From the Online Film Critics Society press release: “The Online Film Critics Society has announced the winners of its 16th annual movie awards. Ben Affleck’s film Argo, about the fake film shoot that was used as a cover to extract six Americans from Iran during the Iran Hostage Crisis, was named by the organization as the Best Picture of the 2012.”
The results of the OFFS tend to fall in line with results of other film critics polls, rather than the more populist Academy Awards, and should not be seen as a predictor of future events: in fact, the OFCS and the Academy have only agreed on the Best Picture three times during their coexistence. When they disagree, however, the OFCS tends to go with the better and bolder choice, selecting the gritty L.A. Confidential ahead of the treacly Titanic in 1997, recognizing both Memento and Mulholland Drive (both snubbed for Oscar noms) ahead of A Beautiful Mind in 2001, giving the nod to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (another Academy slight) over Million Dollar Baby in 2004, and having the foresight to recognize The Tree of Life as Best Picture last year (not that The Artist was bad, but come on—Life was monumental).
As a voting member of the organization, I take these awards seriously. I try to see all the nominees, and I do not push “weird” candidates unless I truly feel that they truly belong among the year’s best. I have listed all the winners of the various categories below, along with my thoughts on the winner and my reasons for casting my ballot as I did. Of course, no comment below, however snarky, is meant to disparage the opinion of any of colleague (or reader) who voted differently than I did. I believe everyone voted their conscience.
Our Vote: The Master
Comments: Argo, the story of the rescue of diplomats stranded in revolutionary Iran in 1980 by a CIA agent pretending to be a producer scouting locations for a science fiction epic, is a consensus-type pick. It’s a very solid thriller from a director who’s paid his dues, and it helps its credibility that it’s also based on true events (qualities it shares with Zero Dark Thirty, which was hurt mainly by the fact that it arrived in theaters so late that many voters didn’t get the chance to see it). Argo is a conventional formula flick, but it executes its script nearly flawlessly, mixing tension, political import and comic relief in effective ratios. I liked it, but I believe it lacks the kind of serious artistic ambition necessary to be a real Best Picture contender; as good as it is it doesn’t transcend its genre. Argo‘s proponents probably don’t feel as passionately about it as champions of some of the other films do, but the movie also has fewer downsides—excepting ZDT, the other nominees all have alienating features that drive conservative voters away. The remaining non-Argo votes are split between the three more peculiar films. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Argo to do well with the Academy, particularly since it also pokes gentle fun at the Hollywood film industry, something voters tend to respond to (see The Player).
Personally, I would have voted for Beasts of the Southern Wild as Best Picture, had it been nominated. It takes far more chances than Argo, and while it’s not perfect, I’ll take a great but flawed performance with a high degree of difficulty over a perfect rendition of a standard routine any day. Of the remaining candidates, I thought The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s existential tale of confused post-War spirituality, produced the best blend of strong filmmaking and artistic vision. The wild card was Holy Motors, which I was shocked to see nominated. The fact that I ignored Motors‘ nomination proves that I don’t unconditionally shill for the weird. I loved Leos Carax’ crazy experiment as an experience film, but it’s too specialized for general audiences—only film theorists and lovers of the bizarre need apply for this hallucinogenic ride through dark Parisian alleyways.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Also Nominated: Brave; Frankenweenie; The Secret World of Arrietty; Wreck-It Ralph
Our Vote: ParaNorman
Comments: As usual, this is a very strong category—like epics in the 1930s to 1960s, the major studios put lots of effort and resources into making these cartoons as spectacular as they possibly can, since they now represent the most profitable sector of the film market. ParaNorman and Wreck-It Ralph came in neck-and-neck on my ballot. I selected the former thanks to a climax that was both more visually spectacular and emotionally meaningful than Ralph‘s denouement, but both films were very good, and I wouldn’t have been upset to see any of the others win, either.
BEST FILM NOT IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
Winner: Holy Motors
Also Nominated: Amour, Rust and Bone, This Is Not a Film, The Turin Horse
Our Vote: Holy Motors
Comments: There wasn’t much suspense in this category. The minute I noticed Holy Motors was nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film, it was obvious that Leos Carax’ contraption was going to cruise to a win in the latter division. Motors certainly deserves the honor, but it’s still a shock that an obscure surrealistic film that was poorly distributed in the US impressed voters this powerfully (the OFCS does have a strong international presence, unlike many other critics circles). Although I cast my vote for Motors, had it been eligible, I would have picked the luscious Chicken with Plums instead.
Winner: Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Also Nominated: Ben Affleck, Argo; Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom; Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty; Leos Carax, Holy Motors
Our Vote: Paul Thomas Anderson
Comments: Why split Best Director and Best Picture votes? The director is essentially the CEO of the movie, responsible for good or for ill for the overall success of the project: he selects and coaches the actors, approves the script, positions the camera, etc., or at least delegates these duties to technicians whose expertise he trusts. From year to year there may be a few cases where a particular director might do the best work on a particular film, yet a different film may deserve Best Picture because that director also did a great job, but started with better material or lucked into a transcendent performance from a particular actor. I don’t think this is what happened this year with Argo; in fact, everything good about the movie seems to result from Affleck’s direction. There is another reason voters might split Best Picture and Best Director votes, however, and that’s due to a lack of confidence that the first place movie is so clearly ahead of the second place movie as to deserve a sweep. I suspect that’s what happened here; while Argo may have been a narrow favorite, many voters may have split their votes to assure that The Master received a major award, as well. (I think it may have made more sense for The Master to get Best Picture and Argo Best Director, but then I see Affleck’s picture as lagging behind Anderson’s anyway).
Winner: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Also Nominated: John Hawkes, The Sessions; Denis Lavant, Holy Motors; Joaquin Phoenix, The Master; Denzel Washington, Flight
Our Vote: Joaquin Phoenix
Comments: Day-Lewis may be the easiest name to pencil in on Oscar night (in fact, go ahead and write him in ink). Everyone has approximately the same image of Abraham Lincoln—wise, imposing, tormented—but no one knows how he sounded when he spoke or how he scratched his nose. To be successful as the Emancipator an actor must simply project an aura of sorrowful authority. Day-Lewis carried Spielberg’s biopic, but I imagine that, because of the amorphous nature of the part, many other accomplished actors could have handled the role, bringing very different interpretations to the part with equal success. Phoenix had a much tougher assignment as a violent, libidinous lout and industrial solvent mixologist with buried spiritual yearnings. His character had to be repulsive on his face, yet still project enough loneliness to make us sympathize with him. Phoenix realized the character with a brave array of bestial tics and dimly comprehending glances that made him look almost simian at times. He pushed his performance right to the brink of overblown but remained on the believable side of the credibility line, resulting in a surprisingly moving turn as a lost soul who discovers dignity in his ability to remain a loser on his own terms. Lavant, who played ten (or eleven) different roles in Holy Motors, ran a strong second place in my mind (if he had been honored, there would have been no complaints from this quarter). Hawkes (as a poet in an iron lung trying to lose his virginity) and Washington (as a functional alcoholic pilot trying to hold it together during an investigation into a plane crash) are both very good in movies that weren’t very special outside of their performances.
Winner: Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Also Nominated: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook; Emmanuelle Riva, Amour; Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea
Our Vote: Quvenzhané Wallis
Comments: Confession time: I didn’t see Zero Dark Thirty (it’s not playing in my neck of the woods, the studio refused to send out screeners, and I can’t just drop everything to jet out to New York, L.A. or London to see a special critics screening). Nonetheless, I do find it hard to imagine Chastain could displace Wallis in my heart. Quvenzhané Wallis, a five-year old firecracker who is repeatedly referred to as “a force of nature” by other critics, puts in a special performance in her role as Hushpppy, the six-year-old near orphan with an active imagination, her own trailer house, and a dying father. She may not have technique, and much of the time she may have been just “being herself,” but it was a privilege to watch this amazing little girl caught on film at a magical time in her life. Hell, I probably would have voted for Quvenzhané in her home movies if they’d been nominated.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Winner: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Also Nominated: Alan Arkin, Argo; Dwight Henry, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln; Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
Our Vote: Dwight Henry
Comments: This is a solid category and one of the most competitive of all the races. We have no problem recognizing Hoffman for his turn as a more-sympathetic-than-expected cult leader based on L. Ron Hubbard, but we were also thrilled by the performance of pastry-baker-turned-actor Henry as the macho bayou pop who tries to toughen up his Hushpuppy for her upcoming life as an orphan.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Winner: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Also Nominated: Amy Adams, The Master; Ann Dowd, Compliance; Sally Field, Lincoln; Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Our Vote: Anne Hathaway
Comments: This was a tough vote. Hathaway is probably the second safest Oscar bet after Daniel Day-Lewis. She is very affecting as the doomed mom-turned-hooker Fantine, and gives a stirring, tear-jerking rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream” (the overblown musical’s only truly great moment). Although the bottom of the BSA field defines uninspiring, we were strongly tempted to vote for Ann Dowd in Compliance. Dowd plays an in-over-her-head McDonald’s manager who falls for a phone prank where an anonymous caller claims to be a policeman and tricks her into strip-searching an innocent 19-year old counter worker accused of stealing money. The scenario is so implausible you’d never believe it if it hadn’t actually happened, but Dowd sells the idea that this stressed-out and gullible functionary, trained to take orders unquestioningly from her superiors, could fall for such a transparent scam and turn a blind eye to the glaringly obvious. There’s certainly a stick-it-to-the-man-ish appeal in the idea of voting for the appropriately named Dowd in a mean and lean indie ahead of the glamorous Hathaway in a bloated middlebrow blockbuster. It was close, but the deciding factor: Hathaway can sing—a skill, incidentally, not shared by all of her Miserables co-stars (I’m looking at you, Russel Crowe).
Winner: This Is Not a Film
Also Nominated: The Imposter; The Invisible War; Jiro Dreams of Sushi; The Queen of Versailles
Our Vote: The Queen of Versailles
Comments: Confession time 2: I didn’t see This Is Not a Film, director Jafar Panahi’s account of being held under house arrest in Iran for making “propaganda against the state” and forbidden from making movies, filmed on an iPhone and smuggled out of the country hidden in a birthday cake. Unlike Zero Dark Thirty, which was completely unavailable for viewing, this oversight on my part appears to be inexcusable. I had to cast my vote instead for The Queen of Versailles, the highly entertaining tale of a couple of a timeshare king and his family who are forced to tighten belts and learn to live like millionaires rather than billionaires after the real estate bubble bursts. It’s like reality TV, only with wit and heart.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Winner: Moonrise Kingdom
Also Nominated: The Cabin in the Woods; Looper; The Master; Zero Dark Thirty
Our Vote: The Cabin in the Woods
Comments: The biggest shock of the blood-soaked horror flick The Cabin in the Woods is that it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay by the OFCS. Usually “it’s an honor just to be nominated” is loser talk, but in this case I think it’s true; a deconstructionist Spam-in-cabin movie is not likely to win any major awards that don’t include the words “Fright,” “Scare” or “Gore” in them. As for Moonrise Kingdom, well,I can see how it would come off better on the printed page than it does on the big screen (just kidding, Wes Anderson fans!)
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Also Nominated: Beasts of the Southern Wild; Cloud Atlas; Cosmopolis; Lincoln
Our Vote: Lincoln
Comments: People surely expected me to vote for Beasts of the Southern Wild, but I zigged when they expected me to zag. One of my guiding philosophies about screenplays is that I award bonus points if they take dry, potentially dull material and turn it into something dramatic. The plot of Lincoln involves backroom political horse trading–18th century political horse trading, the kind where we watch a man trade his vote for a cushy appointment as the Postmaster General of the Missouri Territory. Making this kind of maneuvering and patronage tolerable, much less exciting, to watch for two-plus hours takes a special skill that I feel deserves recognition (it helps that Abe tells lots of jokes, including one about a portrait of George Washington in a British water closet). I didn’t have an overwhelming favorite in this category, and I would have been quite satisfied with a win for Beasts (or even Argo).
Winner: Cloud Atlas
Also Nominated: Argo, The Master, Skyfall, Zero Dark Thirty
Our Vote: Argo
Comments: This is the one award that I thought Argo clearly deserved. The tension in the closing scenes is almost unbearable, despite the fact that little happens other than cutting back and forth between worried faces and suspicious ones. Frankly, I think very few critics, myself included, know how to distinguish good editing from mediocre editing. The Best Editing award is usually a good place to honor a good action-oriented film that isn’t “serious” enough to win one of the major awards. Cloud Atlas‘ win supplies proof for the theory that if you create a large number of parallel storylines, you can win a Best Editing award by virtue of that fact alone. My main problem is that I found Cloud Atlas‘ random weaving between plot lines confusing, at first. While that initial disorientation may have been intentional, when combined with the fact that Cloud Atlas just wasn’t a great movie overall, I find the award unmerited. I would have been satisfied with a win for Skyfall here as well.
Also Nominated: Life of Pi; Lincoln; The Master; Moonrise Kingdom
Our Vote: The Master
Comments: I had no clear favorite in this category, so I won’t complain about Skyfall (though I think “Best Editing” would have been the better choice if you were looking for some category to honor it in).