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Some Final Thoughts Before the 86th Oscars

February 24, 2014

By John Corrado

American HustleI think the entire entertainment industry will breathe a sigh of relief come next Sunday night after the Oscars are finally announced, the last footnote for the banner year of movies that was 2013.  But I’m not complaining, because this has been one of the most exciting awards seasons in recent memory, a year with three frontrunners for Best Picture and locks that could be broken by equally deserving winners.

Now I’m not going to try and make predictions for every category, because I’ve found in other years that can take away from some of the fun that comes with watching things unfold on the big night itself.   These are just my feelings on some of the tightest races and the categories where I have commentary to add, a few final thoughts on a selection of the films that have been nominated.

Let’s start with the acting categories.  Robert Redford was haunting in All is Lost, Joaquin Phoenix was masterful in Her, and Tom Hanks delivered two stunning performances in Captain Phillips and Saving Mr. Banks, the latter also including brilliant work from Emma Thompson.  And these are just five of the excellent performances that didn’t make the list of acting nominees.  But between the four leading and supporting categories, there is a total of twenty excellent performances being recognized, and there isn’t a weak link in these lineups.

The nominees for Best Actor include Bruce Dern who finally got his moment in the spotlight with Nebraska, and Chiwetal Ejiofor for his profoundly affecting turn in 12 Years a Slave.  Christian Bale received a nod for his excellent work in American Hustle, and Leonardo DiCaprio was electric in The Wolf of Wall Street, receiving his fifth nomination.  Every one of these actors was brilliant, but I think this is Matthew McConaughey’s year for his mesmerizing performance in Dallas Buyers Club, and he deserves the award.  I’ve had a feeling he was going to win since walking out of the press screening back in October, and the last few weeks have all but confirmed it.

The Best Actress lineup is equally excellent.  Meryl Streep was priceless in August: Osage County, and Judi Dench brought touching depth to the title character in Philomena.  Sandra Bullock was stunning in Gravity, delivering a deeply moving performance that had a profound effect on me.  Amy Adams is one of my favourite actresses and she received her fifth nomination for her brilliantly sensual work in American Hustle, and the actress is overdue for a win.  But Cate Blanchett has been the frontrunner since audiences first saw Blue Jasmine, and the Australian actress will likely win her second Oscar for her breathtaking portrayal of mental illness.

Although all five of the Best Supporting Actor contenders are excellent, there is one clear winner for the award.  First time actor Barkhad Abdi gave a remarkably nuanced performance in Captain Phillips, and Michael Fassbender was a quietly terrifying presence in 12 Years a Slave.  Bradley Cooper was energizing in American Hustle, and Jonah Hill was hilarious in The Wolf of Wall Street.  But Jared Leto is one of the biggest locks in recent memory for his excellent transformation in Dallas Buyers Club, a heartfelt and multilayered performance that is captivating to behold.

Best Supporting Actress is proving to be more unpredictable.  Julia Roberts fiercely held her own in August: Osage County, June Squibb was an elderly scene stealer in Nebraska, and Sally Hawkins was excellent as the working class counterpart of the title character in Blue Jasmine.  But this category is between two people.  Jennifer Lawrence is having one of the hottest streaks of any young star, and last year’s Best Actress winner for Silver Linings Playbook could win her second trophy for her hilarious turn in American Hustle.  Contrarily, Lupita Nyong’o was heartbreaking in 12 Years a Slave, and her deeply emotional and fearless performance has stuck with me since first seeing the film.

This is probably the first year where I’ve seen all of the nominees for Best Documentary before the Oscars, all five of which will be playing at the Bloor Cinema this coming weekend.  For Cutie and the Boxer and The Square, the nomination really is the award.  Although Dirty Wars is a fine piece of investigative journalism, I would have loved to see the final slot go to The Crash Reel, which was my pick for the best documentary of last year.  This leaves the inspirational 20 Feet From Stardom as my favourite to win, but expected frontrunner The Act of Killing is a disturbingly brilliant achievement that also deserves the award, and both were solidly on my top ten list of the best documentaries of 2013.

Although Monsters University was robbed of a nomination, there is a full field of five films up for Best Animated Feature this year, and already a clear winner.  Having seen all of the nominees, save for the French Ernest and Celestine which has yet to be widely released in English, this award absolutely belongs to Frozen.  Disney’s blockbuster hit is thankfully the expected frontrunner, and with the field rounded out by the pretty good Despicable Me 2 and Hayao Miyazaki’s final film The Wind Rises, my second choice here would actually be The Croods which was among the first screeners sent to voters.

Best Animated Short is a category that often flies under the radar, but pretty much everyone has seen at least one of the nominees this year, with Get a Horse! playing before Frozen.  Featuring archival voice work from Walt Disney himself, the brilliant short is a throwback to the classics of the studio, while also providing a stunning showcase for modern 3D effects.  It’s the frontrunner, but equally excellent is the incredibly charming Room on the Broom, another wonderful achievement from the same artists behind the lovely short films The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child.

Best Song took an interesting turn when “Alone Yet Not Alone” was removed from the race.  The title track from the Christian movie always seemed like a suspicious nominee, leaving a veritable playlist of four excellent songs.  I’m a big fan of U2, and “Ordinary Love” is a rousing and touching tribute to the late Nelson Mandela from the timely biopic.  Playing a key role in Her, “The Moon Song” is a quietly beautiful piece from Karen O, a melancholy song that recalls the feelings of the film.  Pharrell Williams continues to be among the hottest names in music, and “Happy” is one of the best parts of Despicable Me 2, a self explanatory song that is irresistible to dance along with.  But the Frozen soundtrack has been heating up the charts and “Let It Go” is among the standout tracks, a power ballad that is stunningly performed by Idina Menzel and the big frontrunner for this award.

The Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay categories include some of the finest writing of 2013.  A little while ago, I would have predicted that the sharply written Blue Jasmine would win Best Original Screenplay, but the allegations of sexual abuse against Woody Allen have dampened his awards season prospects.  This leaves the door wide open for the brilliant screenplays behind American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club and Nebraska, but I’m thinking that Spike Jonze will win this one for Her, which contains some of the most beautifully worded passages of 2013.  Best Adapted Screenplay could also go a variety of different ways, with Best Picture hopefuls Captain Phillips, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street all in the running, along with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke’s brilliantly written trilogy closer Before Midnight.

Because there are nine contenders for Best Picture, only five of the directors behind the top films received Best Director nominations.  David O. Russell and Alexander Payne are two of my favourite filmmakers, and their respective achievements American Hustle and Nebraska are excellent representations of their gifts for mixing humour and drama.  Marten Scorsese brought the energy of a young filmmaker to The Wolf of Wall Street, and it’s shocking that the veteran director only has one Oscar to his name.  Steve McQueen is a true artist and 12 Years a Slave is a deeply personal film that could easily take home Best Picture.  But I think Alfonso Cuarón will and should win Best Director for his visionary work behind Gravity, a stunning film that was only possible because of his dedication to the project.

I loved all of the films that are nominated for Best Picture, including such memorable achievements as Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street.  But the race is down to American Hustle, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, three very different films that could all deserve the award for their own reasons.  I think Gravity will emerge as the big winner of the night, picking up awards in many of the technical categories, but I’ve had a feeling since the beginning that 12 Years a Slave will enter the pantheon of Best Picture winners.  But we won’t really know until the final envelope is opened on Sunday, so for now we should just celebrate all of these excellent movies.

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