Friday, February 28, 2014

Cap'n Howdy Presents His Quasi-Annual Academy Award Speculation

 As anyone inclined to read a blog about movies already knows, this weekend brings the 86th Annual Academy Awards, the final award show of "Awards Season" that runs from last December until the beginning of March. It's possible the Razzies are also this weekend, but since they gave up nominating movies that were bad and just went for the low hanging fruit (did Adam Sandler or M. Night Shyamalan make a movie this year? Nominate them in every category!) I really haven't given that much credence. I can't remember when I started watching the Academy Awards, but it's been a fixture in my life as a cinephile (to give you some idea, I can still remember Jack Palance doing push-ups on stage and Billy Crystal in the Hannibal Lecter mask like it was yesterday).

With that said, I've never been very good at predicting the winners. As I often joke, I tend to defer to friend of the Blogorium Neil, because he has a much better track record, but as he's not around to write this, it falls to the Cap'n to give it a shot. With the exception of Nebraska, Captain Phillips, and Philomena, I've seen all of the Best Picture nominees, and a vast majority of the other nominated pictures (with the exception of Best Foreign Film and Best Documentary, which I'll be going with what friends have been telling me). In the spirit of the late Roger Ebert - who I imagine will have some form of tribute on Sunday - the structure will be who the Cap'n thinks should win and who will win. I'll try to give you some idea of why I think one nominee will win over another, but remember that a) the awards are voted on by people in the Academy, so who knows what their thought process is, and b) I'm not very good at this. Nevertheless, it should be fun to look at this next year, or even just next week.

 In order of how they're usually presented:

 Best Supporting Actress:

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

 Who Should Win: Lupita Nyong'o
 Who Will Win: Lupita Nyong'o

 Looking at the other nominees, there's no question in my mind that Lupita Nyong'o is taking home the statue for Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, and she deserves it. As much as I liked Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine, there's no comparison. I haven't seen Roberts or Squibb in their respective roles, and Jennifer Lawrence was too young for her part in American Hustle.

 Best Supporting Actor:

 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

 Who Should Win: Jared Leto
 Who Will Win: Jared Leto

 This is a little trickier to pick: although I'm convinced Leto should and will win, there's an off chance that American Hustle starts picking up steam (I'll get to the reasons why during Best Director and Best Picture) and Bradley Cooper sneaks in and takes it away as some weird penance for not winning last year. There is this strange sense of "making up for" awards that happen at the Oscars, which lead to oddball wins for movies, like Denzel Washington for Training Day or Martin Scorsese for The Departed (not that they aren't both very good movies / performances, but far from the best either has ever done). Still, Leto is fantastic in Dallas Buyers Club, although I don't know how that would impact the Leading Actor category. As another friend of mine pointed out, Jonah Hill might have been a little too broad, and Fassbender while great is too loathsome in 12 Years a Slave.

 Best Animated Film:

 The Croods
 Despicable Me 2
 Ernest & Celestine
 The Wind Rises

 Who Should Win: The Wind Rises
 Who Will Win: Frozen (?)

 I'm not sure here, to be honest with you; The Wind Rises is Hayao Miyazaki's final film and I can't imagine that wouldn't factor in the voters minds somehow, but all I hear about everywhere I can listen in on the public is Frozen. Since there's no Pixar entry this year, and that's the reliable vote (was Despicable Me 2 really that much better than Monsters University?), I guess Disney has an outside shot at this, but Studio Ghibli has my pick.

 Documentary (Feature):

 The Act of Killing
 Cutie and the Boxer
 Dirty Wars
 The Square
 20 Feet from Stardom

 Who Should Win: The Act of Killing
 Who Will Win: The Square (?)

 I'm not 100% sold on my "will win" pick - it could be 20 Feet from Stardom, although conventional wisdom is to go with the strangest title (Cutie and the Boxer). In truth, every single person I know who saw The Act of Killing says it's not only the best documentary they saw last year, but that it was the best movie they saw last year. Looking at the last few years, it's hard to say if a movie about unrepentant perpetrators of war atrocities is going to be the top vote getter, but it sounds like it should be. I'm looking forward to sitting down and watching The Act of Killing and seeing for myself.

 Writing (Adapted Screenplay):

 Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke - Before Midnight
 Billy Ray - Captain Phillips
 Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope - Philomena
 John Ridley - 12 Years a Slave
 Terence Winter - The Wolf of Wall Street

 Who Should Win: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
 Who Will Win: John Ridley

 Unless 12 Years a Slave totally gets blanked in every category, John Ridley will be taking home the Oscar for adapting Solomon Northrup's true story, and I'm okay with that. It's a harrowing experience, and a very well written screenplay that avoids being maudlin or playing for cheap emotional beats. That said, Before Midnight is built around conversations, usually between Delpy and Hawke, and is a masterwork of writing and capturing the ebb and flow of conversation. It's a little silly this lands in "adapted" because Jesse and Celine are recurring characters and therefore are "based" on something else, but despite my admiration for Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke's writing, the Academy's propensity for going "rogue" in writing is usually reserved for the next category.

 Writing (Original Screenplay):
Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell - American Hustle
 Woody Allen - Blue Jasmine
 Craig Borten, Melissa Wallack - Dallas Buyers Club
 Spike Jonze - Her
 Bob Nelson - Nebraska

 Who Should Win: Spike Jonze
 Who Will Win: Craig Borten, Melissa Wallack

 Or David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer, if American Hustle starts a-rolling. There's no chance for Woody Allen, and as much as I enjoyed Blue Jasmine we all know why that's not happening this year. I hesitate to even bring that up because I know how toxic the back and forth is and I don't want to weigh in without knowing all of the facts, and as it has nothing to do with Blue Jasmine's screenplay that's all I have to say about it. If Spike Jonze was going to win anything for Her (which he should but it's on the outside looking in for most nominations), it ought to be this but I somehow don't think it will be. That said, Borten and Wallack took what could have been an easy tear-jerker of a true story and gave us a more nuanced version, whether they took liberties with Ron Woodruff's story or not (speaking of which, how is something based on a true story an "original" screenplay?), so I'd say they have a good shot at it.

Best Actress in a Leading Role:
Amy Adams - American Hustle
Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock - Gravity
Judi Dench - Philomena
Meryl Streep - August: Osage County

 Who Should Win: Amy Adams
 Who Will Win: Amy Adams

As much as Cate Blanchett owns every moment of Blue Jasmine, I think it's pretty clear that's a non-starter this year. Sandra Bullock was the odds-on favorite for Gravity when the film came out, but unfortunately that was too long ago (last summer is eons ago in Academy-time, which is why most of the nominees seem to be films released in November or December). Judi Dench and Meryl Streep are reliable favorites and you can never, ever count them out, but Amy Adams is THE reason to watch American Hustle. I'm dubious about all of the other acting nominations for that film, but unquestionably Adams is riveting from beginning to end and deserves to win.

Best Actor in a Leading Role:

Christian Bale - American Hustle
Bruce Dern - Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio - The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor - 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey - Dalls Buyers Club

 Who Should Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor
 Who Will Win: Matthew McConaughey

 Now, I could be wrong here, and Bruce Dern could be the spoiler because of a strange trend in Hollywood. What usually happens is that an older actor who has been under the radar for a while has a great performance and suddenly awards voters freak out and assumed that he's going to die soon and those nominations fly in (see Peter O'Toole in Venus, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, or Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story). Now, to be fair, none of the actors I mentioned won, but everybody's talking about Bruce Dern like he's suddenly on death's door and how many more movies has he got blah blah blah. For what it's worth to you death clock counters, Peter O'Toole was nominated in 2006 and will be memorialized this year.

 For different reasons, I think there's no chance for Leonardo DiCaprio or Christian Bale. DiCaprio, who did some of the most impressive work I've ever seen him do in The Wolf of Wall Street, has no shot because the stupid controversy surrounding the film "glorifying" Jordan Belfort, the sleazeball that DiCaprio is playing. In no way would you ever want to be Belfort after watching The Wolf of Wall Street, but DiCaprio makes him an undeniable presence you want to watch for three hours. The physical work in the quaaludes scene alone should be enough to justify his nomination.

 Christian Bale was all right in American Hustle. That's it. He wasn't any better or any worse than he is in any other movie, so I genuinely don't understand why he was nominated, and unless voters just decide to go crazy for American Hustle, I can't see him taking home the Oscar for gaining weight.

 I'm really tempted to go with Matthew McConaughey taking it from the amazing Ejiofor (who conveys a sense of dignity in the most dire of circumstances and is in almost every scene of 12 Years a Slave) just because voters seem to love a physical transformation. Also, McConaughey has been on a serious upswing over the last two or three years where he finally got tired of being Surfer, Dude and has been on a real tear reminding people he's more than Wooderson from Dazed and Confused. I think I preferred him in Mud, but this might be the year that voters decide to take him seriously. But secretly I hope Chiwetel Ejiofor wins, and deep down I think he might.

 Best Director:

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

 Who Should Win: Steve McQueen
 Who Will Win: Alfonso Cuarón

 Since 1999, when Steven Spielberg won for Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love took Best Picture, it's no longer a guarantee that Best Director and Best Picture will go hand in hand, as they always seemed to. Ben Affleck wasn't even nominated last year, which boggles my mind if you're going to award Argo Best Picture, but I digress. What Best Director now means is anybody's guess, but last year's winner, Ang Lee for The Life of Pi, indicates that spectacle and technical achievement is now a mitigating factor. In that case, it's very hard to argue that what Alfonso Cuarón achieved in Gravity doesn't automatically qualify him to win, hands down. Regardless of how I feel about Gravity's story (and it's telling the screenplay isn't nominated), I can't argue that it's an astonishingly well made film, the work of a director who spent years doing something we hadn't seen before. So he's almost certainly going to win.

 Is that unfortunate? I guess: I prefer the understated, sober direction of McQueen in 12 Years a Slave, with his long takes and willingness to let a scene unfold without overt manipulation. It's hard to believe this is only his third feature film, and all of them are uniformly excellent. In my mind there's no reason he shouldn't be standing at the podium accepting the award for Best Director (as he has been at various ceremonies this season), but the Academy Award voters are weird like that.

Speaking of which: there's a teeny, tiny, outside chance that neither happens and that David O. Russell stops being a bridesmaid and finally wins (three nominations in four years, after all), even if it's not for his best direction. I'd hate to think he would win Best Director for a film that is so clearly a copy of Martin Scorsese's films, especially at the expense of Scorsese, who made a much better film that's not going to win anything, but there's certainly been a big push for Russell since The Fighter. It's weird, because I vastly prefer Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees to Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but it could be that kind of year, which leads us to...

 Best Picture:

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

 Who Should Win: 12 Years a Slave
 Who Will Win: American Hustle

 Yep, I'm going with it. I don't think American Hustle was the best movie of 2013, and while Her is nominated it has no chance considering the paltry nominations. The Wolf of Wall Street is this year's Zero Dark Thirty, a great film overshadowed by a ridiculous "controversy" that will scare off voters regardless of the merits of the movie itself. Gravity has excellent direction and nice special effects but a story that strains credibility to the breaking point - it's a great ride, but not necessarily a great movie. I've heard nothing bad about Philomena, Nebraska, or Captain Phillips (in fact, quite the opposite), but they seem to be movies that are there to fill out the new "5-10 nominees" logic the Academy implemented a few years ago. Dallas Buyers Club is a fine movie but not one I see taking home the big award.

 All of the buzz, and rightfully so, has been with 12 Years a Slave, and it was my hands down pick to win Best Picture until I found out just how few people had seen it. I know that it's an incredibly difficult film to watch (I watched it) and that it's not a "feel good" movie and that it's "important." That's not to diminish the fact that yes, it IS important and it IS a part of American history we don't like to look at or talk about, but it saddens me that people just won't go see it because they don't want to deal with it. And I worry that this is going to trickle over to the voters in the Academy. It's true that the actors and critics and writers and directors who all voted for 12 Years a Slave in their respective guilds are also Academy voters, but for some reason they tend to go "safe" with the Oscars.

 Look, I really liked Argo, but it was the "safe" alternative to Zero Dark Thirty, which wasn't going to win anyway but they dealt with precarious points in American history that involved a level of obsession and a coordinated effort to come out victorious. Shakespeare in Love was the "safe" choice. The Artist was the "safe" choice, and so were The King's Speech and Slumdog Millionaire, to name a few from the last few years. Best Picture, increasingly, has been a bizarre alternate universe where movies you wouldn't necessarily consider the best picture of the year are nevertheless selected over other films.

 Putting aside the obvious argument that it isn't fair to put such varying types of films against each other, the reality is that often voters will go with a film they enjoyed over an "important" film. In fact, the "important" with quotes around it gets some sort of asinine backlash from people who want spectacle over serious. Think about the South Park episode that tore George Clooney and Hollywood a new one for being smug and suggesting that cinema should mean anything (and, by proxy, that they "mean" anything). That's a prevailing thought, even as it's easy to lampoon Hollywood for being too self-important.

 So yeah, could voters pick American Hustle over 12 Years a Slave? I can totally see it happening. Take the consistent presence of David O. Russell for the last few years, with a cast that was almost uniformly not doing their very best work (no offense, but Amy Adams is the alpha and the omega of that ensemble) who are all nominated, and a gamut of other categories, and you have the makings of a picture that could run the table. Why? Because it's a fun movie and lots of people liked it (although, increasingly, I talk to people who really didn't) and dammit, isn't that what's fun about Hollywood? Not depressing movies about the horrible things we did to other human beings and I know it's important but dammit I just want to see Bradley Cooper with a perm, you guys!

 Will it happen? I don't know. I'd like it not to, but you can never be sure. If there's one thing I've learned from years of unsuccessfully choosing winners, it's that I don't know what's going on in the minds of voters any more than I know how March Madness is going to end. I can pay attention to the prevailing trends of Awards Season and extrapolate from that, but that's about it. But it's fun to speculate in the meantime, to have wild theories and to spend unnecessary time and energy into rationalizing them. And besides, I haven't had a non-review post in a while, mostly because I didn't want to talk about Philip Seymour Hoffman or Harold Ramis, and I'm sure as hell not comfortable talking about Woody Allen right now. But the Academy Awards? Now that's something to talk about, at least until next week...

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