With the 2013 Oscars a day away, the Best Picture category is still up in the air, although Ben Affleck's “Argo” has topped numerous Oscar prediction lists, including our own and FiveThirtyEight blogger Nate Silver's. But these predictions are tentative at best: While “Argo” has dominated the film-industry guild awards and won both Best Picture and Best Director at the Golden Globes, Affleck's third feature will have to defy Academy Awards logic and history to take home the Best Picture trophy, and a projected win is far from a lock.
We're all tired of hearing and talking about it, but again: Only thrice in Academy Award history has a film won the Best Picture Oscar when its director wasn't nominated, and only once since 1932: “Driving Miss Daisy” won the Best Picture Oscar in 1990, even though Bruce Beresford was not nominated for Best Director.
But a major change in the Oscar nomination process in 2009 -- allowing as many as 10 nominations in the Best Picture pool -- could eventually dilute the significance of a Best Director nomination in predicting the Best Picture winner, which may not have been quite so significant in the first place. As Harvard sophomore and Oscar forecaster Ben Zauzmer explained to IBTimes this week, the recent change in the number of nominees could be compromising his own statistical analysis of Best Picture predictors, which drew on the last 15 years of Academy Awards data and calculated a 60 percent chance of “Argo” winning the top prize.
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“For most years, just about all of the nominees for Best Picture are getting nominated for Best Director -- because there were five of each,” Zauzmer said. “So getting nominated for Best Director, mathematically speaking, means you're likely to win [Best Picture]. It also means you're likely to lose, because the losers are also getting nominated for Best Director.”
Indeed, if the Best Picture category includes up to twice as many nominees as Best Director, it follows that some directors of Best Picture-nominated films are going to be shut out -- and perhaps, as Zauzmer suspects, we are giving too much weight to the Best Director nomination's influence on a Best Picture win.
On the heels of “Argo” are “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Lincoln.” Sure, “Lincoln” has come under fire for a major historical inaccuracy, and not everyone loved it, but it would be hard to object to seeing one of Steven Spielberg's most restrained dramas take the Best Picture trophy. As we discussed in our prediction story, “Silver Linings Playbook” is awash in feel-good underdog momentum, and it is a movie that industry insiders appear to have a particular affinity for: It generated Oscar buzz immediately after it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, where it won the audience award. With eight nominations, “Silver Linings” could reasonably upset in almost any of the major categories.
Still, no other Best Picture nominee celebrates -- vindicates -- the Hollywood fantasy more than “Argo”: The real-life Canadian Caper, which freed seven American hostages in Iran who otherwise would have almost certainly been doomed, was made possible by the establishment of a fake studio production that allowed the hostages and their rescuer to assume the role of a film crew. With “Argo,” Affleck once again proved himself to be a supremely skilled director, and certainly one who deserved a Best Director Oscar nod this year. The performances -- particularly Affleck's own -- are not as strong as the directing, and the exaggerated 1970s-era costumes and hairstyles, along with some vaguely farcical Hollywood sequences, sometimes give “Argo” an air of goofiness that feels misplaced in the context of the Iran hostage crisis.
Was “Argo” the very best movie to hit theaters in 2012? Perhaps not. A recent NPR piece called into question the variables that influence Academy Awards voters and ultimately a film's Oscar odds. It pointed out that “Argo” did not top many critics' lists (although it has a 96 percent approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes) and suggested that it may have disproportionately benefited from the criticism aimed at “Zero Dark Thirty” for drawing too strong a link between the torture of suspected al Qaeda operatives and the discovery of Osama bin Laden's hiding place. The piece also makes a case for the possibility that Affleck's Best Director snub may have actually helped his chances: not statistically speaking, but in terms of Academy voter good will.
“If Affleck had been nominated, this would look like the most lopsided race in history,” Linda Holmes wrote, “and people might just have started to look for an upstart -- 'Silver Linings Playbook,' maybe, or back to 'Lincoln,' which would now not be the Most Obvious Choice Possible. But [Affleck] wasn't, either for directing or for his performance, so the film didn't seem like a strutting purebred; it got to keep a touch of the ugly mutt.”
The Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, who considered “Argo” one of the best movies of the year, lamented its front-runner position as one that reflects a gradual decline of Hollywood standards.
“For though 'Argo' is undeniably an accomplished piece of work, there was a time within the memory of those living when turning out films like this what was the studios did for a living,” Turan wrote. “It used to be that smart, entertaining adult vehicles like 'Argo' were simply business as usual for Hollywood, the bread and butter of a busy industry that consistently delivered adult entertainment in genres without number. In those days, a film like 'Argo' would in no way stand out far enough from the crowd to be the favorite for the best picture Oscar.”
Whether or not we agree with its merits, “Argo” is indeed the favorite, though it does not stand out very far above the small crowd of fellow nominees, if it really stands out at all. While I know which way I'm going in my Oscar betting pool, I'll be prepared to lose. And so should any of the Best Picture nominees.