02 March 2014

History Lessons (aka Gravity Always Wins)

It’s been the coldest winter in 35 years here in my undisclosed Midwestern location, but nevertheless your blogger is in a downright chipper mood heading into the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ 86th annual celebration of itself. Not only is spring just around the corner (um, right…?), but the Academy has given us its strongest group of Best Picture nominees since the expansion of the field five years ago. And as if that weren’t enough, for the first time since at least 2006, there is legitimate uncertainty about which film is going to take the top prize, which should guarantee some suspense throughout the evening. I would like to have seen the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and/or Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine replace Dallas Buyers Club and possibly the unseen Philomena in the field of nine, but overall this is a fine batch of nominees, an interesting, diverse group well representative of the best in mainstream English-language cinema of the past year. So I’ll save my outrage for next year when Jonny Greenwood’s score for Inherent Vice gets ruled ineligible for a nomination based on some asinine AMPAS music branch technicality.

For most of the fall, it looked like Best Picture would be a two-horse race between 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen’s dramatization of an 1853 memoir by escaped slave Solomon Northup, and Gravity, a technically innovative piece of pure cinema by director Alfonso Cuarón loosely tethered to a paper-thin script about an astronaut (Sandra Bullock) struggling to find a way back to Earth following an accident. Then the New York Film Critics Circle met and somehow came to the conclusion that the best film of the year was American Hustle, a lightweight crime drama loosely based on a semi-forgotten late-’70s political corruption scandal. Don’t get me wrong: With energetic performances from a talented, attractive cast and a generous helping of ’70s period sleaze, there’s a lot to like about American Hustle. But there’s also something profoundly depressing about the arc of director David O. Russell’s career. I’ve enjoyed all three of his latter films to varying degrees, but I miss the crazy guy who made I [Heart] Huckabees.

American Hustle would be an averagish Best Picture winner, right in line with last year’s Argo, but the other two serious contenders are both far superior choices. Basically an experimental film with a blockbuster budget, Gravity is the sort of movie I tend to like better in principle than in practice, but it’s great to see mainstream audiences embracing something that qualifies as formally innovative, and the selection of a visual-effects-driven film featuring only two actors would be a bold choice for the Academy.

The latter could also be said for 12 Years a Slave, for entirely different reasons. The film’s advocates have fixated on its potential historical significance—it would be the first film written and directed by black filmmakers to win Best Picture—arguably to its detriment, but 12 Years a Slave is well worth defending on artistic grounds alone. McQueen’s careful compositions and muted color palette create a powerful sense of stasis, punctuated by sudden bursts of violence. The film's rhythms are complemented by its subtle handling of time. During the early scenes recounting Northup’s kidnapping and journey south, everything seems to be happening too fast; later on, time itself seems to disappear, with one year imperceptibly collapsing into the next. In short, this is slavery from the point of view of slaves. And sorry, but complaints about the allegedly excessive violence of 12 Years a Slave are a bit hard to take from an American populace that’s enthusiastically supported no fewer than seven Saw movies so far this century.

As for the also-rans: Captain Phillips finds director Paul Greengrass doing his thing—that is, making taut thrillers based on recent real-life incidents, this one featuring a Vermont-accented Tom Hanks. Set in some unspecified year in the medium-term future, Spike Jonze’s Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as a soft-spoken copywriter in the midst of a divorce who falls in love with his operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). A triumph of production design, the film is a fascinating look at the potential of technology to reshape human relationships—at least for its first hour or so. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska stars Bruce Dern as an elderly alcoholic who travels to the titular state to claim a nonexistent million-dollar prize. It’s not Payne’s best work—I preferred Hawaii—but with copious shots of Great Plains landscapes filmed in crisp black-and-white, it plays as an oblique tribute to John Ford. The superficially entertaining Dallas Buyers Club is too busy pandering to its liberal audience to qualify as a serious examination of the role of the pharmaceutical companies in exacerbating the AIDS crisis, and Philomena remains unseen by me.

And then there’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Martin Scorsese’s three-hour exercise in excess has attracted no small amount of flak, mostly from prissy, ineffectual moralists who are shocked—shocked!—that Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) isn’t adequately punished for his crimes. (Just wait till they find out what happened to the guys who caused the financial crisis.) The film’s critics say that it glamorizes Belfort and his cronies, and you know what? They’re right. It’s an offensive movie about offensive people who do offensive things and pretty much get away with it. There is no escape, no comeuppance worthy of the word, no conventional hero to admire. Yeah, sure, there’s the FBI guy, but why settle for riding the subway home at night when you could be living the dream (coke, strippers, dwarf tossing)? The key scene comes at the end when we see Belfort, now officially an ex-con, reinvented as a motivational speaker, with audiences hanging on his every word. These people have looked into the face of evil and said: How can I get me some of that?

So enjoy the show! After taking a bit of a risk last year with host Seth McFarlane, whose lowbrow humor sailed well over the heads of the audience in the Dolby Theatre, the producers have retreated to the safety of Ellen DeGeneres. We know exactly what to expect from Ellen, for better and for worse, but, the insipid theme of “Heroes” aside, this has the potential to be an entertaining broadcast, owing in part to an unusually strong group of Best Song nominees, all of which will be performed by the original artists. Having said that, my only prediction about the show itself is that people will complain about it regardless of what happens. People would rather validate themselves by complaining than actually enjoy anything. All right, my good mood is dissipating in a hurry. Time for the picks! Stay tuned for my own Top 10 list after the credits roll.

Best Picture

Consensus opinion seems to have settled on 12 Years a Slave taking the top prize, with Cuarón winning Best Director. Such splits between Best Picture and Director are fairly rare and generally result from something weird or unpredictable happening—either a major upset in one of the two categories (e.g., Shakespeare in Love in 1998, Roman Polanski in 2002) or the director of the Best Picture favorite failing to land a nomination (as happened with Ben Affleck last year). The only precedent I can come up with for a split happening as predicted is 1967, when Mike Nichols swept the major directorial awards for The Graduate, culminating in a Best Director win, while In the Heat of the Night (another film about race!) took Best Picture. Cuarón won at the Directors Guild of America awards, and the DGA has correctly predicted the Best Picture winner some 80% of the time during its 65 years of existence, including the past seven in a row. There are so many reasons that either film might not win (chiefly, Obama-era race panic in the case of 12 Years a Slave, and the prevalence of visual effects over script and actors in Gravity) that I would be inclined to predict American Hustle here, had it won any of the major precursor awards. 12 Years a Slave may well win—indeed, American Hustle might win—but I’m going with historical precedent here.

Will win: Gravity
Should win: The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Director

Regardless of the Best Picture outcome, this should go to Cuarón, who’s won just about every major directorial award under the sun. A win for McQueen or Russell here would drain all suspense from the Best Picture category.

W: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
S: Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Actress

This should go to Cate Blanchett for the performance of the year in Woody Allen’s best movie in nearly a quarter-century. In terms of merit, her only possible rival would have been the unnominated Adèle Exarchopoulos in the French-language Blue Is the Warmest Color. Blanchett’s speech will be the most closely parsed of the night. If she somehow loses, the internet will be an ugly, ugly place for at least the next 48 hours. Worse than usual, even.

W: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
S: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Actor

Now that my Oscar/year-end catch-up viewing is done, I’m looking forward to finally digging into True Detective this week. If there was any doubt about who was going to win this award, the HBO series pretty well erased it. It’s the Norbit effect in reverse. I’d have trouble voting for a lead performance from a movie as slight as Dallas Buyers Club, but I don’t mind seeing the Oscar go to an interesting actor who never fails to entertain.

W: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
S: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Supporting Actor

If you’d told me back in 1994, when I was one of the few straight male fans of My So-Called Life, that Jared Leto would someday win an Oscar, I would have laughed in your face. If you’d told me the same thing in 2004 on the heels of Leto’s ridiculous performance in Alexander, I would have laughed in your face. Well, in the immortal words of Bruce Campbell, WHO’S LAUGHING NOW? I liked Leto well enough in Dallas Buyers Club, but for me this is a tight race between Michael Fassbender as the diseased soul of slavery in 12 Years a Slave and Jonah Hill as the unfiltered id at the heart of The Wolf of Wall Street.

W: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
S: Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Supporting Actress

As a fan of Jennifer Lawrence, I dearly hope she doesn’t win this. A second Oscar at age 23, particularly for a character as thin as the one she plays in American Hustle, will do her no favors.

W: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
S: Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

Screenplay, Original
W: American Hustle
S: Blue Jasmine

Screenplay, Adapted
W: 12 Years a Slave
S: The Wolf of Wall Street

Animated Feature
W: Frozen

Documentary Feature
W: 20 Feet from Stardom

Foreign Language Film
W: The Great Beauty

W: Gravity
S: Inside Llewyn Davis

Production Design
W: The Great Gatsby
S: Her

W: Captain Phillips
S: 12 Years a Slave

Visual Effects
W: Gravity
S: Gravity

Costume Design
W: American Hustle
S: 12 Years a Slave

W: Dallas Buyers Club

Sound Mixing
W: Gravity
S: Inside Llewyn Davis

Sound Editing
W: Gravity
S: Gravity

Original Score
W: Gravity

Original Song
W: Let It Go, Frozen

Animated Short
W: Get a Horse!

Live Action Short
W: Helium

Documentary Short
W: The Lady in Number 6

And finally, as promised, my Top 10 list for 2013. As has been the case the past couple years, I've seen relatively few films from last year and haven't had a chance to revisit any of them yet (particularly troublesome this time around because some of these films badly need a second viewing). I have yet to catch up with A Touch of Sin, Beyond the Hills, and a host of other foreign-language contenders, so the current list is heavily skewed toward American films.

1. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, U.S.)
2. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, U.S.)
3. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, U.S.)
4. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S.)
5. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, U.S.)
6. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, France)
7. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, U.S./U.K.)
8. The World's End (Edgar Wright, U.K.)
9. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Japan)
10. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, U.S.)