Armchair Oscars – 2012

Best Picture

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

Lincoln (Directed by Steven Spielberg)
My Nominees: Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki), Argo (Ben Affleck), Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin), Cloud Atlas (Larry Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer), Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino), Life of Pi (Ang Lee), Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)


If you weren’t following the progress of Ben Affleck’s Argo from its release to its win as Best Picture at the 85th Annual Academy Awards, then the victory might have come as something of a surprise.  Argo’s chances to win the award were not inevitable.  It came out in mid-October to rave reviews but so-so box office.  It was popular, but all through Christmas it seemed to have dropped off the radar in favor of larger and more obvious choices like Les Misérables, Lincoln, Life of Pi and Zero Dark Thirty.

The film was talked about as a possible nominee but Best Picture chances were not in the bag.  Then in January and February the tide turned and the film won top prizes at The Golden Globes, The Screen Actors Guild Awards, The AFI Awards, BAFTA and finally The Academy Awards. Argo is not your typical brand of Best Picture winner. It is a historical drama, yes, but it has a plot that uses a real event as the backdrop for a movie the plays like a thriller.

It is history but it never feels like homework – that’s not normal for the Academy Awards. Instead of focusing on the whole of the Iran hostage crisis, it shifts focus and narrows the story down to tell a smaller story of how six people escaped capture and then were rescued by a CIA operative Tony Menedez (Affleck, in a very understated performance) who puts together a seemingly ridiculous plan to set up production of a fake science fiction movie and smuggle the escaped hostages out of the country posing as the film crew.

I like Argo, it was on my ten best list. I find to be wonderfully entertaining but if I were marking my ballot for Best Picture, my choice is Lincoln, a movie that might have seemed a more standard Best Picture winner.  I can’t deny that, nor can I deny the fact that this goes against the intentions of Armchair Oscars, however, if I am to be honest, I must go with the film that moved me the most in the calendar year of 2012.

Lincoln, like Argo, also dealt with a historical event and was narrowed down to its most interesting elements to tell a compelling story.  Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner could have attempted the entire breadth and scope of Lincoln’s life but that would have made for an exhausting and fairly boring movie.  Instead, they turned to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” to tell the story of how Lincoln, his cabinet, and several conspirators ducked and dodged around the democratic process in order to pull off passage of a constitutional provision that would free the slaves and change the course of American history.

The movie takes place in the last four months of the president’s life, from January 1865 through his assassination on April 14th, and shows Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) as man who is worn down by four years of ceaseless conflict.  He is seen as compassionate, a man of great humility but also of great pain.  He knows the loss of millions, but feels also the loss of his own son from typhus some years earlier.  Yet, there is another side, a clever and almost devious schemer whose plan, like the one pulled off by Tony Menedez in Argo, requires a razor precision and a certain degree of insanity.

What rolls around in Lincoln’s mind is a nearly impossible three-part scheme in which he will try to end slavery with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment while ending the war and pulling the south unconditionally back into the union.  All of this must be pulled off with absolute timing and precision otherwise the war will never end, and the slaves in the south will never be freed.  Lincoln is, in essence, threading the needle of history and stepping around the limits of the power of his office not only because he wants to Thirteenth Amendment passed, but because he knows what exists on the other side if it doesn’t pass, that history will never afford another opportunity to bring it to its fitting and much delayed end.

What is interesting is that the entirety of this impossible task is not pulled off only by Lincoln himself, it couldn’t be.  He employs (practically forces) his cabinet to go along with him on this David and Goliath task.  We see the sessions of The House of Representatives, led by blowhard Democrats like Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) who rail against the dangers of integrating whites with blacks – he thinks that the inequality of the races is a decree of God, not man.  We hear reason from the soft-spoken voice of George Yeaman (Michael Schulberg) who calmly asserts the notion of White Man’s Burden, that blacks should not be freed unless the society is ready to enfranchise them.  The House is seen as a rat’s nest of heated debates and racist caterwauling.  It is established to let us know what Lincoln and his constituents are up against.

The lone voice against the racist rabble-rousing is Lincoln’s most powerful weapon in the House, a nightmare hobbling on a cane.  Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the representative from Pennsylvania, is seen as a grouchy old curmudgeon who doesn’t suffer fools lightly and often withers his opponents in the the House with brash and overwhelming insults, accusing the pro-slavery representatives of not only of being ignorant but of being a complete waste of flesh and blood.  He, like Lincoln, is seen as a schemer, a man who believes that the cause for which he is fighting is worth the scheming and law breaking that is taking place.  What is revealed ultimately about his need to pass the Thirteen Amendment takes place in the deeper recesses of his heart.

Lincoln’s cabinet fights back, and the tool they have to fight back with is to get the two-thirds majority in the House to get the amendment passed.  In order to do this, Lincoln tasks his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) with the hush-hush task of finding the boldest lobbyists to help persuade the Democrats to vote for the amendment, often by offering patronage jobs or sometimes straight-up bribes.

All of this is seen through the prism of Spielberg’s talent for orientation.  He establishes a firm narrative so that we understand what is at stake at all times.  The scenes in the House help us understand what Lincoln’s supporters are up against.  In the darkened rooms of the White House we are privy to the wheeling and dealing that takes place as Lincoln has to basically play magic tricks in order to get things done.  He lays out, clearly why it is necessary to lie, cheat and steal in order to get the necessary votes. As his cabinet bellows that the efforts are useless, Lincoln brings them down be reminding them of the importance of what they are asked to do, “Abolishing slavery by constitutional provisions settles the fate for all coming time”, he says ”Not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come. Two votes stand in its way. These votes must be procured.”

Moments like that add the human touch to the movie.  If Lincoln was all business and politics, the movie wouldn’t add up to much.  There is also a personal stake here.  We get to know Lincoln as a man of humility and strength.  He sees the task at hand as one that is as difficult to fight as the war that is tearing his country apart.  We expect that the movie will present Lincoln as the icon that Americans have built him up to be.  One of his greatest moments, the Gettysburg Address is heard in the film, not by Lincoln, but by an African-American soldier who has the speech memorized.  It is very moving.

The details of the period are perfectly captured not just in the clothes or the sets but in the cinematography by Spielberg’s frequent collaborator Janusz Kaminski who establishes the interiors of the White House, not as a temple, but as a dimly lit trading house where deals are made and broken.  We don’t feel as if we are on a set, but in a real time and place.  There are shadows and dark images here that suggest more than the screenplay is saying.

The dialogue in the film is beautifully written by Tony Kushner from the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Many times, the film seems to halt just so Lincoln can have a personal aside.  In most cases that would be a fault, but here it is so well written and acted that it becomes mesmerizing.  Most surprising is that Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is spoken by young soldiers fresh from the battlefield who want to let Lincoln know that they have memorized it.  It is begun by two white soldiers and finished by another who is black.  It is a deeply moving moment.

Best Actor

Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
The Nominees:Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook),
Hugh Jackman (Les Misérables), Joaquin Phoenix (The Master), Denzel Washington (Flight)

Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
My Nominees:
Jack Black (Bernie), Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained), Richard Gere (Arbitrage),
Tommy Lee Jones (Hope Springs), John Hawkes (The Sessions), Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Denzel Washington (Flight)


Daniel Day-Lewis made history by becoming the first actor to have won three Oscars for Best Actor, and the first actor to win an Oscar for playing a U.S. President.  If it were anyone else, you could accuse the voters of gushing, but in his case, you can’t deny his versatility or his talent.  He is the best actor of his generation, on par with Meryl Streep and Marlon Brando.  He’s that good.

Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t make a movie every year.  He seems to come around every three or four years and when he does, he always turns in a performance that is nothing short of mesmerizing.  He is a chameleon, able to disappear inside a role, change his voice and his look so that we feel that we are seeing the character not the actor.  His ability to change his voice reminds me of Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump in which he is able to remove himself from his natural speaking voice so that we feel that we are in the presence of someone new, not just an actor in a role.
He won the Oscar twice before, first in 1990 for his role as Christy Brown, the Irish-born artist whose body was paralyzed by cerebral palsy except for the use of his left foot.  He won again in 2008 for his role as Daniel Plainview, an oil prospector whose soul is so diseased by greed that he eventually loses his mind.  Those two performances were brilliant, but the humanity in both remained muted.  Not so in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, in which he gives his best performance, disappearing inside the skin of the sixteenth President of the United States in a way that makes him seem, not like an American icon, but like an all-too-human man.

Lincoln is no flat portrait of a revered man, but the portrait of a man who is many different things to many people for many different reasons.  He is folksy, always ready with a story, which he uses to break tension.  He is a healer, whose words are effectual and elegant.  He is a family man who struggles to pull together a wife and son who are still struggling with the loss of one of their own; even still an older son who defies his father and wants to join the Army.  He is a shrewd politician who is not afraid to bend the rules to get the job done.

The movie follows the last four months of his life, the time in which he balances a juggling act of monumental porportions. He is face with ending the war, passing the thirteenth amendment and unconditionally pulling the union back together.  This is the most daunting task ever given to an American leader, but Lincoln with all his great strength and intelligence puts himself into the task like a general on the battlefield.  Those around Lincoln think he’s crazy, but he understands that he must place his country on its feet to be ready for the next generation.  To the future of his country, he sees what others do not, that asphyxiating the institution of slavery will not only bring the war to a close but will prepare his country for the next phase in its evolution.  He sees slavery as a basic and unnecessary evil that he must stamp out.  If he waits too long, it will never happen.  His country will suffer if it doesn’t deal with the issue.

He understands suffering.  Under the surface Lincoln is a man who is quietly smoldering with grief.  He has seen his country through four years of devastating civil war that General Grant describes as “intimate and ugly.”  In his chest beats a heart that is heavy for his country but also for the loss in his own family.  Some years earlier, he and wife Mary Todd lost a son Willie to typhus.  While Mary withers under the stress and strain and guilt of what she could have done to save her son (and further has to put on a fake smile for public affairs), her husband stands as the pillar of strength.  That doesn’t mean he doesn’t hurt, but that he admits that he can’t let himself crumble under the weight of his guilt, he has a deeper issue to deal with.

Lincoln is a man in deep despair but that doesn’t alter his capacity for reason.  He is a deep thinker whose consideration allows us to understand not only how he thinks about an issue but how long he has been considering it.  The best of these takes place at a moment of quiet introspection while he is preparing to send an important cable to General Grant.  Lincoln sits in the telegraph office and quietly asks the young operator “Do you think that we choose to be born, or are we fitted to the times we are born to?”  He learns that the young officer is an engineering student and begins to consider the issue of racial equality in the terms of Euclid’s axioms and common notions.  In just a few beautifully chosen words, Abraham Lincoln pulls the 2000 year old method of mathematical reasoning into the issue of slavery, deeming that “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.”

This would be nothing without Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance.  He could easily have stood in the background and remained an omniscient and obscure figure, ruling on high, but he brings Abraham Lincoln down to a level that allows us to sense the man.   This is essential because Lincoln, for all of our reverence, is a man that we in 21st century American don’t really know.  Within the structural timeline of American History, his tenure on this earth ended half a generation before voices and images began to be captured by recording devices.  His voice is lost to history and that, in effect, cements his legend because not knowing how he sounded or how he moved leaves us to interpret Lincoln any way we want.  We idolize him because we cannot humanize his flaws with our senses.  Through Day-Lewis’ performance we get a sense of a humble and good man, a crafty and at times devious politician, and a wounded but devoted family man who perhaps worked longer and harder than any other single person in history during the moment of its greatest crisis to keep this country from perishing from the Earth.

Best Actress

Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)
The Nominees:Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), Quenzhanée Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Naomi Watts (The Impossible)

Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
My Nominees: Helen Mirren (Hitchcock), Emma Watson (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Naomi Watts (The Impossible), Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea).


Jennifer Lawrence tripped on her way up to the stage at the 85th Annual Academy Awards to collect her Oscar for Best Actress.  In one sense it was a symbol of the magic of live television, and in another a testament to Lawrence’s unpolished and refreshingly realistic manner.  Lawrence stands apart from the 21st century generation of young actors who all seem to have come from a copy machine.  They all look alike, sound alike, act alike to the point that you can’t tell one from the other.  They’re pretty, polished, boring.

Lawrence is different.  Both onscreen and off there is something about her that seems to have come from the real world.  That was the key to her 2010 breakout performance in Winter’s Bone as Ree Dolly, a girl from the Ozarks who treads into the dangerous terrain of drug dealers in order to bring home her missing father.  That performance got her universal acclaim and her first Oscar nomination.  From there she has steadily built a resume of mainstream and low-stream work culminating in her first Oscar in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook.

I find that I am more or less alone in this opinion but I think that Lawrence is the best thing about this film.  As Tiffany Maxwell, a 22 year-old widow who plays matchmaker to a man suffering from bipolar disorder, she shows a different side of herself.  The rustic qualities are there, but there is something more playful and sexier about her personality here.  Yet, I would have enjoyed an entire movie focused on her, the rest of the movie – for me – never quite takes off.

Had it not been for Lawrence, I have a feeling that my choice for Best Actress might have walked away with the Oscar.  At just 9 years-old, young Quvenzhané Wallis became the youngest Oscar nominee in history for her performance in Behn Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, but it was no fluke.  She gave the best performance of any actress in 2011 and some of the best child acting that I have ever seen.

Wallace plays Hushpuppy, a girl hardly six years-old who exists in a ragged community that seems to be clinging to the edge of the world, a small group of people who have been through a natural disaster but have determined never to be victims.  Crying, for them, is an abomination.  As the movie opens we aren’t exactly sure where we are and it takes some time to understand what has happened.  Once we do, we realize that we are in a place most of us would instinctively turn away from.

The place is a small island just off the shores of southern Louisiana close to the edge of New Orleans known simply as “The Bathtub”.  It is a Delta marsh spaced away from the rest of world in an area still devastated by Hurricane Katrina and by rain that comes down in buckets.  The people who live there, which seem to number about 20, live in shacks cobbled together out of the scraps tossed away from the mainland.  They fish off of a boat made out of the amputated bed of a pick-up truck.  Just across the river are the levies and beyond we see the silhouettes of oil refineries.  The people of The Bathtub want their own freedoms.  They are dirt poor and come to the understanding that if they rejoin society, they will have no freedoms.  Their lives will be mired in government programs, welfare, ghettos and misery.  Here, at least, they can make their own way.  A threat to their idealism comes in the presence of helicopters that fly overhead making the announcement that the area is to be evacuated.

When we find Hushpuppy in this setting, her appearance is so disheveled that we don’t at first even register that she is a girl.  It is impossible not to feel something for her in this surrounding, but once we get to know her, we come to understand that this is a child of such strength and intelligence that she could survive anything.

Hushpuppy lives in this backwater with her father Wink (Dwight Henry), a good man who drinks too much and has a sickness that will consume him.  His job is to teach his daughter survival skills.  He teaches her how to fish with her bare hands and how to construct a makeshift raft for the fateful day when the rain eventually drowns The Bathtub.  He spends his leisure time trying to enflame her spirit, inspiring her to face life with Herculean strength.

What draws us to Hushpuppy is not just her fighting spirit but her imagination.  Her inner monologue narrates the film and we hear a child who is deep and poetic.  She sees the universe as a chaotic mess that needs to be fixed.  “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.” she says, “If one piece busts, even the smallest piece the whole universe will get busted.”  In her mind we see images of Arctic ice breaking away, releasing an ancient boar-hog called an Auroch.  We see her fantasy of facing one of the beasts down by staring unflinchingly into its eyes.  This is a symbol of how she will face down the world that will try to decimate her spirit.  She tells us that, “Strong animals know when hearts are weak.”

Hushpuppy is one of the most unforgettable people you will ever meet in a movie.  She is a very specific person, in a specific place, both in how she thinks and how she deals with the world.  Wallis, was five years-old when shooting started and seven when the film wrapped.  There has never been a performance quite like this.  Most of her performance takes place in her face, which contains steady eyes that seem ready to stare down the world, and a clinched jaw that draws up into stubborn resolve.  There is no mugging here, no cute kid phoniness.  There is poetry to her thinking and a survivalist spirit in her heart.  Wallis has the ability to translate so much to the audience without saying a single word.  Zietlin’s script asks us to observe a child with a warrior’s spirit but still with a wandering imagination.

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