Editor's note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. In this installment, Kohn trades e-mails with Indiewire senior editor and resident Oscar prognosticator Peter Knegt (their previous conversation is here).
ERIC KOHN: I'll just come out and say it: I love this year's Oscar season. Looking back on our previous conversations, I realize I've routinely made attempts to distance myself from the tendency to focus on what might actually happen in February and instead argue for what -- in an ideal world where the only real criteria for Oscar candidacy was true mastery of the medium -- deserves to win. I've wasted plenty of words on vain dreams of "Holy Motors" and "Your Sister's Sister" gaining series Oscar cred. But here's the thing: Even if some of our more esoteric or otherwise marginalized preferences don't have a shot, this is still a remarkable fall season for movies, maybe the best we've seen in our adult lives. From Steven Spielberg's most impressive historical fiction since "Schindler's List" to the solidification of power couple Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's combined journalism and filmmaking abilities to dissect our cultural anxieties, big-time studio movies are coming out in smart packages left and right. Even the weaker contenders, like the annoyingly misconceived "Les Miserables" and dispiritedly messy "Django Unchained" have moments of aesthetic clarity that undeniably leave an impression on even the most cynical of viewers.
In fact, there's so much first-rate cinema in theaters now that some of the early contenders have been either lost some momentum or been completely wiped off the table altogether. You'll notice I didn't mention "Silver Linings Playbook," which back in September seemed like a major Weinstein Company bid but now has stalled in all categories save for adapted screenplay and actress. "The Master" just nabbed the Los Angeles Critics Circle Awards but has otherwise been relegated to the "weird" category (it's almost like another "Holy Motors" compared to the popular mainstream films at the center of this season). You seemed pretty convinced that "Argo" was a lock for Best Picture a little while back, but now I'm guessing "Zero Dark Thirty" has (deservedly, I might add) stolen some of its thunder. And all of this more or less removes "Life of Pi" from the picture. Who could've predicted we'd be in such vastly different terrain eight weeks ago?
So, Peter: As a guy who pays attention to Oscar buzz without all the wishful thinking that clouds my vision, what do you make of the changing tides? Are Oscar voters likely to forget about all those movies we highlighted at the start of the season? Is this the best Oscar season in years -- or the worst, because with so many contenders, nobody will get everything they deserve? Has that typically indie problem of facing a marketplace oversaturated with movies infected the Oscar game as well?
PETER KNEGT: I certainly agree that this has developed into the most heated, interesting awards season in a quite a few years (maybe even a decade). And that's certainly a good thing for any of us that get joy out of simply watching the "race" element of the season unfold. It's also great for moviegoers. There's a remarkable amount of excellent films out there, and people are actually going to see them. "Lincoln" is about to become -- shockingly -- the first film starring Daniel Day-Lewis to gross $100 million. "Argo" just crossed the same milestone for Ben Affleck. And I'd be surprised (and sad) if the stunning critical acclaim that has met "Zero Dark Thirty" -- my personal favorite among this crowd -- doesn't become a box office hit in a few weeks time.
Is it bad for the contenders to have so much competition? Well, I guess in the sense than in many recent years any one of five or six films in the race this year could have easily been a singular frontrunner. But hopefully the people involved in these films -- whether they win or lose -- can simply take pride in being part of such a banner year for studio-made American film. Which is largely what this race will include in the end. "Argo," "Lincoln," "Les Miserables," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Zero Dark Thirty" and probably "Life of Pi" are all pretty much assured slots in the 5-10 film best picture race. And while "Miserables" might be largely a UK production and "Silver Linings" sort of indie, this is a pretty damn Hollywood lineup.
So, yeah, I disagree with you that "Argo," "Life of Pi" and "Silver Linings" have fallen out of this race. Sure, they were once all best picture frontrunners (if only for a brief moment), but they'll all be best picture nominees. It seems the race for the win is down to the other three: "Lincoln," "Les Mis" and "Zero Dark." Two remarkably accomplished American history procedurals that I'd be fine with winning (as would, I'm guessing, a lot of film critics), and... "Les Miserables." Which is at this point the only real sore spot for me in this race. I know many disagree, but I found it so bloated, so overlong, so poorly directed... and I honestly had no emotional attachment to it, save for Anne Hathaway's truly sensational three minute long take singing "I Dreamed a Dream." That's a three-minute long take that 99.9% likely to have already won her an Oscar. And whatever, I can handle that. But if the film itself wins best picture in such a juicy year? I'll definitely be among les miserables.
"Django Unchained" is the one film in all of this that I've yet to see. But from what I hear, it's far from a confirmed player in all of this.