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10 Moments to Remember From a Long, Strange Awards Season

The new schedule confused things, the Best Director nominations shocked people, and the movie that was in trouble in January came roaring back in February

Awards season typically begins with the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals in early September and ends with the Oscars in late February. But in compiling a list of 10 moments that stood out in the long, tangled and odd 2012-13 season, I had to start more than a year ago, with a couple of things that happened before last year’s Oscars even took place.

It was a year in which the Academy’s attempt to hurt the Golden Globes sent the process into disarray and nominations morning confounded everybody, a year of online voting and a year in which the movie that was counted out in early January came roaring back to take the Dolby stage in triumph in late February.

AMPASHere are 10 moments that stood out, for better or worse:

The Doc Branch Shakes Things Up

On Jan. 12, 2012, the Academy announced new rules for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. Initially, all the attention focused on the new requirement that films needed a review in the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times to qualify – but that was just a red herring that distracted people from the real news, which is that the committee system of determining the 15-film shortlist had been killed.

In its place, the Documentary Branch and the Academy’s Board of Governors instituted a new system in which screeners of all eligible films would be sent to the entire branch, which would vote for the shortlist and then the slate of nominees. In the final round of voting, all Academy members would be eligible to vote, not just the ones who attended special screenings.

The system caused panic when a box of 70-plus screeners arrived in branch members’ mailboxes in September — Michael Moore, who had spearheaded the changes, called it a “disaster” — but it produced a strong and varied shortlist with a couple of surprising omissions but none of the shocking oversights that had been routine under the old system.

Searching for Sugar ManThe final list of nominees was equally solid, and the film that won, the rock documentary and detective story “Searching for Sugar Man,” was the kind of entertaining doc that often found it difficult to be shortlisted under the old system. (The branch came a long way from 2009, when the celebrated rock doc “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” couldn’t even make the shortlist.)   

Afterward, nobody was calling it a disaster anymore. And now the branch is making plans to overhaul the doc-short category as well.

Sundance Gets Beastly

The Sundance Film Festival can be a good place to discover indie films that will sneak into the Oscar race many months later — “Winter’s Bone” and “Little Miss Sunshine” came out of the fest, among others — but few people were thinking about the Dolby Theatre when a ragtag crew came to Park City on Jan. 20 for the raucous premiere of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a gloriously rough and lyrical look at a little girl named Hushpuppy who lived in an isolated South Louisiana community called the Bathtub. 

Instead, the immediate reaction was that the film was something special, but also a raw and unconventional work that would require special handling from an adventurous distributor.

That distributor turned out to be Fox Searchlight, which closed a deal before the film won the top prize at Sundance and then shepherded it through Cannes (where it won a couple more awards), a summer release and four Oscar nominations, all in major categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress for nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis.

It was the only one of the nine Best Picture nominees not to win an Oscar, but just to be in those categories was an enormous victory.

AMPASAt that initial Sundance screening, Wallis introduced herself to the crowd by saying, “I’m Quvenzhane Wallis, and I like to party!”

She was true to those words all year long, and had been the star of many a dance floor by the time she cut a rug 401 days later at the Governors Ball to Michael Feinstein (left).

Cannes Shows Love to “Amour”

Before this year, the rap on German-Austrian director Michael Haneke was that he was severe, grim and more than a touch misanthropic, detailing the dark side of humankind without a whit of compassion. (He also happened to be a masterful filmmaker, which made works like “The White Ribbon” and “Cache” ever more chilling.)

But “Amour,” for which Haneke won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May, was all about humanity and compassion, even if it dispensed with any sentimentality in the unsparing way it told the story of an elderly couple coping with the wife’s debilitating illness.

An obvious frontrunner in the Best Foreign Language Film category (where it won), “Amour” turned out to be more than that. It became the 15th Cannes winner to be nominated for Best Picture, and the first not in English; it also became an unlikely awards-season companion for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” landing nominations in almost the exact same categories as that film: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay (“Beasts” was in Adapted Screenplay). 

Emmanuelle Riva and Quvenzhane WallisIt also put 86-year-old actress Emmanuelle Riva, the oldest Best Actress nominee ever, in the same category with "Beasts" star Wallis, the youngest such nominee ever. And it brought them together in New York for the New York Film Critics Circle dinner and awards presentation (right).

"Amour" didn’t win in any category outside Foreign Language Film, but Riva did get her first Oscar nomination, her first trip to Los Angeles for a ceremony that took place on her birthday.

Getty Images“Argo’s” Canadian Caper

Ben Affleck’s “Argo” came out of its sneak preview screening at the Telluride Film Festival riding an avalanche of buzz, and it went over like gangbusters when it had its official premiere in Toronto on Sept. 7. Roger Ebert promptly went on record, saying it would win Best Picture.

The choice of a Toronto premiere was apt, since the film deals with the joint efforts of the CIA and the Canadian Embassy to rescue six Americans trapped in Iran during the hostage crisis of the early 1980s. But premiering in Canada also caused a problem because the first title cards at the end of the film contrasted the large number of awards given to Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor for his role in the rescue with the anonymity of CIA agent Tony Mendez, played by Affleck.

Some friends of Taylor’s were angry over the implication that Taylor got more credit than he deserved, and when Taylor himself saw the film he expressed concerns to Affleck.   

The director immediately changed the title card, which originally served as a somewhat biting punchline of sorts, to one guaranteed not to offend: “The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments.”

Instead of letting the complaints build and hurt the film, the way criticism wounded later fact-based contenders in the race, Affleck’s quick solution made the fuss go away quickly and quietly and put “Argo” back on track for its eventual Best Picture win.

At the first Toronto screening, incidentally, Affleck gave some lengthy remarks from the stage of Roy Thompson Hall, thanking a number of people who worked on the film “in case I never get to thank anybody after this.”

Let’s just say he got a few more opportunities.

Getty Images“Silver Linings Playbook.” Who knew?

David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” did not come into Toronto with anywhere near the buzz of “Argo” or Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” or Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder”; it came in quietly and under the radar, after months of tweaking by the director who was coming off the 2010 Best Picture nominee “The Fighter.”

But its premiere at Roy Thomson Hall, which came one day after the “Argo” premiere in the same building, came as a delicious shock. “’Silver Linings’ is a perfectly calibrated comedy that is also deeply moving,” I wrote after the screening. “[I]t’s another major step in Russell’s comeback from movie limbo, and a mainstream film with enough heart and clout to immediately figure into a number of Oscar races, definitely including Best Picture.”

That night, Russell wasn’t so sure he wanted the acclaim. “I like being the underdog,” he told TheWrap at the party that followed his premiere. “Now we just have to see if we can stay the underdog for the next two months.”

He didn’t exactly do that, with the film landing eight Oscar nominations and becoming the first movie since 1981’s “Reds” to score noms in all four acting categories. (It won one, for lead actress Jennifer Lawrence.) And Russell is now only the ninth director in history to direct consecutive films with seven acting nominations, joining a group that includes William Wyler, Mike Nichols, Sidney Lumet and Elia Kazan.

It may make it harder to sneak in under the radar next time.

The Calendar Gets a Makeover

By mid-September, I was starting to get calls from awards consultants wondering if I knew why the Academy hadn’t announced the key dates for the 85th Oscars. Back in March they had revealed the show date, Feb. 24, and the date nominations would be announced, Jan. 15, but they’d been uncharacteristically slow with voting deadlines and the like.

Then, on Sept. 18, the Academy made a bombshell announcement: The nominations were being moved up five days to Thursday, Jan. 10, the earliest ever, and ballots were due on Jan. 3, immediately after the holiday break.

The Academy said they wanted to give members more time to watch the nominated films, but voters and Oscar-watchers quickly decided that the real reason was to hurt the Golden Globes, which were scheduled for Jan. 13 and would now take place three days after the headline-stealing Oscar nominations.

The Globes shrugged it off and put on a highly-rated show hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Campaigners panicked and loaded the schedule with Q&A screenings and parties before Dec. 17, when they figured they’d lose voters to the holidays. And late-opening movies — “Les Miserables,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Django Unchained” — worried that the new timetable would hurt their chances.

The new schedule meant that Oscar voters would cast their nominating ballots before most of the Hollywood guilds announced their own nominations, and they’d cast their final ballots after most guilds had already revealed their winners. Would an Oscar timetable unmoored from the guild schedule mean that the guild results would no longer be reliable predictors of Oscar success, the way they had been in the past?

The way it turned out, no. Oscar voters mostly went for the movies that the guild awards suggested they’d go for, and the idea that a different schedule would lead to more surprises turned out to be completely unfounded.

As for the other side of this year’s voting, the move to online balloting, that looked as if it was going to be a real mess, too. But Academy officials insist that they had record turnout, so maybe that was another case of much ado about nothing.

Zero Dark ThirtyThe Senate Turns Movie Critic

Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” was being used as a political football while it was still in production, with the Obama administration being accused by rivals of giving special access to Bigelow and writer Mark Boal. None of those charges could stick, though, and the film didn’t come out until after President Obama had won re-election.

But on Dec. 18, a day before “ZDT” opened in Los Angeles and New York to rave reviews, senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain and Carl Levin trashed the film in a letter to Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton, calling it “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden.”

The letter, and many other attacks that followed, mischaracterized the film’s more nuanced depiction of torture – but while Bigelow and Boal and later Sony tried to defend themselves, the criticism came the week that Oscar voting began and dealt serious blows to a film expected to be a strong contender.

By the time outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who was director of the CIA at the time of many of the film’s events, called it “a great movie” and said it was largely accurate about the role of enhanced interrogation techniques, it was too late to undo the damage.

AMPASThose Darn Directors

When the Oscar nominations were revealed early in the morning on Jan. 10, voters showed surprising affection for “Beasts” and “Amour,” and turned their backs unexpectedly on Marion Cotillard ("Rust and Bone") and John Hawkes ("The Sessions).

But the major head-scratcher came in the Best Director category, in which the Directors Branch of the Academy came up with a slate that nobody could have predicted. They went with two expected names, Steven Spielberg for “Lincoln” and Ang Lee for “Life of Pi,” and added the DGA-snubbed David O. Russell for “Silver Linings Playbook.”

And then, instead of choosing two from the expected group of Ben Affleck for “Argo,” Bigelow for “Zero Dark Thirty” and Tom Hooper for “Les Miserables,” they bypassed all three of those favorites and selected Michael Haneke for “Amour” and Benh Zeitlin for “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

In the aisle of the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater that morning, one seasoned campaigner turned to me and said, “What the fuck just happened?”

The category was a shocker, and it seemingly made Spielberg and “Lincoln” clear frontrunners, except that they didn’t win. And it seemingly killed the chances for “Argo” to take the Best Picture prize, but it did.

It also sent Ben Affleck on an epic comeback streak that began that same night at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, and it led to the Oscar host, Seth MacFarlane, flatly saying, “They know they screwed up” early in his monologue.

But it was good news for folks who rely on Oscar advertising. The odd choices of the Academy’s 371 directors may have been responsible for millions of dollars in additional campaign spending — because that lack of a director nomination for Affleck somehow convinced the other movies that they still had a chance.  But every other sign — particularly the string of guild wins — said that “Argo” was going to waltz to victory.

Jessica ChastainFrequent Flyer Jessica Chastain

The night the run of Jessica Chastain’s Broadway play “The Heiress” closed in February, the actress took a helicopter to JFK airport … then hopped on a red-eye to Paris … which was delayed, so she missed her connection to London … so she found a different plane … and then was held up getting through customs … and made it to London just in time to run to the BAFTA Awards, where she was nominated for her lead role in “Zero Dark Thirty.”

And while that may have been a particularly hectic night, the entire awards season was a crazed juggling act for the apparently inexhaustible, and certainly inexhaustibly cheery, Chastain. Some weeks, she’d fly from New York to L.A. as soon as her last weekend performance was finished, spend her off-day (Monday) doing press or going to a premiere or awards show on the West Coast, and then turn around and get back in time for a Tuesday performance of the play.

When she had no choice, the production would rearrange a weekend performance schedule for her, or she’d fly to L.A. on Thursday for the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, fly straight back to New York or Friday and Saturday performances, then return to L.A. for the Golden Globes on Sunday.

Last year, Chastain had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for “The Help,” and the day after that show she flew for 26 hours to get to the Jordan set of “Zero Dark Thirty” and begin work as soon as she’d unpacked. Before this year’s Oscars, I asked her what she was planning to do the next day.

“I’m going to sleep in,” she said with a grin. “And order room service. And then go to dinner with my friends.”

Getty ImagesDaniel Day-Lewis, Standup Comic

Saddled with a reputation as the ultimate method actor, as a dour perfectionist who spends months in character and would rather inhabit a role than talk about it, Daniel Day-Lewis had little choice but to lighten up and loosen up during the many awards shows he had to attend to accept honors for his role in “Lincoln.”

Maybe he was just playing another role, but he did a masterful job of turning into a shy, soft-spoken, self-deprecating charmer with a goofy sense of humor.

At the Golden Globes, he took the stage not long after President Clinton had introduced a film clip from “Lincoln.” “Are you sure there’s room for another ex-president on the stage?” he began. At the Screen Actors Guild, after apologizing to Joaquin Phoenix (“The Master”), who wasn’t nominated, he pointed out, “It was an actor that murdered Abraham Lincoln, and therefore somehow it’s only fitting that every now and then an actor tries to bring him back to life again.”

And he peaked at the Oscars with a speech that began as a comedy routine about how he and presenter Meryl Streep had initially had each other’s Oscar-winning roles — he as Margaret Thatcher, she as Lincoln — “before we decided to do a straight swap.” It led into a wry thank you to his wife for putting up with the range of characters he had inhabited over the past 17 years. It sort of sounded as if he were auditioning to host next year’s show.

And since Seth MacFarlane recently tweeted that there’s “no way” he’s returning as host, the job is open. And Day-Lewis has to be back at the Oscars next year anyway, to present the Best Actress award (to Meryl Streep for “August: Osage County”?).

What do you say, big guy?