What does Argo’s Best Picture win really mean?

Has the Academy's revised Best Picture rules made the category more predictable, and what does Argo's win this year mean in the long term?

Did anyone notice that last week, right in the midst of the most wide-open Oscar race in years, everyone suddenly knew that Argo was going to win the Academy Award for Best Picture?

Although eight other films were nominated, with each of them picking up a lot of traction in the other major categories, Argo’s successive Best Picture wins at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs were amongst a number of scoops that seemed to cement the film as the top choice for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

This predictability isn’t an uncommon problem with the Oscars, but it’s been exacerbated by the expansion of the Best Picture category. As per the revised rules of the two most recent ceremonies, any film that is voted as first choice for Best Picture by five per cent or more of the voters will make the shortlist, which can go up to ten nominees overall.

Particularly in the years since the field was expanded, it’s come down to two frontrunners: The Artist and Hugo last year, The King’s Speech and The Social Network in 2011, and The Hurt Locker and Avatar in 2010. Each time this has happened, the other seven or eight nominees are relegated to also-rans before the ceremony even takes place.

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Amour, though acclaimed by many, stands out as the kind of film that would never have made it into the more competitive five-nominee field of previous years. Still, there wasn’t much suspense over whether or not Michael Haneke’s film would break all the way through and win the top prize.

That Argo was ever seen as an underdog can only be attributed to the general confusion and uproar that greeted the nominations, when they didn’t include a Best Director nod for Ben Affleck. This illuminates the other problem with expanding the Best Picture category: not all of those films can have their directors considered in the Best Director category. 

In previous years, this has automatically ruled out at least four of the Best Picture nominees, but considering Haneke was actually nominated for Best Director, Argo was seen, by this measure, as more of an underdog than the world cinema breakthrough.

If any film were going to cause an upset this year, it would have been four-time winner Life Of Pi, which scooped the most Oscars despite eventually losing out on the main prize. Then again, Silver Linings Playbook was popular amongst actors, who form the biggest voting bloc in the Academy, and Lincoln was seen as the other frontrunner for Best Picture, alongside Argo.

So, what does it mean now that Argo has won? Well, it does mark the second year in a row that the Academy has selected a film about Hollywood starring John Goodman as the best film of the year, following last year’s sweep for The Artist. Hollywood sure does love films about itself. But the win should also have two direct effects on the film’s popularity.

Firstly, people who might not have otherwise seen it will check the film out on DVD, Blu-ray or on demand; although Argo is in the upper end of the box office grosses of Best Picture winners from the last decade, it should still enjoy the higher profile that was afforded to recent victors, such as No Country For Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech and The Artist.

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Secondly, counter to its popularity with new viewers, you can expect Argo to become the cool film to dislike among movie buffs, as it did with a number of those aforementioned movies.

Even though the Oscar for Best Picture is seen as the most important award in Hollywood, it’s only relative to all other awards shows. It’s widely accepted that the Academy expanded the field of nominees, thus diluting its significance, because enough people whined that The Dark Knight should have been nominated for the top prize at the 2009 ceremony.

Had The Dark Knight been nominated in the last ceremony to have only five nominees, does anyone really believe that it would have won? Has the expanded field really opened up to take genre fare seriously? We didn’t see a nomination for Skyfall or The Avengers this year. And more to the point, we dare say that more people are still talking about The Dark Knight than about Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire, regardless of which film is now appreciated as better. 

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You won’t hear any of us complaining that Argo won Best Picture – if you look at our writers’ cumulative top ten films of 2012, Affleck’s film actually topped the list, and many of us would likely agree that the Academy made the right choice. It might have been a decision that was inflected by the usual politics and hype that surrounds the Oscars, but the film is a fitting winner.

Just as the films that surprise you in cinemas are the successes you don’t see coming, there’s always plenty of retrospective discourse about the best film of any given year, and a film that eventually finds an appreciative audience will ultimately benefit more than a film that has a shelf full of statuettes at the time of its release.

Argo’s standing in cinematic history remains to be seen, but ultimately, it won’t be decided by whether or not Affleck should’ve won a trophy for his directing, or if The Master or some other “snubbed” film should’ve got the nod instead.

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