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There's nothing like an imminent Oscar to remind previously indifferent observers just how vociferously they actually dislike a film. With Ben Affleck's "Argo" four days away from an all-but-certain Best Picture win, it's been the subject of far more takedown pieces and message-board ire than it appeared to merit upon its autumn release -- back when you might have been forgiven simply for thinking it a tidily enjoyable little studio thriller.
Thanks to the Oscar race, we've since learned that "Argo" is at once so much more and less than that: it's a blind signifier of western anti-Iranian sentiment, a jumped-up betrayal of a true story with an irresponsibly embroidered final act, a smug example of Hollywood self-mythologising and a slap in the face of Canada to boot. Much column ink (or the intangible online equivalent) has been spent on telling us what a grave mistake the Academy is heedlessly making or all these reasons, not to mention the formal limitations and alleged martyr complex of Affleck himself -- whom we are repeatedly told is winning out of collective industry pity, as if the lack of a Best Director nod for a successful, handsome, moneyed Hollywood prince is a sob story that has moved voters en masse, despite their complete disregard for his film.
The internet is expending at least as much last-minute energy on fruitlessly knocking the wind out of "Argo"'s sails as it did a year ago on discrediting "The Artist," a sweet-natured, anomalously postmodern silent-cinema pastiche seen by those outside the Oscar-watching business as a lovely curio, as something both cynical and generic -- the kind of film, we were told with a sigh, that could hardly fail to win Best Picture, though a year on, its triumph looks ever more like a fanciful mirage. In the final week of Oscar voting, there's nothing either more popular or less fashionable than a frontrunner -- and the tangiest think-pieces don't tend to be written on the subject of how right the Academy is getting things. (And yes, we're as guilty as the next man.)
And yet, for the second year in a row, I find myself sitting out the protests, perfectly content with whatever well-meaning crimes the Academy is apparently about to commit. "Argo" is not, as "The Artist" uncoolly was last year, my favorite of the Best Picture nominees -- it'd rank about fourth on my preferential ballot, had I one to cast -- and yet my objections to its imminent win are as few as they are to the film itself. A witty, rousing mainstream entertainment that both knows and credits its audience, from a consistently expanding filmmaker whose last film I'd already likened to high-end Eastwood in its no-nonsense genre classicism -- I'd be backpedalling considerably if I didn't deem it good enough for Best Picture.
Is "good enough" good enough? Perhaps more willingly than I might have done a few years ago, I'm inclined to say yes, if only because this year's flavorful, often contentious slate of nominees in the category offers no clear benchmark of what a Best Picture might be in this day and age, when modes of financing and production are as disparate as the audiences lining up at either their multiplex, arthouse or VOD queue.
Six of the nine nominees have now cleared the $100 million hurdle in the US, a significant figure that suggests a greater level of sympathy between the Academy and the regular moviegoer than has been evident in recent years. But the market is still large enough these days that there needn't be a significant overlap between the pools of support for, say, "Django Unchained" and "Les Miserables." Meanwhile, these audience hits can still look niche beside titans like "The Avengers," "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Hunger Games" -- under-felt franchise products which, neither coincidentally nor undeservedly, boast a single Oscar nomination between them.
It's been a common gripe in recent years -- one that resulted in the now four-year-old expansion of the Best Picture category, a move that nonetheless seemed to benefit more fringe fare this year, including "Amour" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" -- that the Academy was voting too much for themselves, and not enough for their audience. Industry success, however, is now measured on a sufficiently sliding scale that voters can't presume to know which audience they're even obliged to vote for. That a film they like -- for its sharpness of craft, for its pluckiness of spirit, for its celebration of their very own industry -- also happens to be liked by a discernibly large proportion of the public for at least two of the same reasons is not a negligible confluence, whatever the preferences of less accepting tastemakers.
So "Argo" it is. My own vote would go to either "Zero Dark Thirty" or "Amour," though I'd be hard pressed to explain why either film is more right for the Academy than "Argo": many of us have grown up building, or at least idealizing, the Oscars in our own image, but they belong no more to us than they do to the average "Twilight" fanatic. The winners list is a continually morphing reflection of how the industry has seen itself through times thick and thin, which makes even their purported "mistakes" -- from "Driving Miss Daisy" to "The Greatest Show on Earth" -- interesting and non-refundable, though we obviously prefer them to alight on good films along the way.
Critics routinely talk of how this Oscar choice or that will look in years to come, but quite aside from the fact that hindsight is, by definition, bloody hard to forecast -- "Dances With Wolves" seemed like a very big deal in 1990, and not just in awards terms -- there's much to be said for voting in a present-day mindset, and letting the time capsule form itself.
"Argo" may be a 1970s period piece, and revisionist history at that, but there's no doubt an accent to its revisionism that will say something more politically, artistically or socially revealing about its advocates in 20 years' time than it does now -- perhaps for some of the reasons being used against it in the shrill pre-Oscar screeds currently peppering the blogosphere, though many of those complaints might date as much as the film, if not more so. It probably won't seem like the best choice voters had available to them. It doesn't right now. With any luck, though, it'll still seem good enough.
Check out my updated predictions HERE and, as always, see how Kris Tapley, Greg Ellwood and I collectively think the season will turn out at THE CONTENDERS. Meanwhile, look out for tomorrow's piece featuring our collected final predictions.
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