cinecist vs. oscar 2013

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Once again I find myself in the position of apologizing for offering up an abbreviated version of my annual brain dump.  Although, putting it that way, one does wonder if perhaps a “you’re welcome” isn’t more appropriate than an apology.... At any rate, it is what it is:  The cinecist has scaled back again this year, owing to how much of his limited free time he spent actually trying to see the movies he would be writing about.  It’s a trade-off he would rather not have to make, but there are only so many hours in a day and something’s gotta give.

 

The choice I made is arguably redeemed by the fact that the movies I ended up seeing—which do comprise a large majority of the major nominees—turned out to be so strong.  2013 should be remembered as a cracking good year in American cinema, with top-shelf offerings running the gamut from gripping technical procedurals to free-wheeling visions of excess—and uniformly providing platforms for some of the very best actors of the day to do some of their very best work. Are there any indelible classics on this list that will stand up over the coming decades?  Always hard to say; maybe one, maybe two.  But as a grouping, they are extremely impressive.

 

So onward we go, me pompously asking forgiveness for not regaling you with my insights on Sound Editing or Documentary Short Subject, and you nodding sympathetically with a wan smile on your face, while inside saying a little silent prayer of gratitude.  Oh, how I love my loyal readers.

 

A final word, on the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman:  Dammit.  For a few more words, go here.

 

© 2014 dondi demarco

 

 

Before we start, the usual notes, definitions, and disclaimers:

·   Prediction:  The nominee that will win.  In red, for your convenience.

·   Pick:  The nominee that should win—and probably already has won, in some perfect parallel universe.

·   Percentages:  My arbitrary, inexact, self-designed means of assigning probability to certain outcomes.  On a good day, they all add up to 100%.

 

 

“Let’s all go to the lobby, let’s all go to the lobby, let’s all go to the lobby, to get ourselves a treat.”

 

Enjoy the show.

 

 

____________________________

 

Best Picture · Director · Actor · Actress · Supporting Actor · Supporting Actress

________________________________

 

 

Best Picture

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

12 Years a Slave

 

Pick:

American Hustle

American Hustle

20%

Captain Phillips

--

Dallas Buyers Club

5%

Gravity

35%

Her

--

Nebraska

--

Philomena

--

12 Years a Slave

40%

The Wolf of Wall Street

--

 

First, who won’t win? 

 

Nebraska:  This fable about a foggy, cantankerous old man looking for some kind of modest redemption after living his life half in the bag and on other people’s terms is funny and quirky and touching, but really only partly successful as a character piece.  Much as the black and white cinematography is being hailed (appropriately) for its moody and evocative power, upon reflection I find it to be a bit too alienating for the world being drawn here.  It casts the characters so starkly that I end up finding them...cartoonish, maybe even silly.  And that’s at crossed purposes with what seems to be the intent of the film.  The writing and acting are already heavily stylized, to say the least, so I think I would have appreciated a more naturalistic visual approach to warm up the proceedings and ground them in something a little more recognizably normal.  I generally admire director Alexander Payne’s sensibilities, his way of letting characters do their thing and finding rhythms that feel true; but this time I had a hard time getting close to these people.  That’s just me, of course, and I don’t pretend it has anything to do with why Nebraska won’t win the Oscar.  But it won’t.  It’s too small, too quiet, too independent.

 

Her:  Now here’s an example of a movie with a visual style that is unexpected and arresting, but ultimately adds a whole additional layer of emotional impact to the story rather than stripping one away.  There are a few accepted looks for future-tech sci-fi flicks:  uber-mechanized geek-out (RoboCop), coldly polished minimalism (2001: A Space Odyssey) and urban decay gone wild (Blade Runner).  Nowhere do soft sweaters and warm lighting enter the picture.  But in

Her (which definitely fits the genre since it’s about a man falling in love with his computerized operating system) cozy clothing and soft textures and warm saturated colors are at the heart of the film’s visual style.  As are high-waisted pants and bushy mustaches.  This is not a ‘cool’ vision of the future, by any meaning of that word.  It’s a world in which the dominance of personal technology has become an isolating force, so we see individuals reaching for those things that will bring them comfort in the absence of satisfying human connection:  clothing and home interiors that look and feel inviting, styles they can associate with a past that was more community-centered.  This is just one aspect of the storytelling, but a lovely and elegant one, in what is indeed an altogether lovely and elegant film.  Again, though, too small, too quiet to win.

 

Philomena:  Philo-who?  No slight on the actual film, as it is much loved by audiences and much admired by many critics.  But a show of hands:  How many of you had heard of it before the Oscar nominations were announced?  That’s what I thought.  Not very promising.

 

The Wolf of Wall Street:  I didn’t see this one, which is unforgivable given that it’s a Scorsese film and I knew it would be a contender for several Oscars.  But the truth, if I must tell it, is that I just couldn’t make myself go to a 3-hour movie featuring bad behavior by young rich guys.  I will see it one day, and I may well love it—I certainly hear great things about it.  But much as my cinecist-brain tried, it couldn’t manage to push this one to the top of the must-see list.  What I can say about Wolf is that I would find it surprising in the extreme if it were to win.  There has been some controversy about the film—the standard sorts of complaints about movies that depict rampant drug use, sex, depravity, etc., which are almost always short-sighted or wrong-headed.  But still, the Academy doesn’t want to look like it is rewarding, condoning, forgiving or even acknowledging the kind of behavior this movie presents with such enthusiasm.  So they won’t honor it with the big prize.  It’s a stupid reason.  But no stupider than my reason for not seeing it....

 

Captain Phillips:  This is actually one of my favorite films of the year.  It starts and ends as exactly the thing you expect it to be:  The story of a ship being seized by Somali pirates and the Captain doing his best to keep himself and his men alive.  Pretty simple premise, and director Paul Greengrass characteristically does little to interfere with it.  One of the things he does do is elicit from Tom Hanks one of the best performances of his career, as well as an almost equally impressive performance from a first-time actor—more on those below.  Another is to expertly maintain the emotional and psychological tension at an exhausting pitch for about two-thirds the length of the film.  The theaters could make a bundle selling shots of whiskey at the concession stand after this movie.  It’s very strong work; but it won’t win simply because there are other higher-profile films that tick more of the necessary boxes.

 

Dallas Buyers Club:  Now things really start to get quite a bit tougher.  Here we have a fact-based, emotionally charged story pegged on a sociopolitical issue near and dear to the Hollywood community (the available medical treatment options in the early days of the AIDS crisis), and featuring two of the most deservedly acclaimed performances of the year (Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto).  It’s smartly scripted and sharply directed, and it does something very rare in a biographical film:  It avoids both dull over-explication and two-bit psychologizing, trusting the intelligence of the viewer and letting actions tell the story.  Why would the Academy not choose this one?  In another year, they might.  It’s good enough for that.  But this year there are bigger fish to fry.

 

So let’s get to the bigger fish:  American Hustle, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. In that order. 

 

American Hustle was the best time I had at any movie last year.  To start with, there’s the cast:  Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Holy Smokes!  Ten Oscar nominations among them, and by anyone’s reckoning a kind of mini Who’s Who of the hottest young actors.  And then throw in Louis C.K. for good measure.  I’m not even sure how you get all these people in a room together these days, let alone gather them long enough to shoot a movie.  There are some movies in which we, the viewers, can feel the electricity the cast must have felt while they were filming it, knowing everything was clicking and the director was totally dialed into them and they were just killing it and the end result would be something special:  Pulp Fiction or Spinal Tap or Glengarry Glen Ross.  This is one of those.  It showed on the screen, and it shows in the nominations:  Best Picture, Best Director and all four acting categories.  (Not for nothing, Hustle director David O. Russell’s previous film, last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, also pulled off this same feat. I don’t know if this kind of 1-2 punch is unprecedented, but it’s certainly impressive.)  Beyond the strength of the cast, though, there’s also the premise.  The Big Con is a favorite trope in American cinema, and this movie not only seduces us into that transgressive thrill, it ups the stakes by making it a real con:  the shoddy but ultimately effective ABSCAM FBI sting of the late 70s, which led to the conviction of multiple US senators, congressmen, state and local officials, as well as the (probably well-deserved) enrichment of a couple of career grifters.  Gotta love that.  American Hustle is my personal pick for best picture, partly for the gloriously unhinged energy of it all, partly for the grit and heart that drives these characters—all of them—and partly for the most awe-inspiring comb-over in cinematic history. But I’ll admit it’s a fairly long shot to win.

 

A number of critics/pundits/educated guessers put Gravity at the top of the pile.  Myself, I don’t quite see it.  To be fair, in terms of technical achievement it’s hard to argue against it.  Being a mere mortal, I cannot conceive of how this movie was created.  There are so many scenes, so many individual shots, that would seem to require the actors, crew, sets and director to actually be in outer space that my brain sort of shuts down trying to imagine the mundane alternative, as if I were trying to comprehend string theory or the number of water molecules in the ocean.  Gravity is a gorgeous and sometimes transporting visual and visceral experience, touching in its best moments on something sublime and awe-inspiring...but alas, in its weaker moments dragging us back to earth with half-baked dialog and lazy character development.  I really did enjoy watching this movie, and I deeply respect many things about it.  But my goodness (or I should probably say, “my heavens”...) the script really needed another run-through.  Based on the unanimous admiration for its prodigious technical accomplishments, coupled with Bullock’s likability and Clooney’s off-the-charts charm, it’s still a strong contender.

 

However...I think it’s the somber, moving 12 Years a Slave that will take the top prize.  And I am perfectly happy with that.  I doubt you’ll find a more affecting treatment of slavery on film.  Which means this is a very tough movie to watch.  It shows us things we don’t want to see—some dark things inside the human heart, and some things more mundane but no less dreadful.  Do we really want to know what it meant to be a slave in the mid-1800s?  Do we want to have any realistic sense of that pain and degradation and despair?  We probably don’t.  But then, neither did they.  Neither did Solomon Northup, an educated, free middle-class black man in New York who was drugged and kidnapped and ‘returned’ to the South as a runaway slave.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have a choice.  Thank goodness we don’t have to actually experience Northup’s horror; the movie only requires that we witness it, and that’s not too much to ask.  There is so much in this film that is abhorrent to any modern sensibility that something in us wants to discount it or disregard it as simply too cruel, too inhuman to be true.  But the film cries out against that.  The performances are so specifically human (more on Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o below), the writing so faithful to Northup’s published account, the direction so measured and impassionate, that we are left with the sense that we have been given, across a century and a half, a truthful vision of something that we need to remember, even though we would all much rather forget.  It’s a blessing, and a burden.

 

 

 

Best Directing

Nominees:

 

 

Prediction:

Alfonso Cuaron

 

Pick:

Alfonso Cuaron

American Hustle, David O. Russell

25%

Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron

45%

Nebraska, Alexander Payne

--

12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen

30%

The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese

--

 

The correlation between Best Picture and Best Director can be a funny thing:  Anyone who follows the Oscars knows how rare it is for a film to win Best Picture if the director isn’t at least nominated for Best Director, and often Best Director is effectively a lock for the director of the Best Picture.  But then sometimes it’s just not, and everyone seems to know it.  That’s the case this year.  Most of the smart money is on 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture, but I don’t see a lot of people who consider director Steve McQueen (not that Steve McQueen, this one) a lock—or even actually the favorite—to win Best Director.  Why not?  True, he’s not a household name, but then with relative unknowns like Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) and Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) having won quite handily in the last few years, I don’t think we can say this is just a matter of familiarity.  I could be wrong, but I’m guessing it has more to do with McQueen’s style.  Placed up against David O. Russell’s pop and zing and Alfonso Cuaron’s massive technical accomplishment, it might be harder at first glance to see just what McQueen is bringing to the table.  But keep watching.  McQueen’s directing indeed seems subdued and unobtrusive, until you start to notice how he holds on a character or a shot, letting the implications of the action play themselves out for longer than many directors would dare to do.  (For those of you who have seen the movie, I’m thinking in particular of the almost-lynching scene and the song by the grave, but there are several others as well.) When something is painful or horrific or unbearably sad, we naturally want to turn away—which is why at some level we want to turn away from this entire movie and the whole story it tells.  McQueen doesn’t let us do that, and in fact holds our eyes on a scene even longer than might be necessary, allowing its meanings to unfold and refold, to burrow deeper into us.  It’s not flashy, but the cumulative effect is deeply affecting and at times overpowering.  So I do give him a good solid chance at a win, but I don’t put him at the head of the pack.

 

The other contenders are Russell and Cuaron (Scorsese and Payne are, in my estimation, out of the running), and either would be a worthy choice.  Russell not only seems able to get the very best out of his actors (to wit, who would have guessed a few years ago that Bradley Cooper was on his way to multiple Oscar nominations?), he also has a way of eliciting a weird auxiliary energy from them.  The actors in his movies all seem to have a jagged little spark in their brain just itching to escape—and then sometimes it does, and then things get really lively, for better or worse.  And there’s the playfulness and gusto of the storytelling, the obvious pleasure of the raconteur in his element.  I haven’t loved all of Russell’s movies (I Heart Huckabees is a notable near miss, and regular readers will remember that Silver Linings Playbook really lost me in the late innings), but the best of them—Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster and now American Hustle—regardless of the stories they tell, and regardless of just how “funny” any of it actually is, take such great and goofy joy in the telling that it’s impossible (for me, anyway) to walk away afterward without a grin on my face.  And I’m sure I’m not the only one who responds this way, which is why I do think Russell has a real shot here. 

 

However, I have to consider the favorite to be Alfonso Cuaron for his work in Gravity, a work of both astonishing technical innovation and bold vision. I seem to be in the small minority of people who didn’t exactly love this movie overall (see above), but I can’t deny that it looks, sounds and feels unlike anything I’ve seen before.  There’s an obvious comparison in 2001, but that’s too easy and it’s really just superficial—both use spare compositions and massive silences to inspire wonder, not only at what exists (or doesn’t exist) out there but also at man’s unstoppable drive to put himself into that picture, no matter the cost or consequence.  But unlike Kubrick, Cuaron wrangles the unfathomable vastness of outer space into an experience of intimacy, where the whole universe is just a soft voice through static, the flashing of a pulse monitor, the fog of breath on glass.  In the infinite near-emptiness, these tiny things become everything.  They are the markers of life, of human life, of our very specific individual lives.  And so in Cuaron’s vision this insurmountably inhospitable environment somehow becomes an unimaginably beautiful place to live, at least for a while.  He’s helped immensely in this, of course, by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (clearly this year’s winner in that category, and once again proving himself to be one of the very best ever) who in Gravity captures light and texture and movement in ways that simply seem brand new. But the credit for the vision, and for somehow realizing it in the face of what must have at times been overwhelming technical challenges, goes to Cuaron.  That’s why he’s my personal pick, and why I think he takes home the prize.

 

 

 

Best Actor

Nominees:

 

 

Prediction:

Matthew McConaughey

 

Pick:

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Christian Bale, American Hustle

10%

Bruce Dern, Nebraska

15%

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

15%

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

25%

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

35%

 

If you had asked me in early January who was going to win Best Actor, I would have fairly confidently answered “Chiwetel Ejiofor”—although I can’t promise I would have pronounced it correctly.  Ejiofor has been impressing me for years with great performances in great films like Dirty Pretty Things, Kinky Boots and Children of Men.  He’s a commanding and charismatic presence onscreen and is well liked off-screen, and I’ve long thought (with some tsk-tsking) that he would be a bigger star if only his name weren’t so daunting to the average American movie-goer.   With 12 Years a Slave, though, it seems we finally started getting over that hang-up and giving him his due: The acclaim for his performance has been universal and enthusiastic.  As Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and thrust into slavery, Ejiofor takes us through the expected stages of disbelief, anger, rebellion, despair, resignation and hope, but he doesn’t turn them into dramatic signposts or Stations of the Cross.  He just lives them all within the relative quiet of a very real man.  There are plenty of emotional outbursts, naturally, but Ejiofor holds tightly to the core of Northup, which is a strength of character that allows for anger and even bitterness, but never a loss of his dignity or his specific humanity.  It’s a performance that doesn’t always look like much while it’s happening, but as it progresses and the emotional stakes mount, you come to realize just how rich and true a thing it is that Ejiofor is creating.  It’s beautiful work that deserves to be recognized.  I’ll do so by naming Ejiofor my pick.

 

Until a month and a half ago, I was pretty sure the Academy would do the same; but then Matthew McConaughey started winning everything.  I considered McConaughey a dark horse for both the Golden Globe and the SAG Award, but damned if he didn’t take the pair.  So now there’s no choice but to consider him the odds-on favorite for the Oscar, too.  I’m not complaining, as his work in Dallas Buyers Club is his best yet—and this is a guy who’s been on an absolute burner the last couple of years, with bang-up turns Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Mud and HBO’s True Detective.  He portrays the real-life Ron Woodroof, the full-throttle addict, small-time criminal and unrepentant homophobe who, through orneriness and assholery, somehow found himself a social hero and medical treatment pioneer in the early days of AIDS.  It’s a juicy role that requires an actor who can manage a shocking physical transformation (the HIV-positive Woodroof is all blotchy skin and jagged bone) and embody at one time or another just about every ugly, hateful, nihilistic tendency imaginable, yet still convince us he can charm a girl half his age and flatten a man twice his size.  McConaughey proves he’s just the man for the job.  The thin line between charming and menacing is very familiar to McConaughey, and here he walks it like a Wallenda. 

 

So McConaughey is the front-runner and Ejiofor isn’t far behind.  Any other contenders?  It’s possible.  The fact is I could see any of these actors winning under the right circumstances. I might not have connected with Nebraska as much as a lot of other people have, but that’s not through any fault of Bruce Dern, who brings the kind of minimalist honesty to his performance that only seems possible for those who have spent a lot of decades on camera.  Christian Bale, for his part, does in American Hustle what he always does, which is commit mind, body and soul to the role, however good or bad or strong or weak or heroic or ridiculous the character might be.  It’s hard to think of an actor who appears to judge his characters less than Bale, or to play them more fully.  Always a great pleasure to watch.  And while I didn’t see Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance yet, a whole lot of people really seem to love it; the talk of a possible upset in the category at Leo’s hands is more than just idle chatter.

 

As a side note, I was genuine surprised and more than a little disappointed not to see Tom Hanks nominated this time.  I’m not sure which nominee he should have replaced, but he deserved a seat at the table.  Hanks’s Captain Phillips is a veteran skipper, a seasoned professional, a stolid meat-and-potatoes guy in the least glamorous job one could hold and still be a ship’s captain:  moving containers of something-or-other from some port to some other port, all halfway around the world.  What we come to realize, through Hanks’s exceptional performance, is that this rather uninteresting guy is precisely the person you want at the helm when things go bad. He will go dutifully about the business of protecting his ship and crew, trying things you wouldn’t try, thinking of things you wouldn’t think of, and making sacrifices you wouldn’t make.  It’s in his DNA.  Hanks feels so credible in this role, such a solid and mature presence, it boggles the mind to think back to where he started his acting career, Bosom Buddies and Bachelor Party and Volunteers.  We already knew 20 years ago that he had matured into an excellent actor, but what’s so satisfying is to see now that he is still maturing, still getting better at what he does.  How he handles the final scene of the movie, the emotional epilogue, is simply a revelation.  He should have been on the list.

 

 

 

Best Actress

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Cate Blanchett

 

 

Pick:

Meryl Streep

Amy Adams, American Hustle

30%

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

35%

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

25%

Judi Dench, Philomena

--

Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

10%

 

When you’re as good as Meryl Streep is, for as long as she has been, you must start to feel like Rodney Dangerfield sometimes. On those rare occasions when you do something less than knock it out of the park, the world tut-tuts and wonders whither has fled your erstwhile talent. On the rest of the occasions, when you do in fact deliver a stunning, flawless, note-perfect performance, they all yawn and say, “Well of course, it’s Meryl Streep after all.” They’ll nominate you for an Oscar, and they’ll even hand you a win once in a while. But as time goes on, the criteria by which they judge your work get more and more demanding, until you reach the point where anything within the realm of what it normally means to be an actor is just not enough anymore; you have to become a kind of super-actor. In August: Osage County, Streep pretty much does that. Her performance is as complex and multi-layered as any I’ve ever seen, crashing sympathy against revulsion and tenderness against brutality in ways that by all rights should shatter the character into a loose collection of incompatible tics and incomprehensible gestures. But it doesn’t. Streep’s skill is such that she can somehow bring all these conflicting, fragmentary impulses together to craft this thing called Violet Weston that is not just roughly person-shaped, but is in fact thoroughly and often maddeningly human. This is acting at the most advanced level, by someone who will surely be remembered as one of the greatest screen actresses of all time for as long as people care to remember such things. Yet she’s still not going to win. For Pete’s sake.

 

OK, I’m not ruling out a Streep win entirely, but I don’t see it as likely. I attribute this partly to the escalating-criteria phenomenon mentioned above, and partly to the singular emotional unpleasantness of Streep’s Violet and the movie in which she appears. Osage County is a good movie based on a great play, and it has at least one outstanding performance in it (possibly more), but let me tell you, watching it is not a happy experience. Half the characters, including Violet, seem like they would prefer it if someone would just put them out of their misery, and as a viewer you might find yourself on board with that idea. This wouldn’t seem to bode well for Streep’s chances, and most educated guessers put her near the bottom of the list; but the other side of that coin is that perhaps she should consider herself lucky she even got nominated for this nasty black cloud of a movie, no matter how accomplished her performance.

 

What’s interesting is that this year’s front-runner is also nominated for playing an aggressively unpleasant, self-aggrandizing, drug-addled, deeply conflicted basket-case firmly committed to making her family miserable. Why does Cate Blanchett get a pass for playing a role like this when Meryl Streep doesn’t? Is it...possibly...because she doesn’t do it as well? No, actually, that’s not it. Blanchett the Lovely is superb and wholly convincing as the decidedly un-lovely Jasmine (nee Jeanette), a woman so extravagantly crushed by the humiliating collapse of her marriage to a philandering billionaire fraud that her only recourse is to heap great giant dollops of drunken pain and derision onto everyone around her, while imagining herself to be far more worldly and interesting then she actually is. A real charmer, brought to messy and infuriating life by Blanchett (in probably her strongest work to date). So why is the Academy willing to forgive Jasmine enough to reward Blanchett, but far less likely to forgive Violet enough to reward Streep? Probably at least in part because Jasmine’s brand of unpleasantness looks mostly like cluelessness and self-delusion, while Violet’s looks more like cunning and self-protection. Both women have suffered, both are damaged and floundering, and we sympathize with both in a way; but not in the same way. In the end, it’s not at all hard to find genuine pity for Jasmine in her ridiculousness, but when it comes to Violet...we can really only pity her for how ugly a monster she has made herself into. That’s a very different sort of sympathy, and it’s not hard to imagine which sort is more compelling to Academy voters. Plus, Blue Jasmine itself, while existentially bleak and unforgiving in the manner of many a late-period Woody Allen movie, is, after all, still a Woody Allen movie. Which means it’s a little girl’s tea party compared to August: Osage County.

 

So if Blanchett is at the top of the list and Streep is somewhere near the bottom, what of the others?

 

I’d say Judi Dench is no more than a stone’s throw from Streep, which has nothing to do with her worthiness and everything to do with the exceedingly low profile of the film she is nominated for. Most people agree Philomena is a quality film and Dench is very good in it, but that just doesn’t cut it in a year like this.

 

The other two nominees, however, should both be jotting down some acceptance speech notes just in case. Amy Adams is the more likely winner. This is her fifth nomination (!!) in the last eight years, without a win yet. The Academy is itching to give her a statue, and their impatience could pay off for her this year—that and the fact that she’s really great in American Hustle as Sydney Prosser, a former stripper so eager to reinvent herself that a gruff, paunchy con-man with history’s worst comb-over looks like the man of her dreams, and helping him scam people by putting on a (terrible) fake British accent and pretending to be rich seems like the best job in the world. Sydney eventually—inevitably—finds herself so deep in the language of deception that she doesn’t seem any more certain of where her loyalties lie than we are. Adams has a way of projecting toughness without losing the vulnerability that makes us respond to her, and that serves her well here in a role that could have turned into something cold and hard, but never does.

 

Just behind Adams is Sandra Bullock, in a performance that I suppose had to be nominated, being the only lead role in one of the most high-profile movies of the year, given by an extremely popular actress who has already won one Oscar. Bullock was going to be on this list no matter what. But I have to ask: What about her performance is exceptional? She gets the job done, she hits the notes that need to be hit to complete the emotional arc of the story. But then what? Do you feel any moments of real connection to the thoughts or hopes or fears of her character? Does any word or gesture of hers make you recognize something new in yourself, or in the world around you? Do you even find yourself at any point intrigued on a technical level by an acting choice she’s made? For me, a definitive ‘no’ on all counts. This is just not a very interesting performance. I’ll allow that the humdrum script of Gravity is partly, maybe even largely, to blame. And I’ll also allow that Bullock is almost always a welcome and likable presence on film, regardless of the specific vehicle. But that doesn’t change the fact that this isn’t at all top-flight acting. Worst of all, Bullock has a better shot at winning Best Actress for this performance than Meryl Streep does for hers, and that’s just silly.

 

 

 

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Jared Leto

 

Pick:

Jared Leto

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips

20%

Bradley Cooper, American Hustle

5%

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

25%

Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

--

Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

50%

 

Generally one of the most competitive races and the toughest to call, but we do have an edge this time:  Jared Leto’s performance in Dallas Buyers Club had Oscar buzz around it from the git-go, and with him now having taken both the Golden Globe and the SAG, we have no choice but to call him the heavy favorite.  It’s an eerily convincing performance, too.  Leto slips so naturally and completely into the role of the pre-operative, transgendered, HIV-positive Rayon that one could be forgiven for thinking he must have some first-hand experience with these things (he doesn’t, to my knowledge).  The transformation is absolute, from physical bearing to vocal mannerism to manifest attitude, that attitude being something along the lines of “Yes, I’m a freak who’s dying of AIDS, but I’m still a lady and I’ll always behave as one—as long as you never forget that my suffering has made me twice as strong as you’ll ever be.”  What’s heartrending about this character, and conveyed so effectively in Leto’s performance, is how strength and frailty are intertwined, how all the attitude in the world can’t repair a broken body or a broken soul.  It can just make it possible for you to hang on for another day.  As emotionally affecting a performance as I saw all year, it deserves to win and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t.

 

If such a surprise does come to pass, then at whose hands will it come?  It could really be any of the other nominees, barring Jonah Hill, who will take this one home only if I am catastrophically underestimating the love the Academy feels for Wolf of Wall Street.  (If Hill does somehow take this one, then also expect DiCaprio to win Best Actor.)  My favorite among the other three might be Barkhad Abdi as the terrifying skeletal presence Muse leading the band of Somali pirates in Captain Phillips—terrifying because his haunted, haunting face is such an open book:  He has literally nothing to lose.  His society is a shambles, his prospects are non-existent, his life belongs entirely to some warlord boss to whom he is one more expendable minion.  Muse is not afraid to kill and he’s not afraid to die, because whatever happens to him on board this ship is child’s play compared to what will happen to him if he returns empty-handed. What could be scarier than that?  Abdi (in his debut performance, no less) puts just enough flesh on the skeleton to make him human, but not enough to give us any comfort in his humanity.  It’s chilling.

 

Equally chilling, for somewhat different reasons, is Michael Fassbender’s performance as Master Epps in 12 Years a Slave.  There’s a tradition of sadistic slave owners in literature and film going all the way back to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Epps certainly fits comfortably into that line.  But he is drawn and acted with such specificity, such recognizable faults and credible motivations, that he becomes a much fuller character than such figures are usually allowed to become.  Understand, he’s no less evil for it.  In fact, he might be more evil, because we can see clearly that this is a person who comprehends the horror of what he is doing.  He doesn’t lack human sensibilities and sensitivities; he just defiles them for the perverse pleasure it gives him to do so, then ruthlessly punishes his victims for making him recognize the sickness inside himself—and then wraps up the whole disgusting mess in a cloak of religiosity.  Fassbender’s job is a thankless one, working so hard and so masterfully to make real a character whom we all hope and pray could never have actually existed, but whom we fear has existed in iterations too numerous for history to even record. 

 

Then there’s Bradley Cooper, whose borderline-unstable FBI agent is probably the funnest part of the very fun American Hustle.  It’s hard for me to say if Cooper is really doing great acting in the film, but I can’t deny that whatever he’s doing makes Richie an extremely entertaining presence who becomes the engine and the gravitational center of every scene he’s in.  Director David O. Russell really seems to have figured out how to make the best use of Cooper’s slightly cock-eyed energy (and actual eyes...), so I hope they continue working together.  As for a win, many people rate Cooper’s chances lower than Fessbender’s or Abdi’s, but I’m not so sure.  The Academy has been known to show appreciation for comic (or quasi-comic) performances in the supporting categories, and with the other roles being nominated in this category, one can imagine voters wanting a little breathing room.  Probably an academic point, though—Leto is still the likely winner. 

 

 

 

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Lupita Nyong’o

 

 

Pick:

Lupita Nyong’o

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

--

Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

40%

Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

45%

Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

--

June Squibb, Nebraska

15%

 

First I’ll say I think Julia Roberts and Sally Hawkins are non-starters.  I’m not in the camp that thinks Roberts was in over her head next to Meryl Streep.  Her performance is very solid.  But I don’t know how anyone could go toe-to-toe against Streep’s performance in Osage County and not come off looking like a little light.  Put that together with the emotional dreariness of the film, and you don’t end up with a win.  As for Hawkins, her work in Blue Jasmine is fantastic, as is typical of her, but can’t compete with the others here in terms of visibility.  So the nomination is her prize.

 

The race here is mainly between Lupita Nyong’o and Jennifer Lawrence, and I put Nyong’o in the lead, though perhaps not by much.  Looking at the beautiful and vibrant woman gracing the red carpets lately, I can barely reconcile that this is the same person who played the crushed, hopeless Patsey in 12 Years a Slave.  Patsey is in a sense the very spirit of the film, the ghost that lingers in our memory long after we leave the theatre, reminding us (as if we need reminding) of the immeasurable damage to humanity that slavery engenders.  As abuse is heaped disproportionately onto her in the course of the film, due primarily to her master’s lustful obsession with her, Nyong’o shows us a quiet soul becoming increasingly absent, not merely beaten down by suffering, but actually hollowed out by it, until what remains is a vessel useless for any purpose other than holding pain—of which there will always be an endless supply if you are a slave.  This vision of Patsey haunts me as I think and write about this movie, even more so than when I was watching it, and it’s Nyong’o who made it real for us.  She deserves this award.

 

But then there’s Jennifer Lawrence, as much of an “It” girl as Hollywood produces these days, really just embarking on her career, but already having won an Oscar for last year’s Silver Linings Playbook and having actually deserved one for 2010’s Winter’s Bone.  As I said last year, I’m still waiting to see which path she’ll ultimately take with her career, since she could still opt for either starlet/romantic-comedy lead or serious actress.  Like her winning role last year, her role in American Hustle looks like something transitional to me.  She’s developing a mini-niche playing Beautiful Young Women Who Aren’t Quite Right in the Head, and she’s doing a fine job of it.  I actually liked this performance even better than the one last year; it felt more grounded in real life and real emotion, more energized by a real personal history, less like it was motivated by the requirements of a plot.  And just like everything else in the movie, it was a lot of fun to watch.  But still, you can’t really make a career of playing these characters, even if David O. Russell keeps making a movie a year for the next 20 years.  The world will eventually want to see something else from you.  I’m waiting patiently to see what’s next for Lawrence.  Meanwhile, Hollywood seems quite smitten with what it’s seeing right now, so I can absolutely imagine them giving her a second Oscar.

 

Which puts June Squibb in a pretty good place.  You certainly can’t call her a favorite, but she couldn’t be much better positioned as a spoiler.  If Academy voters can’t decide between Nyong’o and Lawrence because they like them both so much, OR if they decide to pass on Nyong’o because the subject matter is too upsetting and Lawrence because she just won an Oscar last year and she’s only 23, Squibb is the go-to nominee.  She’s a real hoot in Nebraska, a little dumpling of an old lady with a foul mouth, a dirty mind, and the disposition of a clenched fist.  In this category, when everything lines up correctly, sometimes being a hoot is enough.

 

 

© 2014 dondi demarco