Here are my predictions for this year’s Academy Awards, which will be televised on Sunday night and which have provided me with a nice excuse to write about some films I haven’t yet written about elsewhere (e.g., 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, Her and Philomena). Readers should feel free to chime in with their own Oscar predictions in the comments section below. Cheers!
The front-runner: 12 Years a Slave
I won’t go as far as the notorious contrarian critic who dubbed 12 Years a Slave “torture porn,” but I also can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something a little dubious about director Steve McQueen’s obsessive focus on physical suffering. While the film’s advocates claim that images like the one of flesh being literally torn from a slave girl’s back as she’s being whipped, Passion of the Christ-style, exemplify McQueen’s brutal honesty and uncompromising vision, I also think it’s too easy of a way for him to manipulate viewers’ emotions. Are such moments sad and disgusting and powerful to behold? Sure. The problem is that McQueen isn’t also capable of taking us into the hearts and minds of his characters. While I suppose it is progress to see a Hollywood movie tackle a quintessentially African-American story from an African-American perspective (i.e., without a white savior-character to play the role of reassuring mediator for white viewers), the protagonist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is in a position where he’s unable to say what he’s thinking for 95% of his screen time, which ultimately makes the character little more than a cipher. Perhaps a Bresson-like voice-over for Solomon would have helped — though I imagine screenwriter John Ridley wouldn’t have had the imagination to access Solomon’s thoughts. As it is, Solomon does come across as more of a human being than, say, Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained (to which 12 Years a Slave is obviously superior), but Michael Fassbender’s villainous slave-master still ends up problematically stealing the show. Script issues and Masterpiece Theater-style direction aside, the acting is mostly excellent. The main reason why 12 Years a Slave will win the Best Picture Oscar, however, is for the same reason that Dances with Wolves did in 1991 — because of its perceived social significance.
The main contender: Gravity
When I reviewed Gravity upon its initial release last fall I said that it was an entertaining thrill ride that was being ludicrously overpraised by critics eager to compare it to everything from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to authentic avant-garde films — and I stand by that. This is obviously a great-looking movie; but I wish director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron had the courage of his original convictions and made this as a dialogue-free film with only one character instead of pairing Sandra Bullock with George Clooney for a lot of hackneyed dialogue and unnecessary back story. In short, I wish it was the outer-space version of All is Lost. In J.C. Chandor’s gripping, lost-at-sea adventure, we watch a man actually do things. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s character does a lot of hand-wringing and tells us things. Gravity is the main contender to 12 Years a Slave at the Oscars mainly because it made the most money of any of the Best Picture nominees. But I have a feeling that, in addition to the shitload of technical awards it’s destined to win, the only major prize it will reap is Best Director for Cuaron. I’ve heard some people say they are excited that he will be the first “Latin American filmmaker” to win in this category but how many know the work of Emilio Fernandez, a better Mexican director who once upon a time served as the actual model for the Oscar statue, hmmmm?
The dark horse: American Hustle
Given the massive debts it owes to Goodfellas and Casino, this lightweight but genuinely oddball con-artist comedy seems to have polarized many critics into responses of either “It out-Scorseses Scorsese!” or “This is nothing but a cheap imitation of the master!” This is unfortunate because, while I don’t think American Hustle is nearly at the level of The Wolf of Wall Street, I also don’t see any need for hating on it. I enjoyed David O. Russell’s latest because it boasts the same modest virtues one can reliably expect to find in all of the director’s work: it features a bunch of entertaining scenes and juicy performances. And if there is a category in which Russell arguably can be said to best Scorsese, it’s in the admirable attention he shows to his female characters. Some Oscar prognosticators actually have had this as the front-runner for Best Picture but I think they’ve been fooled by its Golden Globes success, where its ghetto-ization in the Musical/Comedy category made it the winningest film of the night. When members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have to choose between this and actual dramas, I suspect they’re ticking off boxes for the latter in almost every category; David O. Russell and co-writer Eric Singer will have to content themselves with the Best Original Screenplay trophy only.
The long shot: The Wolf of Wall Street
The Wolf of Wall Street is by far my favorite of the Best Picture nominees. Unfortunately, I think it is going to lose in every category in which it’s nominated: it’s too disturbing, too controversial, too culturally relevant. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his finest performance as an adult, topping his criminally underrated work in J. Edgar, as Jordan Belfort, a sleazy penny stockbroker who swindled his way to the top of a billion-dollar empire by ripping off gullible 99-percenters and not showing a shred of conscience. DiCaprio’s penchant for playing obsessive, intensely-focused characters reaches its apotheosis here: not only does he show a surprising flair for physical comedy (Jordan’s Quaalude-addled crawl towards his Lamborghini has already proven itself to be a time-capsule moment), but his delivery of Jordan’s insane pep-talks to his throngs of employees comes across as rousing as Henry V‘s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech: “This right here is the land of opportunity! This is America! This is my home! The show goes on! They’re gonna need to send in the National Guard to take me out, ’cause I ain’t going nowhere!” (I hope, now that DiCaprio has played this part, however, that he has the good sense to dial down the intensity and do as little as possible in his next role.) But DiCaprio won’t win an Oscar for this. He’ll win at some point in the future for a performance that will probably be much less interesting than this one — just as Scorsese already got his Oscar for the least interesting of his recent works (The Departed).
The “number five” slot: Her
If there is one reason to see Her, a film built around the clever but also cloying premise of a man falling in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, it is for Joaquin Phoenix, who proves yet again that he is one of the finest actors working in American movies. Phoenix, especially since his return from what at the time seemed like a misguided, potentially career-ending hiatus, has the uncommon ability to convey the notion of a tortured soul. In The Master, The Immigrant, and now Her, he never seems to be trying too hard, never seems to be projecting, and yet the slightest inflections in his voice and the faintest glimmers of thought behind his mercurial green eyes can evoke entire worlds of emotional pain. It can’t be easy for an actor to play a man in love with a computer and yet Phoenix is always believable here. Unfortunately, 100% of the power generated from Her stems from his performance. Like every Spike Jonze film, Her is also annoying in a twee, indie-rock sort of way — a movie with a quirky and “innovative” exterior that masks a conventional and deeply sentimental core. Has no one noticed that this is essentially a remake of Lars and the Real Girl? Both feature generic rom-com plots about immature, irresponsible men who learn to become mature and responsible through the experience of having a romantic relationship with a non-human. The OS in Her and the sex doll in Lars finally serve the same function: to allow the socially inept male protagonist to become the kind of person who is ready for a “real” relationship at the end of the movie. If this film seems to be resonating with viewers, that’s probably because of its reassuring but reactionary message that one day humans will be able to become less reliant on technology. Her is not likely to win any Oscars.
The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-acclaimed-medium-budget-studio-film-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Nebraska
Nebraska, a black-and-white road trip comedy from Alexander Payne, is a pleasant and affecting surprise, especially following the same director’s emotionally phony and aesthetically boring Descendants. Woody (Bruce Dern), a senile codger, and David (Will Forte), his middle-aged mediocrity of a son, bond while traveling from their home town of Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska where Woody mistakenly believes he will claim a million dollar prize following a sweepstakes letter he received in the mail. Payne, a Nebraska native, is a deft hand at small-town Midwestern portraiture, and he absolutely nails the feelings of mutual disappointment between parents and children that are so common in life yet so rarely broached in American cinema: the scene of Woody revisiting his childhood home accompanied by his own sons unexpectedly caught me by the throat. Nebraska is not likely to win any Oscars.
The we-had-to-nominate-Harvey-Weinstein-for-something-even-though-he-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Philomena
British director Stephen Frears (The Hit, The Grifters, High Fidelity) is a good craftsman so it’s too bad he’s willing to put his talents to the service of this kind of middle-brow/Oscar-bait/Weinsten Company material: Steve Coogan, who also produced and co-wrote, plays Martin Sixsmith, a journalist covering a “human interest” story involving the title character’s decades-long search for her son after he was taken from her by a convent and sold to adoptive parents in America. Judi Dench gives a typically fine performance as Philomena (or Philo-mania as Leo DiCaprio would say) but everything else about this is earnest, stodgy, dull and, finally, predictable. It may be of marginal interest, however, as the first movie to reflect the reign of Pope Francis: it seems specifically designed to appeal to liberal Catholics — you know, the kind who pride themselves on being more tolerant than those other Catholics?
The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-blockbuster-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Captain Phillips
The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-indie-film-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Dallas Buyer’s Club
Here are my final predictions:
Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Director: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Original Screenplay: David O. Russell and Eric Singer (American Hustle)
Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
Actor: Matthew McConnaughey (Dallas Buyer’s Club)
Actress: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
Supporting Actress: Lupia Nyongo (12 Years a Slave)
Here are my personal numerical ratings for the Best Picture Oscar contenders:
The Wolf of Wall Street: 8.8
American Hustle: 7.7
12 Years a Slave: 6.3
I have no interest in seeing Captain Phillips or Dallas Buyer’s Club. Peace out.