The Long Shot: 'Gravity,' '12 Years a Slave' and a little less conversation
Admittedly, Oscar season never felt half as long when it wasn't part of my profession to cover it -- and to think there was a time when the Motion Picture Sound Editors' awards would simply pass right by me -- but it's increasingly hard to believe we once put up with it all the way until late March (or even early April, in some extreme years). The internet has doubtless egged on the speedier expenditure of Oscar-related conversation, exhausting relevant points of argument from as early as September.
Now, nearly six months after "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave" were unveiled within days of each other to equal but differing flavors of acclaim -- only the latter inspiring immediate, instructive "call off the Best Picture" race proclamations, not necessarily to its benefit -- that conversation has essentially circled back to those two films, still standing sturdy of the the frontrunners and totem titles of the season. Arguably, the race has taken fewer detours than usual.
Only "American Hustle," for a few frisky weeks, looked a feasible spoiler: whether you believe that its chances were deflated by the curiously hostile awards-media backlash to the film, or implausibly trumped up by that same media contingent to begin with, or both, says something about distraction we crave (only to sometimes furiously reject) in a season defined by upfront heavyweights. (As for the cynics who insisted in the early winter that "Saving Mr. Banks" would be the cream-puff contender that wound up taking it all, they were speaking more out of contempt for the Academy than any considered appraisal of the film or the race.)
The relative impermeability of this two-horse race hasn't made for unexciting watching -- indeed, I'd go so far as to say that for the first time since the 2006 Oscars, the Best Picture race isn't at all easy to call at this late stage. (No, Academy, no one's buying your own revisionist history that "The Hurt Locker" was a surprise victor.) From that wild PGA tie to “Slave's” fragile, last-minute victories at the Globes and BAFTAs, it's been a tense, teasing duel between two hefty, even-matched and vastly contrasting rivals; that's something to celebrate even if neither film is your idea of the year's best.
But if the race itself has been compelling, the same does not go for the conversation it has prompted. As is customary in the blogosphere when a contest comes down to two candidates, banal polarities are enforced: in all too many discussions, a vote for one film is a vote against the other, and heaven forbid you should support both. Depending on whom you read, one film is major and the other minor; one is magic and the other homework; one is art and the other product. Whichever one the Academy selects supposedly says any number of things about the industry and its priorities – the simple notion that it produced at least two excellent films in one year not among them.
That's par for the course, whether the perceived divide is one of might versus right (the irresistible David-and-Goliath narrative of “The Hurt Locker” versus “Avatar”) or youth versus conservativism (“The Social Network” versus “The King's Speech”). What's interesting about this year's face-off, however, is that however much journalists try to simplify it, there's no consensus as to what the stakes in this contest actually are, or which faction is more fashionable.