Friday, February 28, 2014

Oscar Surprise - 2014 Edition

2013 was an incredible year at the movies and for the film industry in general. Sequels were the box office winners, with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Iron Man 3 and Despicable Me 2 leading the way. New advancements in filmmaking technology delivered big screen wows, thanks to Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, best seen in IMAX 3D. It was also a good year for movies based on real people and actual events. Only three of the nine nominated films are pure fictional creations.

In celebration of this year’s Academy Award nominees, I’ve altered my annual musings to better reflect my love of film. Gone are the “who should win” and “who got snubbed” sections. With so much negative energy in the world today, I elected to focus on the positive. I’ll share my favorite performances, suggest a few films to seek out for your viewing pleasure, and finish with my predictions on who will end up at the podium on Oscar night.

Actor – Leading

Favorites: What an incredible year for the men. Every single nominee delivered a performance worthy of Oscar gold. I adored Christian Bale’s lovable con man in American Hustle, but felt his role was more a part of a great ensemble than a true leading man. There’s a reason the SAG voters gave their top award to this movie.

Of the rest, I keep coming back to two performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthew McConaughey. Bruce Dern was excellent in Nebraska, and Leonardo DiCaprio mesmerized as the hyper-kinetic, quaalude-addled Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. In fact, I could make a fairly strong case for DiCaprio to win. But it’s hard to surmount the grand character arcs of a kidnapped free man sold into slavery and a homophobe dying of AIDS. Ejiofor, as Solomon Northup, brings the audience with him on his horrific journey and allows you see the story through his eyes. McConaughey continues his career reinvention with a searing portrayal of a man desperate to find a way to stay alive.

For your consideration: I wish there was room at the table for Oscar Isaac and Joaquin Phoenix. Isaac owns the screen in the Coen brothers’ musical fable Inside Llewyn Davis. Phoenix had the unenviable task of making the audience believe he was falling in love with his computer’s operating system in Her. That he was able to convincingly do so is worthy of recognition.

Prediction: Early odds favored Ejiofor, but the momentum for McConaughey has been steadily building. McConaughey delivered outstanding performances in three movies this year - Dallas Buyers Club, Mud, and The Wolf of Wall Street - and the Academy loves a success story. I’m hoping for a tie, but I believe the late groundswell of support for Dallas Buyers Club will give the edge to McConaughey.

Actor – Supporting

Favorites: I loved them all. Like the nominees for actor in a leading role, each and every performance is strong. Topping the list for me is Michael Fassbender, for his harrowing turn as a vicious, alcoholic slave owner. 12 Years A Slave is Fassbender’s third film with Steve McQueen, and it shows. He’s riveting; I couldn’t take my eyes off him when he was on screen.

I’ll come back to Bradley Cooper in American Hustle time and again; David O. Russell really knows how to get the most from his actors. Fun Fact: American Hustle is the 15th film to score nominations in all acting categories, and David O. Russell is the first director to do it consecutively. In 2012, he achieved the same feat with Silver Linings Playbook.

For your consideration: Need more McConaughey? Check out Mud, a lovely little indie also featuring an excellent Reese Witherspoon. Another fine movie to put on your to-watch list: The Place Beyond the Pines. Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Rosario Dawson, it’s a story of fathers and sons, and the sacrifices they make. Gosling is brilliant - and beautiful - in this underrated gem.

Prediction: Jared Leto has won many early awards, and he’s virtually unrecognizable in the film. He showed up on set in character as Rayon, so many of his costars didn’t actually meet Jared Leto until filming wrapped. Barkhad Abdi could pull off an upset victory if the Academy wants to honor Captain Phillips, but I think Leto will get the call.

Actress – Leading

Favorites: When I saw Blue Jasmine last summer, I left the theater certain Cate Blanchett would win the Oscar for her devastating portrayal of a deeply disturbed New York socialite seeking refuge at her sister’s home in San Francisco. I’m a huge Amy Adams fan, and she is every bit as good as her cast mates in American Hustle. But Blanchett had the meatier role, and she was perfectly cast in Woody Allen’s film.

For your consideration: A couple of independent films worth checking out are Before Midnight (Julie Delpy) and Frances Ha (Greta Gerwig). At least Julie Delpy can take solace in the fact she’s part of the writing team nominated for best Adapted Screenplay along with Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke.

Prediction: The easiest call of the evening. Cate Blanchett will win her second Oscar.

Actress – Supporting

Favorites: Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is a breath of fresh air; she’s heartbreaking in 12 Years A Slave. And as much as I loved Jennifer Lawrence’s brash and bawdy housewife in American Hustle, June Squibb stole every scene from her accomplished co-stars in Nebraska. Fun fact: Squibb was a guest star on my favorite soap opera, The Young & the Restless, playing a friendly diner waitress opposite the late, great Jeanne Cooper.

For your consideration: Julia Roberts may have had the juiciest role as eldest sister Barbara in August: Osage County, but her costars were equally good with less showy material. Julieanne Nicholson delivered a quietly beautiful performance as middle sister Ivy, and Juliette Lewis returned to fine form as Karen, the youngest of the Weston girls.

Prediction: If tradition holds, this will be the wild card of the evening. Lawrence and Nyong’o have split the awards so far, and it’s likely one of them will win. I’m betting Academy voters will honor Nyong’o for her amazing performance.


Favorites: David O. Russell has three directing nominations for his last three movies - American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, and The Fighter. I love his movies. They make me happy.

I didn’t expect to like The Wolf of Wall Street as much as I did, and that’s largely due to Martin Scorsese’s talent. I think this film is much better than The Departed, which won Scorsese his first and only Academy Award.

For your consideration: With nine best picture nominees and only five best director slots, someone is sure to be left out. Even though I knew all the details of Captain Phillips before seeing the film, Paul Greengrass expertly paced the action and kept me on the edge of my seat. Spike Jonze created a magnificent rendering of a not-too-distant future world in Her, and managed to sell a romance with only one physical actor.

Prediction: Another close race, if early awards are any indication. Will the Academy reward technological innovation or heartfelt, emotional storytelling? My thinking is they’ll go with the former, and give Alfonso Cuarón a little gold statue. His opening 17-minute tracking shot was pure genius.

Best Picture

Favorites: This one is tough. I enjoyed all nine films. Some more than others. So here’s my “forced” ranking, although there’s not much separation between 4-6.

1. American Hustle
2. 12 Years A Slave
3. The Wolf of Wall Street
4. Dallas Buyers Club
5. Nebraska
6. Her
7. Philomena
8. Captain Phillips
9. Gravity

For your consideration: The Academy could have awarded ten films with nominations. For me, two bona fide contenders are Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Neither movie is mainstream, but Blue Jasmine is one of Allen’s finest films, and the best he’s done lately. (And I really enjoyed Midnight in Paris.) The film captures New York and San Francisco as only Allen can, and he elicits bravura performances from his entire cast - even Andrew Dice Clay.

Inside Llewyn Davis was on many critics’ top ten lists, but I left the theater scratching my head over what it was all about. Maybe that’s the point. Forget the plot. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy Joel and Ethan Coen’s twisted take on the American folk scene, right before Bob Dylan crashed the party.

Prediction: In what may be the tightest race in recent history, the top three nominated films - Gravity, American Hustle, and 12 Years A Slave - all have a winning chance. Gravity for its technological prowess, American Hustle for its sheer wealth of talent and propulsive storytelling, and 12 Years A Slave for its powerful emotional impact. American Hustle may be the lightweight here, and the Academy rarely rewards a comedy over a drama, Shakespeare in Love notwithstanding.

12 Years A Slave may be the most important film of 2013, and it should be required viewing for every American wanting to better understand what it meant to be a person of color in the antebellum South. 12 Years A Slave for the win.

More fun facts

1. There are over 500 uses of the F-word in The Wolf of Wall Street, the most for any Oscar-nominated movie. The previous record was also held by Scorsese. Goodfellas had around 300.

2. If he wins for best original song, Frozen composer Bobby Lopez achieves the EGOT. (That’s an acronym for "Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony" in reference to persons who have won all four awards.)

3. At 23, Jennifer Lawrence is the youngest actress to earn three Oscar nominations.

4. At 84 and 77 respectively, June Squibb and Bruce Dern would be the oldest Oscar winners should their names be called on Oscar night.

5. Meryl Streep breaks her own record, scoring an 18th Oscar nomination for her role as Violet Weston in August: Osage County.

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