Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Closer Look at the Best Picture Nominees

Much like every other Academy Award enthusiast out there, there is great pride in reaching the point when the nominees go from being names to actual discussion pieces. For me, that includes watching every Best Picture nominee before the big day and being able to dissect my overall thoughts on the categories. What films were fueled more by bias than actual quality? There were a few this year. However, upon reflection, I noticed that I have ran into a strange issue this year: I don't consider too many to be "overrated" when it comes to this category. In fact compared to last year, which I still believe was far more interesting, this line-up is rather excellent and diverse. I still loathe the nine nominees of the 5-10 sliding scale, but with that aside, this is another excellent year for the category.

In order to properly dissect this year's Best Picture nominees, I thought that I would essentially rank them in order of favorites, though not necessarily the Oscar's standards of best. I would also share personal thoughts on what makes each one an essential nominee and what categories I believe it will have the biggest strengths in. As you are likely to notice, the playing field is not even and thus I won't hide the fact that some films on this list will get "snubbed" as majority of industry types like to call it. I will also consider revising my predictions from last month in order to better reflect my thoughts.

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Oscar Nominations: 9
Strengths: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender), Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong'o), Best Adapted Screenplay

This is by far the only film that I want to see walk away with this prize on awards night. If for no other reason, it has remained the Best Picture front runner since its release in October. It has been a strong talking point for Civil Rights in America and the overall significance to American history is unparalleled by any other nominees. This film is a masterpiece and probably the most relevant film of 2013 in the long run. With strong performances by the entire cast, specifically Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong'o, this is a film that will stick with you and demand an emotional change. It may be bleak, but there is hope and humanity in the least expected of areas. It is a film that will be discussed for decades to come and may be the last time that director Steve McQueen has a film in the Best Picture race if he goes back to more artistic, challenging dramas.

Sandra Bullock

Oscar Nominations: 10
Strengths: Best Director (Alfonso Cuaron), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Original Score (Steven Price), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects

For the most part, I see this film succeeding in the technical fields. Unlike any other film this year, Gravity was a thrill ride that somehow became embraced with widespread success. I am surprised that it has become the behemoth during awards season that it has. Still, if last year's Life of Pi is any indicator of how this year's most acclaimed, technically challenging film will play out, it is that this film will win big just on the categories that go into the design and sounds of the film. All of them are deserved and with Gravity still being a front runner in the Best Picture race, the name recognition is going to keep it going strong. However, the only award that it NEEDS to win to avoid controversy is Best Director. If the other awards shows are any indicators, Alfonso Cuaron's masterpiece of camera technique will not go unrecognized. 

Left to right: Will Forte and Bruce Dern

Oscar Nominations: 6
Strengths: Best Actor (Bruce Dern), Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay (Bob Nelson)

I love this movie a whole lot. In fact, it is only disappointing to see it competing this year because it lacks the flair of its competition. Despite an amazing performance by Bruce Dern, he has to compete with Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), which are both more high profile and likely to win. However, it is a tough year to call with everything lacking definition. Still, it feels like if this film stands any chance of winning, it will be in the Best Original Screenplay category, as scripts have always done well at the Oscars for director Alexander Payne. It also depends on which way the Best Cinematography award will go, because it could either continue last year's trend and go to the most technical (Gravity), or the most visually impressive (this one). Either way, I am glad to see this film in the race and only wish that its competition wasn't as strong as it is.

Matthew McConaughey

Nominations: 6
Strengths: Best Actor (Matthew McConaughey), Best Supporting Actor (Jared Leto), Best Hair and Make-Up

Upon hearing that the film was a potential upset to all other nominees on nominations day, I was wanting to give this film a cold shoulder. However, upon seeing the results, I immediately understood the charm and magic that made it so popular. It is in the lead performance by Matthew McConaughey, which is so charismatic, sleazy, and fun that he carries the film even through the weaker, more monotonous portions of the film. Still, it feels like a significant picture and one that is only complimented by Jared Leto's supporting performance. In a strange twist/joke, it may also win Best Hair and Make-Up not because it was the best, but because its competitors are Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger. Then again, Leto does pull off that blush rather well. I am glad to see this posing impending threat, though I wish that it didn't take Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) in the process. 

Left to right: Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams

Oscar Nominations: 10
Strengths: Best Picture, Best Actress (Amy Adams), Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Best Costume Design, Best Original Screenplay (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell)

After the dull and contrived Silver Linings Playbook swept last year's Oscars and made Jennifer Lawrence an Oscar winner, it almost seemed like David O. Russell would forever be in the Academy's good graces. For the most part, his follow-up is in many ways better than last year's effort with slick production design, great costumes, and plenty of wit. It isn't a surprise that it pulled 10 nominations, including all major categories. The only question is if it can stand a chance in a competitive year and will it win Best Picture simply for being the biggest crowd pleaser of the bunch. This may also help it win in the costuming categories, though it is a field populated by the far more deserving The Great Gatsby nominations. If anything, it stands to pull an upset and may end up causing controversy if Amy Adams beats Cate Blanchet (Blue Jasmine) or Jennifer Lawrence beats Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave). Who knows, but the film's popularity is its secret weapon in how awards night will go down.

Joaquin Phoenix

Oscar Nominations: 5
Strengths: Best Original Screenplay (Spike Jonze), Best Original Score (Will Butler, Owen Pallett)

This is a nominee that I was surprised see make it into the race so heavily just because it seemed like a stretch. True, Spike Jonze has been nominated in the Best Picture race before, but Her felt like an obscure title that would be too weird to be fully appreciated. Luckily, the Academy saw through it and recognized what made it an effective story and meditation on love in the modern era. It may not win big awards on Oscar night, but it does seem likely that Best Original Screenplay is its only true lock. The awards circuit has been kind to Spike Jonze's script and it would take some heavy manipulation by American Hustle to dethrone it at this point.

Leonardo DiCaprio

Oscar Nominations: 5
Strengths: Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Adapted Screenplay (Terrence Winter)

It is a bold move to predict this film winning Best Picture. From the moment of its release on Christmas Day, it has been nothing but controversy. People love it or love to hate it. Many call it Martin Scorsese's best since Goodfellas. Nonetheless, it is a worthwhile film because it got people talking about cinema in a fresh and exciting way. While the true savior of the film wasn't nominated (Best Editing - Thelma Schoonmaker), there is a strong chance that the controversy will lead the film to a few other wins. I do believe that the film only made it this far because it was by beloved filmmaker Martin Scorsese. I also believe that the narrative surrounding Leonardo DiCaprio couple propel his brilliant performance into the lead, as he is the seasoned veteran who could overthrow newcomer Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club). The Best Actor race in general is hard to predict at this moment. However, due to the controversy, I do believe that the rapid wit and structure of the screenplay should be more than enough to qualify Terrence Winter for a win. If last year's Best Original Screenplay winner Django Unchained taught us anything, it is that vulgarity over three hours is a palpable front runner. 

Tom Hanks

Oscar Nominations: 6
Strengths: Best Sound Editing

While many came away loving director Paul Greengrass' aquatic thriller, I was left a little tiresome from its clinical rescue mission in the second act. Even if Tom Hanks turns in a solid performance, the snub there isn't so controversial when considering that his praise has been based around the last few minutes of the film. In fact, it is kind of shocking that the film has garnered six nominations at all. However, of all of them, the most deserving (Best Supporting Actor - Barkhad Abdi) is likely to be overlooked by bigger heavyweights. Even in the technical categories, where it received most of its nominations, it has to compete with Gravity for the top prizes. Unfortunately, this film is probably going to walk away empty handed or with only an award for use of sound. It really could go either way.

Judi Dench

Oscar Nominations: 4
Strengths: Best Original Score (Alexandre Desplat)

Having just seen it and with it being fresh in my mind, I feel it is harsh to compare it to the other films in this category. However, of all nominees, this is the only one that I didn't much care for, if just because of its slight feeling of emotional manipulation. With that said, I do feel like it would be wrong to ignore the Best Original Score nomination on the grounds that front runner Gravity (Steven Price) could technically win, but also stands a chance of being ignored for more complex and traditional sounding scores. It is a tough call and it does seem likely that Philomena is going to be the biggest loser from this year's Best Picture nominees. It was just too simple to compete against the heavyweights that are atop this list.

What is your favorite Best Picture nominee from this year's ceremony? Is American Hustle going to pull an upset? Will Gravity end up being the biggest winner thanks to the technical fields?

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