OSCAR COUNTDOWN: Best Picture and Director

Here we are. The big one and the not-quite-as-big one. We’ve dawdled enough. Let’s break this sucker down.

"THEY DO THE HARLEM SHAKE BWOOP-BWOOP-BWOOP BWOOP"

“THEY DO THE HARLEM SHAKE! BWOO-BWOO-BWOOP BWOOP”

Best Director

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

Splits are never predictable… I said a month ago to the rampant predictions of a Picture-Director split between 12 Years a Slave and Alfonso Cuaron. Admittedly they shouldn’t be, because voters shouldn’t feel the need to make concessions to one film when their love leans towards another. This year, though, many find themselves unable to deny the technical achievement of Cuaron’s work on Gravity, even if they prefer American HustleNebraska, 12 Years a Slave or The Wolf of Wall Street. This is a race where biggest could very well mean best, though my reason for believing Cuaron deserves to win has nothing to do with size. It’s his sustained and condensed command of a film where there are so many elements in play that could bog down the pace, but he keeps it moving briskly, yet still emotionally over 90 minutes.

Alfonso CuaronSo if Cuaron’s been almost certainly guaranteed this award, it’s worth noting that his competitors aren’t here for no reason. They’re all films that particularly emphasize the role of their directors, even the least seemingly directorly of them, Nebraska. I’d argue that Payne’s hand has rarely been so visible as it is here, not just in the choice of black-and-white, but in the decrepit nature of the film’s design. It’s something I may have been a fan of I didn’t find its humor so flat and obvious. Not so far off from that is The Wolf of Wall Street, where Martin Scorsese’s is energetic to say the least. At the age of 71 he’s still making films that exude a truly furious energy, even if I feel he looses his grasp on the story and some of his snap as the film teeters on into the third hour.

Meanwhile Scorsese’s competitor David O. Russell has been accused of riffing on his style for his own film, American Hustle. Certainly you’re not going to do a 1970s New York film without vibes of Marty’s early work, but O. Russell’s been present in this category for all three of his past films. He has his own unique energy that the Academy’s been excitedly responding to. Its high-pulse, but with an infectiously fun energy, all as he works in tough, even bitter themes. In a year where it only had to face 12 Years a Slave or Gravity, not both, I could see him putting up one hell of a fight.

David O. Russell, American HustleAs it stands, I can still see Steve McQueen coming up with a win. His work on 12 Years a Slave, while trading in a more reserved approach than he’s done with Shame or Hunger, is no less rigorous in its challenging of both bodies and social structures. To be anecdotal, my brother told me that he saw it more as an achievement of screenwriting than directing, but I think that’s downplaying the dry, unflinching way he approaches the subject. He doesn’t turn it into a spectacle. On the contrary, he plays most of the scenes in broad daylight, making the scenes striking without ostensibly being pictorially striking at all. It’s what we expect of McQueen, but I think the Academy may still be a bit too shy of his markedly difficult style to give him this prize (or that) just yet.

Predicted and Preferred Winner: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Should Have Been Here: Park Chan-wook, Stoker

"Don't Let Go!"

“Don’t Let Go!”

Best Picture

  • American Hustle
  • Captain Phillips
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • Gravity
  • Her
  • Nebraska
  • Philomena
  • 12 Years a Slave
  • The Wolf of Wall Street

Holy hell, there are nine of these? Seriously? When did this happen? When did the Academy start nominating more than five? Forget that there are too many for me to be expected to discuss in depth, but do we really see any more than three of these films as serious contenders? We’ve often remarked about how the expanded field depletes the currency, but I think if any year were going to show the validity of the choice, it’d be this one. The Best Picture race is so difficult to pin down this year, so much that I could actually see one of the less heavy-weight contenders turning a surprise win on the preferential ballot.

I mean, before we think of the films we’re pretty certain will be on the #1s, let’s talk about them all too likely #2s. Clearest as day probably is American Hustle, the film that mainstream audiences all really like. It’s hard to argue terribly against it, because it’s arguably the most steadily entertaining of the entire category. A surprise victory is most likely for this. Then there’s Philomena, which of course has Harvey Weinstein at its back, as well as pleasantly serving audiences sweetness. Again, lots of folks like it. The same could be said for Nebraska, but I think that one perhaps grates on more viewers than it pleases. Ditto The Wolf of Wall Street, which is total bravura showcase, but one which still essentially turns off some as too hard-core.

Captain PhillipsDallas Buyers Club is a film that many Academy members really love, as emphasized by its Film Editing and Original Screenplay nods. That said, it’s perhaps a bit soft for them. Captain Phillips isn’t at risk of being seen as too soft, and early on this season it was about as equal a contender as 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. It’s just the way the season turns that it’s not as vigorous a presence now as it was then, and I think that’s at no fault of the film itself. If Academy members were to revisit it now, I’m somewhat confident they’d stand by it.

It may be my own personal blinders (it probably is), but the film I can see on a lot of #2 spots is Spike Jonze’s Her. After the film that’s totally devastated you comes in at #1, what do you follow it up with? Something that worms its way into your heart, I say, and few films fit the bill so charmingly as Jonze’s latest film. It’s that charm that could likely earn it an Original Screenplay win on Sunday, if indeed nothing else – it’s only otherwise nominated for Original Score, Original Song and Production Design, none of which it’s necessarily likely to win.

12 Years a SlaveBut barring a complete surprise, this race is between the season’s two big players: 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, and each have about as many reasons for why they could or should win. The race has never been this close, even when Crash upset Brokeback Mountain. Why is this year different from a case like that? Because hardly anybody has anything significant to say against the two frontrunners. 12 Years a Slave is a gripping account of a period of American history that’s been unfairly shied away from. Many will see this as the definitive movie about slavery, but just as Schindler’s List need not be the end-all-be-all of Holocaust films, I hope this (and 2012’s Django Unchained) persuades more films to be made about the period. We’ve only begun bringing it out of the dark, I say.

McQueen’s film has a lot going for it, and not just the Golden Globe and PGA wins. This movie is the quintessential “IMPORTANT” movie of the season, something which has been hammered home by Searchlight’s “It’s Time” campaign. It’s their big move in a season that’s been too close to call, but I worry that it’s come across more as a “white guilt” move than an honest commendation of achievement. Gravity‘s campaign, it should be said, has come across with more humility. I can’t think of a better phase two campaign than simply presenting the film’s craft.

GravityThat’s why, regardless of my own desire to see it win, I think Gravity will take home the Oscar on Sunday. Not simply because of its obvious wielding of technical expertise, but because of how emotionally it translates for all viewers, even those admittedly put off by its dialogue. The power of the journey it takes you on is something that hits you as you check off all those technical award boxed. Sound Mixing. Sound Editing. Original Score. Cinematography. Visual Effects. Direction. It all builds to an expert crescendo, and the fact that it has no screenplay nod and only one performance – who may have been a stronger player if it weren’t for Blanchett – is frankly of no consequence. It’s narrative is formed by that craft, just as our own stories are formed by the big and small aspects of our lives. That kind of universal meaning is tough to escape.

But yeah, it’d be so much easier for everyone if we could just call this a tie.

Predicted and Preferred Winner: Gravity
Should Have Been Here: The Selfish Giant

FINAL PREDICTIONS

Best Picture: Gravity
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Best Supporting Actress:
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze, Her
Best Adapted Screenplay:
John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Best Animated Feature: Frozen

Best Documentary Feature: 20 Feet From Stardom
Best Foreign Language Film: The Hunt
Best Documentary Short Subject: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Best Animated Short Film:
Get a Horse!
Best Live-Action Short Film: Just Before Losing Everything
Best Original Score: Gravity
Best Original Song:
“Let It Go” from Frozen
Best Sound Editing: Gravity

Best Sound Mixing: Gravity
Best Production Design:American Hustle
Best Cinematography: Gravity
Best Makeup & Hairstyling: Dallas Buyers Club
Best Costume Design:
The Great Gatsby
Best Film Editing: Captain Phillips
Best Visual Effects: Gravity

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