Ready or not, the film industry is about to call it a year. It’s Oscar time again this Sunday evening. Millions of people around the world will be glued to their TVs, laptops or
smartphones on that fateful evening, in sheer anticipation of the results. A few lucky ones will see the event live and maybe even get a share of the gold.
Some people are quick to dismiss the Oscars as just a show, and the awards as a popularity contest. The truth is that the Academy is undergoing a period of serious transition. In only a few years, we’ve seen a woman win a Best Director award, more ethnical groups represented than ever before and people seemingly destined for a life of anonymity pulled out of their ordinary lives by well-deserved nominations. Such change is unprecedented. You may not always agree with the Academy members’ choices, but the Oscars do matter — and they’re not all about movies.
Although, let’s be honest, it’s much more fun to talk about the movies — and which of the nominees stand a good chance of winning.
This is the award that’s on most people’s minds — the one that’ll make it into the history books. There are nine nominees this year, all of them strong contenders. It’s a win-win situation for the audience — there are no obvious stinkers on the ballot, so any possible laureate will be applauded and celebrated. However, since all of the nominees are very close in terms of overall quality, there is also, unlike last year with Argo, no clearly marked leader to rally behind.
Three movies have generated the most buzz, and are therefore considered frontrunners.
The first of these would be an obvious choice for the Academy — 12 Years a Slave is daring and essential. Slavery is still a touchy subject for Americans, and it rarely ever gets the cinematic treatment it deserves. Yet, this is not the Schindler’s List-style masterpiece most were waiting for. It has its flaws and poses an unsolvable problem — if it wins, naysayers will claim it an overly political move; if it loses, supporters will blame it on bias.
This is why two other, less problematic contenders are also to be considered. Gravity is this year’s special effects extravaganza with a brain, ala Life of Pi. It takes risks and pulls off a unique, moving and memorable spectacle.
Finally, the dark horse is American Hustle — it is charming, fast-moving and offers a curious blend of drama and comedy, which writer-director David O. Russell is becoming expert at.
One of these three movies is bound to take the gold. They may not ultimately be remembered as the best of 2013, but they all accomplish something new and are well worthy of your attention.
Wait, what’s the difference between producers and directors? Oh, that’s right, the producer is in charge of funding and distribution, whereas the director decides on the artistic choices that can make or break a movie. Now that this is out of the way, it must be said that the main contenders for Best Picture and Best Director are still often one and the same. Usually, the same film wins both, but ever so often, a split can happen.
Last year, we had a similar scenario, where a visually majestic film (Life of Pi) ran against an important drama/thriller (Argo). This is the Academy’s chance to honour both at once, by giving them separate, almost equally prestigious awards. Likewise, this year we may see 12 Years a Slave win Best Picture, and Gravity’s Alfonso Cuarón get lauded for his accomplishments as a visionary director.
Best Actor in a Leading Role
Boy, has Matthew McConaughey gone a long way since the abysmal Failure to Launch. In 2013, he had three movies in theaters, and all three of his performances were worthy of Oscar consideration. The Academy went with Dallas Buyers Club, in which he plays Ron Woodroof, a real-life hustler who became an unlikely hero by defying the unjust Food and Drug Administration and fighting for the rights of AIDS patients. McConaughey fully inhabits his character and plays him in a transformative, nuanced way that never paints him as a true hero. It’s a great performance, and he should win.
Then again, Leonardo DiCaprio is also dazzling as a depraved fraudster in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Much has been said on DiCaprio’s seeming inability to score an Oscar, and he does seem to have been cruelly overlooked on several occasions. He is funny, iron-willed and inventive in Scorsese’s latest, but odds are that the Oscar will elude him once more.
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Controversy surrounding stars has an odd way of erupting right in the middle of Oscar season. This month, Woody Allen’s adopted daughter, Dylan, published an open letter accusing the well-known director of sexual abuse. Cate Blanchett starred in Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine, and she was masterful in portraying an utterly confused and neurotic has-been socialite. Now, she is being accused of guilt by association for working with a director under close scrutiny for a serious crime. Will Academy members be able to overlook the scandal and vote for the contender they feel is the best? Let’s hope so, because Blanchett is an actress at the height of her powers and worth rewarding for her breathtaking new turn.
As an alternative, let’s consider Sandra Bullock, who pulled off a one-woman show in Gravity as an astronaut stranded in space and fighting for survival. Most would agree — this is one of her best roles. She won an Oscar four years ago for The Blind Side, and is even more deserving this time around.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Jared Leto, known to most as the lead singer of 30 Seconds to Mars, has also lead a surprisingly diverse and consistent career as a screen actor. He’s been an overweight psycho in Chapter 27, a drug addict in Requiem for a Dream and now he stars as an AIDS-riddled transvestite in Dallas Buyers Club. It’s a likeable, if overrated, performance and the physical transformation that Leto underwent for the role makes him a top contender.
It is, however, Jonah Hill who deserves the spotlight for his unexpectedly terrific part in The Wolf of Wall Street. His odd, ambitious, at turns hilarious and sickening incarnation of greed is one of the major assets of the movie. He’s never been better, not even in Moneyball, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. In that movie, he had to trade in his sense of humour for bureaucratic drama. This time, he makes it part of his character, and leaves a truly lasting impression.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
This is perhaps the most unpredictable field. It is certainly wide open this year — the win can come from anywhere. Will it be Jennifer Lawrence, who won just last year for Silver Linings Playbook and has now given an equally strong performance in American Hustle? Perhaps so. She is certainly the most deserving one. Could lightning strike twice? Lawrence is one of Hollywood’s brightest, most irreverent new talents, and even if she ends up losing, she seems destined to become an Oscars regular.
But let’s not forget Lupita Nyong’o, who played a brutalized cotton-picker in 12 Years a Slave. Her character felt so genuine, people are still wrapping their heads around the fact that it is her debut performance. It is always a challenge to weigh in on these because it is hard to estimate how much work went into the role and how versatile the actress may prove to be in the future.
Best Original Screenplay
Originality in mainstream filmmaking is slowly dying away, and so Spike Jonze’s Her is in a league all of its own, a remnant of a more glorious past. Jonze, who also wrote the movie, has learned a lot from his collaborations with master screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation). Her, just like the American auteur’s other works, is at once deeply personal and strangely universal. In imagining a romance between a man and his portable device, Jonze examines not only the loneliness and confusion of adult life, but also the very essence of love. His script offers a fresh perspective and an Oscar win would mean a victory for film lovers everywhere.
Following closely behind is American Hustle, which tells an entertaining and well-written story. If the movie wins Best Picture, an award for its screenplay should be no challenge to get. Its many characters are given distinct, fully developed personalities, so that we feel surrounded by people and not marionettes. While it takes a few liberties from the true events that inspired it (“Some of this actually happened” is the tagline), the plot is layered and well-dosed in both humour and drama. What hurts its chances is the amount of improvisation that was required from the actors to help shape the dialogues and the final structure of the film. It must be remembered that what was written on paper does not always wind up on screen, and so a screenplay is a totally different beast.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is one of the most beloved of all times. It started in 1995 with Before Sunrise. The plot was simple, inspired by a real event in the writer’s life: two strangers, an American man and a French woman, meet on a train in Vienna and spend a night conversing on all possible subjects, falling in love in the process. Their story is seemingly hopeless; they must leave by train the next morning, going their separate ways. They promise to get in touch, but a sadness lingers in the air, telling them it is not to happen.
Yet, two other chapters followed, each one set nine years into the future. In 2004’s Before Sunset, they meet again in Paris, and realize they are still very much in love. In 2013’s Before Midnight, likely the last of the series, they are married with children. They spend a summer in Greece, coming to terms with the fact that all things age and that nothing is eternal, not even love.
Rewarding the ambition and thoughtfulness of Before Midnight would be a great way to celebrate the trilogy, but 12 Years a Slave could end up winning if the Academy members decide to rally behind the compelling John Ridley-penned drama instead. The film, as you may have heard, chronicles twelve years in the life of a 19th century man kidnapped into slavery. Showing humanity at its low points, it is difficult and disturbing to sit through, but it is a history lesson not to be overlooked. Times have changed and dreams have come true as nowadays, African-American actors and filmmakers are being judged not by the colour of their skin, but by their value as artists and creators. Just ask Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the newly-elected first black president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science.
As a side note, have you noticed how many Canadian and Quebec-born filmmakers have been up for Oscars in the last few years? Let’s give a shout-out to Jean-Marc Vallée from Montreal, whose Dallas Buyers Club is up for a staggering six Academy Awards, including one for himself as screenwriter (credited under the pen name John Mac McMurphy); Owen Pallett from Ontario, whose work on Her warranted a nomination for Best Original Score; Andy Koyama from Toronto, nominated in the Best Sound Mixing category for his work on Lone Survivor; Montreal-based visual-effects artist Chris Lawrence, nominated for Gravity; British-born Malcolm Clarke, who has lived in Montreal since the mid-1990s, nominated for his short documentary film The Lady in Number 6.
Well, it looks now like the year really is over. For some, like legendary film critic Roger Ebert, it was the last. For the rest of us, 2014 is looking bright and promising. Time stops for no man. Yesterday’s geniuses have left us; tomorrow’s geniuses are taking their first steps.
The 86th Academy Awards ceremony will air on ABC on March 2. The event will be hosted by comedian and television personality, Ellen DeGeneres.