award squad: breaking down the oscars

By Chris Robinson & Stefanie Lee on 2/02/2013

The Academy Awards happen in less than a month. After repeated discussions/arguments about who most deserves to win what, Stefanie and I decided to hash out our respective opinions via email, compile the results, and (after subtracting the petty personal attacks) post them for you to enjoy. So … enjoy!

Best Picture

Stef: It took me a really, really long time to decide which film should win Best Picture, and I’m still not completely sold on my own choice. Hear me out, though. I feel like Argo is the most well-rounded film of the lot, and the one with the most true movie magic behind it. It combines a meta-Hollywood storyline with a slice of intense history, boasts an all-star cast, is directed by an apple-cheeked-Hollywood-leading-man-turned-director, and everyone in it has hilariously thick hair. It’s the stuff great movies are made of, without being completely full of itself, and it manages to make a truly exciting story out of an event we already knew the happy ending to.

Chris: I get your hesitation on this one. Crowning an overall “best” film in any given year can be notoriously difficult, and this seems especially true for 2012, a year which produced a surprisingly large number of very good films, but seems notably devoid of truly great ones (that includes you, Lincoln). Rarely was I blown away at the theaters this year, as I have been when watching such recent triumphs as 2011’s Drive, 2010’s The Social Network/Inception, 2009’s Avatar/The Hurt Locker, or 2008’s incredible Slumdog Millionaire. In 2012, nothing particularly stood out, so I would be more or less content to see any one of the equally mildly deserving nominees take home the top prize. That includes Argo, although I found it rather less consistently gripping than (leading-man-turned-director) Affleck’s prior effort, The Town, and with less interesting characters.

Only twice did I watch a film this year and immediately want to see it again: Moonrise Kingdom, which I saw in the theater in June and loved immediately, and Silver Linings Playbook, which I watched for the first time on my computer a few weeks ago and, after initially feeling unsure about how much I enjoyed it, quickly decided I enjoyed it immensely and reinserted the DVD for a second viewing. To me, these were 2012’s best films. Unfortunately (and shortsightedly, although not wholly surprisingly), Hollywood’s powers that be didn’t feel Wes Anderson’s effort worthy of a best picture nomination, so by default my pick to take home the statue would be SLP. With this most recent success, David O. Russell (The Fighter) has again made a raw, insightful movie as brutally honest as it is relentlessly funny.

When I watched Amour, I kept thinking, “who talks to their wife/husband/daughter/pupil that way?” – the film is an amazing artistic creation, to be sure, but the interpersonal interaction undergirding it felt unfamiliar, foreign, and thus a bit distancing (although it is a foreign film, to be fair). But Silver Linings Playbook feels so real, so visceral, so true to life. The acting is superb, top to bottom, and the film encapsulates so much about how I, and the people I know best, interact with each other and with the world around us. It made me laugh, cry, and root for the onscreen characters I had come to know and love. Pat and Tiffany are gonna make it, I just know it. Even if Lincoln does end up winning the award.

Best Director

Chris: Ben Affleck (Argo) and Katheryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) missing out on even being nominated is a travesty (Bigelow ostensibly for political reasons). But there’s still plenty to choose from in this category. Michael Haneke has made a beautiful film in Amour, although not a ton happens, directing-wise. The special effects in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi are amazing, although the director is not really responsible for making that happen (maybe his special effects team should win the award). Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), David  O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), and Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) are the most deserving candidates, probably in that order. The shotmaking and pure visual appeal of Beasts is incredible; it manages to combine intimacy with grandeur, violence with tenderness, and pure energy with a steady pacing that belies its director’s lack of prior experience behind a camera. In a perfect world, Wes Anderson would be the one accepting this award on Oscars night, but I think we’ve already established that we don’t live in a perfect worldStef?

Stef: Agreed. B-Fleck got completely shafted this year, though that Golden Globes win was a nice bird-flip in the general direction of the Academy. And while Wes Anderson hasn’t always been my favorite, I have to admit that Moonrise Kingdom was absolutely beautiful. I hope the Academy will recognize his signature aesthetic someday. I’m not as concerned with Bigelow getting nominated (though it’s still a snub) because she won a couple years ago for her best film (2009’s The Hurt Locker). Anyway, I suppose I don’t really have a frontrunner in this category, either. Ang Lee already won for what I feel is his masterpiece, Brokeback Mountain, although I think it’s spectacular that he’s trying a completely different genre and moving into the special-effects world in what seems like a seamless transition. As you can probably tell, I’m sort of a fan of the underdog, so I’m not as inclined to root for Spielberg, either. This isn’t his first rodeo. It would be pretty satisfying for David O. Russell to win, as a testament to his ability to cross genres, too. The Fighter was a brilliant film, and Silver Linings Playbook is brilliant in a completely different way, and O.Russ deserves some recognition for the palpable darkness he adds to otherwise triumphant movies.

Best Actress

Stef: Who knew the chick from The Hunger Games would make such a convincing widow – and at age 22? Actually, okay, maybe the widow aspect of Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Silver Linings Playbook was the least plausible, but the rest of Tiffany was completely believable and screwed up and totally fascinating. Lawrence turned the stereotype of a romantic comedy female completely on its head, and then on its side, and then on its other side – and I mean because of the dancing, so get your head out of the gutter. Seriously, though. Her mood swings were oddly charming, and her chemistry with Bradley Cooper was palpable and complicated, just like most human relationships are.

Chris: I’m totally with you on this one – if the award really is for the best actress. Jennifer Lawrence seems to have grown up quite a lot in the short months since Hunger Games, and her performance here was, as you said, fascinating. I loved how bluntly determined she was to get what she wanted and advance her own agenda, but at the same time seemed to be barely hanging on and capable of completely losing control at any moment. I felt like I picked up on many of her subtle emotional cues before Pat did (we had a connection!) and I began really, really pulling for her long before the climactic final dance scene. In fact, the best scene of the film, in my opinion, was that whole “parlay” encounter, when Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) has lost his bet and tries to blame it on Tiffany (Lawrence). I was filled with dread, preceding Tiffany’s response, that this was going to play out like so many cinematic encounters of its ilk: unable/unwilling to defend herself, the wrongly accused accepts misguided blame before slinking away: lonely, dejected, and misunderstood. But I shouldn’t have worried: Tiffany can fight! Her fiercely impassioned self-defense caught me off guard almost as much as it thrilled me.

But just to play devil’s advocate: if this award is not for the best “actress” per se, but rather for the best performance by a female in a lead role, then I want to change my ballot. My vote goes to mighty mite Quvenzhané Wallis, an adorable little pipsqueak with just as much determination as Lawrence, and even more sass. Her “Hush Puppy” (in Beasts of the Southern Wild) was the most impassioned, convincing, and fearless character I saw on the silver screen all year (and yes, that includes you, Mr. Lincoln). Wallis is just 9 years old, and was 6 during filming. Was she aware of what she was doing? Was she “acting”? I don’t know. But that little girl is a force of nature.

Best Actor

Chris: My thinking on this one can be summed up in three words. Daniel. Day. Lewis. The man was awe-inspiring in perhaps the most difficult role of all time, ever. He was responsible for portraying America’s greatest hero, our single most inspirational figure, and he’s not even an American! Does he look like Lincoln? Yes. Does he walk like Lincoln? Yes. Does he talk like Lincoln? Yes (according to scholars, who confirm that Lincoln had a high, reedy voice). Does he smell like Lincoln? OK, that has yet to be confirmed … yet. Day-Lewis absolutely becomes the man, and the result is stunning – it must be seen to be believed. Kudos to Denzel Washington for an admirable turn in Flight (some are saying the performance of his career) but this one is as close to a sure bet as it gets with the Academy: there’s just no way the night ends with anyone other than Day-Lewis taking this one home.

Stef: DDL is going to win. Duh. This guy picks his roles like he knows he’s going to win that golden statue. (Even though he’s “method” or whatever, so maybe he doesn’t care. I don’t know.) And the Academy sure does love an historical figure (and Spielbergian hyper-drama, for that matter). But I think his performance in Lincoln was, frankly, a little over-hyped. He wasn’t playing Old Abe per se; he was playing a character that he and we approximated to be Lincoln. We can’t ever truly know what our 16th President was like, so to commend him for historical accuracy (even with scholarly evidence) seems sort of silly to me. Although yes, he did look exactly like that guy I see on the penny all the time. I don’t doubt that his performance was mesmerizing – it was. He just didn’t blow me away like Joaquin Phoenix did in The Master. Joaquin went above and beyond with his acting. With his uneasy stare, atrophying posture, and mumbly speech, JP as Freddy Quell made me downright uncomfortable, which is exactly how I felt when DDL commanded the screen a few years ago as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (what I consider to be DDL’s true masterpiece). Maybe I’m partial to the way Paul Thomas Anderson directs his actors. But I know that Phoenix underwent a physical transformation as well, and I imagine his performance hasn’t been as highly regarded as DDL’s only because it was just half-based in fact, and perhaps because Phoenix himself doesn’t even want the Oscar.

Best Supporting Actor

Stef: Why Philip Seymour Hoffman is not nominated for Best Actor is sort of beyond me, but at least he and Joaquin Phoenix aren’t pulling a Modern Family-at-the-Emmys and stacking the entire category with their own people. But I digress: PSH is absolutely riveting and terrifying in The Master. At once I was pulled into his cultish Cause while also feeling repulsed by its intense, vague, misleading teachings. Paul Thomas Anderson knows exactly how to pull dark charisma out of his actors, and The Master is no different — it’s one of PSH’s masterpieces.

Chris: Once again I find myself largely approving of your selection here. I would have no problem seeing PSH take home the statue (he didn’t have quite enough screen time to qualify for a Best Actor nod). The man can act, and just in case you forgot, he reminds you, forcefully, in The Master. I think Tommy Lee Jones was equally adept in Lincoln, where he lent Senator Thaddeus Stevens a barbed tongue and wicked sense of humor to accompany his unwavering idealism. And Christoph Waltz was devilishly good as Dr. King Schultz, bounty hunter, in Django Unchained. All have won in this category before, and all are deserving of a repeat.

Best Supporting Actress

Chris: My opinion in this category doesn’t count (and neither does yours, Stef). The momentum of the 25,000 pound freight train that is Anne Hathaway as Fantine (in Les Misérables) cannot be stopped now. Whether she deserves it or not (she does not), Ms. Hathaway will win this award. In truth, any one of the other four nominees would make a more deserving winner. They all played nuanced, three-dimensional characters with strength and grace. Anne Hathaway sang on screen (her singing wasn’t bad) and cried (a lot). Many painful things happened to her, of which she reminded us by whining and crying ceaselessly. This wasn’t her fault. But the fact that she stole the title of America’s ugliest crier from the seemingly un-de-throne-able Claire Danes? That was her fault. And I will forever resent her for making me watch her cry (from six inches away) for the better part of an hour.

But Hollywood goes inexplicably weak at the knees when beautiful actresses sacrifice their charms for a role (not to be confused with its soft spot for the ugly-girl-becomes-pretty storyline). Just ask Charlize Theron, a singular beauty who won her one and only Oscar for portraying a hideous serial murderer prostitute. Once Anne Hathaway married William Shakespeare … sorry, I got confused … Once Anne Hathaway lost 30 pounds (30 pounds!!!) and cut her hair (cut her hair!!!) all in the name of art (art!!!) her fate, and ours, was sealed.

Stef: You’re totally right. The onetime star of The Princess Diaries is now going to win an Oscar for singing. Really well. And crying. I’m actually not as opposed to her winning as you are, because I think she slam-dunked maybe the most over-sung song in the history of singing, and she really did look like total crap – Anne, I mean that in the best possible way – but I so want Helen Hunt to win. The Sessions was a film only scarcely noticed, but the performances of both its leads, Hunt and John Hawkes, deserve much more praise than they’re getting. Hunt’s Cheryl, a sex surrogate to Hawkes’ disabled Mark O’Brien, is an understated, wise woman, truly comfortable in her own skin. I’ve always admired Helen Hunt for choosing delicate, graceful roles that really cater to her quiet charm, and this one fit that bill while simultaneously posing a huge risk – she took her clothes off! This woman is a few months shy of 50. I can only hope I’ll have an ounce of her confidence in another 25 years.

Here’s who we think should win the remaining major awards:

Best Foreign Language Film: Amour

Best Documentary: Searching for Sugar Man

Best Animated Film: Wreck-It-Ralph

Best Cinematography: Django Unchained

Best Original Screenplay: Moonrise Kingdom

Best Adapted Screenplay: Silver Linings Playbook

Best Editing: Argo

Best Original Score: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Best Original Song: Skyfall

Best Visual Effects: Life of Pi

Best Costume Design: Les Misérables

Best Production Design: Anna Karenina

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