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.

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