Oscar Preview 2014: Stay to the End

Let’s be honest with ourselves: It’s hard to get excited about the Oscars this year. For some reason the terminally unfunny Ellen DeGeneres returns as host. I suppose in a weird way it’s a sign of progress that an openly gay comedienne is the safe, bland choice. Also, most of the key Oscar categories have clear-cut favorites and only two feel competitive. One is Best Supporting Actress. Thankfully, the other is Best Picture; where the three-film-contest is almost too close to call. So if you’re watching at home and you’re bored, stick with the show until the final winner is called. (Of course, if you live in the DC area, don’t watch at home. Come to the DC Film Society’s Oscars Party.

The real suspense Oscar night is whether I can get all of my picks right. Last year I nailed eight out of nine, so I need to be perfect to improve. With that in mind, I once again offer my picks for who deserves to win and who probably will take home the golden statuette:

Roger Deakins – Prisoners
Bruno Delbonnel – Inside Llewyn Davis
Philippe Le Sourd – The Grandmaster
Emmanuel Lubezki – Gravity
Phedon Papamichael – Nebraska

Should win: Delbonnel
Full disclosure: I’m pulling a Bill Murray here, as I have not seen The Grandmaster. Deakins is now a Lucciesque zero for his ten prior nominations, and I’d love for him to finally break through. Papamichael’s camera work for Nebraska was somehow both bleak and beautiful. While the sights in Gravity were breathtaking, most of that was shot on a green screen and added by the visual effects team. Delbonnel’s efforts were the most critical to his film. He captured the look of the early 60s New York folk scene with shots that seemed to come straight from Life magazine. His use of darkness and muted colors fit that world perfectly.

Will win: Lubezki
Out of the five nominees, Gravity seems to have the most momentum. It’s the only one in the group with a serious shot at Best Picture. Gravity will likely win many of the technical awards, and cinematography is often thrown in with this group, albeit unfairly. Lubezki won the American Society of Cinematographer’s award this year and will follow suit on Oscar night.

Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope – Philomena
Richard Linklater – Before Midnight
Billy Ray – Captain Phillips
John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave
Terence Winter – The Wolf of Wall Street

Should win: Ridley
Ridley adapted Solomon Northup’s autobiographical book without any self-consciousness. You never felt that he was trying to tell a VERY IMPORTANT STORY. He kept the focus where it should be: on the characters and the impact that slavery had on them. That made the film even more powerful by keeping it at a basic human level.

Will win: Ridley
Billy Ray won the Writers Guild of America award for his fine work on Captain Phillips, but Ridley was ineligible (due to a political dispute). So I’m discounting the WGA as a bellwether in this case. Ridley did win the USC Scripter Award, a more reliable indicator. This is a category that generally goes to the serious Best Picture contenders, and there’s no reason to think that the trend will shift this year.

Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack – Dallas Buyers Club
Spike Jonze – Her
Bob Nelson – Nebraska
Eric Singer and David O. Russell – American Hustle

Should win: Singer and Russell
Very tough call over Jonze, whose script was funny, engaging, and thought provoking. I’m going with Singer and Russell because their script captured the times while also providing compelling characters. It was both epic and intimate. The laughs served the story. In its own way, their screenplay also asked questions about guilt and innocence.

Will win: Singer and Russell
Jonze won the WGA award for original screenplay and could repeat here. You could argue that his work would best define the term “original screenplay.” Still, American Hustle is the strongest Best Picture contender here. Russell is also not likely to win Best Director, so this category would be another way to honor his work.

Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o – 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts – August: Osage County
June Squibb – Nebraska

Should win: Nyong’o
Lawrence sparkled in arguably the finest work of her career even though she was at least 10 years too young for her part. Nyong'o truly defined a supporting actress, as she provided added depth to the main story of Solomon Northup. Her mix of desperation and resignation as Patsy, who had been a slave all of her life, served as a critical counterpoint to Solomon Northup, who was still learning the horrors he’d been thrust into. Patsy as written would have been sad, but Nyong'o went to emotional places that made her heartbreaking.

Will win: Nyong’o
I just typed in Lawrence before changing my mind. Lawrence and Nyong’o have split most of the Oscar precursor awards, although the latter won the Screen Actors Guild honor. If Lawrence had not won Best Actress last year, I’d call her the favorite this time. She’s clearly the hottest actress in Hollywood, both headlining the Hunger Games franchise and earning critical acclaim. But because she did win a year ago, the Academy voters may want to spread the wealth around. Nyong’o, in her own way, is a perfect Hollywood Cinderella story, having come from out of nowhere to become a critical darling. An Oscar win would be the perfect capper, and this is a category that rewards newcomers.

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

Should win: Fassbender
I don’t know how, but Fassbender evoked sympathy for a man you despise. He gave a window into the soul of Edwin Epps, a brutal slave owner. By tapping into the conflict within Epps, Fassbender turned what could have been a monster into a man who convinced himself that he was right. In its own way, that’s much more terrifying.

Will win: Leto
One of the biggest locks of the night, as this one was sewn up a while ago. Leto has won every precursor award, including the SAG. To become the transgender Rayon, Leto lost weight and became almost unrecognizable. Oscar voters love physical transformations.

Amy Adams – American Hustle
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Judi Dench – Philomena
Meryl Streep – August: Osage County

Should win: Adams
Actually, any of the five are deserving. I’m picking Adams only because she had to show the widest range in her role. She played a New York con-woman who was herself playing a British Lady. Adams conveyed grit, charm and mystery. She always kept the other characters and the audience guessing where she was coming from. Adams was the true standout of a magnificent cast.

Will win: Blanchett
This one was practically preordained since the day Blue Jasmine was released. Like Leto, Blanchett has won every Oscar precursor, including the SAG. There’s been some speculation that the Woody Allen controversy will hurt her, but that’s not happening in the real world.

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

Should win: Ejiofor
Christian Bale turned in one of the most complex performances of his career, continuing his run as one of our most chameleon-like actors. Still, Ejiofor may have had the most difficult task. He had to play an audience surrogate discovering the atrocities of slavery, while also being a flesh-and-blood character. It’s his care and precision that helped prevent 12 Years a Slave from becoming a “message” movie. He picked his spots, often underplaying scenes and letting his expressive eyes convey what’s going on inside. That made the scenes when emotion does overcome him that much more powerful.

Will win: McConaughey
The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Lunch and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. It was not too long ago that Matthew McConaughey was known for these kinds of films. He has redefined his career since 2011, culminating with Dallas Buyers Club. He won the SAG and most of the later Oscar precursors. Oscar voters love the “Hey, the movie star can really act!” nominations. Think Tom Hanks (for Philadelphia), Julia Roberts (for Erin Brockovich) and Sandra Bullock (for The Blind Side). There’s been talk that DiCaprio could steal this one, but I’m not buying it.

Alfonso Cuarón – Gravity
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne – Nebraska
David O. Russell – American Hustle
Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street

Should win: McQueen
I admire Cuarón’s technical skill, and Russell provided the most fun cinematic ride of the year. But I’m a firm believer that the Best Picture has the Best Director. We cannot overlook that McQueen took on a subject that few directors have ever attempted and certainly none as successfully. He coaxed extraordinary performances from his cast and kept the cutting to a minimum, letting the story play out naturally in front of the camera.

Will win: Cuarón
Despite my preferences, the Oscar voters seem likely to split up Best Director and Best Picture. Cuarón won the Directors Guild of America award, a reliable Oscar indicator. Even those who weren’t the biggest fans of the film are still amazed how he could pull off what he did. He and his team had to literally invent new technology to tell that story. It was a gutsy gamble that paid off, and the Academy seems inclined to reward him.

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Should win: 12 Years a Slave
It’s not an easy decision. Out of all of last year’s films, the one I’d most like to see again is American Hustle. On a visceral level, it was certainly the most enjoyable. But this is for best Picture, and while in many years American Hustle would be a splendid choice, not this year. 12 Years a Slave tells a difficult story very well. McQueen and his team kept the flourishes to a minimum. They told a compelling story in an organic, straightforward way. The one exception is that McQueen held some of the shots a little longer than you would expect. He forced us to see and understand what’s happening. The natural drama and tragedy of Solomon Northup’s life and the lives of so many others came through loud and clear. No, it’s not the easiest movie to sit through. So what? It is a true achievement and, objectively, the best film of the year.

Will win: 12 Years a Slave
Normally the Producers Guild of America award gives a clue here. Not this time, as 12 Years a Slave and Gravity tied for the top honor. Often the film with the most overall nominations emerges as a favorite. But here’s another tie, as Gravity and American Hustle have ten nominations, with 12 Years a Slave behind with nine. Any one of these three could win. American Hustle won the SAG ensemble cast award and has a nomination in every acting category. And actors are the largest branch of the Academy. Gravity is the biggest crowd-pleaser and will clean up in the technical awards. Some writers have suggested that Academy voters may be turned off by the violence in 12 Years a Slave. That thought is so repulsive that I’m desperately hoping it’s not true. Should it really have been a kinder and gentler story about slavery? In the end, 12 Years a Slave has won the most critical acclaim. It has been a leading contender for Best Picture from day one. It’s received laudatory media coverage. Plus Hollywood’s track record in depicting slavery is lacking at best, atrocious at worst. The Academy voters love a chance to at least feel like they have righted a wrong. They will honor Gravity and American Hustle in other categories. 2013 was described as the “Year of Black Film” a label that turned out to be way too optimistic. But here you have a seminal film about a seminal but under covered aspect of the American story. In the end, the Academy will not want to be on the wrong side of history.

Adam Spector
March 1, 2014

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