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Oscar Front-Runners and Wild Cards in a ‘Good Year’ for Grown-Up Movies

February 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Hollywood's biggest night is just around the corner. This year's Academy Award-nominated films include both mainstream blockbusters and darkly-themed foreign and independent movies. Ray Suarez talks with New York Times film critic A.O. Scott about why this a "good year for mainstream movies that grownups might want to go see."
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight: an assessment of the state of movies and the state of the business, as Hollywood gets set to congratulate itself with the Academy Awards this Sunday.

By and large, this was a year where the nine films nominated for best picture arguably generated more critical praise than usual and several proved to be solid commercial hits. Some also generated plenty of controversy — controversy, too, including “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lincoln,, “Argo,” “Django Unchained.”

Tony Scott of The New York Times has been writing and reviewing these films, plus hundreds of others. He joins us now.

Tony, was this an unusually good year to go to the movies, and does that make it an unusually hard year to pick winners?     

A.O. SCOTT, The New York Times: I think it was a good year.

I mean, I think there’s so many different kinds of movies that come out in every year that it’s sometimes hard to rank them. I think it was a very good year for mainstream movies that grownups might want to go see. There’s been sort of a knock against the Hollywood studios for the last decade or so that they’re mostly interested in teenagers, in action franchises for the international marketplace, in sequels and superheroes and so on.

This year, a lot of movies, “Lincoln,” “Life of Pi,” “Les Miserables,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” came from the big studios, found audiences, and as well as a lot of critical acclaim. So I think it is a strong year for the kind of movies that we were accustomed to seeing around Oscar time in decades past, but maybe haven’t been as thick on the ground recently.

RAY SUAREZ: Ah, around Oscar time. Might this be part of what some critics see as a gaming of the calendar, the concentration of what you would call movies grownups want to see around the time that would make them Oscar-eligible?

A.O. SCOTT: There’s no question about that.

And I think it is a distorting affect that the Academy Awards and the whole phenomenon of the awards season and the awards campaign has had. That is, for the first nine months of the year, there’s very little for grownups to go and see, and critics find themselves falling into despair, wondering, are the movies dead, is it all over, where are the great movies of yesteryear?

And then around the time of the Toronto Film Festival in September, all of a sudden, these very ambitious and creative and interesting and serious-minded movies pop up, and they kind of overwhelm the multiplexes for a while. And so there’s a great kind of famine in the first part of the year, and then the last three months, there’s a big feast.

And that certainly happened this year. I mean, with the exception, I guess, of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” an indie movie that came out of Sundance and was released in the late spring early summer, all of the movies that we have been talking about, “Lincoln,” “Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Django Unchained,” right down the list, came out in October, November, December.

So they definitely kind of clog up the system. And that’s all about the prestige and the hoped-for box office bounce that awards consideration will bring.

RAY SUAREZ: Some were gripping, beautifully acted, beautifully shot, but they deal with some tough themes, don’t they, I mean, slavery and revenge, emancipation, torture, mental illness. There’s a lot of darkness there, isn’t there, among the nine nominees?

A.O. SCOTT: Yes, there certainly is.

And there’s a lot of sort of tough and interesting political themes as well, slavery, terrorism and torture, as well as some very painful personal stories. One of my favorite movies, the French language-film “Amour,” is a really devastating drama about an elderly couple and how they deal with the wife’s decline.

And I was — I was amazed and impressed that that actually got not just the nomination for best foreign language film, but for others as well. But there is — you know, there’s a comedy in the mix, “Silver Linings Playbook,” which, yes, does deal with mental illness, but in a very, I think, Hollywood-friendly, lighthearted, affirming way. It’s a romantic comedy really in the screwball tradition.

I think there’s also “Life of Pi” and “Les Miserables,” which gives something to fans of sort of spiritual splendor and musical spectacle. So there’s quite a range. A few years ago, the Academy opened up the best picture field to allow for more than the traditional five nominees so, now we have nine that represents a pretty nice spectrum of what movies are today and what the American film industry at least thinks is worth recognizing.

RAY SUAREZ: So, who do you like for best picture, quickly, before we go?

A.O. SCOTT: I think it’s going to be “Argo.” I think that “Argo” has kind of marched through the guilds. If you had asked me six weeks ago, I would have said “Lincoln.” But it’s looking like it will be “Argo”‘s night, although not Ben Affleck’s, because he’s not nominated for best director. I think that one will probably still go to Steven Spielberg.

RAY SUAREZ: Tony Scott of The New York Times, thanks a lot.

A.O. SCOTT: Pleasure, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you think you know this year’s nominated films? Play our Oscar quiz online. That’s on our home page.