Donovan's 2014 Oscar PicksSubmitted by ryandonovan at 2014-02-25 14:44:21 EST
Rating: 1.5 on 9 ratings (12 reviews) (Review this item) (V)
DONOVAN’S OSCAR PROGNOSTICATION 2014
What's longer, more convoluted, and less entertaining than a Matthew McConaughey acceptance speech? My 15th annual Oscar predictions. Read on…
SHOULD WIN: 12 Years A Slave
WILL WIN: 12 Years A Slave
GLORIOUSLY OMITTED: Blue Jasmine
INGLORIOUSLY SNUBBED: None
Best Picture is probably the closest race this year, with the favorite seemingly changing weekly, adding some unexpected but welcome spice to the event. The contenders have come down to 12 Years A Slave and Gravity. Stirring the pot is American Hustle, the Ralph Nader of the Oscar race: no threat to win, but will get a significant amount of votes that could affect the outcome. Being the least serious movie, Hustle's votes will come at the expense of the lighter of the two contenders - which is Gravity. Will it rob enough votes to cost Gravity the victory? I believe it will. When the dust finally settles, I think 12 Years A Slave will emerge with the Oscar.
I'm also choosing 12 Years A Slave as the film that deserves to win the Oscar. But part of me is already regretting it. I mean, it's an easy choice: 12 Years is riveting and affecting in a way that few films are. "Powerful" is a word that gets thrown around a lot when describing movies, but it's hard to imagine a more "powerful" film than this one. However, when I think ahead to five or ten years from now, and what film I'll have seen more often, what film I will remember more affectionately, and what film will seem more relevant, I'm fairly confident in my answer to all of those: Her. Maybe it's the simple fact that 12 Years looks to the past, while Her looks toward the future; maybe it's that Her is more fun and personally engaging; or maybe it's the fact that 12 Years is so brutal and agonizing to watch that I will probably never willingly see it again. But I can't help but think of the 2000 Oscars, where American Beauty was my clear favorite for this award, but Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich (which was not actually nominated for Best Picture) later became a superior film in my mind. But hindsight is for later, when time and bourbon put things in perspective. In 2014, while I’m sober, my Oscar pick is 12 Years A Slave.
Jonze's incredible film Her boasts a fascinating and absurd premise: What if, one day in the not-so-hard-to-imagine future, people fell in love with their computers? (One of those people is played, not surprisingly, by Joaquin Phoenix, and the computer's voice is played, very surprisingly, by Scarlett Johansson.) The story works on its own, as a legitimate man-in-love-with-Siri dramedy - in a way that it only could as a Jonze production. But it also works as a shuffled deck of metaphors for just about everything intangible, including: interpersonal communication, loneliness, friendship, salvation, interconnectedness, normalcy, individuality, and healing. But probably the most interesting for me are the metaphors for the perceived absurdity of love (at least to those not in the relationships), and the cruel absurdity of breaking up (at least to those getting dumped). The film treats the wacky setup seriously, but not too seriously, which to anyone who's been in love, is sort of the point. My only disappointment with the film is that "Choke me with the dead cat!" hasn't become a popular catchphrase.
Since I once made a promise to take my wife to a romance movie every year (and I've been a little lax the past decade), I suggested we see... Gravity. I pitched her the plot of the Sandy Bullock / George Clooney screwball romantic comedy: She's a serious, determined, no-frills scientist and he's a rakish, cocky, fun-loving astronaut. They meet-cute on a space shuttle, but she's too busy with her work to notice his beautiful blue eyes. She has no patience for his games, flirtatious charm, or noisy country music (but she's more than happy to float around in the spacecraft in her underwear). We learn that she's lost someone, and doesn't know if she can ever love again. Throw in Ed Harris as their no-nonsense boss and a wacky ethnic neighbor with a yappy dog for comic relief, and you've got surefire rom-com perfection. Wow! That sounded like her kind of movie! My wife couldn't wait to find out what would melt first: Sandy's heart, or her spacecraft upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. As the movie started, I whispered, "I may have left out a few details…"
About a week after Gravity, I tried to make it up to my wife by taking her to see 12 Years A Slave. Knowing the title didn't leave me any options for rom-com deceit, I was upfront about the subject matter. But neither of us was prepared for how utterly brutal it would be. Did I mention my wife was extremely pregnant and disproportionately emotional? There's a scene in the very beginning, before the protagonist gets captured and forced into slavery, where everything is cheerful, and he is with his happy family and tucking his kids into bed… and my wife started sobbing uncontrollably. In the first five minutes. I knew we were in for a long night. As the credits rolled over two hours later, I'm happy to say, I no longer have to worry about taking her to romantic movies - because she screamed to everyone in the theater that she would never go to a movie with me again.
American Hustle is a wildcard in every category this year, not just Best Picture. Like director David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook last year, it's nominated in the "Big Five" categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay). Only three films have won in all five categories: It Happened One Night, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and Silence Of The Lambs. It's not going to happen this year; in fact, I don't think it will win any of them. But each nominee will get strong support, enough to shake up the voting and possibly steal a couple of the awards. It's hard to compare this film to 12 Years A Slave because it's such a different movie: It's thrilling, it's sexy, it's fun. And it was more clever than I was expecting. Like in all effective con movies, it runs a bit of a con on the audience - so you're not quite sure who you're supposed to be rooting for. It's also drawn a lot of comparisons to Goodfellas (period crime story, the mafia, East Coast crooks, gaudy outfits and characters, trashy women, mouthy wives, and, of course, Robert De Niro as a wise guy). Now, let's be clear: This is no Goodfellas. (To be fair, it's more of an homage.) But one thing it replicates successfully is the sense of urgency and anxiety, as if you're right there with the characters. As the schemes get more and more elaborate, you feel like the whole operation is going to come crashing down at a moment's notice. And you don't mind getting conned because it's such a blast.
Captain Phillips is generally a crowd-pleaser, but one group that is decidedly disappointed is Caribbean people: "Those guys are terrible pirates. And Johnny Depp does not look well." (And I'm sure the nation of Somalia is grateful to the filmmakers for confirming every negative stereotype and ugly preconceived notion that the rest of the world has about Somalis. "Tourism should be fantastic this year, thanks!" said the one guy who is not a pirate or warlord.) The film is no threat for Best Picture, especially after being surprisingly shut out of the Actor and Director races. But it's an unexpected thrill nonetheless. It reminds me of Zero Dark Thirty, where the filmmakers deftly revisit a recent event that the entire country is familiar with (including the outcome), and dramatize it so we experience it unfold, making it every bit as gripping as if it was an original story.
The real question for Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner is not whether their film Dallas Buyers Club will win the Oscar, but whether it's funnier than their previous movie together, Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past. I think we can all agree the answer is a resounding yes.
SHOULD WIN: Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave)
WILL WIN: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
GLORIOUSLY OMITTED: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby)
INGLORIOUSLY SNUBBED: Joaquin Phoenix (Her)
As we've been told by everyone, Matthew McConaughey is having a career renaissance - or as he's called it, a "McConaissance". (But in order to have a "renaissance", don't you have to have been a good actor sometime in the past? I digress.) Respected critics and movie rags alike have been trumpeting all year how McConaughey has matured and become professionally wise and wily, after taking a hiatus from films and wandering the wilderness. (I mean that literally, not figuratively - I've have it on good authority he spent a few years on a mushroom and moonshine walkabout through Longhorn Cavern State Park.) Gone are the days of the fluff flicks and the stoner persona, they say. This is the new, serious, coherent McConaughey. But throughout his recent media parade, I'm not seeing it. To me, he's the same dippy, listless, unintelligible teenager he always has been, now just pathetically middle-aged and unnaturally orange. Put simply, he's a nincompoop. I could not imagine interacting with him professionally on a daily basis, as say, a producer, director, costar, or - god forbid - his agent. Honestly, how does he manage to do anything that requires more than five seconds of concentration? Never mind complicated real-life tasks; I'm talking about the simple things: I have a very hard time picturing him successfully tying his shoes. ("Flip-flops, bare feet, and Zips - all-right-all-right!") He was a strong contender for Best Actor before his recent award sweep and zany, Neptune-and-sprocket-filled speeches. But now I think they will undoubtedly give him the Oscar, just to hear what kind of nonsense spills out of his mouth out at the podium. I guess the real consideration should be whether he was good in Dallas Buyers Club. I'm sure he was, but who cares?
My pick for Best Actor would be Chiwetel Ejiofor for playing the titular tormented soul in 12 Years A Slave. I just don't see how you could vote for somebody else. His portrayal of living through the horrors of slavery, and the stages he passes through (shock, confusion, defiance, coping, and acceptance) are incredibly vivid, moving, and crushing. I've seen him in a lot of other movies, but his face has never been so expressive. In particular, watching him react to another freed slave leaving him behind, and then later, leaving others behind himself, he wordlessly conveys the boiling anguish coursing through him. In all, it's the role and performance of a lifetime.
I would also be happy with Christian Bale winning for American Hustle. The guy is just an absolute maniac when it comes to tackling unique roles. Once again, the stories about his dedication to stay in character are legendary, including weight gain, herniated discs, and Robert DeNiro not recognizing him on set. It got to be so extreme that even director David O. Russell (not exactly known for his sanity) thought he was taking it too far. It's like Lady Gaga calling you flamboyant - when Russell calls you crazy, then you know you've gone off the deep end. Bale's performance causes the audience to change their views about his character completely. He practically dares us to root for him or against him, and then challenges us to hold our ground, which inevitably we don't. He's pathetic and noble, grotesque and cool, buffoonish and smooth, manipulative and caring. But above all, a marvel to watch.
Probably my favorite ignorant Oscar quote of the year comes courtesy of Mensa member Kelly Ripa, in response to Forest Whitaker's lack of Best Actor nomination for The Butler: "It just doesn't feel like the Oscars without Forest Whitaker." For the record, Whitaker has exactly one career nomination. Not exactly a perennial fixture at the award show. Stick to the teleprompter, my dear.
SHOULD WIN: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
WILL WIN: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
GLORIOUSLY OMITTED: Julie Delpy (Before Midnight)
INGLORIOUSLY SNUBBED: Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks)
Woody Allen has a history eliciting excellent performances from his actresses and actors - his films have landed 18 acting nominations and six victories. But in Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett may be one of the best. The film is a showcase for her talents, playing a modern-day Blanche DuBois, and she knocks it out of the park. She clobbers every color in the spectrum of emotion, and does it with a realism that's both natural and unsettling. It's the kind of range and vigor that award-givers eat up with a spoon. Nobody roots for her character, but there will be more than enough people rooting for Blanchett in the Academy. I don't see a scenario where she loses this race.
People are heralding Sandra Bullock's performance in Gravity as "brave" - and not for her emotionally raw performance or physically exhausting execution, but rather for agreeing to so many close-ups of her caboose in panties in IMAX 3-D. You won't find many actresses her age willing to do that. "I'll stick to throwing plates of fish, thanks," said Julia Roberts. Honestly, this is probably the first time I've been legitimately impressed by a Sandra Bullock performance. Her bottled grieving and kinetic frustration feel real, but almost more impressive is the technical performance. A large part of acting is technical execution - it's the part that audiences tend to take for granted, and not every actor does it well - and this role is probably as technically complicated as it gets. But will voters go for it? They'll ask themselves: Is she really a two-time Oscar winner? (And with only two nominations, that would put her in the same company as Vivien Leigh, Luise Rainer, and Hilary Swank.) Probably not. But in her favor is the fact that EVERYBODY saw Gravity, and relatively few saw Blue Jasmine, so it’s possible.
Perennial bridesmaid Amy Adams has scored her fifth nomination (first in a leading role) for American Hustle. I think the Academy is ready to give her an Oscar. Could it be this year, as a dark horse? Since Blanchett has already won (for The Aviator), will voters be willing to look elsewhere? Will Adams' combination of cunningness, duplicity, vulnerability, wiles, magnetism, endless cleavage, and a bad perm in Hustle draw enough votes? With Blanchett's career-topping performance this year, the answer is no. But Adams' time is coming soon.
I'm giving the Omitted spot to Julie Delpy for Before Midnight, not for a poor performance, but for what she turns the character into. A woman that was once so charismatic, alluring, and interesting in the previous films, is rendered utterly mean and repellant. (On the other hand, to Delpy's credit, she is quite convincing.) Her performance has been commended by many for being so "real"; if your wife has suddenly turned into a judgmental, humorless, irritable shrew, then yes, I suppose it's real.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:
SHOULD WIN: Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave)
WILL WIN: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
GLORIOUSLY OMITTED: Brad Pitt (12 Years A Slave)
INGLORIOUSLY SNUBBED: Robert Patrick (Identity Thief)
If Jared Leto wins the Oscar, it might ALMOST make up for wasting the last 12 years of his life on his crappy emo band, Thirty Seconds To Mars. Leto has wowed critics with his turn as a transvestite in Dallas Buyers Club - but frankly, I don’t think it was much of a stretch; if you're familiar with his singing career, you know you know it's not the first time he's looked or sounded like a woman. Based on his cleanup at all the previous awards like the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes, Leto is a heavy favorite here. And history is on his side: Only once has a Supporting Actor won both the SAG and the Globe, but failed to win the Oscar (sorry, Eddie Murphy); and since Leto didn’t star in Pluto Nash, he should be feeling pretty confident.
For the best performance, I would lean toward Michael Fassbender, as an evil plantation owner in 12 Years A Slave. But playing such an irredeemable, putrid, soulless role will make votes a bit hard to come by. Fassbender's triumph lies not in the terror he brings to the picture, but in the legitimacy with which he does it. He convincingly infuses his character with schizophrenia, alcoholism, blind jealousy, violent impulses, irrational convictions, raving insanity, and silly outfits… basically what Joaquin Phoenix is like in real life.
The role of Muse, the Somali pirate, as played by first-time actor Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips, is a unique one. He's the antagonist, but he isn't physically intimidating, loud, explosive, charming, vengeful, smarmy, brilliant, slick, or any of the other typical things that movie villains are. And that's probably what makes it so great - Abdi pulls it off without relying on any of those traits. What he is, above all, is determined. We get a very real sense that his character has been oppressed and has lived through enough pain and squalor that he's going to pull off the hijacking, no matter what. He is a man who sees no other options. That resilience, that makes the audience feel like he cannot be defeated, is what makes him a believable antagonist.
12 Years A Slave has a ton of great performances by supporting players (Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, and most surprisingly, Saturday Night Live's Taran Killam as one of Northup's kidnappers). Brad Pitt, however, in a minor role as a kindly day-worker, is not one of them. Pitt is a producer on the film, so he had a say in casting… and of course he gave himself the role of the only righteous white person in the film. And frankly it's the least believable. The film would have been better served by a satirical impression of Pitt… done by Taran Killam.
Kudos to Robert Patrick, my Snubbed choice, for being scarier in Identity Thief than he was in Terminator 2. John Connor wouldn’t have stood a chance against this guy.
A few words about Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor who probably belonged on this Snubbed list for most of the roles in his career… The circumstances of his death notwithstanding, I was very unsettled to hear of his recent passing. I usually don't have much personal investment in celebrities (especially when they make poor/illegal choices), but it's truly a shame that Hoffman won't be treating us to any more captivating performances. He was a guy that I and many others were rooting for early in his career as seldom-seen but always-memorable character actor. By the time he did a virtuoso fly-by cameo in Almost Famous, he had become increasingly ubiquitous and almost famous, which I was happy to see. After several years of being made fun of for saying, after every movie, "And here's where he'll finally get his first Oscar nomination," I was vindicated: He was nominated - and won - for his astonishing performance in Capote. I felt - despite the fact that he was a celebrity that I had never met - proud. I think what set him apart from other actors for me was that he appeared to genuinely put performances and love of cinema first. He had a distinctive physical appearance, but it didn't matter - his performances were so different in each role that he actually looked different every time. My only personal encounter with him was at the 2000 Toronto Film Festival. I saw him at a movie screening - not as a participant or celebrity, but simply as an audience member (while in town supporting a couple different films that he was in). This wasn't some big premiere or splashy screening; it was a late-evening, unimportant showing of an unremarkable film - and he was a plain old movie-goer, just like me. After attending film festivals for years, I can tell you, actors simply don't do that. That sums up what I liked about him the most - he loved cinema. And now cinema will miss him dearly.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:
SHOULD WIN: Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
WILL WIN: Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave)
GLORIOUSLY OMITTED: Jennifer Garner (Dallas Buyers Club)
INGLORIOUSLY SNUBBED: Sarah Paulson (12 Years A Slave)
This is a category where just about anybody could win. As the ceremony approaches, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o is looking like the strongest nominee, having won most of the other awards, including the SAG and Critics' Choice. In 12 Years A Slave, she plays Patsey, a girl born into slavery. She is in many ways a mirror to the main character, Solomon Northup - in some aspects the same, in some aspects opposite. One of the important contrasts is that she has never known freedom like Northup has - she is, for better or worse, unaware of what she's been denied. As such, Nyong'o plays her as a symbol of innocence, naiveté, and tragedy - the embodiment of hope in a hopeless situation.
After winning the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, Jennifer Lawrence is a very possible spoiler. In American Hustle, the reigning Best Actress was once again, not surprisingly, fantastic in every scene she was in. As Christian Bale's moll, Lawrence has a very minor role, but her volatility practically ignites the screen every time she shows up and has a tantrum. She’s a bit of a send-up of every over-coifed, under-employed, loose-lipped criminal wife in the movies, but she makes the role her own. Bale's character has to deal with con artists, scum-bags, mobsters, and FBI agents all day, but that’s nothing compared to what he has to come home to. After dealing with her, facing prison wouldn’t seem so bad.
A child-molestation allegation isn’t the only thing being overlooked when it comes to Woody Allen this awards season: After being passed over for SAG and Critics' Choice nominations, not many people expected Sally Hawkins to get an Oscar nod for her portrayal of Ginger in Allen's film Blue Jasmine. Even now, she's getting the lowest odds, even though she is, in my opinion, the best performer in the group. She may play second fiddle to Cate Blanchett's Jasmine, but her character is the one we truly care about. In fact, we care more about her than her own sister does in the movie. Jasmine's plummeting descent does not cause us to worry (if anything, we're probably rooting for it), but Ginger's issues and poor choices cause us to worry a great deal (I'm thinking about a heartbreaking phone conversation scene in particular). She isn't always likable, but she's endlessly pitiable; all the way to the end, we're hoping for her to be triumphant. When it comes down to it, Hawkins' chances are diminished because she is overshadowed by Blanchett, who resoundingly owns the movie and all her scenes. I'm just hoping Hawkins gets her share of the credit.
My clear Snubbed choice is Sarah Paulson in 12 Years A Slave, for being overlooked in a small but captivating role. She brings an interesting element of terror and unpredictability to the film. As the wife of Michael Fassbender's plantation owner, she isn't simply cruel to her slaves; she's cruel in order to get even with her husband. As their unhappiness and fights escalate, they take their frustrations with each other out on the slaves - pawns in their sick bouts of jealousy and marital treason. If Fassbender's Mr. Epps is the devil, Paulson's Mrs. Epps is definitely the kind of woman the devil would marry.
SHOULD WIN: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
WILL WIN: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
GLORIOUSLY OMITTED: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis)
INGLORIOUSLY SNUBBED: Spike Jonze (Her)
I can only imagine the initial meeting with the marketing department for Gravity. I'm sure they were salivating over the prospect of an easy ad campaign for a tent-pole movie starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney… until they heard "...and written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron." Not exactly known for upbeat, mainstream fare (Children Of Men and Y Tu Mama Tambien, for example), Cuaron certainly gave the ad men strokes when he told the them, "It will be like any other Sandy Bullock movie, but with no love interest, set in outer space, and with a thematic focus on death and loneliness." While the film will probably lose Best Picture, Cuaron is an exceedingly strong bet to win Best Director. If there's any doubt, look no further than the film's trailer (it's enough to give you a heart attack, even without 3-D or IMAX), or the film's astonishing, insanely intricate 17-minute opening shot. I'll say that again: 17-minute opening shot. When asked why he would attempt such an ambitious and foolhardy endeavor, Cuaron told the New York Times, "We wanted to slowly immerse audiences into the environment and the action, and the ultimate goal of this whole experiment was for the audiences to feel as if they are a third character who is floating in space. And I wanted to win a f---ing Oscar."
If Gravity wasn't in the mix this year, Steve McQueen would probably be a slam dunk for directing 12 Years A Slave. In his films, he has a tendency to linger on unsettling images and draw out disturbing scenes, to heighten the impact and the viewer's emotional reaction. In 12 Years A Slave, he does this to astonishingly great effect, to the point of nearly punishing the audience. It is almost impossible to sit back and be a passive observer on this film; McQueen demands that we be a part of the experience. Assuming he loses here, I don't expect he'll go home empty-handed: As a producer on the film, McQueen will probably get to the podium for Best Picture.
There's a reason actors are dying to work with American Hustle's David O. Russell, and it's not his warm, kind demeanor. His recent track record for actors during award season is astonishing: Two years in a row, his films have scored nominations in all four acting categories (he's the only director ever to achieve that twice); each of the four nominees from Hustle have been nominated for previous films also directed by Russell; and two of the nominees previously won Oscars for Russell films (Christian Bale for The Fighter and Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook). Is a shot at an Oscar nomination worth months of verbal abuse and being treated like a misbehaving child? Obviously!
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY:
SHOULD WIN: Spike Jonze (Her)
WILL WIN: Spike Jonze (Her)
GLORIOUSLY OMITTED: Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron (Gravity)
INGLORIOUSLY SNUBBED: None
The Oscar here should undoubtedly go to Spike Jonze, for Her. Given the exceptional quality of his work, the infrequency with which he makes films is almost maddening (four films in 15 years). With this picture (his first solo screenplay), he proves that he's not just a masterful director or a cinematic visionary, but a consummate storyteller. (As I noted above, he was robbed of a Best Director nomination.) His films aren't for everyone (his pitches to four-quadrant-craving, franchise-minded studio execs must be disasters), but I've always been impressed with how he brings relevancy to something completely absurd. He fashions his stories like boomerangs: They go way out there, but ultimately return to our grasp. For me personally, they've always felt oddly relatable in a way that truly mainstream stories do not. In many other movies, I find certain things unintentionally funny, and I'm the only one in the theater laughing. But with Jonze's films, I feel like he is laughing with me. (Some bonus intrigue for this script: Jonze cast Scarlett Johansson as the voice of the computer in this human-machine love story. Interestingly, his ex-wife, Sofia Coppola, used Johansson as the lead in Lost In Translation, which is widely regarded as Coppola’s thinly-veiled criticism of Jonze in their marriage. Is Her his rebuttal, with the computer/Johansson standing in for Coppola? That’s a topic for another time.)
As for who will actually take the prize, it appears to be a dead heat between Her and American Hustle. Hustle has gotten all the spoils (in terms of box office returns and media attention) of a bona fide blockbuster. Will voters lean toward Hustle's slick and fun caper script by David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer? Or will they be moved (if they’ve even seen it) by the lower-grossing Her's utterly unique, alternate-universe alternate-love story? Based on the precursory awards, I think Her will take it.
Having just won in this category two years ago for Midnight In Paris, Woody Allen is probably a long-shot for Blue Jasmine. It is up against other excellent nominees that are frankly better stories. What's astounding is that this is Allen's 16th Best Screenplay nomination (including three wins). How is that possible? For me, Blue Jasmine is a lot like many of Allen's other acclaimed films: It's not that it's great, it's that it's fascinating. This particular story examines what circumstances are enough to drive a seemingly normal person into mental illness. But what I find more intriguing is one of the themes that Allen explores in this film: What constitutes a person's "true self"? In typical Woody fashion, he tells a story that is extreme (often comically so), but he builds it on a theme that is universal. So while not many of us can say we've suffered a nervous breakdown or a mental schism from reality, we've all thought about our "true selves" versus how we're perceived. Cate Blanchett's character hits it squarely on the head when she argues, "I may have dressed up a few facts, and omitted a few unpleasant details, but... my feelings, my ideas, my humor... Isn't that who I am?" That's the question that we're prompted to answer. What defines us? Is it how we act? Or what we aspire to? Or what we say in public? Or what we think in private? Or all of the above? And of course, Woody turns a mirror back to the viewer: He uses the specific story, some sly flashbacks, and Blanchett's wonderfully layered performance to teeter us back and forth in our judgment on the protagonist and the people around her. What causes us to change our opinion about a person? When do they go from being a good person to a bad person, or vice versa? And how large and grey is the area in between? Maybe it's all grey? Whether or not there are easy answers largely depends on the viewer, and potentially what kind of person the viewer is. Now, of course, not much of that is explicitly in the film. But I believe Woody has been doing this long enough to know that universal themes naturally extend themselves to the audience and carry the story past the final credits, and I know he can employ those themes effortlessly. I think that's a big reason why they throw Oscar nominations at him like confetti: He tells stories about what everybody's already thinking.
I have to give the Gloriously Omitted spot to Gravity. There are a lot of aspects of the film that are fantastic, but the story itself is, should I say, light-weight (get it?). The script isn't bad, and it serves its purpose, but there's no denying that it's relatively step-by-step thriller material: A series of increasingly harrowing yet fairly unrelated obstacles are relentlessly thrown at the heroine until she finally completes the journey. Before she can catch her breath after cheating death at each turn, she's thrust into the next life-threatening situation. It's effective as hell, but by the end, it's almost silly. At one point near the finale, my exasperated wife literally said, "What's next, an alligator?!"
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:
SHOULD WIN: John Ridley (12 Years A Slave)
WILL WIN: John Ridley (12 Years A Slave)
GLORIOUSLY OMITTED: Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce (The Great Gatsby)
INGLORIOUSLY SNUBBED: Tracy Letts (August: Osage County)
The heavy favorite for Adapted Screenplay, and rightly so, is John Ridley's 12 Years A Slave. Believe it or not, the script was heavily rewritten from the first draft, when it was called 12 Years A Slav. Not quite the Oscar bait that the later drafts turned out to be, it was initially the story of a free Italian man in 1980 named Giorgetto Giugiaro, an automobile designer who gets drunk while partying with a couple of Bosnians, and gets abducted to Sarajevo and forced to work in a Yugo factory. After toiling away for a dozen years in dehumanizing servitude, building cheap disposable cars (which Time magazine described as having "the distinct feeling of something assembled at gunpoint"), he's finally liberated when the factory is bombed during the Yugoslav wars, and triumphantly carries the last surviving Yugo car back to Italy. The premise was reworked when focus groups found it "accidentally hilarious". (Good news: The original idea is currently being developed for Michael Keaton and George Wendt as Gung Ho 2.)
Billy Ray's script for Captain Phillips (the Writers Guild winner) does many things well, but one thing it truly excels at - that many don't - is that it treats the villain just like the main character. Many filmmakers seem to forget that the bad guy should think the movie is about him, not the good guy. In fact, the bad guy shouldn't even know he's the bad guy. He should be as well-drawn as the protagonist. He should have an objective, opposition, arc, and character beats, just like the main character (and those elements should be just as strong as they are for the main character). And this is absolutely the case for the desperate and determined pirate Muse. The film could have just as easily been called "Captain Muse".
For the record, after co-writing the script for Before Midnight (along with Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy), Ethan Hawke (Ethan Hawke!) now has three (three!) career Oscar (Oscar!) nominations. Looking at all the men nominated for Actor or Supporting Actor this year, only Leonardo DiCaprio has more than two career nominations. Next time you're wondering if life is fair, think about that.
Prior to seeing Before Midnight, I told my wife that she didn't need to see the first two installments of the series (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset) beforehand. I was wrong. The immediate reaction for the uninitiated is: "Why the hell do I care about these people? They are bickering, immature idiots who don't even belong together to begin with. I hope the movie ends with them getting divorced." Well, okay, the assessment is fair enough if you haven't seen the first two movies, where star-crossed Celine and Jesse oozed charm, ignited sparks, and were actually, you know, in love. And even for those of us who have seen and enjoyed the originals, it's a bit difficult to stomach what the lovebirds have become. While the film leaves me feeling a bit empty, I do commend the script for not wimping out with a fantasy Happily Ever After ending. Maybe it's cynical, maybe it's inevitable: At the end of the each of the first two movies, we can easily imagine that the pair lived Happily Ever After; the latest installment, however, vanquishes any possibility of that. I guess the best we can imagine for the two hopeless romantics (and I do mean hopeless) is Marginally Satisfied And Too Unmotivated To Move On Ever After.
I was rooting for Tracy Letts to score a nomination, for adapting his play August: Osage County, which originated at Chicago's Steppenwolf theater, and went on to win Tonys and the Pulitzer. But I'm sure he would much rather get my Ingloriously Snubbed award over an Oscar any day.