Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which members of Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire's chief film critic, Eric Kohn. For this installation, we turn to Indiewire's resident Oscar specialist and senior editor Peter Knegt for a discussion about the awards race so far.
Is "Django Unchained" an Oscar contender?
ERIC KOHN: OK, Peter, 'tis the season that I assume you dread and eagerly anticipate in equal measures. The "O" word -- when fall movies take majestic stabs at profound messages, tearjerkers come out in full force, marketing dollars are spent on ginormous advertisements that scream prestige and pundits like yourself start placing their bets. Don't deny it: You close your eyes and have visions of gold men. There's no escaping that the Oscar race has begun in earnest.
As a critic, I wish I could simply reiterate the words of Manohla Dargis in this Jezebel interview
from a few years back: "Let's acknowledge the Oscars bullshit and we hate them." On the other hand, this is starting to look like an exceptional year in which a large volume of major Oscar contenders are also quite impressive for other reasons that have nothing to do with their awards potential. Whereas by this time last year "The Artist" basically had the whole show on lockdown, and a year before that "The King's Speech" was set for domination, now a handful of movies ranging from pretty decent to totally brilliant seem destined to play major roles in an Oscar season that gives Academy voters a real opportunity to spread the love.
Am I wrong in suggesting that this is a comparatively muted slate for The Weinstein Company? Both "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Master" feature brilliant performances worth singling out, but I'm not getting that they're Best Picture contenders in the vein of "Life of Pi," "Argo" and "Lincoln," all of which are big budget studio movies. If the Oscars come down to a three-way battle between versatile directors Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg on one side of the arena and rising filmmaker-writer-star hybrid Ben Affleck on the other, at least we'll have a chance to scrutinize a trio of commercial artists with strong bodies of work.
"Maybe the Oscars are usually bullshit, but this edition is starting to smell fresh to me."
Each of these men has a big screen achievement to celebrate: Affleck has taken the Clint Eastwood route, shifting gears from suave leading man to prestige director with polemics to spare, while Spielberg has delivered what many have already called his most refined historical epic based on a single New York screening. Lee's "Pi" pairs technical wizardry with an uber-sentimental survival tale that's essentially a parable for religion. These are calculated works of entertainment that were obviously tough to make, but the hard work paid off. They're fun and smart, if not edgy, so if the Oscars mainly focuses on them, I have a feeling it will be a classy year -- no matter how many crass scatalogical jokes host Seth MacFarlane unloads over the course of the ceremony. But we'll get to him in a moment.
I'm sure you can fill me in on the underdogs I'm missing here. But what about the smaller categories that could use the extra boost? I would love to see "Holy Motors" sneak into the ceremony somewhere alongside Christian Petzold's "Barbara," even though it's pretty much a sealed deal that Michael Haneke's "Amour" will win the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Don't get me wrong -- that would be a fine victory indeed. Maybe the Oscars are usually bullshit, but this edition is starting to smell fresh to me. (I guess I'm just as bad as MacFarlane now.)
PETER KNEGT: I appreciate your overall optimism. And to a degree share it with you. After the past two years of predictable, underwhelming awards seasons, it does seem like we are in for something a little more exciting this time around. At least, it seems that way right now. There's still, what, 20 weeks to go? It's quite possible by January the whole "race" will be as depressing and repetitive as usual. But we can hope that won't be the case.
It's true that the overall pedigree of the films we've seen so far is not too shabby. Let's assume all of these contenders end up as fixtures in at least a couple major categories: "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "The Master," "Amour," and even "Argo," as well as "Life of Pi" and "Silver Linings Playbook" all range from "pretty decent to totally brilliant." And we haven't seen a good half dozen upcoming releases that may or may not deserve the same categorization, including new films from Steven Spielberg, Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino and Gus Van Sant.
"It's quite possible by January the whole "race" will be as depressing and repetitive as usual. But we can hope that won't be the case."
But I do have to disagree with you regarding The Weinstein Company. I actually think this is the best slate they've ever had. Sure, there's not a "The King's Speech" or "The Artist"-level certainty (yet) in their slate, but the mighty trio of "The Master," "Silver Linings" and, potentially, "Django" could make for quite a few statuettes. If I had to make totally unreasonable winner predictions today, I'd bet three of the four acting winners come from those films with Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio all taking home prizes. While I won't go so far as to predict any of them as best picture winners, I think Paul Thomas Anderson and David O. Russell are each looking very good in the screenplay categories...
I also think Harvey and company might upset your "Amour" prediction in foreign language film. The Weinstein Company's "The Intouchables" is France's submission ("Amour" was submitted by Austria), and it's the kind of schmaltz that category loves to honor. But we'll see. "A Separation" was an uncharacteristically classy move last year, and I'd love it if the Academy followed that up by finally giving the Oscar to Haneke. And like you, I'd also love to see "Holy Motors" in the foreign language category, but unfortunately France chose "The Intouchables" instead.
As for other underdogs I'm rooting for, I love the definite possibility of both Quvenzhane Wallis and Emmanuelle Riva making it into the best actress race for "Beasts" and "Amour." They would be the youngest and oldest nominees in that category ever, respectively, and both deservingly so...