Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Oscar Predictions 2014: The Major Awards

After running through the Technical Awards yesterday, today it's time to take a long hard look at the big awards, the ones that tend to get the most play in the press and can add a couple million more on to a film's box office tally. (And help to immortalise a film as a work of art or whatever.) First let's take a moment to remember those we've lost this past year.

Okay. In the words of God, let's get on with it.

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year


The Broken Circle Breakdown: Belgium
The Great Beauty: Italy
The Hunt: Denmark
The Missing Picture: Cambodia
Omar: Palestine

This is probably the biggest spoiler of all the categories. Even though the Short Subject categories can be hard to judge, that's more due to the shorts being so under-discussed that it can be hard to judge if any of them is a frontrunner. Foreign Language is different because even when there is a frontrunner like a Pan's Labyrinth or The White Ribbon, they generally lose to less heralded works like The Lives of Others and The Secret in Their Eyes. The clear frontrunner this year is Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty, which has received rapturous reviews and has done very well at many of the other award ceremonies over the past few months, but the category can be so unpredictable that I'm wondering if The Broken Circle Breakdown might sneak in. Since The Great Beauty seems to have a stronger campaign behind it, I think it'll probably win through on the night (though that probably means that Omar will win, surprising everyone).

Best Animated Feature


The Croods: Chris Sanders, Kirk De Micco, Kristine Belson
Despicable Me 2: Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin, Christopher Meledandri
Ernest & Celestine: Benjamin Renner, Didier Brunner
Frozen: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Peter Del Vecho
The Wind Rises: Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki

This seems like a two-way battle between Frozen, which has been a huge critical and commercial success, and The Wind Rises, which has been very successful globally, as all Miyazaki films have been, but has been received a little more cooly than his past work. This largely seems to be down to its subject matter - the film tells the story of the man who helped design planes that were used to devastating effect by the Japanese during World War II, and takes a fairly non-judgemental view of his actions, instead asking whether an artist is responsible for the things people do with their creations. Miyazaki announced that he was retiring after the film was finished (something which he's said on two past occasions, but let's assume he's not Sinatra-ing us all again) which adds an extra layer of melancholy fascination to The Wind Rises, but I'm going to go for Frozen in this category since both films are being pushed for consideration by Disney, and they seem to be pushing Frozen that little bit harder.

Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay


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

I'd dearly love Before Midnight to take this one as recognition of what a great achievement the whole Before trilogy has been (and may continue to be, since there's no reason why Linklater, Delpy and Hawke can't keep making them every nine years) but none of them are darlings of the Academy, so their nomination feels more token (if deserved) than anything else. As beautifully weird as it would be for Steve Coogan to win an Oscar, I don't think Philomena has enough oomph behind it to take such a big award, while behind-the-scenes murmurings suggest that The Wolf of Wall Street has divided Academy voters quite sharply, with one voter supposedly telling Scorsese that he should be ashamed of himself for making it. That's not a solid foundation on which to win awards. Since I think 12 Years a Slave has a very, very strong chance at Picture (and because it isn't facing off against either of its main rivals, American Hustle and Gravity) it'll probably take Screenplay.

Best Writing, Original Screenplay


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

Up to a few weeks ago, I'd have probably thought Woody Allen was the frontrunner for Original Screenplay, considering how well-received Blue Jasmine has been and what a force he is in the category (he's received more nominations for Original Screenplay than any other writer). In light of the recent rekindling of media attention about the allegations of sexual abuse involving his adopted daughter, I think that any enthusiasm towards his work has probably cooled. Not that Allen himself would care, since he's notoriously dismissive of the Oscars anyway, but for the purpose of prediction it needs to be taken into account. That leaves the two biggest contenders as Her and American Hustle, and I think that Her has the slight edge because it is nothing if not original. There's also a possibility that the heavily improvisational aspect of American Hustle might count against it, though I'm not sure how heavily that angle has been pushed in the coverage (and it didn't stop M*A*S*H from winning for screenplay back in 1971).

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role


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

Again, this comes down to a two-way contest between two of the films with the biggest momentum. For the longest time, it seemed like Lupita Nyong'o was a shoo-in for 12 Years a Slave, but I now think that things has swung in the direction of Jennifer Lawrence for American Hustle. Lawrence is a darling of the Academy (having won Best Actress last year for Silver Linings Playbook) and Hollywood in general, and her performance is one of the most exhilarating and memorable parts of American Hustle.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role


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

Even though it's probably my least favourite of the nominees, I think that Jared Leto winning for Dallas Buyers Club is an inevitability at this point. He's been clearing up at many of the other big awards ceremonies, with most of the exceptions being instances where he was not eligible. Considering  that he seemed to be in the wilderness for a long time, the passion and acceptance that has come with being in Dallas Buyers Club seems like it can only end with the validation of winning.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role


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

The frontrunner for Best Actress was Cate Blanchett back in August when Blue Jasmine was released to reviews that almost universally mentioned how "Oscar-worthy" it is, and she's still the frontrunner now. She staked her claim as the winner months ago and none of the other performers have managed to establish much of a foothold. This is real "Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln" territory.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role


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

As in the Supporting Actor category, Dallas Buyers Club seems to have the clear advantage, not merely in terms of the performance itself, which features a couple of very Oscar-friendly attributes (weight-loss, fatal illness, "triumph of the human spirit" bullshit), but also in terms of the broader context within which the film exists. Much as Jared Leto seemed to waste several years not appearing in films - and often appearing in terrible ones when he deigned to at all - Matthew McConaughey spent much of the last decade squandering his natural charm and charisma on pretty bad movies. He made a conscience effort to stop appearing in cheesy romcoms a few years ago and has built up an interesting body of work in films like Magic Mike, Killer Joe and Mud, as well as HBO's darkly involving miniseries True Detective. While I think the film itself doesn't hold together terribly well, Dallas Buyers Club works pretty much solely thanks to McConaughey's performance, and it seems only right that his act of reinvention end with him picking up an Oscar on Sunday night.

Best Achievement in Directing


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

It's probably prudent to immediately discount Scorsese and Payne, both of whom made good-to-great films but seem to have been nominated more to fill out the numbers than anything else. That leaves us with the central conflict this year; the three-way battle between 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle and Gravity. 12 Years a Slave is obviously the most significant of the three, and Steve McQueen winning would be historic for the Academy, but it also feels as if some of the heat for the film has cooled off as the awards campaigns have dragged on and on, while American Hustle has just been getting hotter and hotter, like some sort of perpetual motion machine. I think the waxing and waning fortunes of the two might cancel each other out, whereas Gravity has remained a constant favourite throughout the last six months, owing to the fact that, whatever its weaknesses from a writing point of view, it is a real directing feat. It's a work of technical brilliance that is dazzling in the way that the other films aren't, and I think it will win for no other reason than because its competitors aren't nearly as forceful and showy in their visuals. Again, "Best" can often mean "Most."

Best Motion Picture of the Year


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

Again, it's necessary to weed out the films that don't have a significant chance of winning: Her, Nebraska, Wolf of Wall Street, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena and Captain Phillips, while all worthy of their nominations, won't win. Even if they have strengths in other areas, none of them have the support or buzz that 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and American Hustle have. Gravity can probably be discounted, too, since there is a strong bias against genre films in general, and while Gravity technically isn't a science fiction film, it seems to be perceived as one and definitely is an action blockbuster; a variety of film which very rarely gets the attention that they deserve. (Perhaps only comedy is less appreciated by the Academy.) Which brings us to the contest that seems to have defined the entire awards season; the early presumptive frontrunner 12 Years a Slave versus the latecomer American Hustle.

The same thing happened last year with Silver Linings Playbook, which was also directed by David O. Russell, and I feel that we'll see the same result; American Hustle will lose to 12 Years a Slave. The main reason, other than the sense that everyone says that 12 Years a Slave is the more Important of the two (and that it almost feels like a film that needs to win), is that when people talk about American Hustle, they tend to praise aspects of it or individual performances, but are less complimentary of the film as a whole. 12 Years a Slave is pretty much only talked about as a film in a holistic sense, and that difference in perception might be the key to victory.


Okay, that's everything. I'll revisit these predictions on Monday to post my thoughts on the Oscar ceremony and see how my scorecard matches up.