November 23, 2014

Oscars Preview & Cliff Notes 2014

 

Ellen DeGeneres, Oscar and nominees going for gold.

How do you fit the highlights of 2013’s Best in American Cinema in one piece? Apparently in 2250 or so words.

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Oscars Preview & Cliff Notes 2014

Leonard DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. The film, directed by Martin Scorsese, is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (Terence Winter), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Jonah Hill), Best Director, Best Actor and Best Picture

With the March 2 awards show looming, it’s time to catch up on the nominees, the storylines and Hollywood buzz surrounding each film. If you don’t have time to see every nominated film (which I can’t fathom) here are some cliff notes to impress your friends for the real Super Sunday

WRITING—ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
, Before Midnight

Billy Ray, Captain Phillips

Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, Philomena

John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave

Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street

Breakdown—“Wonderful” is the best way to describe having Linklater, Hawke and Delpy take us on this journey of a couple’s evolution as the audience sees Before Midnight unfold in real time. It isn’t the strongest contender of the lot but it’s certainly nice to see them nominated. The same applies to Captain Phillips. A film done well always deserves some merit but there’s a lack of grit to make it a standout. A win here would be like the Rutherford B. Hayes of winners. Terence Winter’s take on The Wolf of Wall Street is a brilliant twist as it takes Belfort’s bragging manifesto into an allegory for America’s greed.

Who Should Win—Odd as it may sound, it’s about time there was a movie that captured the bleakness and depravity that was 12 Years a Slave. Jon Ridley’s screenplay lacks the piousness of “Roots,” the epic appeal of Amistad and the smirking revenge of Django Unchained by opting for brutally honest objectivity that seems devoid of any bullish fecal matter.

Who Will Win12 Years a Slave. Moving forward….

WRITING—ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
, American Hustle

Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine

Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack, Dallas Buyers Club

Spike Jonze, Her

Bob Nelson, Nebraska

BreakdownAmerican Hustle is good but not great and that “problem” starts with the

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Oscars Preview & Cliff Notes 2014

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombley in Spike Jonze's Her.

story. Russell and Singer have some great scenes and explosive dialogue but opportunities are wasted to build off them into something more cohesive. Simply put, the problem with the story is the story.

Dallas Buyers Club has a similar predicament in being a film built for the actors to shine. Writers Borten and Wallack are selfless in just giving enough character to the film while allowing Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to create iconic performances.

Woody Allen seems to be always contending with himself, or his past, when it comes to the category.

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Oscars Preview & Cliff Notes 2014

I wouldn’t say that Blue Jasmine has the same punch as Vicky Cristina Barcelona or as good a character study as Owen Wilson’s performance in Midnight in Paris. Allen obviously knows how to create and write female characters so it almost seems requisite that he be nominated here and Cate Blanchett for Best Actress. It’s those unjust comparisons to his prior work that will do him in for a current nomination. Fortunately, there is stronger competition this year.

Who Should Win—Jonze is able to make commentary on love, isolation, and technology while simultaneously making you feel his point with Her. There isn’t a scene that doesn’t feel sincere with a brutal honesty that leaves you tending to new or reopened scars. If this is Jonze’s first stab at writing his own work, I wonder what dagger he has next.

Who Will Win—Spike Jonze. It’s not even funny.

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Barkhad Abdi
, Captain Phillips

Bradley Cooper, American Hustle

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Breakdown—This is the strongest category in this year’s Oscar nominations. There is a particular favorite but if any nominee won, there wouldn’t be any controversy. Abdi was the best part of Captain Phillips as the pirate leader, Abduwali Muse. Cooper is also a great choice and when he works with David O. Russell, he seems to have an extra gear. The knock working against Cooper is that Hustle is an ensemble piece that is notoriously hard to win, not to mention that when it comes to stealing scenes, it’s more about Lawrence and Adams instead of Bale and Cooper.

Tough break for Jonah Hill. He was lights out as Donnie Azoff. Just like in Moneyball, Hill is able to make an impression next to A-list talent by completely diving into character. Brad Pitt was more or less playing Brad Pitt as a general manager or DiCaprio was more or less playing a stockbroker, but Hill shines because he plays Donnie Azoff. He’s the best second banana in the game.

Who Should Win—Any time director Steve McQueen and Fassbender get together, sparks will fly. However, in this collaboration, McQueen is nothing short of fireworks. Credit to Fassbender for committing so devoutly to character. It’s no easy task to portray a plantation owner, let alone one truer to scale as this one was, couched as it were in Fassbender’s objective look at how ignorance along with moral and religious misinterpretation could lead to such cataclysmic events. While not necessarily a modern-day parable, it’s proof that humans have hardly learned from their mistakes.

Who Will Win—Unfortunately, this is Leto’s trophy to lose. His transformation in Dallas Buyers Club is the only thing people can talk about, and that physical transformation is huge. So the debate is between physical acting versus dedication to story.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Sally Hawkins
, Blue Jasmine

Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

June Squibb, Nebraska

Breakdown—This seems to be a category of haves and have-nots. There is no reason why Julia Roberts should be nominated other than the fact that she is Julia Roberts.

Scarlett Johansson, without even a minute of screen time, made a bigger impact on Her than Roberts did with August: Osage County. June Squibb’s performance in Nebraska is reminiscent of Viola Davis’ role in 2008’s Doubt—a few minutes and one great scene can get you a long way but not necessarily the hardware. The dark horse in this category would have to be Jennifer Lawrence. She and Squibb are similar in making the most out of their screen time but Lawrence flat out steals every scene she’s in especially against heavy hitters like Christian Bale and Amy Adams. American Hustle is a heist movie at its bare bones and Lawrence is the live wire that sets everything in motion. The Academy and just about everyone else is in love with her and while it wouldn’t be right, it also wouldn’t be surprising if she took home gold.

Who Should Win—Lupita Nyong’o’s performance in 12 Years a Slave is nothing short of heartbreaking. It speaks on so many levels that an entire essay could be written on that performance. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s role started with distance and slowly reeled the viewer in. With Nyong’o, it was all visceral intensity all the time.

Who Will Win—Nyong’o or Lawrence. It really is a toss-up. If the winner is based purely on performance, then it belongs to Nyong’o.

DIRECTING

David O. Russell
, American Hustle

Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity

Alexander Payne, Nebraska

Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Breakdown—How do you pick this category? Each director has a signature style that fits each

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Oscars Preview & Cliff Notes 2014

Alexander Payne, seen here with actor Bruce Dern,is nominated for Best Director for his film Nebraska.

film perfectly. What I’m most happy to see is that each film is a strong character film and not nominated purely on name recognition. Payne is a master at capturing the family dynamic; he keeps taking the viewer in different directions and Nebraska is no exception.

While it seems that Scorsese is going back to his old stomping grounds with The Wolf of Wall Street as a redux of Goodfellas, nothing can be further from the truth. Scorsese makes a hyperkinetic speedball of a film loaded with commentary that shows the director is getting better with age.

Despite previous reports, David O. Russell has truly revealed himself to be an actor’s director. Russell assembled great scenes with even better actors but the film’s lack of cohesion cannot be overstated. Cuarón, much like Jonah Hill, has the unfortunate predicament of running into a buzz saw with regard to competition.

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Oscars Preview & Cliff Notes 2014

Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Grant in Gravity. The film, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is nominated for Best Director, Best Actress and Best Picture.

Gravity would win any other year. Cuarón still might win this year, but this is a battle with McQueen over artistic fare versus technical wizardry for which there is a technical award.

Who Should Win—Steve McQueen has used a masterstroke in telling a deeply moving story. 12 Years a Slave is just as much about human depravity as it is about slavery. If that sounds like a no-brainer, then it’s amazing that no one has done it as artistically as McQueen

Who Will Win—McQueen. There is really nothing clever to say here. 12 Years a Slave is a deeply moving, provocative and transcendent film.

BEST ACTRESS

Amy Adams
, American Hustle

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Judi Dench, Philomena

Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Breakdown—Amy Adams is great in American Hustle but I don’t know why she is being nominated; it’s not her story. She’s definitely playing against type even though the intentional cleavage becomes exhausting. It feels like an it’s-just-nice-to- be-nominated pick. The same feeling applies to Judi Dench as well. There is no one who could play the role in Philomena other than Dench and she just hits every mark. The story, however, isn’t strong enough to take it over the top. It’s understandable why Adams and Dench received nominations, even if they’re not going to win. It’s perplexing as to why Meryl Streep is here other than name recognition. I guess logic applies that if Adams receives a nod for playing against type then so should Streep. Then again, the actress is known for being a chameleon with roles, so the logic of playing against type shouldn’t apply. It’s not a bylaw that she be nominated every year and I think this is one of those years.

Who Should Win—A Bullock win would seem like a legitimate win for the actress after a controversial win in 2009 for The Blind Side. Forget George Clooney, this was Bullock’s film the whole way. Her performance stands out even more considering that Gravity, being the technical effects giant that it is, Bullock was the realest thing about it.

Who Will Win—Woody Allen script plus Cate Blanchett in a role custom built for her? C’mon people, that’s just plain science.

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Oscars Preview & Cliff Notes 2014

BEST ACTOR

Christian Bale
, American Hustle

Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Breakdown—Bale had the best performance of the four nominees in American Hustle, in that the performances screamed out at you while Bale slowly reeled you in. Subtle complexity always works but it’s always hard to win an individual award in an ensemble film.

I’ve been saying it the whole time so I won’t stop now. Bruce Dern also has a super muted performance and in most years he would be a lock for receiving the Oscar that really serves as make-up for previous slights. There is tougher competition this year so that’s out.

Who Should Win—Chiwetel Ejiofor for his workmanlike contribution to 12 Years a Slave. Director Steve McQueen’s emotional footing is a story about a man losing his dignity and despite all the hellish obstacles, has no choice but to endure and maintain grace.

His performance stands out compared to other antebellum films in that viewers don’t just view Northup’s lashings, they viscerally experience his tension, confusion, fear and catharsis.

Who Will Win—McConaughey in a good but not great performance. Dallas Buyers Club is a great media story about its rise from development hell and McConaughey is on a great acting streak after so many years of ridicule for just being a face. I wouldn’t feel bad if he wins but I just don’t think it was the strongest performance this year.

BEST PICTURE

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street


Breakdown—It’s been mentioned enough times in this piece about what will keep American Hustle from winning, so we’ll just move on. Her is a great film but it appeals to such a niche audience that it doesn’t have enough groundswell to make any noise. It fits right where it belongs—winning Best Original Screenplay.

Dallas Buyers Club has to be the dark horse in this category. After sweeping both male actor awards at the Golden Globes, the film elevated its profile in popularity. McConaughey and Leto are great stories this Oscar season and AIDS is a topic the Academy likes to discuss. While its win would be a completely political pick, the reason I think it won’t win is because it’s a political pick.

The real victim this year would have to be Cuarón’s Gravity. Had it been any other year but this year, it would’ve won. It simply ran into a buzz saw. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s story about being lost in space is easily the most visually beautiful of the season. Its coronation is at the Sci-Tech Awards, the “Technical” Oscars, not the Oscars that everyone watches.

Who Should Win—What’s immediately compelling about 12 Years a Slave is America’s empirical uneasiness about the subject of race relations and the period of slavery in general. In order to successfully lean into the curve and embrace all taboos of the era, an outside voice (meaning English…like, from England) was needed to properly tell the story, warts and all.

Who Will Win12 Years a Slave. The film immediately vaults itself into the realm of the best, if not the greatest American slavery movie made.