Friday, February 28, 2014

Oscars Preview - Part Five!

And welcome to our final preview for the Academy Awards!  We will be releasing our 2013 Top Ten Lists on Sunday, but below are our predictions for the two biggest awards - Best Director and Best Picture.  We are so excited for the ceremony Sunday evening - we can't wait to see the gowns, the musical numbers, the tributes, and the winners.  

Best Director

The Nominees:
David O. Russell for American Hustle
Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity
Alexander Payne for Nebraska
Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave
Martin Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street


Should Win: Martin Scorsese
This was a tough one for me, as each nominee is an auteur working at the top of their form with strong vision and a unique aesthetic bent.  In this way, it is probably stupid to say one is better than the other, but heck, it’s the Oscars and that is what we are here for, so I decided to go with the filmmaker who displayed the most overall stylistic ambition.  That would be our old friend Marty, whose visual flair encapsulates Wolf’s audacious plot movements and is a voice equal to that of screenwriter Terence Winter.  Indeed, what makes this film most interesting is that Scorsese comments on the script by way of sharp visual cues, camera movement, and soundtrack.  To put it another way, Scorsese’s voice is as strong as that of Winters or Jordan Belfort in the film, and this makes the film all the more engrossing and interesting.  A close second here for me is McQueen, whose voice as a filmmaker is perceptive, compassionate, and patient – a far cry from Scorsese’s brashness, but equally as distinctive and impressive. 

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the year we see the first directing Oscar for a Hispanic filmmaker.  It seems that all the momentum is in Cuaron’s favor, and that understandable with the popularity of his film.  It is also not undeserved – Gravity is a technical marvel that represents what is likely the most complex directorial undertaking of the bunch.  The camera essentially never stops moving and Cuaron knows exactly when and how to insert close-ups – the only reason I don’t put it at the top of my list is that the film does not seem to present as strong an authorial voice.  Indeed, the only other filmmaker in the bunch that doesn’t is…

Weakest Nominee: David O. Russell
… Who essentially rips off his fellow nominee Scorsese.  Now, don’t get me wrong, there are comic touches and a sense of spontaneity that are clearly Russellian, but these feel like riffs on ground Scorsese has already treaded.  In a field with filmmakers who have all created distinctive works that emphasize their unique strengths as filmmakers, the fact that Russell’s work seems derivative makes him stand out.

Best Non-Nominee: Joel and Ethan Coen for Inside Llewyn Davis
There are no more assured and meticulous filmmakers working today than the Coen brothers. With Davis, every word, angle, and glance builds upon each other to communicate deeper meaning than what is on paper, and in this, the inimitable genius of their filmmaking is found.  While some would argue a more improvised aesthetic would fit the story of a hurting and drifting musician best, this film proves that by exploring aimlessness seriously and carefully, one can gain great insight into a universal human desire for connection and meaning. The film is void of sentimentality, but nevertheless elicits strong emotion and compassion – a cinematic feat only achieved by the true artists of cinema.  What impacted me most was that there is a sense that the Coens not only wished to communicate with their audience, but that they also ached to comfort the protagonist they had created.  To do this without being stylistically intrusive or saccharine shows just how great their talents are.


Should Win: Steve McQueen
Over and over, it sounds as though you are going to tune in Sunday and discover this was my favorite film of the year.  Spoilers: it’s not, and there are quite a few films ahead of it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see how meticulously crafted and beautifully directed it is.  McQueen has really proven that he has a strong vision and is a true auteur, and it would be nice to see that rewarded in Hollywood.  Other director I had a hard time choosing McQueen over: Alexander Payne, whose personal vision is always deeply resonant for me.

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron
And good for him, seriously.  It is a very well-directed film that required enormous effort on his part. 

Weakest Nominee: David O. Russell
David already said it well above, I see no need to repeat the obvious!  However, I do want to point out that Russell does manage to get fantastic performances from his actors, of course that’s probably pretty easy when you cast some of the best actors working today.  I would be happy for each director except Russell.

Best Non-Nominee: Spike Jonze for Her
Spike Jonze just manages to pull everything together to have one fantastic, unified picture of the future.  It’s a phenomenal film and absolutely everything works, from the score, to the production design, to the cinematography, to the performances.  And it was Jonze who was able to pull each of these elements into one great film.  Kudos.

Best Picture


The Nominees:
American Hustle: Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison, and Jonathan Gordon, Producers
Captain Phillips: Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca, Producers
Dallas Buyers Club: Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter, Producers
Gravity: Alfonso Cuarón and David Heyman, Producers
Her: Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze and Vincent Landay, Producers
Nebraska: Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, Producers
Philomena: Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan and Tracey Seaward, Producers
12 Years a Slave: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen and Anthony Katagas, Producers
The Wolf of Wall Street: Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joey McFarland and Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Producers

Should Win: Her
This is the most insightful and important film of the year, and honestly, the fact that it is nominated at all is encouraging.  This film is impeccably crafted and deeply convicting, but also captures the uncomfortable reality of increasing discord in contemporary social life as a result of technology.  What makes this film so great is that while it displays a real cultural problem we must address, it never feels preachy and always maintains a deep connection with the passions and motivations of its lonely protagonist.  It is a heartbreaking work, and one that poignantly points its audience to the importance of true, sincere human relationships.

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
The other possibility here is Gravity, which has the popularity vote in its favor.  Yet, the Academygenerally loves historical films and this film has won many other awards to date, so I think it pulls out a victory here as well.  And it would be well-deserved if it did.

Weakest Nominee: Dallas Buyers Club
When the nominees were announced, I had to do a double take on this one.  Not a bad film, just a middling one that is mostly out of place with the bunch.  The film’s only true strength is in its performances, but with the script and visuals being noticeably weaker, it shouldn’t be here.

Best Non-Nominee: Inside Llewyn Davis
See above for more on why I love this film, but I should mention that I was shocked with the lack
of Oscar love for this masterwork.  Not only are the Coens generally very well received with the Academy, but this represents what could be their best film yet.


The Academy missed out on this nomination for Song.
Reading through the nominees, it really has been a strong year, and overall, the Academy has done a fine job of recognizing many of the excellent films on offer.  David, I agree with you on every single thing you said above.  And although Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t at the top of my list of favorite non-nominees, it is probably the most perfect film that wasn’t nominated for Oscar, and the biggest surprise – the Academy usually loves the Coens!  It really is extraordinarily well done, and extremely tight.  For personal favorite non-nominee, that would be Short Term 12, which captured my heart this year.  For a debut feature, it’s pretty impressive stuff, and approaches a messy subject with an honest, humble heart.

Also, let me point out that the Best Picture race is really tight, the tightest in a few years.  And Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, or American Hustle could all very well walk away with the prize.  Of those three, I definitely want to see a 12 Years a Slave win.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Oscars Preview - Part Four!

We are now less than a week from Oscar Sunday – get pumped.

Today, we roll on with our Oscars preview with a discussion of the races for lead performances.  This year has been insanely good for lead performances, both male and female.  We both think that the nominations could have looked completely different this year and still have been great.  Can you imagine, for example, a group of male nominations for Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Robert Redford (All is Lost), Joaquin Phoenix (Her), and Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt)?  Or female nominations for Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color), Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), Brie Larson (Short Term 12), Julie Delpy (Before Midnight), and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said) (Chelsea: And let's not leave out Olivia Wilde in Drinking Buddies)?  Hard to argue those nominations wouldn’t be just as worthy (especially on the female side).

Best Actor

The Nominees:
Christian Bale in American Hustle
Bruce Dern in Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club


Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio
This is an all-in performance for the ages.  As with the script, DiCaprio’s performance presents someone so driven by his ego that they do not stop to recognize or process their flaws.  This role simply looks exhausting, and DiCaprio never lets his energy flag in the least.  It would be easy to say this kind of performance lacks nuance, but I actually found it most impressive that he ads grades of emotion while playing it all turned up to 11.  This is a high-impact performance, but it certainly isn’t one note.  Better yet, it isn’t a performance that seemed to be reaching for an Oscar.  No one would play someone as off-putting as Jordan Belfort to get awards recognition.  Coupled with the fact he has yet to take home his own Oscar, this all makes me want him to win even more.

Will Win: Matthew McConaughey
But alas, this does not seem to be in the cards.  Momentum for McConaughey has picked up since his win at the Golden Globes, and it seems inevitable he will take home the little gold man.  To be fair, his turn as Ron Woodruff is more than an Academy-rousing physical transformation, and is actually very solid and daring.  Yet, while there isn’t a whole lot bad I can say about his performance, I found nearly every other performance in this category more impressive.  Really, all but…

Weakest Nominee: Christian Bale
As with the other roles from American Hustle, Bale’s performance lacks the range of his fellow nominees.  This is actually a really enjoyable performance, but while Bale captures comedic panic and frustration really well, he simply isn’t given enough character depth here to warrant this nod.  This is especially true when you consider the quantity of great lead performances this year, for example…

Best Non-Nominee: Joaquin Phoenix in Her
On the one hand, it is a shame Phoenix doesn’t play along with the Hollywood publicity game, for if he did, he would probably get an Oscar nod for pretty much everything.  On the other hand, it is nice to see someone working for the love of his craft rather than accolades.  Phoenix occupies nearly all the screen-time inHer and is solely entrusted with communicating much of the emotional depth in Spike Jonze’s script.  He succeeds by relaying an impressive range of emotion, from grief, to excitement, to disappointment, to confusion, to guilt, to contentment, to self-loathing, to… You get the idea – this film is an emotional rollercoaster, and Phoenix never feels anything but believable.  This is especially impressive considering the plot involves mainly interaction with an off-screen voice.


Because I literally agree with every single thing you said above in this category, let me take this opportunity to give praise to some very worthwhile nominees:  Bruce Dern and Chiwetel Ejiofor.  If either of these fantastic men (or DiCaprio) take home the gold on Oscar night, color me exceptionally pleased.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Ejiofor was considered a favorite on Oscar night early on in awards season, but has since sadly fallen out of favor.  He’s fantastic in this role, and he carries the whole film on his back, gracing nearly every frame with his portrait of a dignified yet broken man who was illegally sold into slavery.  His eyes do so much of the work as Solomon Northrup, conveying anger, sadness, relief, horror, and more, all with a level of nuance that is rarely appreciated.  When he gives in and sings a spiritual, you can feel the weight of the breath in.  Even in the opening scene, you can see the conflict and sadness and defeat running through his face.  Remarkable, beautiful work.

Bruce Dern in Nebraska
There is something about the male leads of Payne films that just do me in.  They remind me so
much of my family, in both good and bad ways, and Dern’s Woody is no exception.  Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant with a level of fragility and nuance that allows someone that could easily have become a caricature to breathe and live.  It truly feels as though Dern inhabits his role – every tick, every move feels honest and real.  He has no trouble getting ugly or showing the senility, while still managing to maintain Woody’s humanity.  And that’s no small feat for a role in which a prideful old man stubbornly refuses to believe the people around him when they are telling him the truth.  Again, fantastic work from a veteran actor who has rarely seen the spotlight.  I would love to explore more of his filmography, largely due to his great presence in this lovely film.

Also, I'm going to give a little P.S. and mention that we watched The Hunt last night, and we were completely bowled over by Mads Mikkelson's performance.  He plays a man wrongly accused of pedophilia in a small town who is quickly turned on by his friends and family.  He plays all the right notes here, managing to convey a range of emotions - confusion, frustration, anger, fear, and deep sadness that the people he loves would so easily believe him to be a monster.  It's a fantastic performance that carries the film.  If Joaquin Phoenix was nominated in Bale's spot, Mikkelson would would have occupied my Best Non-Nominee slot.

Best Actress

The Nominees:
Amy Adams in American Hustle
Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Judi Dench in Philomena
Meryl Streep in August: Osage County


Should Win: Cate Blanchett
I always appreciate when actresses play ugly.  I don’t necessarily mean something like Charlize Theron in Monster, where there is a stark physical transformation, but rather when performances delve deep into the ugliness of the human psyche (Chelsea: like Charlize Theron in Young Adult).  Blanchett’s performance captures the ugliness of vanity and pride, as well as an uglier desire to think others less valuable.  Her performance captures perfectly the confusion of having your pride shattered in a country where appearances are king, and her portrayal of a desperate grasping to the past is eminently believable.  As an actress who is known for her elegance, this is pretty daring, impressive stuff.

Will Win: Cate Blanchett
There is some talk about how this film’s association with director Woody Allen and recent accusations against him will harm Blanchett’s chances, but I think the Academy will follow suit with the rest of the awards season and reward Blanchett.  This is particularly true because none of the other performances have garnered nearly as much acclaim.

Weakest Nominee: Meryl Streep
Streep’s Violet Weston is essentially a comic book villain, pure evil along the lines of Lex Luthor or The Penguin.  This is largely due to the script, and bless her heart, Streep goes full tilt with the performance, providing someone so ugly and spiteful there is little more to explore.  She capture mannerisms and her accent well, but there was more depth in Star Trek’s Khan this year than in this character.  Not her fault, but also not all that impressive in the end.

Best Non-Nominee: Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha
Greta Gerwig’s portrayal of prolonged adolescence and professional confusion will resonate with any millennial – us who were told we were special and could be anything we wanted with enough determination.  This film is not an angry response to this lie, but rather a bittersweet meditation on the emotional response to realizing this lie.  As such, it relies heavily on Gerwig’s captivating performance to communicate its themes.  With her turn as Frances, Gerwig captures both a playful optimism and a stubborn resentment of reality, while also building a genuine portrait of an awkward and flawed, but fun and likeable person.  This is not a character battling huge dramatic problems, but rather is someone battling the problems of identity and meaning we all face at some point in our lives.  With both charisma and subtlety, Gerwig epitomizes the film’s messy and insightful themes – what more could you ask for?


Once again, you make this super difficult for me.  I agree with your should and will win and weakest nominee, although I have one caveat that it’s possible that Amy Adams pulls the win here, largely because she’s the only nominee who has not yet won an Oscar, her body of work is impressive, and because of the controversy currently surrounding Woody Allen.  In addition, I don’t think Bullock is particularly impressive.  Yes, it’s probably the best performance of her career, but  it’s not the same level as Blanchett, Adams, or Dench.  Although, I have heard that the physical preparation of this role was grueling, and for that, I applaud her.

Best Non-Nominee: Brie Larson in Short Term 12
Up-and-comer Larson shows the world she can carry the weight of a film on her back.  It’s a mostly quiet, very nuance portrait of a young woman who works with troubled teens, and also seems to have a troubling past of her own.  She nails the aspects of her role that show her working – it absolutely makes sense that the kids would love and respect her.  Additionally, she gorgeously and subtley plays her life outside the group home – her relationship with her long-term boyfriend, her interplay with family, and a lot of murky water.  It’s a strong and subtle performance, and I cannot recommend this film highly enough.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Oscars Preview - Part Three!

Today, we continue our Oscars preview with a discussion of the races for supporting performances. These awards go to the best acting performances in roles other than lead characters.  Check back tomorrow for the lead performance category.

Best Supporting Actor

The Nominees:
Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper in American Hustle
Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club


Should Win: Michael Fassbender
It would be easy to play this role as a straight up villain – heck, he is even kind of written that way.  What I respect about Fassbender’s turn as the vicious slave owner Edwin Epps is that he ads an element of confused frustration and existential anger to the role that a lesser actor wouldn’t think to realize.  Fassbender plays Epps not as a hateful man driven by a faulty ideology, but as a prideful man violently attempting to project the reality of his flaws on his slaves.  It is not so much that this character becomes sympathetic, but that he becomes believable, which is perhaps its most sobering aspect.

Will Win: Jared Leto
Leto will win for a few reasons – one, he is very good in this role, two, the Academy loves actor transformations, and three, he plays a character many Academy voters wish to give a louder voice.  What is odd about all this is that while Leto does provide believable emotion to the role, I never got the sense that his portrayal of the transgender martyr Rayon was anything more than a broad stereotype meant to draw out sympathy.  When you take a step back, the writers of this film didn’t give the character enough nuance for any actor to really add much depth.  So, while Leto dutifully and boldly provides an all-in performance, it is kind of a one-note act from beginning to end, and unlike Fassbender, he doesn’t really add much to the role that wasn’t already in the script.

Weakest Nominee: Barkhad Abdi
The Academy loves to reward performances that are surprisingly good:  “Man, for a 5-year old, she was incredible,” or in this case, “You had to admit, for a non-actor, he was really good!”  And I do admit this – he was really good for a non-actor.  I’m just not so sure awards, or even nominations, should be given due to relative merit rather than true merit.  Actors work a long time to refine their craft, and I would say that hard work should be rewarded first.  What sucks is that Abdi is a resident of my home Twin Cities, which is pretty cool, so part of me wants to just be quiet and enjoy this nomination.  Also, Abdi is not a stereotypical-looking actor, so if he continues acting, will likely be relegated to fringe character types for the remainder of his life.  In other words, he will likely not have the opportunity to prove his true merit as an actor, no matter how hard he works to refine his skills in the years to come.

Best Non-Nominee: Jake Gyllenhaal in Prisoners
There are literally thousands of movies with this character – a skilled and professional policeman
investigating a mystery abduction, tasked with both keeping victims calm and digging for the truth.  It is a role Gyllenhaal could have easily phoned in, and no one would have said much else about it good or bad.  The script for this film is well crafted, so the film overall would likely not disappoint anyway.  What is great about Gyllenhaal’s performance, though, is that he adds tics and fidgets to his character that communicate his policing profession simultaneously propels and annoys him.  In other words, while he understands the importance of his position, he also wishes someone else could take on this burden for him.  This subtlety adds volumes to the film, and makes every interaction deeper and more interesting.  In other words, Gyllenhaal does what all great performances do – he elevates the material.


Should Win: Michael Fassbender
This is an astonishing performance in a film filled to the brim with them.  Fassbender is excellent in nearly everything he does, but when he works with McQueen, he manages to elevate already great material.  The work he does as Epps is entirely menacing, frightening, and a look into our dark past.

Will Win: Jared Leto
Like David said, Leto is very good, but this role doesn’t offer him much to do outside of being a heartbreaking portrait into the life of a traditionally marginalized person.  He serves as the main bridge between the lead character and the new culture in which he now must enter, and in that way, is the main reason the lead learns to soften and care about those surrounding him.

Weakest Nominee:  Barkhad Abdi
I agree.  I think he’s really very good, and he was plucked out of obscurity here in Minneapolis, but he doesn’t reach the level of the performers he shares this category with.  Still, considering he is a non-actor, it’s extraordinarily impressive.

Best Non-Nominee:
Because we agreed again on the above three categories, I would like to use this space to highlight two additional male supporting performances that I thought were particularly excellent.

James Franco in Spring Breakers
The film itself is exhausting, graphic, brutal, and disturbing, and Franco embodies the spirit of the film with his performance as Alien, a rapper/drug dealer who bails the four main characters out of jail and shows them a life of “spring break forever”.  Franco is balls-to-the-wall crazy in the role, making himself ugly, unlikeable, and yet charismatic and magnetic.  So many of his scenes inhabit an off-putting, deranged quality, and it’s simply amazing that Franco just went for it, plain and simple. This could be one that continues to be talked about for a long time.

Keith Stanfield in Short Term 12
Never before seen outside of his role in the short on which this film is based, Stanfield absolutely breaks your heart as a troubled teenager who lives in the titular group home, but is nearing a birthday that will remove him from this place.  With his tough exterior and caring heart, Marcus could have been a bland, cliché character in other hands, but he shows us early on in a one-on-one interaction with a supervisor, that this character is bigger than the cliché.  It’s a wrenching, human performance, and his character is the only one this year that made me cry real tears.  I’m looking forward to watching his career progress.

Best Supporting Actress

The Nominees:
Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts in August: Osage County
June Squibb in Nebraska


Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o
Give her all the awards!
With the character of Patsey, Nyong’o gives us a deeply tragic figure.  As a sexually abused slave seeking meaning in the affections of her master, this character is already heartbreaking, but by playing this character as equally naïve and jaded, Nyong’o captures how existential confusion can lead to dreadful fear and frustrated defeat.  Patsey is a woman who is child-like because she is forced to be so, and Nyong’o does not simply play this character as angry or childish, but as deeply conflicted and lost.  It is not that she simply wants to reap the rewards of pleasing her owner, but that she simultaneously hates him and hates herself for this impulse.  Compared to the other more broadly drawn characters in this category, Patsey is by far the most compelling and fully drawn.

Will Win: Lupita Nyong’o
The other possibility here is Jennifer Lawrence, mainly because she has become Hollywood’s darling and won the Golden Globe.  And while Lawrence gives a thoroughly enjoyable caricature of dim-wittedness in American Hustle, it is ultimately a glorified sketch comedy character.  Luckily, Nyong’o won the SAG and several other major awards for her performance, so I think she will also win here.

Weakest Nominee: Julia Roberts
The thing about this performance is that it simply isn’t that memorable or interesting.  While Roberts certainly isn’t bad, and hits high emotional notes in a believable way, the role really only allows her to explore three emotions – annoyance, anger, and stubborn pride.  In a year with so many great performances, three emotions ain’t enough to justify a nomination.

Best Non-Nominee: Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now
For my money, this is the best supporting performance of the year.  Perhaps the reason many overlooked it is because Woodley portrays a teenager as teenagers actually are. While watching her, I kept thinking that I have met hundreds of girls like Aimee in my life.  Most portrayals of high school characters that get awards recognition provide unusually charismatic, disturbed, or intelligent youth, but here, Woodley’s Aimee is meek, shy, and unsure of herself – like most of us once were.  A full range of emotions is on display here, but they are guarded and come out in subtle, hesitant glances rather than grand displays.  Her performance captures an aching desire for acceptance and a flawed façade of confidence common to American adolescence while still communicating a deeper desire for connection and love, and as her character is decidedly normal, her portrayal of Aimee’s loss of innocence and idealism is particularly resonant.


Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o
She is heartbreaking

in this role.  She is absolute perfection in every frame she inhabits.  Beautiful, brilliant work.  I don’t know what else to say but she should absolutely win everything she can for her work here.

Will Win: Jennifer Lawrence
Look, she’s the best thing in American Hustle.  Funny, brash, naïve, and Lawrence shows us again why she’s America’s sweetheart, but she isn’t as good as Nyong’o, and she herself has apparently all but said she wants Nyong’o to get this award.

Weakest Nominee: Julia Roberts
I think you’re a little too hard on her above, and I think she shows a few more than three emotions (depression, some semblance of caring).  But you’re probably right that this is the weakest of the five.  Squibb, also, is good, but shows less range in her performance than the others and even the rest of the actors in Nebraska.

Best Non-Nominee: 

I feel like a broken record.  We once again agree totally in the above three categories, so I’m going to talk about the many fantastic female supporting performances in Her.  First, Rooney Mara, who plays lead character Theodore’s estranged wife.  She’s only in a few scenes, but managers to communicate the depth of love and the private moments inherent in a long-term relationship like a marriage.  She also beautifully captures the now broken relationship that they have.  Second, Amy Adams, who plays
Theodore’s best friend.  Each of her scenes is understated, but she manages to inject a lot of depth into this role that could have easily been quite slight.  Adams does a lot of subtle, nuanced work here, and it’s admirable.  Finally, Scarlett Johanssan, who voices the operating system that Theodore falls in love with.  She’s simply fabulous here, her crackly, smoldering voice lending a personality to a body-less computer.  She captures all the nuances and differences between herself and Theodore well, and the incredibly emotional film finds heart in the computer, thanks to her excellent performance here. The film itself is fabulous, emotional, and has three lovely, small performances from some great actresses working today.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Oscars Preview - Part Two!

Today, we continue our Oscars preview with a discussion of the races for best adapted and original screenplays.  To put it simply, there can be no film without committing to an idea and crafting words on paper.  In this way, the writing awards are arguably the most important of all awards.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Nominees:
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawk for Before Midnight
Billy Ray for Captain Phillips
Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope for Philomena
John Ridley for 12 Years a Slave
Terence Winter for The Wolf of Wall Street

For Film Novices:
This award goes to the best script based on a previous work, which the Academy defines broadly as a previous written work (novel, biography, news article, etc.) or previously created characters or worlds.  Thus, sequels and spinoffs are included in this category.


Should Win: The Wolf of Wall Street
The impressive trick of Terence Winter’s script is that he is able to offer a scathing critique of Jordan Belfort’s hedonism by letting his protagonist attempt to impress and manipulate his audience.  It is a ballsy move, as it assumes an intelligent and thoughtful audience.  This, unfortunately, resulted in many accusing Winter and director Scorsese of defending Belfort themselves, but this was clearly not their intent, as Belfort’s defense of his life in the film as written is contradictory and dripping with chauvinistic egocentrism.  It shows us a man who apologizes for his past at the same time he boasts about it, and by exploring this hypocrisy, Winter shows us in nauseating fashion that Belfort’s pursuits are meaningless without having to tell us as much.  His reserve and respect for his audience should be rewarded.

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
Interesting character juxtaposition in 12 Years a Slave
Since this is the film with the best shot at winning best picture of the bunch, it will likely take home this award.  The other scripts represent films too small or too audacious to be recognized by Academy voters.  Yet, Ridley’s script is impressive, too.  It is a dutiful and skillful adaption of a classic American memoir, which manages to capture the spirit of Solomon Northup’s humble mourning while at the same time never overdramatizing his plight for melodramatic effect.  By deviating little from his story, Ridley pays homage to an important historical figure while at the same time capturing a dark part of American history that has almost universally been treated at arm’s length.  By having the wisdom to not try to do too much in his adaptation, Ridley’s screenplay is a daring exactly because it is reserved.

Weakest Nominee: Philomena
Some lovely banter in Philomena
This is a good screenplay.  Really, it is.  It just isn’t a great one.  The screenplay’s strength is in the dialogue between its two leads, and while I respect Coogan’s comic influence in this respect, this is not enough to make up for its occasionally over-convenient plotting and trite emotional high-points.  There is nothing wrong with this kind of tear-jerker; it is just that it doesn’t do anything new or particularly intriguing.  While the film is certainly engaging and enjoyable, it is quickly forgotten and lacks the depth of its fellow nominees.

Best Non-Nominee: Short Term 12
The rules of the Academy for adapted works means that this script, which is an expansion of a previous short by director Destin Cretton would fall into this category.  Not only is this film insightful, funny, touching, and bold, but it manages to create believable portraits of its countless young characters despite them being in life situations that are regularly exploited for melodramatic effect.  This careful attention and concern for his entire setting, both in its tragedy and beauty, is refreshing, and there is sincerity and earnestness in Cretton’s writing that is inviting and convincing.


Should Win: 12 Years a Slave
Before Midnight
I’m torn in this category.  There are three films here that I would be ecstatic to see win: 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Before Midnight.  Like you previously stated, Terence Winter pulls an impressive trick on the audience, and writes a screenplay that is both a three hour show of what many people would think was the perfect lifestyle, and a scathing critique of that lifestyle and its protagonist. And then there’s Before Midnight.  Writer/Director Richard Linklater also shows us some guts here, as his protagonists in the previous films of the series were full of idealism about love and life together.  He turns the idealism on its head in the third and most mature chapter of the story, showing how love can turn sour, and how the minutiae of everyday life can wear on a relationship.  But ultimately what should and…

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
John Ridley manages to adapt this classic autobiography and writes a screenplay that is reserved even as it is epic.  It could have turned into a sappy, pleading story and likely would have in the hands of many other screenwriters and directors, but Ridley has the sense to turn this story into an unblinking look at this sordid chapter in American history.  In addition, he manages to clearly sketch out the character of this remarkable man at the center of the story.  It’s a beautiful, audacious, script and it deserves this win.

Weakest Nominee: Philomena
I’m just going to say ditto.  I think it’s actually a really good script, managing to be humorous and not too heavy handed, when it could have easily turned into pure melodrama.  But this is a category filled with heavy hitters, and it just isn’t GREAT.

Best Non-Nominee: Short Term 12
Chelsea's favorite scene of Short Term 12
Thank you for recognizing my second favorite film of the year in this category!  (Seriously, see this film, it’s phenomenal).  Once again, this is a subject that could have easily lead to a script filled with pandering melodrama, engineered for maximum tears.  And because it wasn’t, it was a film that actually led to real tears from me.  The dialogue in this film is achingly and brutally honest, and although the plot could distract, the day to day of this story is beautifully realized.

Best Original Screenplay

The Nominees:
Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell for American Hustle
Woody Allen for Blue Jasmine
Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack for Dallas Buyers Club
Spike Jonze for Her
Bob Nelson for Nebraska

For Film Novices: This award goes to the best script that is a unique creation, neither inspired by nor adapted from a previous work.

Should Win: Her
Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams in Her
It is incredible to me that this is Jonze’s first feature script.  Its content is not only prophetic and insightful, but it is as assured as anything I have ever seen.  Many writers who offer warnings of cultural and technological trends through science fiction do so in a ham-fisted fashion, but Jonze’s script seems to have a deep respect for its characters and their deepest desires above any greater message, and his film is all the more powerful for it.  Never do you feel as if Jonze is judging his human subjects, but at the same time, his indictment and lament of their hopeless grasping for meaning is clear and deeply convicting.

Will Win: American Hustle
Jennifer Lawrence does her thing in American Hustle.
While I would not be surprised to see Her take home this award, it will likely be given to David O. Russell, a director who has seen a lot of love from the Academy in recent years.  I do not see Russell taking home the prize for best director, and that means many times that voters will vote in consolation for a writing award…

Weakest Nominee: American Hustle
… Which is too bad, because the screenplay for Hustle is the least meaningful of the bunch.  It is certainly well crafted and fun, but the film is an expert riff on the gangster genre rather than being anything truly original.  While I respect the writing for its tightly twisting plot and amusing characters, it just doesn’t add up to much in the end.

Best Non-Nominee: Inside Llewyn Davis
Oscar Issac sings a fantastic song in Inside Llewyn Davis.
The Coen brothers are the most consistent and meticulous writers working today, and Inside Llewyn Davis represents possibly their most mature work to date.  I simply adore this film – it respects its audience and offers an involving character portrait that I found deeply affecting.  There are so many moments that I found myself floored because of what the Coens didn’t do – despite creating a desire for resolution and reconciliation, they never once give into the impulse to offer convenient answers or turns in their story.  In doing, they leave viewers with an abundance to contemplate and communicate more about their subject than they would ever do with overt statements.  It is easy to tell someone about the effects of grief, but this film captures its powerfully melancholy grip and invites you to feel its paralyzing uncertainty.


Should Win: Her
Like David, I couldn’t even grasp that this was Jonze’s first screenplay. (He has twice directed Kaufman scripts, which are also fantastic, of course).  If I was surprised by anything else, it was how deeply felt this film is.  It’s an extremely emotional screenplay, with perfect dialogue and beautifully written characters with real honest depth of feeling.  I also want to take this space though and point out the fantastic, poignant, and quirky work that Alexander Payne turned in here for Nebraska.  Another beautiful screenplay, this often sad, sometimes bleak, but ultimately lovely look at the lives of a senile old Midwestern man and his lost son resonated with me because of it’s fantastic drawing of Midwestern family culture.  Great work.
Midwestern family in Nebraska

Will Win: Her
This is subject to change on my final prediction list on Oscar night.  I’m going to remain hopeful for this one and choose Her, as it’s won a few precursors and seems to have a pretty decent shot – the Academy may very well choose to give this award to this film as its token.  American Hustle is its biggest competition, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it won, just disappointed, because like you said it’s the…

Weakest Nominee: American Hustle
It’s tightly woven and expertly plotted, but the problem is it is shallow and seems to lack any real stakes excepting the scenes with Robert De Niro.  I should also like to point out that Dallas Buyers Club is a weak nominee in this field.  The script is good yes, but the film is made by its committed performances, not the film making itself, and the script occasionally gets a bit on the ham-fisted side.

Best Non-Nominee: Upstream Color
It makes (some) sense, promise!
Inside Llewyn Davis is the typical glorious Coen script, but I’m going to go with the tightly woven Upstream Color.  Writer/director Shane Carruth (Primer) builds a looping mystery that rewards multiple viewings, while managing to have a film that is ultimately about identity and loss.  It’s twisty and perplexing, but that it makes sense in the end is absolutely mind-blowing for a film about pigs and psychedelic worms.