Take a look at the contenders for the 2012 Oscar race and it’s clear fans of suspense had much to be thankful for in 2012. With ZERO DARK THIRTY, DJANGO UNCHAINED and ARGO all serious contenders for the top honor, and with DJANGO UNCHAINED and ARGO taking home many of the top awards, the accolades have been anything but scarce this year for high-quality thrillers.
I saw all three of the above, enjoyed them all immensely, and so found myself wondering: what precisely made ARGO the best film of the year, in the face of such fierce competition?
It bears pointing out here the absurdity of even trying to pick a single top film, given that every movie ever made attempts a singular endeavor—to tell a fresh story, as efficiently as possible, one that appeals to the film’s unique target viewership. (You could hardly expect the fans of DJANGO UNCHAINED overlap significantly with, say, everyone who went to see Pixar’s BRAVE.) If each film is unique, and uniquely attempts to thrill, delight, edify, and move a different group of theatergoers, what is the Academy even crowning with Best Picture?
You might argue that limiting the scope to the suspense fiction narrows things down enough to make singling out a single film more feasible. And yet. The three films nominated are each standouts in their particular subgenre, and their goals could hardly be considered the same. Each shows a different selection of the range of work suspense films perform. From the pleasure of witnessing the documentation of thrilling real(ish) events in ZERO DARK THIRTY, to being bombarded by tongue-in-cheek violence until your jaw pops open in DJANGO UNCHAINED, to the appreciation of faithfully reconstructed period details and quality performances in ARGO—even calling these films a variation on a unifying theme is a stretch.
So then, what does ARGO manage that ZERO DARK THIRTY and DJANGO UNCHAINED do not? If anything (and this can be considered both a good and bad thing, depending on your preference), ARGO seems the most conventional of the three nominees. Its heroes seem unremittingly good. Though the subject matter is fresh, the telling relies on a few tried-and-tested tricks. If (spoiler alert) an airport escape plot depends on someone picking up when the phone rings, we all know they won’t be there until the very last second—and the bad guys will end up chasing the plane down the tarmac.
And that may be the answer in a nutshell. Despite its plethora of double-dealing and deep cover, there’s very little truly subversive about ARGO—no rich ambiguity to divide politicians and inspire multiple, competing interpretations as ZERO DARK THIRTY has, or outsized version of our uncomfortable past that Tarantino forces his audience to confront in DJANGO UNCHAINED. Don’t get me wrong—ARGO is a great film. I ate it up like popcorn. But it may also be a case study in the way least controversy conquers all.
All that said, though, I will confess to being an avid Tarantino fan who’s still bitter about Pulp Fiction’s many snubs at the 1994 Oscars. Maybe I should just Argo f&*$ myself.
Wes Miller is Mulholland Books’ Associate Editor and Marketing Associate. If Mulholland were a crime novel instead of an imprint that publishes them, Wes would be its PI—the stalwart presence resolving its issues, making sure at the end of the day, justice gets served and good prevails—at least until tomorrow comes. Reach him through the Mulholland Books twitter account (@mulhollandbooks), on Tumblr (mulhollandbooks.tumblr.com) or right here on the Mulholland Books website.