And yet, at the end of the night, in the final minutes, despite all that, despite months of Oscar campaigns and the goofy grandeur of the season itself, we expect this new best picture to be the apotheosis of contemporary film? It's like a five-month pizza party, and at the end everyone has to put on robes and carve history into a stone block.
We want to believe we take ourselves seriously, and, therefore, "American Hustle," alive and effortless and arguably a monument to the thrill of a good movie, is less significant than "12 Years a Slave," less substantial than forward-thinking "Gravity." Basically, that is that.
The people who vote for Oscars understand as well as anyone that a smart delight, with Hollywood in its veins, is no less a miracle than a demanding epic. And yet, American filmmaking dazzle, verve and skill, what the French call "pure cinema," rarely trumps that other American trait of feeling self-consciously lightweight, overly plastic. Which is to say, too American.
Q: Do the ambitions of good actors fade once they win an Oscar — i.e., if Matthew McConaughey wins a best actor Academy Award, will the thrilling McConaissance continue?
A: Yes, it will. Because I want it to, and because the McConaissance has made even the most cynical moviegoers (which perhaps once included McConaughey himself) question their own presumptions. One of the most joyful parts of going to movies the past few years has been watching McConaughey, newly energized but with the same look of lazy eccentricity he showed in his breakthrough role in "Dazed and Confused." To paraphrase him in that film, the audience has gotten older but he is staying the same age.
The fear — and there's 86 years of Academy Awards precedent to keep us up at night — is that a freshly crowned McConaughey, officially recognized as rehabilitated after years of squandering his talent, would be drained of drive, or, paradoxically, that opportunities would dry up. It's an affliction better known for unfairly striking more actresses than actors — for every Cuba Gooding Jr., there's a Hilary Swank (two Oscars) and Mercedes Ruehl.
But this feels different. McConaughey's second act seems more organic than coldly calculated, cleverly playing off of his nude-bongo-playing period ("Magic Mike"), his image as the drawling oddball (HBO's "True Detective"). Even his Oscar-nominated role in "Dallas Buyers Club," for which he lost 45 pounds, does not fully erase his movie-star appeal on screen in the way that dramatic, Oscar-baiting transformations tend to swallow the actor.
He's playing a longer game.
Which reminds me: The penultimate episode of "True Detective," starring McConaughey, is on Sunday night too, and if we're living in the new golden age of TV, why should we still care about the Oscars? But you'll have to answer that one.