01 March 2014

86th Oscar Predictions (Part II)


So you've come back for more, eh?
If you haven't already, you can go here to read Part I of my predictions for the 86th Academy Awards.  If you don't care much about the tech awards, well, you can just continue on and check out my predictions and personal picks for both writing categories, all four acting awards, achievement in directing, and of course, Best Picture.



Here are the screenplay nominees:

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Before Midnight
Captain Phillips
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club
Her
Nebraska

As a screenwriter, I try to read as many scripts as I can, usually before I see the movie.  This year I was able to read every nominated script except Blue Jasmine as Woody Allen scripts are tough to get a hold of.  Also, I should warn that as a screenwriter, I might go on a bit more with these categories than anywhere else.


12 Years a Slave
During the precursor awards season, 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street were picking up most of the adapted screenplay kudos, with 12 Years a Slave grabbing the lion's share.  Captain Phillips was awarded by the WGA, but 12 Years a Slave (and Philomena, which won the BAFTA) wasn't eligible there.  (The WGA has the weirdest rules for eligibility and many British or British-financed films don't qualify.) 

One can make a feasible argument for each nominee to win: 
  • Before Midnight has the sentimental factor and respect from the AMPAS writers' branch (Before Sunset was also an Oscar nominee seven years ago).  But it's also the only non-Best Picture nominee and the last time a non-Best Picture nominee won this category was 1998 when Bill Condon won for Gods and Monsters
  • Captain Phillips is a taut, suspenseful ride that puts you right in the middle of Richard Phillips' plight.  But despite its WGA win, I see the film being considered as more of a directorial achievement than a writing one.
  • Philomena has the emotional pull and a gut-wrenching true story in its corner.  But it is a British film and British films have struggled recently in this category.
  • 12 Years a Slave adapts the harrowing, almost forgotten, true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped into slavery.  John Ridley's script is intelligent and sharp, never once talking down to the reader.  There are some parts in the script that drag -- however, those scenes were cut sometime before the film's release -- and some of the characterizations feel forced or overdone.
  • The Wolf of Wall Street is easily the most entertaining of the scripts.  It's overtly humorous and satirical (though perhaps too satirical that some viewers/readers missed that aspect) and full of crisp quotable dialogue.  But it suffers from the opposite infliction of 12 Years a Slave:   Where Slave is a tightly constructed film, its script can be plodding, while Wolf's script is tight and well-paced and the film meanders.  But it does take you on one helluva ride.
What this category really comes down to is momentum.  And despite missing out on the WGA and BAFTA, 12 Years a Slave is chugging along with its plethora of critics' notices and awards.


Her
On to Original Screenplay, Spike Jonze's Her has been a juggernaut leading up to Oscar night.  It's fresh, timely, and above all, original.  Plus, whenever a movie can make an audience care about an inorganic entity, it's hard to deny its power.

American Hustle might have been gathering buzz over the past few weeks, but who's to tell what was in the script and what was improvised on the set?  That is to say, does American Hustle showcase great writing or its actors' abilities to create the story from their characters?  Although, if the Academy is looking to award David O. Russell -- since 2010, he's received three Best Director nominations, helmed three Best Picture nominees, and directed eleven Oscar-nominated performances (with three bringing home Oscars) -- this is the place.

Dallas Buyers Club is more of an actors' film.  The script was good and told a remarkable story, but if it didn't get the right cast, it wouldn't have been anything special.  Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto made that movie, and a nomination here is victory enough.


Nebraska
It's no surprise that Nebraska was nominated for its script -- Alexander Payne is definitely an Academy darling when it comes to writing, having won two Adapted Screenplay Oscars.  What's surprising is Payne didn't write it.  Credit for this quirky, yet intimate portrait of a man (and family) of no consequence goes to Bob Nelson, landing an Oscar nomination for his first produced feature.  The strength of the script is its silences, never more apparent than when the family walks through Woody's childhood home.  The story is specific, yes, but like all great stories, its message is universal.

And now an embarrassing admission:  I haven't seen Blue Jasmine yet.  But I can say that since Woody Allen won two years ago for Midnight in Paris (giving him three writing Oscars) and the big P.R. nightmare he's involved with that he's got next to no chance of breaking the five-way tie with Charles Brackett, Paddy Chayefsky, Francis Ford Coppola, and Billy Wilder to become the first person to win four screenplay Oscars.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Prediction:  12 Years a Slave
My Pick:  The Wolf of Wall Street

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Prediction:  Her
My Pick:  Nebraska

And now onto what most people consider the most important parts of the night -- the acting categories.  I've seen all but two performances (Blue Jasmine, you are my bane of the 2013 Oscars!), but for the most part, there haven't been many surprises with who's been winning for their work this year.

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

Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Since early December, Jared Leto has been picking up hardware for his role as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club.  It's a good performance, to be sure, and pretty much as close to a sure thing as you can get.  Michael Fassbender is a potential upset, but I thought his performance was one-dimensional -- he played a twisted, sadistic slave owner and that's about it.  A win by surprise nominee Jonah Hill (now a two-time Oscar nominee) could indicate a potential The Wolf of Wall Street night, but it's difficult to see that happening.  Barkhad Abdi delivered a nuanced performance, if a bit thin, and Bradley Cooper should just be happy to have been nominated.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska


Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
This has easily been the tightest acting race of the season, so it's really only productive to focus on the actresses running neck-and-neck.  Jennifer Lawrence pulled out some surprise wins from critics' groups and picked up the Golden Globe, but it's been all Lupita Nyong'o ever since (excluding a hiccup with the BAFTA, which Lawrence won).  What it comes down to is whether Jennifer Lawrence should join Luise Rainer, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Jason Robards, and Tom Hanks as a consecutive acting Oscar winner.  Also in play is American Hustle's four acting nominations.  Since the introduction of the supporting acting categories in 1936, only two films (My Man Godfrey and Sunset Blvd.) out of 14 with nominations in all acting categories have not won at least one acting Oscar.  With the other acting categories seemingly locked down, this is where the win would probably occur.  And on top of everything else, Jennifer Lawrence is Hollywood's golden girl.  So...

ACTRESS
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
 
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
So obviously I can't say anything about powerhouse front-runner Cate Blanchett, but I've got this:  Will Woody Allen's recent P.R. troubles affect Blanchett's support?  In her recent wins, Allen has been conspicuously absent from her acceptance speeches.  Granted, the personal problems of one person shouldn't affect the art of another, but nevertheless, there's still an elephant in the room. 
 
There's been talk of Amy Adams (on this, her fifth nomination) sneaking past for the win -- possibly giving American Hustle an acting win -- but as much as I adore her, this was nowhere near her better Doubt and The Master.  Meryl Streep just won (her third Oscar) two years ago, so she'll have wait another 12 nominations before she's awarded again.  Sandra Bullock cares the weightlessness of her movie on her shoulders, but the thinness of the character has me looking toward Judi Dench and her fantastic portrayal of a woman burdened and saved by her faith.  I thought Dench should've won in 2006 for Notes on a Scandal (nothing against Helen Mirren), but she's become similar to Streep:  A great actress constantly giving great performances so let's wait until we absolutely have to award her.
turns in

ACTOR
Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
 
Alright, alright, alright...  Yeah, Matthew McConaughey has been steamrolling the awards circuit, picking up the Golden Globe, Critics' Choice, and SAG.  And it truly is a remarkable performance.  But I have to wonder if it's a remarkable performance because it's a remarkable performance or if it's a remarkable performance because it was so unexpectedly delivered by Matthew McConaughey.  You know, the guy from Failure to Launch.  And How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.  And Sahara.  And The Wedding Planner.  And Fool's Gold.  And you get the idea.
 
If 12 Years a Slave or American Hustle have the makings of a sweep going into the final few awards, it's possible their respective lead actors could get caught up and end up a winner.  And for a while, Bruce Dern seemed a likely winner, but his subdued performance -- no matter how lived-in it feels -- is no make against showier competition.
 

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
I think, though, that Leonardo DiCaprio is a viable threat to win:  Outside of the critics' awards, he and McConaughey (from my research) never went up against each other; this is DiCaprio's fourth acting nomination; some believe (myself included) that he was sadly overlooked by the Academy last year (for Django Unchained); and while this might be an odd reason/factoid, this is his second Oscar nomination in a Martin Scorsese film.  Why does that matter?  Robert De Niro (for Raging Bull) and Joe Pesci (for Goodfellas) both won Oscars for their second nominations in a Martin Scorsese film.  But honestly, it's a flat-out, balls-out, no-holds-barred performance that DiCaprio gave his all to.  Plus, every year I allow myself to ruin my predictions by having a passion pick in the acting categories.  Last year, I stuck with Christoph Waltz, which paid off; two years ago, I hung with Brad Pitt (for Moneyball), and wrecked my ballot.  This year, DiCaprio is my passion pick.
 
SUPPORTING ACTOR
Prediction:  Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
My Pick:  Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
 
SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Prediction:  Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
My Pick:  June Squibb, Nebraska
 
ACTRESS
Prediction:  Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
My Pick:  Judi Dench, Philomena
 
ACTOR
Prediction:  Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
My Pick:  Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
 
--------------------------------------------------------
 
DIRECTOR
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
 

Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
The meat and potatoes of the directors' race is if Alfonso Cuaron can keep his current pace of winner nearly every directing award.  Yes, Steve McQueen and Spike Jonze have won here and there, but Cuaron won the Golden Globe, Critics' Choice, BAFTA, and (most importantly) the DGA.  Since the DGA began handing out accolades in 1948 (that's 65 years) the winner for feature film directing has won the Oscar all but seven times -- a good 90%.  Outside of awards and history, Cuaron's work on Gravity is incredible.  He pretty much had to invent the technology in order to make the film.  He had one character to rely on for about two-thirds of the film and make it work.  He did something that not even Kubrick did in 2001 -- he put the audience in space.  (Okay, so Kubrick didn't have IMAX of 3D, but still.) 

On the other hand, however, you have Steve McQueen.  If Cuaron put us in space, McQueen made us feel as close to slavery more than any director had done before.  And his framing and shots are poetic -- they're beautifully composed, belying the darkness of the story.  Obviously, his approach is in radical contrast to Cuaron's, so the way you vote depends on if you want to award pushing the technological envelope or quiet intensity.
 
In the end,  I think it's going to be difficult for the Academy to ignore the Cuaron tidal wave.

DIRECTOR
Prediction:  Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
My Pick:  Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

And now for the biggie:

PICTURE
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

I'll start off by stating that The Wolf of Wall Street was my favorite film of 2013 with To the Wonder and Upstream Color right on its tail (See what I did there?  Puns are fun!).  But I know it has no chance to win.  In fact, Best Picture has ultimately come down to three films:  American Hustle, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave.

Now, the thing to keep in mind with Best Picture is that it's decided upon based on a preferential ballot.  It takes a bit to explain how it works, but this video does a great job, so watch it to see how this'll go down.

American Hustle
All right.  So in one corner, you've got American Hustle.  It's coming in tied for the most nominations (indicates broad support), but four of it's ten noms are in the acting categories -- but seeing as the actors' branch is the largest voting bloc in the Academy that's nowhere near a bad thing.  I mean, it won SAG Ensemble, so we know the actors love it.  But other than that and the NYFCC, it hasn't won a top prize.  Though a look back at history shows that in 2005, Crash had a similar situation.

Gravity
In this corner there's Gravity.  While Alfonso Cuaron has been cleaning up, the film itself hasn't gotten nearly as many best film citations.  But it did win the PGA (tying with 12 Years a Slave) and the last six films to win the PGA have won the Oscar.  Against Gravity, however, is that it's a genre movie, basically has two characters, and wasn't nominated for SAG Ensemble.  But there are precedents for two of those drawbacks:  The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won in 2003 and Braveheart took Best Picture in 1995 without a SAG Ensemble nom.

12 Years a Slave
Finally, there's 12 Years a Slave, a film that fits the typical Oscar mold.  It's a period place, it's dramatic, it's intense, it's based on actual events, it feels (and is) important...  And where Cuaron has been sweeping the directing awards, 12 Years a Slave has been winning the best picture awards, including the Golden Globe, Critics' Choice, BAFTA, and the PGA (again, tying with Gravity).  Many are predicting a split between Director and Picture this year, and the road leading Oscar night hasn't indicated anything otherwise.  While one could argue that not winning SAG or the DGA and only having the PGA hurts its chances at coming out on top at the Oscars, the above PGA stat with Gravity also applies to 12 Years a Slave.  Also, back in 2000, Gladiator won the PGA and no other guild awards and walked away with Best Picture.  Interestingly, the 2000 Oscars featured another tight, three-film race with three different films winning the top guild prizes.  But that's an analysis for another day.

PICTURE
Prediction:  American Hustle
My Pick:  The Wolf of Wall Street

I know I'm going against the "experts" and consensus by prediction American Hustle, but if you look at the Best Pictures winner since the Academy expanded the field and started the preferential ballot, all of them have been rather benign.  The Hurt Locker, The King's Speech, The Artist, and Argo aren't really that challenging of films (Okay, The Hurt Locker, not so much, but one could argue awarding Kathryn Bigelow became the priority that year.).  They're good films, to be sure, but compared to some of the films they were up against, they're rather vanilla -- everybody likes them, but nobody loves them.  That's what a preferential ballot gets you.

So, looking at the three films with the most legitimate shot at winning Best Picture, it's almost too obvious which is the least offensive, least divisive, and most vanilla.  American Hustle is a fun, entertaining film, but it's not going to affect you the same way 12 Years a Slave or Her or The Wolf of Wall Street will.  It's also got a great ensemble, an actors' director who let the cast ad lib to the point that the plot was ignored, and you have a good time watching it.

And now, for convenience's sake, my predictions for the 86th Academy Awards:

PICTURE:  American Hustle
DIRECTOR:  Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
ACTOR:  Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
ACTRESS:  Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
SUPPORTING ACTOR:  Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
SUPPORTING ACTRESS:  Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:  12 Years a Slave
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY:  Her
CINEMATOGRAPHY:  Gravity
EDITING:  American Hustle
PRODUCTION DESIGN:  The Great Gatsby
COSTUME DESIGN:  The Great Gatsby
SCORE:  Gravity
SONG:  "Let It Go," Frozen
SOUND MIXING:  Gravity
SOUND EDITING:  Gravity
VISUAL EFFECTS:  Gravity
MAKEUP:  Dallas Buyers Club
DOCUMENTARY:  The Act of Killing
ANIMATED FEATURE:  Frozen

6 Wins -- Gravity
3 Wins -- American Hustle (Best Picture)
2 Wins -- Dallas Buyers Club
          Frozen
          The Great Gatsby
1 Win -- The Act of Killing
         Blue Jasmine
         Her
         12 Years a Slave
         The Wolf of Wall Street

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