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Oscar Prognostication and the Best of the Rest

March 1, 2014

If you didn’t already know, or haven’t already heard, 2013 was a mighty impressive year in film. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know it by looking at the Academy Award nominations. In the eight most-ballyhooed categories (Best Picture, Director, both Screenplay and all four Acting categories), a mere 12 films account for every last nomination. Awards parity, at least in the nomination phase, is a true sign of a great year in film.

But don’t let the lack of parity fool you, 2013 was legit.

I haven’t gotten around to seeing all of the Best Picture noms yet but here is my progress report and the chances I feel each film has to take home the big prize at the end of the night.

http://www.theempressofdress.com/2014/01/18/oscars-2014-nominations-86th-academy-awards-nominations/

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club has a lot going for it.  It’s a big-issue movie that successfully manages the line between powerful and preachy. Throw in a couple of great performances (McConaughey and Leto might even be Oscar favorites in their respective acting categories) and you have a solid Best Picture Contender.  It’s the kind of movie that could edge out a Best Picture statuette in most years. Most years. It only speaks to the quality of 2013 as a whole that Buyers Club feels like a small fish in this year’s pond.

Verdict: Very worthy nominee, but probably doesn’t have enough to overcome all of the big guns we’re about to get to.

The Wolf of Wall Street

It brings me great joy to experience Marty Scorsese, still directing near the top of his game even into his 70s. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers what is probably his best performance to date as mayhem magnate Jordan Belfort. Wolf caps 2013’s unofficial thematic “Fun While It Lasted Trilogy” (more on this further down the page)  and is the raunchiest Best Picture nom I can think of before getting bored. These are fascinating accomplishments that separate Wolf, from the rest of the pack. Both Wolf and the Academy will be content to pat themselves on the back over this nomination.

Verdict: Congrats on the nomination, Wolf. One of the flashiest films of the year to be sure, and yet another triumph from Scorsese. Enjoy the fancy party and don’t worry about preparing a speech.

American Hustle

American Hustle feels like 2013’s Argo. And somehow, I don’t think that bodes well for its Best Picture chances. The similarities are mostly superficial but it’s still cause for concern. The glitzy-yet-dark recent-historical movie has a lot of great pieces. With Christian Bale pulling a reverse-Christian Bale, and David O. Russell doing David O. Russell things (like ogling Amy Adams to the tune of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road), Hustle became the critical gem that also raked in mainstream dough. Bale’s performance is yet another heavyweight in his respective category (he put on a troubling amount of weight for the role), but I don’t see the Academy awarding its top prize to similar movies in back-to-back years.  It doesn’t help that hindsight has made Argo looks like a bit of a soft selection.

Verdict: Ask yourself this question: If you look back at last year’s Best Picture nominees right now, would you still choose Argo? If your answer is yes, then American Hustle has at least a puncher’s chance this year. Personally, I still think Life of Pi should have won last year, so Hustle is out.

http://collider.com/her-review/

Her

Her was the most astoundingly imaginative film of 2013. Spike Jonze is a genius and Joaquin Phoenix can do no wrong. While it is not my prediction for Best Picture, Her might actually have been the best film I saw. It won’t be a popular choice to win given the Academy’s stodgy reputation, and the fact that Her  is often reduced by those who haven’t seen it as “the one where the man talks to his computer the whole time.” Look no further than The Social Network, which was similarly described by (admittedly few) haters in 2010. Ultimately, it dosen’t matter if either Her or The Social Network were the most transcendent films of their respective years. What does matter is whether the Academy can stomach handing the statuette to a “computer movie.”

Verdict: At this point, my personal choice for Best Picture would be Her. It was that good. Because, there are other deserving pictures that cater more traditionally to the Academy, Her has no real shot. I can at least take solace in the nomination and the likelihood that the eventual winner will be less fluffy than The King’s Speech. Without further ado, the two real contenders:

12 Years a Slave

Allow me to introduce you to the hands-down winner if the Academy takes a “serious” approach to Best Picture. Slave is a perfectly harrowing and terrifying account of slave conditions in the antebellum South. It boasts revelatory performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a kidnapped New York resident sold into slavery, and Michael Fassbender as a disgusting slave owner. I’ve mentioned before on this site how much I like both Ejiofor and Fassbender, and I’m ecstatic that their superb efforts have netted each an acting nomination.

Verdict: Plenty of people think Slave is this year’s Best Picture. I don’t entirely disagree with them. This is the heaviest nominee in the category and of the year in general. I think the reason it won’t win is that the Academy will opt for awe and wonder rather than the crushing gravity of a life in slavery. Which brings us to…

Gravity 

I can’t remember the last movie that thrilled with sheer catharsis the way Gravity has. It takes place in cold, dark space, and yet manages to be a very human triumph; featuring a mesmerizing performance by Sandra Bullock, and the feel good story of father-son filmmaking duo Alfonso (Children of Men) and Jonas Cuaron. While it isn’t the heaviest drama in the field, it advocates for the medium of film the way no other film has in 2013. A purely cinematic experience that inspires wonder and can only be done justice on the grandest of screens.

Verdict: Gravity advances the art and science of motion pictures, plain and simple. That is why Gravity will take down statuettes in many, if not all, of the tech categories it has been nominated in. That is also why Gravity will win Best Picture.

http://redalertpolitics.com/2014/02/20/watch-spoof-honest-trailer-brings-gravity-back-to-earth/

Now that that’s out of the way, here are some films I greatly enjoyed that won’t be getting any love from the Academy. And if you’re wondering why (insert “Inside Llewyn Davis, etc, etc.”) isn’t mentioned below, it would be best to assume that I just haven’t seen it yet.

The Best of the Rest (Alphabetically)

Europa Report

Europa Report is a nifty sci-fi flick featuring an international cast. It’s the story of a space crew on a mission to Europa in search of water, and possibly something more. It also manages to breath new life (to both my delight and chagrin) into the “found footage” genre. The tale is told through cobbled footage of news interviews and onboard recordings. Sharlto Copley (District 9) steals all of his scenes with his uncanny American accent. 2014 was a very strong year for science fiction and Europa Report provides great depth for the genre behind the likes of Gravity and Her.

Frances Ha

With Frances Ha, writer-director Noah Baumbach and actress-writer Greta Gerwig have delivered the great “Millennials In The Big Apple” film experience of our age. Thank goodness for Greta Gerwig’s Golden Globe nomination for her work as Frances, otherwise this film would have gone largely unknown to the general public. The story is nothing unfamiliar, but that very familiarity (relationships, odd jobs, struggling to chase a dream) and the artfulness with which it is conveyed are what make Frances Ha  so profound.

Iron Man 3

The latest Stark venture was the best of the many, many, brand name sequels of 2014. Gone is the steady-handed direction of franchise veteran Jon Favreau, replaced by the quirkier Shane Black. His style really paid dividends in IM3, echoing his great work on Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (another Downey collaboration no less). Throw in some new Iron Man hardware and villainous turns by Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce and you’re looking at the best high-octane summer movie of 2013.  Fanboys undoubtedly bristled at the story, which featured some ballsy tweaks on Iron Man lore, but the results were playful and worthy of capping this character’s arc if this is the final solo Stark pic.

Pacific Rim

Speaking of high-octane summer movies, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim  was the rare combination of passion project and popcorn-hocking blockbuster. I must admit I had my doubts about this flick. Despite Del Toro’s body of work, Pacific Rim’s trailer looked like a live-action Rock’em Sock’em Robots movie. I am pleased to say I was wrong. This is an example of highly imaginative filmmaking grafted onto the summer movie template. It also gave me great pleasure to watch actors with the gravitas of Ron Perlman and Idris Elba sharing screen time with Charlie Day. Even if it runs a tad long in spots, Pacific Rim is a treat that has transcended its summer release date.

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Pain and Gain

Pain and Gain, the latest from Michael Bay, is another directorial passion project. Pain was a film Bay had wanted to make for a number of years before leveraging his involvement with the Transformers franchise to finally get it going. Pain and Gain, based on the bizarre true crime story of a gang  of bodybuilders affiliated with a Miami gym, combines raucous and distasteful story elements in an uneasily enjoyable way I haven’t experienced since seeing Bad Boys II. This is a Bay film, after all, so if you can’t have giant robots, you might as well have strippers. That said, Pain and Gain makes for a great guilty pleasure (as Bay’s films typically do), even if doesn’t live up to other films, like Fargo, that inspired it. Pain and Gain also makes up another third of the aforementioned unofficial “Fun While It Lasted Trilogy.” More on this to come.

The Place Beyond the Pines

Pines felt like a bit of a bait-and-switch. The bait? A tatted up Ryan Gosling smoldering atop a dirt bike. The switch? Probably the best multi-generational family drama of the year. Dane DeHaan and  Emory Cohen play two sons, forced to live with the aftermath of the violence of their fathers, two men on opposite sides of the law (Gosling and Bradley Cooper, respectively). Each of these central performances are uniformly excellent. While biker-Gosling turned out not to be the single dominant element of the picture, what we actually do get is even better and more fulfilling.

Saving Mr. Banks

Even though part of me sees through Saving Mr. Banks as shameless Disney propaganda (the valiant Walt defeats the evil Brit author and makes the movie of his daughter’s dreams!), it really did leave an impression. Emma Thompson is the biggest bright spot, disappearing into her role as P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins. Also great are Bradley Whitford,  Jason Schwartzman and a peg-legged B. J. Novak as the writers/musicians working on bringing Mary Poppins to the silver screen. The scenes they share with Travers, trying to work out the songs for the movie, are memorable.

Side Effects

Side Effects is another candidate for the bait-and-switch tag. What begins as a compelling cautionary tale of a depression medication spiral, morphs into a twisty Hitchcokian thriller about halfway through. Rooney Mara continues her impressive young career as the central character, leading a cast that includes Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jude Law. With Side Effects in the books, Steven Soderbergh could possibly be finished directing theatrically-released films. Is that sad or what? I imagine it will be hard for him to stay away, but if he’s happy with it, I’ll be content to relive his unique filmography for years to come, Side Effects included.

Spring Breakers

Ah, here it is. The third member of the unoffical “Fun While It Lasted Trilogy,” accompanied by The Wolf of Wall Street, and Pain and Gain. Throwing tastefulness to wind, Spring Breakers is a wild orgy of bikinis, guns and a gold-toothed James Franco delivering a Britney Spears-inspired serenade. This is a bizarre movie, but to write it off would be a mistake. Along with the rest of the unofficial trilogy, Spring Breakers offers a meditation on the American Dream and the perverse lengths some will go to in achieving their version of it.

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Upstream Color

Upstream Color was my most baffling film experience of 2013. With it, multi-hyphenate filmmaker Shane Carruth has delivered an impressive follow-up to his 2004 debut Primer. While it’s easy enough to classify the film as a science-fiction drama and to take in the general theme of the cycles that occur in life, nailing down a concrete plot proves elusive. It’s a beautiful movie to take in, as the visuals, colors and sound design are all highly evocative. If you need to know the plot, you’ll have to look elsewhere, but I can still easily recommend watching and pondering Upstream Color, many times over in fact.

The Way Way Back

As a huge fan of NBC’s Community, any project involving Jim Rash is cause for excitement. Rash co-wrote and directed The Way Way Back along with Nat Faxon. It may not be groundbreaking, but it’s a well rounded and easily-likable coming-of-age story. The Cape Cod setting, with its summery beach and water park  locales provides the film with a fun and colorful backdrop. The winning cast is great from start to finish and Sam Rockwell stands out as the water park manager and mentor figure. The Way Way Back pulls at your heart strings in all the right ways.

What are your Oscar picks and/or favorite films of 2013?

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