associating those golden statuettes with the very definition of greatness. Oftentimes I wonder how often the award itself is the goal that many a filmmaker strives for, with their actual films serving as mere means to that end, rather than being an end within themselves.
But, still, there still is something deeply appealing about the award and its ceremony, which I believe has something to do with a human need to identify some sort of order to things. At least for me – being someone who likes to identify movies with quick and easy categorizations, such as “good”, “great”, and “one of the best” – there is something very consoling in having a “best actor”, or “best adapted screenplay” for me to fall back on, or to challenge and sharpen my own conceptions of cinematic worthiness against.
So here, I’ve tried to do two things. One, I’ve looked over this year’s list of nominees for the eight major awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Screenplay) and attempted to select the nominees which I believe would best suit the image and level of taste that the awards’ voters have tended to demonstrate over the years. In other words, I decided what nominees should win based upon the Academy’s standards. These are not predictions per se, but rather suggestions for what choices I feel would be within the Academy’s best interest to pick.
Second, I’ve listed out my personal selections for what I consider to be the best of 2012, within the limits of the Academy’s selection of nominees. If I had it my way, of course, this list of nominees would be very different – but that endeavor would take me an entire other article to write.
1). What Should Win – by the Academy’s Standards:
Best Picture – Les Miserablés
Before I defend this choice, I should admit that Les Mis is one of the three films nominated for Best Picture that I have not seen – Amour and Life of Pi being the other two. What makes this venture seem like the obvious pick for me is that it appears to be so in line with what the Oscars have stood for over their eighty-five years of existence. Even though the past decade’s winners have in fact been heavily defined by grittier, more visceral depictions of human beings in turmoil, this award, to me, still seems to be the one with which to honor the year’s best production, and in that vein, Les Miserablés is certainly the grandest, visually richest production that I could name for you from this past year.
Of the other nominees, Argo feels too hard-boiled and real for the Academy’s historically glamorous tastes; Beasts of the Southern Wild is too independent and artsy; Django Unchained too violent and wickedly witty for their stuffy tastes. Lincoln is powerful, intelligent, grand, and in all honesty has the best chances of winning. Then Silver Linings Playbook is too intimate, human and funny, and Zero Dark Thirty – while having been written and directed by two previous winners, both for The Hurt Locker in 2009 – is a bit too vicious and unsentimental for a ceremony that favors romantic epics, musicals, and historical dramas.
Best Director – Michael Haneke, Amour
While it is typical for the Academy to honor the same movie with the awards for Best Picture and Best Director, I have a hunch that this year’s winners will be from two separate projects. Which, really, is the way that I feel it generally should be – if the Best Picture award should go to the year’s best production, then I feel that the award for directing should go to the best demonstration of directorial, visual, and creative originality, reserved for more serious and unique films which may further the world of cinematic language yet fail to gain a particularly wide public audience.
In this way, Haneke would probably be the most resonant choice, especially given that Tom Hooper, director of Les Miserablés, is not nominated. Mr. Haneke is an old man, a legend of international, artful cinema, and the idea of bestowing the aged, white-haired fellow with the industry’s highest honor would be the more romantic and dignified choice that the majority of Academy voters should go for. Perhaps I am crediting the organization with too much sensitivity, but if you’re going for the prettiest choices, then this pick would certainly look lovely.
Best Actor – Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Towering, majestic, and remarkable, Day-Lewis’ talent is rare and precious, and one that the Academy has loved so much as to have honored twice already (My Left Foot in 1990, and There Will Be Blood in 2008). If Daniel Day-Lewis wins the Best Actor Oscar this year, he will be the first actor to win three, matching Jack Nicholson in number of statuettes, but beating him for Nicholson’s “Best Supporting” award in 1984 for Terms of Endearment. His portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is one that will be talked about so long as there’s someone around to watch it, and given the added perks of this particular film being a historical drama and biopic, it seems without question that he will and should win.
My second choice for this prize would be Hugh Jackman, whose role in Les Mis is allegedly both deeply romantic and deeply human, bringing in to play two characteristics of a performance that Academy members love. But I don’t think that he’ll stand nearly as tall as Day-Lewis’ Great Emancipator – for an American film organization, that performance is too ideal to let slide by.
Best Actress – Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Because she is thirty-five, fresh on the scene, clearly demonstrative of a great dramatic talent, and lovely. She is also associated, through this role for which she is nominated, with a group of people that the Academy favored three years ago (director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who both won for The Hurt Locker in 2009), and the film itself has garnered quite a bit of attention for its controversy and intrigue, regarding its depiction of torture. She is the ripest for the plucking, and the branch that the Academy can use to touch on an “important/issue” film, while keeping at a respectable distance – a Best Actress win is not nearly as committed a pledge as a “Best Picture” win would be.
The other name that’s getting tossed around a lot lately is Emmanuelle Riva, who is nominated for Amour, but I think that, for one, people do not know her as well as some of the other nominees (or at the very least, I don’t), and Amour doesn’t have the same burning sense of timeliness and political relevancy that has gradually developed around the name of Zero Dark Thirty, and that would make this latter movie attractive to an American movie audience.
Best Supporting Actor – Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Here we have another beloved actor nominated for a role in a historical biopic, delivering a marvelously entertaining performance as staunch abolitionist Senator Thaddeus Stevens, for whom the act of granting black people equal representation before the law was not enough, but a compromise he was willing to make in order for the war-torn nation of 1865 to move forward. Jones is a loveable grump, a real-life character with undeniable charm and strength as an actor. He has won the Best Supporting Oscar once already for The Fugitive in 1994, but I feel pretty certain that this year’s ceremony should be his second chance to shine.
Of the other nominees, Alan Arkin – who is nominated for Argo – has already won once before (in 2007 for Best Supporting Actor, Little Miss Sunshine), and his performance is more of a cute side-personality rather than a complex being; Philip Seymour Hoffman, nominated for The Master, also has a win, for Best Actor, from Capote in 2006, and I doubt that a voting panel with enough ties to Scientology will be one to favor this particular film, with its depiction of a similar religious institution. Robert DiNero’s performance in Silver Linings Playbook is excellent, but again, his character is not nearly as full as Jones’ role in Lincoln. The only other nominee who I’d say is worth the award is Christoph Waltz, whom you can read more about below.
Best Supporting Actress – Anne Hathaway, Les Miserablés
A beautiful young actress suffering and singing – that’s the easiest definition of an Oscar synch I would able to come up with, even if I didn’t know that Ms. Hathaway were nominated for her role in Les Mis. In the way that Natalie Portman lost weight for Black Swan, Robert DiNero put on weight for Raging Bull, and Nicole Kidman lost her glamour and put on a nose for The Hours, the Academy has always loved it when stars have altered their appearances for a physically demanding role. Hathaway starved herself in playing Fantine, and because of this sign of commitment, the romanticism of the film, and the fact that she is a darling of the industry, I think that her anticipated win is perhaps the second likeliest and most suiting only after Day-Lewis’ expected win for Lincoln.
Best Adapted Screenplay – Argo, written by Chris Terrio
Argo is one of the best-received movies of the year, and a movie that I think a lot of people got a big kick out of. It is based upon a brilliant true story, and I think that intelligent people appreciate it because they instinctively sense that Argo is an intelligent and smartly-made movie, which it is. But, as I said before, I do not think that the theme of nitty-gritty realism always goes over well in the category of Best Picture, and so I think that since Argo definitely feels like an awards-friendly film, the Academy would do best to honor it with Best Adapted Screenplay.
Best Original Screenplay – Zero Dark Thirty, written by Mark Boal
As a general rule, I think that the awards for screenwriting ought to go to the best-crafted, most interesting, and most inherently non-glamorous films of the year. This does not mean that I personally consider Zero Dark Thirty to be one of the year’s absolute best, but based upon the standards that the Academy usually professes to, this seems to be to most appropriate choice because of its controversy, brutality, and seriousness in focus.
I wouldn’t expect the Academy to award a script like Django Unchained or Moonrise Kingdom because they are too light-hearted and not as easily definable as something like Zero Dark Thirty, and while I understand the gesture of respect that is being offered to Mr. Haneke for his nominations in this, the directing, and Best Picture categories, I don’t think they should lay all of the awards on him – the one for directing would be respectable enough.
You can read about Flight below.
2). What Should Win – by My Standards:
Best Picture – Lincoln
In truth, I suspect that this will be the one to take home all the marbles when it comes time for the actual ceremony, and I must say that it would make me very happy to see it happen. Lincoln is an important movie in several respects: for one, it features yet another display of the acting genius that is Daniel Day-Lewis; for another, it gives life to some of the best-known faces and names in this nation’s history, showing us with honesty that people have always been human, and that the passage of time should not be looked upon as a barrier to understanding and empathizing with the people of the past.
Also, it restores our faith in democracy, showing how politics must ultimately be manipulated in the process of bringing about social and governmental change – a lesson that is highly relevant to this moment in our nation’s history. In my humble opinion, if this doesn’t reek with the aroma of being a “Best Picture-winner”, then I don’t know what else does. Lincoln should win, without question.
Best Director – Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
There is no clear winner for me in this year’s list of nominated directors – I haven’t seen Haneke’s work in Amour, nor have I Ang Lee’s in Life of Pi. Spielberg would be a happy choice, but he has already won two Oscars for directing (1994, Schindler’s List, and 1999, Saving Private Ryan), and I feel that if I’m giving him one already for producing Lincoln, he can do without this extra one for directing. And while I’m a great admirer of David O. Russell’s work in Silver Linings Playbook, I ultimately feel that the sheer creative force that is behind Beasts of the Southern Wild is what makes Zeitlin my choice for Best Director.
Of all the films I’ve seen from this past year, Zeitlin’s work is the one that demonstrates the clearest and most striking of visual styles. It is a film that rides high mainly because of his singular vision; if this is an artist’s award, then this man is definitely the most deserving, because with this one endeavor, he has already made it so far as to demand recognition.
But if I were to go with my overall instincts, I would honor Robert Zemeckis for Flight. The atmosphere and tension in that movie are all fully realized by his deft, skillful hands; this is the most professional and affecting piece of directorial craftsmanship I’ve seen in a long time, and therefore deserves attention.
Best Actor – Denzel Washington, Flight
Even though Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is what I consider to be the most warming and awards-worthy performance of the year, Washington’s performance in Flight is the most breathtaking. As a tormented and alcoholic airline pilot – who manages to save practically all of his passengers in a nearly-catastrophic crash-landing, yet falls under suspicion because of his drinking problems – Denzel Washington gave what I consider to be one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in my life. A devastating character study and a stunning glimpse at addiction and denial, Flight is a startling and great film that deserves to be remembered, and Washington is ultimately the life force that makes this movie what it is.
I’d also like to acknowledge my appreciation of Bradley Cooper’s performance, also nominated, in Silver Linings Playbook. His naturalism and power in that film are special and undeniable; I’d call him my third-favorite male performance of the year, behind Washington and Day-Lewis. I cannot say anything of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in The Master, as I have not seen it – although I will say that that snarl of his that he shows off a couple of times in the trailer I find to be startling and cutting, but that’s hardly enough to judge a performance.
Best Actress – Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
I can’t help feeling that my choice of for Best Actress is diminished by the fact that this has been a relatively disappointing year for leading female performers. Jessica Chastain’s work in Zero Dark Thirty felt rather lifeless and cold, and while Quvenshané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) delivered a performance of surprising strength, she is still a child and shouldn’t be honored until she has proven herself of having real craftsmanship and reliability as an adult performer. Naomi Watts, nominated for The Impossible, and Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) are the two I still haven’t seen.
But none of this changes how strongly I feel for Jennifer Lawrence; I knew as I watched her in this movie that I was witnessing something special. She has a wisdom about her that defies her mere twenty-two years of life, and it is her presence – matched with Bradley Cooper’s equally charming and skillful performance – that gives the film its warmth and humanity. This is a woman whose work I am eager to follow; she has what it takes to be an actress of real dramatic chops, and it is in this movie that she proves herself capable.
Best Supporting Actor – Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
In the way that I’ve chosen Denzel Washington over Daniel Day-Lewis for my Best Actor award, I should mention that I really did love Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln; it is an absorbing and dignified performance that stands as one of Jones’ best.
But I just love Christoph Waltz in this movie. If I could, I would honor both, but as it is, Django Unchained is the most outrageous and one of the most memorable movies of the year, and deserves to be honored in some respect.
Waltz is utterly fantastic here – his marvelous sense of humor and sincere emotional instincts come through with wonderful clarity as Dr. King Schultz, a highly articulate German bounty hunter with anti-slavery views in 1858 America. He is the highlight of this excellent film, and so in regards to my vote for him, I use his character’s final words – “I couldn’t resist”.
Best Supporting Actress – Anne Hathaway, Les Miserablés
This one is tricky – I’ve only seen two of the five performances nominated for Best Supporting Actress this year: Sally Field in Lincoln, and Jacki Weaver in Silver Linings Playbook. Field’s role is the better of those two – Weaver appears to be on the list of nominees merely because of a need to fill in the last nominee slot – but I don’t give her too much credit for the role’s notability; Tony Kushner is more responsible for writing the part of Mary Todd Lincoln so well as to make a poor performances virtually impossible, no matter who’d been playing the part.
So that leaves Amy Adams, Helen Hunt, and Anne Hathaway. Hunt has already won once – a bit generously, in 1998, for Best Actress in As Good as it Gets – and I know nothing of Adams’ performance to say anything for certain. All that I do know is that if I am going to see Les Miserablés at some point, it will be largely because of my interest and faith in Hathaway. Watching the clips that I have seen of this film, her face has been enough to move me, and her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream has given me chills every time I’ve heard it. This may be too assuming for me to say, but of these nominees, I believe that Anne Hathaway’s performance will prove to be my favorite from an actress in a supporting role this year.
Best Adapted Screenplay – Lincoln, written by Tony Kushner
Here I am divided between Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook, since David O. Russell wrote some truly fine scenes for his unique romantic comedy drama – but in the end, I find it hard to look past the tremendous literacy and wit that Tony Kushner has unfolded in his adaptation of Doris Kerns Goodwin’s book. Very few movies are this human, intellectual, and engaging; Mr. Kushner’s work is what defines Lincoln, and gives it its sturdy bones, which become fleshed out by its actors and then trimmed and glorified by Spielberg’s direction. A momentous achievement by a renowned writer, Lincoln truly belongs to its author.
Best Original Screenplay – Flight, written by John Gatins
Poetic and shaking, in Flight, Mr. Gatins has turned out what may be the flat-out best piece of screenwriting from this past year. The characters he has created are remarkable and strong; his sense of progression is exceptional and mature. There is so much weight and tragedy to this film that I consider it equal to some of the best scripts to ever come out of Hollywood – a brilliant work that I’m not sure many people have really made the effort of recognizing as of yet.
The only other nominated work that I would consider deserving of winning this award would be Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a long film that never slackens in its pace and that is absolutely packed with one-liners (i.e., “I like the way you die, boy”, “The ‘D’ is silent, hillbilly”, etc.).
Amour is also nominated, but again, this is a film that I haven’t seen. Moonrise Kingdom was fairly charming and a curious exercise on the part of Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, but one which I believe lacked any real potency, aside from a few quiet moments exchanged between the children and Bruce Willis. And as for Zero Dark Thirty, I simply fail to see the value of a script that is written solely for the depictions of historical events, and which practically ignores the notions of dramatic narrative and storytelling.
So good luck to all my favorites, and here’s to the hope that all the winners on Oscar night are in fact worthy recipients. An awards ceremony like this stands for a time to honor and represent the best work to have been turned out in a single year of picture-making. Of course, as you may be able to tell from the structure of this article, it is difficult to weigh personal favoritism against one’s perception of an institution such as the Academy’s standards. But in many ways, it is a necessary decision to make. After all, a thousand years from now, when people look back on the movies of the past, it might help to have an accurate list where a future observer can discover the very best of what this magical medium has had to offer through the years.
Submitted exclusively to Pawling Public Radio (Listen on the radio or streaming live at 6am, 12pm and 6pm)
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