By Laura Leon, Ann Morrow and Shawn Stone
There are four great and five very good films in this year’s top category, which makes the 2014 Academy Awards a success. In other words, it’s impossible for the award to go anything as bad as such legendary clunkers as Shakespeare in Love, Cimarron, The English Patient and Slumdog Millionaire.
The five “very good” films are American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Her and Philomena, all of which have a chance to win Oscars in other categories. Of these, only Hustle has an outside shot at Best Picture; hopefully, the film’s way-too-pat ending will keep it from winning.
The four “great” films are Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street and Nebraska. It isn’t just the effects that make Gravity an instant classic; director Alfonso Cuaron is as audacious in his use of sentiment as CGI. The Wolf of Wall Street is the best of the collaborations between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio; it’s exuberant filmmaking and trenchant social commentary. (It also proves there’s no such thing as too many hookers or too much blow.) Nebraska is atmospheric, beautifully shot and perfectly acted; it gets at uncomfortable truths about family in a gently comic way. In the end, the harrowing 12 Years a Slave probably will win. And it deserves to, if only because director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley spare no one in their portrait of one of the original American sins—especially the audience.
This award should go to Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity, despite the oft-heard complaint that the dialogue is weak. This complaint is quite arguable because, well, what kind of conversations would people be having, especially when it’s just two people left, as they’re fighting for their lives in a relentlessly inhospitable environment? That the director let the characters develop through their actions can be seen as one of the film’s strengths. But mostly Cuaron deserves the gold for marshaling the film’s cutting-edge creativity—from the script that he co-wrote to the groundbreaking, lost-in-space special effects—into a thrilling, and ethereally moving, meditation on the meaning of life, or more specifically, the actions taken that give a life its meaning.
At the other end of this year’s directing spectrum is the very worthy 12 Years a Slave, in which Steve McQueen gives a burnished authenticity, untainted by melodrama or sanctimony, to a true-life atrocity (the enslavement of free man Solomon Northup) while steadfastly weaving through the evils, both greater and lesser, of slavery in America.
Though not as ambitious as these two films, Nebraska is perhaps the year’s most poignant directing effort, as Alexander Payne’s low-key (so low-key it’s in black-and-white) family drama takes an absurd road trip to get at the moldering heart of a family, and the patriarch (Bruce Dern) that none of them really knows. As for The Wolf of Wall Street, about the debauched downfall of a charismatic stock-market con man (Leonardo DiCaprio), Martin Scorsese is repeating himself, and doing so with a heavier hand than is customary for his audience-wowing bravura. Meanwhile, American Hustle, David O. Russell’s totally entertaining satire on financial cons and corruption, is too beholden to Scorsese’s style for serious consideration.
This year, the field for Best Actress is jam-packed with stellar performances—even Meryl Streep’s hammy take on boozing (August: Osage County) had its finer moments. The field for Best Picture has, in recent years, grown to a ridiculous number, one which only made sense back in the pioneer days of Oscar when there could conceivably be more than five films worthy of serious consideration. This year, however, might have been a good one to expand the field for lead actresses, even if only to include Julie Delpy (Before Midnight) and Paulina Garcia (Gloria).
As it is, the early buzz for Sandra Bullock’s vulnerable performance as an endangered astronaut in Gravity seems to have died down, as the race continues to pit bettors’ fave Cate Blanchett, for Blue Jasmine, against a surging Amy Adams, for American Hustle. It seems unlikely that the David O. Russell film will nab top honors, which may result in the voters trying to give at least one prize to one of the quadruplet acting nominees; but I’m betting that that win will be for Jennifer Lawrence, which may nip Adams’ potential in the bud. Blanchett’s movie seemed like it came out so long ago, but despite that, her exquisite performance continues to haunt those who braved the possibility that this would be one of those lesser Woody Allen films that’s all about his ego. There’s still Judi Dench, a perennial fan favorite, and to be sure, she was her usual outstanding self in Philomena, combining pluck, dignity and intense faith in such a way that you don’t just want her to be your long-lost mother, you want to play bingo with her. My money this year remains on Blanchett, with the expectation that she’ll continue to earn nods well into the future.
Bruce Dern is gently affecting in Nebraska, and Leonardo DiCaprio is flamboyantly absorbing in The Wolf of Wall Street. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings the required dignity and humanity to 12 Years a Slave, and Christian Bale expands his comic range by a quantum leap in American Hustle. Yet there was only one performance this year that was absolutely integral to the success of the film it’s in, and for which no other actor is now imaginable, and that is former rom-com studmuffin Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodruff, a bigoted, sleazy, and drug-addicted Texas redneck who is forced to discover his humanity by the death sentence of getting AIDS in the 1980s in Dallas Buyers Club. From the first shock of his gaunt and haggard appearance, to Ron’s eventual concession of tenderness toward the gay men he once despised, McConaughey’s portrayal of a man taking charge of his own destiny is a continual revelation.
Best Supporting Actor
This is another category with an embarrassment of rich performances. Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) and Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) are two of our finest actors, and it’s refreshing to see them continue to grow and earn broader recognition. Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), in my opinion, started as sort of a goofball, but then I came around and fell for his excellent timing and, particularly, the way he exudes far more than just the chubby loser vibe too many larger (at least at one point) performers milk for too long. All three gave integral performances, the key to this category.
For my money, however, this is a two-dog hunt. Those old enough to remember, and kind enough to pretend to, may recall that this writer raved about the young Jared Leto when he appeared in that too-short-lived TV series My So-Called Life. And it wasn’t just because he was perfectly cast as the dreamy object of a teenage girl’s adoration. He was soulful and had acting chops, even then. I was delighted to see him return to screen after a long absence, and I loved how he reacted to journalists’ collective “uh duh” questions about what he did to lose all the weight needed to effectively personify an AIDS-infected transvestite in Dallas Buyers Club. (His answer: “I didn’t eat.”). Leto’s Raylene is complex, a hard shell over a very vulnerable being, and her interaction with Matthew McConaughey is worthy of its own series of road films, except for the inconvenient fact that both die.
That leads me to my real favorite, Barkhad Abdi, a novice actor who completely, effortlessly gripped my soul as I watched Captain Phillips. OK, yeah, he’s playing a pirate, and as such is prepared to do some pretty bad things, but—and this is in large part to director Paul Greengrass—we understand what drives this desperate young man. But his performance is not just about desperation. There is grit, and there is raw intelligence. Abdi’s very presence, the impossible duo of sinew and bone, is almost itself another layer to the character’s personality. Throughout the movie, I kept whispering to my sons that I hoped this character didn’t die, but somehow could have the chance to live, and maybe even soar. I think Abdi will do just that Sunday night.
Best Supporting Actress
This is probably the weakest of the acting categories, thanks to two bum nominations: Jennifer Lawrence for American Hustle and Julia Roberts for August: Osage County. For starters, Lawrence is a decade too young for her role, and her Jersey accent’s lousy. Roberts manages to keep her dignity in a genuinely awful film, but does she deserve an Academy Award for that? The other three nominees are, at least, deserving: Sally Hawkins for Blue Jasmine, June Squibb for Nebraska and Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave. Squibb is particularly delightful as Bruce Dern’s exasperated but loving wife, but newcomer Nyong’o is going to (and deserves to) win for her wrenching performance in the devastating 12 Years a Slave.
Best Writing (Original Screenplay, Adapted Screenplay)
David O. Russell and Eric Warren have a good shot to win the Original Screenplay Oscar for American Hustle, and that’s a shame, because the tidiness of the screenplay is the undoing of the picture. The other nominees all managed to create something darker and more nuanced: Woody Allen with Blue Jasmine; Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack with Dallas Buyers Club; SAG Award-winner Spike Jonze with Her; and Bob Nelson with Nebraska.
On the other hand, John Ridley deserves his likely win for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) for 12 Years a Slave. Ridley, who proved with Three Kings (co-written with David O. Russell) and Red Tails that he’s an expert mythmaker, here takes the opposite tack in his treatment of a classic slave narrative. Of the other nominees—including Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope for Philomena, SAG winner Billy Ray for Captain Phillips, Terence Winter for The Wolf of Wall Street—the most sympathy must go to Before Midnight authors Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Every nine years they write a sequel to Before Sunrise and get an Oscar nomination; every nine years they lose. See you in 2023, guys.
Best Documentary Snub
Not nominated for the Best Documentary category is the most popular doc of the year: Blackfish, a gripping and heart-rending examination of the cruelty done to orcas in captivity. Using these intelligent, emotionally evolved and extremely large mammals as entertainers in marine parks has indirectly led to several human deaths, including two at SeaWorld. With billions in ticket prices at stake, SeaWorld launched a media campaign to discredit Blackfish, and the Academy took the side of the lucrative marine park industry by ignoring it all together.