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Taking Home Oscar for 2013 and The Day After

Oscar night is here. Two of the six major categories, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, are fairly predictable while the other four can go in several directions.

      The 2013 film year was not one of the more outstanding, but as happens more often than not these days, it rallied in its last two months and provided enough interesting movies to generate a fine bunch of Oscar nominees and an equally decent group of actors who could have been cited for their excellent performances but were passed over in favor of others.

       Even with Robert Redford and Tom Hanks missing from the Best Actor roster or “Blue Jasmine” absent from the Best Picture contest, Academy voters should be congratulated for an august field of nominees. The omission of an Emma Thompson here or a Steve Coogan there would probably not have changed the outcome of tonight’s proceedings.

      Here then is a category-by-category list of the 2013 nominees (I go by release years, not ceremony years as has become popular) with analysis and, heaven help me, predictions.

 

BEST PICTURE

 

      Marketing alone can account for the Academy expanding the number of maximum Best Picture nominees from five to ten about three years ago. More contenders mean more reasons for people to head to theaters to engage in a diminishing activity, going to the movies. For me, that’s a lifelong habit, and I prefer to this day to see movies on a big screen, the way they were produced to be seen. (I prefer books to Kindles, Nooks, or iPads, too, I don’t mind being a Nealosaurus. I like my entertainment in the form I always enjoyed it.)

       2013 yielded nine nominees, but tonight’s contest boils down to two — David O. Russell’s sly and comic “American Hustle” and Steve McQueen’s poignant and heart-tugging “12 Years a Slave.” Of the two, I prefer “American Hustle,” and I predict the Oscar voters will go in that direction as well.

        “12 Years a Slave” may deal with a more important topic than “American Hustle.” It is probably the best and most comprehensive picture made about the peculiar institution, slavery, that flourished in the American South for centuries. McQueen shows slavery from several angles, none of them flattering, not even the one depicting Alfre Woodard as the mistress of a plantation with a husband, a slave owner, who acknowledged and admires her.

        In addition to showing the horror of Solomon Northup being kidnapped from his free status and sold into bondage, McQueen is keen and adroit at showing the toll slavery took on the people who were held as property and the people who were allowed to legitimately own them.

     “12 Years a Slave” is powerful and thought-provoking. It exposes slavery without exploiting it or by being didactic and self-righteous like Lee Daniels was in “The Butler.”

      For all the quality in his work, McQueen cannot help indulging himself in spots. Whether it’s a paddle wheel, Solomon looking off in a distance for no apparent reason, Paul Dano singing an antagonizing song ad infinitum, or a brutal beating, McQueen does not always know when a sequence runs too long. He loses some poignance and artistry by being too self-consciously artsy, His indulgences don’t mar “12 Years a Slave” as a whole, but they can be irritating and impose flaws in a movie that would otherwise be perfect.

      David O. Russell does not McQueen’s mistakes, and his picture is more of one piece because of it. The first scene of “American Hustle” is mildly annoying despite the hilarious look at Christian Bale sculpting his character’s elaborate comb-over, but Russell soon avoids the overplaying that marred his “Silver Linings Playbook” and presents a picture that sizzles with deft comedy, smart observation, and characters that may be large in personality but entertaining to watch and authentic in scope.

      “American Hustle” gives great insight into the grand con game, a subject that is not as indigenous to the American psyche as the shame of sanctioned slavery, but that is more mysterious and less frequently filmed.

       “American Hustle” touches on politics but in a way that illuminates how business is done but doesn’t necessarily take a moral tone towards it. The movie stays constantly funny and lets you determine how sincere specific characters are and who may be a law enforcement officer but despicable and who  may be led to being a crooked politician while having the public’s interest most at heart.

       Heroes and villains blur in Russell’s movie, and it become rich in texture and rife with comedy because of it.

       “12 Years a Slave” is a great achievement, but “American Hustle” is cleverer in how it depicts its story and presents its characters. One is an intelligent and straightforward work of craft. The other is a delicate balance of scenes, ideas, and characterizations that could have gone horribly awry but were held as a unit by Russell’s wit and artistry.

       “American Hustle” is the more entertaining and more varied of the two main contenders. “Blue Jasmine” would have been my preference for Best Picture had it been nominated so “American Hustle” gets my vote by default. I also predict the Academy will honor it tonight.

         Among the seven remaining nominees, there is much merit in “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” and “Philomena.” All tell strong stories, and all go about their tale in surprising ways. While “Captain Phillips” is one level an action picture about a kidnapping and rescue, it also shows the personalities and negotiations of two people who are bargaining to something each of them wants dearly. It is the duel of wits and wills between Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi that matters and elevates the movie to being a worthy Best Picture contender.

      “Dallas Buyers Club” invigorates its audience by showing how authorities can be circumvented by someone clever and committed enough to challenge their idea of what is proper. It is a movie about a man taking his life in his hands when medical institutions and government officials not only to help him but refuse to help him. This comic look at rebellion does more than any Tea Party or Elizabeth Warren speech to illustrate what is wrong with government, its vision, and its speed.

      “Philomena” is a darling of a film with a lovable title character whose sense of modesty and penchant for a brand of forgiveness is as important as her courage and commitment in pursuing information about the son the Catholic Church forced her to put up for adoption 50 years before most of the scenes depicted in Stephen Frears’s film. In addition to introducing its audience to Philomena Lee, the movie indicts the Catholic penchant for secrecy and self-protection beyond the bounds of common sense or just policy.

        “Nebraska” is another movie that exudes more and more warmth and takes on more and more depth as it proceeds. Alexander Payne’s film shows an American that is rarely seen in movies, and it characters are spun from solid cloth and entertain grandly. Then there’s the sweet core story about a man who is determined to see through an intention even though he knows, down deep, nothing substantive will come of it. Because of its humanity and wit, “Nebraska” is a worthy also-ran.

      “The Wolf of Wall Street” has fire and animation in his first 45 minutes, but director Martin Scorsese larded his movie with scenes that could not have extracted without harming the story and, worse, scenes that go on past their welcome or purpose in keeping the audience in synch with all that is going on. The scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s character  reverses gears about resigning his place in his company is an example. As important as that sequence is, and as good and varied as DiCaprio is in it, it goes on beyond logical tolerance and makes one weary of “Wolf” a good hour before the film ends…finally.

      “Gravity,” though it may sneak ahead of “American Hustle” or “12 Years a Slave” to be tonight’s surprise recipient, is not a good movie. It’s a beautiful movie. It scenic design is superb and breathtaking to behold. Its story, though, is an inert as the gases in the thermosphere in which the abandoned astronaut played  by Sandra Bullock struggles for her life. Alfonso Cuaron may love gorgeous pictures, but he no clue about how to create suspense or make you care about Bullock’s drifting human as she faces life or death.

      “Her” is barely tolerable. What looks as if it might be clever satire backfires or misfires altogether. Spike Jonze has made a romantic comedy that amounts to a grown man falling in love with phone sex and masturbation. Worst of all, am

      “Her” may have a good joke or two, and its premise has merit and potential. Jonze squandered all by being serious about having his lead character be infatuated by a disembodied voice, no matter how empathetic it is, and by being so unrealistic about this lead character and the futuristic Los Angeles he inhabits.

         PREDICTION AND PREFERENCE:  American Hustle.

 

 

BEST ACTOR

 

      The field in this category is so strong, it left no room for Tom Hanks or Robert Redford.

      As with Best Picture, if I could cast a vote for anyone I choose, it would be Redford for his thoughtfully inventive performance in “All is Lost.”

       Redford does not contend, so my thoughts have to wend in a different direction.

       Again, as with Best Picture, I think the choices are narrowed to two — Matthew McConaughey for “Dallas  Buyers Club” or Leonardo DiCaprio for “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

        After taking several matters into consideration, I would predict McConaughey will receive the Oscar. I would not cavil much with this choice, but my preference among the nominees in this category is Chiwetel Ejiofor for “12 Years a Slave.”

        McConaughey, enjoying his first Oscar nomination, turns his character, Ron Woodroof, into a bona fide folk hero. Seeing McConaughey don a priest’s collar instead of his usual white T-shirt and jeans when he intends to con border patrol officers is a comic delight. More important is the seriousness McConaughey shows as Woodroof makes the only sane decision open to him, to ignore doctors who give him 30 days to live, to find out as much as he can about the AIDS that’s supposed to kill him with such dispatch, and to fight against his immune system and authorities to prolong his life and that of others. McConaughey does not make Woodroof an altruist. Ron is a businessman who needs cash to pay for his own medication and gets it by selling the treatments that are helping him to people in the same position who can afford his smuggled wares.  McConaughey’s is an earnest performance with tinges of comedy, and he will most likely take home the Oscar for it.

      DiCaprio is flirting with Oscar for the fourth time. He displays charm, energy, and variety in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but the role does not demand the same level of creativity as McConaughey’s .

       DiCaprio has been good to films. He is a reliable actor who usually gives interesting performances and brings people to box offices. Hollywood may be partial to him, especially since he’s been a bridesmaid for so long, but when votes are counted, Leo is more apt to come in behind Matt.

       Ejiofor is gripping and stalwart in “12 Years a Slave.”  He maintains Solomon’s dignity even while doing what he must to survive as a sudden, then veteran, slave. Ejiofor’s role has many facets, including several that go beyond the suffering and degradation that accompany slavery and would be expected. He keeps Solomon a total human no matter what conditions he endures or how Southern law classifies him. I don’t know when Ejiofor has even been anything but excellent, and while I don’t think he’ll upset McConaughey for the 2013 Oscar, I hope his nomination presages future chances to take home an Academy Award.

      I adored Bruce Dern in “Nebraska.” There was warmth within his cantankerousness and an honest wish to be somebody and have something while he may be able to enjoy it and bestow it. Dern’s subtle joy at getting help from his son is realistic, even if the dream he enlists his son to help him fulfill is illusory. The way Dern’s character fits in with his family and hometown friends is a great study in distance and might say more about the American approach to life than the gregariousness and hail-fellow-well-met depiction most movies would advance. Although I would like Ejiofor to win, and expect McConaughey to prevail, I would be thrilled if Dern’s name is called by Jennifer Lawrence tonight.

       Christian Bale’s witty comic turn in “American Hustle” deserves more credit than it will probably receive tonight.  Bale was marvelous as a con man with a heart and a desire to maintain his domestic arrangements while indulging in the high life. In another year…. But this is 2013, and I doubt Bale will collect his second Oscar.

        PREDICTION: Matthew McConaughey.  PREFERENCE: Chiwetel Ejiofor.

 

BEST ACTRESS

 

      This category will make the easiest work for Oscar handicappers this year.

      The winner is and should be Cate Blanchett for her smart and stunning turn as Jasmine in Woody Allen’s wonderful movie, “Blue Jasmine.”

        Blanchett’s portrayal of the spoiled, haughty Jasmine was as deep a performance as one is likely to see. The actress conveyed every nuance of her character and entertained while doing it. That she can make you have some sympathy for Jasmine in spite of all you learn about her and her responsibility for the plight, is a credit to Blanchett’s range and appeal.

       The sweet ordinariness yet sensible nobility of Judi Dench’s Philomena would be hard to resist in any other year, but Blanchett’s artistry supersedes Dench’s in 2013.

       The rest of the field must also bow to her, even perennial nominee Meryl Streep who is a hoot but shows some sadness that gets our empathy in “August: Osage County.”

       Amy Adams is her usual chameleon in “American Hustle.” Her day to receive an Oscar is imminent, and her ability to earn five nominations in 10 years is only the harbinger of more nods and a future award to come.

        Sandra Bullock is lucky to be in the field. I like Bullock in general, but I felt no angst for her in “Gravity,” a movie in which she is in constant mortal danger. Blanchett and Streep, each playing women who make the trouble they have to live with, won my heart at times. Dench never let go of my heart. Adams amused with her style and cleverness. Bullock went through a lot to make “Gravity,” but she never once elicited the slightest ounce of emotion from me. Emma Thompson or Vanessa Redgrave would have been better choices for what I consider this year’s fifth  nomination.

        PREDICTION AND PREFERENCE:  Cate Blanchett

 

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

 

        A heady field that should be competitive has a front-runner that is so touching and so ethereal while also being palpably real and entertainingly amusing, he is bound to be chosen Best Supporting Actor tonight.

       That front-runner is Jared Leto for his stunning and thoroughly human turn in “Dallas Buyers Club.”

        Leto has the grace and wiles of a woman, the fortitude and sensuality of a man, and the frailty of a defeated addict. His character may be among the most fascinating in a 2013 movie, but a good measure of that fascination comes from Leto’s shrewd and affecting performance.

         Barkhad Abdi is remarkable in “Captain Phillips,” especially when one considers his performance in the movie is his first anywhere. Abdi can portray menace and sincerity. You can see his character, Muse, thinking and the process adds to the drama and tension. His scenes with Tom Hanks give no inch, and Abdi meets the veteran Hanks note for note as they spar and negotiate. Abdi’s is a versatile and accomplished performance. One hopes he finds a future as an actor in accessible movies.

          Michael Fassbender is a mixture of moods in “12 Years a Slave.” His plantation owner is never admirable but displays so many sides, and all with authenticity Fassbender provides.

         Bradley Cooper is probably Jared Leto’s primary competitor in this race. His ambitious federal agent is both comic and scarily smarmy. Cooper shows a lot of versatility in “American Hustle,” but Leto displays more.

        Jonah Hill is nicely neurotic in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and you have to like a guy who hears about a great plan and quits his job on the spot to be part of it. Hill is not quite a natural in role as Leto, Abdi, Fassbender, and Cooper are in theirs. There are others, such as Steve Coogan, Daniel Bruhl, Will Forte, or Colin Farrell who better deserved Hill’s nomination slot.

        PREDICTION AND PREFERENCE:  Jared Leto (although I would applaud mightily if Barkhad Abdi’s name was called.)

 

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

 

        This is one of those categories for which they should call all five nominees to the podium and bestow award on each one of them.

        That will not happen, and as in the Best Picture and Best Actor categories, I think the Supporting Actress field has been narrowed down to two serious contenders, Jennifer Lawrence and Julia Roberts, both  recipients of Best Actress Awards.

        If Lawrence wins, as I expect and predict she will, she will be the first performer to receive back-to-back Oscars in different categories.

        Lawrence was a lollipop of a treat in “American Hustle.” As she did last year when she took the Best Actress prize for “Silver Linings Playbook,” she turned a bizarre character, one with more quirks than a circus orangutan, into a lovable and empathetic human being.

       Rather than seeming low grade and out of her depth as Christian Bale’s wife in “American Hustle,” Lawrence shows class, or least genuineness, underneath her crass, miscomprehending exterior. Lawrence is amazing welcome every time she appears on the screen. You know she will effortlessly deliver some comic gem at the same time she is earning your esteem. Lawrence flat out does masterful work and earns both the attention and the awards she receives for it.

       When Roberts rides from her family home in “August: Osage County,” you can read the thoughts and self-revelations that are going through her character, Barbara’s, head. Roberts is trusty and true throughout, but that final shot is a culmination of her entire performance, a great performance that proves once more she can act as  well as fill her place as a movie star.

       The Academy would incur no shame in honoring Roberts, but her performance is straightforward compared  to the inventiveness that abounds in Lawrence’s.

       June Squibb has to be a sentimental favorite. She has labored for decades in movies, mostly doing bit parts and even appearing as an extra. In “Nebraska,” she plays a candid flinty old gal, and you would think she sprung directly from a Montana or Nebraska tract house rather than take her for an actress. But actress Squibb is, and a fine one who deserves the recognition and glamor that comes with her nomination.

        I am not certain how the beautiful and talented Lupita Nyong’o became an also ran given her luminous and affecting performance in “12 Years a Slave.” If Christoph Waltz announces Nyong’o’s name tonight, many may be surprised, but I doubt a large number of movie fans would be displeased.

       It is gratifying to see Sally Hawkins receive recognition considering the range of fine performances she’s given in the last decade. Her turn in “Blue Jasmine” was remarkable in its authenticity and humanity, two traits you must know by now that I value. My hope is Hawkins will catch the eye of more directors and have another chance, soon, to earn an Oscar. There would be no argument from me if she scored an upset win this year.

        PREDICTION AND PREFERENCE: Jennifer Lawrence

 

BEST DIRECTOR

 

      I am poised to be disappointed when this award is announced.

      I would  be satisfied to see it rest in the hands of David O. Russell for “American Hustle,” Alexander Payne for “Nebraska,” or Steve McQueen for “12 Years a Slave.”

     I am fairly sure the Best Director Oscar will go home with Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity.”

     I fully understand the Academy voters’ logic. “Gravity” is visually gorgeous, excitingly so. I reveled in the graphics and how Cuaron used them to put size in perspective and give the Earth a majestic presence in his movie.

     Graphics are important. Film is a visual medium and depends on a series of wonderfully photographed or digitally manufactured scenes to advance its art and tell stories in movie form. I get that. But suspense, taut storytelling, involvement with characters, and bringing an audience to the world of a film are equally part of a director’s duty. With “Gravity,” Cuaron failed on all of these counts. His movie had no passion. Pretty is nice, but emotional depth and caring about human characters is better. I predict Cuaron will win. I also predict I’ll scowl when he does.

       My preference surprises me. I have not liked David O. Russell’s movies before “American Hustle.” I found them shallow and populated with overwrought people as if angst and quirkiness was enough to make a character interesting or a situation poignant. It isn’t, as “Silver Linings Playbook,” with the exception of the honesty Jennifer Lawrence and Jacki Weaver poured into their characters, proves.

        I would not grieve a bit if Steve McQueen, for all his half dozen artsy indulgences in “12 Years a Slave” received the Oscar. His achievement is great, and the overall tenor of his film supersedes my cavils about his self-consciousness.

        Martin Scorsese was badly in need of scissors when he edited “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The film contains many graceful directorial touches, but unlike McQueen’s, Scorsese’s excesses should preclude him for getting any honors for “Wolf.”

         PREDICTION:  Alfonso Cuaron    PREFERENCE:  David O. Russell

 

     

AFTERMATH

Even though my four right guesses out of six include the win for Alfonso Cuaron, I am happy with the Academy’s choices on March 2.

Cate Blanchett and Jared Leto fulfilled destinies that were apparent to most moviegoers upon seeing “Blue Jasmine” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” Lupita Nyong’o’s win was a lovely surprise, and deserved, whether I plumped for Jennifer Lawrence or not. Nyong’o was not only luminous in “12 Years a Slave,” she was majestic as an Academy Award recipient, making a wonderful speech, as most of the winning performers did, and looking radiant in a pale blue dress that showed taste and elegance.

Of course, my only leap off my feet came at the end of the evening. I expected “Gravity” to glom the technical awards. I would have voted for it in the Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing categories. I can understand its victories in the Editing and Cinematography contests as well. But taking those last two awards, and Best Director, made me worry “Gravity” would prevail in the Best Picture race. After all, “American Hustle” and “12 Years a Slave” were not exactly garnering a slew of votes from the Oscar ballotters. “The Great Gatsby,” a movie I consider underrated, was getting more attention that some of the acclaimed films. “Philomena,” like “Hustle” received nothing. Neither did “Nebraska.” “Dallas Buyers Club” added make-up and hair styling to it acting awards. “Gravity” was sweeping the field. Only the writing award to John Ridley for “12 Years a Slave” salvaged some optimism (quickly dashed when Spike Jonze collected a prize for the odious script for “Her”).

So you can imagine the joy I, and everyone watching with it, expressed when Will Smith announced “12 Years a Slave” the winner of the Oscar for 2013’s Best Picture. I jumped about as high as Steve McQueen would subsequently. “Gravity” was shunned for the award that counts most. Its name will not mar a list that includes “It Happened One Night,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Casablanca,” “All About Eve,” “From Here to Eternity,” “On the Waterfront,” “The Apartment,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Annie Hall,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Amadeus,” “The Last Emperor,” “Schindler’s List,” “Chicago,” and “Argo.” Thank goodness.

Many stars looked glamorous on Oscar night. I mentioned Lupita Nyong’o, but kudos for appearance as also due John Travolta, who lost weight and had the right work done on his face, Cate Blanchett, who looked like a winner in one of the few beaded dresses, Jennifer Lawrence, sleak in red as Sandra Bullock was in midnight blue, Naomi Watts, Joseph Gordon-Levitt in spite of the Pee-Wee Herman cut of his tux, Christoph Waltz who was totally elegant, Jennifer Garner tasteful as always, Penelope Cruz, Angelina Jolie who has to rank as the most beautiful human on Earth, even considering her husband, Jennifer Biels, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Kristen Bell. The most stunning of all was Charlize Theron in a black sheath that came up from her navel to cover her bodice artistically and that stayed strapless but had panels that came out to the shoulder. Chic, unique, and stylish, Charlize. Mazel tov, too, on the spiky hairdo.

Some of Ellen DeGeneres’s bits as host were a little forced, even the pizza gambit, but she didn’t embarrass herself, and she did not seek to shame anyone else. Loved the idea of the selfie that got response from Meryl Streep, Bradley Cooper, Julia Roberts, Lupita Nyong’o, and Lupita’s brother.

The biggest concern after Oscar evening is for Liza Minnelli, who will be 68 next month, about the same age as many, such as Streep, who work continually and productively. Liza looked as if she didn’t know where she was or how to behave. I could see her, or Lorna Luft, wanting to rebel when Pink mangled “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by singing in a voice that had no tone, but since Liza didn’t appear able to do it, the Academy may have had no choice. (I guess asking Lorna, who sings well, thank you, would have been considered a slight with Liza, an Oscar winner and bigger star, sitting and watching.) While I like the idea of the Academy inviting vintage stars to the ceremony, Kim Novak is another who elicited more sympathy than joy when I saw and heard her. Of course, the person who should be sentenced to life is the plastic surgeon who ruined Goldie Hawn. Worst dressed goes to Whoopi Goldberg, who would have been better off costuming the way she once did, and Matthew McConaughey whose white jacket over a black vest was a fashion nightmare. Jared Leto also wore a white jacket, but he is so ingenuous it and his red tie suited him. I did not like Will Smith wearing a scarf under an open shirt in place of a tie. It was fun to see and hear Bette Midler.

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