12 Years a Slave (Dir: Steve McQueen)
American Hustle (Directed by: David O. Russell)
Captain Phillips (Dir: Paul Greengrass)
Gravity (Dir: Alfonso Cuaron)
Her (Dir: Spike Jonze)
Nebraska (Dir: Alexander Payne)
Philomena (Dir: Stephen Frears)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Dir: Martin Scorsese)
Likely winner: 12 Years a Slave
My favorite: Her
The strong field of contenders at this year’s Academy Awards somehow is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that it means that there are few winners I’ll find it hard to accept, but on the other hand, it means I don’t really have one film to root for, or against. Looking back to the showdown between The Social Network and The King’s Speech, for instance, it was easier to get invested in the race. Or, it could just be that my favorite of this field, Spike Jonze’s wise and innovative Her, is one of the also-rans. I fell hard for how that movie embraced its premise and eschewed broad comedy or a The Beaver-esque sinister turn, in order to imagine how artificial intelligence might be a savior to some. Some people were put off by how earnest and twee it is, but I liked it more for it.
Captain Phillips is one of my favorites, but that’s perhaps the least likely winner of all. Paul Greengrass is masterful at building suspense, and in this intense hijacking drama he establishes the stakes from very early on. The movie is carried by a couple of truly remarkable performances from Tom Hanks and newcomer Barkhad Abdi, but this is a director’s movie, too. What could have been a fairly conventional action thriller is elevated to an almost claustrophobic psychological drama in the final hour.
In the battle between the two or three films that might actually win this category, however, my pick is 12 Years a Slave. I feared going in that it would turn out to be mainly a Very Important Film, but there are individual scenes that rise above that. Witness the near-hanging relatively early in the film, where the camera lingers uncomfortably for what seems like forever, as Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character stuggles. Like the film as a whole, it’s mostly quietly confrontational, and stronger for it. 12 Years’ strongest competitor is said to be Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, a film I wrote about back in November. It’s a movie I admire more than love, mostly due to a script with some serious flaws. That said, as a piece of visual filmmaking it has no peer, which should make Cuaron the man to beat for best director.
At this point, though, it seems reasonably clear that 12 Years a Slave will triumph in this category.
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Alexander Payne (Nebraska)
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Likely winner: Alfonso Cuaron
My favorite: Cuaron
I should mention up front that due to a lack of distribution I haven’t seen Nebraska, which slightly inhibits my grasp of several categories. That said, there seems to be an emerging consensus around Cuaron as the Best Director winner, and I’m fine with that. Gravity always was a visual jouney to me, not an emotional one, although at times it captures the existential anxiety of being trapped in space. Cuaron showed in Children of Men (2007) that he could direct his way out of the backseat of a car, but he’s no less impressive when his canvas is, well, infinity. His main competitors in this category probably are David O. Russell and Steve McQueen. Russell’s Hustle is a sleek and gorgeous period crime drama in the vein of Goodfellas, though slighter and less virtuosic, whereas McQueen, in scenes like the hanging scene mentioned above, takes 12 Years above the level of a history lesson competently told. Personally I would have liked to see Martin Scorsese recognized for the directorial pyrotechnics of The Wolf of Wall Street, but that’s not going to happen.
BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Christian Bale (American Hustle)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Likely winner: Matthew McConaughey
My favorite: Leonardo DiCaprio
What to make of a good performance in a film I didn’t like? That’s the question with me and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club. I found the film to be surprisingly glib in its focus on the entrepreneurial spirit of McConaughey’s character. McConaughey did his very best, and he came into his own when he had to do something more than be the effortlessly charming Texan, but I felt like he was let down by the film. I never really felt the sense of desperation that living with AIDS has to entail. These reservations are the main reasons why – however much I want McConaughey to get recognized for his turn-around in the last couple of years – he’s not my favorite to win. That honor goes to Leonardo DiCaprio for his insanely broad, hysterically funny performance in The Wolf of Wall Street. A lot of people hate this film, finding it vulgar, monotonous and ethically problematic, but DiCaprio’s intensity was one of the reasons why it eventually won me over. Leo does so much acting – and so many different kinds of acting – that I think it should be appreciated. And the Quaaludes scene is the funniest thing I’ve seen in years.
I liked both Ejiofor and Bale, although the former is much more crucial to his film. Bale comes alive in individual scenes, but if I could choose, I’d have given the final spot, and the Oscar, to Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips. He’s great throughout, but the final act is a masterclass.
BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Judi Dench (Philomena)
Likely winner: Cate Blanchett
My favorite: Blanchett
I haven’t seen Augyst: Osage County, and thus I am unable to judge the merits of Streep’s umpteenth nomination, but I have seen the other four. The consensus has gathered around Blanchett – who carried Blue Jasmine, a movie which I had some serious issues with regarding how it portayed middle class life, mental illness and a scene involving sexual harrassment – with wit and nuance. It’s a broad but crucially lively performance, from one of the best actors (of either gender) of her generation. If she is weakened at all by the Woody Allen controversy, which she shouldn’t be, Amy Adams is considered her best-positioned challenger. I preferred Adams over Melissa Leo when the latter won for The Fighter (2010), but although her role in American Hustle was a challenging one, she didn’t make as much of an impact on me this time around, perhaps because of the slightly polished nature of Russell’s movie.
Sandra Bullock is good in Gravity, but she’s also burdened by some of most heavy-handed lines in that uneven script. Gravity to me is a visual creation, not a vehicle for thespians. And speaking of talent who plays the hand she’s been given: For the most part, Judi Dench is a calm and comfortable presence in Philomena. However, there is something slightly off about the periodic cutesiness of her performance.
BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Likely winner: Jared Leto
My favorite: Barkhad Abdi
First: If you’d told me five years ago that the stars of Superbad and The Hangover would have two Academy Award nominations at any point in their respective careers, I probably would have laughed you out of the room. Yet here we are, and Cooper and Hill, while definitive also-rans. have pulled off just such a feat. It could be argued that both are crucial to the mood of their respective films, but in either case, the nominated performances don’t exactly feel essential, though competently done. The odds-on favorite in this category is Leto, but I didn’t necessarily feel like he got all that much to work with in Rayone. He’s good in the vulnerable scene, but his character’s arc from confident and caring to careless junkie comes off as a little forced. My favorite was Barkhad Abdi, a first-time actor as a pirate in Captain Phillips who held his own in every sense against Tom Hanks. If the script maybe was a little on-the-nose about his character’s motivations, Abdi imbued him with nuance by his very presence. The same goes for Michael Fassbender’s terrifying slave owner in 12 Years a Slave.
BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
June Squibb (Nebraska)
Likely winner: Lupita Nyong’o
My favorite: Nyong’o
I don’t feel fully qualified to judge this category, since I haven’t seen either Nebraska or August: Osage County, but of the ones I have seen, I was taken by both Nyong’o’s and Lawrence’s performances. They are fundamentally different, of course, but both are impressive. Nyong’o is honest, emotional and confrontional as a very bleak destiny, but her performance is extremely powerful. Her relative inexperience makes it even more remarkable. She’s drive home the pain and suffering that runs through 12 Years, even though I never felt like the film tried to use her as an emotional short-hand.
Lawrence, too, does a lot of acting, if on the other end of the scale, for the most part. She’s a blast to watch in her scenery-chewiest role to date, simultaneously the funniest and the saddest character in Amercan Hustle, burdened by a significant inferiority complex. In that sense, she’s reminiscent of Sally Hawkins’ character in Blue Jasmine. As Cate Blanchett’s more humble sister, she gives her very best to a character written with a whiff of socio-economic condescension by Woody Allen, never a great chronicler of middle-class life.
My devotion to Lawrence makes this a tough race to call, but I’ll go with the weightier performance in the better film. That’s Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave.