Well, great. What do I have to live for now that the Oscars are over? I'm mostly kidding; even an Oscars Pollyanna like me can admit that collapsing into a heap and sleeping for a week and a half seemed like a very enticing prospect by the time Seth MacFarlane and Kristin Chenoweth exited the stage (several minutes before that, if I'm being honest). By the time the Oscars are done every year, the whole enterprise has been dissected so much that it's tough to get a sense of the whole picture anymore. Worst Dressed Lists, Best Speeches, Every Oscar Winner Ranked By Most Deserving (ahem) ... nobody appreciates the arcane list-making that the Oscars beg for more than me. But in addition to being a marketing tool, a set of goalposts at the end of the year, and an ad buy bonanza, the Oscars are also a time capsule.
Like all time capsules chosen by consensus, we may not stand behind everything that's put in there, but at its best, it's an indication of where we were as a movie culture this year. If I had any major problem with the slapdash "Movie Musicals" theme of the night, it's that it took time away from what I, perhaps simplemindedly, think should always be the theme: this year in movies. Everybody hates the clip montages -- I LOVE them. Anything that contextualizes the past year's worth of movies and presents them in a way that can urge the home audience to see more and better movies, the better.
When Ben Affleck won his first Oscar, at the 1997 Academy Awards (by the way, R.I.P. to actually calling them the Academy Awards; it's officially only kosher to call them "The Oscars" now, one of the more midlife-crisis-y decisions that AMPAS/ABC has made in recent years), Oscar's time-capsule could not have been more representative. "Titanic" dominated all life, "Good Will Hunting" represented the mainstreaming of Miramax, "Boogie Nights" heralded exciting new talent. 2012 is probably never going to be remembered as the Year of "Argo," if only because the slate of films around it was so strong.
The "movies for grownups" theme kept popping up all year and for good reason: "Argo," "Lincoln," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Django Unchained," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Life of Pi," and "Les Miserables" all proved to be incredibly popular movies with the public and (to varying degrees) critics, and despite the rare last-minute exception, we were spared that tiresome "The Oscars Don't Care About Real America" argument. A lineup like this is pretty much the Oscar ideal, a blend of the popular with the accomplished, all (or mostly) done within the studio system. You can rage against that if you want, or you can accept the Oscars as Hollywood (not the global film community, but Hollywood) putting forth what it's most proud of. Taste is not universal, large groups of voters tend to funnel results towards the middlebrow, and popularity is always a factor. I feel like accepting these truths -- and realizing that just watching/enjoying/following the Oscars doesn't mean they speak FOR you -- would reduce about 90% of the internet anger every year. And oh was there internet anger. Bitter "Lincoln" fans and bitter "Zero Dark Thirty" fans and poor Jeff Wells and his "Silver Linings Playbook" fixation. Not that I've cracked the code on being totally zen about it all (every time someone put "Django Unchained" in their Top 10, a piece of my face melted away), but if you can find actual anguish in the triumph of a solid little movie like "Argo," you're doing it wrong.
Besides the time-capsule thing, the Oscars really can be good for advocacy. All those eyeballs who showed up because they'd heard of this Abraham Lincoln fellow may have gotten their first glimpses of "Amour," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "The Sessions," and "The Master." Four films to represent the entire spectrum of non-mainstream filmmaking is obviously unbalanced, but it can be effective. The mid-'90s Oscar runs of "Fargo" and "Pulp Fiction" got me into the Coens and Tarantino and the Miramax titles, and down the rabbit hole I went. Jennifer Lawrence was here two years ago representing the smallest of the small with "Winter's Bone," and while you might not say the path from that film to "Hunger Games" and "Silver Linings" (not to mention the attentions of Jack Nicholson) is progress (I say the more great actresses we can get crossing back and forth through all genres, the better), it certainly shows how effective the Oscar spotlight can be.
So what did the fact that "Argo" won the war of attrition this year teach us? Well, it helps to have a hook, that's one thing. The Ben Affleck "snub" is almost a red herring in that regard. "Argo" was going to win because it was the movie about Hollywood and America as a united front, as well as a movie that evoked the '70s (a rhapsodized era for Hollywood AND Oscar) without being as confrontational as actual '70s movies were. But once the nominations were announced, the Affleck Snub Narrative gave voters a more tangible reason to do what they were likely going to do anyway.
And with the exception of "Zero Dark Thirty," whose sails were deflated by a political scandal that didn't quite cause Hollywood to condemn it so much as it made Hollywood want to avoid the topic altogether, there really wasn't much in the way of dirty-tricks ugliness. Oh, sure, some random Connecticut legislator tried to make some hay about alterations to the historical record in "Lincoln." Harvey Weinstein was his usual shameless self in support of "Silver Linings Playbook," but the worst things got were some really loud and pointed ads about how Robert DeNiro needs an Oscar in this century. And, yes, there were the expected 11th-hour op-ed pieces about racism in "Beasts" and mental-illness whitewashing in "Silver Linings." But this was kind of nothing compared to previous years.
We learned that Hollywood "forgives" (comebacks for Affleck, Helen Hunt, and Sally Field; Joaquin Phoenix, too, if you count his contrived "off-the-deep-end" period), Hollywood crowns its own new stars (poor Jennifer Lawrence, with all the expectations now heaped upon her shoulders; remember what we did to Gwyneth, girl), and if it looks like you really, really, really want it, Hollywood will give it to you (Anne Hathaway, I'm super happy for you, and I hope you will give yourself permission to chill).
Hollywood also doesn't stop moving. Mere hours before the Oscars began, word got out that the Weinstein Company had picked up the Grace Kelly biopic "Grace of Monaco," starring Nicole Kidman. Harvey Weinstein, Nicole Kidman, and Princess Grace, together at last. In other words, it's already begun again.