I could swear people used to like "Argo." I have vague recollections of conversations with fellow critics who used to agree -- at least back in October -- that it was a pretty great thriller. In Indiewire's year-end survey of the best movies of 2012, 37 critics put "Argo" in their top ten lists. Five of them picked it as their number one film of the year. 51 critics on our Criticwire Network gave "Argo" an A- grade or better; 244 out of 255 critics on Rotten Tomatoes rated it "Fresh."
A lot has changed since October. "Argo" has gone from possible Oscar contender to actual Oscar contender to shocking Oscar long shot (after director Ben Affleck was "snubbed" for a Best Director nomination) to even-more-shocking Oscar frontrunner (after the film started racking up other award wins after Affleck's snub). Now when I see people tweeting about "Argo" it's usually to argue that it's "overrated" or "mediocre" or just plain "terrible." What a difference an Oscar race makes.
"Argo" wasn't my favorite movie of 2012, or even my favorite of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Picture (that would be "Zero Dark Thirty"). But it was a very effective political thriller with a largely unappreciated subtext about the power of Hollywood moviemaking. Maybe it's not the BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR. But it's a good film.
Still, I can't blame people who are ready to tell Affleck and company to "Argo" fuck themselves. We've been talking about and giving awards to this movie for five straight months. It wears you down. By late February, following these endless Oscar campaigns begins to feel like drinking the last sips of a bottle of scotch you chugged in one sitting. Sure, it tasted great at the beginning. But now you're nauseous and exhausted and the last thing you want is more scotch. You start to hate the movies the Oscars are supposed to be here to honor.
"Argo"'s journey from popularity to toxic overdose bears a striking resemblance to the one travelled by a lot of eventual Best Picture winners. I enjoyed "The Artist" when I saw it, but its carefully crafted pleasures seemed to shrink in stature with each big award win. "The King's Speech" was a charming movie -- but by the time it defeated "The Social Network" and "Black Swan" for the Oscar that charm had worn awful thin. "The Hurt Locker" premiered on the festival circuit almost two years before it won Best Picture in March 2010; at that point, I couldn't blame anyone who felt as burned out about it as Jeremy Renner's bomb defuser.
At Awards Daily, Sasha Stone wrote this week that when it comes to the Oscars, "the least offensive really does win the day. All of the most recent Best Picture winners had the least or nearly the least negative reviews. To win these days you have to be a Teflon movie with Teflon filmmakers -- meaning, you can’t hate them." In a world where campaigning has come to dominate how these votes play out, that makes a lot of sense.
But the result of that mentality are a bunch of Oscar-winning movies that everyone likes and no one loves. Maybe I'm foolishly naive, but the phrase "Academy Award winner for Best Picture" still means something to me; something big and important and historical. I think we're approaching a point -- and it's not far off either -- where, in certain circles, a Best Picture Oscar might come to symbolize the exact opposite. "How was 'Argo?'" "Eh. For a Best Picture winner, it was pretty good."
There are some very good arguments in favor of a long Oscar race. It keeps a spotlight on great films, and helps them find larger audiences and higher box office grosses. It gives smaller independent movies the time to find their footing in a very crowded marketplace. For Your Consideration ads bring revenue to film newspapers and websites (like, y'know, this one). But long races also give people time to get sick of a movie they previously enjoyed, and maybe even loved. What movie wouldn't shrivel under the spotlight of five months of nonstop scrutiny? The answer, I guess, are the ones that are the most broadly likable. And then, by the time they win, no one likes them anymore.