Monday, December 31, 2012

What Happened to "The Master"?

Amy Adams

*This will be my last piece for The Oscar Buzz for 2012. I want to thank everyone for making its brief existence so far much more successful than I planned. What I established as a website just to talk about the Oscars has evolved into something that I enjoy doing. Do know that I probably will be back later this week writing more, but I figured now was as good of a time as any to thank you, the reader, for choosing to join me. Here's hoping that success continues to be granted to this blog in 2013, and may the best movies win.

This entry marks the 50th entry in The Oscar Buzz. With that in mind, I thought that I would look back at the one film that started it all for me: director Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which is my second favorite movie of 2012 and features probably the best Joaquin Phoenix performance of his career. After initially a strong start with Oscar Buzz, it fell behind colleagues like director Ben Affleck's Argo and Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. Even in the acting fields, Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman have fallen upon hard times. It has gotten plenty of nominations, but not as many wins, despite making almost every critic's Top 10 lists. Today's installment is a personal analysis on what happened to The Master to move it from a strong contender to just another nominee.

Let us just recap my personal thoughts on The Master going into its release and why it lead me to create this blog. For starters, Paul Thomas Anderson is a fascinating director who lost Best Picture with There Will Be Blood, which has since been considered the great American film of the decade. Being an Anderson fan, I was excited to see his next move. It was also the big transition moment when blockbuster movies were on the way out and it was time to start getting serious about the Oscars. In fact, I still believe that in 2012, The Master was the movie that rang the bell for the start of the Oscar Season.

At very least, the movie prompted discussion. It was a fascinating look into perverse mind manipulation and gave Joaquin Phoenix a considerable comeback and a guaranteed slot for Best Actor. I still argue that it is the best performance of the year, as I never could back Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln, which came across more as an adequate performance than doing anything interesting. Philip Seymour Hoffman seemed to be a guaranteed lock for Best Supporting Actor. The Master was too controversial to ever win Best Picture due to talks of hedonism and alcoholism that didn't appeal to the broad market, but it almost seemed like it would dominate the acting fields.

Then what happened? To put it simply: time. Very few films from the early go have gone on to win Best Picture. Even Beasts of the Southern Wild, which looked ripe for nominations, has started falling behind. While this could be because of competition, it could also be because of time. The film had won over critics and audiences, but not enough when it came to the final months, which definitely helped to establish the "last in line, first in mind" principle that justify why November or December movies are usually prestige and January movies are usually garbage. The Master definitely has made a stronger case of survival than Beasts of the Southern Wild. Just check the Golden Globe nominations.

Joaquin Phoenix
But time has hurt The Master for numerous reasons. Besides being more polarizing than There Will Be Blood, the film also has to deal with notorious comments made by Phoenix, who has called the consideration process out for being too ridiculous. In many ways, this is probably what has jeopardized him the last two times, and it may hurt him more in a movie that is less conventional than Gladiator or Walk the Line. Also, the Best Actor field is a landmine right now, with almost every slot being suffocated by dual choices. By offending the voters, Phoenix's odds started going down. On statistics website Gold Derby, Phoenix went from neck and neck with Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln to sixth with odds of 16:1, being barely beating by the unfairly hyped Bradley Cooper performance in Silver Linings Playbook with odds of 9:1. 

Then there was the general competition. The Master debuted in a time when there wasn't any other film with considerable Oscar Buzz. Then suddenly movies were coming out of TIFF and winning awards. Films like Argo suddenly stole its thunder and suddenly Ben Affleck's movie was the big deal. In many ways, Argo has stood up better than The Master, though partially do to a more conventional formula that also made it a box office success. Then came the other contenders: Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln, Life of Pi, Les Miserables, Django Unchained, and the front runner Zero Dark Thirty. All of them have the advantage of being more recent, conventional, and more prestige. Every single one of those films feature either an Academy Award winner, or at very least a nomination that outshines any of the names in The Master. They are flashier, and in some cases, better received.

The Master has won over critics in their Top 10 lists, but ambitious art is probably not going to play in their favors. The big categories that I believed that they should lead are starting to trip as well. Besides acting, I believed that Anderson deserved a Best Director nomination. He comes in ninth with odds of 100:1. In Best Original Screenplay, he fares better in third with odds of 9:2, which are  identical to second place's Django Unchained (though that may stand a better chance just because it at least feels more original). 

It also places fourth in Best Original Score with odds of 13:2. I want to make special note that at the time, I thought that the music was some of the best that I would hear all year. I stand by that vote. However, in that time, the brilliant score for Cloud Atlas has also won me over, which is sadly in seventh with odds of 25:1. I also think that the Anna Karenina score has plenty of great orchestration going on and makes the elegance sound fluid and romantic. It holds up in third with odds of 6:1. The top two are not really my favorites, nor the most interesting. Life of Pi is runner-up with odds of 4:1 and Lincoln leads the pack with odds of 10:3. I could write a whole post about why I disagree with that Lincoln score nomination, but I believe that it just isn't up to what John Williams has been known to do. This is even second rate in comparison to War Horse. I will save that for another day. In closing, The Master's score is still an excellent, offbeat selection of music, and I am contemplating if I like it better than Cloud Atlas

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Then there was the one gleam of hope. While Amy Adams in Best Supporting Actress was going to have trouble getting traction due to a fantastically nuanced performance (and essentially fell further behind once Anne Hathaway's Les Miserables performance came into the mix), it seemed like Philip Seymour Hoffman was a guaranteed lock. He lead Best Supporting Actor for months. Nothing could stop him. That is, until this past month when Gold Derby stated that Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln was officially the front runner with odds of 8:5. Hoffman is still in second, but The Master doesn't seem to be leading any categories anymore. Hoffman is still their best shot at the trophy, but with Lincoln getting way too much attention, it is looking to be director Steven Spielberg's year.

It isn't that Lincoln is a bad movie, but neither is it great enough to even compete with Life of Pi. I personally feel like the hype has been translated into egregious honors. This could be Daniel Day Lewis' third Best Actor win, which would be historical. Same for Sally Field in Best Supporting Actress. The movie is essentially getting hyped because of what it could mean for the legacy of the people involved, not for the quality of the film. At very least, Lincoln pales in terms of interesting, relevant subject matter. I feel like Zero Dark Thirty will end up winning because of its relevance to modern society.  I would even be fine if Argo pulled an upset, but Lincoln? It wasn't more than an average historical drama which should only be considered in Best Cinematography (it was gorgeous to look at).

But what does this mean for The Master? Everything. With Lincoln getting egregious honors and everyone talking about the controversial side of Zero Dark Thirty, these films have already captured the annual zeitgeist more than The Master had upon its initial release. The critics may support it and keep it alive long enough to get through the Golden Globes, but it no longer stands much of a chance of winning. In fact, it may be too much of a prestige film. Where There Will Be Blood managed to drift on craft and authenticity, The Master is more nuanced and harder to grasp. Also, as proven with Lincoln, people just like Daniel Day Lewis more than Joaquin Phoenix.

What happened to The Master? It is unfortunate that time and strong competition has defeated most of its chances. In fact, I argue that 2012 is going to be one of the most fascinating batches of nominees in recent years just because of the varying degrees of subject matter and craft. It is an exciting year, and while The Master may get a Best Picture slot, it will be too low to be considered a front runner. It is a shame, but at least The Master will remain a great film to everyone who sees it and notices that it is challenging cinema. 

Does The Master actually have a chance? Will Jonny Greenwood get robbed of Best Original Score again? Is Lincoln really our unfortunate front runner? Can Joaquin Phoenix beat Daniel Day Lewis?

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