Alright, now that we are finally done with all that Olympic nonsense (seriously couldn’t care less) we can get to the competition that matters. The Oscars are 29 hours away, so it’s time to lay my cards on the table. Normally I start with Best Picture and work my way down through the categories, but Best Picture has taken shape unconventionally this year, such that it might be better to start from the so-called “bottom” and work our way up. It will all make sense in the end, I promise. Let us begin, and remember: pace yourself and drink lots of water.
BEST DOCUMENTARY/ANIMATED/LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM
As usual, I haven’t gotten around to seeing most of the shorts. Or documentaries. Or foreign language films. But even if I had seen the shorts, there are no past awards to study or readily detectable buzz that would shed any light on what might be the winner. Even informed viewers are flying blind in these categories, trying to guess what might appeal to Academy members. So for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve gleaned from some of the pundits I follow. For Best Animated Short, most seem to be predicting Get a Horse!, the old-school-meets-new-school Mickey Mouse cartoon that starts out looking like a vintage piece before breaking the fourth wall, going 3D and mixing black and white with color. The fact that it played in front of a huge hit like Frozen only increases its chances. There’s also Mr. Hublot, which is getting mentioned as an alternate.
Best Live Action Short has the least consensus of the three. I think I’ve seen four of the five nominees picked as winners, but Helium and The Voorman Problem had slightly more mentions. And for Best Documentary Short, everyone seems to agree on The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, which hits the sweet spot of focusing on a Holocaust survivor and the healing power of art. The subject of the movie, Alice Herz Sommers, passed away just last Sunday at age 110.
If you’d prefer to investigate these categories a little more thoroughly yourself, here’s some brief descriptions and analysis from In Contention for Animated Short, Live Action Short and Documentary Short.
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
I haven’t seen anyone predict a victory for Palestine’s Omar or Cambodia’s The Missing Picture. Most seem to think it will go to the Italian film The Great Beauty, while others are leaning toward The Hunt from Denmark or The Broken Circle Breakdown from Belgium. How’s that for helpful? Maybe this will be more useful.
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
The only one I’ve seen is 20 Feet from Stardom, which focuses on the role backup singers have played throughout the history of rock and roll. As it happens, this one appears to be the favorite, a feel-good introduction to the (mostly) ladies who took great songs and made them greater. I mean, what would The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” be without that soaring backing track from Merry Clayton? The movie stands in contrast to more sobering fare, and although the serious stuff usually wins here, 20 Feet may be too toe-tappin’ to resist. If not, The Act of Killing has been a strong presence on the doc circuit. But I’d be watching out for The Square; it deals with the Arab Spring in Egypt, but I gather that there’s an unexpected feel-good component as it traces relationships between unlikely allies. Not sure if I’m correct about that or not, but if I am, it could bridge the gap for voters as sufficiently dramatic but not depressing. Once again, thoughts from In Contention if you’d like to know a little more.
BEST SOUND MIXING & BEST SOUND EDITING
This year, the two sound categories have four common nominees: Gravity, Lone Survivor, Captain Phillips and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The lone wolf in the Mixing category is Inside Llewyn Davis, and of the two categories, Mixing is the one that more often nominates music-heavy movies. Indeed, last year’s winner was Les Misérables, with shares a key trait with Llewyn Davis: live singing. That may well have given it the edge in another year, but this year it faces the force of Gravity. On the Editing side, All is Lost stands as the unique nominee, and as a movie that features almost no dialogue, it relies ever more so on sound to transport the audience. It’s a strong slate of nominees across both categories, but as always, few people outside of the Sound branch have any real knowledge of the work that goes into sound design. So they will vote for the movie that they consider an all-around impressive technical achievement, or the one that is most prominent in the Best Picture race. This year those movies are one and the same. Chalk these two up for Gravity.
Personal: Not that I know any better than most of the voters, but I’d go with Gravity for both, with Inside Llewyn Davis and All is Lost as second choices.
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
“Academy Announces 9 Films That ‘Gravity’ Will Beat for the VFX Oscar.” That was the headline The Wrap ran in early December when the 10 movies that would contend for the five Best Visual Effects nominations were announced. In many categories, a lot has changed since early December. Not in this one. This is the night’s surest bet. And if you want to know why, just check out the video below. Everything in this movie is CGI…and all of it immaculately created. The earth, the sun, the stars, the spaceships, the stations, the debris, the light, the reflections….even the damn spacesuits were created by the visual effects artists. The only real things onscreen are Sandra Bullock’s star power and George Clooney’s million dollar smile.
Personal: Gravity. I mean, come on! Even the spacesuits!!!
BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
I’ve said that this branch rightly judges the quality of the work and not the quality of the movie when it comes to choosing nominees, but once the decision moves to the full Academy, minds are less open. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa should be a real contender here, since the makeup that turned Johnny Knoxville into an old man had to fool real people in up close and personal interactions. But it’s hard to imagine enough members handing an Oscar to the Jackass franchise. Then there’s The Lone Ranger, which also seems like a choice most voters just won’t want to make, given the whipping the movie took. So the winner, perhaps by a degree of default, will probably be Dallas Buyers Club. And to be fair, the extent of the film’s makeup work is broader than I understood, and all accomplished on a shoestring budget of $250 for the entire film. That’s crazier than the idea of Jordan Catalano winning an Oscar. The work in Bad Grandpa is excellent, so perhaps voters will surprise us and put that ahead of all other considerations. But Dallas is the safer bet.
Personal: I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other. I’d get a kick out of seeing Bad Grandpa rewarded, while the work on Dallas Buyers Club is much more involved than I thought. I’d be happy for either team.
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
The Book Thief and Saving Mr. Banks are the outliers here, with this being the only nomination that either film earned. Her has wonderful music, but lacks the distinct theme that might put it over the edge. Alexandre Desplat has his sixth nomination with Philomena, and he has yet to win. The movie is apparently a big hit with Academy members, and Desplat’s lovely score will probably collect a lot of votes. But I’m calling this one for Gravity. Although it, like Her, doesn’t have a hummable theme that could stick with voters, it’s such a key component of the Gravity experience. Steven Price’s music is big and stirring without being overbearing or manipulative. It’s powerful enough to convey the mysteries, danger and beauty of space, yet intimate enough to underscore the emotional journey of the characters. And when it swells during the movie’s final scenes, you feel it throughout your body. Philomena could surprise, but I think Gravity‘s got it.
Personal: Gravity, for all the reasons stated above.
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Oh boy. Strap in for this one, because before we even get to who the winner will be, there’s a hot mess to be explained. As discussed in my earlier piece after the nominations were announced, this category included an out-of-left-field nomination for the title song from a little-known Christian film called Alone Yet Not Alone. There was instant grumbling from other musicians behind eligible songs that didn’t get nominated, with some making bitter and disrespectful comments and calling into question the legitimacy of its eligibility. Some of the concerns focused on the fact that the song’s co-writer Bruce Broughton was a former Governor of the music branch who did minor campaigning on the song’s behalf by personally contacting some members of the branch and asking them to make sure they listened to the song and gave it a fair shot amidst some higher profile competition. I wrote in that piece that the Academy upheld the nomination, and that the song was here to stay.
Two days later, the Academy rescinded the nomination.
It was a bold and rare move. According to Entertainment Weekly, there have only been five cases prior to this one when a nomination has been stripped. The Hollywood Reporter cites some additional examples, though the Academy might not consider all of them to be accurate. (The EW list has been confirmed by the Academy.) Whichever list is correct, the situation is still uncommon, and may be unique in only one way: this appears to be the first case on record where a nomination has been withdrawn due to improper conduct on the part of the nominee.
The organization’s Board of Governors felt that Broughton’s personal communication to fellow members constituted a violation of the voting process. Broughton was vocal in his disappointment. In addition to the comment in the previous link, he posted a message on his Facebook page that night (as did his wife), and gave an interview the next day to a music site called Sibelius Blog, in which he discussed his involvement with the movie and his work on the song before talking about the revoked nomination. After a few days during which this bizarre turn of events dominated the entertainment news headlines, the Academy issued an additional statement explaining more specifically why it considered Broughton’s actions unethical, pointing out that the voting materials sent to members of the music branch deliberately refrain from mentioning the songwriters, so that voters are basing their decision purely on the song itself, without any personal relationship to the artists coming into play. Their position was that by pointing voters toward his own track, Broughton removed that veil of anonymity, providing an unfair advantage. Other songs may have been campaigned more expensively or aggressively, but such campaigns were also more general and didn’t include the inside knowledge to which Broughton had access as a member of the music branch. Broughton responded with a letter to the Academy that called into question the phrasing of the voting instructions given to members of the branch, as well as asking why his actions were deemed inappropriate even though Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, while serving as an Academy governor, had been allowed to work on award campaigns for movies like The Artist and The King’s Speech (both of which won Best Picture). Many people inside the Academy and outside of it (mostly religious audience members to whom Alone Yet Not Alone was targeted) expressed anger at the decision and lobbied for the song’s nomination to be reinstated, but to no avail.
As if all of this wasn’t ugly enough, Oscar-winning producer Gerald Molen chimed in with an accusation that the Academy’s gesture was one of anti-Christian bigotry. Oh please. There’s some bullshit at play in this debacle, no doubt, but anti-religious sentiment is not part of it. Last year, Molen accused the Academy of a liberal bias because a documentary he produced — the largely derided propaganda piece 2016: Obama’s America, which was a big hit with the Fox News crowd — failed to land a nomination for Best Documentary Feature. I guess he couldn’t imagine that maybe the voters just didn’t think his movie was one of the five best the field had to offer. He was the sore loser in that case, and now he’s on the other side of the fence, defending a nomination that was criticized by those who failed to make the cut.
This whole episode was unfortunate, and it’s the Academy that came out looking bad. The Music branch has taken a lot of heat over the past few years for poor policies and bad decisions, but this is one situation that shouldn’t be attributed to them, since the Board of Governors made the call. It’s not like this was the first time an Oscar nomination was awarded to a little-known film that had observers saying, “Huh?” In 2009, an obscure animated film out of Ireland called The Secret of Kells cracked the Best Animated Feature category, where it competed against better known films like Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog and Coraline. One of the three Makeup nominees the same year was an Italian biopic called Il Divo that was on exactly nobody’s radar. And still in ’09, right here in the Song category, a tune from a French film called Paris 36 — not one of the year’s big crossover foreign language films — was among the nominees. Last year’s song nominee “Before My Time” from the documentary Chasing Ice wasn’t exactly hot on the Billboard charts, and not many people were familiar with the 2004 French film The Chorus when it spawned a nominated song in that year’s race. So the recognition for “Alone Yet Not Alone” is not unprecedented.
Broughton probably should not have reached out directly to members of his own branch to advocate a song he had worked on, nor provided the track’s number on the list of songs so that members could identify it when the Academy’s procedure is clearly designed to withhold that kind of information. But given the widespread, aggressive and varied maneuvers so often used to net an Oscar nomination (or win), Broughton’s actions seem minor. It’s not like we’re talking intimidation tactics here! The only reasonable point made by Gerald Molen in his criticism of the revoked nomination is that personal campaigning happens all the time, and has for years. As one Academy member said to In Contention‘s Kris Tapley, “They should start coming after all of us. They should look at everyone and not just wait for someone to forward them an email from a guy who said ‘listen to my song.’ It seems really punitive and over the top.” Agreed. Penalizing Broughton and his little song from his little movie without applying the same standards across the board is a disingenuous move. By ironic coincidence, earlier in the day that the song’s nomination was stripped, Vulture ran a story detailing Harvey Weinstein’s history of zealously campaigning his movies for Oscar glory. In a system where his approach is permissible, does Broughton really deserve to be the poster boy for this issue?
Still, despite the many factors that would make this the right song for which to honor U2, they are likely to be defeated by the juggernaut that is “Let it Go.” The song is a certifiable, unstoppable monster of a smash hit, the joy and delight of singing children everywhere. Like…everywhere, as demonstrated in this video depicting it in 25 different languages. Every voter probably has a child, grandchild, niece, nephew, sibling or somebody in their life that is keeping this song ringing in their ears. It is inescapable, and even if it’s not your thing, you can’t deny the power of Idina Menzel’s vocal.
So while there’s a chance that admiration and a sense of honoring Nelson Mandela’s legacy could lift “Ordinary Love” to victory, the cultural permeation of Frozen and “Let it Go” makes it the likely winner.
Personal: “The Moon Song.” This delicate gem has been stuck in my head for a while now, and it beautifully captures the mood of the film. Both the performances by Scarlett Johansson and Karen O are fragile, their voices cracking in a way that nails the emotional simplicity of this lovely love song. I’d be happy to see U2 win, but this is my favorite song of the group.
Also, I have to say — at the risk of alienating the sizable 3-to-9 year old segment of my readership — I thought the songs in Frozen were unremarkable. And it’s not just because I’m not a little kid. I’m as down for a good Disney musical as anyone, and it’s not unheard of that I might be walking around my apartment singing Menken-Ashman showstoppers like “Under the Sea,” “Be Our Guest” or “Friend Like Me.” That’s right: I’m a 37 year-old childless, heterosexual male who likes Disney musicals. Deal with the paradox. But I found the songs in Frozen bland and forgettable. I had hoped for more from them, given that they were co-written by a lyricist behind Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, but I guess that the subversive mind behind such tunes as “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “Super Mormon Hell Dream” would have to switch gears a bit for Disney. All that said, there’s a reason “Let it Go” is the nominee. It’s easily the movie’s best song, and the only one that deserves a place in the canon of classic Disney music. But I’d rather see the tune from Her win.
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
The intricate period garb of The Invisible Woman is probably most consistent with the Academy’s past choices in this category, but I suspect that the movie is too far down the radar for most voters. On the other hand, confinement to the art houses didn’t prevent 2008′s The Duchess or 2009′s The Young Victoria from winning this prize. Still, I think both of those movies had slightly higher profiles than this one, which was never able to break through the cluttered year-end field despite strong reviews and the presence of Ralph Fiennes as star and director.
If we also rule out 12 Years a Slave and The Grandmaster, we’re left with The Great Gatsby and American Hustle. It’s a really tough call. Again, the voters tend to go for the more elaborate and pretty costumes, which is great for Gatsby. But that movie is far less popular than American Hustle, whose designers have been praised for capturing the film’s disco days with precise detail. With excellent reasons to justify either victory, I’m basing my guess on past behavior and giving the edge to The Great Gatsby. But Hustle‘s odds are just as good…and The Invisible Woman could still surprise.
Personal: The Great Gatsby. There are some nice items in American Hustle, mainly the outfits worn by Amy Adams. I won’t soon forget that white macramé bathing suit. But the lavish, exquisite styles of Gatsby are on a whole other level.
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
I understand the costumes for American Hustle getting nominated; I’m a little puzzled by the production design being singled out. Yes, the period is rendered exactingly, but the same could be said for a lot of movies. There were more interesting choices to be made here, and I’d be surprised if the Academy’s appreciation of the movie helps it here. 12 Years a Slave is probably too drab to win; the voters like more splendor and beauty in this category. Then again, Lincoln took the award last year, so there are always exceptions to the rule.
The remaining choices are The Great Gatsby, Her and Gravity. The latter also lacks the color and opulence that tends to stand out in this race, but if voters are just mechanically choosing the movie in all the so-called “technical” categories, then it has a chance. Gatsby and Her stand in a bit of opposition to one another. Gatsby‘s work is big, extravagant, showy. Her‘s is subdued, intimate, subtle. Voters traditionally prefer extravagant and showy, so I’m guessing Gatsby. But if people find it to be over the top, Her and even Gravity are waiting in the wings.
Personal: I have to go with Her. Gatsby looks great, but Her presents such a beautiful and unique near-future with a warm color scheme that so nicely compliments every other aspect of the movie from the visual to the emotional. Extra points for creation of the cityscape, incorporating footage shot in Shanghai to create an enhanced Los Angeles.
BEST FILM EDITING
Pundits always claim that this category usually goes hand in hand with Best Picture, but I’m not sure when or how that idea took root, since the two categories have aligned only 34 times in the 79 years that the Editing award has existed. In a year with a tight Best Picture race, many will be looking at this category to give an indication of which way the scales are tipped. I’m not so sure.
Dallas Buyers Club is the only nominee I can say with certainty is out of the running. I don’t think 12 Years a Slave will take it either. That leaves Captain Phillips, American Hustle and Gravity. The former two took the gold from the American Cinema Editors guild, where there were categories for drama and musical/comedy. In recent years, one of the guild’s winners has usually gone on to take the Oscar. But I think Gravity will be the Academy’s pick. It’s heavy use of long takes makes for less editing than any of the competition, which in a way might make the decisions around where to cut seem all the more crucial. The fact is that like most of us, the majority of Academy members don’t really understand what goes into this work. They’ll pick the movie that feels the most effectively edited. That could definitely be Captain Phillips, but I think it will be Gravity.
Personal: Gravity. I don’t know better than any layman, but it’s said that the best editing is invisible. Gravity embodies that more than any of this year’s nominees.
Like Best Visual Effects, this award seems to be one of the night’s easiest calls. With all respect to The Grandmaster, Prisoners, Inside Llewyn Davis and Nebraska — all gorgeously photographed — it’s gotta be Gravity. Though much of the movie’s photography had to be accomplished via VFX, Emmanuel Lubezki still designed the shots as he would for any film and worked closely with the VFX artists to implement his vision. The movie features some stunning long takes, including its already legendary opening shot which runs for…17 minutes? 13 minutes? I’ve read both, and since I was too enthralled even upon my second viewing of the movie to clock it myself, I’ll go with Kris Tapley’s 13; he’s a guy who really pays attention and respect to cinematography. (Check out his excellent annual feature spotlighting the Top 10 Shots of the Year. I stole a couple of pictures here from that post.) 13 or 17…either way, it’s a goddamn glorious shot. Just one of many.
Lubezki has been in this position before, going in as the favorite to win the Oscar in 2006 for Cuarón’s previous film Children of Men, and again in 2011 for The Tree of Life. He won the American Society of Cinematographers prize for both of those, and both times walked away from the Oscars empty-handed. He took the ASC prize this year as well, which is notable because the guild has been resistant to 3D. Gravity is the first 3D movie they’ve feted, which only adds to the likelihood that the stars — and the satellites — have finally aligned for Lubezki’s overdue Oscar win. The right movie, the right year. As for Roger Deakins, still awaiting his first win as Prisoners marks his 11th nomination, well, he’ll definitely be back sooner than later.
Interesting sidebar: assuming Gravity wins Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects, it will be the fifth movie in a row to do so, after Life of Pi, Hugo, Inception and Avatar. Never mind that Pi, Hugo and Avatar should not have won for Cinematography (though I did support Avatar at the time), nor should Hugo have won for VFX. What’s done is done, and it signals a growing connection between the two crafts, as well as a dangerous endorsement of 3D, which was showcased by all but Inception. (I say dangerous because outside of IMAX nature documentaries and the like, 3D has proven to be an exploitative gimmick that as far as I’m concerned has been justified only twice since Avatar: Gravity and the opening credits sequence of Oz the Great and Powerful. Seeing it win Oscars is not helping put an end to its unwelcome invasion.)
As the lines blur more frequently between cinematography, visual effects and even production design, many people within the industry have suggested that the Academy divide the cinematography category into two, just as they once did to award films shot in black and white vs. those shot in color. Here, the idea would be one category for films with a heavy CGI component, and one for films shot more traditionally, in natural environments. It’s an issue the Academy is aware of, with former president Hawk Koch suggesting that such a potential category could be called Visual Imaging. This may be a change worth making somewhere down the line, but I don’t think we’re there yet, for the same reason there shouldn’t be a category for performance capture acting, as people have been suggesting in recent years. The fact is that these things still aren’t happening regularly enough and to such an extreme degree — like Gravity — that five worthy contenders could be identified each year. There might be one or two dominant films, but the rest of the nominees would be filler. Even the illustrious Mr. Deakins thinks a divided category would just result in a whole other set of complications. This year, the Visual Effects Society presented an award for Best Virtual Cinematography in a Live Action Feature, which was of course awarded to Gravity. Lubezki was a winner along with three members of the visual effects team, but none of the other four nominated films — Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Pacific Rim and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug — cited the cinematographer, because ultimately the line between camerawork and effects for the films as a whole was more traditionally divided. That may cease to be the case someday, and projects like Gravity may happen more often. In the meantime, maybe the Academy and the studios could figure out ways each year to make sure voters understand what constitutes cinematography and what constitutes visual effects in these “hybrid” films.
Anyway, that’s all just food for thought. Right now, whatever it signals for the future, Gravity has this in the bag.
Personal: Gravity all the way.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
A pretty weak category this year. The Croods and Despicable Me 2 have their admirers, but not enough of them, despite efforts on the part of DreamWorks Animation to give The Croods a push with some swanky events in late January. Ernest & Celestine, the sole nominee of the group I haven’t seen, is said to be wonderful and charming, but poses no threat. The Wind Rises won a decent number of critics awards, but even a thoughtful alternative such as that won’t be able to ice out the phenomenon that is Frozen. Disney kept their beloved hit on voters’ minds with some gatherings of their own, most notably an intimate concert with performances from the film’s cast. A nice event I’m sure, but they needn’t have bothered. Frozen is way ahead of the pack in this race.
Personal: The Wind Rises. It’s the most original and ambitious film of the bunch, and it is so refreshing to see an animation master like Hayao Miyazaki show that the medium can be used to tell mature stories. As great an age for animated films as this is, most of them still cater to kids and families. Miyazaki and The Wind Rises offer a reminder that animation can be targeted at adults. Oh well…Miyazaki may not win, but he was honored in January by The Simpsons, and really…isn’t that even better than an Oscar?
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
It’s too bad that Before Midnight doesn’t have more muscle in this race, but it’s basically sitting on the bench. The Wolf of Wall Street will prove too divisive, so it’s out as well. Captain Phillips took the prize from the Writers Guild, but didn’t have to contend with 12 Years a Slave or Philomena, both of which were ineligible. While it may not be able to overcome the momentum of the frontrunners in its other three categories, Philomena could have more luck here. Like last year’s winner Argo, it successfully weaves a lot of humor into a movie that depicts serious and even tragic events. Apparently it is loved by many Academy members, and this could be the place they show their admiration. It won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) prize, which can sometimes be a barometer for the Oscars, but it’s hard to know. It might have had a hometown advantage of sorts. Harvey Weinstein has done plenty to keep the movie in the spotlight, sending co-writer/star Steve Coogan and the real Philomena Lee on a slew of publicity stops. The pair even met with Pope Francis to advocate for the release of 60,000 adoption files still being kept from families in situations like the one Philomena endured. This race could go either way, but I think the sheer power of 12 Years a Slave will be hard to ignore. Whether voters are going by the effectiveness of the storytelling, the weight of the real-life events depicted or some combination of both, 12 Years stands tallest.
Personal: Before Midnight or 12 Years a Slave. The former, like its predecessors, offers such an honest, intimate and unconventional portrait of a relationship, and it would be nice to see Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke recognized for this special series of films. And John Ridley’s adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s memoir about his time in bondage is direct and raw, never going for manipulation.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
The nomination for Dallas Buyers Club demonstrates how much the movie resonated with Academy members, but it won’t win here. Neither will Nebraska or Blue Jasmine, both of which are liked, but neither of which have the special sauce it takes to win. So it boils down to Her and American Hustle. Her would appear to be the frontrunner, having dominated the critics awards, and taken home the Golden Globe and the Writers Guild Award. There’s no doubt that it’s the most original of the nominees, but of course as I often say, the category isn’t necessarily recognizing work that is original in that way. There are the two obstacles in its path. First, there are a lot of Academy members — especially older ones — who just don’t get the movie. There were enough passionate supporters to secure it a Best Picture nomination, and it obviously had a decent amount of support within individual branches, but now with the whole Academy voting, those who think the movie is too weird could hold it back. Second, this may be the best chance that American Hustle‘s supporters have to give it a major win. There are two other categories we’ll get to where it stands a chance, but I don’t think it will triumph in either. Its odds are better here. Between Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, voters are enamored with David O. Russell, so they may feel the time has come to recognize him. Hustle took the BAFTA, but Her wasn’t nominated.
Either outcome seems 100% viable to me. My gut tells me that Hustle will pull it off, but my heart says that Her‘s originality can’t be denied. I may flip-flop when the moment of truth comes and I have to check my ballot, but I’m going with Her.
Personal: I too would love to see David O. Russell win an Oscar, but not for the American Hustle screenplay, which I found to be the source of the movie’s flaws. There is only one truly original work here that is original not just in the way the category is meant to be interpreted — that is, work that is not based on previously existing material — but also in its entire premise and execution. That would be Her.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
We can start by eliminating Julia Roberts and Blue Jasmine‘s Sally Hawkins. They did good work, but their journey ends with the nomination. June Squibb has minor spoiler potential for her laugh-out-loud work in Nebraska, but although she’s a comic force of nature in that film, she’s up against even stronger forces. Not that she doesn’t make a compelling case for herself…
Barring Squibb’s guilt trip, the winner is expected to be either Jennifer Lawrence or Lupita Nyong’o, whose name — in case this is an issue for anyone — sounds like neon-go. Academy members have been vocal in their adoration of Lawrence’s performance, and it could be said that hers is the more “entertaining” of the two. She’s also the only member of Hustle‘s nominated quartet that seems to have a chance. Lawrence won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, while Nyong’o took the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award and the Broadcast Film Critics Award (BFCA). The timing of the BAFTA — those awards were handed out February 16, two days after Oscar voting began — is often seen as an indication of where winds might be shifting, so some pundits are no doubt reading Lawrence’s victory as a sign that she’s pulling ahead. That may be, but consider that she was not awarded the BAFTA for Best Actress last year for Silver Linings Playbook. She lost to Amour‘s Emmanuel Riva before going on to pick up the Oscar. So BAFTA was a bit late to the Jennifer Lawrence bandwagon, and may have wanted to jump onboard. Her Oscar win last year is another big obstacle. As loved as she is — and she really, really is — are voters prepared to hand her a second consecutive Academy Award? Back-to-back wins certainly happen, but not often. She would be only the third actress to do it, and the youngest actress to ever win two Oscars.
In Nyong’o’s favor is not just that she gives a wrenching performance in a powerful film, but that her character is so horribly victimized. I assure you that many of the votes Nyong’o will receive will be given to her as much if not more so because of what the character goes through as for the skill of her portrayal. Among the outside factors that will help her case are the grace and eloquence she’s expressed throughout the many Q&A’s she has participated in and on stage when accepting prior awards. This is, after all, her first film. She’s fresh out of drama school, and being thrust into the blinding spotlight can be overwhelming and surreal. Yet she’s handled it with the poise of a pro and the overwhelming gratitude of one who’s been warmly welcomed to the club. Her personal narrative is an asset. On top of that, this category loves to recognize ingenues. It’s amusing that at 23, Lawrence is the old pro here, but she is.
So…while the virulent strain of Jennifer Lawrence Fever that has cloaked this country for the past two years remains strong enough to lift her to her second Oscar in a row, I think Lupita Nyong’o is, if not the antidote, than at least a temporary break in the state of delirium.
Personal: June Squibb. I’ll be thrilled for Nyong’o if she wins, but I thought she needed a little more screentime to justify an Oscar win. She is excellent, but I didn’t feel she had enough to do, and I’m not convinced she would be dominating the field as she has if not for the brutality suffered by Patsey. Squibb’s performance may not be the most challenging of the bunch, but hers was the definition of great supporting work, and I relished every moment she was onscreen.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
This outcome has seemed pretty set in stone for a couple of months now. Jared Leto cleaned up with the national and regional critics associations, and took the Golden Globe, the BFCA and SAG awards. He missed out on the BAFTA, but wasn’t nominated, so winning would have been a feat. (It went to Barkhad Abdi.) Surprises could always happen, but I don’t imagine Bradley Cooper, Jonah Hill or Michael Fassbender would emerge victorious at this late stage. Abdi is the most likely threat, but at the end of the day, voters are too deeply moved by Leto’s inhabiting of Rayon.
Not that he needs any help at this point, but Leto might earn extra points for his tactful handling of a heckler at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, who interrupted a celebration of Leto’s work by shouting out that heterosexual actors shouldn’t play gay and transgender characters. Leto engaged with the audience member briefly, then invited her to come backstage after the event to continue the conversation. Between the performance and his admirable offscreen behavior, Leto should be sitting pretty.
Personal: Bradley Cooper’s was probably my favorite performance, and a win for Barkhad Abdi would be pretty sweet too. Leto was excellent, and I’ll have no problem with him getting it. But I feel the same way as I do about Nyong’o: the movie needed more of him to warrant an Oscar win.
On a side note, I’d like to throw a request into the ether and see if it makes its way to the show producers, regarding the clips that will be shown for each of the performers. Barkhad Abdi gives a wonderful performance throughout Captain Phillips; so good, he got an Oscar nomination! So when it comes time to show a small sample of his work, please distinguish yourself from every award show up to this point by choosing a clip other than the one where he says, “Look at me! I’m the captain now.” That’s not his only line. Thank you.
When Blue Jasmine hit theaters last July, Cate Blanchett was declared the one to beat for Best Actress. Little has changed. Meryl Streep, Judi Dench and Sandra Bullock are just along for the ride on this one. Amy Adams, celebrating her fifth nomination and her first in the lead actress category, is the only threat Blanchett faces, and the threat is minimal. Her performance has been lauded enthusiastically by voters, and she has definitely gained ground, but Blanchett, armed with the SAG, BFCA and BAFTA awards, a Golden Globe (she won in the Drama category, while Adams took the Musical/Comedy prize), and over 20 critics awards, will be nearly impossible to beat.
The one chink in her armor is the reignited scandal about Woody Allen, sparked when his estranged daughter Dylan published an op-ed in The New York Times detailing her claims of abuse, and mentioning actors from Allen’s films — including Blanchett — in her effort to question the ongoing devotion showered upon him by the film industry. It didn’t take long for people to wonder aloud what the situation would do to Blanchett’s chances. It may have been a crass question to ask, but it does mean something; all manner of outside factors like this one absolutely impact the race whether they should or not. As I followed the media storm over the next several days, I considered writing about it here, but decided that it’s a can of worms I’m better off not opening. When she was questioned about it, Blanchett gave a brief answer clarifying that it was a difficult matter for their family. (Figures it was entertainment/Oscar writer Jeffrey Wells who asked the question. That guy is such a douche.)
The one award she publicly accepted after the scandal reared its head again was the BAFTA, and Blanchett shrewdly avoided the controversy by not thanking anybody specifically, instead offering a general thanks to everyone who made the Blue Jasmine experience so special and memorable for her. She devoted the bulk of her speech to saluting Philip Seymour Hoffman. Heartfelt sentiments no doubt, but you can bet it was also a calculated effort to avoid invoking Allen while there’s so much heat on him, and unfairly on her. I’m sure she did lose some votes from people who can’t stomach honoring Allen’s work in any way, but most Academy members who have spoken about it say that none of it has anything to do with Blanchett. When she wins the Oscar, it will be hard to avoid his name, but we’ll see. Blanchett is a class act; I’m sure she’ll handle it gracefully.
Personal: Cate Blanchett. One of the best, at her exceptional best.
Of the four acting nominations, this one is probably the least settled. Momentum is with Matthew McConaughey, but I wouldn’t call him a slam dunk. Leonardo DiCaprio has a lot of supporters declaring this the time to finally recognize him, and it is interesting that the “it’s his/her time” sentiment that so often factors into these awards (think recent examples like Jeff Bridges and Kate Winslet) is with McConaughey rather than DiCaprio, who has consistently been one of the finest actors out there, nailing his roles every time out of the gate. This nomination is only his fourth, but there are definitely a few other times he deserved to be in the running. McConaughey, meanwhile, is in the midst of a remarkable career turnaround that has seen him forsake the generic romantic comedies and bland studio dramas and adventures which were keeping him busy in favor of smaller, more exciting character driven pieces with notable directors. The McConaissance, as it has been brilliantly dubbed, is in full swing, and the only reason I can’t say that it peaks with Dallas Buyers Club is that he may still be on the climb. So it’s intriguing that the “it’s his time” narrative that might have benefitted DiCaprio sits instead with McConaughey on the sheer concentration of great work in such a short period.
It’s also not out of the question that Chiwetel Ejiofor could pull this out. The 12 Years a Slave star was the clear frontrunner during the first half of awards season, when the critics awards were the source of all the buzz. Then McConaughey won the Golden Globe for Drama, then the BFCA award, then the SAG trophy. (DiCaprio took the Golden Globe for Musical/Comedy.) Ejiofor rebounded with the BAFTA win, but McConaughey wasn’t nominated by the Brits. Ejiofor is a respected actor who has been doing sturdy work for years now (he made his big screen debut opposite McConaughey in Amistad), and has earned rapturous praise for his performance of Solomon Northrup. A win for him does not seem so impossible.
The buzz seems to be around these three, leaving Bruce Dern and Christian Bale on the sidelines. Dern has worked the campaign circuit like an animal and regaled Q&A audiences and various gatherings of voters with great stories of his many years in Hollywood. He has friends and admirers throughout the Academy, but the nomination and the part itself will have to be his reward.
So Ejiofor is still in the game, and DiCaprio is closing the gap, but McConaughey is still out in front. Dallas Buyers Club has bowled over voters, and his enthusiastic speeches at other award ceremonies have charmed. His SAG speech, in particular, was a gas. It might have seemed strange and rambling, but was actually a giddy and joyous expression of excitement about the adventures that actors get to go on, and those in the room seemed to know exactly what he was talking about. (The video quality in that link isn’t great, but for some reason SAG’s official video cuts off after about a minute.) And there’s one other important thing working in McConaughey’s favor: True Detective. The terrific series debuted a few days before the nominations were announced, providing Academy members who have HBO — which I’m sure is an awful lot of them — with a weekly reminder of his talent. The actor is simply killing it on that show, and will need additional shelf space for the awards he may start winning come this September’s Emmys. If voters are torn over who to vote for, a look at True Detective might tip the scales for McConaughey.
Personal: I have to go with McConaughey. These are all outstanding performances and I’d be happy to see any of them take the stage. There are all kinds of ways to judge these things, but in this case, McConaughey was the one who most successfully made me forget about the actor and see only the character…which especially impressed me since he still had his Texas twang and southern charm (as much as a homophobic profiteer can be charming, at least). I suppose Bale did that for me too, but I don’t know…there’s an electricity to McConaughey’s work that sets it apart. Ejiofor is a close second. It’s a restrained, internalized performance but he conveys so much intelligence and emotion. And when he finally breaks down, it’s just devastating.
This one is pretty much decided. Gravity is a groundbreaking achievement that was dependent on non-existent technology to produce. So like George Lucas and James Cameron before him, Alfonso Cuarón invented the technology. Not single-handedly of course, but he brought together the right people, conveyed his vision, saw it through over four-and-a-half years and delivered an experience that demanded people get off the couch and go out to the theater. Even those who find the movie too thin and lacking substance are awed by the directorial accomplishment. He already has the Golden Globe and awards from the BFCA, BAFTA, and most telling, the Directors Guild of America. If anyone can beat him, it’s Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave, but that would be a shock at this juncture. David O. Russell, Alexander Payne and Martin Scorsese are earthbound this year. The night belongs to Alfonso Cuarón.
Personal: Alfonso Cuarón. His achievement is on a whole other level, even if — as he told the crowd at the DGA ceremony — “I barely understand how we made the film.”
So why did I want to leave this category for last instead of kicking off with it as usual? Because I believe something fairly unique is about to happen. I’ve predicted Gravity to triumph in seven races so far, and even if it doesn’t get all of them, it will get most. I don’t think there’s any question it will emerge with the most wins of the night. And usually, the film that wins the most awards claims Best Picture among its tally. I don’t think that will happen this year.
We can eliminate most of the competition, as the category is seen as coming down to three movies: Gravity, 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle. Some might also think Philomena stands a chance, but they’re kidding themselves. Hustle is clearly loved by the Academy, co-leading the field alongside Gravity with 10 nominations including one in each acting category. When it took the SAG top prize for Best Performance by an Ensemble, pundits exclaimed that its Best Picture chances were suddenly elevated. Don’t be fooled. Time and again people try to equate SAG’s top award with the Academy’s, and the two simply don’t correlate. Yes, sometimes they go to the same movie, but for different reasons, judged on different criteria. While 12 Years a Slave features a line-up of terrific performances, Hustle‘s are a lot more fun, and pop off he screen with the kind of electricity that befits that movie. Hustle is seen as more of an acting showcase than 12 Years, and that’s why it won the Ensemble award from SAG.
Which brings us back to Gravity and 12 Years. The Producers Guild of America awards were expected to clarify the field, but the two movies tied…the odds of which are incredibly unlikely. The PGA awards use the same preferential system of voting that the Academy uses for Best Picture (though not for any of the other categories), hence the expectation that the Oscar win might be signaled by the PGA winner. No such luck this time around. In past years, I’ve linked to detailed write-ups by The Wrap‘s Steve Pond about how the preferential ballot works, but this year he recorded a succinct, helpful video.
Another tie is unlikely, so with Gravity‘s likelihood of winning 5 to 7 awards, including Best Director, it appears to have the edge. But I’m expecting Best Picture will go to 12 Years a Slave.
It’s not exactly crazy talk. We’ve watched throughout the awards season — at the Golden Globes and the BFCA and BAFTA awards — as 12 Years has lost in most or even all of its categories throughout the night, but still come out with the top prize. What 12 Years has going for it, as Best Picture winners so often do, is a sense of importance. At the very end of this piece from Vulture, published the day of the nominations, the writer points out that Academy members “don’t pick the film they think is best, they pick the film they think will best represent them.” I recall Siskel & Ebert talking about the Oscars years ago, and they said that the Academy tends to make the mistake that to vote for a movie is to endorse its message. Siskel pointed to Gandhi as an example. While he acknowledged that it was a very good film to which he gave a positive review, he said the movie with the enduring cultural impact, and in his mind the better movie, was Tootsie. I would add E.T. Still others would point to The Verdict. It’s not that Gandhi isn’t a good film, but by naming it Best Picture, voters got to celebrate what the movie, and the man himself, stood for.
I’m not calling this year’s race a repeat of 1982′s, because I do think 12 Years a Slave is a remarkable movie that would be a deserving Best Picture winner purely on its artistic merits. But it’s not easy to consider it purely for artistic merits, because right or wrong, its win would also make a statement. As one anonymous voter told Entertainment Weekly, they are voting for 12 Years not because it’s their favorite movie of the year, but because “these stories shouldn’t be marginalized, and it’s a triumph it got made. The film needs to be in the world, and for all the years that it hasn’t been, this is the best picture of the year.” That’s just one voter’s opinion, and as EW’s piece shows, other members are voting differently. But I do think that many people will go with 12 Years, even if they like Gravity or another film better, because naming it Best Picture sends a message. Even if they don’t rank it #1 on their ballot, they may go with #2 or #3, and as the video above demonstrates (as does this older article by Steve Pond), a movie needs a lot of second, third and fourth place rankings to come out the winner.
And you know that if it loses, cultural and media critics will be all over the Academy in the following days. They might not necessarily level charges of overt racism, but they will definitely suggest that the organization’s refusal to honor the movie that boldly confronts such a traumatizing chapter in American history, which turns a necessary eye onto a shame that continues to affect society today, is an insult and a travesty. You thought the backlash was vocal when Brokeback Mountain lost Best Picture? If 12 Years loses, just wait….
On the other hand, Gravity is probably more widely respected than Crash, the movie that felled Brokeback. For months now, pundits who are out there talking to Academy members hear Gravity named most often as their favorite movie of the bunch. With Cuarón’s Best Director win nearly assured, tradition is on Gravity‘s side to get Best Picture as well, as is the fact that Gravity will win more awards than any other movie. The Picture/Director split is still a rarity (it’s happened 22 times at this point), but the way everything has fallen this year, it seems like a strong possibility. As always, we can go all around the bend pointing out things that have never happened before, or stats that are rare, all to justify either outcome (like the point I made in the previous Oscar post about movies without a Screenplay nomination almost never winning Best Picture. That would indicate that Gravity is out). But in the end, each year is unique, and this year I think that Gravity will win the night’s biggest haul, but lose the top prize to 12 Years a Slave.
Personal: I suppose Gravity and Her were my favorite of the nominees, but I’m just as emotionally tuned into the messages these awards can send as anyone, and if I weigh all the factors, I land on 12 Years a Slave.
PREVIEWING THE SHOW
With Ellen DeGeneres onboard as host, I think the easiest prediction to make is that this year’s ceremony will prove far less controversial than last year’s Seth MacFarlane show. As long as she doesn’t try to make any 12 Years a Slave jokes. (I don’t recall exactly how Whoopi Goldberg handled Schindler’s List; only that she referenced how Billy Crystal usually came out and sang a medley that poked good-natured fun at the Best Picture nominees and then remarked, “He got The Crying Game; I got Schindler’s List.” That may have been the extent of jokes about the night’s eventual winner.) I’m sure Ellen will do well. She’s all about making people comfortable, and especially after all the disapproval that MacFarlane’s gig incited, it was no surprise that returning show producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan went with someone as good-natured and well-liked as Ellen. One thing is for sure: just like last year, the bar was set high at the Golden Globes by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler…who, come to think of it, managed to find the right tone for a 12 Years a Slave joke.
What else can we expect? The show’s theme is a celebration of movie heroes, from the Avengers to Atticus Finch, and there will also be a tribute to The Wizard of Oz, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. U2, Pharrell Williams, Karen O and Idina Menzel will be on hand to perform the nominated songs, and there will also be performances by Pink and Bette Midler. As usual, the producers promise surprises, so we’ll see what they have in store.
Reading this has probably taken you right up to the start of the show, but if you still have a few spare minutes, here are a couple of Oscar quizzes you can try your luck at. I aced the first one, and got 60% on the more difficult second one. And with that, I think I’ve done enough damage here. Enjoy the show!