Argo and a year of medium sized Oscar movies

Argo takes it to the streets this weekend, making that inevitable turn from obsessive Oscar talk to “hay you want ta go and see a movie tonight?” “sure, Ben Afleck looks pretty cool in that spy movie” “Oh, Argo”, ” Yeah, I think that’s what it’s called.” Oh, market of filmgoers, impervious to and utterly free of those shackles of pretentious critical praise and film festival buzz. Lucky for Argo it’s a genre picture, much like Lincoln and Les Miserables and Silver Linings Playbook and Life of Pi (sorry, but you didn’t know it’s a “kid’s movie”?! At least it better be) . It’s hard out there for a Master.

Yes, perhaps Seth Macfarlane will have the audience he desires. Thanks to a slew of medium sized Oscar nominees that, amongst the crop, there will be a sizable audience of people who will have “heard of” and even possibly “seen” many major nominees. I mean one of the big Acting nominees will even look like that guy on the five dollar bill. Sure, it might be all, “Argo? What about James Bond?”, “Les Miserables, sure, but what about Twilight!?!” But compared to a silent black and white movie and a kid’s movie that ended up being about… silent movies?!? well, we have a regular populist uprising on our hands. And, I mean no one wants to tune in on Oscars night and not have one movie that is all “what was THAT about?!” So, maybe it just got a little easier for a Master.

And perhaps like me, outside of the soft glow of the internets you are surrounded in the real world with people somewhat baffled by the typical movies that are chosen as nominees. I do love taking such a situation to my advantage, dazzling parents and facebook friends with an uncanny ability to correctly pick so many winners, impervious to the reality of a SAG or a critics circle or a TIFF, even if you told them.

On the other hand, the post impact of an Academy Awards couldn’t be more the contrary. In the months and even years following a Best Picture win, netflix rankings of rentals will feature countless selections in the top ten and top twenty. Say what you will about them, but it is difficult to assess how many people saw The Hurt Locker or The Artist or Slumdog Millionaire or, ahem, The King’s Speech (they could find The Social Network pretty fine on their own, thank you very much). In their own way, this is how the Grammy Awards have shot themselves in the foot. In bending so obviously to public opinion they lose any real ability to make an impact.

Among the many arbitrary (and often wrong) narratives attempted to be tied to nominees’ chances like “honoring a bast snub” or “considering an performer’s full year of work”, “selecting a movie that will boost ratings” is often one of the most unreliable. There is the notorious failure to nominate The Dark Knight, even when the film reached heights of both critical and popular success not seen since The Beatles. Sometimes with movies like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2, combining great reviews and the completion of one of the most lucrative and relatively well made franchises still made it the longest of shots at a Best Picture nomination. I genuinely believed Bridesmaids would get a Best Picture nomination to throw a bone for comedy, populist love and even turning a profit on a small investment, but no, not a chance. The Academy has spoken quite loudly that they want people to know which movies are Oscar movies. (*One must consider examples like Gladiator and Lord of the Rings, but there is was a gravitas to these I believe typical blockbusters just don’t have. Gladiator especially, Ridley Scott, Joaquin Phoenix, Russell Crowe, artsy cinematography. The exceptions that prove the rule)

So let’s consider a couple pairs of movies, all potentially “medium” sized box office movies. Les Miserables/Lincoln and Argo/Life of Pi. Silver Linings Playbook needs to be discussed alone.

First of all Les Miserables and Lincoln. I place these together since I believe you could argue not only are they more self-consciously awards central, but they are also combinations of franchises and genres. I still wonder if Les Miserables is placing itself too explicitly as an “Oscar” movie. As awards ready as “costume drama” meets “musical” seems, how many of either of these has won Best Picture? Without actually running the numbers, I would say less than it would seem and certainly not recently. Also, many musicals are in many ways less conventional, such as Chicago and West Side Story. And, surprisingly, dramatic costume dramas have very very rarely won Best Picture. Lincoln may end up being more understated emotionally to allow some escape of the “Oscar fodder” charge, but it’s still undeniable on some level. Historical drama, major American figure, Spielberg, Day-Lewis. You put this on a Best Picture list as soon as it was in pre-production. It’s also a “franchise”, because Lincoln is himself a franchise. Nonetheless, these are movies that are genre, franchise, “Oscar” movies that people will know exactly such going in.

Argo and Life of Pi are significant as movies that fit into genre territory, yet in many ways resist convention or easy popular appeal. For starters, being a mere “genre” picture isn’t enough any more without a “franchise”. People might want to see Argo since it is a cool looking CIA movie, but it’s not like it’s James Bond. Life of Pi will appeal to children and therefore “family” movie goers. Yet, the material is mature, it’s not animated and it’s not Harry Potter or Twilight. Then again, the book was very popular, so perhaps it is a “franchise”? Regardless, both of these movies resist quite mining their genre for the easily marketable, perceivably Oscar movie kind of way. In some way this gives Argo and Life of Pi an edge, as many recent winners fit that description. Lately we’ve had the unique and unconventional approach to the romantic comedy, the war movie, the adventure picture and the crime drama.

Silver Linings Playbook. What is interesting about Silver Linings Playbook is its brash insistence on being a, hit it out of the park, identifiably conventional genre picture. It is a romantic comedy that simply relishes in the fact that romantic comedy is a wonderfully rich genre that is often abused. It will have the easy appeal of a “The Vow” with traction from a slew of Oscar nominees to propel it quite far. The story is a concept seemingly so sad as a premise, yet so funny and hopeful in execution.

So there you have it. As the nominations picture becomes clearer, we know that this will be a telecast with a pleasant ability to actually propel discussion amongst the average film goer. It is the best sense of the oft-used word “accesible”. The nominees will invite “access” without insulting intelligence. It is conceivable to think there will be January/February discussions across the country as to he favorites amongst nominees, with a fair many people having seen Les Mis and Lincoln and Silver Linings and Life of Pi and Argo. Then there’s that odd guy who keeps wanting to bring up The Master.

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