Well, I suppose not obligatory – nobody’s making me write it – but this is a year where there is a modest amount of drama in the “Best Picture” category, and it’s also a rare year where I’ve seen almost all the major-category nominees. So I should probably say something. This, then, is something.
This is a funny year in which there was a large number of worthy films and no single film that is obviously a “Best Picture” film. Compare “12 Years a Slave” to last year’s “Lincoln.” I found Steve McQueen’s film to be far more interesting than Spielberg’s, but also much less-satisfying precisely because McQueen seems aggressively uninterested in providing the satisfactions of a traditional narrative.
Or compare “American Hustle” with “Silver Linings Playbook,” David O. Russell’s 2013 nominee. His newer film is much more ambitious, much more complex – and much more of a narrative mess. That makes it more interesting in many ways – but also much less of a “Best Picture” type of film.
Both of these films make you think about what they are doing even as you experience them. They don’t exactly carry you along. But that “on a great ride” feeling is a big part of what people love about the movies. So I think both “12 Years a Slave” and “American Hustle” have a wall to get over to win Best Picture that another film – which I liked less – doesn’t.
That film is “Gravity.” Compare “Gravity to last year’s “Life of Pi,” another technically-pathbreaking, spiritually-oriented film about an individual adrift in a hostile environment. “Life of Pi” had a metafictional frame that contained the “message” of the movie, while the main story was a frankly fantastical one. That metafictional layering was clearly intended to make you think, even as the story of the boy and the tiger had a visceral power. “Gravity,” by contrast, keeps you rooted in the experience of the film itself; the “message” is the weakest, least-interesting aspect of the film. That slightness might hurt it, of course; “Best Picture” films are supposed to be important. But I’m betting not.
Best Picture is expected to be a contest between these three films, with the other six nominees as dark horses. I have a hard time seeing “American Hustle” win. I definitely preferred “12 Years a Slave” to “Gravity,” but I recognize the substantial technical achievement of the latter. (That long “shot” toward the beginning of the film deserves an Oscar all of its own.) There’s some talk that they may split the Picture and Director honors, Cuarón winning for Director while “12 Years a Slave” wins for Picture, but the funny thing is that what I liked best about both films was the direction, while other elements (particularly the screenplays) struck me as relatively weak.
If I were voting, from these nine films, I’d probably vote for “12 Years a Slave,” which is a consequential, powerful but flawed film. There are individual scenes that are going to stay with me forever, even if the film as a whole felt like less than the sum of those scenes.
But if I’m predicting, I’d predict “Gravity.”
My thoughts on the rest of the “Best Picture” nominees:
“Captain Phillips” (which I wrote up here) has stayed with me more for the performance of Barkhad Abdi than for anything else.
“Dallas Buyers Club” is the only “Best Picture” nominee I haven’t seen.
“Her” (which I wrote up here) has a great production design and a set of really compelling performances, but it is so, so sad, and not, ultimately, in a cathartic way.
“Nebraska” (which I took two cracks at, here and here) hasn’t stayed with me as powerfully as I thought it might have. I still think Bruce Dern gave a great performance, and I did love June Squibb, but I worry that the film wasn’t a challenge for Alexander Payne – that it took him places that, mostly, he already knew.
“Philomena” I haven’t had a chance to write up, other than in passing in my post from yesterday on religious films. I don’t have too much to say about it; it’s a sweet little film, well-written and well-structured. It certainly benefitted from low expectations on my part; it didn’t sound like something I’d like, and lo and behold, I liked it. I’m sure it’s thrilled to be nominated.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” I also haven’t had a chance to write up – and I should. DiCaprio’s performance is technically amazing – that scene where he has to get out the door, down the stairs and into his car while unable to stand up because he’s taken too many quaaludes is a comic tour de force. And Scorsese is absolutely in control of his film. But I found myself falling between the “love” and “hate” camps with respect to the film, in a place of relative indifference. Why? Two reasons. First, the film is too short. I’m entirely serious. People chortled when Thelma Schoonmaker said it was really hard to edit the film down from four hours, but I felt like I could see what she meant. They managed to preserve all these set pieces, but I felt sometimes like multiple peripheral characters never got defined, or got lost, because there wasn’t time to let us understand who they were. And I assume that’s because too much was left on the cutting room floor. The second, more important reason, though, is that Jordan Belfort just isn’t a very interesting person. His story is a boringly self-aggrandizing one. This isn’t really a story about Wall Street, because Belfort was a petty criminal who just made it much bigger than you’d ever expect. It’s like, what would happen if Ricky Roma from “Glengarry Glen Ross” somehow made hundreds of millions of dollars. So, he’d be a jerk on a colossal scale. What else? Not much else.
Now, for the other categories:
Best Director: Cuarón, for “Gravity.” He’ll get this one whether “Gravity” gets Best Picture or not.
Best Actor: Everybody says it’s McConaughey’s to lose, and since I didn’t see “Dallas Buyers Club,” I can’t really venture an opinion. Of the other four nominees, I would probably pick Bruce Dern.
Best Actress: Everybody says it’s Cate Blanchett, who has swept every prior award this year. I saw “Blue Jasmine,” but haven’t written it up. I thought she was fantastic, and single-handedly saved the film from being kind of unbearable. I would certainly vote for her.
Best Supporting Actor: Everybody says it’s Jared Leto, and again, I didn’t see “Dallas Buyers Club,” so I can’t say. I’d vote for Michael Fassbender from the other four nominees, but I wouldn’t be upset if either Barkhad Abdi or Bradley Cooper won.
Best Supporting Actress: I predict Lupita Nyong’o. I’d also vote for her, even though I adored Jennifer Lawrence and think June Squibb is a hoot and a half.
Best Original Screenplay: this will probably go to “American Hustle,” and I’m not sure how I feel about that because I feel like the screenplay has loads of marvelous stuff but also real structural problems. On the other hand, it’s a much more interesting screenplay than “Nebraska,” and I actively disliked the writing of “Blue Jasmine” – so maybe I’d vote for it after all. Or maybe I’d vote for “Her,” just for sheer cussedness. Yeah, I’d probably vote for “Her.” I wish I could write in “All Is Lost” – a screenplay with essentially no dialogue. Just for total cussedness.
Best Adapted Screenplay: this will surely go to “12 Years a Slave,” which I’m not thrilled about since I think the screenplay is the weakest part of the film. I would probably vote for “Before Midnight.”
I really hope “The Act of Killing” wins Best Documentary, because that film knocked me flat – it was by far my favorite film of the year. Would have written it up except Eve Tushnet got there first with the best headline ever (and an excellent review under it).
I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve seen none of the Foreign Film nominees.
Technical awards: “Gravity” should take the lion’s share of these: Cinematography, Editing, Sound Editing and Mixing, Visual Effects. People say it will also win Best Score; I admit, I don’t remember the score. I do remember the score for “Her,” which drove me nuts, and which suited the film perfectly, so I’d vote for “Her.” “Gravity” might also win Best Production Design, but I would definitely vote for “Her.” Costume Design I would vote for “American Hustle;” I don’t really have a view on who will win. What else? Makeup?
Feel free to tell me your own predictions in comments. I can still change mine for the pool up until Sunday night.