The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has given film lovers something special at this year’s Oscars: For the first time since I can remember, there will actually be suspense at the awards ceremony, and not just in a few categories.
Even savvy movie fans who have kept informed on how each nominated film has done at other award presentations will have trouble filling out ballots for their Oscar pools, and that is a cool thing. Don’t get me wrong, statistical analysis and risk assessment are great for things such as selecting your retirement portfolio, but when it comes to the movies, you still want to keep that emotional attachment to certain films intact. You want to be able to savor the rapid heart rate that happens between when the envelope is ripped open and the winner is announced.
Tonight, the category that will create the most heart palpitations is the big one, best picture. Since the nominees were announced, the top three contenders (the historical 12 Years A Slave, the special-effects extravaganza Gravity and American Hustle) have been in a dead heat for the top prize.
At the Producers Guild of America awards, usually a reliable predictor of the best picture winner, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave both won in the organization’s first tie. It would be entertaining if these three films split the votes and Her, the true best picture of the year, would come up for the upset. But in all reality, I believe 12 Years a Slave will win, and the film’s director, Steve McQueen, mostly known for films Hunger and Shame, will become a very in-demand creative force.
Throughout the history of the Oscars, it has been uncommon for the winner of best director to not have directed the best picture. But with the academy’s new format, which allows for a wider reach of films, I think we will see it happen more.
This year we will see it occur when Alfonso Curaón wins for Gravity. The academy won’t give him the award so much for the film, which is still good, but more for the innovative approach he took in making the film; it probably changed the course for filmmaking in the future, which is remarkable. It is still a close race, and the academy may give the award to Steve McQueen, but that is not likely.
The other close race is for best supporting actress. Even though everyone nominated is ridiculously talented, the real nail-biter is between Lupita Nyong’o from 12 Years a Slave and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle. After all, it wouldn’t be award season without Lawrence.
To be fair, Lawrence’s portrayal of Rosalyn was the best part of American Hustle and it deserves recognition, but is it enough for the academy to give the 23-year-old her second Oscar in two years? I don’t think so. This year the award is going to Nyong’o.
There are a few other acting categories that are much easier to predict. For lead actor, it would be great to see Bruce Dern accept honors for his work in Nebraska. But the story this year has been about Matthew McConaughey’s renaissance, and the academy voters want to be part of that tale, so he will win for Dallas Buyer’s Club. Also, McConaughey’s co-star Jared Leto will win best supporting actor, as he has won nearly every award for the category leading up to the Academy Awards.
For lead actress, Cate Blanchett has put critics and fans over the moon in Blue Jasmine and there is no reason to think that will change when the award is announced. She won the Screen Actors Guild honor, and everything else for her role as Jasmine. Blanchett’s only real competition is Amy Adams in American Hustle, whose role was not nearly as showy as Lawrence’s, but still just as effective. Had Blanchett not been on the scene this year, it would be a very different race.
As someone who really responds to, and respects screenwriting, it is great that the screenplay categories are really slugging it out this year. For best original screenplay, the award often goes to either the writing that created the most memorable characters, or to the writing that told the most original story. It should come as no surprise that American Hustle and Her are the most talked about nominations, which are both terrifically written films. For my pick I have to go with what I believe is the most remarkable piece of writing and that is Her, written by Spike Jonze. The story of a man who falls in love with his operating system walks the line between comedy and tragedy perfectly, and the world that is shaped is both surreal and completely believable. Spike Jonze is one of the most original voices in American filmmaking, and he should be winning not just for the script, but for his direction, as well.
The other writing category, best adapted screenplay, is not quite as tense a race as it is for best original screenplay, but there still may be a few surprises. The clear favorite, and my pick to win is 12 Years a Slave. But, I want to say it is a shame that Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s script for Philomena is not getting more of the spotlight, as they brought humanity and humor to a tragic story of a woman who seeks the son she gave up for adoption decades before. The writing is seamless, and that is what you want when you have Judi Dench as your title character and Steve Coogan as the straight face.
Possibly the strangest slate of films are those up for best documentary. Favorites such as Blackfish and Stories We Tell were not even nominated. But the biggest documentary of the year 20 Feet From Stardom is up for the award and it is my pick to win. The other possible contender is the important The Act of Killing, but the film’s grim subject matter, and turns toward the absurd and sometimes surreal, will probably turn off more than a few academy voters. 20 Feet From Stardom dives headfirst into the lives of backup singers, and endears them, without being patronizing. It is the type of film academy voters love, as well as shows off the fact that documentaries can be just as accessible as narrative films. I hope when 20 Feet From Stardom wins, Darlene Love will be at the podium with the filmmakers, as the film is as good as it is because of her story.
For best foreign language film, there is a close race between The Broken Circle Breakdown from Belgium, The Hunt from Denmark and the Italian entry The Great Beauty, which I believe will win. There simply has not been the kind of campaign from Broken Circle Breakdown and The Hunt as there has been for The Great Beauty, a film that follows a writer, who, with only one novel written, has lived off its fame and money his entire adult life.
The last interesting category is for best animated film since there is a clear favorite in Frozen, and a film by a favorite director of the academy with The Wind Rises. When Frozen wins, and I believe it will, it will be a huge deal for Disney, who has not had a film in recent memory that was such a commercial and critical success. It may send the company in a new, exciting direction. The Wind Rises, which was directed by Toshio Suzuki and the animation master Hayao Miyazaki, was not as well-received, but Miyazaki has the power to make people extremely excited about animated pictures. I think every student or lover of film should spend some serious time with Miyazaki’s library.