Oscars 2014: Final Predictions

E: This is it, boys and girls.  This is – well, not war, but Oscar.  After months of frenzied speculation, after years of painstaking effort by writers and producers and location scouts and prop masters, after hundreds of man-hours in the editing suite or behind the camera or running lines in a make up trailer, after tickets bought, videos viewed, plots and performances reviewed, stylists consulted and gowns chosen, campaigns waged, reputations made and besmirched and remade, this is it.  Hollywood’s big night has arrived.

I say it every year, but this time unfortunately I have recent headlines to back me up.  For the lucky few who win tonight – a number far fewer than those whose work deserves the honor – this is your epitaph.  This is the headline of your obituary.  This is the crowning achievement, the shorthand that bespeaks the highest measure of professional success in what is arguably the most public profession in the history of the world.

Let’s take a few moments to discuss who those winners might be.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Who Will Win:

John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave

How Sure Am I?

55%

If Not Him, Then Who?

Steve Coogan, Philomena

Billy Ray, Captain Phillips

The Dark Horse

Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater, Before Midnight

Happy Just to be Nominated:

Terence Winter, Wolf of Wall Street

Always a packed and contentious category, the adapted screenplays aren’t getting quite the same amount of notice this year as the originals.  Perhaps that’s because the source matter in all of these cases lacks the cache of either a classic or best-selling novel.  We could have seen August: Osage County, the Pulitzer Prize winning play, or The Great Gatsby, every high school English teacher’s favorite novel, or Catching Fire, the latest installment from every high school girl’s favorite series, but we didn’t. Instead there are four obscure historical memoirs and the final installment in a series of indie films.

Does that last bit sound confusing? According to Academy rules, any sequel is considered an adaptation even if it has no source material (ie, a book or play) that lay people would assume required to make something an adaptation; hence the inclusion of the wholly original Before Midnight.  It’s a delight that these three are nominated for their decades long collaboration; critics have lavished the film and the screenplay with praise, but a win is incredibly unlikely.  The same goes for Terence Winter and his comic treatment of penny stock kingpin Jordan Belfor’s life story.  Or rather, it’s similarly unlikely to win; unlike the much lauded Linklater script, Winter’s is a divisive and dogged by controversy.

That leaves us with two possible spoilers – BAFTA winner Philomena, and WGA winner Captain Phillips.   The first tells the story of a crusty, snobbish journalist (played by screenwriter Coogan) whose icy heart is thawed by a seemingly simple Irish woman and her search for the baby taken from her 50 years previously; the second details the attack on a container ship attacked by Somali pirates.  Between the moving odd couple road trip and the thrilling hostage situation there’s not a lot of common ground beside this: both are based on true stories, and one of them could very easily win an Oscar.  Folks with Academy member contacts insist that most voters are aiming to spread the love around, and neither of these films is likely to take another award.  Of the two, perhaps Ray’s has the better shot; the Writer’s Guild doesn’t correlate perfectly with Oscar, but their track record isn’t too shabby, either.

In the end, however, it’s very clear what the most “important” story here is – the adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s terrifying memoir 12 Years a Slave in which a Northern free American is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum South.  That film has the best shot of these five to win Best Picture, and normally that counts in the frontrunner’s favor.  Even if this isn’t going to be a sweep sort of year (and it isn’t), you have to think people are going to want to acknowledge the importance of this film and this American story. Or maybe I just think that the film is so “important” that Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members will be embarrassed not to award it.

Of the eight categories discussed here, however, this is the likeliest to result in a surprise.

Best Original Screenplay

Who Will Win?

Spike Jonze, Her

How Sure Am I?

80%

If Not Him, Then Who?

David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer, American Hustle

Dark Horse:

Bob Nelson, Nebraska

Happy Just to be Nominated:

Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine

Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, Dallas Buyers Club

There’s no denying that Spike Jonze seems to have already sunk his fingers into this statuette for his oddly charming futuristic romance Her; his claim began at the Golden Globes and has only gotten more pressing since.

You can write Woody Allen off right now; no one’s going to give him anything after the press he’s gotten in the last couple of months, and he was already behind Jonze before it started.  There’s no need to weep for him, because even if he cared about nominations or wins (which he famously doesn’t) he’s already won three times in his fifteen previous nominations.  (It pays to write, direct and produce your own films; multi-hyphenates can really bump up those totals.)  Borten and Wallack, too, have had no buzz, but I sincerely doubt they mind; not a lot of folks can manage an Oscar nomination for their first (Borten) or second (Wallack) produced screenplay.  Not to shabby for an actor and a paper company executive!  They wrote us a lovely film (see it if you haven’t already!), and should be proud.  I for one will be very interested in seeing what they do next.

David O. Russell’s been here before. This year marks his third directing nomination in the last 4 years and his second in two years for writing.  Oh, he was making good movies before that (Three Kings, anyone?) but he figured something out in 2009’s The Fighter, and Oscar’s been his friend ever since.  It feels like it’s only a matter of time before he sweeps everything.  He’s going to get there, and chances are at the rate he’s making movies, he’s going to get there soon.  BAFTA thought this was his year, and gave him their screenplay prize. And yes, if people are looking to spread the wealth this might be a good spot for them to do it.  Despite that idea, I can’t help thinking that when it happens for Russell, he’s going to win everything all at once, and that’s not very likely to happen this year. Fun fact; this movie is also loosely based on a historical event (the Abscam scandal) but isn’t inspired by a single piece of source material so is considered an Original screenplay.

That leaves us with the two quirkiest screenplays. So could Bob Nelson and his weirdly touching family roadtrip movie spoil Her‘s one shot at an award?  Probably not.  (Of course, Nebraska‘s even more likely to end up without any wins.)  Best Original Screenplay’s the category for you if you’re a little bit out there – edgy (though not so edgy as to scare off the elderly members of the Academy) and surprising.  This is the category for the Quentin Tarantinos, the Charlie Kaufmans, the Diablo Codys.   A four time nominee (nominated for three Oscars tonight alone as a producer, songwriter and screenwriter), Jonze should take home his first award.

Best Director

Who Will Win: 

Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

How Sure Am I?:

75%

If Not Him, Then Who?:

Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

Dark Horse:

David O. Russell, American Hustle

Happy Just to be Nominated:

Alexander Payne, Nebraska

Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Starting with the Golden Globes, London-dwelling Mexican ex-pat Cuaron has dominated the best director race, puzzling analysts who couldn’t figure out why his critically lauded box office smash didn’t follow suit.  Everyone recognizes the technical mastery of Gravity.  80% animation, with the astronauts faces painted into their helmets for most of it?  Edge of your seat tension the entire 91 minute run time?  Not one of those moments wasted?  Add in the fact that Cuaron manages to tell a genuine story of survival (sorry, David O. Russell) and draw a sophisticated, moving emotional arc from his star?  Yeah.  It’s pretty great.  It’s a new age in cinema, the critics cry, and so Cuaron wins (Golden Globes) and wins (Critics Choice) and wins (Director’s Guild) and wins (BAFTA).  If he wins again tonight, first time nominee Cuaron will be the first Mexican director to take this particular prize.

British director Steve McQueen represents Cuaron’s main competition, winning his first nomination for only his third feature. His film presents us with no great strides in technology.  Though it is surprising that McQueen’s film is doing so much better in the precursor awards than he’s been, it’s not shocking to see him in the running.  His unflinching look at the horrors of slavery demands our attention, our consideration and respect.  If he were to win, it would make him the first film-maker of African descent to win Best Director, so either way, we’re looking at a first.  AMPAS (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that awards Oscars) doesn’t exactly have an exemplary history when it comes to race, as is ably pointed out here and here.  Does race play a role in this year’s anticipated split of the director/picture prizes?  It’s a valid question.  While the official story holds water (the technical mastery and advances in Gravity must be honored) it’s worth noting that there was no such fervor for awarding the directors of technological pioneers Star Wars, The Matrix, The Fellowship of the Ring, Avatar or Hugo.

As for the other three, David O. Russell has the strongest shot in this, his third nomination as a director.  Since his well-liked heist film won best ensemble at the SAG awards, Oscar watchers have been wondering if we were going to have a three way race.  After all, American Hustle has the feeling of a good consensus flick – not a film for the ages, perhaps, but one without a lot of drawbacks.  That furor of speculation has mostly died down, however, once Cuaron secured the Director’s Guild Award and the BAFTA.

Everyone loves twelve time nominee Martin Scorsese, but this controversial film won’t win him his second Best Director Oscar.  Alexander Payne, too, has seven nomination to prove how much AMPAS loves him, and two wins in adapted screenplay to boot.  While he’s still looking to win a direction Oscar, he’ll have to settle for upping his personal nomination total this year.  As with Allen and Russell, being a multi-hyphenate has served Payne and will surely continue to. Cuaron has been funny and self-deprecating in his many acceptance speeches this season, poking fun at his accent and generally seeming like an imaginative, happy, cool dude you’d really enjoy working with.  I’ve been a huge fan of his work since 1995’s A Little Princess, and I totally loved Gravity, so I’m expecting to enjoy this category very much.

Best Supporting Actor

Who Will Win?

Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

How Sure Am I?:

95%

If Not Him, Then Who?:

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips

Dark Horse:

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

Happy Just To Be Nominated:

Bradley Cooper, American Hustle

Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

Who would have thought, back in the early 90s, that the first cast member from My So Called Life to even be nominated for an Oscar would be pretty boy Jared Leto instead of television’s darling Claire Danes? Or that after six years of trying to be a rock star, Leto could waltz back into the film industry with grace and heart and take the whole race with him. Jared Leto achieved frontrunner status back in November and hasn’t let up since.

This is a role tailor made for Oscar, the golden hearted transgender hustler dying of AIDS, and it’s also created for the (mostly true) film.  The role has been winning awards long enough, in fact, to have inspired a backlash; too stereotypical, say some, and overrated, say others; I suppose we’ll have to let time decide the worth of those critiques.  I think what kills people the most about his performance isn’t merely how comfortable Leto seems in Rayon’s make up and miniskirts, but how profoundly uncomfortable she seems in the one scene where she puts on a man’s suit.  Either way, the first time nominee who achieved minor awards buzz more than a decade ago for his work in Prefontaine (and did brilliant work in Requiem for a Dream) has no real competition for this award.

Interestingly, both he and costar Matthew McConaughey failed to receive BAFTA nominations; clearly the Brits weren’t as impressed with the story as America has been.  Obviously that was the one prize Leto didn’t win; it fell instead to first time actor Barkhad Abdi, a limo driver director Paul Greengrass found through a casting call for the real life pirate drama Captain Phillips.  Recalling Cassius’s lean and hungry look from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar,  Abdi intrigues us as much as he terrifies – a smart, trapped man with a gun, a competent man herding together both his hostages and an unstable crew of machine gun toting pirates.  Were he to win, he would join the ranks of Cambodian refugee Haing Ngor and WW2 veteran and amputee Harold Russell as non-actors who won an Oscar by excelling in their debut performance.

After becoming almost a ubiquitous presence in Hollywood over the last several years, Michael Fassbender has finally earned his first Oscar nomination after being unexpectedly passed over for Steve McQueen’s previous effort, Shame.  Maybe it’s odd that he’d get snubbed for playing a sex addict but finally nominated for playing a brutal slave owner, but there it is.  It’s a scenery chewing performance of epic proportions, a fine foil for star Chiwetel Ejiofor’s dignified, self-contained hero.  He’s impressively hideous.

And speaking of prodigiously hideous, there’s always Jonah Hill, who picks up his second nomination for playing a vile swindler and self-absorbed addict in the cartoon comedy The Wolf of Wall Street.  The mere casting of comedian Hill adds to the flick’s buffoonery, something I have a general issue with.  Whatever your stance on the film (or Hill’s appearance on the slate over expected nominee Daniel Bruhl) he’s not a real figure in the race.

Finally, there’s Bradley Cooper and his dandy ringlets scoring a second nomination in a row for his second David O. Russell film.  Hey, one of these days you might actually pick up the award, Bradley, but this is not that day.  You’re probably still too good-looking, for one thing.  Male voters (and the Academy is 75% male) seem to have an issue with that. Your vain, self-righteous FBI agent provided some good laughs, but we have a date with a prettier girl this time.  And yes, Jared Leto is a pretty boy, but he sure doesn’t play one, and he’s far less successful than Bradley Cooper, which may make him less threatening to other industry players. So far, Leto has been humble and restrained in his speeches, grateful, quick and quiet.

Best Supporting Actress

Who Will Win?

Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

How Sure Am I?

52%

If Not Her, Then Who?

Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

The Dark Horse:

June Squibb, Nebraska

Happy Just to be Nominated:

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

Best Supporting Actress is a fantastic category for ingenues, and this year, two such women battle for dominance: omnipresent It Girl Jennifer Lawrence, last year’s Best Actress winner, and amazing British newcomer Lupita Nyong’o.  One plays a tormented slave, the other a tormenting housewife.

You can be absolutely forgiven for having no idea who Lupita Nyong’o is; 12 Years A Slave was her first movie, and not a lot of people have seen that.  In addition, her winning streak began with untelevised award shows (The Critics Choice). Immediately, she was anointed a new fashion icon for her stunning, flawless gowns.  You might have seen her setting red carpets on fire, or redefining beauty, or inspiring small children, or in trailers for the latest Liam Neeson flick bowing this weekend, but she’s definitely a new name.  None of that would matter if you saw her film, however; Lupita glows from within as the Patsey, the slave whose extraordinary talents and beauty doom her to the savage attention of her vile owner.  I don’t know how you project exceptional while picking cotton dressed in a burlap sack, but she manages it.

On the other hand, is it possible that there are people in America who haven’t seen Jennifer Lawrence?  Monks, maybe.  Certainly not anyone who pays the smallest bit of attention to pop culture or the movies.  From last year’s Best Actress win to her box office championship, from book and magazine covers to talk shows, Jennifer Lawrence owned 2013.   She just did.  Catching Fire was the first female lead film to top the yearly box office in 40 years.  And if you want to tell me that not once all year did someone link you to a funny clip of J.Law’s forthright, disarming, charming interviews, well, I don’t think I will believe you.  Of course, that also sets her up for the inevitable backlash in this popularity contest.  None of that should matter when it comes to judging her live wire con-artist’s wife, the obstacle to Christian Bale’s supreme happiness with his mistress; whether she’s setting her new “science oven” on fire or just cleaning the house, Lawrence’s ability to commit to crazy really is impressive.

J. Law took the celebrity-obsessed Hollywood Foreign Press’s Golden Globe award. Nyong’o, the Critics Choice and then the SAG.  Ah ha, a new winner!  A frontrunner, the awards watching community trumpeted.  And then came BAFTA, the British Academy Awards, which went back to Jennifer Lawrence.  Of course, Lawrence lost last year’s BAFTA to Emmanuelle Riva, so it’s entirely possible that BAFTA is simply playing catch up.  With its large membership overlap, BAFTA often aligns with Oscar, and many times presages a shift in voting patterns – say, toward Marion Cotillard and away from Julie Christie in 2008.  (Sigh.)  On the other hand, with the exclusion of both American male frontrunners, this year’s BAFTA seems particularly out of sync.  The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy points out that no actress has won the Golden Globe and BAFTA this century and then gone on to lose the Oscar – but it’s a young century, and virtually every other commentator expects Lawrence to break the streak.  If she doesn’t, however, she would be the first performer to win back to back Oscars since Tom Hanks smashing Philadelphia/Forrest Gump twofer in 1994/5, and the first woman since Katharine Hepburn in 1967/8.  At 23, she’d also be the youngest person to win a second Oscar, erasing the record established in 1938 with the second of 28 year old Luise Rainer’s back to back wins.

Perhaps these two bright young things might cannibalize each other’s votes.  If they do, many pundits suggest the person readiest to pick up the prize instead is saucy character actress June Squibb for her brassy, outspoken grandma in Nebraska, a woman with apple-round cheeks and a blistering tongue.  After all, who can forget the scene where she flashes the gravestone of an ex-boyfriend, giving his corpse a glimpse of what he missed?  It’s an unlikely scenario, a win for June Squibb – very unlikely – but not outside the realm of possibility.

We can easily count out first time nominee Sally Hawkins, who swooped into the race on Cate Blanchett’s coattails and snapped up what people expected to be Oprah Winfrey’s nomination.  Hawkins has been flirting with Oscar for years (most prominently for her Golden Globe winning role in Happy-Go-Lucky, though she also made a few shortlists for the even more obscure British indie Made in Dagenham.  Her turn as socialite Jasmine’s gawky, awkward blue collar sister gathered strong reviews and introduced the actress (already popular in England) to American audiences.  (Or at least the ones who didn’t watch the Jane Austen Season on PBS.)   As the cliche goes, the nomination is her reward; hopefully she can leverage some fun new roles out of it, although frankly she seems to be doing a lot of fun work without any assistance.  Look for her in this summer’s iteration of Godzilla.

Finally, Julia Roberts extends her peculiar streak – her four nominations come for movies she’s made in the 80s, 90s, aughts and now teens.  Her turn as Barbara, the most beloved and brutalized daughter of Meryl Streep’s vituperative harridan Violet, took America’s Sweetheart further away from the idealized girl next door and closer to what your neighbors might actually be like.  Or at least, what they might be like if they were born into the worst family in America.  August: Osage County didn’t have the awards success many (including executive produce Harvey Weinstein) might have expected given the film’s pedigree and cast.  Perhaps film goers are less interested in watching festivals of family meanness than theater patrons seem to be?  At any rate, Roberts’ real reward is her first nomination since her win for Erin Brockovich in 2001.

A win for Lawrence would likely produce another endearingly goofy speech (though hopefully not another trip up the stairs).  A win for Nyong’o would produce more eloquence and a lot of emotion.  Seriously, that’s the way to give an awards speech.  I can only imagine the agony and ecstasy designers have been going through for the last couple of months, trying to get their gowns on these two gorgeous girls; look for them both on the best dressed lists Monday.

Best Actor

Who Will Win?

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

How Sure Am I?

60%

If Not Him, Then Who?

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

The Dark Horse:

Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Leonardo DiCaprio, Wolf of Wall Street

Happy Just to be Nominated:

Christian Bale, American Hustle

All step aside and marvel at the wonder of the McConaissance!  Behold, the man who’s made an impressive living for the last 15 years making the worst romantic comedies of all time has suddenly remembered – or casting directors or his agent remembered – that he has acting skills!  After coasting for nearly his entire career, this year brought first time nominee Matthew McConaughey back to those bright sparks of promise he showed in Dazed and Confused and A Time to Kill.  First as a drifter in Mud, and then as the bigoted cowboy turned AIDS entrepreneur and activist in Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey has astounded viewers and voting bodies alike, picking up the Golden Globe, the Critics Choice and the SAG award for Best Actor.  (Note that I’m not going to add his roles in Wolf of Wall Street or Magic Mike to this tally, though many other Oscar prognosticators will; I genuinely have no idea why anyone sees those characters as anything more than the usual smug braggart McConaughey can – and seemingly does – play in his sleep.)  Much as I might mock the prideful nature of his self-titled personal renaissance, I was truly blown away by his acting in this role.  Ron Woodroof is something of an Oskar Schindler (a role which, it should be noted, made Liam Neeson’s career but did not win him an Oscar); the most unlikely of real life heroes.  Watching his journey and enlightenment moves audiences.  In a way, that plays on the actor’s good old boy reputation and self-satisfied smarm, showing us an individual at first far worse than what we expect and then eventually, far better.  And it can’t hurt that the actor’s currently undergoing another intense, audience-transfixing transformation on television’s True Detective.

Now, okay.  Is there a fly in all this self-congratulatory ointment?  Sure.  Let’s consider Eddie Murphy, the major (and like McConaughey, unexpected) frontrunner for his powerhouse turn in Dreamgirls.  The airwaves were clogged with commercials for another of his truly terrible looking comedies, and the Academy decided that critical accolades be damned – there was no way they were rewarding that guy.  Not the fat suit wearing stand up comedian!  Now, McConaughey has no such embarrassing new release to hold him back , but his acceptance speeches have been pretty loopy and pose something of a challenge to his partisans.  He’s a worthy winner, no doubt, but I so don’t want to hear the man talk!  I really really don’t want to.  Anyone watching fellow first time Oscar nominee’s Chiwetel Ejiofor’s gracious, articulate, humble BAFTA acceptance speech might be excused for wondering why they were following the groupthink adoration of McConaughey instead of voting for this other lovely fellow instead.

What works against Ejiofor is the nature of his role, I think.  (Well, that and the fact that people are afraid to see his “torture porn” movie.)  I don’t actually mean the torture; I mean that Solomon Northrup is such a dignified man, his emotions held in check.  This is surely the man’s achievement – and also part of what saved his life – but it’s less showy than McConaughey’s fast-talking salesman.  It’s hard to know if he would have won the BAFTA had he been in contention against McConaughey; we can say for sure, however, that every time they’ve been paired together for a major award, Ejiofor has lost.

Early in the season, veteran actor Bruce Dern stored up all the buzz for his laconic, taciturn old codger determined to retrieve a sweepstakes prize from a Publishers’ Clearinghouse like scam in Omaha.  There seems to be enormous amounts of affection in Hollywood for Dern, and also for this eventually sweet father/son road trip flick – and yet somehow, in the end, the buzz dissipated, and McConaughey took over everything.  Of course it’s a fine and lovely thing for the veteran actor to get this second nomination (his first, for a supporting role, came in 1978) but the window for a win seems to have closed.

Dern has been beaten, too, by Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor in a Comedy at the Golden Globes; that moment marked the ending of Dern’s time as a true contender.  Leo has officially reached the point where pundits are regularly asking “enough with the nominations – when will it finally be Leo’s turn?”.  Well may you ask, headline writers.  (Meanwhile, Julianne Moore and Glenn Close look at his five nominations and weep in sympathy.) It’s incredibly unlikely to be this year, no matter how many critics moan that this was a career topping performance.  If it was going to be his moment, we’d have seen it by now.  Honestly, his nomination itself was a long shot; his prize is knocking former box office kings Tom Hank and Robert Redford off the dais. Like Dern, like Ejiofor, he’s lost every time he’s been in contention with McConaughey.

Rounding out the nominees is fellow long shot Christian Bale of American Hustle, who also wasn’t supposed to be here and also has absolutely no chance of winning for his second collaboration with David O. Russell.  Yes, people like the movie, and yes, he got fat and wore a heinous comb over, but David O’s worked his magic already, and if any of this stable of actors is going to repeat their win, it’s not going to be Bale’s anti-hero.  The Irving Rosenfeld just wants to be left alone with his mistress and step kid and other people’s money; looks like he’s going to get his wish.

Best Actress

Who Will Win?

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

How Sure Am I?

95%

If Not Her, Then Who?

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Dark Horse:

Amy Adams, American Hustle

Happy Just to be Nominated:

Judi Dench, Philomena

Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Cate, Cate, Cate, Cate.  What else do you need to know?  It’s been Cate Blanchett since the moment this movie opened.  It’s been Cate Blanchett on every critic’s end of the year list.  She’s won not only the big precursor awards, but the vast majority of the obscure little ones too.  She tops lists not just as the best lead performance for a woman, not just any performance for a woman, but the best performance by any actor of either gender all year.  And this one clearly lives up to the hype; her disgraced and impoverished socialite grapples with guilt, with secrets, with poverty, with drug addiction and the press of invasive memory.   She’s a marvel of lies and re-invention, of delusion and desperation.  Really, the only thing that could possibly derail her candidacy has been the scandal involving Woody Allen, whom she’d been generously crediting in all of her acceptance speeches until his former family began to speak about him.  If nothing else this has presented a moral dilemma for her potential Oscar speech, one rather neatly solved by the terrible loss the film community recently suffered.  I’ve been spell-bound by Cate since she first burst on the scene in Elizabeth, and I can only wonder why it’s taken so long for this regal, glorious, classy, brilliant woman to win a second Oscar.  She hasn’t been nominated nearly as many times as she deserves.  Expect her to be impeccably dressed, and give a funny, generous speech, to be emotional but not overwhelmed.

Her true competition for the win – the second best performance this year, man or woman – is Sandra Bullock.  It’s bad luck that Bullock had to turn in the performance of her life against Blanchett’s juggernaut, because this is an award worthy performance (far more so, in my personal opinion, than her popular role in The Blindside – so much more so I can’t even think of the two together). Really, her embattled scientist/astronaut is the perfect culmination of a career that exploded with the action movie Speed.  As a woman forced to choose between an easy, welcome death and the slim chance of a life she’s lost her appetite for, Bullock absolutely captivates.  More than the glowing earth and the debris fields, it’s Bullock’s emotional journey we remember. But she did have the bad luck to be competing against Cate, and so will have to content herself with a second nomination.

The real dark horse here is Amy Adams and her clavicle, displayed so prominently in her role as a con artist in American Hustle.  Five nominations in, folks are really starting to get annoyed that it hasn’t been Adams’ turn yet.  It’s hard to blame them.  She is, after all, pretty great in general, and as Sydney Prosser (and her alias, Lady Edith Greensley) plays game after game with dizzying perfection. Is she playing Cooper’s FBI agent, as she’s insisted to partner Irving that she’s going to do supremely well, or has the clever girl actually switched sides?

Dame Judi Dench excels as always as the working class Irish woman who drafts a cynical disgraced journalist to help find the child she gave up for adoption 50 years earlier.  Sure, we expect that the journalist will become a bit less crusty, but what you just aren’t expecting is the insight and gracious strength that Dench’s Philomena Lee brings on her quest.    The best thing I can say about this true story is that Philomena reminds me of my own grandmother, a small, sweet woman easily dismissed by those without the wit to see her true worth.  Dench may have another win in her – she has one supporting statuette from seven nominations – because it’s clear that she gets better with age, but it won’t be this year.

And then of course we have the inevitable Meryl Streep, three time winner, picking up her record 18th nomination for her role as the harpy matriarch of the monumentally dysfunctional Weston clan. The woman can spear you with a monologue like no one else, and it’s hard not to appreciate the glee with which she shreds her relations to ribbons.  While the film certainly makes us wonder why American theater goers routinely shell out obscene amounts of money to spend time with aggressively miserable families, it looks like movie audiences wanted a little something milder for their 10 bucks.  Not that Meryl was going to win another Oscar any time soon – 2012’s Iron Lady is far too recent, and a fourth win would tie her with Katharine Hepburn’s all time record – but she wouldn’t be winning for this role anyway.  Considering how the film’s Best Picture hopes evaporated despite positive reviews, she’s probably lucky to have beat Emma Thompson out for the nomination.

Best Picture

Which Picture Will Win?

12 Years a Slave

How Sure Am I?

55%

If Not That One, Then Which One?

Gravity

 Dark Horse:

American Hustle

 Happy Just to Be Nominated:

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

The Wolf Of Wall Street

If you follow Oscar at all, or if you just read this site, you’ll know that this year’s best picture race is a baffling warren, rife with twists and switchbacks.  To sum up:  The Golden Globes went to 12 Years a Slave (Drama) and American Hustle (Comedy).  The Critics Choice divides their awards even further: American Hustle took best comedy, Gravity best Sci Fi/Horror flick, and 12 Years the over all best picture prize.  SAG gave their top award, Best Ensemble, to American Hustle.  BAFTA gave Gravity their Best British Film award, and the general Best Picture to 12 Years.  (Yes. I am aware that bit’s ironic.  12 Years was made pretty much entirely by Brits, but in Louisiana; Gravity was made by American actors and a Mexican crew in England.)  And as if all that confusion wasn’t enough, the Producers Guild produced the first tie in their 25 year history, bestowing their highest honor on both Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.

All season, Oscar watchers have been waiting for the guilds and the top critics associations to coalesce behind a single winner.  As you can see, that simply hasn’t happened; when the PGA tied and BAFTA continued the director/picture split, I think everyone simply gave up fighting.  What confuses the picture even further, obviously, is the fact that there is a clear frontrunner over in Best Direction.  Why hasn’t Alfonso Cuaron’s dominance there translated over to Best Picture?  But no: it’s not a decisive record by any means, but 12 Years sneaks by, winning the most precursor awards. Several Oscar prognosticators have simulated the Academy’s famously tricky preferential balloting system, and in many of those simulations  Gravity eventually squeaks out a win.  Perhaps that, or anecdotal evidence from voters, is what’s leading some pundits (like Entertainment Weekly‘s Anthony Breznican) to predict Gravity as the big winner. And it’s certainly possible.  Still, the actual solid record of the films suggests a triumph for the historical flick, and that’s why pretty much everyone else is calling it for 12 Years a Slave.   The final member of this well awarded trio, American Hustle, has accumulated the fewest accolades of note and is viewed largely as a consensus candidate, the spoiler in case the technical and historical heavyweights end up a little short of the requisite number of first place votes.

If 12 Years a Slave does manage a win, it will be the first Best Picture winner since Gone With the Wind to deal with the great American shame, slavery.  Producer and costar Brad Pitt, who helped bring the film to his native Louisiana, will be there to help collect if it does.  But we hear again and again that Academy members have like the general public have been too afraid to see it.  It’s important, sure, but it’s not any fun.  It’s not like we need to see it to know that slavery is bad, after all. We know that already.

How do you judge a film, after all?  Of the two, Gravity is the one that I’ll watch again, and many times.  Gravity is the one that I’ll buy.  Of course, I haven’t seen Schindler’s List since the night that it opened 20 years ago, and it ranks as not only the most intense and emotional viewing experience of my life, but also probably the best film I’ve ever seen. It’s top rival?  Casablanca, a film I view and review constantly.  12 Years ranks with Schindler’s List as a seminal experience, like Dead Man Walking and Requiem For A Dream. This is all to say that I get not wanting to watch 12 Years a Slave, because it wasn’t fun.  It’s also a ridiculous hesitation.  If an amateur like me can get over my squeamishness, after all, then it’s all the more incumbent on Academy members to just see the damn film.

I think whether Gravity or 12 Years a Slave wins, I’m going to be pleased; they’re both tremendous films and worthy Oscar winners.  The only eventuality I hope to avoid is a “surprise” win for American Hustle, a clever con film which claims to be about survival when it’s really about greed.  The idea here is that the two frontrunners could effectively cancel each other out (especially given the balloting system), and a pleasant film that comes in at #2 or #3 on a lot of lists might best films who haven’t achieved the requisite amount of #1 placements.

As for the other six films, there’s little to say in terms of a win, but much when it comes to their worth.  As noted above, Dallas Buyers Club is poised to win two acting prizes; the largely true story of Ron Woodroof and the improbable way his AIDS diagnosis inspired him to live a larger life.  Philomena, too, is based on a bittersweet true story, a search for human connection and redemption for two unlikely allies.  Both films, as the saying goes, will touch your heart.  Though the concept’s more than a little out there, it’s worth checking out Her, the offbeat romance about a future where men and women fall in love with their sentient operating systems. (Fun fact: Her producer Megan Ellison also had her hands on American Hustle: two Best Picture nods marks a pretty good year!)  Notable for its performances (including Scarlett Johansonn’s Critics Choice nominated voice over work), for its Mondrian-inspired production design and its soft, pretty music, Jonze’s latest was filmed in sky-scraper-filled Shanghai where the future, apparently, is now.  On the other hand, the future has nothing to do with the bleak Omaha area setting of Alexander Payne’s slow, sly roadtrip and family dramedy Nebraska; the black and white cinematography emphasizes the timeless nature of the bickering grasping relations, the generations of silent manhood and the strange purity of kindness in a sometimes pitiless and always fractious world.

Chances are pretty decent that if you’ve seen any Oscar movie this year, it’d be Frozen, Gravity, or Captain Phillips.  And if you have seen the latter, you know it’s based on the memoir of one Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks), whose container ship hijacking by Somali pirates dominated the new back in 2009.  Paul Greengrass’s film is exciting and tense, and gives us a real feeling for the plight of the starving Somalis as well as the clever merchant marines who refuse to simply hand over a monstrous ransom to the Somali’s war lord puppeteers.  No, not everyone is satisfied with the film’s veracity, but if there were five nominees (the historical norm) instead of nine, this popular flick would almost certainly still be one of them.

And then finally, there’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s “greed is good – no, bad – wait, good!” rendering of penny stock trickster Jordan Belfort’s memoir.  Pretty much all of America has weighed in on the relative morality of this retelling, including me; let’s just sum it up by saying that the film has backers enough to be nominated, but is too controversial to actually win anything. And by anything, I don’t just mean Best Picture – I mean any of the five Oscars it’s nominated for.  Wolf‘s makers and supporters will have to be satisfied with managing a feat Harvey Weinstein and the Disney corporation couldn’t – getting AMPAS to see the film and not the controversy.

Directors and producers Alfonso Cuaron and Steve McQueen seem likely choices to speak for their respective films in the event of a win here.  McQueen, seen in speeches at the Globes and BAFTA, has been as warm and gracious as his actors report.  And we’re only a few hours away from knowing which one of them will collect.

Miscellaneous Other

Oscar watchers know this odd little secret; the film that wins Editing generally goes on to win Best Picture as well.  It adds a little spice to the duller, less celebrity filled portion of the evening. That’s not so likely this year, however, unless we really do switch from 12 Years to Gravity, because either the latter or Captain Phillips appears destined to take this technical prize.  In fact, the only prizes 12 Years is expected to garner are Picture, Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay – a modest total – and it’s hardly a lock for any of them.

Handicappers will tell you that Costumes and Art Direction are likely to go to Baz Luhrmann’s opulent adaptation of The Great Gatsby.  Of course Gravity could make a play for Production Design, and it looks to lead the totals with Director, Visual Effects, Cinematography, Score and Sound.  I’m not saying five awards are a done deal (well, the first three seem to be) but they could make quite a run. Italy’s The Great Beauty, the story of a jaded journalist falling in love with Rome, is the odds on favorite for Foreign Film; most folks expect 20 Feet From Stardom, the feature documentary about backup singers, to take that category’s top prize.  I’m not so sure – documentaries you’ve heard of rarely fare that well – but stranger things have happened.

Frozen seems likely to ice the competition in the Best Animated Feature category; “Let It Go” will likely follow suit in Best Song, though its victory is less assured.  What’s that you say?  Yes.  Undeniably “Let It Go” captures the national imagination in a way unseen in recent years.  Covers and parodies flood Youtube;  more than a movie musical tune, more than a pop song,”Let it Go” is an anthem of survival.  You really have to look back to “I Will Always Love You” and “My Heart Will Go On” to find another tune that resonated so deeply with movie goers. Voters may look to spread the wealth, and they may also look to reward U2, nominated for their perfectly fine “Ordinary Love.”  But when given the choice between a song that plays over the ending credits and a tune integral to the story, it’s hard not to hope for the popular choice. (The dark horse in this race is Pharrell Williams’ Billboard chart topping smash “Happy” from the entertaining Despicable Me 2.)

An odd note: Saturday night, 12 Years a Slave took the Independent Spirit Awards (picture and director), with the four acting prizes going to Blanchett, McConaughey, Nyong’o and Leto.  Winning an Independent Spirit used to be a virtual guarantee that you’d lose the Oscar; the Independent Spirit used to be the anti-Oscars, a breezy, dressed down event hosted routinely by the witty and wild John Waters.  Despite indie films being a staple of the Oscar diet for at least 20 years, I could have hardly have imagined the two lining up so perfectly even a couple of years ago.  If tonight goes as expected, I’m fairly certain this will be the first time the two awards have ever lined up so closely. What’s a bit funny about this year is that for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the crazed unpredictability of this Oscar season, everyone is essentially picking the same candidates to win.  Actually, it’s more than a little funny.  Therefor, I can’t help but hope for a few surprises.  It won’t really turn out to be this easy this year, will it?

I’ll be back in the morning to talk about how it all turned out.  But right now, I’m off to dip some strawberries in chocolate and enjoy Hollywood’s biggest night.  Here’s to an entertaining evening!

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7 comments on “Oscars 2014: Final Predictions

  1. MMGF says:

    Will all the acting awards match, off all things, the Independent Spirit awards, this year??

    • MMGF says:

      (I also somehow totally missed that you brought up this same point near the end of your post. Whoopsie. At least I can claim that great minds think alike.)

      • E says:

        You certainly can. And the Independent Spirits – I can’t think when they’ve ever matched up like that. Has it ever happened? Crazy!

  2. Dr. J says:

    ” It’s not like we need to see it to know that slavery is bad, after all. We know that already.”

    Oh, that’s dangerous logic. It suggests that we shouldn’t even talk about it. And I don’t know that comparing it to Gone with the Wind really works, That movie glosses over slavery… white washes its history (so to speak) to serve a nostalgia for a south that never really existed. If anything, 12 Years stands in opposition to that film as a corrective or a response.

    Which brings me to my real point. 12 Years matters because it makes us uncomfortable. I agree with you — SEE THE DAMN FILM. But if film or Hollywood’s role isn’t to help us work through these uncomfortable histories, then quite frankly, I don’t see the point of Hollywood.

    PS
    I loved Gravity, but that film isn’t important. It will be forgotten.

    • E says:

      Dr. J – that comment was intended to be a bit snarky, a devil’s advocate line of reasoning. I absolutely agree that 12 Years is the important film and as much as I too love Gravity, I’m glad it won.

      And I agree as well that Gone With the Wind doesn’t remotely deal with slavery as an ill – the film and book are very much pro-Southern, as it were.

  3. Dr. J says:

    “Frozen seems likely to ice the competition in the Best Animated Feature category.”

    HAHAHAHAHA 😀

  4. […] And the night went exactly as I expected, down to each category I casually guessed at at the bottom.  In fact, the only win you could even remotely call a surprise might be “Mr. Hublot” […]

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