I’m not really that interested in getting too caught up in the Oscars fol-de-rol that consumes the critical community around this time of year. I read a lot about the Academy Awards because, well, it’s people getting passionate about film! People arguing emphatically about which film is better and the industry, about who will win and what should win and who was unfairly snubbed etcetera etcetera. It’s a great way to be ardent about film, since competition inspires enthusiasm (see also: best-of lists).
Mostly though, I could give a shit what actually wins at the Oscars. Yeah, it’s nice when great films are recognised. It gives films that glow of respectability. It makes it easier to recommend good cinema to friends who might be otherwise reluctant. Equally, it’s easy to get frustrated when mediocrity (or outright pap) gets the prize at the expense of amazing art. But I haven’t anyone who actually thinks that winning an Oscar has any correlation to a film’s quality, so getting to invested seems …pointless?
I’ve avoided posting Oscar predictions before because it’s less about what you think is the best movie and more about how closely you pay attention to the trends. Besides, most years the more predictions you read, the more homogenous they seem. So, sure, I’ll post my predictions, but I’m more interested in sharing my thoughts on some of the more contentious categories. I’m not enough of a cinephile to be really invested in best sound editing or whatever, so I’ll stick to the major awards.
Best Supporting Actor
Jared Leto’s practically a lock at this stage. I completely understand why, and I also completely understand the simmering backlash. Dallas Buyers Club is a good film, but it’s problematic for a bunch of reasons related to its depiction of queer characters. It bucks against the white saviour tropes that define this kind of film but ends up mired in them. Queer characters are “others,” and Leto – despite playing a significant role in the film – is no different. As many others have commented, he feels like a character out of a movie from two decades ago.
But there’s a difference between the problems of how a character is written or how a film is framed and the performance. Bag out the character of Rayon all you like, but Leto deserves the plaudits for his performance here. There’s a moment where – spoilers, I suppose – he cries out “I don’t want to die,” and it’s so imbued with loss and regret and this kind of infantile weakness that it almost made me double over. He finds the humanity in a stereotype.
Fassbender does a similar thing in 12 Years a Slave, and if he were to somehow, impossibly, walk away with the Oscar he’d certainly deserve it. He channels the same kind of childishness as Leto does, but it’s selfish and cruel and twisted. Vibrantly human; uncomfortably so. I don’t really see the other nominees as in the same league at all.
Will win: Jared Leto
Should win: Jared Leto
Overlooked: James Franco (Spring Breakers)
Best Supporting Actress
I think this is a category with one utterly mediocre nominee, three good performances and one spectacular one. The mediocrity is Julia Roberts, who snorts and yells her way through the underrated-but-still-not-very-good August: Osage County. There are some stellar performances amongst all the yelling, but hers is not among them (Julianne Nicholson goes unrewarded despite demonstrating substantially more talent than this pretty woman). Nebraska didn’t do a lot for me, but Squibb was great. Hawkins finds nuance in a slightly underwritten role, while Lawrence is the bright spark within American Hustle. Yeah, okay, she’s too young for the role, but she’s is a no-fooling movie star and she commands your attention amongst David O. Russell’s overblown silliness.
Of course, Lupita Nyong’o is on a whole ‘nother level. She has to portray the most abject misery, Patsey trapped in a tragedy that’s difficult to comprehend. Nine-out-of-ten actresses would produce some great Oscar highlight reels here, marching through with rage and pain and yelling and spitting. Nyong’o simply inhabits Patsey. She lives within this woman’s torment, bent to the point of breaking. When she does snap – out of focus, in the background – it’s an impossibly moving moment because there’s a real person there. It’s heartbreaking and deserves to be acknowledged.
Will win: Lupita Nyongo’o
Should win: Lupita Nyongo’o
Overlooked: Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now)
I get why McConaughey is the frontrunner here. He ticks all the boxes – real-life character, weight loss, big dramatic moments – and there’s no denying the momentum of the McConaissance. And his performance is good. He has a brash charm that finds room for genuine weakness without compromising the character, and his performance gains texture if you – as I do – interpret Woodroof as a closeted bisexual rather than capital-H-heterosexual.
Di Caprio is fantastic. Dern is fine. Bale is forgettable. But Chiwetel Ejiofor has produced an once-in-a-decade performance, a powerful, deeply complex and profoundly affecting feat that will echo through future generations. Decades from now, we’ll look back at these Academy Awards and cluck our tongue in disapproval at Ejiofor’s lack of recognition. McConaughey is the safe choice, a charismatic white man doing the same old thing very well. Ejiofor is doing something else entirely, and it is immensely disappointing that he won’t be properly rewarded for it.
Will win: Matthew McConaughey
Should win: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Overlooked: Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt)
I find it hard to be too engaged in this category. Amy Adams is a great actress, but I don’t understand the acclaim directed at her for this performance, which seems to be more about her tits than anything else (Her is proof that Adams is a fantastic actress, of course). Sandra Bullock is fine in Gravity, but she has to deliver some pretty dire dialogue (the film’s biggest weakness) and it’s hard to get too excited about what she’s doing with it. Judi Dench is, uh, Judi Dench. I didn’t mind Meryl Streep’s yelly, campy performance in August but, let’s be honest, it’s not top-five-of-the-year material.
So Aussie Cate’s going to take it in a walk, Woody Allen controversy or no. I’m not as in love with her performance as everyone else – her character is so intense that it’s hard to relate to, especially when you consider that the film is neatly broken up between the past and the present. Those failings are of the screenplay, and it’s hard to deny that Cate does everything the role requires of her and then some.
Will win: Cate Blanchett
Should win: Cate Blanchett
Overlooked: Brie Larson (Short Term 12)
The common wisdom is that this trophy is Cuarón’s to lose. And I can sympathise; there’s something fresh and futuristic about the look of Gravity, and it’s all thanks to Cuarón’s unique vision.
But I think about what lingers about Gravity, and after the technically impressive zero gravity long tracking shots, the main thing I remember is the overt symbolism of the womb evoked when Sandra Bullock finds her way into the sanctity of the first space station, an umbilical cord hovering her abdomen. It’s just so …obvious. It’s blockbuster filmmaking, and I get that subtlety is not the order of the day there, but it leaves an uncomfortable taste in my mouth.
The Wolf of Wall Street is anarchic, exciting filmmaking that feels like it’s come from a twenty year old, not someone who’s been making films for fifty years or whatever, but Scorsese doesn’t have a chance in hell. Steve McQueen – arguably the best director from the last decade – has a slim chance of nabbing the prize and, dammit, he deserves to. 12 Years a Slave may be an impressive historical achievement and an emotional odyssey and blah-blah-blah. But watch it a second time and pay attention to the formal mastery on display; the long shots that don’t seem like long shots, the perfect framing, the way those embers fade into blackness. McQueen’s subject material is so potent that it overshadows just how much talent is on display.
Will win: Alfonso Cuarón
Should win: Steve McQueen
Overlooked: Harmone Korine (Spring Breakers)
Probably the closest fight of the night. The two frontrunners are undeniably Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, with American Hustle a longshot spoiler if everyone can’t make up their mind on what good film to go for and just decide to pick some nonsense (if Lawrence picks up Best Supporting Actress, I’ll be stressing).
What do I want to win? My favourite film of this lineup is – by a decent margin – the bombastic The Wolf of Wall Street, but if it had any shot of actually winning – if it wasn’t so confrontational and controversial – then it wouldn’t be the great film it is. Her didn’t stand up quite as well on second viewing, but it’s still an amazing movie that deserves recognition (let’s hope it picks up the Original Screenplay prize). Most of the other films range from good – Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Captain Phillips – to okay – Philomena, American Hustle.
Of the big two, I much prefer 12 Years a Slave. I think it deserves to win, because it’s a work of art and it tells a real story and because it is important and I think that matters. While I had some quibbles with Gravity, it’s certainly great cinema and it is something new. If you’re not going to recognise importance, innovation’s a pretty good way to go as well. Just, please … not American Hustle.
Will win: 12 Years a Slave
Should win: 12 Years a Slave
Overlooked: Short Term 12/Inside Llewyn Davis