Around this time last year, “Lincoln” and “Les Miserables” were looking like the undisputed frontrunners for the Best Picture Oscar, with “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” trailing just behind. At that time, neither “Lincoln” nor “Les Mis” had hit theaters yet, so the Oscar buzz was based primarily on three things: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' demonstrated love of big-budget, uncynical commercial fare, the in-your-face marketing of “Les Miserables” and the self-evident truth that everything Daniel Day-Lewis touches turns to gold.
As it turned out, “Les Mis” wasn’t that great and "Lincoln" lost some of its luster in the weeks leading up to the awards, even though in that film Steven Spielberg was at his least Spielberg-y since "E.T." (That's a compliment wrapped inside an insult blanket, btw.) In 2013, more than ever, we saw overwhelming evidence of the way inside games can influence the Oscar results. Oscar winners are selected – and rejected -- much the same way local political candidates are, which is to say by chummy powerbrokers who enjoy playing favorites and grinding axes. Accusations that director Kathryn Bigelow was too cozy with the Obama administration tarnished the sheen of early critical raves for "Zero Dark Thirty." Spielberg and “Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner, too, came under fire for what some saw as needlessly rewriting history: In the film, two Connecticut congressmen vote against the passage of the 13th Amendment; in reality, all four Connecticut congressmen voted in favor of it. But most significantly, the surprising snub of “Argo” director Ben Affleck for an Oscar nomination earned the film enough conciliatory goodwill that almost no one was surprised when it went on to win the Best Picture trophy.
Without having access to a parallel universe in which Affleck was indeed given a Best Director nod by the Academy, we can never say for sure whether the shocking omission prompted Oscar (and Hollywood Foreign Press) voters to rally behind the likeable star’s movie. The rebuff and ensuing redemption played like a Hollywood movie, reminding us that the Academy giveth and the Academy taketh away.
There’s no telling whether “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity,” the frontrunners of the moment, will remain so after more contenders are released theatrically and once the campaigning kicks into high gear. I suspect that voters may weary of “Gravity” once it comes time to cast the ballot, but with up to 10 Best Picture nominations available, it’s got a deep cushion.
The year 2013 in film has been great for medium-sized indies: Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” Lee Daniel’s “The Butler” and real-life drama “Fruitvale Station” all performed exceptionally well and have earned some degree of Oscar buzz. I imagine we will see at least one of those among the Best Picture nominees.
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Two other specialty films – “Enough Said” and “Short Term 12” -- are not as much a part of the award season conversation as I would have liked.
If it were up to me, “Short Term 12,” directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and starring Brie Larson, would win everything. (Okay, almost everything.) But for now I am keeping it out of my Best Picture predictions, as it is the darkest of dark horses. I am hoping that could change, but not sure exactly how. “Short Term 12” opened in extremely limited release this summer, and though it played to nearly unanimous critical raves, it simply hasn’t been seen by enough people outside of Los Angeles and New York.
“Short Term 12” is probably best compared to last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the Sundance winner and art-house favorite that ultimately garnered both a Best Picture and Best Director nod. Still, it’s an uneven comparison: While “Short Term 12” won the top two prizes at SXSW, it didn’t get into Sundance, which I will never understand. SXSW is gaining influence, but it doesn’t yet have the cachet of the Park City gala. If “Short Term 12” had been a Sundance darling, which it would have been had it been given the chance, I’m certain we’d be hearing more about it as award season approaches. To see it is to love it, and if enough people had, maybe Academy voters would be inclined to take it more seriously. What does it say that a movie on almost every film critic’s shortlist might not find a place on the Oscar nominations list?
“Enough Said” had a wider distribution and a very strong opening: It averaged $60,000 per screen in its New York and Los Angeles debut, and later expanded into 65 additional markets. The fact that it was the late, great James Gandolfini’s second-to-last appearance in a film certainly didn’t hurt audience interest. But Gandolfini’s performance, as fantastic as it was, was only one part of what made “Enough Said” remarkable. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener is the kind of filmmaker who says out loud what everyone else is thinking. But she does it without judgment, and with all the compassion that her imperfect characters deserve. As Eve, a woman who truly means well -- or at least truly believes she does, but can’t help herself from hurting those she loves most -- Julia Louis-Dreyfuss absolutely nailed it.
I have a hard time believing that Holofcener’s gender and her insistence on building stories around imperfect women (who are over 25!) don’t have a little something to do with the fact that none of her films have ever been nominated for an Oscar. (To be fair, she has only made five features in her career.) If that changes this year, it will likely be because Gandolfini gets a nomination. Again, his performance is certainly worthy of the recognition, but so is his female co-star’s, as well as the screenplay that got it all started.
Back to the locks: “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” can expect to see some competition soon. First, from David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” an FBI drama with a top-tier cast and, based on the trailer, a distinct “Goodfellas” feel. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” was perched for a semi-surprise Best Picture win last year, but only the film’s lead actress, Jennifer Lawrence, took home a prize. Just this week, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” cemented its nomination with a Dec. 25 release date. Scorsese! Dicaprio! Corporate greed! What could go wrong? “Captain Phillips” has all the makings of a standard Best Picture nominee, but director Paul Greengrass has been criticized for embellishing the story: According to some, the real Captain Phillips – captain of a ship that was taken over by Somali pirates – was not quite the hero the Tom Hanks movie made him out to be. As we saw last year with “Lincoln,” these things can trip up an Oscar campaign. But do enough people care about that movie for there to be a real controversy?
In any event, this is what we think the nominee pool will look like (for now):
“Gravity,” Alfonso Cuaron
“12 Years a Slave,” Steve McQueen
“Inside Llewyn Davis,” Joel and Ethan Coen
“Nebraska,” Alexander Payne
“Her,” Spike Jonze
“Before Midnight,” Richard Linklater
“The Wolf of Wall Street,” Martin Scorsese
“American Hustle,” David O. Russell
“Captain Philips,” Paul Greengrass
“The Butler,” Lee Daniels
*Alternate: “Blue Jasmine,” Woody Allen
“Gravity” can have all the technical awards, every last one of them, but it should not win Best Picture. Cuaron deserves a Best Director nod but not a win; cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki deserves both, and the actors deserve neither. Still, if the beloved Sandra Bullock can win a Best Actress Oscar for “The Blind Side” (in 2009) odds are the Academy will find her worthy of a nomination for “Gravity,” which arguably required a little more of her. But merit is only one of several factors that influence Oscar odds. On that note, here are my predictions for the Lead Actress category:
Best Actress in a Lead Role
Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”
Brie Larson, “Short Term 12”
Dame Judi Dench, “Philomena”
Amy Adams, “American Hustle”
Not unlike last year, the Best Actress category is jam-packed with worthy contenders, including Meryl Streep for “August: Osage County,” who may end up on this list in the next incarnation of my predictions. So could Emma Thompson for “Saving Mr. Banks.” Stay tuned, though it doesn’t much matter, as Blanchett will almost surely win.
Best Actor in a Lead Role
Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips”
Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
Robert Redford, “All Is Lost”
Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Leonardo DiCaprio could replace Hanks or McConaughey on this list in the near future. We think the prize will ultimately go to one of the elder statesmen: Dern or Redford.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Lupita Nyongo, “12 Years a Slave”
Oprah Winfrey, “The Butler”*
Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”
Octavia Spencer, “Fruitvale Station”
Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”**
*Don’t shoot the messenger.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
James Gandolfini, “Enough Said”
Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”
Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Daniel Bruhl, “Rush”
Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”
Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”
Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”
David O. Russell, “American Hustle”
Best Original Screenplay
“Inside Llewyn Davis,” Joel and Ethan Coen
“Blue Jasmine,” Woody Allen
“Enough Said,” Nicole Holofcener
“Fruitvale Station,” Ryan Coogler
“Her,” Spike Jonze
Best Adapted Screenplay
“12 Years a Slave,” John Ridley
“Before Midnight,” Julia Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater
“Short Term 12,” Destin Daniel Cretton
“The Wolf of Wall Street,” Terrence Winter
“August: Osage County,” Tracy Letts
The 2014 Academy Award nominations will be announced on Jan. 16, 2014. Stay tuned here for updated and expanded predictions.