Thursday, January 10, 2013

Oscar nominations reveal competing visions of America

What makes a film the "Best Picture" of the year? When it comes to the Oscars, it's not enough to be the most cinematically innovative or critical favorite. The movies also must be the kind those in the industry and out can look at and say, "Now this is why Hollywood movies matter." It's a rather inclusive test, but nevertheless one many films do not pass. This morning's Oscar nominations have a fair number of surprises and snubs, in a year that includes a number of incredibly strong films. They also offer competing visions of  America and Americans--even when the subject matter is foreigners. Go figure.

Lincoln led the nominations with twelve notices, including Best Director for Steven Spielberg and Best Picture. It's considered the favorite for Best Picture, but it's also the most "safe" movie. Lincoln is about showing an America everyone can be proud of. Lincoln is one of our finest presidents, and
Lincoln Daniel Day Lewisattempts by the script to humanize him only show how much he accomplished in the face of adversity and weariness. Even nearly 150 years after the Civil War, the movie's message is progressive. All men are created equal--under the eyes of the law, Thaddeus Stevens finally concedes. Even today, that vision is still short of reality.

Beasts of the Southern Wild shows us inequality, but then offers us a hopeful vision in spite of adversity. If you can look through the strained father-daughter relationship, the misguided efforts of rescue workers, and some heavy drinking, you can see that Beasts also offers a vision of America to be proud of. The world outside the movie's Louisiana Bathtub may be harsh and cruel to those inside, but the residents exemplify the characteristics we Americans hold so dear. Self-reliance, independence, vibrant
Beasts of the southern wild oscar 2culture, and strength in the face of adversity. Academy voters gave the film three important nominations: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actress for Quvenzhané Wallis, is the youngest nominee in history Along with Amour, Beasts "took" a Best Director spot away from previous winners Tom Hooper and Kathryn Bigelow, who were considered strong candidates for the nomination. Lincoln will always be a bit on a pedestal, but Beasts takes that pedestal, chops it up, and uses it to keep out hurricane winds.

Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are both about intelligence operations abroad, but they couldn't be more different. Argo champions playful ingenuity. The glitz and glamour of a Hollywood shoot just serve as a smokescreen to get trapped Americans out of Iran during the hostage crisis. There's great style, music, and a cowboy attitude prevails. The movie inspired vocal reactions among those
ARgo picturewatching in theatres, and it's hard not to leave without a gushing pride that America was clever and renegade enough to pull this off. This is a story of unequivocal pride, in the manner of Lincoln. Zero Dark Thirty is the equivalent of Beasts. It shows that terrorism begets torture. The CIA is ruthlessly efficient and technologically advanced. The battle against bin Laden is won, but this movie lets us know just how high the costs were. This wasn't just about personal sacrifice, but a sacrifice our nation made in the quest of vengeance. That's a message that hasn't sat well with everyone. After doing extremely well among critics' groups, the movie has picked up some
Zero dark thirty jessica chastain heat from politicians denouncing the movie.

impossible to leave this movie untroubled by the contemporary
parallels...[to author Victor] Hugo’s progressive political and moral concerns," noted Wendy R. Weinstein in her review of Les Misérables. Sure, maybe the movie would have been a hit nevertheless, but two of the other most successful musicals in recent years (Chicago and Dreamgirls) tackled big questions about fame and the American experience. As the country lifts from recession and questions topics like the incarceration of people of color who have committed minor drug offenses, for example, it recalls Jean Valjeans's life-ending punishment for stealing a loaf of bread. Like Lincoln, Les Misérables shows us that the search for justice and equality can be a never-ending process.

Which story will triumph when the statuettes are doled out? The film that wins Best Director nearly always wins Best Picture. This year, three frontrunners aren't even nominated: Les Misérables, Argo, and especially Zero Dark Thirty. Does this mean that Lincoln will win? In a year of films that spoke to the American experience, this one is the sturdiest and most uncontroversial. But the nominees that stand beside it share ultimately triumphant views of what it means to be an American, a human in society. When victories come, they are always qualified, and always at some cost. This isn't a year of fairy tales, but it does have the strongest slate of nominees in recent memory, one where multiple films can be heralded as examples of why movies matter.

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