Michael Haneke (Amour)
Ang Lee (Life of Pi)
David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)
Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)
Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
Will win: Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)
Should win: Michael Haneke (Amour)
Comment: This is a tough category both to to call and in which to pick a favorite. Leaving aside for a moment that I consider Lincoln and Amour to be the better films, there are clear cases to be made for why all these five were nominated. Life of Pi feels perhaps like the one film of these five that really needed a strong director to come through, and considering how well the potentially static middle section worked, with the integration of the visual effects and the magical-realist elements, Ang Lee certainly succeeded. Zeitlin also deserves the recognition for Beasts, particularly for teasing out a fantastic performance from his lead, the also-nominated Quvenzhane Wallis, even though I think he should have tried to hold back Dwight Henry a little as the father. Spielberg probably assembled the best ensemble of the year in Lincoln, and ensemble dramas are an underappreciated directorial feat, considering the amount of personal instruction that goes into making them work. The one weak link for me in this field is Russell, whose ensemble ironically got the most acclaim from the Academy. Individually, I suppose they’re all okay, but to me only Lawrence was consistently great. I should also add that I blame some of the tonal unevenness on Russell’s direction.
In sum, I would be fine with Spielberg winning, but I’m still going for Haneke’s intimately understated Amour, because of the fine performances, and because the movie retains some classic Haneke touches of clinical horror even though it’s mostly a humanist picture, for once.
This, of course, is my choice between the actual nominees. Personally, I would have liked to see Kathryn Bigelow recognized for the masterful work she did connecting the intricate bureaucratic procedural with that explosive final hunt segment in my favorite film of this Oscar season, Zero Dark Thirty. Or perhaps an admission that it takes a holistic directorial vision to put together something as well-crafted and resonant as Wes Anderson’s definitive masterpiece, Moonrise Kingdom. On the plus side, Ben Affleck was shut out for his flat and uninspired direction in Argo.
Best Performance By An Actor In A Leading Role
Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)
Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables)
Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)
Denzel Washington (Flight)
Should and will win: Daniel Day Lewis
Comment: In a perfect world, this would have been a clear showdown between Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix, but considering Day-Lewis has already been crowned the winner here, and the lack of non-actorly love for Paul Thomas Anderson’s maddeningly fascinating The Master, I guess it’s not to be. That said, even if it was a two-man race, I think I would still have preferred Day-Lewis. If you’d told me beforehand that DDL would deliver a subdued performance as Lincoln, I wouldn’t have believed you, but that’s what he did, and it was that restraint which made the American icon so approachable and un-Masterpiece Theater-y. He commands every scene, without ever calling outsized attention to his work. With Phoenix, his performance – which I liked a lot – feels maximalist and oddly restrained at the same time, possibly because he struggled to contain the tense and mannered Freddie Quell as much as the character himself.
I’m withholding judgment on Denzel Washington in Flight since I haven’t seen the film yet, but Jackman and Cooper strike me as also-rans in this category. Jackman labors heroically in every scene to save Les Miserables from Tom Hooper, and he does a decent enough job, I guess, but the camerawork denies him the chance to deploy his entire arsenal (by which I mean anything other than his mouth and forehead). I’m not sure if I think Cooper deserved to be nominated for Silver Linings, although it’s definitely his best performance to date. Particularly in the first third of the film, I think he at times overdoes the emotional volatility of his character, and I am not necessarily willing to write it off on the mental illness element, or the uneven script, although that may be part of it.
Best Actress In A Leading Role
Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty)
Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)
Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)
Naomi Watts (The Impossible)
Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
Will win: Jennifer Lawrence
Should win: Jessica Chastain
These are five fantastic performances, and yet I concentrated on three of them when I tried to decide who I want to win. Among handicappers, it seems the smartest money is now on Lawrence, followed by Riva, but I’m throwing my proverbial weight behind Chastain. Apart from the final 30 minutes it feels like the omnipresent Chastain, one of the best actresses in American cinema over the last few years (The Help, Take Shelter, The Tree of Life), was in every frame of Zero Dark Thirty, and even when she wasn’t I could sense how her unbending resolve influenced and brought emotional resonance to the actions and motivations of others. Mark Boal’s script gave her some very “big” standoff scenes with the higher-ups, but she really won me over in the quieter moments, bringing crucial ambiguity to the torture scenes as well as more emotional moments.
That said, I would be perfectly fine with Lawrence or Riva taking the prize. Lawrence’s character is not an easy one to play, but she captures the balances between volatile self-loathing and self-discipline beautifully. Riva, for her part, is essential to the ultimate effect of Amour, although I would also have like to see her co-star, Jean-Louis Trintignant, getting recognized for how they played off of each other. The scenes with Naomi Watts and Tom Holland (as her son) made large parts of the otherwise relatively mediocre Impossible work for me, and I remain unconvinced by those who say that Quvenzhane Wallis does not give a real performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild. No matter what Benh Zeitlin might or might not have done in order to get the performance he needed from Wallis, irrespective of what “acting” means when we’re judging a six year old, it’s there, and it’s good.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Alan Arkin (Argo)
Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook)
Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln)
Phillip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)
Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained)
Will win: Robert De Niro
Should win: Tommy Lee Jones
Comment: I’m as torn about who I want to win this category as I was about Lead Actress. Tommy Lee Jones, Christoph Waltz and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are all great in different ways. By process of elimination, I take out Waltz first, because however mesmerizing and funny he always is, his performance in Django Unchained just might be a little to close too his recent Hans Landa turn in Inglourious Basterds to merit another Oscar so soon afterward. That’s not to say he’s not the best thing about the movie, though. His line delivery never fails, and he is just such a delight to watch. Same goes for Hoffman as the enigmatic Lancaster Dodd in The Master, shifting with characteristic ease between cold, calculated manipulation and moments of unrestrained rage to create a truly fascinating cinematic creature. And yet, I think I on team TLJ, for his sprightly and funny turn as the righteous Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln. His character is absolutely crucial to the procedural thriller elements of Spielberg’s, and he plays him with a sense of timing that is all too rarely seen in dramas these days.
I’m not the right person to defend the nominations of either Robert De Niro or Alan Arkin, even though I’m gonna take a chance and say the late-breaking momentum change in De Niro’s direction will carry him all the way to the podium. I’m not sure if it’s how the character is written or how De Niro plays him, but he worked for me only in some scenes (like the heart-to-heart with Bradley Cooper, which was probably the one which ultimately clinched his nomination). Regardless of my lukewarm reaction to his performance (I thought he went too broad on a number of occasions, including the nighttime showdown), as with Tommy Lee Jones, it’s nevertheless good to see him throw himself full force into a role again, after more than fifteen years of more or less uninspired work. As for Arkin, he brings some spark to an entertaining supporting character as insignificant as the movie it’s in.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams (The Master)
Sally Field (Lincoln)
Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables)
Helen Hunt (The Sessions)
Jackie Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook)
Should and will win: Anne Hathaway
Barring an epic upset, Hathaway will run with the prize in what’s a not terribly impressive field. She’s in Les Miserables for something like 20 minutes, and during that time she has only one truly memorable scene, but her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream steals the entire movie for its raw emotional impact. I haven’t seen Helen Hunt in The Sessions, and I’m unable to see what was so nomination-worthy about Jackie Weaver’s near-absence and at the very least kinda inconsequential turn in Silver Linings, but in the two short days since I saw it, Amy Adams’s small but important part in The Master has stayed with me. It’s new territory for the always reliable but usually sympathetic Adams, but as the controlling wife of the cult leader, she’s downright scary. Sally Field has a few big emotional scenes in Lincoln, but I think she actually overacts a little.
Best Original Screenplay
Zero Dark Thirty
Will win: Amour
Should win: Moonrise Kingdom
Comment: Keeping in mind that I haven’t seen Flight, this too is an incredibly strong field. My hunch is that the award will go to either Django Unchained or Amour. Although it has a very attention-grabbing cast, Django is also the most verbal film of the bunch, and the Academy could be looking for a way to include Tarantino among its roster of winners. When my ultimate tip nonetheless is Amour, it has to do with how precise this film is. Much of that has to be in the script, although it’s also in the acting and directing. I’d be perfectly okay with either of them winning.
No, strike that. Even though at least four of these nominees would be worthy winners, my happiest surprise of the night would be if Moonrise Kingdom took home this award. Not only is it to my mind the funniest of all the films nominated in any category; it crystallizes the importance of scriptwriting to making a really good movie. I remain somewhat bitter that Moonrise was shut out of all other categories, and so I genuinely hope some of that is rectified here.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Will win: Argo
Should win: Lincoln
Comment: I’ll try not to rehash points made elsewhere in this post, but to me there is no question that Tony Kushner’s Lincoln script is far and away the best of this bunch. It also feels like the script that’s most essential to the success of the film. Life of Pi is more of a technical-directorial achievement than a script-based one, and the ultimate success of Beasts of the Southern Wild in my opinion comes down to its visual inventiveness and charismatic lead actress, more than the script, although the story is richly imagined. In the cases of Silver Linings and Argo (by now the frontrunner), I don’t think they are even that good. I’ve mentioned my problems with the tone of Silver Linings and its disappointingly conventional ending, and with Argo, I found it severely lacking, particularly in fleshing out interesting and relatable characters.
Best Documentary Feature
5 Broken Cameras
How to Survive a Plague
The Invisible War
Searching for Sugar Man
Will win: Searching for Sugar Man
Should win: How to Survive a Plague
Comment: I come to this category handicapped by the fact that I have seen only three of the five nominees (Sugar Man, Plague and 5 Broken Cameras), but consensus seems to be gathering around Sugar Man as the frontrunner in this historically tricky category. It’s an endearing film, as far as it goes, if somewhat hampered by how it omits some facts that could have complicated its story about how folk singer Rodriguez, unbeknownst to himself, became a huge success among white middle-class liberals in South Africa, all the while being ignored in the US. It should come as no surprise to regular readers that I’m rooting for the devastating AIDS movie How to Survive a Plague, but I was deeply impressed with the eye-witness doc 5 Broken Cameras, about Palestinian resistance to Israeli settlements, as well. The critically acclaimed Gatekeepers chronicles the intelligence services in Israel, whereas The Invisible War, which I could have seen last year but chose not to for its depressing subject matter, tackles sexual assault in the US military. I imagine it could be a dark horse.
Best Animated Feature
The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Will win: Brave
Should win: Frankenweenie
Comment: Disney-Pixar’s downward slide continued with the somewhat contrived Brave, but it nonetheless looks like the one to beat in this category. I didn’t get around to see Wreck-It Ralph (it opened in Norway just last week), but I found both ParaNorman and The Pirates to be quite enjoyable. The former plays around with horror tropes, but that particular approach was explored much more interestingly in Frankenweenie, arguably Tim Burton’s most inspired work in years, drawing inspiration from everything from The Shining and Godzilla to Plan 9 from Outer Space and Burton’s own Edward Scissorhands. It’s a slight film in a slight year for animation, but it’s also the best one.