Oscars: A Critical Second Look

Variety film critics Justin Chang and Peter Debruge dissect Hollywood's big night


With the 85th Academy Awards, Hollywood enlisted what looked like an unconventional host in Seth MacFarlane yet delivered plenty of conventional choices. Before the telecast had even ended Variety film critics Justin Chang and Peter Debruge began debating the merits, big moments and missed opportunities of the night:

PETER DEBRUGE: The Academy decided to spread the wealth this year, and that seems like a fine solution in a year with more truly exceptional films nominated than we’ve seen since they broadened the best-picture race. Had “Argo” been a runaway winner, the show would’ve gone a lot differently, though it makes perfect sense as the consensus choice for the most populist of the lot — a factor that clearly mattered in a telecast which reunited the “Avengers” cast, paired Bella Swan with Harry Potter and turned to host Seth MacFarlane to bring in a younger demo.

JUSTIN CHANG: To your point that “Argo” is the most populist movie of the bunch, I’d add that it’s also the easiest — and that, after “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist,” I’m beginning to wonder if the Academy will ever see fit to honor a film that truly challenges or unsettles an audience. I’m not saying every best picture winner has to be “No Country for Old Men.” But in a year in which movies like “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lincoln” drew controversy for their much tougher-minded takes on history, to reward a crowdpleaser like “Argo” strikes me as a bit of a cop-out.

I’m scarcely the first one to point out that, like “The Artist,” “Argo” flatters the industry that produced it. But then, self-congratulation is what we’ve often come to expect from the Academy Awards; look no further than that extended tribute to “Chicago,” which, not coincidentally, was produced by this year’s Oscar showrunners, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron.

PD: This year’s ceremony certainly had its share of disconcerting choices, beginning with its host, whose style of caustic insult humor better suits a roast than a night of gratuitous ego inflation. But I take issue with your disdain over the choice of “Argo,” since I think there were plenty of challenging films among the nominees (which included “Amour” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild”), and this prize is about Hollywood agreeing upon “the film of the year.” We should be grateful they didn’t pick “Ted.”

With a title one letter removed from my all-time favorite best picture nominee (that would be the Coen brothers’ “Fargo”), “Argo” is a smart, tense, character-driven thriller in the vein that you and I often remark Hollywood doesn’t tap anymore — a movie that, on paper, doesn’t sound like the stuff blockbusters are made of, but proved the safe bets wrong in a big way. While “The Artist” didn’t exactly rekindle interest in silent cinema, it would be a huge disappointment if showbiz didn’t take a cue from “Argo’s” success and gamble on more grown-up, thinking-person’s dramas in place of all the CG and comicbook fodder they’re greenlighting these days.

JC: No question that “Argo” is superior to the overinflated comicbook fare we see week in and week out; I fail to see why we should be setting such a low bar for best picture of the year. But then, I subscribe to the perhaps naive notion that Hollywood’s top prize shouldn’t be about consensus. A movie that polarizes, that draws impassioned love and hatred — like “Amour” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” like “The Tree of Life” last year, like “Black Swan” the year before — is often of far greater interest, and lasting value, than a movie that everyone can agree is pretty good.

To be fair, the Academy’s other choices were far from predictable. I don’t think anyone was expecting voters to embrace “Django Unchained” so heartily, bestowing surprise victories on Christoph Waltz and Quentin Tarantino — both now double winners, from whom I expect still more fruitful collaborations in the future. And it was thrilling to see the directing award go to Ang Lee for “Life of Pi,” which I’d place in the same category as multiple winners like “Hugo” and “Inception”: a technically stunning, medium-advancing work that gets due respect for its below-the-line mastery, but doesn’t connect on that gut level you need in a best-picture winner.

PD: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “Argo” works because it’s based on a great script, and not just because it has punchy dialogue and characters that jump off the page, but because of the way Chris Terrio cracked the material, making a complicated political situation relatable, inventing Alan Arkin’s Oscar-nominated role out of thin air, orchestrating a nail-biting finale where the real hostages waltzed through security and so on. (Ben Affleck’s only major failing as director was casting himself in a role he didn’t know how to play.)

Tarantino had it right when he said this was a helluva year for screenwriting, and the same could clearly be said for directing, considering those the category couldn’t find room to honor: Tarantino, Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow and J.A. Bayona, whose “The Impossible” tops my list of slights. Lee did visionary work on “Life of Pi,” especially in his innovative use of visual effects and 3D to augment rather than overwhelm a story that seems headed for $600 million worldwide.

My point: The nine top contenders are all stunning achievements, and considering how often I disagree with the Academy (especially with its top choice of “Crash,” the year Lee won for “Brokeback Mountain”), I think they displayed unusually good taste this year. Among other things, they gave the Bond series two Oscars.

JC: It could’ve been three if they’d seen fit to give “Skyfall” a cinematography prize, but Roger Deakins remains an Oscar bridesmaid. Speaking of Lee, as much as I respect his achievement on “Pi,” I couldn’t help but wonder if the Academy was, on at least a subliminal level, apologizing for the “Crash”-over-“Brokeback” incident.

In the meantime, who will apologize for MacFarlane’s tediously self-referential opening monologue? (Sorry, Seth, but mentioning Golden Globes hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler doesn’t make the comparisons any more flattering.) Or for the orchestra, rudely silencing “Life of Pi” winner Bill Westenhofer just as he was making an important point about the state of the visual-effects industry that was ostensibly being honored?

PD: Among their other questionable decisions, Zadan and Meron decided to celebrate musicals when the weakest nominee was a tuner (the live performance of which reminded how much better “Les Mis” works onstage); invited Catherine Zeta-Jones to do what appeared to be a lip-synch rendition of a “Chicago” number in the year of live singing; and agreed to work with a host who alternately elbowed his way into others’ musical numbers and accused the song-and-dance portion of being “gay.”

Here’s an idea: If the Academy wants to appeal to younger auds, how about reflecting the industry’s present and future? They could have included Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” among the supporting actor nominees, for instance. This is the second time the Academy has awarded its cinematography prize to a mostly digital effort (“Life of Pi” here and “Avatar” two years ago), suggesting the need for a new category. Many of the rules are outdated. If you can Oscar-qualify shorts by playing festivals, surely features should be allowed to do the same. Instead, the Academy overlooks fest faves that debut on-demand and requires documentaries to quietly do one-week runs downtown.

JC: We seem to be in general agreement on one thing: great movies, lousy show. But with an emphasis on the great movies, which will endure no matter how many Oscars they didn’t win. Years from now, I suspect that “The Gatekeepers,” overlooked in the documentary feature category in favor of the more palatable “Searching for Sugar Man,” will be more painfully relevant than ever. I expect that “Zero Dark Thirty” — kissed off with a sound editing prize (shared with “Skyfall”) — will be upheld as a modern classic, never mind the smear campaign that was successfully waged against it.

Which brings me to my final thought: If only Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal had somehow contrived an escapist thriller-comedy about the triumphant role Hollywood played in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is there any doubt they’d have wound up in a very different spot on Oscar night?