2014: An Oscar Primer
We have a very interesting group of nominees this year. At least, that’s my thought as I scroll down the list I’ve compiled of the various titles. I’ve seen about half of them (counting the foreign and documentary categories, of which I’ve seen three), and I’m excited to see many of the rest. (And mad about seeing one of them, but we’ll get to that.)
There are 9 Best Picture nominees again this year:
12 Years a Slave – Steve McQueen adapts Solomon Northup’s harrowing first-hand account of being kidnapped in the North and sold into slavery in the American South prior to the Civil War. The film is as sickening as it is compelling, a must-watch that is incredibly hard to watch. I was completely enthralled by it from start to finish, and I consider it clearly the best film of the year, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to watch it again. It’s obvious quality and prestige will serve it will at the Oscars, but I wonder if the difficulty of its subject will ultimately hurt it with Oscar voters. We shall see. The movie is nominated for 9 awards: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Production Design, and Best Costumes.
American Hustle – With great performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, and many others, American Hustle is a smart, stylish romp based on the true story of how the FBI caught a small-time con artist, and then used him to run an operation designed to root out political corruption. Funny, poignant, and loaded with drama, American Hustle is a real crowd-pleaser, and its cast is one of the most charismatic I can recall. It has 10 nominations: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Production Design, and Best Costumes.
Captain Phillips – Tom Hanks plays the captain of a cargo ship who faced off against a gang of Somali pirates in 2009, leading to a tense hostage situation involving the US Navy. The story is very gripping, and director Paul Greengrass once again delivers an incredible true story so recent that most of the audience will remember hearing about it when it happened, with all of the raw intensity and attention to detail we’ve come to expect from him. Captain Phillips is nominated for 6 awards: Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing.
Dallas Buyers Club – With stellar work by both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club takes us back to the terror of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. It tells the true story of Ron Woodroof, a homophobic, womanizing Texan who splits his time between booze, drugs, working as an oil-field electrician, and scamming gamblers at the local rodeos. All of that changes drastically when he learns that he has AIDS, and he eventually ends up battling the DEA and the FDA as he attempts to supply the surrounding community with experimental treatments smuggled in from around the world. I’m not sure I’d call his story “inspirational,” though it has its moments. Mostly, it is an incredibly compelling character study of a two-bit hustler who not only refused to succumb to the odds, roll over, and die, but even managed to use his questionable talents to thrive for a time in a role that no one else could have filled. The film has 6 nominations: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Makeup.
Gravity – Alfonso Cuaron gave us the spectacle of the year with this intense, thrilling depiction of a space mission gone horribly wrong. What it lacks in plot and character development, it certainly makes up in sheer big-screen, 3D experience. For 90 minutes, you are in outer space, and that’s pretty cool. It’s a bit like 2001: A Space Odyssey, if 2001 were exciting and not about anything in particular. Gravity is up for 10 awards: Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Visual Effects.
Her – Spike Jonze turns his unique perspective to the (perhaps) not-too-distant future where the devices that already rule our lives are connected even more seamlessly by an artificially intelligent operating system with so much personality that it is capable of friendship, and even romantic intimacy. A fascinating conceit presented in a style that generally appeals to me, something about the way the story was realized ultimately left me cold. The missing piece of this equation seems to be the genius of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. I suspect he could have gotten the disparate elements of this story to play nice with each other. Or maybe someone besides Joaquin Phoenix could have brought something to the main character that inspired some emotion beyond annoyance. Whatever went wrong, some people apparently still managed to connect to this movie somehow, because it’s got 5 nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song.
Nebraska – In Billings, Montana, Woody, an old man sliding towards senility, mistakenly believes that he has won a million dollars when he receives a marketing scam in the mail. His stubborn insistence that the prize is real eventually leads his long-suffering younger son, David, to drive him to Nebraska to claim the money, but an unexpected detour lands them in his parents’ tiny hometown. The non-existent prize makes Woody an instant celebrity among family and friends he hasn’t spoken to in years, and reveals all sorts of things David never knew about his father. Shooting in stark black-and-white, Alexander Payne once again achieves a perfect balance between tragedy and comedy. Poignant and enjoyable and nominated for 6 Oscars: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography.
Philomena – This is the lone Best Picture nominee that I haven’t managed to see as yet. It’s about a disgraced political journalist (Steve Coogan) who takes an assignment to cover a woman’s (Judi Dench) search for the son who was taken from her decades early when she was a teen mother placed in a convent. Philomena has the fewest overall nominations of the Best Pic nominees, with 4: Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score.
The Wolf of Wall Street – Martin Scorsese roars back in fine form with his first adult drama since 2006’s The Departed. I loved Hugo (2011) and Shutter Island (2010), but this is true Scorsese: an instant contemporary classic, a take-no-prisoners, kick-to-the-head indictment of the debauched, amoral Wall Street culture that brought our national economy to its knees while those responsible walked away unscathed. At the center of the madness is Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the movie’s slick, soulless protagonist and narrator, who guides us, rather proudly, through a life lived without moral or financial boundaries. The Wolf of Wall Street has made a lot of people mad, and at least some of those people don’t seem to have understood the point: It’s supposed to. The Wolf has 5 nominations: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
So much for the Best Picture crowd. Here are the remaining nominees, beginning with those I’ve already seen:
-Blue Jasmine, 3 nominations. Woody Allen is in fine form with this riff on Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins are in even finer form as Jasmine and Ginger, the stand-ins for Blanche and Stella. Amazing (and nominated) performances from both of them make this something special. Meanwhile, I find it a bit odd that Allen is nominated for Best Original Screenplay given the general obviousness of his movie’s source material. But whatever. It is certainly well-written.
-The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, 3 nominations. Jackson’s Tolkien movies continue their long, graceless dive into ignominy with this loud, dumb middle chapter of the new Hobbit trilogy. Glimmers of former brilliance shine through here and there, mostly in the production values and thanks to performances like Martin Freeman’s Bilbo, but these serve largely as reminders that we’re watching an inferior product. Even some of the technical awards are undeserved; the visual effects are more than a little shoddy in places. One shudders to imagine how it will all conclude.
-Inside Llewyn Davis, 2 nominations. The Coen Brothers return with this quietly brilliant shuffle through the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 1960s, as seen through the eyes of the title character, whose once-promising career has faded almost completely away since the suicide of his partner. More than a little depressing, but as perfectly constructed as everything the Coens set their hands to, I think this is deserving of more awards attention, but I understand why it didn’t get it.
-The Great Gatsby, 2 nominations. Baz Lurhmann turns his lavish sensibilities towards adapting this literary masterpiece of the Roaring Twenties. In some respects, Luhrmann probably seems like the perfect director to make this attempt, but he turns out to be (perhaps) a little too perfect. Fitzgerald’s story gets a bit lost amidst the wild, frenetic opulence of Luhrmann’s portrayal of the period. Still, it’s an interesting and not-altogether-bad film in its own right, and it’s no surprise to see it nominated for its costumes and production design.
-Despicable Me 2, 2 nominations. Whenever an animated film turns out to be equal parts surprise success and tolerable to adults, it is inevitable that it will wear out its welcome with a trainload of unnecessary sequels. This is the 2nd in what will likely be a long line of increasingly-pointless Despicable Me movies, since it made nearly a billion dollars worldwide. Inoffensive and bland, it’s not bad, but it should go home empty-handed.
-Frozen, 2 nominations. After a solid run over the last few years, this return to the full glory of the great Disney musicals of the ’90s shows that Disney is definitely back on track after a fairly mediocre decade. Frozen is delightful, a real home-run.
-Saving Mr. Banks, 1 nomination. I loved this movie, and I am shocked and appalled to see it barely manage an appearance on the list of nominees. I can think of at least 4 additional major awards this should have been up for. I expected to see it on the Best Picture list. I cry “Foul.”
-Iron Man 3, 1 nomination. Meh. The obligatory superhero movie rounding out the visual effects category. I would have swapped in Thor: The Dark World in its place, or possibly Man of Steel. Even The Wolverine, actually, was quite superior. Aside from casting Robert Downey, Jr., the Iron Man franchise has made misstep after misstep throughout its run, right up to this lackluster entry.
-Star Trek Into Darkness, 1 nomination. Meh, again. The obligatory sci-fi movie rounding out the visual effects category. As much as I disliked Pacific Rim, I would have swapped it in in this category. Here’s hoping the next Star Trek takes an actual innovative step. Because even an original step in the wrong direction would be better than a retread.
-The Croods, 1 nomination. I have no idea what anyone sees in this movie. It had a terrible plot, it was full of lousy, incoherent ideas, and it just kind of all-around sucked. Monsters University may not have been one of Pixar’s best, but it was clearly superior to this mess. It’s nomination is a slap in the face to a studio that has been represented at the Oscars every year since the Best Animated Feature category was introduced in 2001.
-Cutie and the Boxer, 1 nomination. A fascinating and intimate glimpse inside the lives of Japanese art couple Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, and their struggles and triumphs both as artists and as husband and wife. I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary. It does one of my favorite things in a documentary: illuminating a fantastic subject about which I previously knew absolutely nothing.
-Dirty Wars, 1 nomination. Dirty Wars ought to make me mad, and it does, but mostly it just makes me tired. We’ve heard this story before, and from a less self-promoting narrator. There’s a certain numbness that creeps over you knowing that this documentary exposes a terrible wrong, but that it won’t make any difference. And I’m just kind of tired of seeing that cycle play itself out.
-20 Feet from Stardom, 1 nomination. I got a bit of a derisive chuckle in conversation when I mentioned I had gone to the theater to watch a documentary about backup singers, but this is by far my favorite of the documentaries I’ve seen. It’s full of charming, compelling personalities who ought to be famous, but aren’t well-known outside of a narrow community. If you have enjoyed any pop or rock music in the last 50 years, you need to see this. Great stuff.
The nominees I want to see:
August: Osage County – I still don’t know much about this movie aside from the fact that it’s a Meryl Streep vehicle (this is her 18th nomination). I think I saw a trailer for it at one point, but I don’t remember much about it. It is currently playing in theaters, and I intend to get myself over to see it as soon as possible.
The Lone Ranger – I gave this movie a big, fat miss when it came out last summer, but I’ve heard enough light-hearted buzz about it to suspect that it could be an enjoyable DVD rental. I’m certainly willing to give it a shot.
Before Midnight – It’s way past time that I saw Linklater’s (now) trilogy of films starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. I’ve heard way too many good things about them for way too long, and this is the excuse I need to watch them all.
Prisoners – For some reason, this just did not look good to me when it came out. But I’m ready to try it now. It should, at the very least, be another tolerable DVD rental.
The Book Thief – Once an apparent major hopeful for Oscar attention, the reviews crushed this movie like a bug since, apparently, it just wasn’t that good. I’m still kind of interested though. I at least want to know why it failed to work. How do you screw up a Holocaust movie based on a best-selling book?
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – This is another movie that looked like a solid Oscar shot, and that I intended to see before the reviews hit. I’m still kind of interested.
All Is Lost – By all accounts, Oscar messed up big when it didn’t nominate Robert Redford for his performance in this movie. I’ve been excited to see it ever since I heard about it, it just never showed up around here.
Ernest & Celestine – I know nothing about this except that it looks kind of charming, and I generally enjoy the animated nominees that aren’t mainstream American entries.
The Wind Rises – A new Miyazaki movie? I’m so there, even without the added incentive of rounding up another nominee before Oscar night.
The Hunt – I’m always interested in checking out the foreign films and documentaries, but this is one that I’d actually heard of and wanted to see already before the nominees were announced. And it’s available on “Watch Instantly” from Netflix.
The Act of Killing – Ditto the above.
The Square – Double ditto. I will actually have seen all of the documentary nominees before Oscar night, for the first time ever!
The nominees I can take or leave:
The Grandmaster – I’ll probably end up seeing this, and I may end up liking it. I just don’t care that much. It’s the kind of movie I won’t make any effort to see or not see.
The Invisible Woman – Not sure I’m interested in The Secret Love of Charles Dickens, but I’m always up for a well-done period piece. I’m just not sure that’s what this is, based on the fact that I heard nothing about it before now.
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa – Worst. Nominee. Ever.
Alone Yet Not Alone – This may be the one nominee that I just have no way of seeing at all. Apparently it’s due for some kind of theatrical release a few months from now, and based on what I’ve read about it, it’s probably not really my kind of thing.
Lone Survivor – I didn’t want to see this at all, because it looks boring and the title gives away the ending. Now, I probably will end up seeing it, I guess.
The non-minees, neglected movies that made me ask, “What happened?”
-Mud, one of my absolute favorite movies of the year, by one of my absolute favorite working directors (this is his 3rd feature, all have been amazing). This is the performance Matthew McConaughey should have been nominated for, along with Best Picture and Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography and Best Editing . . . Maybe a Best Supporting Actress for Reese Witherspoon. Anyway, never mind what Oscar says. This is a fabulous movie, and everyone should see it.
-The World’s End, am I surprised that the 3rd entry into the magnificent, totally epic Cornetto trilogy didn’t get anymore Oscar attention than the first two? No, not really, I guess. But, if nothing else, all three of these movies should absolutely have gotten some attention for their writing, and possibly even this one in particular. It was an absolute laugh riot from beginning to end, and just as spectacularly clever as the other two films. I can’t recommend any of the three highly enough.
-Don Jon, multi-talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt made his directing and screenwriting debut with this rather good little anti-rom-com about the way our society has created destructive expectations about relationships in both men and women. It wasn’t perfect, but that’s obviously not a criteria to receive a nomination, and I’m a little surprised to see the Academy just give it a miss entirely.
-Rush, I was surprised by how much I liked this story of an epic rivalry between two Formula One race car drivers back in the ’70s. But I did, rather a lot. This should have gotten the nominations for Makeup that went to Jackass. And I could have definitely seen an acting nomination, a screenwriting nomination, and some sound nominations, at the very least.
-Monsters University, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, and there’s absolutely no good reason it shouldn’t have been nominated over The Croods. Epic fail.
-Catching Fire, continuing the trend begun by The Hunger Games, which was completely ignored last year, Catching Fire catches a complete miss at the Oscars. I thought it was rather good, and it was the highest-grossing film of the year. This is the first time since 2007 that the year’s top-grossing film went completely unnominated. And the last time it happened, it happened to a legitimately lousy movie. I’d call that pretty lame.
-The Conjuring, not just the best horror film of the year, but a really great movie in its own right, transcending its disreputable genre trappings. I was totally freaked out and totally entertained by The Conjuring, which manages to be thrilling and suspenseful and terrifying, and even to stick that difficult third-act landing that so many horror films struggle to land effectively. I heartily recommend it to anyone who is into horror, or even anyone who is just into movies that deal with spiritual warfare and take evil seriously.
-Much Ado About Nothing, this is really just a fun bit of fluff that Joss Whedon threw together with a few friends over a weekend. Nevertheless, it is artful, entertaining, and rather high-quality Shakespeare, which, really, we never quite get enough of. It would have been pretty sweet to see it nominated for its unique production design.
Predictions . . . That is to say, Hopes. In the past few years, I’ve moved away from posting predictions here, because I’m far from an expert on what is likely to win, and inevitably I find myself “predicting” a win for a movie I dislike, which never feels good. I play the predictions game, but not here. These are the wins that would make me happy on Oscar night:
Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave. Absolutely nothing else will do. There are several other fine films that I enjoyed on the list of nominees, but it would be a mistake to give the award to anything else.
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron is a brilliant director who is probably overdue for an Oscar win, but again, I think this award should go to Steve McQueen.
Best Actor: If Matthew McConaughey were up for his performance in Mud, my sympathies would likely be there. He has had an amazing year, and recognition for it would not be amiss. On the other hand, this is also Chiwetel Ejiofor’s first nomination, and he has been doing magnificent, top-quality work for many years. He has consistently been the best thing about every movie he is in. And Leonardo DiCaprio has been nominated several times, but never more deservingly than this year. It’s tough because I like all of these actors, and I liked all of their performances, but if I go with the one I think was the best all-around acting work of the bunch, I’m going to land on Bruce Dern. I can’t say enough good things about his performance in Nebraska, and I think he should probably win it.
Best Actress: I don’t understand how it’s possible that Amy Adams hasn’t won an Oscar yet. This should be her year. She’s amazing, and she has it coming. But Cate Blanchett was so great in Blue Jasmine, and that’s cast a long shadow across the whole category. As long as it goes to one of those two, I’ll be pretty happy.
Best Supporting Actor: It would appear that the smart money is on Jared Leto, and he was rather amazing in Dallas Buyers Club, I’ll grant. But I’d much rather see this award go to newcomer Barkhad Abdi for Captain Phillips, or the great Michael Fassbender for 12 Years a Slave.
Best Supporting Actress: While it would be pretty cool to see Jennifer Lawrence’s stunning trajectory continue with a 2nd Oscar win, I think this award has to go to Lupita Nyong’o.
Best Original Screenplay: I might be tempted towards Blue Jasmine if it were actually an original screenplay. As it is, though, I’m going to go with Nebraska on this one.
Best Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave, with a respectful nod in the direction of The Wolf of Wall Street.
Best Cinematography: Either Inside Llewyn Davis or Nebraska. I hope Gravity doesn’t win this, although Emmanuel Lubezki is most certainly overdue. But if Gravity does win, it’s time to throw the category open to animated films as well. Which, maybe they should anyway.
Best Editing: 12 Years a Slave. I might give this one to The Wolf of Wall Street if it was up for it, but for some reason, it isn’t.
Best Production Design: 12 Years a Slave.
Best Costumes: 12 Years a Slave.
Best Makeup: Dallas Buyers Club.
Best Original Score: Saving Mr. Banks. It’s ridiculous and embarrassing that Thomas Newman has not yet been awarded an Oscar. I did really like the Gravity score, as well, but Thomas Newman really should be the winner.
Best Original Song: Clearly “Let It Go” from Frozen.
Best Sound Mixing and Sound Editing: Inside Llewyn Davis and Gravity, respectively.
Best Visual Effects: Gravity, by a mile.
Best Animated Feature: I’m going to say Frozen at the moment, but I hope I have a chance to see The Wind Rises before Oscar night.
Best Documentary Feature: Based on what I’ve seen so far, 20 Feet from Stardom, but I still need to see the favored front-runner, The Act of Killing.
And that’s your Oscar report! I’m excited about the movies I still have to watch, and excited to see how it all turns out. Let’s do it!