Are the Oscars Making People Hate The Movies They're Supposed to Honor?

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by Matt Singer
February 21, 2013 11:23 AM
17 Comments
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"Argo."
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. 

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17 Comments

  • Deneice | February 28, 2013 10:29 PMReply

    Argo should not have won Best Picture, plain and simple. The Best Picture was Lincoln, hands down. Lincoln was a much more fully fleshed out film in terms of characterizations, plot line, script, and of course direction. I think Argo winning Best Picture was a "Welcome Back, Kotter" to a Hollywood Lost Boy who became a media pariah and a box office bomb dropper. I think this is Hollywood bringing Affleck back into the game as far as being more of a power player. The only good part of Affleck winning was his speech, which aside from his TMI comments about his marriage, he was truly humbled which was very, very nice to see after the utterly full-of-crap speech by Anne "I lost the weight for Les Mis" Hathaway when she (finally, in her eyes) won her Oscar.

  • Dan | February 26, 2013 3:46 PMReply

    My favorite film of the year was Beasts of the Southern Wild. I was overjoyed that it got nominated but in the end I was actively rooting for it NOT to win Best Picture because I can't even imagine the backlash that film would receive if it won.

    So yeah, I think the tag of Best Picture Winner is somewhat detrimental to a film's legacy. While I think the long award season plays some role in that I think the Academy itself is the most to blame for getting it wrong so often the last 25 years.

  • Mass | February 25, 2013 11:35 AMReply

    It's called "butthurt". Everyone and there mother gets it from time to time. Winning an Oscar exposes your film to a wider audience. Plain and simple. The majority of people who didn't see ARGO, but hear about it winning the Best Picture Oscar, they're going to be more inclined to see it. Certain films should not even have been nominated. ARGO is winning award after award after award at multiple shows. It's not my favorite film, but if you can pull that off, you've either got some incredible lobbyists out there, or your film is really good.

    Films like LINCOLN and ZERO DARK THIRTY should not even have been nominated. Two perfect examples of the Academy's obligatory nominations, to honor our past. Both movies were pretty awful though, with some awful, awful pacing. Any historical picture Spielberg makes will always be nominated by the Academy. (See: WAR HORSE)

  • Max | February 27, 2013 11:30 PM

    No. Zero Dark was easily the best of the nine nominated films. Much better than Argo. Lincoln was far from awful. Les Mis truly was terrible though. Amour sucked too.

  • Carole | February 24, 2013 5:04 PMReply

    I love Ben Affleck...BUT .... ARGO is not entertaining - it's depressing and will surely move you to fear and nightmares.
    Silver Linings Playbook is entertaining, funny, touching and talent filled.
    All the nominated selections are great but Bradley and Jennifer grab your heart!!!

  • Dodd | February 22, 2013 9:41 AMReply

    The biggest example of this is Crash. When Crash came out at the beginning of the summer season, I remember everyone hailing it as a summer season underdog. No one thought it would get nominated for an Oscar, but once it did, the hating started. Ever since it won Best Picture, everyone I speak with, half of whom once said they loved Crash, now say it is not just "overrated" but actually terrible. I try to stick with my guns and defend the movie since, truth be told, I loved Crash when I saw it during its opening weekend.

  • Arch | February 22, 2013 8:10 AMReply

    The argumentation is very thin but chances are that overexposure of any kind may play against a movie (or TV Show, record) in the end. People will be fed up yes, most probably people will have some kind of expectations and be eventually disappointed.

    I guess it also does raise questions about the academy itself, and 2010 is an interesting case study because all in all, The King's speech was definitely the "safest" choice.
    I haven't seen Argo yet because on paper (action/thriller, headlining star+ ensemble cast, based on true story etc.) it sounded to much like ... an Oscar bait. I might be wrong though and may very well end up saying something like: For a Best Picture winner, it was pretty good (For the record: I'm more "concerned" by the fact it won a DGA award).
    Remember also people got fed-up by The Artist (including in France) when it was suddenly overwhelmed by a tsunami of Oscars. Indeed everybody was asking "wait, was it THAT good?" (And I can't help thinking people also suspected a severe case of "Shakespeare in love").
    I think most people just forget that an academy award is... just that. A token of appreciation given by the academy. Not the best film in the year, not the best in a limited batch chosen by a limited group like in a festival.

    These were my two cents. Let's just cynically say all of this is the "price" to pay for the press coverage and consequent increase in tickets sale (ironically those people who are going to see Argo right now because of the Oscar race are probably the very same who are now disappointed).

  • Phil | February 21, 2013 10:36 PMReply

    I'm sure that you are sick and tired of hearing about the Oscar race and the movies involved, but you know, the vast majority of people aren't movie critics. In fact, most people haven't even seen Argo, so it's hard to believe that everyone is sick of it.

  • Pete | February 21, 2013 5:54 PMReply

    Schindler's List might be the last film to win Best Picture and see it's importance and critical mass stay level since (and I think most have a different favorite Spielberg film). Maybe Departed or No Country. But Slumdog, American Beauty, Crash, King's Speech, seem like they haven't been as adored since they won. I was rooting for Slumdog. I wonder if it had lost if it would be more critically adored.

  • BEF | February 22, 2013 9:22 PM

    I imagine that No Country is the only one that still holds at a level critical level; you always see "The Departed" win as, yeah it's good, but it's minor Scorcese, but he had to win sometime. Departed get's the backhanded note because it's the only time Scorcese has won. Whereas, as far as directors are concerned, No Country is probably in the top three for most people's Coens' lists. The only thing that No Country is really fighting is that There Will be Blood also has huge critical clout, perhaps larger since its release. I'd still give it to No Country, though, if only Blood came out in 2008.

  • John | February 21, 2013 3:08 PMReply

    I wonder if, by that logic, it wouldn't matter what won and if the same phenomenon would occur? I can't imagine the same would be said if Amour won BP this year, or if Tree of Life had. But they're visionary, artistic works, and the Academy clearly favors commerce over art.

  • Erlend Lunde Holbek | February 21, 2013 1:14 PMReply

    Yes! I live in Norway, and the awardsy movies usually roll out between christmas and early February. By the time we get to see them, we've heard American critics go through the entire cycle at least a couple of times. The conversation around the Oscars are consistently getting me annoyed with movies before I've gotten the chance to judge for myself.

  • pol | February 21, 2013 1:06 PMReply

    I'm more interested in the lies these films tell society, as the rule of law and accountability are rendered "quaint," and America drone bombs the world with impunity. Imperial Propaganda: Oscar Edition: http://wp.me/pwAWe-1a0

  • Sweeta | February 28, 2013 1:01 PM

    @MASS Hot Damn! I've been waiting for someone to bring that up all this time. Yes!!!

  • Mass | February 25, 2013 11:48 AM

    Not only is LINCOLN downright bland, corny, annoying, and historically innacurate.... but its pacing is also absolutely terrible. LINCOLN shouldn't even had been nominated. It was such a one sided biased perspective it makes me laugh that Americans refuse to aknowledge the fact that President Lincoln was a racist bigot who, to this day, waged a Wr that has claimed the most U.S citizens souls of any War this Country has seen.

    But nope, instead we show a biased, boring biopic about Lincoln trying to pass the 13th amendment alluded to the fairy tale that Lincoln wanted to Free Slaves for moral reasons. When in reality, he actually was doing it for Political reasons, and on more than one occasion stated how Whites were superior to blacks. How he was planning on deporting all freed blacks to disease ridden Countries in South America, drafting that plan before he was rightfully put to death.

    But no. I'm Spielberg and I'm biased. And I really don't care about history. Lincoln!

  • Albert | February 21, 2013 4:14 PM

    This website is not the place for right-wing propaganda, and by that I mean your comment, not the film.

    I like "Argo", but to me it never was Best Picture material. It is not a story that resonates. It is simply a rescue film with a fairly comic first half. "Lincoln" resonates, and it's the film that ought to win Best Picture.

    I don't have a problem with Oscar contenders being hyped in the media. I do have a problem when there's a critics darling that nobody else (not even the intellectual community) really likes, and it is hyped as Oscar-worthy, like "About a Boy", "Secrets and Lies", and even (dare I say it?) "L.A. Confidential".

  • Pete | February 21, 2013 11:45 AMReply

    Luckilly I first saw Argo (in a small packed theater) on Monday. So I still got the Argo fever!

    Loved laughing to "Argofuckyourself" with a bunch of septuagenarians.

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