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There are two guarantees I can make for this year’s Academy Awards. The first is that you will end up feeling shafted by some of the winners. The second is that the race for Best Lead Actor might be the most competitive it has been in years. Each actor more than deserves and offers up a varying array of characters and performances.
Many have been giving Matthew McConaughey the edge for his role in Dallas Buyers Club. Usually, the Oscars reward actors for undergoing complete physical changes, and McConaughey transformed his appearance with his stunning weight loss. Christian Bale, in the inverse of McConaughey, packed on some pounds for his role in American Hustle, but Bale is on the outside looking in because of his fairly recent win for The Fighter and his role may have been the least flashy in the very flashy American Hustle. Bruce Dern played the role of the aloof elderly father in Nebraska and, while his performance was good, I don’t believe it was as good as Bale or Leonardo DiCaprio’s. However, there is some buzz around giving the award to Dern as a sort of lifetime achievement for a man who has been around a while, but has not been nominated for many awards. Chiwetel Ejiofor is good in everything he’s in, but having a character that is more passive, serving as the vessel for the audience to witness the atrocities of slavery, could hurt him.
That brings us to DiCaprio for The Wolf of Wall Street. Say what you will about the movie but had DiCaprio not let loose, not channeled the disgusting personalities of the stock brokers the movie is based off of, the outrage for the movie’s seeming celebration of the lifestyle would not have been so big. DiCaprio embodies everything that is wrong with America and without him at the center of this movie, with the performance that he gives, The Wolf of Wall Street would not be as controversial as it became – even though the controversy is ridiculous.
So the toss up is between McConaughey and DiCaprio and personally I’m giving it to DiCaprio, even though a McConaughey win would solidify his comeback and may be the better narrative.
Winner: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
This race isn’t nearly as close as that of Lead Actor, but does contain some very good performances. The heavy favorite since day one has been Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine. She gets the task of playing the neurotic Woody Allen character and does a little something extra with it. You actually feel her fall from grace and know that she won’t be able to make it in this new, less affluent world into which she has been thrown.
Her two main competitors are Amy Adams for American Hustle and Sandra Bullock for Gravity. American Hustle’s biggest flaw is having far too many three dimensional characters with great performances for each, which means no one gets enough screen time. Amy Adams is good, but her character is lacking, which ultimately hurts the performance. Bullock, on the other hand, is on screen in every scene for Gravity. Her performance is much more down to earth (winky face) than either Adams’ or Blanchett’s, but something feels missing here too. She struggles through each peril and grapples with her desire to survive but, ultimately, her decision to survive doesn’t come off as strongly as you’d hope – hindered by the hallucination of George Clooney’s ghost.
I think Blanchett wins this in a landslide, as her performance is the most complete and nuanced among the nominees.
Winner: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Supporting Actor and Actress
Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with long diatribes for each of the categories I’m predicting. Personally, I didn’t feel Jennifer Lawerence’s performance was all that strong for American Hustle, so I think the main competition is between Sally Hawkins for Blue Jasmine and Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave. Hawkins was delightful as the somewhat confused lower-class sister of Blanchett’s, but I think Nyong’o takes it for 12 Years a Slave as the “breakout star” of 2014.
Winner: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
The Best Supporting Actor award is Jared Leto’s to lose after his performance in Dallas Buyers Club. Much like Cate Blanchett, he has been the frontrunner ever since nominations were handed out. Michael Fassbender also gave a strong performance for 12 Years a Slave, but it may be too hard to award him for his morally reprehensible character. Barkhad Abdi for Captain Phillips also turned in a very meaningful performance as the Somali pirate who kidnapped Tom Hanks’ Phillips, giving the role a surprising amount of subtlety and roundness for a first-time actor. Bradley Cooper for American Hustle also turned in a good performance, but his character often got lost in the shuffle of development.
Personally I’d give it to Abdi, but I don’t think Leto loses this.
Winner: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Before discussing best picture, the Directing category deserves to be mentioned. This is a very strong field and this is where many believe Gravity and Alfonso Cuarón will be awarded, which is hard to argue. He was the one at the forefront for creating the new techniques to appear weightless in space and he got a good performance out of Bullock to boot. That’s not to say David O. Russell for American Hustle or Martin Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street aren’t deserving, but I definitely think Cuarón takes the award here.
Gravity is certainly not the best movie of the year, but it may very well be the most watched of the nominees and Cuarón deserves the award for all the technical wonderment he achieved.
Winner: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Sorry Nebraska, Philomena, and Captain Phillips, you all offered up something a little different, but you won’t be awarded for your efforts, nor should you be this year. The Wolf of Wall Street may have been the best movie I’ve seen this year but due to all the ill will it's accrued for celebrating that lifestyle, which, of course, is far too simple a viewing of the movie, you won’t be awarded here either. And Her, you are justified for your nomination, but I’m not sure you’re the Academy’s cup of tea.
Gravity is probably the people’s favorite. It was absolutely jaw dropping visually, especially on the big screen, and did have the fairly strong Bullock performance. Unfortunately, the writing leaves this movie short of the podium. I also think it will be awarded in all the technical categories and clearly for its directing, so it certainly won’t go home empty handed. Anyone looking for more of my thoughts feel free to read my review.
Dallas Buyers Club is much more about the performances than the overall product and they have a good shot at being rewarded for the performances. And unlike American Hustle, which is also a more performance-based movie, DBC was not nearly as enjoyable a watch.
So that leaves us with 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle. The slight favorite for most is 12 Years a Slave because it checks off all the right Oscar boxes. Historical fiction picturing an atrocity? Check. Strong performances for both its lead and supporting actors/actresses? Check. Not shying away from the horrors of slavery? Check. It is everyone’s favorite for its “statement movie” qualities. And while I don’t think American Hustle is the best movie of the year, I think it is the sneakiest of all the contenders.
American Hustle is a very divisive movie. As I’ve stated, it has a lot of problems with shoehorning too many characters and performances into one movie, that you feel like you want more. It also hurts the movie because each character’s motives and or complete reactions to what is going on in the story are known. It becomes a little too bogged down with the relationship between Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper and loses focus midway through. But it has something that only Gravity has going for it: It is completely an enjoyable watch. You do get wrapped up in the lives of the characters and it becomes entertaining, brisk, and very fun.
Ultimately, I think the Academy likes the “making a statement” narrative too much and goes with 12 Years a Slave, but I would not be surprised if the voters enjoy their trip down memory lane a little too much and take American Hustle.
Winner: 12 Years a Slave
That wraps up the Oscar predictions. Check back Monday for some reactions to the winners.