By MARK DISTEFANO
With the Oscars less than a month away, the sheer level of quality we saw last year at the cinema is becoming more and more evident. This is one of the most unpredictable Oscar races in years, even more so than last year, when Ben Affleck’s Argo took home Best Picture despite Affleck not being nominated in the Director category. Last year was also rare in that every major category (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress), was awarded to a different movie. This year, it looks like the same could very well happen.
Best Picture is a three-way dogfight between American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. Alfonso Cuarón’s and Steve McQueen’s films came out in October and shook critics out of their seat with excitement, both cementing themselves as the two best-reviewed films of the year. At present, Gravity has a 97 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 12 Years has a 96 percent. They’ve also been determined, by review aggregate site criticstop10.com, to have appeared on more top 10 lists than any other movies of the year. American Hustle, which was released amidst a slew of quality films in December, stole the show along with Inside Llewyn Davis and Her, but appealed more to the Academy given its already twice-nominated director, and cast consisting exclusively of Oscar winners and nominees. It’s currently tied with Gravity for most nominations awarded to a 2013 film, with 10 nominations. For now though, my money is on 12 Years a Slave. The Academy will not ignore a big-issue, hot-button film like this — they love heaping praise on historically relevant movies about affliction or torture (King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire).
The other three-way tie is between the maestros of the three aforementioned films. David O. Russell has been nominated for The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, while McQueen and Cuarón are first time nominees. However, I think the race is leading slightly towards Cuarón. The reason? The virtuosity of the way Gravity was assembled and directed truly was revolutionary, giving Cuarón a chance to show real artistic brilliance as a filmmaker. While 12 Years and Hustle were both supremely well directed, the direction did not quite break the mold as much as Gravity did.
Best Actor is the most unpredictable category of them all. This is a year in which any one of the nominated actors could unsurprisingly and deservedly take the award. There were even huge snubs as to who got into the category, with Tom Hanks missing out for Captain Phillips and Robert Redford for All is Lost. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McCounaughey seem like strong contenders, the former for perhaps his most electrifying, balls-out performance yet in Wolf of Wall Street and the latter for the pinnacle of his career-reinvigorating work in Dallas Buyers Club. Both won at the Golden Globes, but Bruce Dern, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Christian Bale have received equal amounts of critical praise. Of the five, I think the three with the best chance are McConaughey, Ejiofor, and DiCaprio. Dern’s quiet, reserved role in Nebraska could easily be overlooked by the Academy, and the sheer number of great performances in American Hustle means the same could be true of Bale’s.
Cate Blanchett was the early front-runner for Best Actress for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, and it still seems that way, but there’s a strong threat from both Amy Adams of American Hustle and Sandra Bullock for Gravity. Adams has been nominated four times already, for several such critically-lauded The Fighter and The Master, so the Academy might figure that it is finally time to give her her due. On the other hand, the technical complexity of Bullock’s performance, which required the grace of a ballerina and the mental aptitude of a world class actor, might win over many voters who know just how hard the ordeal must have been.
The only surefire win of the night seems like Jared Leto for Best Supporting Actor in Dallas Buyers Club. His turn as a transgender woman was not only especially strong, it was his first film role in years. His comeback to the world of film required him to lose 30 pounds and affect a sex change while still embodying a compelling character and his success doing so has been rightfully accoladed. It was one of the finest performances of the year. On another note, it was great to see Michael Fassbender, long overdue for Academy recognition, finally get nominated for 12 Years a Slave, and to see Barkhad Abdi nominated for his mesmerizing work in Captain Phillips.
Finally, Best Supporting Actress is a two-way split between Jennifer Lawrence, darling of the Academy and obsession of all Americans, and Lupita Nyongo, an earth-shattering in her very first film role. At 23, Lawrence is the youngest person ever to receive three nominations, including her stellar work in Winter’s Bone and her win for Silver Linings Playbook. Her role as Rosalyn Rosenfeld, the hysterical wife of Christian Bale in American Hustle, was perhaps the most enthralling and acclaimed performance in a movie full of them. Nyongo, on the other hand, landed the role of Patsey, the most abused slave on the Epps plantation in 12 Years a Slave, immediately after graduating from drama school. Her turn as a woman sexually mistreated by the plantation owner and grossly humiliated by his wife is one of the most stunning achievements ever offered by a first-time film actor. It has received an insane amount of praise, maybe even more so than that of leading actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and for that reason, it makes the Supporting Actress race that much harder to call.
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