Jan 20, 2014

The 2014 Oscar Nominations

I was going to be all sarcastic and title this post "Seriously?"  I'm not going to do that though, because there was nothing very shocking or egregious about this year's nominations.  Rather it was, for the most part, the same safe, bland, middlebrow mix that constitutes a typical Oscar season.  For the old guard out there who would use this fact to say that the problem isn't the Oscars, but that cinema itself is going down the tubes... bullshit.  I don't think it was a vintage year at all, but we really could have done better than this collection of safe bets and familiar names.

Anyway, here are the nominations in the major categories (that is, the ones I can find something to say about).  I've put the titles I've seen in bold.  I'll also keep my commentary updated as I see more films.  Please note that I've restricted my What About? picks to people who would have been eligible for nominations.

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years A Slave
The Wolf Of Wall Street
Will Win: 12 Years A Slave
The mix of elements is the sort of thing the Academy tends to love.  As prestige pictures go this one also has this going for it: it's pretty damn good, the performers and the director may lose out in their categories but the subject matter, McQueen's sensitive treatment of it and the quality of the performances will likely see it through here.

Should Win: The Wolf of Wall Street
Of those I've seen, Wolf  takes it by a country mile.  It's Scorsese's best film in two decades, made with the energy of a filmmaker half his age but all the skill of a lifetime in cinema.  The nominee it really shows up is American Hustle.  While that sees David O. Russell doing middling 70's Scorsese karaoke Wolf of Wall Street sees Scorsese himself continuing to stretch and do new things. 

What About? Before Midnight
The lack of love AMPAS has shown this remarkable series of films (just two screenplay nominations) is perhaps not that surprising, but it does seem perverse, especially now that the trilogy has become a masterful and rare example of long form cinematic storytelling, increasing in resonance with each installment.  Linklater's direction, the screenplay and the performances are all perfectly judged.  Is it just that AMPAS has a short memory?

Alfonso Cauron: Gravity
Steve McQueen: 12 Years A Slave
Alexander Payne: Nebraska
David O. Russell: American Hustle
Martin Scorsese: The Wolf Of Wall Street
Will Win: Alfonso Cauron: Gravity
For me, Gravity was far from the masterpiece or the proof of the potential of 3D that many people saw it as, but it's a thrilling, if sometimes clunky, film and Cauron directs with real style.  There seems to be a lot of admiration out there for Cauron's use of 3D and his skill behind the lens is undoubted, and clear to see from Gravity.  I'm not convinced that 12 Years a Slave will do the picture and director double, and this seems the most likely split. 

Should Win: Martin Scorsese:The Wolf of Wall Street
By far Scorsese's best collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio, as I've already said, Wolf finds the director as energised as he's been for twenty years.  It's a change of pace for Scorsese; a coked up comedy shot through with contemporary relevance.  The Oscar for The Departed felt like an acknowledgement of a career, this would be an acknowledgement of a great movie.

What About? Park Chan-Wook: Stoker
He would never have won (and there was never a chance of him being nominated, even if Stoker had come out later it's not an AMPAS movie), but for me Park's direction of Stoker was to all intents and purposes perfect.  He orchestrates every shot, every performance, every cut.  The flow of the film is beautiful, but more than that every individual image is stunning, each one of them adding something to the overall picture when you go back and look at the film again.

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
Will Win: Matthew McConaughey: Dallas Buyers Club
McConaughey is now on what seems like an unstoppable roll with precursor awards, but that's not why he's going to win.  The role of Ron Woodroof always looked like an Academy pleaser; it's a biopic, it's about a guy fighting against the odds and it involves a big physical transformation.  Add that formula to McConaughey's amazing comeback story of the last few years (he should certainly have been nominated last year for Killer Joe, but that couldn't be further from an Academy pleaser) and his storming cameo in the heavily nominated The Wolf Of Wall Street and this looks to me like a one man race.

Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio: The Wolf Of Wall Street
While I'm reserving the right to change pick this once I see Dallas Buyers Club, DiCaprio does what may be the finest work of his career in The Wolf Of Wall Street.  He gets completely inside the (loathsome) personality of Jordan Belfort and lays bare the ways that his world seduces people as well as the debauchery of it.  He also reveals a hitherto unexplored aptitude for comedy, especially physical comedy, in the film's hilarious setpiece involving super potent quaaludes.  Thirty years ago this would have been DeNiro's part and this is the best argument yet for why Scorsese seems to have chosen DiCpario as his successor.

What About? Ethan Hawke: Before Midnight
He's been nominated before, but Ethan Hawke still seems to me to be a largely underrated talent.  He's a great actor, and Before Midnight is his best work ever.  His Jesse has deepened with every installment of the Before series, and here the best of his work lies in tiny moments; the way he HAS to say certain things in the hotel scene and the immediate regret, the way he receives what Celine tells him.  It's small, nuanced work, and that's why he's not nominated; AMPAS tends to think the most acting is the best acting.

Amy Adams: American Hustle
Cate Blanchett: Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock: Gravity
Judi Dench: Philomena
Meryl Streep: August: Osage County
Will Win: Cate Blanchett: Blue Jasmine
As in most of the acting categories there doesn't seem to be too much question about who is going to triumph here, Blanchett gave one of the best received performances of the year in Woody Allen's latest 'return to form' (I found it deeply ordinary and thought Blanchett was overplaying) and she's been sweeping up the precursors.  Also in her favour is the fact she doesn't yet have a Best Actress trophy and it's been a decade since her Supporting statue.  The only potential spoiler is below... 

Should Win: Amy Adams: American Hustle
I wasn't a fan of American Hustle at all, but Amy Adams is the good thing about it.  She's typically excellent in what, to be fair, is a gift of a part.  She's great as the duplicitous Sydney, playing shifting loyalties so smoothly that you're never sure exactly where she falls.  The subtleties of her performance, like the moments she lets the English accent she affects as part of the con slip, are lovely.  It's also a notable change of pace; a sexier role than she's played before, and she pulls every aspect of it off brilliantly.  Blanchett seems unstoppable, but five nominations in it may just be Amy Adams' time.

What About? Brie Larson: Short Term 12
I suspect that at some point the Academy will get around to noticing Brie Larson, but it's a shame they weren't paying attention this year.  She's been on my radar since Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and has been quietly impressing, largely in small parts, since then.  Short Term 12 is the first time I've seen her take a lead and she's brilliant; subtle and nuanced in a performance that exceeds the somewhat indie by numbers script.  It's not about one great scene or a showy bit of acting, it's better, and rarer, than that; a full portrayal of a person who feels real.

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
Will Win: Jared Leto: Dallas Buyers Club
Like his co-star, Leto has been sweeping up the precursor awards and now looks like an unstoppable force in this category.  It's a similar story in other ways too; a transformative role that will be seen as risky (a transgender, HIV positive, gay character) and a comeback role, in this case from someone who hadn't made a film for six years.  By all reports Leto is also brilliant in the film, which helps, but may not be the deciding factor.

Should Win: Michael Fassbender: 12 Years A Slave
Again, I am reserving the right to change this pick once I see Dallas Buyers Club.  Barkhad Abdi did impressive and charismatic work in Captain Phillips, but Michael Fassbender's utterly despicable Edwin Epps in 12 Years A Slave is something else.  Fassbender is a great actor and here he takes what could be a cartoon; a sketch of a cruel, hateful slave owner and gives him dimension and shading.  The level of entitlement in his performance, the way he feels he is not just allowed but mandated by God to behave, is staggering.  It's a committed piece of acting, and one you suspect was difficult, even traumatic, to play.  

What About? Lars Mikkelsen: What Richard Did
It seems that What Richard Did barely got screened in the US, but a brief run in New York will have made it eligible for the Oscars.  Lars Mikkelsen isn't the film's standout (that's Jack Reynor), but the simplicity with which he plays this Father who really loves his son, Richard, but doesn't know what to do about what Richard has confessed that he has done.  The scene between the two of them when the truth comes out is stunning; the devastation, but underneath it the love and concern for his son.  It was never going to get enough notice for nominations, and that's a real shame.

Sally Hawkins:  Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence: American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o: 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts: August Osage County
June Squibb: Nebraska
Will Win / Should Win: Lupita Nyong'o: 12 Years a Slave
This is probably the closest race in any of the acting categories.  The precursors have been shared between Nyong'o and Jennifer Lawrence, but I suspect the fact that Lawrence is so young and won last year will keep her off the stage this time (she's also rubbish in American Hustle, but apparently nobody has noticed this).  Nyong'o makes a remarkable debut as Patsey, she's the focus of relatively few scenes, but makes every one of them count and the scene in which she asks Solomon to kill her is one of those ready made (and deserved) Oscar clip moments.  It could still go Lawrence's way, but I find it hard to believe 12 Years A Slave can carry of Best Picture without an acting award.  If Lawrence wins then it may well be a sweep for American Hustle.

What About? Cosmina Stratan: Beyond The Hills
I realise I'm repeating a lot of choices from the 24FPS awards, but most of my picks from that post were also eligible here.  Cosmina Stratan's wonderfully held in performance as the mentally ill (it seems that she has severe depression and perhaps some sort of personality disorder) Alina is incredibly moving as she tries desperately to recover a relationship the nature of which has fundamentally shifted.  Her best scene is silent, there's a downbeat comedy to the way she reacts as she's read a list of 'sins' and realises she's committed just about all of them.  Ultimately both the film and the performance are too small for Academy recognition.

Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater: Before Midnight
Billy Ray: Captain Phillips
Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope: Philomena
John Ridley: 12 Years A Slave
Terence Winter: The Wolf Of Wall Street
Will Win: John Ridley: 12 Years A Slave
A worthy winner in both senses of the word, and this will be another award that 12 Years A Slave will likely need if it's to take Best Picture.  John Ridley's screenplay contains some searing scenes, which are carried off beautifully by the cast and crew.  I've not Soloman Northup's book, so I don't know how the film fares as an adaptation or how closely either book or film stick to historical fact, but Ridley helps bring life to scenes that could simply have seemed over-familliar from countless other films on the subject of slavery.

Should Win: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater: Before Midnight
They may feel loose and improvisatory, but apparently all of the Before films have been quite closely scripted.  The fact that Before Midnight falls in the Adapted category just because its main characters have been in a film before and original co-writer Kim Krizan didn't have a hand in either sequel seems ludicrous, but no matter, at least it's nominated.  The realistic flow of the dialogue, the way the film charts the ups and downs of the relationship between Jesse and Celine, the mastery of tone, all of this flows from the screenplay.  It's a wonderful piece of writing and the best thing in the category by several orders of magnitude.

What About? Francois Ozon: In The House
Adapted (and apparently significantly altered) from a play, Ozon's first film of 2013 is one of the best of his career and the tricksy screenplay may be his best ever.  He juggles genre and tone with abandon, and never drops a ball.  The film works as thriller, as satire, as marital drama(s), as a coming of age story and as an analysis of the very process of storytelling.  It's often laugh out loud funny, but balances that with an ever present and growing sense of unease.  At the very least it's the most interesting screenplay of 2013.

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
Will Win: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell: American Hustle
There is, for some peculiar reason, a lot of love going round for American Hustle this awards season (it's only the second film to be nominated in all four acting categories.  The first?  Silver Linings Playbook), so it is almost inevitable that it will win at least one of the top tier awards.  This seems the most likely, as it also provides a handy way to give director David O. Russell an award, given that he's an outsider (probably third or fourth of five) in the Director category.  The screenplay is as by the numbers Scorsese-lite as anything in the film, but still, everyone seems to like it.

Should Win: Pass
I didn't like either of the nominees I have so far seen in this category and, while I expect good things from both Dallas Buyers Club and Her it would be unfair to make a choice in this category.

Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)
The Great Beauty (Italy)
The Hunt (Denmark)
The Missing Picture (Cambodia)
Omar (Palestine)
Will Win: The Great Beauty
This is more of a hunch than anything, I've not seen The Great Beauty and the foreign language category is famously unpredictable and slightly insane.  This really could go anywhere (I also have a feeling about Broken Circle Breakdown, but there has been much less talk about it)

Should Win: Pass
Having only see one of the films (and thought it was solid, but far from great), I don't really feel qualified to choose a deserving winner here.  This makes me both different from and better than many members of AMPAS.

What About? Wadjda
This charming coming of age film from Saudi Arabia smuggles through some pretty biting political content in its universally identifiable story, and showcases brilliant performances, most notably from young Waad Mohammed.  I will never understand the vagaries of this category, nor how a film this good (it made my Top 10 this year) got left off even the longlist of potential nominees.

The Act of Killing
Cutie and the Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet from Stardom
Will Win / Should Win: The Act Of Killing
Another category where the selection process sometimes seems perverse and the eventual winner can be very unpredictable, but I suspect the sheer weight of critical adoration and the way it punches everyone who sees it in the gut will see The Act Of Killing through to a win.  I still have reservations about the Director's Cut, but it's undeniably incredibly powerful and unusual and on those terms, even without seeing the other films in the category, I wouldn't be unhappy to see it win

What About? Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley's third directorial effort, her first documentary, is a film I really expected to see among the nominees here.  It's an incredibly intimate and moving film, but also an intriguing exploration of how we remember and relate stories.  It is, by definition, Polley's story of her complex parentage that we end up getting, but she effectively explores many different angles and is happy to show her own perceptions and even her motives being challenged.  It's a riveting story, expertly told.
The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest and Celestine
The Wind Rises
Will Win / Should Win: Frozen
Disney are back on a roll, and this time they have managed to oust in house rivals Pixar (and their underwhelming Monsters University) from the category.  Frozen is perhaps Disney's best since Beauty and the Beast, and certainly their most groundbreaking in terms of its writing, which challenges many conventions of the established fairytale narrative and its notion of love.  I'm sure Ernest and Celestine and The Wind Rises are good films, but I can't imagine anything besides Despicable Me 2 mounting a challenge here.  Hopefully the fact Frozen is leagues better than its two CGI rivals will see it through.

Roger A. Deakins: Prisoners
Bruno Delbonnel: Inside Llewyn Davis
Philippe Le Sourd: The Grandmaster
Emmanuel Lubezki: Gravity
Phedon Papamichael: Nebraska
Will Win: Emmanuel Lubezki: Gravity
With the likely Best Picture winner and its nearest rival shut out it would seem to make sense to go with the third big hitter of this awards season.  Gravity isn't a bad film, but for me it excels as a technical, rather than a narrative, experience.  Lubezki's work is beautiful, and we've seen before that working substantially in a digital realm is now no barrier to winning a cinematography Oscar.  This one seems like a closed race to me.

Should Win: Pass
I've only seen two of the nominees (though the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis has really put me off with its very digital artificially aged looking visuals).  Gravity is certainly in the lead in this list, but given how ravishing Wong Kar Wai's films usually look I would want to see The Grandmaster before making a final choice here.

What About? Chung Chung-Hoon: Stoker
Again, I apologise for repeating myself, but these next two What About? picks are the ones that annoy me the most and that most make me think that the reason for the blandness of award season is a short memory.  You can say what you like about Stoker as drama (you are free to be wrong), but you can't deny that it looks jawdropping.    Chung Chung-Hoon's lighting, along with Park Chan-Wook's framing and shot selection, is so beautiful and so rich with detail that it adds layer upon layer for us to peel back in the film, conspiring along with the story to make us question everything we see.  I don't think there's a misjudged image to be found here.

Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten: American Hustle
Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger: Gravity
John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa: Dallas Buyers Club
Christopher Rouse: Captain Phillips
Joe Walker: 12 Years A Slave
Will Win: Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten: American Hustle
Conventional wisdom would say that the recent pattern has had the Best Picture winner taking the editing trophy most of the time, so this should go to 12 Years A Slave, but I'm just not feeling it.  I suspect that the much flashier cutting of American Hustle will take it because it's much more... well... MORE.  Both films have editing that conforms perfectly to their rhythm, it's just that it's much more immediate, much more noticeable, in American Hustle.

Should Win: Pass
I didn't think any of these films had bad editing, but equally I didn't walk out of any of them saying 'wow, the editing was brilliant'.  I wouldn't be especially pleased or upset with any winner from this list.  Most of the time that's fine, that's what a film is going for; a natural flow that has you engaged with the story rather than the editing, and most of the time that's what I like, except...

What About? Nicolas DeToth: Stoker
You can't accuse Stoker's editing of subtlety, but like the cinematography it is the precision, in this case the metronomic feel of the cutting, that both suits the film down to the ground and reveals many extra layers in it.  It's the editing, as much as anything, that made me fall in love with the film, especially the cut from Nicole Kidman's hair to a field of grass, which is a transition I've had stuck in my head for ten months now.

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