Awards season is like a gravitational singularity, and everything caught in its event horizon becomes distorted. Movies suddenly become overrated, movies nobody cared about become outrageous snubs and performances that blew us away six months ago seem to simply disappear. The discussion around awards completely changes the context in which we view those movies.
And it doesn’t stop when the Oscars are handed out. Movies stagger out the other side of the season changed in terms of how we view them as a culture. Losers can take on a mythic resonance - the Great Film that was ignored by the philistines at the Academy - while the winners find their victory pyrrhic - they go home with the statue, but the history books declare them the real loser for stealing the award from a worthier picture.
You only have to look back a few years to see this in action. Remember The Artist? Now that I’ve brought it up it’s likely jogged your memory, but that’s a film that has disappeared almost completely from the popular conversation since winning Best Picture in 2011. The year before the winner was an equally forgettable “Oh yeah, they made that one” movie, The King’s Speech.
In some ways those are the lucky films. They’re forgotten, but being forgotten is better than having the ultimate historical baggage: being the movie that robbed the Oscar from a masterpiece. We’re talking about Dances With Wolves, the movie that won the Best Picture award that should have gone to Goodfellas. Shakespeare in Love coming out over Saving Private Ryan. Ordinary People beating Raging Bull. The Greatest Show On Earth beating… well, pretty much any of the other four contenders that year.
There are a lot of years where Oscar gets it wrong, but these are the years where Oscar got it catastrophically wrong, and it looks like the upcoming Oscars will do it again. 2013 has been an astonishing year when it comes to cinematic quality, with no shortage of movies that present compelling arguments for Best Picture. And yet there are a couple of movies that keep entering the Best Picture conversation that just simply don’t belong there, and the one that comes up the most is David O. Russell’s American Hustle.
American Hustle is a fine film. It’s not a great - it didn’t even make it close to my top fifteen of the year - but it’s a lightly enjoyable film with great performances and a fun heart. If it were released any other time of year we might be able to have a discussion about it as a movie, but it was released in December, as part of an awards push, and now we have to only talk about it in terms of Oscar quality.
The problem is that it isn’t Oscar quality, and so the discussion is already starting off on the wrong foot. There are performances in here from actors big enough to qualify them for Oscar talk, but the film as a whole doesn’t belong in the conversation. The more it’s in the conversation the more the conversation turns against it, the more people feel the need to take the movie - a fine movie, I’d like to reiterate, a film that’s a good watch - down a peg. Or two. Or more.
Despite not being Oscar quality, American Hustle is straight-up Oscar friendly. It’s easy, it’s full of stars doing good work, it’s slick, it’s funny, it’s smart enough, and it’s based on a true story. It’s not a stretch to see American Hustle sliding past The Wolf of Wall Street, which is already dividing dumb people who don’t understand that the film isn’t condoning Jordan Belfort. It’s very plausible to see voters casting their ballot for the feel-good Hustle in opposition to the rough 12 Years A Slave, which carries the burden of being the film they ‘should’ vote for. Inside Llewyn Davis feels misanthropic next to the fuzzy embrace of American Hustle. I could see the film taking the statue.
And that’s the worst thing that could happen to it. If American Hustle wins it’s the new Dances With Wolves, a movie that people scoff at for years and years, a film no longer judged on its own merits but on the all-too-heavy crown on its head. The event horizon of awards season distorts most films for only a few months; by next year we can really look at the award movies with fresher eyes. All of them except the undeserving winner.
Let’s face it - there’s not a strong argument that American Hustle is THE BEST movie of 2013. If it wins, it wins based on votes splitting between other films and a basic, safe affability. It’s Scorsese Lite, especially in a year when Scorsese made a film that’s causing an actual moral uproar among Academy members. Your mom can sit through American Hustle, but she might run for the exit as Leo gets a candle shoved up his ass in Wolf. The fact that Christian Bale has nothing inserted in his anus makes American Hustle a much better Oscar bet than the far, far better film.
Shakespeare in Love isn’t a bad film, and neither is Dances With Wolves, but you can’t have a conversation about either film without starting from a defensive position. It’s a bummer that even today any discussion of John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley has to be prefaced with the caveat ‘Sure, it didn’t deserve the Oscar over Citizen Kane...’ So I’m rooting against American Hustle simply because I like the movie. I like the movie enough that I hope it gets soundly trounced at the Oscars so we can all enjoy it in the future free of the taint of undeserved gold.