Another day. Another major victory for Ben Affleck’s Argo. Surprised? Honestly, at this point, no one should be. After premiering to rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Argo immediately became the year’s early frontrunner for the Oscar for Best Picture, a position it seemed to solidify when it opened strongly on October 12th and grossed an outstanding $19 million during its first weekend (a remarkable total for an international thriller). In the months that followed, Argo seemed to take a back seat in the awards race as Oscar-ready pictures like Lincoln, Life of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty and Les Miserables stormed the box office with giant grosses and, for the most part, extreme critical praise. And yet, these films were only temporary frontrunners – mere distractions – for once the award season began it was clear that Argo had never really given up its seat to any of the other contenders. Now, after taking the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, and the BFCA for Best Picture, plus earning top honors from the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, and the Producers Guild, Argo is destined for glory come Oscar night; seriously, if it doesn’t win Best Picture it will be the biggest Oscar upset since Crash dethroned Brokeback Mountain in 2006. All of this brings me to the main question of this article: Is anyone else as frustrated as I am about Argo winning Best Picture? Anyone??
Before I get into exactly why Argo’s eventual Best Picture win is deeply frustrating, I should begin by saying that Affleck’s political thriller/Hollywood satire hybrid is a very good movie, there’s no doubt about that. After breaking onto the scene with the tremendous Gone Baby Gone and the action packed The Town, Argo was a directorial hat trick for struggling actor now turned accomplished director, Ben Affleck. Directing with conviction and a keen eye for suspense, Affleck crafted a well made Iranian Hostage Crisis thriller and added in great bits of comedy thanks to a subplot with John Goodman and Alan Arkin that sends up the Hollywood movie making process. In the knockout of the opener that depicts a raid on the US Embassy, Affleck slowly builds suspense to nerve shattering effect, juxtaposing the vast recklessness of the rioters outside with the cramped, claustrophobic tension of the diplomats inside. Oh, and that ending! That nail biter of an ending! The chase! The plane! Was anyone’s heart not pounding uncontrollably? Argo is thrilling and funny and, at times, exhilarating, it’s expertly directed and solidly acted, and it’s crowd-pleasing entertainment at its finest.
The one thing I’d also argue about Argo is that it’s extremely safe, easily the safest film out of all the 9 nominees for Best Picture, and it is that reason that the idea of the film winning the Oscar for Best Picture is extremely bothersome. Calling Argo safe is not intended to be criticism – the film accomplishes all that it sets out to do and it does so rather effectively – but it’s to show that, compared to the films it’s up against, it’s hardly a bold, audacious piece of filmmaking. As I said, Argo is very good, but it’s nowhere near as great as the rawness of Zero Dark Thirty, the energy of Django Unchained, the fantasticalness of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the honesty of Silver Linings Playbook, and so on. The only nominee I’d say Argo is truly better than is Les Miserables, but even that flop of a movie musical was still audacious and ballsy, two words I would never put in the same sentence as Argo, ever.
This brings me to the ultimate conundrum of the Oscar for Best Picture – what does “Best Picture” even mean? I was talking about this very question with Mike Murphy earlier today and he said that Best Picture is the film that everyone likes the most, and that seems to be the consensus for the Academy – it’s why Argo will win this year (it’s the most audience friendly and the least challenging) and it’s why The King Speech triumphed over The Social Network and why The Artist took the prize over The Descendants. The Academy has a history of choosing the “safe” crowd pleaser over the more worthy, albeit more challenging film. This year, Argo is that film – like The King’s Speech and The Artist before it, it has spectacular direction that elevates its conventional story and it has winning performances that keep everything in a tight, pretty bow. AND THAT’S FINE! My point isn’t to say that these films are bad – they are all very good movies that you should see – but are they “Best Pictures”? For the Academy, yes, but for me, not so much.
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, if the Academy has a history of choosing the crowd pleaser over the more deserving film, than why am I even in an uproar that Argo will win? Well, I’m upset because to me “Best Picture” should represent the film that defines the year, and my god, what an incredible year for cinema it was! Unlike the previous years where Speech and The Artist prevailed, 2012 was a bold, ambitious, and fascinating year at the movies, one stuffed with films that challenged as much as they entertained. 2012, in particular, was the year of the dense, meaty, and complex epic (Zero Dark Thirty! Django! Beasts! Amour! Even non-nominees like The Master, Cloud Atlas, and Looper), and to have Argo win, in this year specifically, is just an underwhelming letdown. Since so many movies this year made me think and made me work and made me actively participate in the moviegoing and film-watching process, I want the “Best Picture” winner to be just that (which is why I’m still pushing for a Zero Dark Thirty upset even though there is no way it’s happening!). I want this year’s “Best Picture” to define just how powerful, moving, and brave 2012 was at the movies and, unfortunately, Argo isn’t that picture, not by a long shot, not when Zero Dark Thirty is forcing me to reevaluate my experiences with growing up in a post 9/11 world, not when Beasts of the Southern Wild is playing with narrative styles and blowing veteran films out of the water despite being a first feature, not when Silver Linings Playbook is turning conventionality on its head and giving us the best rom-com in years, not when Django Unchained is mashing up genres and taking us on a wild ride through both US and film history, not when Lincoln is changing Steven Spielberg’s own game and commentating on the state of American democracy, not when Amour is ushering in the power and emotional gravity of foreign cinema, and not when Life of Pi is restoring our faith in 3D and CGI as means to tell a powerful and emotional story. See my point?
I’d love to hear your opinions on this so please sound off below! Are you happy Argo is a frontrunner? What is a “Best Picture” to you? Let me know!
Article by Zack Sharf