Hollywood produced some stellar films this year, and the Academy’s new policy of nominating up to ten films for Best Picture allows more of them to be recognized. Oddly, they decided to nominate only nine this time, leaving out such excellent films as Blue Jasmine, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Prisoners, but I’m impressed with all the films that were selected (even Philomena, for the acting, if not for the political stance). Two thirds of the Best Picture nominees are based on true stories this year, including Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, Twelve Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, andPhilomena. All but one of the Best Picture nominees have already been reviewed in this magazine. Below I give you my top picks in the major categories for who ought to win, as well as my expectation for who is likely to win.
American Hustle. For ensemble work, this film is the best. The actors revel in their parts, embracing the ’70s oeuvre both in the film and offscreen in their interviews as though it were this year’s best-themed costume party. The story, loosely based on the government’s inept sting operation called ABSCAM, is great fun. Probably too much fun, in fact; this isn’t the kind of film that wins the Oscar.
The Wolf of Wall Street is another ensemble piece with a better chance of winning, because of its portrayal of a businessman completely devoid of any scruples. Scorsese had to edit out several scenes to avoid a deadly NC-17 rating, but he still pushed the envelope further than it has ever been pushed before. It is self-indulgent in every way, from its actors to its source material to its profanity (nearly 600 F-bombs) to its length (just under three hours). Some call it amazing; others call it boring. Great art often finds critics at both extremes.
Twelve Years a Slave is the film that Academy voters will feel obligated to vote for, even if they liked other films better.
The Academy usually votes for “important” films, which gives The Dallas Buyers Club a better chance of winning than either Wolf or Hustle. The film has a great libertarian theme and remarkable acting by Matthew McConaughey as the man who provided a life-sustaining cocktail of supplements to AIDS patients during the beginning of the crisis, and by Jared Leto, who portrays a transvestite patient. Both of them are nominated for their roles.
Gravity is my top choice for best picture. This film, about a scientist-cum-astronaut who becomes lost in space and has to find her way back to earth, is one of the best survival films ever made. It is taut and gripping throughout, with a protagonist who relies on her wits and her courage to survive. It is also a technological and cinematic masterpiece, the kind of film that will be talked about in film classes for decades.
Nevertheless, I think Gravity will lose to Twelve Years a Slave, another visual masterpiece whose subject matter, slavery, is considered more powerful and more important than a science-fiction adventure. It’s a good film, but a hard film to watch and unnecessarily divisive. But it’s the film that Academy voters feel obligated to vote for, even though they liked other films better — or so I’ve heard.
Martin Scorsese was barely out of film school at NYU when he agreed to drive up to the Catskills to help film a music gig for a friend. The gig turned out to be Woodstock, and the documentary won the Oscar for Best Documentary in1970. Scorsese brings that same unbridled decadence and passion to The Wolf of Wall Street, virtually wallowing in sex, drugs and profanity throughout the film. Returning to his documentary roots, he encouraged his actors to delve into their characters and then set them loose to create their own scenes. The result is an outrageous montage of the characters’ voracious, insatiable appetites and a metaphor for capitalist greed — always a popular target in Hollywood. If he hadn’t recently won for The Departed (2006) he would be considered a sympathetic front runner this year, simply for his body of work. But he doesn’t have a chance this year against Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuarón.
Alfonso Cuarón’s vision for Gravity required unparalleled patience and determination, not only in the way he directed his protagonist (Sandra Bullock) but also in the way he figured out how to bring his vision to the screen. Once he knew what was needed, he waited over a year for the technology to be created and built. Cuarón put the magic into imagination and simply wowed his audiences with the beauty and terror of outer space. It’s brilliant.
Nevertheless, the gravity of Twelve Years a Slave is likely to outweigh Gravity in both of the top categories. Steve McQueen is also a visionary director who imagines the shot before he creates it rather than giving his actors their head and letting them lead the way. But some of his camera work in TYS is exquisitely framed and executed, from his lighting to his camera angles to the timing of his shots. One particularly long shot in which a character who has been lynched struggles to stay on tiptoe in order to avoid strangulation is utterly silent and agonizingly long. It is more powerful than other scenes of brutal, bloody whipping. Cuarón ought to win, but McQueen probably will.
My pick for best actor wasn’t nominated this year, but I have to give him a shout-out anyway. Jake Gyllenhaal’s nuanced performance as the detective in Prisoners was simply superb. He created a backstory for his character through unspoken gestures and reactions entirely of his own design, from his character’s nervous blink to his unexplained tattoo to the enigmatic look on his face at the end of the film that leaves us wondering whether he is going to rescue the man in the underground box — or not. We know that he is the prisoner of his own undescribed background, simply through his body language and what is left unsaid. But Oscar seldom rewards the nuanced performance. (I happen to think Johnny Depp’s most outstanding performance is John Dillinger in Public Enemy, but he will be most remembered for his outlandish performances as Captain Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, and the unfortunate Tonto.)
Cuarón put the magic into imagination and simply wowed his audiences with the beauty and terror of outer space.
All five nominees this year gave outstanding performances. Christian Bale (American Hustle) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) lost all sense of themselves as they fell headlong into their roles as raunchy, despicable rascals. Matt McConaughey’s character (Dallas Buyers Club) is raunchy too, but he’s not despicable, he’s a hero, and a hero who has an emotional epiphany. Chiwetel Ejiofor as the man kidnapped into slavery also plays a hero in a community that trumps even the AIDS population for sympathy. That leaves Bruce Dern out in the cold in Nebraska, and that’s a shame, because Dern’s portrayal of a man losing his sense of reality, even though he is more grounded and determined than the “sane” people who surround him, is remarkable. Dern spent a lifetime portraying supporting roles, mostly as sinister villains, and he did it well. This was the part he has waited to play, and he does it subly and brilliantly. But Oscar doesn’t reward subtle, nuanced performances (see Gyllenhaal, above). Dern will have to be satisfied that it’s an honor just to be nominated.
Ejiofor’s character will win for Best Actor. I say his character will win, because his performance isn’t anything special, but how can you vote against a man who spent twelve years as a slave? But McConaghey just might pull this one out. He deserves it not only for DBC, but for his body of work this year, including his short but memorable chest-thumping role in the beginning of American Hustle, and his remarkable performance as the title character in the indie film Mud. McConaughey has come a long way from his Dirk Brink adventure roles and rom-com roots. Expect to see a lot of chest-thumping from anyone who wins an Oscar for AH. Nevertheless, I’m expecting a clean sweep for TYS.
Cate Blanchett, Cate Blanchett, Cate Blanchett! She is my hands-down favorite for her refined befuddlement in a Chanel jacket. Say what you want about Woody Allen’s personal life; the man knows how to assemble a cast and elicit exactly the right performance from it. Blanchett should win for Best Actress, and Sally Hawkins should win Best Supporting Actress for her role as the unrefined, practical, down-to-earth sister. Yes, Sandra Bullock is astounding in her virtually solo performance in Gravity. She creates and maintains a believable tension throughout the film. To see just how difficult that is, take a look at Robert Redford’s failed attempt to pull off the same feat as a castaway in this year’s All Is Lost, or even Tom Hanks in Cast Away; Hanks had to invent a secondary character, Wilson the Volleyball, to allow the audience inside his character’s thoughts, and his isolation on the island is bookended by Acts One and Three, on land with other people. Still, I think Blanchett’s performance outdistances Bullock’s.
Meryl Streep is probably the best film actress of her lifetime, and her role as a matriarch suffering from mouth cancer in August: Osage County is a tour de force. But the film itself is flawed. The dialogue is sharp and witty and biting, as one would expect from a film that is adapted from an award-winning stage play. But its strength is also its weaknesses. Stage and film are two different genres. The former requires broad movements and loud delivery to reach the back of the theater; metaphors like “stomping the boards,” “hamming it up,” and “chewing the scenery” all arose from stage acting — and for good reasons. By contrast, film actors must rein in their performances, because they are seen on screens 80 feet wide and 40 feet tall. A glance to the left, a lifted eyebrow, a shudder or a twitch can communicate information that would be lost in live theater. Osage is a story that needs to be shouted as family members gather around the table and air a lifetime of gripes. It works on stage but not on film. Streep’s performance is top notch; she stops at nothing as the ugly, angry matriarch. But it’s just too much for the screen.
The Academy seldom rewards subtle, nuanced performances.
Dame Judi Dench, Britain’s version of Meryl Streep, also puts in a remarkably witty, funny, and sympathetic performance, as the title character searching for the baby she gave up for adoption in Philomena. But it’s what we’ve come to expect from Dench. Next to such a strong set of contenders this year, she should reserve a table next to Bruce Dern for the after party. It truly is an honor to be nominated.
Amy Adams is another outstanding actress who, like Streep and Dench, can perform just about any role. I love her body of work. And she loved showing off her literal body with the plunging necklines her character wears in American Hustle (and she gleefully continued to wear in interviews promoting the film). But AH is an ensemble film in which each individual performance is less than the sum of its parts. It’s another argument for adding Best Ensemble as an Academy category.
Blanchett’s strongest competitor comes, again, from the cast of TYS. But the producers decided to list Lupita Nyong’o as a supporting actress, despite the fact that she has the longest and most important female role in the film. Blanchett is in the clear. I hope she breaks out that Chanel jacket to wear to the awards.
Best Supporting Actor
Barkhad Abdi is stunning as the leader of a gang of pirates who board a cargo ship and kidnap the captain for ransom. His performance is so believable that I had to keep reminding myself that he was not really a Somali pirate. What makes this all the more remarkable is that this is his cinematic debut. He’s my pick for Best Supporting Actor.
But Jared Leto is going to win, for his tough and touching portrayal of a transgender prostitute in DBC. And he deserves it. This is one year when we just need extra trophies.
Michael Fassbender as the despicable slave owner in TYS; Jonah Hill as the despicable penny-stockbroker in TWWS; and Bradley Cooper as the despicable FBI agent in AH will just have to join that table with the un-despicable Dench and Dern. None of them has a prayer of a chance.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman has to be mentioned here as well. I suspect that if he had died two weeks earlier, he would have been nominated for his supporting role in The Master. This talented, versatile actor will be missed, and he will be highlighted in a tribute Sunday night.
Best Supporting Actress
Sally Hawkins is my top pick for her role as the practical, forgiving, down-to-earth single mom who has every reason to feel bitterness toward her sister Jasmine, whose husband swindled them out of their life savings. She is lively and funny and wonderful in this role. But she doesn’t have a chance.
Neither has Jennifer Lawrence, despite her sleazy, slinky, shady performance as the wife of the Christian Bale’s two-bit con man in AH. She has two strikes against her: first, she won an Oscar last year for playing a similar role; and second, no one has a chance this year against Lupita Nyong’o.
Julia Roberts is the weakest of the group. Expressing anger does not make an Oscar-worthy performance.
Like Javier Bardem, who stole the 2008 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor from Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild) by entering the supporting actor category instead of the leading actor category, Lupita Nyong’o belongs in the leading actress category. She is the central female character in the story. I have another criticism of her nomination, and that is, quite simply and directly, her acting. She seems very uncomfortable with the words she is asked to say. She recites her lines as though from memory, not from her heart; they don’t flow naturally from her mouth. Nevertheless, she will be lifted by the gravitas of the film, and is sure to win the Oscar.
Julia Roberts should not even have been nominated. Yes, she gets to yell and swear and pull Meryl Streep’s hair. But expressing anger does not make an Oscar-worthy performance. Hers is the weakest of the group. Jennifer Squibb as the insensitive, vulgar-mouthed wife of Bruce Dern in Nebraska is nominated largely for the novelty of hearing an old woman swear and lift up her skirts and talk about sex in public. It’s not an Oscar-worthy performance either. These two actresses should studiously avoid the Dench-Dern table.
So there you have it: my picks, and my expectations. The real winner this year will probably be host Ellen Degeneres whose flippant humor and kind demeanor will set everyone at ease during what is usually a tense, exciting, and ultimately disappointing evening for most of the attendees. It is an honor to be nominated, but everyone wants to win, and 80% of the hopefuls will be going home as losers. Ellen might help them go out with a smile.