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Buzzworthy performances may spell Oscar glory

Film critic Jason Wallis weighs and measures the nominations for the 2014 Academy Awards. Will his picks match the final results?

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Posted: Friday, January 24, 2014 7:26 am

It’s been a long and trying year since I last touched bases with you, and in that time I have not been able to see nearly as many new releases as usual. Life has a way of interfering, and since changing career paths early last year, I’ve had difficulty finding adequate time to devote to cinematic pursuits.

But as awards season approached, I did my best to catch up with several of the year’s most notable offerings, so that I may speak with at least some authority about this year’s Oscar race.

This is how I see the major categories shaping up, although Oscar contests have a way of evolving right up until the final votes are cast. So I may check in again as we get closer to March 2, but for now I’m pretty confident.

“12 Years A Slave” deserves Best Picture for unflinching gaze

For “Philomena,” “Captain Philips,” “Her” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” the nomination will most certainly have to be victory enough in a relatively crowded field. And history suggests that it is almost impossible for a film to claim the big prize without its director being nominated as well (last year’s “Argo,” of course, being one of the few exceptions), so that’s that.

The black-and-white character study “Nebraska” is too “small” a picture, and voters will wait for a more opportune time to honor an Alexander Payne film in this category. Martin Scorsese’s jet-black comedy “The Wolf of Wall Street” has its ardent admirers — myself among them — but it’s simply too sprawling, too explicit and too generally demented to have much of a shot here.

“Gravity” has the benefit of being the box-office titan among the nominees (more than $250 million domestic, plus $400 million foreign gross), but despite its leading 10 nominations and recent victory at the Producers Guild Awards, its momentum has been marred by two more likely contenders.

Oscar voters love David O. Russell (“The Fighter” and last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook” got more than their fair share of Academy glory), and the often electrifying Abscam comedy “American Hustle” is admittedly among his stronger films. It’s definitely a contender, especially considering that it’s tied with “Gravity” for the most nominations.

But a con-man comedy pales in comparison to the dramatic weight of Producers Guild co-winner “12 Years a Slave,” director Steve McQueen’s unflinching look at the brutal intimacy of America’s greatest sin. “Best picture of the year” may be over-stating things a bit, but it’s undoubtedly a fine film about an important subject that has been largely ignored in this medium. Even I would feel a bit guilty voting for “The Wolf of Wall Street” instead.

Buzzworthy performances may spell Oscar glory
Director Steve McQueen, left, and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor are on set during the filming of “12Years A Slave.” Francois Duhamel/Associated Press

British director strikes balance between horror and discretion in “Slave”

Alexander Payne will win this award one day, I’m sure, but “Nebraska” is not the “right” film. Martin Scorsese should have half a dozen of these things by now, and if there was any justice he would claim another for his wild and rollicking “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It was three hours of unbridled, wall-to-wall hilarity, expertly assembled by the world’s premier film artist. But hey, since he won his first and only award seven years ago for “The Departed,” I guess he’s gotten his due, right?

David O. Russell is seen as the hottest director in Hollywood right now, and some would say he’s overdue, given his recent track record. They’d be dead wrong, but my point is that it may not be a minority opinion.

Nonetheless, I don’t think this is the category in which the Academy will choose to honor him.

A more likely choice is Alfonso Cuaron, a truly visionary filmmaker who has been delivering great — if sporadic — work for decades. I was not a huge fan of “Gravity,” but it’s hard to deny that Cuaron put together a very challenging film with imagination and precision.

The most likely outcome is that British filmmaker Steve McQueen becomes the first black director to ever take home this award. “12 Years a Slave” is an assured production from beginning to end.

In depicting the horrors of American slavery, McQueen strikes a perfect balance between honesty and discretion — in other words, his film successfully addresses its thorny subject without continuously wallowing in abject cruelty. It is an inspiring film of hope and perseverance in the face of unimaginable adversity, and seems destined to collect both the night’s top prizes.

Buzzworthy performances may spell Oscar glory
Cate Blanchett appears in a scene from “Blue Jasmine.” Sony Pictures Classics/Associated Press

Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine” is best contender for Best Actress

Veterans and previous Oscar winners Meryl Streep (“August: Osage County”) and Judi Dench (“Philomena”) can’t have much of a chance here, especially since Streep won in this category just two years ago.

I didn’t see either film (though the latter is on my “to watch” list), and I have a feeling many Oscar voters can say the same.

Sandra Bullock is quite well-liked in the industry, so much so that her capable work in “Gravity” was inexplicably hailed by many as brilliant. She successfully carried a complex production, often as the only character on screen, and for that she should be applauded.

But an award-worthy performance it is not, especially when compared to Golden Globe winner Amy Adams’ far more nuanced and difficult work as an in-over-her-head con artist in “American Hustle.”

She’s the only actress in this category without an Oscar to her name, and after five nominations, I’m thinking she’s due.

But in another close call, I have to give the edge to Cate Blanchett’s performance as a fallen socialite in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” The Academy has always been kind to actresses in Allen’s films, and it’s been almost a decade since Blanchett’s win as a supporting player in “The Aviator.”

Plus, in a tight race, dual Globe and SAG wins count for an awful lot.

Buzzworthy performances may spell Oscar glory
Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof in a scene from the film “Dallas Buyers Club.” Anne Marie Fox/Associated Press

Work in indie “Dallas Buyers Club” may earn award for Matthew McConaughey

I was pleased to see dramatic heavy-hitters Christian Bale (“American Hustle”) and Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) both get nods for their uncharacteristically hilarious and spirited performances as amoral con artists.

And though I have not seen “Dallas Buyers Club” or “Nebraska,” I suspect that DiCaprio is the most deserving of the nominated actors — he commanded the screen with a hypnotic ferocity that was unmatched this year, and proved that he can be uproariously funny if given the right material.

Cannes winner Bruce Dern is a possibility for “Nebraska,” as Oscar voters love to honor old pros.

But he’s overshadowed by first-time nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I long ago predicted would eventually find the right role to win this award.

“12 Years a Slave” is a powerful film, and at its core is Ejiofor’s heartfelt performance as a free black man abducted and sold into bondage.

And a month ago, I would have said he was a shoe-in to take home the gold.

But after his wins at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards, Matthew McConaughey has catapulted himself to the status of front-runner for his work as an AIDS patient in the indie “Dallas Buyers Club.”

Couple this momentum with the fact that he’s reportedly very popular among many industry circles, and you’ve got a compelling case for a McConaughey win. Close call, though.

Buzzworthy performances may spell Oscar glory
Focus Features/Associated PressJared Leto plays Rayon in a scene from “Dallas Buyers Club.”

Jared Leto’s performance is subtle in “Dallas Buyers Club”

Yes, I was as shocked as anyone when Jonah Hill’s name was called. And I balked at first, recalling his ridiculous nomination for the vastly over-rated “Moneyball” a few years back. Then I actually saw “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and was startled by the subtleties of Hill’s singularly hilarious turn as DiCaprio’s id-driven, quaalude-addled chief lackey.

But he has even less of a shot than Barkhad Abdi (the Somali immigrant and former limo driver who played the pirate ringleader in “Captain Phillips”), so I won’t get my hopes up.

Like Hill, Bradley Cooper softened my skepticism with his solid work as an inept FBI agent in “American Hustle,” but he was outshone in his film by three even better performances.

This opens up the race for Michael Fassbender, whose menacing turn as a ruthless plantation owner in “12 Years a Slave” lends the film much of its chilling effect. He is perceived as having been unfairly snubbed for his leading work in McQueen’s previous features “Hunger” and “Shame,” and a win here would be a fitting way to make amends.

But the man of the hour is clearly Jared Leto, who as McConaughey’s transgender business partner in the “Dallas Buyers Club” has made a major comeback after being largely absent from the screen for almost a decade. After picking up the majority of critics’ awards, Leto is a pretty safe bet for the supporting actor award.

Buzzworthy performances may spell Oscar glory
Lupita Nyong’o is in a scene from “12 Years A Slave.” Nyong’o was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role in the film. Francois Duhamel/Associated Press

Lupita Nyong’o lends emotional impact in “12 Years A Slave”

With zero buzz and no momentum for her performance, Julia Roberts is the least likely to win in this category. Also quite unlikely are Sally Hawkins, who was overshadowed by co-star Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine,” and 84-year-old June Squibb, a previously unknown bit-player who will be perceived as having already “won” by virtue of being nominated opposite Dern in “Nebraska.”

Golden Globe winner Jennifer Lawrence is a possibility for “American Hustle,” though her victory in the lead actress category last year for “Silver Linings Playbook” certainly affects her chances, as an actress hasn’t won back-to-back Oscars since Katherine Hepburn. But SAG winner Lupita Nyong’o gets a slight edge for her riveting turn in “12 Years a Slave.” Ejiofor carries the film, but it’s Nyongo’s quietly devastating performance that truly hammers home the emotional impact. It’s a heck of a feature debut for the Yale drama grad.

Buzzworthy performances may spell Oscar glory
Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from “American Hustle.” Francois Duhamel/Associated Press

“American Hustle” deserves credit, Oscar for Best Original Screenplay

Woody Allen won in this category two years ago for “Midnight in Paris.” Alexander Payne didn’t write “Nebraska,” but his “The Descendants” won for adapted screenplay the same year. And “Dallas Buyers Club” suffers from the “small film that’s lucky to get what it’s got” stigma.

This leaves Golden Globe winner “Her,” Spike Jonze’s wise and deeply felt story of a lost soul who falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system.

I’d love to see Jonze take home the honors.

But in the end, it’s a good bet that David O. Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer will prevail for their zippy and polished “American Hustle.” It may not take the place of a best director trophy, but it’s gonna have to be good enough.

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