Behold the 85th Academy Awards; or, “Total, Utter Bullshit”

Best Supporting Actor:

5) Alan Arkin – Argo

Arkin is perfectly up to the task but I’m a bit surprised he’s even nominated here as his role in the film is so small, and he’s not asked to do anything particularly remarkable.  He nails the wisecracking, worldly, “ah-whatta-ya-gonna-do” persona for his character, but he’s ultimately a pretty minor cog in a film that’s a lot more slick (appreciatedly so, mind you) than it is a buffet of classic acting.  Nothing against his performance, but the slot would have been better filled by someone who admirably filled a larger, deeper role, say Javier Bardem for his work in Skyfall or Michael Fassbender in Prometheus.

4) Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook

De Niro—along with the rest of the nominees in this category—has more screen time to work with than Arkin, but his role is similarly more efficient than impressive.  De Niro has been playing gravel-y east-coast patriarchs for what seems like years untold by now, and I just don’t think he’s given anything in particular to stand out in the A-lister ensemble that is Silver Linings Playbook.  For example, as a character with an acute obsessive compulsive disorder one might imagine De Niro would have a show-stopping scene depicting him grappling with it—joyously, gut-wrenchingly,  whatever.  But, any demon he may harbor, like Cooper’s and Lawrence’s, is eschewed and made more-or-less an endearing little idiosyncrasy.

3) Tommy Lee Jones—Lincoln

I enjoyed TLJ here, as I am usually wont to.  He’s essentially playing himself in abrasive mode, really not much different from, say, the curmudgeonly Agent K from Men In Black.  Just with more witty repartee.  No one delivers it quite like Jones does.  But, tasked with being the film’s near-only source of levity, we may have a case here of an actor well-cast more than we do a virtuoso performance.  To compare, this is probably closer to Jack Nicholson playing himself in The Bucket List than it is Nicholson playing himself in A Few Good Men.

2) Christoph Waltz—Django Unchained

The most charismatic of a crop of nominees not lacking for charisma, Waltz follows up his role as a charmingly odd and more-than-slightly-deranged SS Commander in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds with a role as a charmingly odd and more-than-slightly-deranged dentist in Django.  Waltz makes the subtle shift from villain to anti-hero with aplomb, elevating (along with Leo DiCaprio, who also may well have garnered his own Supporting Actor nomination) what could otherwise have been a fairly mixed bag of inspired and clunky elements to a rollicking, jolly experience with a dear friend.

1) Phillip Seymour Hoffman—The Master

Phillip strikes again with a masterful depiction of a clearly deranged, magnetic, repulsive, rapturous, insinuating man.  Whatever it was, The Master arguably served as this year’s foremost canvas for classic acting performances, demanding that its leads supply the feel and texture of a narrative that’s otherwise opaque.  Hoffman delivers a man that is at once larger than life and intimately delicate, commanding and commanded.

Should Win: Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Hoffman and Waltz’s performances were roughly equal in sheer impressiveness.  I’ll give Hoffman the nod because of the range his role demanded.  The fact that Waltz recently won an award in the same category for a similar performance, and for the same director, is also a small factor.

Will Win: Tommy Lee Jones

His character is exactly what I think your stereotypical Academy voter likes to see in his or herself: longer in the tooth than a walrus, sure, but dagnabit those teeth still have bite, and while days may be short, the wit is yet wicked.  Not only that, but Lincoln‘s Thaddeus Stevens is portrayed as progressiveness personified, a trait the Academy would like to be mistaken for.

Best Supporting Actress:

x-Helen Hunt—The Sessions

I did not catch this one, but did view trailers such as here and scenes here.  While the premise of the film is interesting, the trailer, at least, seems to suggest that any drama produced may be bogged down a bit by an acute predilection for inane one-liners regarding the protagonist’s situation.  Who knows?

4. Jacki Weaver—Silver Linings Playbook

Everything that applies to Robert De Niro’s nomination applies here.  Her role is supposed to blend comfortably in the back ground, and it succeeds well in pleasantly doing so, in no small part due to adept comedic timing.

3. Sally Field—Lincoln

A great weakness of Lincoln was its depiction of Mary Todd.  I just don’t think she is allowed to come off with any real nuance; she’s a tortured, torturing, wailing soul, and that’s about that.  Unhappily, the film fetters the magnitude of Field’s performance to just how cloyingly desperate she can come off.  Great performances are measured at least as much by subtlety and nuance as sheer volume of emotion, and whether through scripting or editing, Lincoln just doesn’t make allowances for the former.

1b. Anne Hathaway—Les Miserables

Nailing the emotional peak of a 157 minute film who’s emotional intensity is turned up to 11 for most of the duration, Hathaway’s role is short but climactic.  Too bad it comes just half an hour into the film. Hooper ratchets up the pressure on Hathaway’s rendition of the play’s signature  “I Dreamed a Dream” by filming the entire delivery about a foot from Fantine’s ruined face.  Hathaway absolutely delivers, turning a potentially awkward directorial move into something scintillating.  While Hooper’s decision to eschew the possibilities of cinema in order to attempt some simulation of a live performance fails Les Mis more often than not, Hathaway is so suited to the stage that for a brief, shining moment, it works.

1a. Amy Adams—The Master

A leader along with Hathaway if buzz is any indication, Adams has been widely lauded by critics for her portrayal as the shadowy influence behind Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd.  Undoubtedly she portrays some of The Master’s most subtle and most memorable moments with great aplomb.  Very much unlike Hathaway’s performance, the nature of Adams’ role in The Master makes it tricky to pinpoint a particular moment where she shines through…but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

Should Win: Amy Adams…or Anne Hathaway

I’m hesitating on this, I think in part because The Master was released last summer and Les Mis is so fresh.  Give me either.  I have to believe this is a two actress race; neither Hathaway or Adams is a bad choice.

Will Win: Amy Adams…or Anne Hathaway

I’m thinking Adams has a strong shot based off an uneasy feeling that voters will feel Adams’ portrayal of a secretly domineering, controlling, rigid creature resonates as some sort of study in women.  On the other hand, Hathaway is the more classic go-to.

Best Actor:

X-Denzel Washington—Flight

Along with The Impossible and The Sessions, didn’t catch it.  Apparently nothing classic is here per se; that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a very strong performance.

4. Hugh Jackman—Les Miserables

Not a bad performance by the Aussie playing a Frenchman with a slightly British accent.  He certainly defeats his on-screen nemesis and fellow Aussie Russell  Crowe when it comes to sing-speaking.  I just don’t think he particularly owns the role—no doubt in part because he’s directed to play things pretty safe.  Jackman is asked to be a competent placeholder for Jean Valjean a bit more than he is to make a memorable impression on it.

3. Bradley Cooper—Silver Linings Playbook

I will be the first to admit I have not been a big Cooper fan so far.   In his larger roles he would seem to be cast as a sort of quintessential leading man a-la a George Clooney, or a Brad Pitt…but somehow he would come off as maddeningly bland, crowd sourced, lacking whatever Clooney-ness or Pitt-iness that makes those actors at once archetypal and distinct.  This is the first film where I thought Cooper’s acting acumen shined, finally given a role perhaps just dynamic enough to push him. To be sure, his depiction of a bipolar depressive falls far short of the classic Hollywood mental-illness-depiction, but SLP certainly doesn’t aspire to be One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  It aspires to have Cooper speak a bit rapidly, and be a generally pesky, excitable boy.  This is accomplished.

2. Daniel Day-Lewis—Lincoln

Daniel is legend, and I can begin to see what people are imagining when they hail his performance as an uncanny channeling of the 16th president’s true intonations, register, posture, gait, and so on.  I’m only willing to go down this line of reasoning so far.  The ‘authenticity’ of the performance should not be the final say as to its strength: it cannot be robustly verified, and mimicry is not the epitome of acting greatness.  Instead, notice just how many of Lincoln’s great mannerisms here are Daniel Day-Lewis’ specifically: the way he slowly raises his voice as impatience is stoked, the pauses and hitches in his speech patterns, his little, seemingly unconscious nods of affirmation as he listens to himself speak.  In all, I left this performance ever so slightly disappointed, not so much in the performance itself as the surprisingly listless narrative it occupies.  That said, Day-Lewis remains a joy to behold, and a Best Actor win here will not be remiss.

1. Joaquin Phoenix—The Master

Never have I been so impressed with a performance, and so deeply appalled by the character depicted.  Phoenix creates dialects, intonations, expressions and gestures here that are so alien and yet so cohesive, he’s literally a man possessed.  As noted with Hoffman’s performance, The Master asks its performers to be the story itself.  File Phoenix’s Freddie Quell under stories no one could predict could or should be told.

Should Win: Joaquin Phoenix

By “should win” I mean “had the most impressive and impactful performance of those listed in this category” as Phoenix himself has termed the Oscars as total, utter bullshit.  I tend to agree.

Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis

I think Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones are this year’s locks.  This is one of the greatest actors ever at the top of his craft, and though he’s been better and in better films, this is just too mainstream, central, and strong a performance to be defeated.

Best Actress:

x-Naomi Watts–The Impossible

Didn’t catch it.  The fact that the end of the trailer is set to U2 disqualifies it in this particular exercise under the citizens against delusions of grandeur act of 2002, colloquially known as “the Bono Act”.

?. Quvenzhane Wallis–Beasts of the Southern Wild

Here the academy throws us its curveball of the year, nominating then 6-year-old Wallis for her role as Hushpuppy.  Was Wallis’ performance every bit as a compelling and transporting as the others on this list?  I say yes.  But this nomination calls into question what we mean when we talk about “acting”, perhaps not necessarily in a bad way.  Wallis’ effectiveness here lies in the sincerity and effortlessness she conveys as she navigates her world with a combination of faith and naiveté we all once had, and have since lost, probably not long after nine years old as Wallis is now.  Wallis displays what any aspiring kindergarten teacher will tell you children her age just have–a certain bursting.  Of energy and wonder and unabashed idiosyncrasy.  Do we build sets around these children, film them, and give them Academy Awards?  How you feel about that will determine where Wallis ranks for you in this silly exercise.

3. Jessica Chastain–Zero Dark Thirty

Zero ends up being a plodding procedural in the end, and Chastain’s role here doesn’t seem like enough to elevate the film overall.  I couldn’t help but view her character as a means to take attention away from the fact that Zero is essentially a gross oversimplification of a process leading up to an important historical event–instead framing it as the story of one strong, driven woman who cuts through red tape to get the job done.  Chastain is left playing a zero-sum game.

2. Jennifer Lawrence–Silver Linings Playbook

Our foremost Hollywood A-list actress in the year our lord 2013.  In 2011, Lawrence broke out with her performance in Winter’s Bone.  How far we’ve come!  I wrote highly of the role, and as time has passed, I think she should have won for Best Actress over Natalie Portman.  Silver Linings Playbook is a different bird, and Lawrence has made the shift from the wary, dogged big sister of WB to the sexy, winning lead SLP casts well.  Likethe rest of the cast, she displays a knack for comedy, and fulfills what the role demands.  That said, a win here would be less a celebration of a Great acting performance as it would be an affirmation of Hollywood’s ability to assemble beautiful people and have them do charming things for us.  Which is no particular fault of Lawrence’s.

1. Emmanuelle Riva–Amour

The synopsis of Amour stating that it is a film about the final days of an elderly couple can’t do it justice: this is a film about people doing little things.  Putting on reading glasses, and putting the case away.  Maneuvering an electric wheelchair for the first time.  Telling anecdotes.  All in specific rooms with specific things on the shelves and tables, all of which Amour allows us to pour over with its many extended still shots.  Along with her co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant, (who isn’t nominated at all, ostensibly because he isn’t also tasked with portraying the gradual loss of physical and mental faculties due to strokes, fair enough) Riva is wonderful to behold in a challenging role.

Should Win: Emmanuelle Riva

This is a difficult category to call, especially with Wallis as a wild-card.

Will Win: Emmanuelle Riva

The Academy has a thing for giving Best Actress to roles where the woman dies.

Best Director:

5. Steven Spielberg–Lincoln

I trust that history will show Lincoln was not one of Spielberg’s best outings.  It will be a bit awkward for all parties if he gets a Best Director for this to go along with his Director awards for the far superior Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

4. David O. Russell–Silver Linings Playbook

Russell’s knack for subtle comedy is well used here, and he allows bankable talent to do what it does well.  Still, while SLP isn’t aiming too high, I think it could have easily portrayed a much, shall we say, fuller depiction of the mental illnesses it appropriates for its narrative while still remaining feel-good and family-friendly.  I haven’t read the book the film is based off of, but I have to believe a deeper story could have been culled.

3.  Benh Zeitlin–Beasts of the Southern Wild

In terms of sheer volume of directing done, Zeitlin would seem to take the cake, as Beasts involved over a year of pre-production in rural communities, and much of the very memorable sets were handmade.  This is a somewhat rare independent film that doesn’t often fall over itself to portray that “indie” vibe, and the local, mostly untrained actors used were deftly captured.

2. Ang Lee–Life of Pi

This is a situation where behind-the-scenes intel is necessary to really judge the director’s true role in a work, of which I have little.  When so much of a film is computer generated, exactly what control does the director have?  Obviously he gives detailed instruction to the engineers who create the imagery of the film just so, there are storyboards and concepts, but at what point must Lee have said, “yes, that’s perfect!” in the same way we must say “that’s what I meant!” when Google guesses what we meant by a search string–partially determining what we feel we meant by what it retrieves? Life of Pi often had cinematic magic to spare.  It also had some clunky moments, especially with some of the dialogue when adult Pi tells his story.

1. Michael Haneke–Amour

Haneke does nothing to re-invent the wheel here, this is a classically filmed and transporting narrative with no end of long, still shots that allow the viewer to populate the narrative with his or her own memories or predispositions.  This is a sort of film that makes even an amateur like myself feel like a film theorist: you can see how and why an angle here and dialogue there works, and knowing how and why doesn’t diminsh the effect.  There are also some good literary convergances here that would reward a second viewing, and even a scary moment that trumps anything most horror movies have to offer.

Should Win: Michael Haneke

Will Win: Ang Lee

Director tends to be awarded based on legacy than most of the other awards, and Haneke has effectively none as none of his previous work has been screened to much fanfare in the US.  I can see the Academy awarding this to any of the five candidates, but I’ll guess that this is where it gives a nod to the new way of doing things and awards Lee for a film that combines box office notoriety with perceived artistry.

Best Picture:

This is an extremely difficult year to handicap best picture. Our floor is generally higher than it was the last two years as most of the nominees were enjoyable enough, and, unless Zero Dark Thirty wins, our Best Picture winner should stand the test of time better than The Artist or The King’s Speech.  As close as they are, I can’t bring myself to fully rank these so the following is a rough weakest to strongest list where entries could easily float up or down a few spots depending on the time of day.

Zero Dark Thirty

Ultimately a plodding procedural we all already know the outcome of, Zero just doesn’t have the chance to shine as The Hurt Locker so admirably did.  THL follows fictional soldiers evocative of real people in situations that work on immediate and metaphorical levels (i.e. literal bomb diffusions).  Zero fictionalizes recent history.  I’m a little surprised this film is taken as rife with so much “tension” as I felt more déjà vu where images and news items less than two years old drive much of the narrative.  The POV night raid at the end was nothing your average Call of Duty player hasn’t been through time and again.  For the record, this is pro-torture insofar as it portrays “enhanced interrogation methods” being critically helpful to Bin Laden’s assassination.  Knowing it would be a public referendum on the topic of torture and the “War on Terror,” I’m surprised Zero avoids even a hint of the complexity of the topic, instead depicting the detainers as ethically ironclad individuals who do everything they do for exactly the right reasons.  A more complex take would have made for a more interesting story, if nothing else.

Les Miserables

After reading advance reviews I went into Les Mis expecting a bit of a train wreck, only to find it awkward at worst, and at times actually endearingly so.  This year’s prestige nominee,  (disappointing that nary a French accent is to be heard; apparently, the French Revolution was a British affair) I can’t imagine this product is going to go down on too many all-time favorite lists beyond the self selected die-hard musical fan.  Hooper’s decision to ignore most of the options afforded by cinema in favor of attempting to simulate a live performance does the film in more often than not.  There are few who will tell you Les Mis is such a gripping work as to be effective without the power of a live performance–or the cinematic flourishes Hooper mostly denies us.  At least we’re dealing with historical fiction this year and not fictional history as in The King’s Speech.

Silver Linings Playbook

A calculatedly safe and agreeable vehicle for an A-list ensemble, SLP doesn’t aim too high, and hits its mark.  While this film is not out to educate the nation about the nature and difficulties associated with the mental illnesses it appropriates to entertain us, it falls a bit short of its responsibility not to actually misinform.  As depicted, Cooper’s bi-polarism, Lawrence’s sexual addiction, and De Niro’s OCD are an array of charming idiosyncracies, neatly managed or resolved.  A better film with a more well-earned feel-good victory could have been made.  I strongly encourage those interested in a fun story about romance, mental illness, and sports fandom to check out Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66.

Lincoln

My most anticipated film of the year falls into an unhappy space between a historical biopic that’s actually historically accurate, and one that has been so adjusted as to make a riveting narrative.  Day-Lewis delivers with what he is given, but the threads of litigation leading up to the 13th amendment and Lincoln’s personal life never really coalesce into anything terribly compelling.  Spielberg seems to do better work when he’s dealing with the present or the future, rather than history.  As with Zero, this film is boosted by being perceived as a clever referendum on the current state of America; particularly, how divided it is.  Left at that, the takeaway is just as superficial and redundant as the mass media reports that constantly stoke and prop up shallow stories of social divide for the sake of ratings.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

This is a film about an off-the-grid community, and a girl with an alcoholic, abusive father, who, in a way, loves her.  I think it succeeds up to a point as a fever-dream about the people of the Bathtub, and there’s much about the film I found very memorable: Hushpuppy’s turns of phrase, the truck bed jerry-rigged into a boat, the way Hushpuppy’s father tells her to “get in the boat” (the boat being a filthy little chest) as their dilapidated trailer floods.  I think some issues it brings up regarding the societies of those people whom what we consider society has turned a blind eye to or left behind are important.  Are the people of the Bathtub in any way ‘free’?  When left to their own devices, they actively and criminally fail the children born into their society.  So are off-the-grid societies inherently unsustainable?  Unethical?  Why or why not?  How do the circumstances of Post-Katrina coastal Louisiana come into play?  Whatever the film was getting at with its end of the world/aurochs theme worked as a way to understand the survival-of-the-fittest mentality of the Bathub which Hushpuppy has been indoctrinated with, but fails as some foggy meta-narrative about coming of age, or perseverance, or whatever may have been intended.

Life of Pi

I saw this in 2d, and something about the film quality or lighting made it seem at times as if I were watching a venerable old VHS tape.  It had a net positive effect.  Overall the Odyssey-esque literary feel of the story goes down nicely, with all the textures of canvas and salt-water and the elements powerfully rendered during Pi’s time at sea.  I personally buy the little metaphysical twist at the end, although the Big Ideas of survivor’s guilt, god, religion, nature, et al. crowd at eachother to the effect that no one of them is articulated clearly, and Pi’s reminisces often come off more waffly than sagacious.  That said, the physical journey is a compelling one, particularly the middle act where big things go down and Pi is first acclimating to his life at sea.

Django Unchained

Tarantino follows up his last semi-historical jaunt in Inglorious Basterds with an even more id suffused and, overall, strong product.  Christoph Waltz is again the lynchpin, along with a great turn by Leo DiCaprio that makes one wonder what took so long for he and Tarantino to get together.  My chief criticism is that, as with IB, by the time the credits roll it seems as if Tarantino has thrown all his ideas at us rather than his best ones; what’s at first stylishly irreverent and rapturously unique starts to get redundant.  Mainly, just how this script got filmed without someone reworking the narrative to end at, or soon after the climactic scene where Waltz and DiCaprio–our strongest characters by far–are killed off, we may never know.  Relatedly, whether with respect to the race and agency issues the film brings up or just basic narrative technique, it’s a bit alarming that Fox’s titular character is ultimately left pretty pedestrian.  The Dark Knight faced a similar issue, where, so absolutely outshown by Ledger’s Joker, Bale’s Batman (our would be protagonist) is left incidental.  I think Django’s moment was supposed to occur during the rapturous bloodshed of the 40 minute coda after the first shootout at the Candyland mansion, but everything after climax #1 is dead on the screen.

Amour

The thoughts on Emmanuelle Riva and Michael Haneke’s nominations characterize the film overall.  It’s not for everyone, and like many good films, one likely needs to be in the proper mood to enjoy it.  I’ve always felt that of all the different ways a film may succeed, one that seems particularly relevent to the Academy Awards–where we enshrine certain films for posterity–is whether it commands multiple viewings.  More than any other film on this list, I’m confident I could re-view Amour and catch new things.

Argo

My chief complaint about most recent action and thriller movies is that they could have been made so much better with just a little trimming, a little focusing.  This is not one of those films.  About as slick and lithe a film as you’ll ever want to see, Argo is…perhaps even too slick as far as a Best Picture award is concerned?  Enjoyable and proficient as it is, not much stands out as particularly memorable or indispensible, no moments I feel compelled to go back and see a second time.  Again we have a film boosted by being perceived as Important because it depicts current cultural climates, with a re-play of the Iran hostage crisis standing in for American unease as we return to a world where outright American intervention in the politics of the Middle East is downplayed after the conclusion of the “War On Terror”, and the region is wracked by revolution in an Arab Spring which America’s influence over remains unclear.

Should Win: Life of Pi, Django Unchained, Amour, or Argo

I’ll have to say any of the bottom four on this list.  Django may have the highest highs, but also the biggest flaws; Amour is well rounded, but not for everyone; Pi is sweet but at times saccharine; Argo is strong, but perhaps a bit disposable to be a Best Picture.

Will Win:

Does the Academy dare choose a second-straight sentimental foreign film that not many saw, and go with Amour?  Does it go with the indie no one saw in Beasts?  Does it go with the “this is where America is today, cleverly” Zero or Lincoln?  The only choices that would shock me would be Les Mis or Django, and to say Les Mis would be a shock considering what Joaquin Phoenix so incisively describes the Awards as, would be a stretch.  In his honor, let’s take this exercise to it’s most cynical possible conclusion:

Zero Dark Thirty

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