There are those in Hollywood who say that the Academy Awards are not about competition, they're about celebrating cinema.
We who know how much money, conniving and ego-boosting goes into Oscar campaigns, laugh at those people.
This year though, more than any other in recent memory, you could make the argument that the movies are so good, choosing a winner is beside the point.
That hasn't prevented extremely passionate and bitterly partisan arguments over which of the nine best picture nominees is actually "best" from breaking out online and wherever industry insiders can chant the mantra "poor Ben Affleck." This year has also seen an extraordinary number of actual politicians - torture-denying senators, a recount-demanding Connecticut congressman, the sitting vice-president, even ever-lovin' Bill Clinton - weigh in for or against certain films.
Meanwhile, pundits and strategists, who get paid to care about Oscar outcomes, have repeatedly characterized this awards season as weird or crazy - which is a weird and crazy reaction to too much excellent work to choose from for a change.
An honest assessment of the nominees has got to conclude that eight of them are, at the very least, pretty good. Even "Les Miz" earns the tears it jerks, and is certainly more ambitious than director Tom Hooper's previous "The King's Speech," one of the lamest best picture winners ever in 2011.
No chance of anything like that happening this year, with so many fine films in the running.
• "Amour," with its unflinching, heroically acted, anything-but-sentimental study of a long-loving couple's final, harrowing months;
• "Argo's" amusing account of a tricky bit of recent history, with a crowd-pleasing blend of suspense and humor that makes some pretty gnarly geopolitical lessons go down easy;
• "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the most unique-looking look at a unique corner of America to come along in years (and far more poetic about it than my weak wordplay approximates);
• "Django Unchained," a Quentin Tarantino movie that does its traumatic topic some sort of rough justice, and makes no apologies for just exploiting the hell out of slavery for fun and profit;
• "Life of Pi," which capped perhaps the most beautiful use of CG 3-D imagery to date with a simple but soul-shattering revelation of what really happened in that death-haunted lifeboat;
• "Lincoln," unafraid of political complexity, the messy humanity of noble icons and unrelenting intelligence - plus surprisingly, and consistently funny;
• "Silver Linings Playbook" and its screwball comedy of less-than-lovable loonies with seriously loose screws;
• "Zero Dark Thirty," unwilling to try being "Argo"-like accessible about a similar subject, which is its own medal of aesthetic honor.
Go ahead and crown one of those the annual Hollywood champ if you must; just don't ask me to buy it. Even acknowledging the weaknesses of some, like the five historical films' fudging of some of their stories' facts, hardly diminishes those movies' impressive accomplishments. And honestly? Every big head except Russell Crowe's sang real nice in "Le Miz."
Which brings us to this year's acting nominees. To get him out of the way first, Hugh Jackman sang real nice in "Les Miz." Daniel Day-Lewis' category-owning Abraham Lincoln, Joaquin Phoenix's deranged and strange-moving "The Master" and Denzel Washington's arguably best-ever work as a high-functioning alcoholic in "Flight" are the three no one should have to have to choose between.
All the best actress contenders are tops, too, though I was more taken with the youngest ("Beasts"' Quvenzhane Wallis) and eldest ("Amour"'s Emmanuelle Riva) than with the precursor awards leader Jennifer Lawrence ("SLP") and the thinking man's - or perhaps more apt in this case, thinking woman's - favorite, Jessica Chastain ("ZDT"). As for "The Impossible"'s Naomi Watts, I'll express my never-ending love by noting that, of the million academy blunders on record, not acknowledging her for "Mulholland Dr." was one of the worst.
Supporting actor nominees Alan Arkin ("Argo"), Robert De Niro ("SLP"), Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Master"), Tommy Lee Jones ("Lincoln") and Christoph Waltz ("Django") all delivered expert, and very different, iterations of what the category represents. None have reputations as particularly nice guys, either, which is another point in each man's favor, considering the popularity contest nature of the Oscars. Again, don't make me choose!
I will rate the supporting actresses in descending preference, though, just because it's the one major race with a clear quality gradation. From top to bottom, it's "Lincoln"'s Sally Field, "Les Miz"'s Anne Hathaway (second best of the big-headed singers, but the other brunette wasn't nominated), "The Sessions"' Helen Hunt, "Master"'s Amy Adams and "SLP"'s Jacki Weaver.
As for the much-maligned directors race this year, the whiners need to hear this: The directors branch was right! "Amour"'s Michael Haneke, "Beasts"'s Benh Zeitlin, "Pi"'s Ang Lee, "Lincoln"'s Steven Spielberg and "SLP"'s David O. Russell delivered the least-flawed, most complete auteur visions in the nine best picture nominees. It really is as simple as that. Poor Ben was not robbed.
Should most likely candidate "Argo," or "Django" or "ZDT," win the big prize in a year this great, though, it'll hardly be an embarrassment like three of the last four Oscars have been. "Les Miz" would be a problem, but not nearly as big a one as the delusional idea that winning an industry popularity contest is more worth celebrating than a whole year of exceptional cinematic art.
I mean, that's really weird and crazy.