2013 was a good year for movies, and the voters of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences did a good job in reflecting this through their Oscar nominations. Major gaffes were avoided, and with Seth MacFarlane not hosting the show, major embarrassments should be avoided as well Sunday night.
The varied results of the many pre-Oscar award competitions make this year’s contest difficult to predict, as absolute locks are few and good races are plentiful, especially in the main category, Best Picture. Oscar pool participants may have a wild ride on Sunday night.
All nine contenders are solid films, and with the Producer’s Guild award, usually a bellwether for the Oscars, going jointly to "12 Years A Slave" and "Gravity," the announcement of the winner for best picture should be suspenseful. If enough votes are split between the two, it is possible that the entertaining if overrated "American Hustle" could slip inside like speedskater Viktor Ahn to take the gold.
"Gravity," a technical marvel buttressed by a powerful story, is a better film than its rival, but "12 Years A Slave," which doesn’t spare its audience or the nation in recreating a sliver of the slavery era in all its brutality and hypocrisy, is the kind of film academy voters traditionally choose to recognize. It’s uncomfortable to watch, as is the truth behind it.
n Will win: "12 Years A Slave"
n Deserves to win: "Gravity"
n Overlooked: "Fruitvale Station"
There is room for 10 nominees, and it would have been nice if "Fruitvale Station," a poignant recreation of the final day in the life of a 22-year-old black man gunned down by a Bay area transit cop, had gotten the recognition accorded a nominee. The story is as contemporary as the periodic race-based killings in Florida.
It is a rarity when academy voters split the best picture and best director awards, but it says here that they will this year in giving the director Oscar to Alfonso Cuaron for "Gravity." This is the quintessential director’s movie, with Cuaron inventing the technology to bring his breathtaking tale of a disaster in Earth orbit to the screen. Win or lose in the two major categories, "Gravity" should romp in the technical categories, beginning with the Best Visual Effects Oscar.
"12 Years a Slave" director Steve McQueen is a proven filmmaker but the movie is more about its ensemble cast and the script by John Ridley. Ridley’s reworking of the book by escaped slave Solomon Northup should win him the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.
n Will win: Alfonso Cuaron
n Deserves to win: Alfonso Cuaron
n Overlooked: Spike Jonze, "Her"
n Shouldn’t be here: David O. Russell, "American Hustle"
Jonze’s flicks are always original, and his near-future tale of a man in love with his computer’s operating system is a brilliant, witty satire on our technology-obsessed society that unfortunately has been overshadowed by the big three in the best picture category. If there is any justice his truly original screenplay will win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Nothing wrong with Russell’s work but it doesn’t stand out as does Jonze’s or that of his competitors in this category.
Matthew McConaughey’s days as a punch line are over, thanks largely to his utterly lived-in performance in "Dallas Buyers Club" as an HIV-afflicted redneck who skirts government regulators to save himself and ultimately many others. He also lost weight for the role which Academy voters like to see, giving him another edge in a strong field. (Check out McConaughey in HBO’s "True Detective" series, where he delivers a stunning performance as a brilliant or crazed (or both) homicide investigator.)
n Will win: Matthew McConaughey
n Should win: Matthew McConaughey
n Overlooked: Joaquin Phoenix, "Her."
n Shouldn’t be here: Christian Bale, "American Hustle."
Bale is starting to go from underrated to overrated. His performance in "American Hustle" is largely about his comb-over and impressive beer belly. Phoenix’s shy, lovelorn writer of sentimental letters for others to mail out under their name is the backbone of "Her."
There has been speculation that Cate Blanchett, who has been collecting hardware for weeks courtesy of her tragi-comic performance as a supremely entitled ex-trophy wife driven to ruin by the weight of the real world in Woody Allen’s "Blue Jasmine," may be penalized by voters outraged by the abuse allegations made against Allen by his adopted daughter Dylan. Blanchett has nothing to do with the well-documented domestic travails of the writer-director, and her work in an otherwise ordinary film will be duly recognized by voters.
n Will win: Cate Blanchett
n Should win: Cate Blanchett
Best supporting actor
Jared Leto is a lock in this category, and deservedly so, for his performance as the sad, funny, tough and tormented transgender prostitute who becomes the unlikely ally of Matthew McConaughey’s crusader in "Dallas Buyers Club."
n Will win: Jared Leto
n Should win: Jared Leto
n Overlooked: Will Forte, "Nebraska."
n Shouldn’t be here: Bradley Cooper, "American Hustle."
The worst omission in any category this year is that of former "Saturday Night Live" comedian Forte. As the doleful, mild-mannered son who accompanies his difficult dad (Bruce Dern) from Montana to Nebraska in pursuit of a supposed lottery fortune, Forte disappears into the role, which is not the case with the over-the-top Cooper.
Best supporting actress
Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who played the young slave tormented by her sadistic master and his jealous wife in "12 Years A Slave," is the likely winner. Her main competition is Academy favorite Jennifer Lawrence for her performance as the sweetly daft meddler who threatens to bring down the scam at the heart of "American Hustle."
n Will win: Lupita Nyong’o, "12 Years A Slave"
n Should win: June Squibb, "Nebraska"
n Overlooked: Scarlett Johansson, "Her."
n Shouldn’t be here: Julia Roberts, "August: Osage County."
The veteran actress Squibb finally gets her movie moment as the blunt, foul-mouthed, frustrated but loving wife of Dern’s Woody in "Nebraska."
Johansson is Samantha, the voice of the computer operating system in "Her," and Samantha’s character, such as it is, has the most dramatic arc of any character of any movie in 2013. Johansson’s voice, at times sexy, confused, witty, child-like, and ominous, captures that arc completely.
It’s not that Roberts’ performance is poor in that soap opera, but it is badly undermined by the plot’s contrivances and melodrama.
The envelopes, please!