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by Peter Knegt and Eric Kohn
December 12, 2012 11:15 AM
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Critical Consensus: Peter Knegt and Eric Kohn On Whether This Is the Best Oscar Season in Years

"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.

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9 Comments

  • rob | December 13, 2012 5:02 PMReply

    Great piece!

  • savethemovies | December 13, 2012 2:05 PMReply

    "Despite all this nonsense from people who haven't seen the film assailing it for being pro-torture" from EK regarding Zero Dark Thirty. On CNN they interviewed several several people on the subject who were saying, not that the film was pro-torture (which however, could be construed as such), but that it made it seem that Osama Bin Laden was found through information gained through torture, when he most certainly was not. Now I am one of those who haven't seen the film, and that bit of information makes it likely that I will not be seeing it, either.

  • Ronnie d. | December 13, 2012 9:17 AMReply

    You gotta be kidding me - pretty much any movie that was nominated for best picture two years ago - 127 Hours, the Social Network, King's Speech obviously, Inception, The Fighter, even Toy Story 3, would have, or should have at least been deserving to win this year's best picture Oscar. A lot of GOOD movies this, not many incredible ones - ones that were compelling and unique, and truly pulled at the heart strings.

  • marvin | December 13, 2012 9:08 AMReply

    les intouchables is execrable , I'm agree with that...

  • Lizzie | December 13, 2012 7:32 AMReply

    Describing Les Intouchables as execrable is beyond brutal. So a feel-good film is of lesser quality than a depressing one?

  • bob hawk | December 13, 2012 12:22 AMReply

    Great discussion, guys. (This IS quite a year, and I don't know where Alex -- below -- is coming from. Here we are, in the middle of December, and he's saying "in November we already know what movie will win for best picture" when virtually everyone is saying that there are at least three very diverse front runners, any one of which could easily win.) I'd only take issue with Eric on labeling CHASING ICE "blandly preachy." It's now 11 months since I saw it and I still remember it being jaw-droppingly compelling, both visually and in content. I don't even remember much narration, although I know there was a lot of info given. including the challenging conditions under which it was shot, but it didn't need to preach, what with all its stunning nonverbal imagery. And a thought about the animation category: the brilliant CONSUMING SPIRITS, which just opened today at NY's Film Forum (anywhere else yet?), wipes everything else away but, alas, has no apparent opportunity to gain any real traction. I hate the oxymoron "instant classic" but I'll bet you anything that this will endure and outlive all other candidates this year -- and still be showing 50 years from now, in any art houses, cinematheques and museums with film archives that might still exist. (All this conjecture depends, of course, on whether or not we're all obliterated by the Mayan apocalypse come 12/21/12 and don't even get to go to Sundance in January, let alone the Kodak Theater in February.)

  • Alex Thomas | December 12, 2012 7:03 PMReply

    ^^^ Strongly disagree with Alex above, which movie do you think is already locked in for Best Picture?

    I think it's very exciting to have such open races in most categories. Best Picture is still up in the air, with all four of the main players (Argo, Les Mis, Lincoln, Zero Dark 30) all having issues that bring them down to the pack.

    The acting categories seem a bit more clear cut, but who knows, DDL or Lawrence could still be upset.

    I think foreign film will be an epic battle, many think Amour have it wrapped up but The Intouchables will give it a shake. The documentary shortlist was great as PK mentioned, I have no idea what will win from those that I've seen.

    Good wrap up!

  • Alex | December 12, 2012 6:29 PMReply

    I think its one of the worst Oscar season ever, when in november we already know what movie will win for best picture. Besides, its one of the worst year for movies in general.

  • Ronnie D. | December 13, 2012 9:18 AM

    Agree about the 2nd part. This will, however, be one of the most unpredictable Oscar seasons in years.