On January 11th of this year, I wrote up the customary film critic Oscar nominations commentary piece, "Gold Bugged." Writing it up only a few hours after the nominations themselves were announced, my goal was the same as every other movie person writing the same basic article: Take a guess at where Hollywood's big award show was going, winners-wise, and offer up my own guesses and the logic I used to get there.
And, like a lot of those other movie people, it's beginning to look like I got it wrong. Very wrong. Wrong to a degree that's likely to make me look downright foolish come Monday morning (the big show happens this coming Sunday, 2/24). It would be both foolish and something approaching dishonest to try and undo my projections (well, one projection in particular) now - the original article was an accurate representation of what I thought then, just as much as this piece is accurate to my thoughts now.
But the reasons behind this now very likely egg-on-face moment for my industry are interesting to me, especially in the context of "Oscar Blogging" having become an entire subsection of movie journalism in and of itself, inspiring fierce competition and bitter rivalries not seen in this medium since the glory days of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris' feud. So let's have a look at where things went all squirrely.
First things first: The pending embarrassment heading toward me and many other would-be prognosticators has a name. Argo.
Argo, you may recall, was a really pretty damn good movie that came out earlier in the year to solid box office and positive reviews, my own included. Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, it's the true story of how a CIA agent teamed with a pair of world-weary Hollywood movie veterans to stage a phony movie production as elaborate cover for a daring mission to spirit un-captured Americans to freedom during the Iran Hostage Crisis.
In my initial appraisal of this year's awards, the only real mind that I paid to Argo was to note the seeming injustice of Affleck receiving no nomination for Best Director despite the film itself being nominated for Best Picture. Even then the dishonor wasn't exclusively his; he was simply the also-snubbed alongside Zero Dark Thirty's Kathryn Bigelow, whose film was more recent and more of a cultural event - being, as it was, about the killing of Osama bin Laden.
At the time, Bigelow's snub was the scandal of the show. Zero was probably the most talked-about "serious" movie in the world (or, at least, the United States) at that moment, racking up awards from film critics groups but also racking up an unprecedented two-way stream of political backlash, with right-wing partisans seething against what they saw as a vicarious Obama victory-lap while their left-wing counterparts instead imagined an endorsement of Bush/Cheney-era torture policy. It was that second part that added sizzle to the "Bigelow was robbed!" streak (right-wing punditry has about as much pull in the world of American entertainment journalism as a newsletter published by koalas exclusive for koalas in Esperanto) - was reflexively-progressive Hollywood punishing ZDT and its director for (seemingly) breaking ranks?
Affleck's snub, meanwhile, was seen as unjust but also business as usual. He's still regarded as a neophyte filmmaker in a field packed this year with heavy hitters. The film had been released too early (in October) to still be fresh in voters' minds. Most damning of all, it was too "slight;" a respectable, workmanlike potboiler from the "feel good" school of spy thrillers. Good enough for Best Picture, sure (especially with the flexible rules for number of nominees) but not necessarily something that would A) win the Big Prize or B) rate a recognition of its director ... certainly not in a year where Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee and Michael Haneke also had qualifying films.
As such, I made the same calculation that a lot of other Oscar pundits did, that Argo (and Zero Dark Thirty) were both no-goes as likely Best Picture winners owing to both common sense and precedent. Historically, only three films (and of those only one in the modern era) have ever won the award without also having Best Director nomination, and the last time it occurred (Driving Miss Daisy in 1989) is widely derided as one of Oscar's great blunders (Born on The Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams and My Left Foot were also nominated). There are, to be sure, a lot of automatic disqualifier variables that go into calculating The Oscars (comedies almost never win, chances decrease the further a release date is from December, etc.) but No Best Director = No Best Picture is probably the most reliable constant.
As such, the prediction pundits settled into a comfortable paradigm. Argo and Zero were both out. Amour is too much of a downer. Django is too violent and radical. Beasts of The Southern Wild and Life of Pi are too divisive. Les Miserables disappointed at the box office and with critics. That pretty much left it down to a horse race between Lincoln - a seeming Oscar Juggernaut if there ever was one (America's most celebrated director, the world's most celebrated actor, history's most celebrated U.S. President) - and Silver Linings Playbook, an acting showcase feature and thus a significant force among The Academy's all-powerful Actor's Bloc voters.
In my piece, I went Team Lincoln. Partially because I did really like the movie (and loathed Silver Linings) but mainly because it seemed to make the most sense. Spielberg. Daniel Day Lewis. Abraham Lincoln. The thing might as well have come pre-stamped as an Academy Award Winner. But whichever team you were on, one thing was certain - nobody was talking about Argo.