Ah, the Oscars! The indulgent, masturbatory highlight of the entertainment calendar, in which pampered millionaires gather together to award each other golden statues for who is the best at pretending. A night of bad jokes and stomach-churning sentimentalism; of overlong speeches and vacuous fashion commentary; of extreme frustration and frequent boredom; of sleep deprivation and exhaustion for British viewers; of little-to-no merit whatsoever.
I’m not a huge fan. But I’m totally complicit. In spite of myself, I watch eagerly every year, swept up in the pageantry and spectacle. This year’s nominees fit the usual specious criteria for what constitutes award-worthiness, not to mention the usual outrageous snubs – where was Moonrise Kingdom? The Master? Holy Motors? The Imposter? – but in spite of all that, it’s a better-than-average crop, and a more-open-than-usual field.
Academy voters pick the Best Picture based on a weighted system, giving their choices in order, and I’ve done the same below, as if I were a voter. (You need me, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.) And this evening I’ll be on Twitter, ‘live-tweeting’ the whole thing like a twat, with my winning mix of sarcasm, caffeine, and a general sense of resignation. Join me! (I mean that in an abstract sense, please do not physically join me in person.)
What in bollocks’ name is this even doing in the shortlist? What in bollocks’ name is it even doing in the longlist? One of the worst films ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, Les Misérables is a tedious and hollow melodrama that spends the best part of three hours on its knees, pleading that you’ll shed, at minimum, an imperial gallon of tears, or at the very least garnish it with some nice awards. And the singing… Oh, the singing. Always with the singing. A boring, irksome bit of filmed musical theatre with no interval should never be allowed near the Oscars again. (Anne Hathaway deserves her inevitable Best Supporting Actress win, mind.)
Just as America’s favourite president flaps about attempting to extract enough votes from the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment and ban slavery, so, it seems, Spielberg and Day-Lewis are flapping about, doing everything but beg on-screen for votes from Academy members. The history might be fascinating, the cinematography stunning and the acting (Sally Field notwithstanding) exemplary, but the execution is drearily worthy. Even a supposedly warts’n’all portrait comes out sugary and reverent with Spielberg at the wheel. Probably best watched on American soil.
AKA, ‘the winner’. I mean, really, any discussion about who will win the big prize is pretty much futile. Riding the surge of momentum – and the crossover of voters – from the SAGs, the DGAs, the BAFTAs and countless others, Ben Affleck is the man of the hour (if not the Best Director, thanks to an odd Academy snub), and barring a shock twist, this will almost certainly be crowned Best Picture of the last 12 months. But it quite demonstrably isn’t. It’s a strong film, sure; funny, suspenseful and entertaining, a thriller in an old-school mould. Even the acting from Baffles himself, whose front-of-camera record is haphazard, does a fine job. It’s a good film. Perhaps even a great film. But it just isn’t the best film.
Once again, Ang Lee delivers a captivating tale with a sweetly optimistic outlook on humanity – and he does so with an animated tiger. Source material and director are perfectly matched, as Lee, sometimes accused of being visually dull, dives headfirst into aesthetic bravado with some of the most beautiful and effective CGI imagery you will have seen. (As the technical team noted when accepting the special effects BAFTA, it was a rare opportunity to use their skills for art.) A faithful adaptation of a faithful book.
This, a confident and dazzling debut from Benh Zeitlin, came in for criticism from some corners for resurrecting the old ‘noble savage’ blueprint. It’s a fabular tale, depicting optimistic Southern peasants living off the land in near-future Louisiana, at a point when rising sea levels have cut a community off from mainland US in an area now known as ‘the Bathtub’. Whether or not it’s another cinematic manifestation of white guilt is open to debate, but it is inarguably infused with magical jubilation and childlike wonder throughout, thanks in large part to adorable 9-year-old lead Quvenzhané Wallis. She won’t win Best Actress tonight, but she damn well should.
Riddled in ambiguities, Kathryn Bigelow has probably surrendered any chance of Oscar glory with the reams of negative commentary on the those torture scenes. As a historical account of recent real-life events, I had no problem with their inclusion – Mark Boal’s script is a meticulous piece of journalism, and it’s an honest, frank portrayal of Bush-era foreign policy. Politically, I still felt slightly uncomfortable at the less questioning depictions of extreme military heroism. But cinematically, it hit every note, intensely and self-assuredly.
A dysfunctional rom-com about dysfunctional people, Silver Linings Playbook is something I should hate, and on paper, I do: mismatched outsiders find love through a dance contest? I think I’ll pass, thanks. But the genre tropes here are immaterial – this is an intriguing, engaging, sporadically joyous character study from David O. Russell, of the kind he does best. And he wrings blistering performances from every corner. De Niro hasn’t been this watchable in years. No wonder it’s the first film in 31 years to get nominations in every acting category.
Effectively the third in his unofficial ‘revenge trilogy’, Tarantino retreads pretty similar paths from Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. But who gives a rat’s ass when he’s on this sort of form? Easily his best effort in a decade, this is a beautifully shot, delicately measured, and blindingly entertaining, a delicious slice of pure pulp cinema. Quentin may get his conciliatory Best Screenplay Oscar but it’s simply too much fun for the Academy to deem appropriate for full honours.
As far as I’m concerned, none of the other films on this list hold a candle to Amour. Here is a devastating and wrenchingly powerful piece of filmic art which lingers long in the memory and delivers a guttural emotional punch, thoughtfully pontificating on the human condition and manning a quiet assault on the senses while it does. It’s impressive, given their horrendous track record, that the Academy even acknowledged a modest European film about death starring a couple of octogenarians, but Michael Haneke can at least be proud of the nomination. Beyond the slow march of mortality, it’s a film in which nothing much happens for two hours. And yet, it’s gripping: a desperately moving account of love, life, family and sickness. It deserves to win everything and probably won’t win anything. And really, isn’t that what the Oscars is all about?