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Oscar Picks: Variety Critics on What Should Win Best Picture

In their third Oscar debate, Variety's critics favor three different films for best picture.

12 years a slave best picture

PETER DEBRUGE: OK, gentlemen, time to guess who will win the Oscar for best picture. I say “guess” because the word “predict” seems entirely too confident when it comes to the Academy Awards. Despite all the ink and all the effort that people put into anticipating who will win on Sunday night, all the logic and algorithms that factor into their prognostications, I still think it’s a crapshoot — and I say this as someone who once managed to win Variety’s office Oscar pool. That’s no humblebrag, mind you. Quite the opposite. My point is that only once in the last 20 years of the Academy Awards have my preferences aligned with the Academy’s — a group that prefers “Argo” to “Amour” and “The Lord of the Rings” to “Lost in Translation,” while overlooking what I consider to be the best film of 2013: “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

SEE ALSO: Oscar Picks: Variety Critics on Who Should Win Best Actor/Actress

The stars aligned for me the year I picked “The Departed” and Jennifer Hudson and “Pan’s Labyrinth” in every category it was eligible for (even though it didn’t win them all). Frankly, I can’t help but let personal preference cloud the crystal ball. It is, I think, the curse of actually watching all the nominees — one can’t help but let taste factor into it. If I absolutely must predict, I’d wager this: The picture and director prizes will go to different films. Doesn’t make a lick of sense, but then, last year, best picture went to “Argo,” while Ben Affleck wasn’t even nominated in the directing category. And so, totally biased by the film I believe should win, I propose that Alfonso Cuaron will win best director, but “12 Years a Slave” will triumph.

SCOTT FOUNDAS: I’m with you, Peter, on the likelihood of a picture/director split, even if Ang Lee isn’t one of the nominees this year. But much like “Life of Pi,” “Gravity” is a movie in which the work of the director stands so front and center — both in terms of the film’s storytelling and its incredible technical achievement — that it’s hard to imagine Academy voters recognizing anyone other than Cuaron in the directing category. “Gravity” is certainly a strong best picture contender too, and if it were to win, it would become the first large-scale Hollywood blockbuster to do so since “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in 2004, and the only space movie ever to take the top prize — a feat neither “2001” nor “The Right Stuff” nor “Apollo 13” could manage.

SEE ALSO: Oscar Picks: Variety Critics on Who Should Win Best Supporting Actor/Actress

But as I’ve thought since way back in September, “12 Years a Slave” still strikes me as the frontrunner, and I’m not sure it ever wasn’t, despite the efforts of various awards-season columnists to convince us that the movie was “too brutal” in its violence or perhaps too confrontational in presenting such an unvarnished view of the slave plantation economy. So we’ve been subjected to headline after headline about how “surprising” it was when the movie copped the Golden Globe for best picture (drama), and how even more surprising it was when it repeated the same feat at the BAFTAs a few weeks later. In both cases, the movie spent the rest of the night winning relatively little (though Chiwetel Ejiofor did take home a best actor BAFTA), which seems to have stymied the statisticians who point to the historical precedent of Oscar’s best picture winners also racking up the gold in multiple other categories.

But only last year, “Argo” carried the day with just two other wins (for screenplay and editing), the same number of wins as “Crash” in 2006, so such things are hardly unprecedented. Sometimes we say that a movie in whole is less than the sum of its parts, and sometimes it’s the other way around. In the case of “12 Years,” it’s the whole that the Academy seems likeliest to honor, especially in this super-competitive year when voters will want to spread the wealth around as much as possible.

JUSTIN CHANG: Personal preference may be clouding my crystal ball as well, but I’m still backing my favorite of the group, “Gravity,” to win best picture by a slight margin over “12 Years a Slave.” As Scott noted, it’s pretty clear at this point that Cuaron is going to win best director, and operating from that assumption, I’m a bit wary of the confidence with which some are predicting a picture-director split. As the record will show, these Solomon-like decisions don’t happen all that frequently, and they rarely happen without good reason.

Last year, having mysteriously overlooked Affleck for director, the Academy had little choice but to separate the two prizes — it was either that or deny “Argo” best picture (if only). As for the year that Ang Lee won best director and “Crash” won best picture — whether you call it pervasive institutional homophobia or rampant voter discomfort or whatever, there was clearly a strong, politically charged intent to deny “Brokeback Mountain” the top prize without completely overlooking Lee’s achievement. The larger point I think we can take away from that particular outcome is that, when faced with two formidable contenders, the Academy will almost always go with the more palatable choice: It’s why we get winners like “Forrest Gump” over “Pulp Fiction,” “The King’s Speech” over “The Social Network,” or “Argo” over “Zero Dark Thirty,” which was such a political hot potato it had to be effectively neutralized and removed from contention before the race even properly began.

I rarely go for the palatable choice. This year is an exception, as the palatable choice — “Gravity” — also happens to be the most thrilling one. The Academy’s preferential ballot gives it the edge; I suspect that many voters who didn’t rank it first or second put it at least third or fourth. “12 Years a Slave,” needless to say, has proven far more polarizing. If this dispiriting recent report from Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone is any indication, there’s a ridiculous number of voters unwilling even to sit through Steve McQueen’s film — which reminds me, all too infuriatingly, of the widespread Academy stonewalling of “Brokeback Mountain” we kept hearing about several years back.

DEBRUGE: I remain totally perplexed by the preferential voting system, but offer a charitable insight that has gotten me through many an Oscar-night disappointment: The Academy should do away with the pesky “best picture” designation and simply call the category what it is: “picture of the year” (with “English-language” being the only acceptable modifier). Correct me if I’m wrong, but they already ditched the “best” in every other category and even did away with the “And the winner is … ” verbiage at the envelope opening. The Oscars are nothing if not Hollywood’s annual homecoming pageant, at which the popular kids are crowned king and queen, so it’s only fitting that the top award should go to the film that galvanized not just the industry but the nation, as  “Titanic” and “Schindler’s List” did in their respective years.

This year, only two films qualify: “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity,” and both stand a far better chance than, say, “Philomena” or “Nebraska” of still being discussed passionately in 20 years, while Spike Jonze’s hyper-astute “Her” stands to grow the most in our estimation over time. And don’t get me started again on the over-nominated “American Hustle.”

FOUNDAS: “Her” is my personal favorite among the nominees, and indeed the one that may grow largest over time, not unlike Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” 30 years before. But perhaps this is a good place to mention a little pet peeve of mine, which is the number of times the title of Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” has been invoked this season as a possible precedent for “American Hustle” going home empty-handed on Oscar night, despite heading into the evening with the most overall nominations (10). Well, yes, “The Color Purple” came into the 1986 Oscars with 11 nominations and won none of them, leading many to grumble privately (and some publicly) about the Academy’s institutional racism, much as “Brokeback Mountain’s” best picture snub led to accusations of homophobia; curiously, as “Crash” was the upset victor that year, the racism card could no longer be played.

What relatively few people said then or now is that “The Color Purple” was and is a catastrophically bad film — a grotesquely sentimentalized botch of Alice Walker’s deservedly praised novel, made by a filmmaker with no instinctive feel for the material, drowning in naively oversimplified characters and an artery-clogging Quincy Jones score. That it even managed so many nominations is, if anything, a mark of the same kind of dutiful political correctness that led to a movie like “Crash” winning best picture in the first place. But the talk of a “Color Purple effect” reinforces the notion that the movie was somehow robbed, whereas nobody seems to speak of a “Gangs of New York” effect, another 0-10 Oscar loser that came along much more recently.

DEBRUGE: But “The Color Purple” was robbed — and how dare you dismiss its power to move so many moviegoers so deeply as a mere case of political correctness! Perhaps Spielberg’s approach was not for you, but “The Color Purple” earned just shy of $100 million and effectively found a way for audiences of all colors to connect with a segment of characters previously marginalized from mainstream cinema.

Steve McQueen has taken the relatively highbrow route with “12 Years a Slave” by dialing back the sentimentality, but I would have welcomed a more forcefully emotional approach — of the sort that Quentin Tarantino invited with “Django Unchained” last year. If we’re going to accuse the industry of racism, the Oscars are an odd place to start. After all, the Academy Awards mark the finish line which films lucky enough to get made eventually hope to cross, while the glaring truth is how few projects actually do get made about slavery, the legacy of America’s “peculiar institution” or the black experience in general.

CHANG: Peter, while I hope the Academy never adopts your “picture of the year” suggestion — they may get “best picture” wrong more often than not, but I like to think they’re at least making an effort to get it right — it dovetails with something I brought up in our discussion the other day: Sometimes we want films and actors to win Oscars for reasons other than a strict determination of quality (that most subjective of notions to begin with). Of this group, “Gravity” is my clear favorite, falling as it does into that rare breed of soulful, intelligent, deeply enveloping Hollywood spectacle that we’re graced with once every blue moon. (I like “Lost in Translation” just fine, by the way, but I’d put “The Return of the King” up there with “Casablanca” and “The Godfather” movies as one of the most deserving best pictures ever anointed.)

At the same time, I don’t mind admitting that I would applaud no less heartily if the Oscar went to “American Hustle,” not least because David O. Russell’s rambunctiously alive film would be such a tonic compared with the worthy, well-manicured fare that typically gets the Academy’s rubber stamp. But then again, I wouldn’t be disappointed if the winner were “12 Years a Slave,” the cultural and symbolic importance of which, coming nearly three-quarters of a century after the coronation of “Gone With the Wind,” would be undeniable — and needless to say, it’s a much better film than “The Color Purple” or “Crash.” Hell, the plastic wrap I just used to cover my guacamole is a much better film than “Crash.”

To go even further: If it’s about making a statement and pissing off delicate sensibilities, I have to admit that part of me is rooting for an even more divisive auteur work — a big, sweeping movie that probably doesn’t stand a chance in hell of winning an Oscar, but that ranks second to none in its ability to start furiously heated conversation on matters of great social, national and artistic import: I’m talking, of course, about “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

DEBRUGE: Yes, “Wolf” — by far the field’s most divisive nominee and a film that, more than merely pissing me off, has me downright petrified that a not-inconsiderable segment of the audience mistook Scorsese’s morally ambiguous satire for an aspirational how-to manual, a la “Scarface.” Of course, critics always get agitated when films they revile earn Oscar nominations, reminding me to stick to my old mantra: Every movie is somebody’s favorite movie. (And like it or not, every best picture nominee represents the favorite movie of at least 5% of the Academy.)

None of us three is a fan of “Crash,” and yet, I’ll be the first to admit that it connected with people. It forced quite a few closet bigots to face their own prejudices, even as it let many others off the hook, only to pat themselves on the back for their perceived open-mindedness. I far prefer the way “Dallas Buyers Club” deals with homophobia, presenting a character so extreme in his beliefs, audiences can’t help but recoil. But that film — clued into another issue very much on the nation’s mind right now — also benefits from being such a damn good story.

CHANG: At the risk of bearing out that tired old stereotype about critics being hopelessly out of touch with the audience, I have to say that these general reactions to different movies you’ve brought up, although worthy of being reported and discussed, ultimately do not concern me very much. Every movie may be somebody’s favorite movie, but the great relief of that scenario is that I am not, nor should I attempt to be, everybody.

To return to “The Color Purple” for a moment: The fact that it deeply moved many moviegoers hardly disproves Scott’s assessment that it’s a grotesquely sentimentalized film (indeed, it may actually bear it out). Likewise, the fact that “Crash” resonated with some very astute friends of mine manages to interest me without materially altering my opinion that it’s an irredeemably awful and meretricious piece of work. As for the possibility that some numbskulls have misinterpreted “The Wolf of Wall Street” as some sort of glowing endorsement of the Jordan Belfort lifestyle (and of all things for you to be legitimately petrified about, I don’t think this is remotely one of them), it’s not my concern or my problem — and it certainly isn’t Scorsese’s.

While I’m personally thrilled that “Gravity” has wowed and transported audiences (to the tune of more than $700 million worldwide), that rapturous reception wouldn’t have convinced me that it deserves to be crowned best picture if the film hadn’t first wowed and transported me. And Peter, I know you don’t need me to tell you this, but the fact that “Inside Llewyn Davis” has so far earned a piddling $13 million Stateside, and has left any number of viewers scratching their heads, has no bearing on the fact that it’s easily one of the year’s best films, and a ridiculous omission from this otherwise fine set of nominees.

FOUNDAS: I wholeheartedly agree that there was no more undignified snub this year than the wholesale shutout of the Coen brothers’ 1960s folk-music drama from the top Oscar categories. (It scored only a couple of worthy but seemingly conciliatory technical nominations.) That wasn’t a huge surprise, given the movie had fared similarly poorly with the various guild groups and other so-called Oscar indicators, but it’s shameful nevertheless. When the dust settles and the 2014 Oscars are but a distant memory, “Inside Llewyn Davis” will still stand as one of the Coens’ greatest films, while many cause celebres of this moment will be gathering dust in the Netflix warehouse, Not unlike another movie from a quarter-century ago that was also largely ignored by Oscar and now stands as one of its maker’s masterworks: Call it the “Empire of the Sun” effect.


DEBRUGE: “12 Years a Slave”
CHANG: “Gravity”