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The ARGO Effect

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Look at it this way, Ben...I'm thinking of you. ()

Look at it this way, Ben…I’m thinking of you. (Source)

It’s time to coin a phrase, kids.

The Argo Effect, in brief: When a film is elevated, by its appearance at film festivals or its release date, to the status of an awards contender when its actual quality does not justify this.

Full disclosure time: I’ve only seen Argo once, and that was almost two years ago, when it first opened, and I went with two friends of mine. One of them enjoyed it, and the other groaned and grumbled at every obvious contrivance, and as we left the theater, proclaimed the film “the definition of middling”. Later (on the way to a screening of V/H/S, of all things), I pondered over the film’s plusses and minuses, and deciding that, while it clearly took severe historical liberties and very obviously tightened the Screws of Suspense in the final act, it was still pretty exciting and well-made. I gave it a 76–a decent *** film.

But we all know what happened next. It became the first film since 1989, and only the second since 1932, to win the Oscar for Best Picture without a Best Director nomination. (Affleck still got a statue, since he was a producer.) And I grumbled about it, and listed it as one of the most overrated films ever made:

It never stops being true.

It never stops being true.

But I digress. For Argo‘s path to the Oscars didn’t begin with its opening weekend. It began–ironically, given the film’s infamous diminshing of the Canadian role in the actual events–in Toronto, at 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. It was the runner-up for the People’s Choice Award (the winner was Silver Linings Playbook, which, while not without flaws of its own, is the better film), and the critical raves started a ball rolling that stopped five months later with it winning the big one.

The year after, the People’s Choice Award was won by 12 Years a Slave…and we all know what happened there. (The runner-up was Philomena.) And in 2010, the Award went to The King’s Speech…and in 2008, to Slumdog Millionaire. And we all know what happened there, don’t we? (Funnily enough, the 2011 prize went to Where Do We Go Now?, a great little film that never got the attention it deserved.) And before you point out that I forgot 2009, the winner that year was Precious.

Do you see the pattern emerging? More and more, the biggest hits out of TIFF go on to be major Oscar contenders–and moreover, winners. That’s not to diminish the value of other major fall festivals; Telluride and the New York Film Festival are pretty important Oscar precursors, and one would not to do to overlook the Venice Festival just because it’s an ocean away.

In some cases, this is an excellent thing. I think 12 Years was the best Best Picture choice since at least 2007. And while I wouldn’t have voted for it, I really do like The King’s Speech. 

But in the case of a film like Argo, it’s…I wouldn’t say it’s a problem, per se, but it helped give a certain cachet to a film that didn’t merit it. And this year, I’m seeing it again–films and performances that probably shouldn’t be in the awards conversation, being a part of it because they have the added prestige of festival play.

A prime example: the idea that Bill Murray could be an Oscar contender for the film St. Vincent. Here’s the trailer:

Now, maybe you feel differently, but what I see is a nice little comedy-drama that could come out at any time, make its money, and fade into oblivion. Even the reviews basically admit as much. But there is talk–talk by people who analyze films for a living–that Murray’s performance might get Oscar attention. Look at these two pieces from IndieWire, both of which tout Murray’s Oscar chances for a film that, as far as I can tell, has no realistic shot at the big awards. Maybe Murray could get a Globe nomination (and he’s done pretty well with them, winning for Lost in Translation and getting nominated for Hyde Park on Hudson, which seems to be remembered primarily for the handjob scene), but I just don’t see this film breaking through into the Oscar race.

But I believe that the film’s status as a festival player has given it that added prestige that got it into the conversation in the first place. Sight unseen, other films–Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children and The Judge come to mind–that played at TIFF were initially mooted for awards glory. Their festival reception killed off most of that talk, but their pedigrees and their status as festival players got the buzz going, at least initially.

And festival play isn’t the only consideration. Release date is also a major factor. Look at Avatar (one could also call this “the Avatar effect”, but I think Argo is a more profound example). It was released in mid-December, won the Globe, and was up for 9 Oscars–in addition to the small matter of being, in raw dollars, the highest-grossing film of all time. But had it come out in summer, would it have been greeted as the masterpiece many ultimately called it? Or would its faults have been more readily acknowledged? Would it have been showered with awards, or regarded as what I consider it to be: an entertaining and visually impressive, but clichéd and relatively hollow action film?¹

Or had Argo been released in the summer without the festival buildup, would it have received anything like the acclaim it did? Would it still be regarded as a great thriller, a crackerjack entertainment, the capstone to its director and star’s artistic redemption? Or would be regarded the way I think should be regarded: an entertaining, smoothly made thriller, but nothing more than that?

Sometimes films defy their release dates. Inception was a summer blockbuster that endured long enough to get nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay (though it undoubtedly benefited from built-up goodwill from The Dark Knight). Saving Mr. Banks, on the other hand, had festival play, solid reviews, an Oscar-friendly December release date…and got one nomination, for its score. To be fair, it wasn’t that great–it was a likable film, a *** film, but I didn’t think it was really an Oscar-caliber film (and I will say they did a pretty good job this past year). But the Effect is not a given. It occurs when it occurs.

I hope to be able to use the phrase going forward. Looking ahead, I feel like Wild is a strong example of an Argo Effect film–and shock of shocks, it follows Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club, which bowed at TIFF in 2013…and went on to get 6 nominations, despite, in my opinion, being by far the weakest of the nominees. I’ll be applying the phrase as I see fit in the months to come. Disseminate it as you will. I wish you the best.

¹I think of Ebert’s words in his 4-star rave:

It is predestined to launch a cult. It contains such visual detailing that it would reward repeating viewings. It invents a new language, Na’vi, as “Lord of the Rings” did, although mercifully I doubt this one can be spoken by humans, even teenage humans. It creates new movie stars. It is an Event, one of those films you feel you must see to keep up with the conversation.

Nearly 5 years on, I can’t help but think that, even as the multiple sequels loom, it has not only not created a cult, but largely faded from our active cultural consciousness.

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One thought on “The ARGO Effect

  1. Pingback: The NBR Project: 2013 | If you want the gravy...

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