Casting Our Oscar Ballot for Best Picture

The Atlantic

With the Academy Awards quickly approaching, we're going through each of the major categories and pretending we're Academy voters. Forget who will win, we have a very important decision to make.

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The Nominees: Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Les Misérables, Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Life of Pi

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Nine Best Picture nominees is a lot to choose from. Too many, maybe. Ever since the Academy (of which I am, for the purposes of today's exercise, a pretend member) decided to move away from the traditional five nominees — done in the hopes that the big, popular movies would get nominated alongside the lesser seen indies — the Best Picture prize has felt, in a strange way, a little reduced in meaning. Hasn't it? Choosing from a Top Five list of deserving winners made the race feel small and competitive. But nine? That's practically all the movies that came out last year! It's too many. So I'm gonna start my voting process by dismissing more than half of them right away.

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The early, easy dismissals are Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Silver Linings, Lincoln and Les Misérables. Django goes because, well, I just didn't like it. Overlong, unfocused, and troublingly unthoughtful, Quentin Tarantino's least successful film to date (creatively, anyway) had an unsettling air of smugness about it that I found really off-putting. Life of Pi, pretty and pious as it was, didn't really make the spiritual/emotional connection it was so intent on making. It should win a raft (heh) of technical awards, but there's no way it was the best movie of 2012. Or one of the nine best, even. Les Misérables was a creative success for the most part, but it's just too corny, and too slow in the middle section, to get any serious consideration here. Things get trickier with Lincoln and Silver Linings, but they're still definite nos. Lincoln soared when dealing with the rumbles and whispers of policy making (they made that exciting somehow!) but dragged and creaked when dealing with Lincoln's family troubles. Plus that never-ending ending, ugh. Silver Linings was cute and all, and there's some fine acting in it, but it's ultimately pretty glancing about its core topic, mental illness. And can a movie starring Bradley Cooper really win Best Picture? I mean, it's Bradley Cooper. Sorry, Silver Linings.

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So that leaves me with four worthy winners. Sure Argo took some historical liberties in the name of entertainment, but Ben Affleck was pretty up-front about that. And it was indeed an entertaining movie, tense and atmospheric but also nimble and clever. Uniformly good acting met with sharp writing and sure-handed direction and the results were 100 percent pure Hollywood satisfaction. Meanwhile, our other Middle East-set thriller Zero Dark Thirty tried to take as few historical liberties as possible. Though, there's been, eh, let's say a little controversy about just how accurate the film is. It's a worthy discussion to be had, but that debate aside, as a piece of filmmaking, ZD30 is mostly excellent. Long and intricate and filled with dread and ambiguity, it's a harrowing film experience, one director Kathryn Bigelow makes well worth the journey. Inexplicably, neither Bigelow nor Affleck were nominated for Best Director this year, so awarding either of their movies with the top prize would be a good mea culpa. Between the two I'd go with Zero Dark Thirty, for speaking a bit more urgently about more urgent things.

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In the next bracket we have the two smaller indies, French-language nightmare Amour and uplifting American myth cycle Beasts of the Southern Wild. Michael Haneke's Amour is the kind of movie you don't see if you have anything to do afterwards. It's a real gut-punch, this spare and unflinching look at an old woman sinking into decay. But it's also strangely cathartic and at times delicately rendered. Haneke may have found a rare soft spot here, or he might simply be synthesizing that sentiment in order to wring more tears from his main frenemies: the people who see his movies. Either way, Amour is a breathtaking thing, expansive and incredibly intimate all at once. Speaking of expansive, Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild is a big swirling ode to nature, the kind of redemptive moviegoing experience that makes you want to leave the theater and dance in the rain. Zeitlin made an incredibly confident, but never cocky, directorial debut with this movie, making a film that was wholly unlike anything else this year, or really any year. That kind of unique experience deserves recognition. Still, I must admit to being more affected by Amour. Maybe I have a dark disposition, but something about Haneke's plumbing of depths resonated more for me than Zeitlin's soaring heights.

So that leaves me with Zero Dark Thirty vs. Amour. What a cheery choice! And, really, what a silly choice to have to make. These two movies couldn't be more different, which could also be said for the rest of the films on this list. But a choice I must make, because this is the Oscars. Knowing that Bigelow had a recent win with The Hurt Locker and that Haneke's films have never won anything at the Oscars, I'm inclined to go with Amour. Haneke might be trolling us all, but he does it so well. So, it's a downer of a final prize as I check the box for Amour. Bonne chance!

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