So what the Academy tends to do in lieu of a consensus winner (or not knowing which good picture to award) is recede and go with the safest, easiest bet. This is exactly what happened in 2005 with "Crash," and to a lesser extent happened in 2010 when "The King's Speech" beat out the edgier "The Social Network," a film that critics and cinephiles loved, but as a two-hour-long episode of "Law & Order" didn't convince the Academy. Arguably, this played out in 2000 as well. The safe pick, "Gladiator," won Best Picture, while Best Director went to the "edgier" film "Traffic" by Steven Soderbergh. In a year where there's healthy competition, finding a consensus winner is even more difficult, hence the scattered winners of the 85th Academy Awards. Though one must note: pundits also like a consensus year, as we're all used to having a clear-cut winner and disarray throws us for a loop too (god forbid our predictions are off or it’s a “surprise” year). A divided house is a confused house.
Steven Spielberg films are notoriously nominated but hardly ever given awards at the Oscars. "Lincoln" was a textbook example. Nominated for 12 awards (more than any other picture in 2013), it took two home, which is one of the lowest comparable averages in Oscar history. Daniel Day-Lewis was a shoo-in, but the historical document of rectifying an amendment (slavery seemed to be besides the point, this was a film about passing a bill in Washington) wasn't exactly emotional or totally involving; something to be admired more than loved, and that, as the awards showed, was a deciding factor in the outcome. A much stronger contender for Best Picture, given the Academy's tendencies, was the feel-good mental illness cum romantic dramedy "Silver Linings Playbook." It certainly received its share of votes, but simply couldn't outgun the Affleck/"Argo" train. Perhaps its ending was a little too neat. Likewise, "Life Of Pi" was "Avatar," but with a heart and soul, a dazzling technical achievement, but one with a much deeper core and spiritual center. Cleaning up with the most Oscars of the evening (four), "Life Of Pi," was clearly Affleck film's biggest threat. Perhaps its Achilles heel was its conventional, "this is how I remembered it" framing device in the screenplay, whereas "Argo" took the Best Adapted Screenplay for its taut and well-constructed narrative that hit each crucial beat on cue like a perfected algorithm. The other films in competition were never going to be a real threat except for "Zero Dark Thirty," arguably our favorite of the bunch, but a picture, like "Lincoln," probably too cold for the Academy. Additionally, the film took a hard blow to the knees thanks to "pro-torture" anti-campaigning in December that you can bet rival studios had a hand in.
"Argo" Is A Crackling Little Thriller, Albeit Not Exactly Revelatory
And let's not take away from "Argo" itself, a taut and engaging nail-biter that was awarded on its own merits (and that everyone seemed to love in September, but then, in typical Oscar fashion, started to turn against when it started to emerge as the frontrunner at the last minute). Affleck directed the shit out of the movie. It’s got great, engrossing, do-or-die stakes, excellent suspense and tension, and a crackling pace. Yes, its villains were black and white and its attempt to inject personal stakes for Affleck's lead rang false for some, but all in all it was arguably the tightest, though perhaps safest film of the bunch as its politics weren't controversial: it was easy to get behind and root for, and despite the potential complexity of the story, it ultimately felt simple. Again several factors rolled into one, equaling the Oscar win.