Oscars: it’s Abe versus the Argonauts

From soppy sentiment to fawning over method actors, the Oscars have become predictable. Sunday’s ceremony could change that.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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After a few glitches in their new-fangled digital voting system (it seems even old boys’ networks operate online these days), the polls for the eighty-fifth Academy Awards closed a day late, on Tuesday night. With rumours circulating about multimillion-dollar schmoozing campaigns, it all seemed to be grubby business as usual.

That said, there’s something novel about this year’s awards, taking place on Sunday night. And no, I’m not talking about the committee being able to vote via iPad. Rather, it’s the fact that the leading nine movies jostling for pole position in the top categories read like a critic’s best of 2012 list, distinctly lacking in the usual fluffy filler that sticks in the collective cinephile craw.

Are the tides changing? Will The Oscars reclaim its mantle as the gold standard of cinematic excellence? Probably not. But it’s never been above chucking a few curveballs, and this year’s wealth of strong releases makes things even harder to call.

Best Actress

Two of the actresses vying for this statuette have managed to break records just by being nominated. Emanuelle Riva, honoured for her heart-bursting turn as the withering heroine of Amour, and Quvenzhané Wallis, the diminutive star of patronising but pretty Beasts Of The Southern Wild, are respectively the oldest and youngest nominees ever. Riva will, in fact, turn 86 on the big night, perhaps bolstering her chances given the Academy’s fondness for soppy sentiment. Wallis’ ‘performance’, however – not so much acting as just being cute on camera – will likely earn her little more than a night out with the celebs; still, not bad going for a nine-year-old.

Nevertheless, I reckon Jessica Chastain will just about edge it. Her turn as a bolshie, bin Laden-hunting CIA bod in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was by no means the most impressive of the year, but she would be a solid choice that would serve as ample consolation for Bigelow. The prospects of her film landing Best Picture look slim after all the recent hoopla over her supposedly dubious depiction of torture.

Best Actor

Although this admittedly shits all over my ‘it’s wide open’ preamble, Daniel Day-Lewis looks likely to walk this one, having already snagged a sackful of statuettes for his reedy-toned lead in Steven Spielberg’s historical biopic, Lincoln. While all the overzealous talk of the great method-acting master managing to ‘channel’ the sixteenth president is ludicrous – a claim only verifiable with the aid of a flux capacitor – he is nonetheless spellbinding in the role, whether he’s tub-thumping or spinning one of his many folksy yarns.

Nevertheless, Hugh Jackman’s barnstorming Jean Valjean in Tom Hooper’s rendering of beloved West End mainstay Les Miserables also merits stern consideration. So does Bradley Cooper for his tragicomic turn as Pat, the bi-polar protagonist conquering his demons through the medium of dance in Silver Linings Playbook.

Best Director

The snubbing of Bigelow and Quentin Tarantino – the racial politics of his slave-revenge Western Django Unchained proving as problematic as Bigelow’s supposedly pro-waterboarding propaganda – unfortunately ruled out two of the more talented and distinctive directors of the year.

In their absence, Spielberg looks to be a safe bet – his direction in Lincoln is suitably stately and sepia-tinged. But Ang Lee is still a strong contender. With Life Of Pi, he not only managed to bring to life a supposedly ‘unfilmable’ novel, about a shipwrecked lad on a spiritual journey with his pet Bengal tiger, but he also probed the artistic possibilities of 3D at the same time. Resisting the usual coming-right-atcha trappings, he constructed tranquil, painterly tableaus imbued with the sense of pantheistic wonderment that is at the very core of Yann Martel’s novel.

Best Picture

At first glance, there seems little unusual about the nine films in the running for the most coveted award in movie land. Indeed, many of them slot rather neatly into the typical ‘Oscar gold’ categories. Lincoln, the great, American epic; Ben Affleck’s Argo, a movie about the movies wrapped-up in a true-life thriller; and Silver Linings Playbook, a romcom riff on a Beautiful Mind-esque triumph over mental illness arc.

Indeed, the only box left un-ticked is the ‘white people solve racism’ movie, popularised at the Oscars in the past few years with the pitiable likes of The Help and The Blind Side. And given that Lincoln’s rose-tinted portrayal of the Great Emancipator sneaks this in through the backdoor, it would seem that Stevie boy has it in the bag.

Nevertheless, after an unprecedented awards season run, Argo has become the one to watch. Given that no film since Driving Miss Daisy has managed to snag the top prize without also winning best director – the category in which Affleck failed even to achieve a nomination – some have said this would be doing the impossible. But little seems certain this year. Amour’s mere nomination, with the French-set drama managing to bust out of the foreign language category ghetto, is yet another sign that an upset may be afoot.

As strange as it sounds, the former Mr J-Lo may just give Spielberg a run for his money.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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