Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Closer Look at the Best Actor Nominees

One of the most difficult races at this year's ceremony to predict is going to be the Best Actor race. Along with a scandalous moment in which CNN supposedly revealed this year's winner, this race has lead to plenty of discussion, and for good reason. Each performance delivers a slightly different skill that makes it better than the next. Its only issue is that in a year where the playing field almost feels too even, it leaves plenty of surprise for Oscar night and has already launched numerous think pieces such dissecting each nominee. The following is my look at the field as well as who I think should win as well as why.

Despite a lackluster year for cinema comparatively, this year's Oscar race at least feels like it is too much of a challenge to have a lock. Even with Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) sweeping awards season, there is no guarantee that he will take the top prize. It is likely, but the Academy hasn't always voted in succession with everyone else and makes the playing field more challenging. Chiwtel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) has the prestige vote while Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) has the "apology" vote. The only one without any real buzz is unfortunately Christian Bale (American Hustle), who turns in one of his career bests, but lacks the esteem of his competitors.

For most people, the race may already look like it is locked up, but consider that there isn't a single film that is looking to win all of the top prizes this year. Save for Gravity in all of the technical fields, it is unlikely that any film will triumphantly sweep this year's ceremony and thus makes it harder to even guess these categories. However, based on personal theory, this is my ranking as well as personal thoughts on each nominee.

 Matthew McConaughey - Dallas Buyers Club

Is it the weight loss that makes him the favorite? Hopefully not. While the Academy has been kind to the actors who go above and beyond to portray physicality (see: Best Supporting Actress winner Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables), there is so much more to this performance. In an impressive stroke of genius, Matthew McConaughey takes a problematic script and turns it into an acting powerhouse for him and Jared Leto. He commands the screen and mixes humor, vulnerability, and a sense of cool into a story about AIDS and the one straight man brave enough to make a difference. He was a flawed individual, and that's what makes McConaughey so great here. Of course, the actor has an enviable narrative involving his rise from romantic comedy garbage to prestige actor starting with The Lincoln Lawyer and reaching culmination here. The trajectory is fascinating and possibly the actor's secret weapon to winning. That, and he is likely to give one hell of a speech, which he has been the master of for the entirety of the awards circuit.

ODDS: Very high. Not only is his narrative one so redemptive that it seems false, but McConaughey brings the goods to back it up. He has proven himself to be rather charismatic and the showiness of his role mixed with the weight loss shows impressive dedication that is likely to play well with voters.

Chiwetel Ejiofor - 12 Years a Slave

The only issue with Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) reign is that it overlooks a different kind of performance. As made clear, I do believe that 12 Years a Slave is inevitably the most relevant movie in the Best Picture race. The success of the film largely relies on the quietness of Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose scenes are memorable without being showy. There are entire moments where the camera, zoomed in on his eyes, tells the story through his emotions and little else. Even in McConaughey delivered a compelling counterargument, this is a performance that carries the film in unexpected manners. Probably due to this and lack of persuasive narrative like the front runner, Ejiofor is likely to miss out on the top prize because his acting isn't nearly as exciting on a visceral level as his competitor.

ODDS: There's some hope that the 12 Years a Slave prestige narrative will help get this performance some recognition. However, with Matthew McConaughey being outwardly more accessible and exciting, Chiwetel Ejiofor needs something else to push him into the top position.

Leonardo DiCaprio - The Wolf of Wall Street

It is one of the strangest narratives of this year's ceremony. There seems to be a whole campaign based around the ideal concept that Leonardo DiCaprio is overdue for an Oscar. While it is true that a lot of people believe that he and the Academy don't get along, it doesn't make sense to make an argument over this. While he has lead two Best Picture winners (Titanic, The Departed), he hasn't won an acting trophy yet. With many hailing The Wolf of Wall Street as his best performance possibly ever, there seems to be more of an urgency to him winning. After all, he did win the Golden Globe in this category, though not up against Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), who poses the biggest threat here. Much like his threat, DiCaprio does have some leeway when it comes to a potential win in that his performance is arguably the most showy of them all, including the now iconic scene involving Lemmons. He could win on the redemption factor, but it seems too desperate for that to be the case. I do believe that this will just be another film in which fans will raise conspiracy theories over DiCaprio's snubbing.

ODDS: As the controversial placard that was released earlier this week by CNN in a photo, there is still a chance that he could win. The odds are slim, as Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) and McConaughey are both unstoppable giants at this point. Still, appearing in the film that was released last and turning in a physically demanding performance is sure not to go unnoticed.

Bruce Dern - Nebraska

Of every nominee this year, Bruce Dern remains my favorite. While there are some that were more showy or more integral through a visceral experience, there is something about Dern in Nebraska that feels honest. He is an old man who has been trampled on and while he may come across as senile, he is the right doses to feel more real and honest than any other performer here. To the untrained eye, his performance simply exists. However, it is a performance so nuanced that the lack of notice is what makes it so brilliant. It is comic and tragic while never losing the humanity. Also, if one must talk about an actor getting snubbed by the Academy, consider Dern as a bigger example. He has only received one other Oscar nomination, which was for Best Actor in the 1978 film by director Hal Ashby called Coming Home. If someone is overdue, it is him by the largest margin for sure. Still, because it feels so real, it could easily be ignored. I want him to win just to hear what he would have to say. The one benefit is that with the Academy notoriously made up of older, white voters, there is a chance that his talents will be more recognized and thus give him the extra points to win.

ODDS: Not very likely, if just because of the flashy performances of his competitors and the fact that Nebraska hasn't quite the same level of esteem surrounding it as the other Best Picture nominees.

Christian Bale - American Hustle

In the grand scheme of things, Christian Bale's turn in American Hustle is an impressive performance of physicality and wit that anchors the film. While it is sure to be an upset in the other categories, I do sense that Bale has the least built buzz. Being the only previous winner in the Best Actor race (Best Supporting Actor - The Fighter), he doesn't have the immediacy to win that Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) or Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) would have. It may be one of his best roles to date, but all of the conversation seems to be around back-to-back wins for Jennifer Lawrence (Best Supporting Actress) or Amy Adams (Best Actress). The Academy has proven that they love Bale, but it doesn't seem like enough to give him a compelling narrative nor a reason to win the category. His nomination alone seems a little peculiar, if just because this year's Best Actor race had a lot of interesting competitors, including Robert Redford (All is Lost), who got ignored.

ODDS: Close to none. Having been a previous winner, there is no urgency to him winning another one, even if it is for American Hustle: a film so popular it is likely to pull some kind of upset.

Is Matthew McConaughey an easy lock for the Best Actor win? Will the Academy go for showiness or prestige? Will Leonardo DiCaprio's excuse of being overdue pay off?

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