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Critical Consensus: Peter Knegt and Eric Kohn On Whether This Is the Best Oscar Season in Years

Indiewire By Peter Knegt and Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 12, 2012 at 11:15AM

Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn, debates awards season drama with IW senior editor and Oscar prognosticator Peter Knegt. No one was harmed during the melee.
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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?

Has that typically indie problem of facing a marketplace oversaturated with movies infected the Oscar game as well?

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.

"Les Miserables."

EK: You're not alone on "Les Miz." We're on the same wavelength about Hathaway's performance providing the standout moment in a sea of cloying attempts to salute the iconic source material, alienating those (like me) who never cared much for it. At the same time, director Tom Hooper stuffs the material into blatant cinematic devices ranging from an overabundance of close-ups to that restless crane shot that pulls back in majestic hyperbole whenever a mournful performer holds his or her note for longer than a couple of seconds. Bolt that thing down! This is the kind of movie that might've dominated the Oscars in the heyday of pricey, overdone musicals, a period that ended when those very same musicals bankrupted Hollywood. Voters should know better this time around, awarding achievements stemming from smart craftsmanship and the ideas they represent, qualities "Les Miz" lacks but the other two films you consider to be Best Picture frontrunners offer in spades.

As for "Django Unchained"...well, it's a Tarantino movie, and one of his lesser efforts, as I wrote in my review. It's a wild, messy genre experiment bound to alienate as many people as it entertains. I've seen it twice and appreciate the continuity of Tarantino's showmanship, but it's too much of a referential indulgence to win universal acclaim. Tarantino could land a screenplay nomination and I'd love to see him win it for sticking to his unvarnished, rambling style after all these years...and The Weinstein Company would do well to throw most of their resources behind this campaign instead of pushing much harder on "Silver Linings." While I prefer its fluid crowdpleasing qualities to the discursive narrative of "Django," I'll admit the latter delivers a better ride.

Of course, it would be nice to see some diversity in this race, and with the actor candidates involving a sea of white people, a more prominent role for "Django Unchained" would at least complicate the Academy's typically unbalanced portrait of contemporary cinema. As usual, though, my hopes are riding on the smaller categories to bring the finest achievements in 2012 cinema to the fore. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Michael Haneke's "Amour" is starting to look like a lock for Best Foreign Language film, and while not quite on par with the mastery on display in last year's winner "A Separation" (like "Amour," a Sony Classics contender), "Amour" is undoubtedly a brilliant achievement that puts most overproduced American productions to shame: A tale of senility by two iconic French actors that realizes our collective anxieties about mortality with one powerful, intimate scene after another. In the documentary category, I was inspired by another of my favorite films released this year, Jafar Panahi's remarkable "This is Not a Film," landing on the Oscar documentary shortlist -- even as worthy contenders like "Central Park Five" and "Samsara" got shut out. Among the other shortlisted contenders, my other favorites are Kirby Dick's infuriating "The Invisible War" and "The Gatekeepers" (but "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" is pretty solid and I still need to watch "5 Broken Cameras"). However, the non-fiction race is starting to emphasize the potential for "How to Survive a Plague," a serviceable look at the AIDS era that I think relies a little too heavily on archival materials to stand out as exemplary filmmaking, although I won't swear off the Oscars if it takes home the gold. I'll leave those frustrations aside in case "Les Miz" wins big.

So we've talked about how this is a banner year for quality studio movies dominating awards season campaigns. But what do you make of the foreign language and non-fiction categories I've laid out here? Do the obvious front-runners face any potential competition? If the execrable "Les Intouchables" wins the foreign category and the blandly preachy "Chasing Ice" takes the doc prize, count me among les miserables, too. Put me at ease?

PK: I wish I could. But "The Intouchables" winning best foreign film is a definite possibility, as is pretty much anything winning in the extraordinarily unpredictable documentary category.

But here's a silver lining with regard to the former. The foreign language committee's tendency to ignore challenging works of cinema like "Amour" in favor of fluffier work puts it at a disadvantage for sure (though last year they indeed proved an exception to that rule). But I really believe "Amour" will get a bunch of nominations outside foreign language film -- potentially even the mighty quartet of best picture, best director, best original screenplay and best actress for Emmanuelle Riva.  I'm also starting to think more and more that this assumed Jessica Chastain vs. Jennifer Lawrence best actress race that everyone is setting up could involve Riva a bit more than we're anticipated. It's not out of the realm of possibilities that Chastain and Lawrence could split the vote and allow Riva to pull off Oscar night's biggest surprise win. Unlikely, but definitely not impossible.

"How To Survive A Plague."

As for documentary, I'll already give them this: That shortlist was much better than I or most other people anticipated. Yes, there were some unfortunate omissions -- like "Central Park Five," "The Queen of Versailles" and "West of Memphis" -- but the list still represented a diverse batch of mostly excellent docs. And the inclusion of "This is Not a Film" in particular was totally unexpected and extremely warranted.

There are a few films on there I'd be happy with winning, including one you somewhat dismissed, "How To Survive a Plague." It's personally my favorite documentary of the year (though "The Invisible War," "The House I Live In" and "This is Not a Film" are close behind), and "serviceable" would not be a word I'd use to generalize my feelings about it.  I thought it was a powerful and meticulously put-together documentation of AIDS activism, one made all the better because of its use of archival footage. I'm not sure how else this story could be told, considering its historical context, and I was wholly impressed by a) how much excellent footage was available and b) how well the film wove it together to tell this story.

That aside, I am curious about your thoughts on another category: Best animated feature. It looks like Tim Burton could finally end up winning an Oscar judging from the precursors so far. What do you think?

EK: Let me backup for a second: I'm sure how else this aspect of the AIDS story can be told either, but that doesn't make me enamored of "How to Survive a Plague." Of course I'm impressed the power of the events captured in that film's footage, but also find the volume of it emotionally distancing from the material, especially when compared to the contemporary interviews of last year's more potent AIDS documentary "We Were Here." I only bring this up because I'd much rather see truly personal works triumph in the few Oscar categories where individualistic achievements can actually stand out.

And that brings me to the animated films category. If I had my way, Burton would've already won Oscars for his best efforts: "The Corpse Bride" and "Sweeney Todd" were probably his most successful attempts at funneling goth sensibilities into lively, entertaining set pieces, while "Ed Wood" contains his greatest stabs at character depth. "Frankenweenie" is weaker than all of these films, but still contains oodles of charm, and if the Academy votes in his favor then it's still an appropriate choice since it represents Burton's most distinctive qualities by harkening back to their origins.

"Frankenweenie"

Then again, it's a strange year for animated film -- not the strongest lot, but a very diverse bunch. With "Brave," Pixar didn't belly-flop as hard as it it did last year with "Cars 2," but its latest offering certainly lacks the complex navigation of themes typically found at the root of the studio's best efforts, a quality that stems less from visual inspiration than first-rate screenplays. I had heard "Madagascar 3" was the best of the franchise, and having watched it recently I can concur, but that's more or less due to a series of gags (co-written by Noah Baumbach, oddly enough) that we've seen before to varying degrees in earlier installments. "Rise of the Guardians" is a hockey tale of holiday spirit with solid action components and appreciable dark subtext, but lacks the emotional polish to give its atmosphere a lasting value. While enjoyable in parts, it's still a subpar "Nightmare Before Christmas" rip-off. "Wreck-It Ralph" is the most refined achievement of the bunch, a fluidly entertaining and very funny stab at videogame nostalgia that contains a wide variety of visual invention. So while I'd love to see Burton win just so he finally has an Oscar, I wouldn't discount "Wreck-It Ralph" as a serious contender since the eccentric "Frankenweenie" could potentially alienate some voters.

But I'd rather set aside both of these relatively big-time contenders, which are Disney products after all, in favor of the little-seen "The Rabbi's Cat," as it's receiving an Oscar-qualifying run this month. French cartoonist Joanne Sfar's endearing 2-D adaptation of his popular comic book is simultaneously wacky and profound, spoofing the extremes of traditionalist philosophy while embracing wider spiritual sentiments through the eyes of a loquacious feline. It's charming, wise and humble at once, something that the aforementioned studio products rarely achieve -- except when Pixar is on the money.  

PK: I will say with regard to animated feature: It's nice to have an actual race this year. I said before that "Frankenweenie" seemed like a frontrunner, but if so, it's a slight one. "Wreck-It-Ralph," "Paranorman" and "Brave" are all definitely in this race, and any of them could feasibly win. But if it does end up being Burton, it is kind of a shame that he lands it during a major career slump.  He was entirely ignored by the Academy during the heydeys of "Edward Scissorhands" and "Ed Wood" (my favorite Burton films, hands down), and while I actually quite liked "Frankenweenie" (especially compared to his horrible recent live action efforts "Alice in Wonderland" and "Dark Shadows"), having him win an Oscar for it feels like an afterthought to a career that seems to have peaked a decade ago. But I guess that's a bit of an Oscar tradition...

EK: One career that didn't peak a decade ago was Kathryn Bigelow's. Despite all this nonsense from people who haven't seen the film assailing it for being pro-torture, she's being discussed as a serious contender for Best Director. And yet she just won that very award not long ago. In a lot of cases, it seems like filmmakers who have either won Oscars in recent memory -- like Steven Spielberg -- or already "missed" their chance (a la Burton) get ruled out fairly easily. But I'm not hearing that skepticism about Bigelow's chances. What is it, do you think, that has provided such significant moment even before the film's release? Could it be that...the film is that good? Or maybe there's a more mundane reason. Enlighten me.

PK: I think it really is because the film is that good. If she hadn't won for "The Hurt Locker" three years ago, she'd be the presumed winner this time around. It could very well be that she wins anyway. Her main competition are both past winners -- Spielberg and Hooper -- so the previous win becomes less of an issue.  There'll be sexist groans that her gender helped her out, but I think once naysayers actually see "Zero Dark Thirty," it will be much more difficult for them to make that vile suggestion. It's a remarkable film that, as far as I'm concerned, even one-ups "The Hurt Locker."  And three years between best director wins wouldn't be unprecedented. Oliver Stone did it in 1986 and 1989 for "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July," which -- like "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty" -- were both films about the same period in American history, and both about war. The parallels would be quite something.

This article is related to: Reviews, Academy Awards, Critical Consensus, Les Miserables, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Argo, Amour, Frankenweenie, Wreck-It Ralph, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, Rise of the Guardians, Kathryn Bigelow, Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence, Emmanuelle Riva, This is Not a Film (In Film Nist), How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War