Nominees: Michael Haneke (Amour), Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Ang Lee (Life of Pi), Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook).
Should Win: I love Lincoln, but I think it might be the least director-driven good film of Spielberg's career, with screenwriter Tony Kushner and lead Daniel Day-Lewis vying for authorship. (Not to mention the casting director.) So I'll vote here for Michael Haneke, whose precise framing and bold rejection of sentimentality elevate Amour.
Got Robbed: My picks for the two best directing jobs of the year were left out. That would be Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master and Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty. Anderson reminds us — at a time in the (d)evolution of the medium when we really needed to be reminded — what real film can look like in the hands of a real director, especially with an opening section that stands as the best stretch of filmmaking I saw last year. But Bigelow's absence here is a joke. I admire Bigelow's unsettling bookends, the intentionally hum-drum precision of the (anti-)climactic raid, the way she carries the narrative through-line across a decade and nearly three-hours of run time, and the subtle way the film tells a personal story of a woman trying to launch a pet project in a male industry. It seemed like every end-of-year prestige picture pushed three hours, but none was as worthy of its length as Zero Dark Thirty.
Should Win: Lincoln is both Oscar bait and actually terrific. But Steven Spielberg gets the edge for me not just because what the film is — a long, serious, adult drama, with considerable entertainment value, about real historical topics — but also because what the film isn't. It's not overly precious Spielberg historical melodrama, a la his last film, War Horse (a Herrington household favorite, I know). You talk about Haneke's "bold rejection of sentimentality," and I think you could say the same for Señor Spielbergo.
I heart David O. Russell. He still surprises me, as it's not easy to nail down what his films will be like. Flirting with Disaster is different from Three Kings is different from I Heart Huckabees is different from The Fighter is different from Silver Linings Playbook. He might be a Woody Allen without the self-indulgence, or a Robert Altman without the body of work, or a Wes Anderson without the nostalgic compulsion, or a Spike Jonze without the technical vim.
Ang Lee's Life of Pi is pretty and pretty good (a top 20 film of the year for me), but having read the book, I couldn't help but find things I didn't like as well, mainly how it loses the fairy tale through-line of the narrative. I almost think Lee made the animal escapades too real-looking, too believable, that it reduces the impact of the thematic kicker.
I really do like Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film that's both futuristic and personal, a coming-of-age of how a little girl faces down her fears of her father dying and becoming a woman. But shot on a submerged set that looks like an expensive disaster movie. Impressive for a low-budget indie.
Got Robbed: A strong case can be made that Argo's Oscar-season blitzkrieg is precisely a consequence of Ben Affleck's Director snub. You ask me, he deserved to be left off the list. Though I like Argo and think Affleck is a good director — and that the film's main problems are scripted — the film seems more like an above-average thriller than an Oscar winner.
Nominees: Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty
Akers: Maybe it's because of how I felt when the nominees were announced — that Lincoln would roll to victory — that I still think I'm going out on a limb by not picking it. Argo is the frontrunner: The film and director (Ben Affleck) have won every industry indicator award in the build-up to the Oscars. So I guess Argo is actually the safe bet and one that I will take. It's just crazy that six weeks ago it seemed like it had no shot when Affleck got shut out. (Last time a Best Picture winner didn't net a director nomination: Driving Miss Daisy.) I'd be mildly surprised if there's a split in Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture winners. I think Argo takes them both.
Should Win: I don't really need to re-state the cases for most of these movies because we've discussed them elsewhere. I will add that my two main problems with Argo is that it's kind of hopelessly pro-CIA and that it too often veers into suspense movie cliches. Swarthy men at government checkpoints! Even that said, honestly I'm okay if/when it wins. I actually like every single Best Picture nominee. I'm pretty sure that's unprecedented.
Got Robbed: Two Andersonian films stand out: Moonrise Kingdom and The Master. Wes Anderson's movie is his best in more than a decade — since The Royal Tenenbaums. The mojo he lost beginning with The Life Aquatic and began to recover in his stray away from live action, Fantastic Mr. Fox, is all the way back in Moonrise Kingdom. I think the change in venue helped him, showing the people like the damaged adults from movies such as Tenenbaums back when they were kids in the 1960s.
P.T. Anderson's The Master is breathtaking, visually and performance-wise. The ending is maddeningly elusive, frustrating as a film-goer trained for resolution but pretty awing in how it's meant the film has never left my brain.
Herrington: A couple of housekeeping notes and then some quick picks to wrap up: Spielberg's War Horse, to me, is more cinematic than historical, in both the sense of its impact coming in pure filmmaking terms rather than its depiction of period and in the sense of it being more about certain kinds of old films than about World War I. But, yes, it's a bit lonely out here on the “loves War Horse” branch.
Similarly, I think The Hurt Locker is often superior to Zero Dark Thirty as a work of “pure cinema” — in terms of being swept up by the framing and cutting of individual scenes — but I do think Zero Dark Thirty is the greater overall work of art.
Should Win: All of the leading candidates, even the mildly overrated and Hollywood-pandering Argo, are superior to the last couple of Oscar winners, The Artist and The King's Speech, so this is a pretty good bunch of nominees. But my pick, for the reasons I stated in the director category and many more, is Zero Dark Thirty.
Got Robbed: Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson's live-action return to form and relative box-office triumph, would have been a good nominee. It will certainly be remembered more fondly than Les Miserables, for instance. But my favorite film of 2012 was The Master, whose case I made in the director's category, and also here.
Akers: Last but not least, everybody within the sound of my voice should listen on Saturday, February 23rd, at noon, to the Memphis Sport Live Annual Oscars Handicapping Show, on Sports56, 87.7FM and 560AM. I'll be joining Kevin Cerrito and Marcus Hunter and we'll break down and make predictions for every category. If you're involved in an Oscar ballot contest — and why wouldn't you be — then it's a must listen.