It Doesn’t End Like This: The 86th Academy Awards

If things fall out as many are predicting, there’ll be much ado about suffering amongst the winners this year. To the lists!

Best Picture:

9. Philomena

Without a Tom Hooper offering, this crop’s prestige (most British, most agreeably middlebrow) film is apparently Philomena. It’s not as irredeemably sappy or disposable as Coogan’s character (a watered down incarnation of his usual dry-witted lout) describes human interest stories…but you still kind of get some of what he’s driving at here.

8. The Wolf of Wall Street

Wolf is very much a drug/drug taking film, smothering any real attempt to delve into real-world unethics, or America, or really any idea in a sustained way.  As far as drug movie black comedies go, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is perhaps a spiritual forebear, a tough act to follow and also adapted from a sort of memoir.  But where Fear and Loathing captures something of movements and eras, this feels more purely snuff.   I have to believe the debauchery is meant to be stimulating or disgusting but it quickly gets tedious, too caricatured and stylized to evoke life, and too unfocused to crystallize as any clear metaphor.

7. Gravity

Holy anti-space exploration, regressive Fundamentalist bents!  Where Her takes a nuanced look at a humanity struggling to find its place in a technological world, Gravity sticks with the standard prescribed apocalypse scenario, with choice Space Odyssey rip-offs for good measure.

Hyep: outer space makes you a star baby.  Really, I was expecting the heart-pounding action, but not all the apocalyptic overtones with the sudden mysterious destruction of seemingly all man-made satellites, including an inexplicably deserted ISS.  If the space apocalypse wasn’t enough to put us in our proper place, we also have our leaky wayward woman rescued and redeemed by the literal patron saint of masculinity (I must admit, a very likable George Clooney as himself).  Yes, let’s do keep our hopes and dreams in the mud, the afterlife, and our better halves.

6. Captain Phillips

I seem to remember from the trailers that this seemed like it was going to be about Captain Phillips bargaining for the crews’ lives with his employers and insurers?  How much money is an American worth: the cargo, that is?  A good documentary about the real life incident exploring the contexts and causes of Somali piracy and maritime commerce law would have been more worthwhile.  Something deeper is hinted at with the opening conversation between Phillips and his wife about how tough kids have it today (ostensibly due to baby boomers such as himself) juxtaposed with Somalis being forced into piracy.  There’s an analogy!  But we get a straight up and somewhat belabored hostage story. I enjoyed Hanks’ Boston accent, and his surveying.   Somehow I kept imagining what Tom Brady would have done in Phillips’ situation.

5. Nebraska

Here’s a deliberate little story that’s meant to transcend the journey depicted, though it seems to work best when it just focuses on what’s unique about its quest, rather than what’s universal.  For any who take offense to what may seem like a gross simplification of Midwesterners, I can say coming from such a family that the television-watching scenes at least are pretty spot on.  Would this film be nearly as talked about if it wasn’t in black and white?  Will Forte is really in his Forte portraying an epic and universally trampled soul, so it’s sweet to see him save the day in the end.

4. Dallas Buyers Club

McConaughey and Leto drive the bus here in a by-the-numbers activism film that gets a bit more right than wrong–theatrically, anyway.  A scene where McConaughey’s character says that he feels like his all-consuming quest to live has ‘gotten in the way of him living’ is apropos wherein a stronger film would have delved a little more into aspects of his personal life.  In reality Woodroof had a daughter and sister who were written out in favor of the Garner and Leto characters, each of which play as cinematic types: Garner as the well-meaning square who won’t commit at first but is eventually won over to the cause, Leto as the charismatic, tragic hard case.  I can also see that writing out Woodroof’s bisexuality is on some spectrum of being like “making Solomon Northup white in order to reach a bigger audience”.  Honestly, my gripe is that the film’s depiction of policy doctors and their FDA masters paints them almost too sympathetically; the prescription writing pill-bot from Elysium still gets the 2013 ‘most accurate portrayal of a medical experience’ award.  While DBC stumbles in oversimplifying and tidying LBGT issues around both Woodroof and the ‘buyer’s clubs’ of the 80s by making Leto’s character a symbol for all, it also resonates in a time where more people than ever are being denied basic medical services under increasingly fatuous rationales.  Any film on the U.S.’s wholly unchecked, monopoly-based medical industry is picking a worthy fish to fry.

3. 12 Years a Slave

Along with Her, 12 Years stands out for transporting cinematography, and gets bonus points for a memorable score, too rare these days.  Above all, I was impressed by how the film portrays its ultra-heavy subject matter with some surprising range.  There’s a sort of lyricism to the best scenes which reminded me of something out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent films, where things seem almost overtly scripted, yet somehow all the more true-to-life because of it.  Given the source material there isn’t a problem with keeping this a very micro, personal story, but it’s frustrating how Solomon’s rescue–more or less by happenstance–comes off as incidental: just Brad Pitt happenin’ through.  True, the story is about the utter circumscription of agency, but I have to imagine the resolution could have been framed to resonate more with Solomon’s unique suffering and situation.

2. American Hustle

A film where you can’t help but root for almost everyone at once, benefiting from a trove of talent and recent Academy Award stand-bys.   Bale, Cooper, Adams, and Lawrence have 10 major Oscar noms between them in the last 4 years, a whopping seven as co-stars in Russell films.  They should play off each other quite well by now, and do.  The only thing holding things back a bit is a slight lack of impact… we might expect that in a film about how “everything’s a con” there are going to be big twists along the way, more surprise affiliations, heavy consequences.  If you haven’t seen it yet, go in expecting a high-end comedy with a great cast, not a crime epic.  Best con of all: Louis CK’s interminable ice fishing story.

1. Her

Her is about identity, and how we ascribe it: the personas of people we build in our minds, never the same as how they know themselves. Her. How love happens in the will to navigate the difference.  It’s about the voices we perceive: from people, from letters, from computers, from corporations.  It’s about depression, and unrequited desires to be touched and known, when technology makes so much accessible, anonymous, and long-distance.  It’s about a world where a man makes a living as a writer of poignant, heartfelt letters of love, regret, and sorrow for people who can’t find the words within themselves, yet are ready and willing to purchase them.

Any film attempting a premise like Her‘s runs a dangerous risk of feeling flatly satirical, and it’s possible that for some, a note here or there may feel contrived (does everyone in the future live in a NYC penthouse?)  For me, the clever sets, another irreplaceable performance by Joaquin Phoenix –Jonze supposedly wrote his script with him expressly in mind–and a pretty inspired screenplay overall keep any major plot-point objections at bay.   Things could be said to peter just a bit in the third act, but the resolution to the journey is a satisfying and a fitting one.  After all, no relationship culminates in unequivocal bliss, blessedly few in lasting apocalypse.

Should Win: Her

Much is made on this blog about much being made and fetishized about the apocalyptic lately.  In hopes of jinxing the film by picking it (worked last year when I picked Zero Dark Thirty) let’s again take this exercise to it’s most cynical possible conclusion.

Will win: Gravity

Best Director:

5. Martin Scorsese

I’m generally a fan of Scorsese, but where otherwise strong films sometimes bloat on him (see Gangs of New York, The Departed) this one totally gets away.  I think the at least somewhat warranted outcry that Wolf not only fails to criticize white collar crime but glorifies it comes through in part because excess for its own sake is so valued in our society.  In discerning the excesses depicted as glorifying we’re in part expressing a more general outcry that such behaviors are so valued at all.  See The Hangover and any number of recent films, songs and advertisements pushing the idea that it’s through excess and great irresponsibility that we truly find ourselves, that we truly live.  YOLO.

4. Alfonso Cauron

See above re: aversion to Gravity’s message.

3. Alexander Payne

Nebraska is, in a year of black comedies, a black and white comedy.  Payne serves Nebraska well in telling a story about earlier times and older people without being either pettily dismissive or merely nostalgic.  

2. David O. Russell

Probably his best film in what has become a career worth of very-solid to amazing stuff.  Why aren’t more people talking about him as an all-time great?  My only quibble is that American Hustle finds itself in an odd place where you are expecting something a little more heavy-hitting to go down… it’s at once a credit to the strong drama in what’s otherwise a comedy, and perhaps a bit of a tonal issue.

1. Steve McQueen

McQueen delivers almost all one could hope for out of a film adaptation of 12 Years A Slave and probably then some, though my reservations about the resolution stand.  I give him the slight nod over Russell because I feel Hustle succeeded so much based on the talent of its actors rather than editing, script or cinematography, while 12 Years is more of an all-around project.  We seem to live in a place where actors are given the vast majority of credit for their performances rather than those who direct them; if Hustle wasn’t so packed with sure stars, I’d be more inclined to give credit for putting them in position to shine.

Should win: Spike Jonze

What, Cauron for the fetus shot?!  Let’s rather give Kubrick a posthumous award.  McQueen and Russell both would be worthy picks.

Will win: Steve McQueen

Best Actor:

5. Bruce Dern

Dern renders his addled, Alzheimer’s afflicted man so compellingly it can feel almost impossible to imagine he’s not simply being himself.  All the nominations this year are well deserved, though I think this spot could likely have been filled by Joaquin Phoenix or Robert Redford for All is Lost.

4. Leonardo DiCaprio

DiCaprio is for my money on a very short list of our best and most entertaining actors.  He’s good here, maybe excellent.  He wrings out some memorable sequences, especially in the “Bond villain” yacht scene, which gives him a straight man to play off.  But in most of the film he’s rendered strangely inert, where while he’s usually so effective as the source of electricity in a scene (see last year’s Django Unchained), here he’s more of a conduit in something that’s trying to be the biggest thunderstorm ever recorded.

3. Chiwetel Ejiofor

Don’t think he has much of a chance due to relative anonymity: where McConaughey gets lots of acting points for breaking expectations not only in the type of character he portrays but frankly how far he’s come from vehicles like Sahara, Ejiofor’s equally difficult performance doesn’t afford the same “wow I can’t believe he came and did that” factor.

2. Christian Bale

So fun, and such a delicate performance!  Such a delicate boy that he presents.  With Daniel Day-Lewis out becoming a stone mason for the next five years, I think folks like Bale, DiCaprio, and Michael Keaton have a real chance to break through.

1. Matthew McConaughey

Here’s your prototypical impressive physical transformation, and McConaughey gets lots of points for being a known quantity transformed, someone we’ve seen many times before and can paint as finally reaching his apex and potential.  Of all the nominees, this feels the most like a Best Actor performance, with all the requisite seriousness.

Should and shall win: Matthew McConaughey

 

Best Actress:

5. Judi Dench

Pretty soft-serve stuff.  Philomena lacks anything approaching a real “Oscar scene” through no fault of Dench’s.

4. Sandra Bullock

Given the chauvinistic bent of the film I can’t be impressed by the terror, fragility displayed given the message it’s going toward.  You want a woman fighting existential battles in space?

Redeem that, George.

3. Meryl Streep

If some ding August: Osage County for being merely a ring wherein Streep and Roberts spew baggage at each other, color me very impressed and entertained by Streep here.

2. Amy Adams

Oh, that subtle greatness.  I must point out that American Hustle does not pass the Bechdel Test, as the scene where Lawrence makes out with her has them fighting over Christian Bale.

1. Cate Blanchett

Seemingly a role she’s been playing awhile: rich and eccentric, sometimes with a southern accent.  Overacting?  Of course!  How else does one play a character defined by her overacting?

Should and shall win: Cate Blanchett

If Adams does take it, consider that it may not just be due to anti-Allen sentiment: Blanchett’s Jasmine really shares similarity with her Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator, the role for which she deservedly took Best Actress.  Jasmine features a larger, more demanding, and even more impressive performance, but the similarity between it and an already recognized role only heightens Adam’s case for being “owed.”

 

Best Supporting Actor:

5. Jonah Hill

Hill has the property of somehow making any film or scene he’s in feel like a raunchy comedy, and Wolf is a raunchy comedy.  Somehow I feel I have to qualify that as just a raunchy comedy.

4. Barkhad Abdi

Not allowed nearly as much depth as he should have been.  Really can’t give Captain Phillips credit for any intended audience takeaway other than “Thank Jesus America rescued Tom Hanks from those scary black men.”

3. Bradley Cooper

Keeps getting better, this is his best performance yet.  Does anyone feel sorry for him in the end?  Is he not still Bradley Cooper?

2. Michael Fassbender

Fassbender does an amazing job portraying such rage and hesitancy at once.  His is such a commanding presence that it’s getting to a point where I just don’t buy him in roles where he’s not integrally an authority figure, such as this year’s The Counselor.

1. Jared Leto

It’s ironic that the most typic character of the list here is still arguably the most memorably and most impressively rendered.  Leto’s performance fits too perfectly into what we traditionally consider gold-standard as far as Oscars and acting performances go to lose this.

Should and shall win: Jared Leto

If anything, Leto’s a lock because his role is so much more Important than Cooper’s, and I think the voters have to be aware of a potential trend of giving awards to white actors in films about black issues after Christoff Waltz’s much deserved and surprise win last year.

 

Best Supporting Actress:

5. June Squibb

What a cute button nose!

4. Sally Hawkins

If we give an award to the most likable character, I might give mine to Hawkins, who is sneaky good and very much fits the term ‘supporting’.  Where Blanchett’s character is a modern update of Blanche DuBois in a world where class difference has become even more dizzyingly wide, Hawkins’ Ginger represents a more hopeful update of Stella.   Where Stella is a woman who is true to herself and suffers for it in the end, Ginger is a creature who may not really know where she belongs, but can find it in herself to be happy.

3. Jennifer Lawrence

Fierce again and undeniably commanding, Lawrence takes the award for most acting done, if not best.  She sets a very interesting dynamic in American Hustle where while all the con-artists are so coolly and subtly convincing, Lawrence as the what-you-see-is-what-you-get hellcat is the only one who comes off like she’s consciously putting on a performance.

2. Julia Roberts

Lawrence rules as Hollywood’s female id, imbued with all that carpe diem immediacy it needs now more than ever since we only live once and the apocalypse is so nigh, wrapped in that particularly all-American down-home body America responds to so much (all that is all-american and down-home being so embattled).  Yea, we hearken back to the reign of Julia Roberts, who reflected perhaps simpler needs: the courage to be ourselves, to be heard, to transgress gender roles just a little, as to ever more clearly define them.  Interesting that even still, Roberts continues to play the underdog, the ugly duckling, the misfit.  I seem to have enjoyed August: Osage County more than most, and thought Roberts was spot on.

1.Lupita Nyong’o

Another powerful portrayal of suffering, after Anne Hathaway’s in Les Mis last year.   Nyong’o doesn’t get that much screen time, but very few ladies do.

Should and shall win: Lupita Nyong’o


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