Liam: The 85th Academy Awards show is on Sunday night, more than six weeks after the nominations. There's been the Zero Dark Thirty controversy, and the "director snubs" controversy, and the Argo sweep of almost every pre-Academy awards.
But another significant story is how popular the nominated films are at the box office. Six out of the nine in the best-picture category – Life of Pi, Lincoln, Argo, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Silver Linings Playbook, and perhaps even seven depending how Zero Dark Thirty does this weekend – will have topped $100-million (U.S.). Has the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally found the formula for matching quality and audience appeal?
Johanna: I certainly think the studios are relieved. The strategy to expand the best-picture nominee roster from five to "up to 10" took a couple years to settle in, but it really seems to be working for them here. There's room for a scrappy indie (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and for a worthy foreign entry (Amour), but the bulk of the list is made up of the archetypal, shiny Hollywood hit. What's interesting to me is how the directors of those seven nominees Liam mentioned – with the exception of Lincoln's Steven Spielberg, who's always been a mainstream darling – have also been brought into the Hollywood fold over the years. Ang Lee (Life of Pi) came in via the foreign-film route, Ben Affleck (Argo) grew into directing from acting and writing, Tom Hooper (Les Misérables) is the latest of a storied string of Brits, Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) started with action films, and Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained) and David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) are bad-boy auteurs made good. The themes and styles differ, but what they all have in common is a polish, a sheen and a mastery of form.
Geoff: I think the danger here is interpreting any annual voting inclination by the academy as anything like a formula. Every year presents its own pocket-lint surprises, but for the most part the same thing prevails: It's well-reviewed middle-brow movies of literary, prestige, costume or liberal-tolerant or high-humanist quirkiness that tend to dominate the noms, and even the most offside entries – Amour, let's say – are only really offside on the very narrow playing field that Oscar mows. Otherwise, there really isn't anything here that's in any way trailblazing. Oscar has always loved actors turned directors, self-congratulating racial dramas, aging movie-star turns, cute accounts of cuddly craziness, movies based on bedside reading, illustrated versions of literary classics and anything that makes the world's most overcompensated and unreasonably famous community on the planet go to bed at night feeling great about what it does.
Johanna: True, but "quality" and "box office" have been strangers to one another for the last few years. For example, I think The Help was the only nominee in 2011 that had cracked $100-million by Oscar night.
Geoff: It's interesting that easily the most challenging and slyly unconventional movie of this year's bunch – Zero Dark Thirty – found itself slipping out of the running for major awards almost as fast as you could say "enhanced interrogation techniques."
Liam: Yes, Oscars from their inception have been about putting a respectable face on the movie business, though it surprises me what respectable means. Zero Dark Thirty bothers me, in a not good way. I find it kind of conventional in spite of its emotional ambiguity and gender twist. What troubles me about both Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained is their flirtation with fascism, the validation of a skill for violence. They're both part of what the critic Jim Hoberman called the cinema of ordeal as a phenomenon of the new millennium. Amour would be a candidate as well. I know some people found Les Misérables another kind of ordeal, but I think you know what I mean.
Johanna: Yikes, I think that's a lot to lump together. Django, to me, is a violent send-up of violence – typical Tarantino, wanting to have his bladders of blood and explode them, too. Amour is perceived as an ordeal, as it explores a part of life – the end, where we're all headed – that's so scary to think about, we ignore it. But I wish people would get over that, because it deserves to be seen. Zero Dark Thirty is another animal altogether – a procedural, taking us through the steps in the hunt for a terrorist. Because torture is a factor in that hunt, people are freaked out. But whether or not Americans want to face it, that likely happened in real life; writer Mark Boal and director Bigelow are trying to be reportorial about that. The attitude of the character played by Jessica Chastain is more complicated – she quickly stops flinching at the torture, and later tells the soldiers to get Osama bin Laden "for" her. Our ambiguity about how to feel about her, our hero, discomfits people. That's why it disappeared – people aren't able to bring themselves to vote for it. I think Argo is enjoying its late-season surge precisely because it's so unambiguous: The hostage-takers are the bad guys, and the good guys (the Americans, with an assist from the Canucks) outsmart 'em. We can exult without guilt.
Geoff: Hold up a sec. Did I actually hear the word "fascism"? Because if what we're talking about are movies that investigate what not only motivates violence but justifies it under dramatically manipulated circumstances – which makes it reasonable and therefore worth rooting for – what we're also talking about is the entire history of popular American movies from The Great Train Robbery onward. So if these movies are fascist, so are countless thousands of other crime, western, horror, spy movies. Movies that address violence either as unabashedly spectacular (Django) or ambiguously seductive (Zero Dark Thirty) just aren't usually the kinds of movies that get Oscar nods. As Johanna pointed out about the soft-and-fuzzy Argo, we prefer to take our untidy geopolitical shenanigans with an avuncular chuckle and a final fade-out bedtime story, rather than the notion that movie killing is cool and fun to watch. That might be the mainstay of the global entertainment industry, but it won't do for the massive self-congratulatory, self-image orgy that is the Oscars. It's not fascism, just hypocrisy.
Johanna: It is a very gun-, or war-, or violence-heavy list.
Geoff: Again, nothing really new there. The very first Academy Award was presented to Wings, a war movie, followed a few years later by All Quiet on the Western Front, another war movie. Gone With the Wind was a war movie, Casablanca, From Here to Eternity, Bridge on the River Kwai etc. The beating of war drums pounds like a backbeat throughout Oscar history, right up to the present moment.
Liam: Okay I apologize for dropping the F-bomb. I didn't mean the cinema under Mussolini so much as the cathartic, self-righteous annihilation of your adversary with triumphant ideology and cool weapons, which, agreed, applies to a lot of entertainment. Amour director Michael Haneke has referred to American mainstream cinema as "barrel down" cinema, in the sense that you're targeted to have certain emotional reactions. I think Amour, which has an amazing five nominations, is a kind of antidote to that sort of film. It's the presentation of a dramatic predicament that doesn't tell you how to think, which is why it's my favourite film on the list. As for Argo – I called it entertaining Hollywood hokum when I reviewed it but I think it's the least adventurous film of the nine films nominated. Do you think it's beatable?
Johanna: Given that the academy tends to favour movies like Forrest Gump over movies like Pulp Fiction, I would say the only film that has a shot at beating Argo is Lincoln. Which would not upset me – it's a solid picture, well-written, full of juicy performances. A little self-congratulatory, but don't underestimate how much Americans love their own history. The most striking film of the year, to me, was The Master – not perfect by any means, but strong and daring, with a real vision and directorial authority. The academy ignored it, except for the three main performances. And then there's Life of Pi, which everyone loves when they see it, but seems to have zero word of mouth – even though Ang Lee would be my pick of the list for best director, because I think it's a true directorial achievement.
Liam: Globally, Life of Pi's huge, closing in on a half-billion box office around the world, which is insane for a film that's not about superheroes or cartoons – but I guess because Pi and the tiger opted to peacefully co-exist, it just doesn't get the controversy.
Geoff: I'm there with Johanna and Lincoln, actually. Spielberg has been trying to insinuate himself as a "serious" director in the most naked and needy way ever since The Color Purple, and it's fascinating how he's consistently done so by turning to those tried-and-true "serious" issues of race and war. With Lincoln he's landed on them both, but with true restraint, intelligence and – here's the really surprising thing for me – maturity. Lincoln may not go as far as Amour does in the not-telling-you-what-to-think department, but it does presume you're thinking and it doesn't apologize for that. In the past, I felt like Spielberg was always holding his inner grownup in check just in case it meant the kid in him wasn't engaged. And Lincoln's the first movie he's made that's totally unconcerned with keeping that kid happy.
Johanna: The beginning and end of Lincoln still wallow in that Spielberg bathos – he just can't resist having a wary black soldier quote the Gettysburg Address, and that candle dissolve at the end is pure hooey. But in the middle, in the debate scenes, he's figured out a way to make dialogue cinematic, and I love him for that. The script, by Tony Kushner, is so in love with language, I luxuriate in it. I thought it was a lock for best adapted screenplay – until Chris Terrio's script for Argo just nabbed the Writers Guild award, one more step in the late-season Argo surge.
Liam: Lincoln still leads with 12 nominations, which says something for the academy's taste. If you could see one big surprise on Sunday night, what would it be? I'd like to see something that defies all expectations – Joaquin Phoenix for best actor, or Seth MacFarlane for best Oscar host ever.
Johanna: Several of the acting categories have been considered locks from the beginning – Daniel Day-Lewis for actor, Jennifer Lawrence for actress, Anne Hathaway for supporting actress. A different outcome in any of those races would be a huge surprise. I think supporting actor is still open – which could make for a wacky speech moment given the fact that nominees Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tommy Lee Jones are all pretty taciturn dudes. And I think director is still open, too, since Argo's Ben Affleck wasn't nominated there.
Geoff: I'd like to see a team of highly trained Canadian seals – not the Navy kind but the real ones – storm the stage and kidnap Ben Affleck.
Liam: And, that, I think, just about seals it.