Art Vs Commerce: Oscar Bait and Endgames (2010s)

2012

If 2012 had an Oscar front-leader, and I don’t feel it did, surely it was Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. A truly star-studded cast led by Oscar frequent-flyer Daniel Day-Lewis as, right or not, one of America’s most venerated presidents, all helmed by one of the true masters of the medium, and even better it was actually about something bigger than “Lincoln! He was neat!” Specifically the desperate rush to get the 13th amendment ratified before the Confederacy surrendered and could complicate the issue. If I were going to name one nominee from 2012 that seemed an obvious choice for the big prize, it would be Lincoln.

But then something happened.

Hype began to build for a dark horse candidate. Reviews were strong, it was a crowd-pleaser, by the time the Oscar nominations were announced, it had enough buzz behind it that its director not getting nominated was seen as an injustice, and also a killing blow for its Oscar chances. But the Globes disagreed, awarding it Best Drama and Best Director, and while that doesn’t always swing the Academy (the Globes went with Avatar and didn’t go with Casablanca) before you knew it, here we were…

And The Oscar Goes To…

During the Iran Hostage Crisis, six embassy staff manage to escape and find refuge with the Canadian ambassador, but as the Iranian revolutionaries begin to close in on them, the US government searches for a way to get them out of the country… which exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs) and his boss (Bryan Cranston) have to find. With every State Department strategy clearly doomed, Mendez settles on something unorthodox: create a fake movie, claim the escaped staff are his crew scouting filming locations, and fly them out under those identities. With help from his Hollywood contact John Chambers (John Goodman, crushing basically every line he’s given), and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, likewise) making the project seem more legitimate, Mendez heads into the most anti-American place on Earth to perform an impossible rescue with nothing but movie magic.

Honestly, looking back, it’s a little amazing that this wasn’t the clear favourite all along. It’s a true story of a real crisis in which Hollywood rode to the rescue, I mean what part of that doesn’t seem like perfect Oscar fodder. But beyond that? It is excellent. Ben Affleck turns out to be a really good director, and this might be his best work to date. It’s tense when it needs to be, funny when it can afford to be, expertly paced, the climax had me on the edge of my seat both times I watched it despite being able to look the resolution up on Wikipedia. Or, you know, remember it from last time.

The script just crackles, start to finish. The dialogue sharp, the one-liners killer, the suspense palpable, the characters easy to connect with. It does turn out that unlike his other directorial efforts The Town, Gone Baby Gone, and the somewhat disappointing Live By Night, Affleck didn’t write this one himself, it was written by… Chris Terrio? The Zack Snyder’s Justice League and Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker guy? ….Huh. Well… those could be Zack Snyder’s and Disney’s demands holding the man back, hopefully he rallies with something this good again. I’m glad he has an Oscar for this one, it’s earned.

Of course it helps that Affleck assembled a truly amazing cast. Even the minor roles are packed with notable and reliably good actors: Victor Garber, Chris Messina, Clea Duvall, Halt and Catch Fire’s Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishé, Zeljko Ivanek, Bob Gumpton, Titus Welliver, Richard Kind, even that’s not a full list, people with two lines are actors I know and cherish… Ben Affleck knows how to assemble a cast, and they all showed up to work. Affleck may have given himself the lead, but he gives the whole ensemble room to shine, especially but hardly exclusively Goodman, Arkin, and Cranston.

(Apparently he got to see Kevin Smith’s Red State early, then went through that cast and said “I’m stealing these ones for my movie,” and it worked.)

It has received some criticism, some valid, the usual things that happen when a movie is based on but takes dramatic license with real events. The real-life role of the Canadians was somewhat underplayed (a fact the end credits recognize); it claims the British and New Zealand embassies wouldn’t help which is largely untrue and at best a gross oversimplification and ruffled some feathers; the actual escape from the country is made more dramatic than it actually was (because of course it is, this is a movie, you make your climax thrilling, and that is exactly what they did, no notes); Lester Siegel was a fictionalization of the actual producer, and comic legend Jack Kirby did not do the concept art (not that they named him in the movie); and the Iranians felt it failed to mention that many of the Iranian cabinet were against keeping the Americans hostage so long, and to that one? Well bully for you, cabinet, but did it accomplish something? No. So hush up. And while I can’t blame people of Iranian descent for thinking it’s not flattering to them, it also goes out of its way (via animated storyboards, another Hollywood trick used effectively) to show that the Iranian Revolution happened because the US and UK screwed around with a sovereign nation’s government for their own profit and said nation hit back.

I will always remember when this won, and the three producers– Ben Affleck, George Clooney, and shlubby non-superstar Grant Heslov– came on stage, and Heslov came to the podium first, saying “Here we are, the three best-looking producers in Hollywood,” then said it was important he speak first so that he could pay homage to the film’s non-nominated director, Ben Affleck. Argo is great, it’s just great, this movie’s an incredible accomplishment and deservedly solidified Affleck’s comeback. Assuming The Town left any doubts.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s 10th, two spots over The Godfather Part II, two under All About Eve, one over Rebecca, rarified company, and it’s the first reason I started accusing this list of recency bias, but… turns out I was a little hasty. Argo holds the hell up.

Where did I rank it? I ranked it 12th out of all the 2010s nominees, and you know what at the moment I stand by that, the top ten are entirely bangers*. Two of them even won! Guess we’ll see how I rank them now compared to Argo later in the post.

*If you want to argue that I’ve overvalued Lady Bird due to fondness for its writer/director and star, you’d best speak sign language because you’re only catching hands.

Of course hype wasn’t only working in favour of the Best Picture. Hollywood’s youngest studio was turning their first five movies into one mega-movie, and everyone was eager to see how it turned out.

Turned out pretty well.

The Box Office Champ

Well what do I have to say here, really.

With The Avengers (Avengers Assemble in the UK, to avoid confusion with the cult favourite British spy show of the same name), the Marvel Cinematic Universe Experiment proved to be a success, such a rousing success that soon every studio wanted their own cinematic universe, even if none of them understood how to do it.

The build-up was key. Marvel rolled out the team through four solo movies introducing Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and re-introducing a less ridiculous Hulk than Ang Lee gave us (but still recasting him here), giving Black Widow a set-up supporting role in Iron Man 2, and using a cameo in Thor to establish “Jeremy Renner is here and likes bows,” which if we’re being honest is the sum total of Hawkeye’s character development until Age of Ultron. They invested us in these people (plus Clark Gregg’s lovable Agent Coulson and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury), to varying extents, in movies that despite some similarities still had their own tones and styles. Sure everyone had origins and exclusively fought evil versions of themselves, but Captain America: The First Avenger still feels distinct from Iron Man in ways that, for instance, Dr. Strange did not. And so we were eager to see them do a Fast Five and bring them all together, which is something Warner Bros’ attempt to sprint right to the team-up with Justice League could not accomplish. Nor could the Dark Universe really build a compelling cinematic universe of classic Halloween monsters given that their entire line-up was public domain. Nobody ever needs to ask which Iron Man movie is canonical to the big team-up.

Plus it combines elements from all the previous movies: Stark’s tech, the Tesseract from Captain America, Loki returns as the villain, it truly was a capstone on everything before it.

Yes it has most of the worst elements of the modern-day superhero genre, a villain with a vague-at-best motivation to rule/destroy the world, an army of faceless minions that’s easily dispatched at first but never runs dry, a bunch of sequel teases, and of course a climax revolving around a giant sky-beam, but they weren’t overplayed yet, and you know what, they’re done better than average here.

And so it became the biggest superhero movie of the year, despite Christopher Nolan getting the gang back together for The Dark Knight Rises, the concluding chapter of his Batman trilogy. Which has some significant plot holes, yes, but all told once again demonstrates Nolan understood how to use Bane and Catwoman as characters. Well, mostly, he’s still not good enough with Feelings to really do the Bruce/Selina relationship justice. I came into 2012 eager for more Dark Knight… but Avengers is the one I saw three times in theatres and own two copies of on Blu-ray, and Dark Knight Rises is the one I didn’t watch a second time until last fall.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 91% from critics and audiences, it was the gold standard for several years, beaten only by (depending on your perspective), its second or third sequel.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Bond: For the 50th anniversary, Daniel Craig’s Bond finally gets a Q and a Moneypenny in one of the all-time great Bond movies, Skyfall. It also abandons the whole Quantum plotline because honestly who cared.
  • Elsewhere in Superheroes: Nicholas Cage returned in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, The Amazing Spider-Man rebooted the character, promising an exciting new twist on the origin… that got pushed back into the next movie; Dredd with Karl Urban as the titular Judge is famously under-appreciated.
  • Disney purchases Lucasfilm, gaining the rights to Star Wars and Indiana Jones. The Empire of Joy grows more powerful than ever.
  • Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie team up for the first time in Jack Reacher, which I find endlessly watchable. This partnership is going to good places.
  • Disney’s Wreck It Ralph is a treat for video game fans, and introduces a new trend to the current Disney age: Alan Tudyk. Tudyk has had at least a cameo in every major Disney Animation film since, including the chicken in Moana, and good for him.
  • Quentin Tarantino brings his new genre of historical revenge fiction to slavery in Django Unchained.
  • The looming juggernaut of The Avengers helped get a horror movie that its problematic writer/director co-wrote released after a couple of years on a shelf, Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods. I love this one so much.
  • Clone High creators Phil Lord and Chris Miller make the best possible film adaptation of 21 Jump Street by refusing to take it seriously.
  • Jennifer Lawrence gets an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, and a second massive franchise with The Hunger Games. She had her a good year on par with Claudette Colbert back in ’34.
  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel sees Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel open a retirement home in India for elderly Brits, with big names like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith as her first customers. This one’s so charming.
  • Tom Hooper brings stark levels of gritty realism to his film adaptation of Les Miserables, ruining it utterly in ways I lack time to describe. But it still gets a Best Picture nomination so some crazed fool let him try again in seven years.
  • Is there a product placement in history less appropriate than using environmental cautionary tale Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax to sell SUVs? They weren’t even electric. But while we’re talking the Lorax… if you want a look into how fandom can get super weird, try this video on the strange, twisted, super-horny phenomenon that was Onceler Fandom.
  • Some careers had bottomed out enough that much of the original American Pie cast came back for American Reunion.
  • Ridley Scott tries to revive the Alien franchise with Prometheus.
  • The Bourne Legacy floats replacing Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne with a new protagonist played by Jeremy Renner, I told you they kept doing that.
  • Hit and Run, written and co-directed by Dax Shepard and starring himself and his wife Kristen Bell, is a charming road trip adventure that also feels like a couples-goal joint project.
  • Looper, from Rian Johnson, is a very clever time travel movie as long as you can roll with their specific time travel mechanics. And thanks to having just read a sci-fi series all about quantum manipulation, I was in the exact right headspace to roll with them.
  • I spent the summer of 2012 desperate for Tim Burton’s Frankenweeine to open. Not because I wanted to see it, still haven’t, because the trailer seemed to be on everything I saw, and I really wanted that to stop.
  • Life of Pi wins an Oscar for their visual effects team but underpays them so badly they go bankrupt.
  • After years if trying and failing to find a new director, Peter Jackson agreed to make The Hobbit into a new trilogy to recreate the success of Lord of the Rings, despite the fact that a children’s book a sixth the size of the Rings trilogy had no hope of doing so. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was our first hint that this wasn’t gonna go well.
  • Zero Dark Thirty may or may not have defended torture as a policy, but it surely did make the hunt for Osama Bin Laden boring.
  • Another franchise comes to an end with Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II.
  • The Expendables 2 fulfils the “all the classic action heroes” promise the original fell through on with expanded roles for Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a thankfully reduced role for non-actor Randy Couture, and new addition Jean-Claude Van Damme as the villain, named “Vilain.” Also Chuck Norris arrives and tells a Chuck Norris joke, proving this movie was definitely getting super dumb with its winks and nods. It’s the best Expendables, which is like being the least racist slave owner, whoop-di-do, that’s a call ahead reference to…

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