Friday, February 28, 2014

The Oscar Should Go To

Just because they take home an Oscar doesn't mean they deserved it.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

I watch a lot of movies. Too many, probably. In the Academy Award categories that anybody cares about (i.e. excluding documentaries, short films, and foreign language films), there are a total of 30 different nominated films. I've seen 28 of them. I feel like this makes me qualified to discuss the merits of these films. And considering the average age of the Academy voters is 62 (no, I'm serious, that's a real thing - 86% of the Academy is over the age of 50), I feel like I can offer a different perspective. Here are my thoughts on each of the relevant categories.

Best Picture

Will Win: 12 Years A Slave
Should Win: Gravity
Dark Horse: American Hustle
Shouldn't Be Here: Philomena
Got Robbed: Prisoners

12 Years A Slave will win because the Academy is overwhelmingly made up of old fart white guys who will see a period piece about a shameful part of American history and vote for it because it makes them feel guilty for being old, white, and wealthy (apparently the combination of those things is the worst thing you can be). A similar thing happened two years ago when The Artist won best picture because it reminded all the old farts of what a good movie SHOULD look like (aw, shucks, mister - wasn't that movie swell?) - don't even get me started. Another reason it'll win - we had a slavery movie last year, called Django Unchained. There was such a backlash to the movie (even though it was well received and nominated for five Oscars and winning two) that I have to think that most of the old cranky white guys who hated Django last year (for "making a mockery of slavery," or whatever their misguided complaint was) will vote for 12 Years A Slave.

In reality, this race should be between Gravity and The Wolf of Wall Street. Don't get me wrong - 12 Years A Slave is a good movie. A very good movie, even. The acting, writing, directing, and production value are all very strong. But call me crazy, but I don't like getting beaten over the head with guilt and shame.

The Wolf of Wall Street was the most fun I had at the movies this year. Does that qualify it as the best picture of the year? Probably not, but it's certainly part of the equation. On top of that, though, it was an impeccably done film. DiCaprio was the funniest he's ever been (so much so that he won the Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy), supported well by Jonah Hill (also nominated) and Matthew McConaughey (not nominated). It was long but never boring, and from start to finish, felt like a Scorsese movie (which is just about the highest compliment you can pay a film over the last 40 years).

But Gravity should win because it was the most technically groundbreaking movie of the year. Think about the other names we have for "films." We call them "movies" and "motion pictures" to differentiate them from standard photographs (which, spoiler alert, do not move). Film is about movement, about action. Gravity had that in spades, was technically unimpeachable, and in the process, invented a new way of making a movie. Nobody has ever arranged or shot a movie like they did with Gravity before. It was completely new technology to create a completely new method of film-making. And it was so convincing that a foreign member of the press actually thought the movie was filmed in space, and asked director Alfonso Cauron what it was like to shoot a movie in outer space. As the most visually compelling motion picture of the year, Gravity deserves the top honor.

(Quick note on the last two: Philomena doesn't belong because I haven't met or heard of a single person alive who thought it was the best movie of the year. I'm sure someone out there exists, probably someone who worked on the film, but I haven't crossed their path. Considering I haven't, it doesn't seem like it should be eligible to take home the award that I haven't encountered anyone who believes it deserves. Meanwhile, I know at least one person who thought Prisoners was the best movie the of the year, and it's a movie that I spent probably a thousand times longer thinking about than I did Philomena. It wasn't the best film of the year, but it deserves to be included.)

Best Director

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Should Win: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Dark Horse: Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave)
Shouldn't Be Here: None
Got Robbed: None

Of all the major categories, this is definitely the one that got the nominations right. The five in the group are certainly the five most deserving of the year, and the only alternatives you could really argue for are Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips), Spike Jonze (Her), or if you're feeling particularly generous, Ron Howard (Rush).

I covered most of my reasoning for picking Gravity above, but I think in this case the Academy will make the right decision for two reasons. First, historically speaking, they award directors of films that are particularly noteworthy from a visual and technical perspective over those of films that are carried more by acting, writing, and set production (James Cameron losing to Katheryn Bigelow being one admittedly huge exception). The second being that in years with a number of exceptionally strong films at the top of the ballot (or, more generally, when no one film stands out above the rest), you see a split in the Director/Best Picture categories. We saw it at the Golden Globes, when it was split three ways (12 Years A Slave won Best Drama, American Hustle won Best Comedy, Cuaron won Director). I think 12 Years A Slave will win Best Picture, but Gravity will take home Best Director.

Best Actor

Will Win: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer's Club)
Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Dark Horse: Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave)
Shouldn't Be Here: Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Got Robbed: Joaquin Phoenix (Her), Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Robert Redford (All Is Lost)

Dern gets a bit of a raw deal here - I think he was actually very good, but you could make an argument that because his role was so extremely subdued and understated, he doesn't belong in a category where so many performances truly jump of the screen (as opposed to disappearing into the screen, which, I will admit, can be just as impressive when executed).

McConaughey will win because he hit a lot of the Oscar checkpoints. He lost a lot of weight. He's in a film with strong social commentary. There's a redemption story involved (former romantic comedy heart-throb displays true acting chops). DiCaprio won't win because the movie he's in is kind of obscene.

That's dumb.

DiCaprio took the role in a direction that he's never taken before. He was funny, he was over the top, he was energetic. He carried a movie that would have flopped if he didn't absolutely nail his character. But he did. And there was really nobody else on the planet that could have pulled it off. In a lot of cases, I think people can be too famous to be truly great actors, and it's happened with Leo before (namely, Inception), but I think in this case it actually worked in his favor. They need the character to be larger than life, so they need an actor that can fill those shoes. In just about every performance this year, I can think of another actor who could have replicated the role with at least 90% success. I can't think of anyone that could replicate what Leo brought to the table in The Wolf of Wall Street.

(Quick Note: This category is LOADED this year - the three guys in my "Got Robbed" list could have been favorites to win in most other years. This is by far the strongest field of nominees in any category this year, and the strongest field of nominees in this category since 2005.)

Best Actress

Will Win: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Should Win: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Dark Horse: Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Shouldn't Be Here: Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
Got Robbed: Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks)

This one is pretty open-and-shut - Blanchett had the award wrapped up in July when the movie came out and really hasn't been challenged since. Unless the Academy makes a shudden shift towards American Hustle (entirely possible - the field seems more volatile than usual this year) and Amy Adams swoops in during what would seem like a never-ending parade to the podium (American Hustle has nominees in all four acting categories), Blanchett will take home the award.

Meryl only got nominated because she's Meryl and there seems to be a tacit understanding that if she's even remotely good she gets an Oscar nod. But she really wasn't THAT great. It was just another Meryl performance. Emma Thompson was better. Not that it matters, it's Blanchett's to lose.

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyer's Club)
Should Win: Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave)
Dark Horse: Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
Shouldn't Be Here: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Got Robbed: Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners), James Gandolfini (Enough Said)

Leto will win for most of the same reasons that McConaughey will, with the added bonus of playing a woman (my rebuttal: Robin Williams wasn't even nominated in Mrs. Doubtfire, so I'm not that impressed).

Fassbender was better as the supremely evil Edwin Epps, so evil that it borderline affects how I think about Fassbender now, which I recognize is a wholly irrational reaction, but it goes to show how great his performance was.

Abdi doesn't quite belong. He's the classic "His award is the fact that he was nominated at all," which always bothered me. He's less deserving but got nominated because it was an unexpected performance from an unknown actor. You could say that giving Gandolfini a posthumous nomination is kind of the same thing (nominating someone because it's a nice story), but I think Gandolfini actually deserves the nod here.

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave)
Should Win: Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave) 
Dark Horse: Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Shouldn't Be Here: Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
Got Robbed: Scarlett Johansson (Her)

Both female acting categories seem to be pretty straightforward. Nyong'o was by far the best performance of the year, in any category - even listing a Dark Horse here seemed insulting, but I did it for the others so I figured I'd keep doing it.

The Academy (like everyone else, apparently) does love Jennifer Lawrence, but my guess is that because she won last year, the voters will steer away from her, especially because she's young. She's 23 years old and this is already her third Oscar nomination.

I'm not totally sure on what the rules are, but I think Johansson is eligible to be nominated. Back in 2003, Andy Serkis wasn't eligible to be nominated for The Lord of The Rings because he technically never appeared on screen - Gollum was a computer-generated character, and Serkis was only responsible for the movement of the character, the voice, and the facial expressions. But because Johansson's "character" only exists as a voice (and not a CGI'd body), I think that's within the regulations of who can be nominated. I would have liked to have seen that, I thought she did great work.

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: Her (Spike Jonze)
Should Win: Her (Spike Jonze)

I may be a bit too optimistic with my pick that it will win. If the Academy doesn't go for any of the actors from American Hustle (and I don't think they will), then you can be pretty sure that it will take home this award. But my vote would go to Her, because it's a refreshing take on technology - instead of intelligent computers rising up to destroy the human race (see: every science fiction movie ever), technology becomes self-aware and exists to enrich the lives of people. I think that's really cool.

(Quick Note: I'll throw in one more shout-out for Prisoners here - there was so much density to the story and the characters that I left the movie assuming it was based on a novel I had never heard of. Nope. Totally original script. I thought that was pretty amazing.)

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: 12 Years A Slave (John Ridley)
Should Win: 12 Years A Slave (John Ridley)

Not much of a contest here. The Wolf of Wall Street doesn't stand a chance with how much the Academy seems to hate it, and the other three nominees (Philomena, Before Midnight, Captain Phillips) were carried by things other than the script. Adapted Screenplay is a bit of a lame category to begin with, because so much depends on the source material (none of which I have read), but 12 Years A Slave seemed to have a higher degree of difficulty. The Wolf of Wall Street did a better job of bringing the words to life, but 12 Years A Slave is working off a source material that is over 160 years old. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

Best Film Editing 

Will Win: Captain Phillips
Should Win: Captain Phillips

Editing is an interesting category - it usually goes to a fast-paced movie with a lot of cuts, or a movie with a singularly great acting performance in which the editing improves by cherry-picking the best segments of each take. The only film that could qualify under both umbrellas would be Captain Phillips. Gravity and 12 Years A Slave both include long takes with no cuts (not much editing to do there), and Dallas Buyer's Club and American Hustle don't quite have the glitzy fast-cutting that you'd normally associate with the award. This category usually lines up with Best Picture, but I think this year it deviates.

Best Cinematography 

Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity

Cinematography, for those of you who don't know, is a fancy word for camera-work. Moving the camera through a scene, making sure every shot of the film is visually stimulating. Gravity takes this one hands down, although I'll give one more shout-out to Prisoners (Roger Deakins picked up his 11th nomination - he's never won).

Best Sound Mixing

Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity

Best Sound Editing

Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity

Best Visual Effects 

Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity

None of these are really in doubt. I saw Gravity in a 3D-IMAX theater that had vibrating seats. Anyone who saw the movie in that setting will tell you what kind of sound the movie had. As for the visual effects, there isn't even a nominee that can even be considered in the same galaxy as Gravity. They literally invented a new way to make a movie.

I will extend a shout-out for All Is Lost, which is nominated for Best Sound Editing. The film features Robert Redford lost at sea, and Redford is the only actor in the movie. As such, there isn't much dialogue - only a handful of spoken lines in the entire movie. That being the case, all the other sounds become paramount, and they did a really fine job with everything.

Best Production Design

Will Win: The Great Gatsby
Should Win: The Great Gatsby

12 Years A Slave is an interesting nomination, as so much of the visual aspects of the film, technically speaking, aren't designed productions. It's just rolling fields of cotton. With Gatsby, however, they actually designed and produced (the key buzz-words here) all of the locations that they filmed at. And they did it with significant splendor, pomp, and circumstance. That's the kind of stuff the Academy usually eats up.

Best Costume Design

Will Win: The Great Gatsby
Should Win: 12 Years A Slave

This category always seems to award opulence and nice-looking clothes, which is why the three-piece suits of Gatsby will win over the ragged, tattered slave rags of 12 Years A Slave.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Will Win: Dallas Buyer's Club
Should Win: Dallas Buyer's Club

The other nominees are The Lone Ranger and Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa. No, that wasn't a joke.

Best Original Score

Will Win: Gravity (Steven Price)
Should Win: Gravity (Steven Price)

John Williams is nominated again, but Steven Spielberg wasn't directing his film so I can't see him winning. I actually don't remember the music from Gravity all that well, but all the "experts" seem to think this is the winner.

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