Every year I remind the world that Best Picture contenders are never chosen for their cinematic chops and stylings, which only film critics and geek obsessives respond to for the most part. They are chosen for what they observe about life and the values they espouse, and how much everyone agrees with same. So here’s a rundown of the values and observations of the year’s Best Picture contenders:
Michael Haneke‘s Amour. Chief observation: You’re going to die when you hit your 80s or 90s, and it’s going to be slow and awful and agonizing. The odds are heavily against a pleasant death in which you serenely go to sleep in your bed. There is therefore something to be said for leaving this planet by way of a drug overdose or in the manner of John F. Kennedy. Values: Caring for someone who’s going through this terrible finality is sad but enobling, but either way dying through old age is a shit sandwich.
Ben Affleck‘s Argo. Chief observation: Americans are basically good guys — they just want to live their lives in peace and not be attacked by unruly Islamic mobs. Affleck’s Tony Mendez was the CIA guy to handle a tough situation (i.e., how to help several U.S. Embassy staffers get out of Iran during the 1979 and ’80 hostage crisis), and he pulled it off. Values: You have to be smart and cagey to figure your way out of a tough spot, and you also need friends in high places and they need to convince their friends to do the right thing. We’re the good guys. Everything works out in the end. Yay, team.
Behn Zeitlin‘s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Chief observation: Life au natural among itinerants in the Louisiana delta is an intensely colorful, aromatic, atmospheric feast for the soul and the senses. A drunken, tough-love dad who badgers and goads and yells at the top of his lungs is just what a little girl needs to learn the ropes of survival. Values: You’ve got to re-connect with your lost momma to make things whole, and your daddy needs to keep swillin’ that rum.
Quentin Tarantino‘s Django Unchained. Chief observation: Slavery was very bad. Southern slave owners of the late 1850s were scumbags who deserved every ugly thing that happened to them. The Ku Klux Klan was pretty bad also. But the worst of all were the Uncle Toms who went along with the system. Values: Revenge is a dish best served bloody.
Tom Hooper‘s Les Miserables. Chief observation: Life was no picnic in the old days, especially among the poor and dispossessed. There’s only one solution for the Inspector Javerts of this world, and that’s jumping off a bridge into the river. Life is constant pain, toil, grime, bruising, anguish, hurt. But sharing your feelings with song helps. Values: If you’re going to have any kind of happy or tolerable time on this planet, you’re going to have to man up and persevere. You must have sand. You must stand up and fight back.
Ang Lee‘s Life of Pi. Chief observation: Making your way across the Pacific in a large rowboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker is very boring. Lesson: If you want to regard your life in straight factual terms, fine. But if you prefer to contemplate the metaphors, knock yourself out.
Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln. Chief observation: Abraham Lincoln was a brilliant, soft-spoken politician who knew how to read people and persuade them to do his bidding. And much of his life in early 1865 was atmospherically striking due to the intense milky alien-space-ship light pouring through the White House windows and through the huge nonexistent windows in the House of Representatives. Values. Sly, slow and steady wins the race. A sense of moral urgency helps also. If you’re on the right side of an issue, you have to honor that rightness by being a smarter operator and poker player than the guys on the other side.
David O. Russell‘s Silver Linings Playbook. Chief observation: We’re all a little bit unhinged when it comes to obsessing about what we think we want and not seeing what’s right in front of us. Family and community matter a great deal; ditto crabby snacks. Focus on something greater than the lint in your navel if you want to climb out of the hole you’re in. Values: Face up to your situation. Nutter, know thyself. If taking meds gets rid of the clutter and helps you settle down and gain a little clarity then take the damn meds already. Hotness is overrated — people who are tough, smart and loyal are the ones with the most value. It’s not your concern that Ernest Hemingway didn’t believe in happy endings. The guy shot himself, okay? And he probably drank too much rum. Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal‘s Zero Dark Thirty. Chief observation: Finding and killing Osama bin Laden required the tireless efforts of a lot of CIA people over a very long period. And it might not have happened at all had it not been for an especially dedicated woman who had no life except this. Some very unpleasant things happen when you’re determined to accomplish the Big Thing, regardless of the karma effect. There are no ends, only means. Values: Smarts, tenacity and perseverance are extremely important traits. You knew that before, but we’re telling you that again.