Awards season began in earnest this week, first with the announcement of the Academy Award nominations on Thursday, the Critics Choice Awards that evening, and finally with Sunday's Golden Globe awards. This has been a particularly unpredictable awards season, and this week’s developments were appropriately shocking.
In recent years, obsessive internet coverage of critics groups, guild awards, and precursor awards shows has turned the industry into one giant echo chamber from late November through late February. Though the easy accessibility of this information has made it much easier for outsiders to follow what’s going on in Hollywood, its effect has been largely negative, and resulted in a homogeneity of opinion that makes Oscar night drearily predictable. Every year since 2007 has seen such a strong consensus build around one or two films that the ultimate Best Picture winner is easily predictable weeks and weeks in advance (No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech and The Social Network, and The Artist).
This year is much different. Most of the critics groups threw their support behind Zero Dark Thirty, while the Los Angeles critics favored Amour, a film that managed to get Best Picture and Best Director nominations but is unlikely to win in either category. Argo was a popular favorite but seemed to have faded a little, Lincoln was a surprisingly big hit given its subject matter, and Silver Linings Playbook racked up many ardent fans despite suffering from a poor release platform. Finally, Les Misérables premiered to rapturous public reception, but received a viciously divided critical response. And though the Sundance hit Beasts of the Southern Wild had passionate support, it seemed to have faded in the wake of its summer release.
Though there were a number of surprises in several categories on Thursday, Best Director was absolutely the most shocking: Out of the five directors nominated by the Director’s Guild, usually a fairly accurate predictor of the equivalent Oscar category, only two were nominated by the Academy. Instead of honoring Ben Affleck, Tom Hooper, and Kathryn Bigelow alongside Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg, they chose David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), Michael Haneke (Amour), and newcomer Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild). All of the sudden, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty seemed like impossible winners, leaving Lincoln the presumed favorite.
Bizarrely enough, both the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association chose to reward Ben Affleck and Argo as their Best Director and Best Picture of the year. So now we must ask ourselves: Is it possible that Argo could win the Oscar, after all? I think it’s highly unlikely – winning Best Picture requires vast support throughout the Academy, and Affleck himself is the most compelling thing about Argo. His performance is merely adequate, but the idea of him coming back from the likes of Gigli and Bennifer to make critically respected movies is a powerful narrative that many people in Hollywood have clearly responded to over the past few months. But if the directors didn’t respond to it enough to nominate him, is it possible that the entire group could name his film the best of the year? Though I am deeply disappointed by their failure to nominate Kathryn Bigelow, the three men they chose to nominate instead of the DGA’s choices are very respectable choices, all of whom – I would argue – achieved far more in their films than Affleck did in his.
The Best Actress category is almost as hard to parse: both Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence won last night, for their work in Zero Dark Thirty and Silver Linings Playbook, respectively – but both Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) and Quevenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) were overlooked by the HFPA, so the extent to which their wins predict the Oscars is dubious. Both Riva and Wallis may well prove to be formidable opponents, Riva in particular. Her eighty-sixth birthday is on the day of the Oscar ceremony, and she is the oldest acting nominee in the Academy’s history. It may be difficult for voters not to vote for her, when presented with the opportunity, particularly given her status as an iconic legend of the French New Wave.
Although I didn’t particularly like Argo, I was excited to see it win in both its categories on Sunday, and not only because Ben Affleck’s speech was endearingly rushed and panicky. The fact that it won effectively means that Oscar night remains an absolute mystery. Clearly, the voters in the Academy are in a different place than the HFPA, and while we can guess at where that place might be, we’re really not going to have any idea until the awards are announced on February 24. Given how utterly dull The Artist’s reign was last year, it’s all terribly exciting – and I say this as someone who liked The Artist very much. I’d rather it be interesting.
But happily enough, the Golden Globes are very much their own thing, and though they certainly have an impact on the Oscar race, they are less predictive of it than you might expect. They’re a party! The aura of self-seriousness that characterizes the Oscars is utterly absent from this event, and it serves them well. Even though I disagreed with several of their choices, I had such a good time watching the show that I could hardly bring myself to care. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were the best hosts I’ve seen in years, and Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell did such a great bit as presenters that I wouldn’t mind seeing them host in future. Jodie Foster gave a beautiful, rambling speech when accepting her honorary Cecil B. DeMille Award, and many of the other winners were heartfelt and compelling. Anne Hathaway was clearly moved, Lena Dunham was endearingly stunned, Jessica Chastain and Daniel Day-Lewis were eloquent and humble, and Adele was her usual charming self. The Oscars aren’t for quite a while, but this will be more than enough to tide us all over until then.