Argo, the movie inspired by the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, is going to win the Academy Award as best picture of 2012. Go ahead, place that bet in your office Oscar pool, but don't expect to reap much advantage, because everybody else is just as sure that Argo is going to win.
The signs are impossible to miss, or to deny. Like The King's Speech a couple years back, and like The Artist the year after that, Argo has been sweeping the film industry's pre-Oscar contests: the Producers Guild Award, the ensemble award from the Screen Actors Guild, "outstanding directorial achievement" from the Directors Guild (DGA), and the BAFTAs—the trophies from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts—for best picture and direction. Since many of the voters in those various contests are also members of the Hollywood academy, they've already vouchsafed a de facto peek at a lot of Oscar ballots.
There is, to be sure, a notable break with the usual pattern. Most years, the director of the movie about to be named best picture will be called to the podium to collect the Oscar for best direction. And much more often than not, that Oscar victory has been predicted by a DGA win. So we're on track, right? Ben Affleck, star and director of Argo, won the DGA. Yes, but. Whereas the five nominees for the DGA and those for the best-director Oscar tend to be the same, or pretty much the same, this year only two of the DGA nominees made it onto the Oscar slate. And neither of them was Ben Affleck.
How and why this happened boggles the mind; we'll probably never know. What we can say is that, far from blighting Argo's chances for winning best pic, the snubbing of its director seems to have inspired a backlash. Argo lovers are all the more determined to honor their movie, and mere Argo likers who might have been inclined to vote for one of the other eight best-picture nominees have swung aboard Argo. Also—as past best-director winners Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Richard Attenborough, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson can tell you—the biggest voting bloc in the academy is the actors branch, and they like to see one of their own make good. That Affleck has made good as a director after often being belittled as an actor only adds to the payback fervor.
For the record, those other eight nominees for best picture are: Amour, a rare instance of a foreign-language film breaking into this category; Beasts of the Southern Wild, the fave rave among American independent films in 2012; Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's expectedly outrageous foray into spaghetti-Western territory; Les Misérables, from the decades-long-running musical; Life of Pi, Ang Lee's version of the "unfilmable" mystical novel; Steven Spielberg's historical drama Lincoln (which leads with twelve Oscar nominations); Silver Linings Playbook, the best romantic comedy in living memory; and Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's distillation of the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden.
As for the directorial scorecard, only Ang Lee and Spielberg carry over from the DGA slate. MIA along with Affleck are fellow Directors Guild nominees Bigelow (winner three years ago for The Hurt Locker) and Tom "Les Miz" Hooper (winner two years ago for The King's Speech); their slots on the Oscar ballot have gone to Michael Haneke (Amour), David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), and Benh Zeitlin (first-time director of Beasts of the Southern Wild).
We've spoken of Argo's conquest of industry awards (and don't forget the goofy Golden Globes!), but it should be noted that Affleck's crowd-pleasing movie barely showed up in critics-group award reckonings. In such contests, Bigelow/Zero Dark Thirty and Haneke/Amour mostly traded first-place honors, with Lincoln (though curiously not Spielberg) crowding for second position.
The discrepancy is easy enough to account for. Bigelow's, Haneke's and even Spielberg's films are complex works of art that challenge audiences and then leave it up to those audiences to deal with the implications of what they've witnessed and experienced. Argo is a well-made movie with a fascinating (and mostly true) story to tell, of how six U.S. foreign service workers were exfiltrated from Tehran during the 1979 Iranian hostage-taking crisis, and when it's over, it's over. No resonance, no takeaway. An entertaining, quality movie, yes indeed, and there can never be an oversupply of those. But "best film"?
So, since it can't be Ben Affleck (and the academy no longer allows write-in votes), who takes best director? It's anybody's guess. Spielberg has won twice already, and although Lincoln is much respected, I don't get the sense people are excited about it. Life of Pi must be accounted an awesome technical achievement (the costar and most of the action is all CGI), but should it win Ang Lee a second Oscar? Haneke doesn't make a wrong move with Amour and, denied the chance to vote for Bigelow, I guess I'd go with him. David O. Russell isn't my kind of director visually, but Silver Linings Playbook is the first movie in 31 years to score nominations in all four acting categories, and he's gotta rate for that. Zeitlin doesn't belong here.
Best actress: Silver Linings Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence ("Hey!") is the favorite, and certainly mine, but it will be deeply moving if Emmanuelle Riva, of Amour, celebrates her 86th birthday with an Oscar win; hers is one of the bravest performances ever. Also plenty worthy is Jessica Chastain as the fierce CIA analyst in Zero Dark Thirty. Inappropriate: Naomi Watts, in The Impossible (but not enough of it); Quvenzhané Wallis, best thing about Beasts of the Southern Wild (but a kid).
Best actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln—take it to the bank.
Best supporting actress: I don't see how anything stops Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables, though I wish something would. Sally Field deserves the Oscar for her Mary Todd Lincoln, and Helen Hunt deserves another for The Sessions.
Best supporting actor: His lovely work as the sports-obsessed Philly father in Silver Linings Playbook is the first performance Robert De Niro has woken up to give in years. He could even win (and I cast my top National Society of Film Critics vote for him). But keep an eye on Tommy Lee Jones in his rather too showcase part in Lincoln. Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master, and Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained, both world-beaters, seem out of place in the supporting category. Alan Arkin's vaudeville turn in Argo was easy meat.
Further remarks plus notes from the battlefield next week. The Oscars will be awarded this coming Sunday, Feb. 24, 5:30 p.m. on KOMO-4.
Expanded version of a column that appeared in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, Feb. 20, 2013
Copyright © 2013 by Richard T. Jameson