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Critical Consensus: Peter Knegt and Eric Kohn on the Oscar Season So Far

Indiewire By Peter Knegt and Eric Kohn | Indiewire October 10, 2012 at 10:41AM

With great films from Steven Spielberg, Ben Affleck, David O. Russell, P.T. Anderson, Michael Haneke and more, this is starting to look like an exceptional year, in which a large volume of major Oscar contenders are also impressive for reasons that have nothing to do with their awards potential.
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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.

TWC 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...

Seth MacFarlane's "Family Guy."

KOHN: If Wallis and Riva land nominations -- and one of the two wins -- while Haneke and Phoenix take home prizes for dark, unsettling dramas with plenty of creative innovation to spare, this will be an Oscars for the ages...unless it's an embarrassment because host Seth MacFarlane combats the spark of intellect these movies represent with the half-baked sophomoric humor that pervades his work.  

Look, I have given "Family Guy" a chance. Many chances. Pretty much every episode of "Family Guy" is a series of chances, one cutaway after another hurtling a series of gags at you in the hopes something, anything, sticks. For stoned college kids, that's theoretically sufficient, until they sober up. (But I would recommend they change the channel to Cartoon Network and watch "Adventure Time" instead, as it has plenty of trippy, stream-of-consciousness inspiration behind its cartoon exterior without sacrificing narrative consistency...and it uses the Saturday morning cartoon mold to explore a post-apocalyptic world, which is a decision executed with something bordering on brilliance. Can you tell I'm a big fan? Jake and Finn for Oscar hosts in 2013!)

Of course, I get why MacFarlane was selected. As you rightly pointed out in your recent editorial, Oscar hosts have to be ridiculously versatile to do the job justice. MacFarlane can sing and dance and tell jokes in an aggressively commercial fashion, as the success of "Ted" recently proved. He's a safer choice for luring younger viewers and making the program seem relevant than Hathaway and Franco were two years ago.

But I feel compelled to push this conversation toward a focus on the movies at stake here, and worry about how the MacFarlane gamble could wind up hurting the handful of truly excellent movies the program has the power to highlight. If, the morning after the program, everybody is talking about the stupid-funny brilliance of MacFarlane's random jokes, who's going to talking about "Amour"?

One of many problems I have with "Family Guy" is that it pays homage to first-rate entertainment without explicitly acknowledging it -- a Jerry Lewis gag here, a "Who's on First" reference there -- and essentially steals its power. MacFarlane is good at appropriating greatness and spoofing it, but by hogging the spotlight could he defeat the purpose of the event in question? What say you?

Seth MacFarlane.

KNEGT: While I'm not particularly a fan of "Family Guy" (I'm more or less indifferent to it), I actually really like Seth MacFarlane as a personality. Honestly, that has more to do with watching him guest on "Real Time With Bill Maher" and host "Saturday Night Live" than anything else, but still: That's probably where we'd get a better idea as to how he'd be as an Oscar host than "Family Guy." I'm less concerned about how I might take to him than I have been for some time, Oscar host-wise.  I also don't think he'll hog the spotlight in a way that would have a negative impact on the purpose of the event. It seems to me that having a host like MacFarlane could help aid the Oscars ratings significantly, meaning more people will watch and potentially get inspired to go see films like "Amour" or "Beasts of the Southern Wild."

I do agree that having Wallis, Riva, Haneke and/or Phoenix as possible winners is an exciting prospect. And while I'd be pretty surprised if either of those actresses end up winning (I suspect this is going to look like a certain win for Jennifer Lawrence and "Silver Linings" before the nominations are even announced), I'd wage a bet on Haneke and Phoenix. That said, it is just mid-October, and quite a few films have yet to be seen by anyone. These include "Django Unchained," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Promised Land," "Les Miserables." What are you most excited to see from the remaining possible contenders?

KOHN: I wasn't a huge fan of Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech" or a musical theater junkie so I'll take Hooper's "Les Miserables" off the table straight away. I'm looking forward to "Django Unchained" the same way I've anticipated every Tarantino movie -- that is, with a mixture of excitement and lowered expectations, because I'm pretty sure this barrage of western pastiche is going to be exactly what it looks like, and what it looks like is not an awards season player. (It does, however, look like a blast.) And I'm very curious about Katherine Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" because it sounds like one of the biggest intelligence successes of modern times channeled into a thriller mold by a filmmaker who has proven her capacity for ramping up the intensity of that genre.

But on some level I hope these movies are good enough without making the Oscar cut. Awards season tends to overscrutinize a handful of movies and lump them together as indicative of the moviegoer interests as a whole. If "Django" and "Zero" are too dark or weird to enter into that dialogue, they may avoid getting stuffed into a rat race that's actually quite unhealthy for a lot of first-rate movies.

Of course, if they deserve major accolades and receive them, great. I just worry that Oscar expectations can be a very foul red herring for truly daring works of cinema. Some amazing politicians shouldn't run for president; the same applies for certain movies. At this point, having seen Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" at the New York Film Festival's screening on Monday, I'm ready to let that one clean up. It's a big issue movie about an American icon. Spielberg's direction has rarely felt this mature. Tony Kushner's screenplay is smart and subtle. Daniel Day Lewis naturally inhabits the lead role with a mixture of charisma and gravitas (and Tommy Lee Jones delivers much-needed comic relief). The movie isn't a masterpiece -- it drags in parts and gets a tad too theatrical in its closing moments -- but it's a sufficiently provocative study of American history, never crass or annoyingly manipulative, and would certainly be the headiest Oscar movie to dominate the ceremony in years. That's change I can believe in.

READ MORE: Spielberg Unveils Unfinished 'Lincoln' at NYFF, Proves It's Better Than the Trailer

KNEGT: I was not at the "Lincoln" screening on Monday, so any educated opinion in that regard is not possible. However -- based on the reaction I followed quite obsessively on the internet that night -- it seems all but assured "Lincoln" is going to get a boatload of major nominations. But it also seems to me that its biggest hurdle toward becoming the favorite to win everything is, well, so many of the folks involved have won already. And in many cases, they have won more than once: Spielberg has three Oscars (four if you count the honorary one), Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field each have two, and Tommy Lee Jones has one.

TWC "Silver Linings Playbook"

That's not to say that the Academy wouldn't be against upping each count, but it takes something truly special to give someone their second or third acting Oscar (unless you can wear down the Academy with something like a 1,000 more nominations, which explains Meryl Streep's win last year). The only directors to ever win more than two in the directing category are Frank Capra, William Wyler and John Ford. But I could see how, at this point, Spielberg belongs in that club.  

Also, while reactions out of Monday's screening were definitely positive, they were not overwhelming in the way I feel warrants the kind of history Spielberg, Day-Lewis  and Field would make by winning. Jones, on the other hand, is probably the safest bet for a win among the trio. But again, that's not based on my familiarity with the film, so who knows. I guess it does all depend on what's to come. If "Les Miserables," "Django," "Zero Dark Thirty," "The Hobbit" and "Promised Land" all crash and burn, maybe it will end up as the "Lincoln" show. However, I have this sneaking suspicion "Silver Linings Playbook" is going to end up being the film to beat... and that Jennifer Lawrence is the closest thing we have to a locked win already.

KOHN: Now you've got me excited for another Harvey victory.

KNEGT: That makes one of us.
 

This article is related to: Academy Awards, Awards, Reviews, Critical Consensus, Lincoln, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook, The Master, Argo, Life of Pi