Saturday, March 1, 2014

Aw, scars

Oscars, you see.

The Oscars telecast is tomorrow night, and tonight we are cooking. I, however, am going to consolidate the cooking into one post, and this ain't it (I am presently making heirloom tomato sauce; that's the only bit I'm sayin').

No, this is the post where I actually talk about the movies. The nominees are here, if you want to check it out. Let's see how many I get right, out of nine categories (since I didn't get a chance to see Prisoners or Inside Llewyn Davis so I'm not gonna weigh in Cinematography, not that I ever know how to call that race anyway).

Best Actor: Actually some really good performances this year. We've got Bruce Dern for a kind of overly trusting, drunk man in Nebraska, Leonardo DiCaprio as a drug-addled crooked stockbroker, Matthew McConaughey as a man dying of AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club, Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free man pressed to slavery in 12 Years a Slave, and Christian Bale as a con man in American Hustle.

So, I think all of these are challenging performances in their own way. I don't think Bale is likely to take it, nor do I think Bruce Dern gets this one. I rather doubt that Leo takes it this year; his performance was good, but the movie could have been "Henry Hill Goes to Wall Street" (though I don't know, Goodfellas was 30 years ago). I think, though, that the strong performances are between McConaughey and Ejiofor, and I think the latter is going to resonate with the Academy more.

I note, too, that McConaughey is playing a real person (well, so is Ejiofor, but not a contemporary one that people still alive knew), and as usual, there are differences. I have the usual response to that: A movie may be "based on true events," but it's never a true depiction, because it is by definition a work of fiction.

My choice & prediction: Chiwetel Ejiofor

Best Supporting Actor: For four of the same movies, we get: Jonah Hill as another drug-addled broker, Bradley Cooper as a violent-tempered Fed, Michael Fassbender as a slave owner, and Jared Leto as a transgender woman. Plus, we get Barkhad Abdi as Somalian pirate in Captain Phillips. Now, I really do like Abdi's performance. I always like it when "bad guys" get nominated, and Abdi does a good job of playing a young man in impossible circumstances just trying to make some money - and who will, in all probability, be punished if he doesn't. Meanwhile, Fassbender, who also plays a bad guy, doesn't imbue that kind of nuance. That isn't to say that he doesn't manage to make the character live and be believable, but I think he's pretty irredeemable.

Cooper did a good job with his performance, but really, I have a hard time separating that performance too much from his role in Silver Linings Playbook - Cooper has a style, and it'd be nice to see him break out of it. Also, Jeremy Renner should have gotten this nomination. Meanwhile, Jonah Hill managed to do exactly that - he broke from the sarcastic, annoying kid he usually plays and embodied the sheer, stupid excess of the 80s in Wolf of Wall Street.

And then there's Jared Leto, who took some fire because they cast a cis man as opposed to an actual transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club. I don't necessarily think that would be a problem - as Leto has pointed out, it isn't like straight people don't play gay and vice versa, but I can't even name a trans*woman acting Hollywood off the top of my head, so maybe that's a point.

Anyway, I don't know which way the Academy is leaning, but I like all of these performances. I think maybe Leto may take it, but I think I'd rather see Hill take it, as unclean as that makes me feel. Definitely a memorable character with a meaty role. Leto would be fine, too, I think.

My prediction: Jared Leto
My choice: Jonah Hill

Best Actress: Amy Adams as a con artist in American Hustle, Cate Blanchett as a woman in the throes of nervous breakdown in Blue Jasmine, Sandra Bullock as an astronaut in Gravity, Judi Dench as a woman searching for her lost child in Philomena, and Meryl Streep as a drug addict in August: Osage County.

Holy shit, what a boring lineup. I mean, don't get me wrong, all of these ladies are amazing actress, but they're all white women who have been nominated before - or won - before. Hrmph. In years past there's been some variety here, in terms of race or just getting an unknown. Ah, well.

So, I really loved Bullock's performance, but as I said at the time, she should not have won for The Blind Side. It was a bad role and not a great movie, and now that she's in a really good movie, she's not going to get it.

I like most of these performances. I am not crazy about Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. The movie kind of made me want to hit every major character with a pipe, which only The Social Network managed before. Blancett's character was infuriating, drunk, needy, unbalanced, and made lots of excuses for her horrible behavior. And I gotta be honest, the fact that it's a Woody Allen movie doesn't help my enjoyment of it. Meh.

Meanwhile, Meryl Streep had a really amazing performance. Her character was a horrible person, but the story and the acting stayed with me (maybe more Michelle than me, because she recognized the setting better). Amy Adams was good, but Jennifer Lawrence (see below) was better in American Hustle. That leaves Dench and Bullock. So, Bullock really carries the movie, and turns in a really simple, impressive performance. Dench is playing a real person, but she's playing a sweet old lady, and I don't think the challenge is quite on the same level.

As much as I hated the character, I think in terms of performance I gotta go with Streep. And I don't think Adams is going to beat her out, but I honestly have no idea how to call this. I'm reading some buzz and they're saying Blanchett, and ugh.

My choice: Meryl Streep
My prediction: Ugh. Cate Blanchett, I guess

Best Supporting Actress: Yay, Jennifer Lawrence. I really like her. I want to see her do comedy, frankly, because I think she's really funny. But besides her, we get Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine, Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave, Julia Roberts in August: Osage County, and June Squibb in Nebraska.

Now, I'm pretty sure we can count out Squibb, because although her performance in Nebraska was fun, it's not nearly challenging or heavy enough to beat the others. I don't think that Roberts or Hawkins really have a shot, though I do want to note that I loved Roberts' performance (I like plays, and August: Osage County started as a play, and it shows). Hawkins' character was less horrible than Blanchett's, but was still a grasping, greedy sort of person, just without all the 1% entitlement. Anyway.

I think this is probably between Nyong'o and Lawrence, and I don't really think it's a contest. Nyong'o had a couple of really amazing, standout scenes in 12 Years a Slave, and while Lawrence did, too, she just won for Silver Linings Playbook.

My choice and prediction: Lupita Nyong'o

Best Animated Film: Well, first, let's ditch The Croods and Despicable Me 2. Both are decent movies, but they don't have nearly the interesting storyline or the craft of the others. Croods starts out as being Eep (Emma Stone)'s movie, and then by the end it's about Nicholas Cage, which is annoying. Despicable Me 2 is mostly about the minions, with a storyline kind of hung on it.

And then we have Ernest & Celestine, a movie about bears and mice, and teeth. I think the animation is fun and the story is cool, and my kids liked it, and there's some interesting commentary, maybe, about international relations and economics for the grown ups. The Wind Rises is Hiyao Miyazaki's love letter to Japanese aviation, and the English dub makes brief mention of some of the horrible shit Japan was doing at the time and includes the theme of aviation being done out of love but used for war. But I think it might be uncomfortable for American voters, especially the other folks who are Academy voters. And besides, the fifth movie...

...is Frozen. OK, look, complain about the interpretation of "The Snow Queen" if you want, but the fact remains that this movie has two sisters as the lead, skewers the "OMG just met my true love!" trope, and ends with both princesses still single. Oh, and Anna's suitor asks to kiss her. Those things are, to me, huge (also the soundtrack is pretty awesome).

My choice and prediction: Frozen

Best Director: The buzz I've heard is for Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity, and I'm thinking that's probably accurate. Sure, we've got Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street, but again, it's a lot like Goodfellas, and I don't think he's winning this year. I've hears Alexander Payne getting buzz for Nebraska, but eh. I don't dispute it's skillfully done, but I think up against movies with a hell of lot more going on, I don't think it's got a real shot.

Speaking of which, 12 Years a Slave has a nomination for Steve McQueen, while David O. Russell is nominated (again) for American Hustle. I think this is basically between McQueen and Cuaron, and I would be fine with either. I'm a big fan of Cuaron, so I'm gonna go with him.

My choice and predication: Alfonso Cuaron

Best Adapted Screenplay: As usual, I have not read the things these movies are based on. But here we go. We've got the third movie in the Linklater "Before" series (Before Midnight), the (apparently largely fictionalized) events of the kidnapping of Captain Phillips (Captain Phillips), the story of how Philomena Lee found her son (who actually wound up doing a lot of harm to the American government, from what I've read), the story of a free man pressed into slavery (12 Years a Slave), and of course the memoir of a guy who took a lot of money and used it on hookers and blow (The Wolf of Wall Street).

So, of these, I find 12 Years a Slave the most compelling. I enjoyed Before Midnight, but if you haven't seen the first two it just comes off as two people bitching at each other for two hours. The other movies were good, but 12 Years a Slave is really a pretty unflinching look at a horrible time in our history, without trying to apologize for it or make it seem like wacky fun (which you can argue was happening in Wolf of Wall Street).

My choice and prediction: 12 Years a Slave

Best Original Screenplay: Can we please jettison Blue Jasmine right now? Woody Allen's story of a woman suffering a nervous breakdown after her asshole husband blew through a lot of other people's money just doesn't make me happy. Nebraska, likewise, is a good movie and the characters are believable and all, but it's a bunch of people in the Midwest being all Midwesterny. It's a good story, but it doesn't resonate beyond that (at least not with me; Sideways did, for other reasons). American Hustle is nicely complex, a good ensemble piece, and interesting enough that it definitely deserves to be here (which I have a hard time saying about Nebraska). Dallas Buyers Club has some resonance and, like Wolf of Wall Street, has some nice zeitgeist, but I think its strength is the performances.

But then there's Her, which hasn't gotten any nominations I've mentioned before now. But yikes. Now, admittedly, the notion of computers gaining sentience and how we relate to them is interesting to me anyway, but I also like how the movie (much like Lars & the Real Girl, which had a few similar themes) didn't treat the main character like a freak. It showed other folks responded to the OS the same was Joaquin Phoenix' character does, and the result is something that is nuanced and layers and really cool.

Now, that's my choice. But who's going to win? Her is Spike Jonze, who's not exactly unknown to the Academy. I don't think Before Midnight is taking it, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that Nebraska or Dallas Buyers Club will. I think it might be the latter, because it doesn't have 12 Years a Slave to compete with.

My choice: Her
My prediction: Dallas Buyers Club

Best Picture: Hokay. So. Unlike previous years, I don't have anything here that I feel shouldn't have been nominated. Maybe Nebraska (which isn't winning). It's a good movie, though I admit I do sometimes want to add "but so what" to the end of that. But for the rest:

Philomena ain't winning. It's good, but it's hardly groundbreaking.

Captain Phillips ain't winning. It's good, but Tom Hanks has been better, and the phrase "shooting fish in a barrel" comes to mind about the ending scene. It still has some tension, but like, this just happened so we know Phillips came out OK (hell, it's still recent enough that I remember Jon Stewart's take on it).

Her isn't winning, which makes me sad, because I think that it's probably the most topical of the movies without actually being based on anything specific. Our dependence and reverence of technology is very much an interesting and important topic, and everything in the movie, from the kind of poly manifesto that pops up to Twombley's fricking job, which requires empathy but not connection, are well worth paying attention to. But I think it's too sci-fi to win, and it certainly isn't beating the front-runners.

The Wolf of Wall Street ain't winning, but I do find it interesting that the movie basically glorifies the lifestyle that Jordan Belfort lived. Apparently in some screenings people cheered when he pulled out the drugs again, and that's very much in keeping with how the movie is filmed - he's interesting when he's high, destructive, and excessive. But the movie also glosses over the people who got hurt, and continue to be hurt, by Wall Street, and frankly I don't think another movie about how greed is good and there are no repercussions for the rich (though of course there aren't) is what we should be rewarding.

Gravity probably isn't winning Best Picture. And that's probably OK. I'm all for genre films getting recognized, but I think that though the visuals were freaking amazing, the characterization wasn't all it could have been and there's no real statement.

American Hustle: A few months ago I'd have called this a frontrunner, but I think it's gotten lost behind 12 Years a Slave. And frankly, as I think about it, I can't really remember anything about it. It's not really a caper flick. It's not really a crime flick. It's a period piece, and it's good, but it's not amazing.

So that leaves Dallas Buyers Club and 12 Years a Slave. I feel pretty confident that one of these will take it. Dallas Buyers Club might provide a way to feel like they're honoring victims of AIDS without actually making a movie about gay people, while 12 Years a Slave could have been a white guilt movie in the hands of a lesser director. As it is, while Ejiofor's character Solomon Northup doesn't save himself, he stays strong and alive long enough to get a message home, and yes, it's white people that help spring him, but that's kind of the issue - there was no other way it could have ended, at the time. The strength of the film isn't in the message it sends about race, per se, but about the depiction of slavery it grants. It should make people uncomfortable, which I don't think Dallas Buyers Club does, not to nearly the same degree.

And as much as I liked Her, I think I gotta go with that criteria, too.

My choice and prediction: 12 Years a Slave