When a movie breaks new ground for cinema, it’s going to get some Oscar buzz. We saw this last year with the nominations like Hugo, Moneyball, and of course The Artist.
Hugo used 3D imagery to tell its story instead of exploiting it for visual effects. The Artist braved silence, which was necessary to tell this story in the right way. And Moneyball made the single most boring movie-premise (the accounting office of a baseball team) compelling.
While there are some great movies on the list this year, Django Unchained is the only one that really challenges existing notions. Django is the only movie that couldn’t work just as well as a book or a play. I’ve written before about the necessary gratuitous violence that Django Unchained uses to wedge open the public perception of Antebellum slavery. It can’t get this point across in a less violent way.
The thesis of Django Unchained tells us: “You thought you knew how bad slavery was, but here’s how violent that life would have really been.” And that thesis can only ring true on the big screen.
Film presents simultaneity that a novel never can. If Tarantino were to novelize Django Unchained, we’d never appreciate the power of the violent background present during the story; it would never be forced upon us in the same uncomfortable way. A novel can’t push two different ideas into your brain at one time. It takes visual images — not text — to do that.
A play lacks the power of the lens and the power of the edit. Les Misérables became famous long before it made it to the screen. Without knocking the film, Les Misérables doesn’t really add anything to a familiar story. Well done? Of course. But nothing that couldn't have been expressed through another medium.
Django Unchained isn’t coming from some earlier adaptation (hence its nomination for Best Original Screenplay) and therefore, in its originally intended medium — the big screen — it’s free to use all the language of cinema to its fullest advantage.
A Best Picture really requires the film to have all the pieces fit together to merit such an award. The acting better be great, the story should be unforgettable, editing, cinematography, music, production design should all be above reproach. And in Django Unchained they are.
But what should put Django over the top is the fact that it, like The Artist, simply could not be expressed without expanding the language of cinema. Without the additional layer of being a silent film, The Artist becomes just a really good movie; not a Best Picture. If Django didn’t combine the gratuitous violence with the preconceived notions we’d already had about slavery, this would just be a fun Spaghetti Western with great dialogue.
But as it is, Django deserves Best Picture.