Off the Carpet: The Oscar bait got good
I never much cared for the term "Oscar bait," at least the consistency with which it's tossed around and the connotation it carries. (Though I'm well aware we launched a feature recently called just that.) Maybe I'm naive, but I don't believe anyone sits down to map out an Oscar movie. It's turning evening, you're chasing the light, the crew's tired, you have tomorrow's schedule to iron out…the last thing you're thinking about are the awards prospects of your project. And I think anyone who feels differently hasn't spent much time on film sets.
Beyond that, it just seems to me a disdainful way to diminish or discredit films of a certain ilk. Biopics, "issue" films, projects shrouded in the prestige of respected and/or previously awarded source material or high-caliber acting ensembles, they signal something for many -- a red flag. Which is odd, but maybe that speaks to the track record of such projects more than the inherent thing of it all. So it's with hesitation that I even begin to say this, but 2012 seems to be the year the "Oscar bait" got good.
I'm leaving the term in quotes. It's still an unfair narrowing of consideration, but nevertheless, look at the work itself. "Lincoln," for instance. Steven Spielberg taking on American political history and the nation's most celebrated Commander-in-Chief? It's bizarre to think that things have come to a process by which a project such as this is faulted in some circles from the outset simply for being the sort that might be presumed a no-brainer success sight-unseen. Follow that? And yet here's the thing: It's great! And that ends up being the surprise.
The overall concept is illustrated by the fact that "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is so undervalued going into the last month of the year. It feels like a former fantasy quarterback stud who never gets drafted in the early rounds anymore. But maybe this is the year he throws for 5,000 yards and 45 touchdowns.
So let's start with "Lincoln." It's widely acclaimed. It's box office gold (sure to threaten $150 million -- think on that). Some might disagree, but most don't, so the generalization is fair: It's Spielberg's finest hour in years. I'm quite the fan, eager to see it again (if it's not sold out). But look at it on paper and cynicism jumps in. "Oh, that's Oscar bait." Well, regardless, it's good!
How about another big frontrunner, Ben Affleck's "Argo?" A zeitgeisty tale of nations coming together to avert international tragedy. The next step in an evolution for a filmmaker establishing himself -- and proving himself -- with every new endeavor. Sounds too good to be true, so naturally, it must be a cloying re-imagination of history. Well, it's actually a riveting piece of craftsmanship. The same could be said of its distant cousin in the race, "Zero Dark Thirty."
My feelings on it aside, look at "Silver Linings Playbook." By-the-book romantic comedy. But beloved as a deeper realization of that, a penetrating piece that rises past the low-set bar.
Even "Amour," some of Michael Haneke's most accessible work -- a story of age, love, life's autumn -- seems like a love letter to the Academy, right? But naturally, it's more than that with Haneke at the wheel, and one of the richest experiences of the year. Interestingly, Haneke's Sony Pictures Classics stable mate, Jacques Audiard, plays convention in a unique key with "Rust and Bone" this year.
With "Anna Karenina," Joe Wright takes Tolstoy to a creative visual place. With "The Impossible," J.A. Bayona taps his genre sensibilities for a singular portrayal of endurance in the face of tragedy. With "Promised Land," Gus Van Sant gets completely out of the way to tell a dialed-down, humble yarn about American values (though some aren't as favorable). And with the newly unveiled "Les Misérables," Tom Hooper uniquely captures the spine-tingling emotion of a source's stage roots.
But weren't they just supposed to be by-the-numbers pieces of "Oscar bait?" Films easily consumable with the ability to pluck the right strings? Not to refrain but, well, regardless…they're good!
So it's little surprise that the fall films -- spread over that period of time each year usually reserved for "Oscar bait" -- look to have produced the frontrunner in every major category. (Though I can't quite figure out what to make of Best Supporting Actor at the moment.) The films are GOOD.
Mixed in all of this, by the way, is a lot of balls. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal had balls to track down the facts and give us a film like "Zero Dark Thirty." Ang Lee had balls to learn 3D on the job and give us a film like "Life of Pi." Paul Thomas Anderson had balls to drill down deeper into his new aesthetic and give us a film like "The Master." The Wachoskis and Tom Tykwer had balls to put their heads together and give us a film like "Cloud Atlas." Benh Zeitlin had balls to let his imagination run rampant and give us a film like "Beasts of the Southern Wild." So while the "Oscar bait" is surprisingly impressive this season, so are the bigger leaps of faith.
It's a damn good year for movies. I pity all of us soon to sit down and settle on 10 to reflect it. And we're not even finished yet.