Announced last Thursday, the 86th Academy Award nominations may have thrown up clear favourites to take home statues, though there are still some pick ’em categories that remain difficult to predict.
There are many two horse races in this year’s list of nominees and Best Picture is no exception.
Firstly, let’s get the list of those movies that won’t win Best Picture out-of-the-way: Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Her, Philomena…indies don’t win Oscars. More often than not, the Screenplay awards awarded to independent pictures as a consolation prize, be it Juno, Lost In Translation, Sideways, The Descendants.
Paul Greengrass‘ Captain Philips, undoubtedly one of the year’s best pictures, may be too close to Argo, last year’s big winner, to pull off the big win of the night.
Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street will be, I predict, the big loser of the night.
Though Gravity and American Hustle lead with the number of nominations, it is doubtful that either films will take home Best Picture: besides the fact that comedies and sci- fi never fare well at the Oscars, American Hustle may be, visually, at least, to close for comfort to Argo, while Gravity might have enough in the way of conventional narrative and three- dimensional characters for traditionalists and purists.
It will, then, be 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen‘s brilliant, unflinching and powerful drama, that will clean up Best Picture. Last year saw two slavery epics- Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino‘s Django Unchained– lose out on Best Picture, which fares well for 12 Years A Slave.
Prediction: 12 Years A Slave
12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen
An exciting if somewhat predictable list, this year’s race for Best Director is defined by a split between innovation and old- school storytelling.
Martin Scorsese is unlikely to win for The Wolf of Wall Street, his first picture to be shot in digital, which has divided audiences and critics.
Undoubtedly a Scorsese- calibre film maker, David O. Russell has successfully reinvented himself as the ultimate actor’s director after a career- lull some years ago. For the second year in a row, following last year’s excellent Silver Linings Playbook, Russell has secured Oscar nominations for his cast in every possible acting category. I wrote about Russell’s surge to greatness last year.
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, Alexander Payne is unlikely to win Best Director for Nebraska, a long- time project that finally came to fruition for the Omaha director.
All of which leaves Alfonso Cuarón and Steve McQueen: the Kubrick- like innovator who helmed Gravity and the old- school storyteller who gave us 12 Years A Slave, respectively. Given that the Academy awarded last year’s Director gong to Ang Lee for Life of Pi– the film that they said could never make it to big screen- the Academy may decide to award Best Director to Steve McQueen, making him the first black person to win an Oscar for Best Director.
Prediction: Steve McQueen for 12 Years A Slave
Much more diverse than it looks on paper, this year’s Best Actor category displays a refreshing blend of performances that are heavy on physical articulation, operatic monologue- driven scenes, subtle nuances and comic punch.
Originally written with Gene Hackman in mind, Bruce Dern‘s performance as Woody Grant- an ageing boozer who thinks he’s won the sweepstakes prize- in Alexander Payne‘s Nebraska has drawn rave reviews since it first played to critics.
Christian Bale‘s performance in American Hustle as Iriving Rosenfeld, a flamboyant Bronx con- man turned FBI snitch, feels, at times, dangerously close to a Robert De Niro pastiche, though he somehow manages to balance Rosenfeld’s bravado and vulnerability and Bale retains a presence during scenes with Bradley Cooper‘s showy, manic performance as FBI agent Richie DiMaso.
In Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio delivers his most natural and unlabored performance since his career- best turn in Steven Spielberg‘s Catch Me If You Can. DiCaprio oozes charisma as Jordan Belford, a stockbroker whose life unravels as the stakes get higher and higher.
All three actors, however, are merely making up the numbers in a category which, as ever, is a two- horse race. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthew McConaughey, both of whom have delivered career- best performances in 12 Years A Slave and Dallas Buyers Club, respectively, are touted as favourites and rightly so.
The brilliance behind Ejiofor‘s excellent performance as Solomon Northup is his innate understanding of the role of the actor as a storyteller: every mood that director Steve McQueen reflects in 12 Years A Slave– his masterpiece, surely- is foretold on Ejiofor‘s face and physical posture. When Solomon is a free man in New York, he strides confidently through city; when he is enslaved, his posture is shrunken from, no doubt, hours- on- end spent picking cotton. Similarly, Ejiofor projects the mood of each scene on his face, through which we see Northup’s fear, hope, desperation and, at times, acceptance of his cruel and unjust fate.
Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club
But it’s Matthew McConaughey‘s extraordinary performance as Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club that has emerged as a clear favourite. Playing an electrician and sometime rodeo cowboy who contracts HIV through sexual contact with an infected woman and, subsequently, smuggles medications unapproved by the FDA, which are shown to be effective towards his condition, this is Matthew McConaughey as you’ve never seen him before.
Recalling previous Best Actor- awarded performances, such as Nicholas Cage‘s turn in Leaving Las Vegas and Robert Duvall‘s portrayal of Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, it is McConaughey‘s refusal to play Woodruff as anything other than what he is that is most commendable about his performance. Shedding almost 50lbs for the role, this is not an Oscar for physical transformation: this is an Oscar- winning performance, surely, for an actor who has, over the past four years, been assembling a portfolio of work that has established him as one of the finest character actors of his generation. Dubbed “The McConaissance”, I wrote about Matthew McConaughey‘s unprecedented transformation from Rom- Com pin up to accomplished character, last year, which you can read here.
Prediction: Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club.
This year’s Best Actress category features four previous Oscar- winners: Cate Blanchett (Best Supporting Actress for The Aviator), Sandra Bullock (Best Actress for The Blind Side), Judi Dench (Best Supporting Actress for Shakespeare in Love) and Meryl Streep (Best Supporting Actress for Kramer Vs. Kramer and Best Actress for Sophie’s Choice and The Iron Lady).
Amy Adams‘ performance in American Hustle would have easily won had the year not featured so many remarkable performances. Oozing sex appeal, contrasting the range of emotions and characteristics of both her character and her character’s alter ego, personifying 70’s New York and bridging the gap between her character in American Hustle and her character in The Fighter- her first feature with director David O. Russell- Adams’ performance is nothing short of terrific and undoubtedly the most appealing aspect of Russell’s, ultimately, flawed feature film.
Making the most of what is a physical role and a role in which her character has few lines, Sandra Bullock‘s performance in Gravity is unlikely to score high with Oscar voters. A performance that will rank high is Meryl Streep‘s solid performance in August: Osage County, though voters may feel that the actress has won more than her fair share of plaudits, down through the years.
Similarly, Judi Dench‘s performance in Philomena is solid, reliable and nothing short of what you expect from the veteran actress; again, however, there might be a feeling that Dame Judi’s trophy cabinet may topple over.
The clear winner must be, of course, Cate Blanchett, who has never been better than in Woody Allen‘s Blue Jasmine. When I left at the end of a screening of Blue Jasmine, last year, I knew that Blanchett was certain to win the Academy Award for Best Actress.
The sheer genius of Blanchett’s performance as Jasmine Francis is how consistent her performance is with the central dichotomies of Allen’s film; she plays, effectively, A Streetcar Named Desire‘s Blanche Dubois, albeit Blanche Dubois for the SmartPhone generation; Jasmine moves from New York to San Francisco- east coast to west coast; Jasmine’s sister is named ginger; her fortune changes from riches to rags.
Cate Blanchett gives the performance of her life in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine
Most remarkably about Blanchett’s performance, however, is that like those central dichotomies discussed above, Blanchett somehow manages to slot- in seamlessly into a Woody Allen film without falling into the of pastiching a Woody Allen character from Allen films of the past, which seems to be a recurring trait for male leads in Woody Allen movies: they always seem to be imitating Woody Allen (consider Kenneth Brannagh‘s performance in the much- underrated Celebrity); there are, of course, notable exceptions (consider Sean Penn‘s magnificent performance in Sweet And Lowdown).
Prediction: Cate Blachett for Blue Jasmine.
Best Supporting Actor
If characters win Oscars, then there has been, for the past 25 years or so, two particular types of characters who have come good in the Best Supporting Actor category: previous winners have portrayed characters that either a), personify pure evil (think of Joe Pesci‘s performance as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas; Gene Hackman‘s performance as Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven; Javier Bardem‘s performance as Anton Chigurrh in No Country For Old Men), or b), personify quirky and comic characteristics (think Jack Palance in City Slickers; Martin Landau in Ed Wood; Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire; Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine; Christopher Plummer in Beginners).
This year’s nominees, broadly speaking, fit in to both of the trends discussed above: Barkhad Abdi‘s dynamic performance in Paul Greengrass‘ Captain Phillips is an integral part of that film’s artistic success. Similarly, Kilarney native Michael Fassbender‘s role as a Bible- bashing plantation owner, who develops an infatuation with one of his slaves, is nothing short of spellbinding.
On the other side of the spectrum is Bradley Cooper’s role as FBI agent Richie DiMaso, whose manic energy provides many of the comic highlights of David O. Russell‘s American Hustle. Nominated last year in the Best Actor category for Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, Cooper is the dark horse in this category.
In between the sadistic and the comic is Jonah Hill‘s nuanced, versatile performance as Donnie Azoff, a man who quit his job in a furniture business to join the rat race on Wall Street in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street. Playing a part that isn’t a million miles away from Joe Pesci’s Tommy in Goodfellas, Hill’s character is not only unpredictable, but in a sense represents the narrative arc of the entire film; he is a disciple of Jordan Belford’s and, therefore, has learned to be ruthless and reckless from his master. Hill’s second Oscar nomination- his first nomination coming from an equally impressive performance in Moneyball– Hill has proven his ability to hold his own against experienced, season leading men such as Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The anomaly in this category is, of course, Jared Leto‘s performance in Dallas Buyers Club. Playing Rayon, an AIDS positive transgender woman, Leto’s character is central to the development of Matthew McConaughey‘s Ron Woodruff, a homophobic HIV positive patient who is initially hostile towards Leto‘s Rayon, though eventually forges a bond of friendship throughout the course of the film.
Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club
For sheer imagination, the transformative nature of the role and the power of the subject matter at hand, the smart money is on Jared Leto to take home his first Oscar from his first nomination.
I believe that it will also be the first time in almost ten years that the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscars have been award to actors from the same film, the previous case being Clint Eastwood‘s Mystic River, which saw Sean Penn and Tim Robbins take home Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively.
Prediction: Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club
Best Supporting Actress
Like the Best Supporting Actor category, this year’s Best Supporting Actress nominees highlighted performances that are notable for their comic injection into otherwise dramatic movies.
Londoner Sally Hawkins, who has previously delivered remarkable performances, most notably in Mike Leigh‘s Happy- Go- Lucky, has earned her nomination for her performance s Ginger in Woody Allen‘s Blue Jasmine. Effectively playing Stella Kowalski to Cate Blanchett‘s Blanche Du Bois, Hawkins is reliable, funny and, most importantly, naturally locks- in with Cate Blanchett.
Jennifer Lawrence, last year’s Best Actress winner for David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, consolidates her reputation as the most naturally gifted actress of her generation. Lawrence’s performance as Rosalyn Rosenfield never feels overshadowed by the remarkable performances by the stellar cast of American Hustle, not least Best Actress nominee Amy Adams or Best Actor nominee Christian Bale, with whom Lawrence shares many scenes as Bale’s on- screen husband.
Best Actress winner Julia Roberts is unlikely to score her second Academy Award for August: Osage County, a movie in which the veteran actress’ character carries much of the dramatic weight of the film, while also proving to be a catalyst for some of the movie’s more light- hearted, comic relief.
Similarly, June Squibb‘s performance in Nebraska, her second performance in an Alexander Payne movie (she previously played Jack Nicholson‘s on- screen wife in Payne’s 2002 drama- comedy About Schmidt), is unlikely to bring the 84 year- old actress Oscar glory, though her hilarious performance as Bruce Dern‘s foul- mouthed wife is one of the high- points of Payne’s Nebraska.
Lupita Nyong’o in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave
All of which leaves the field open for Lupita Nyong’o, whose brave performance in 12 Years A Slave is one of the highlights of what is, overall, an outstanding achievement in film. It is through 31 year- old Nyong’o‘s character, Patsey, that the vulnerability of the slaves is most evident and it plays well against the underlying hope and strength projected by Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s Solomon Northup. In a particularly brutal scene, the horror and torture endured by those enslaved on plantations in America echoes throughout each of Nyong’o‘s screams.
Prediction: Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years A Slave
Best Adapted Screenplay / Best Original Screenplay
While many Adapted Screenplay winners have also won Best Picture, the Adapted and Original Screenplay awards have, typically, been a consolation prize for indie / art house / left- of- the- field drama / comedies that don’t have enough clout to win Best Picture. Previous Adapted Screenplay winners in recent years have included Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, Forest Gump, Traffic, A Beautiful Mind, Brokeback Mountain, The Descendants and Argo.
Previous Original Screenplay winners have included The Crying Game, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, Fargo, Good Will Hunting, American Beauty, Almost Famous, Lost In Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Milk, Midnight in Paris and Django Unchained.
This year’s Adapted Screenplay nominees consist of a healthy mix of memoirs adapted to the big screen, such as 12 Years a Slave, Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street.
Stories will always win, rather than sympathy towards the difficulty in getting the text to the screen. And while The Wolf of Wall Street might be seen as a zeitgeist era story, Philomena a story for the heartstrings, Captain Philips one for it’s sheer dynamics, Before Midnight dialogue- heavy third instalment to a series, it will no doubt be 12 Years Slave that wins in this category.
Adapted from Solomon Northup’s memoir of his time in captivity on a cotton farm, 12 Years A Slave is outstanding for simple reason that it is- remarkably- the first movie in American film history to the take the topic of slavery from the point of view of a slave. For this, no doubt, it’s a shoe in.
Prediction: John Ridley for 12 Years A Slave
Best Original Screenplay
As open a field as there is in this year’s Oscars.
King of the Original Screenplay category, Woody Allen will always be a favourite, though recent allegations made against him by his adopted daughter, Dylan, may split voters right down the middle for a win for his screenplay for Blue Jasmine.
A consolation for its escape from Development Hell, Dallas Buyers Club might well scoop this one, but the smart money is on Spike Jonze’s Her, his first, spirited attempt at stepping out of the shadow of Charlie Kauffman. An art house, indie- flick will never win best picture, but will always take a screenplay award. By winning with Her, Jonze will have finally caught up with ex- wife Sofia Coppola, who won her original screenplay award for 2003’s Lost in Translation.
Prediction: Spike Jonze for Her