Saturday, February 23, 2013

Oscar - Main Categories

Best Picture:

This is an epic discussion. For once, it really will be a nail biter on Oscar night. Okay, it will probably be Argo, but I can't help hoping.

My full best picture breakdown will follow soon.

Best Director:

Michael Haneke - Amour
Ang Lee - Life of Pi
David O'Russell - Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg - Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin - Beasts of the Southern Wild

Anyone's guess. Had Ben Affleck nominated, he'd be your man, scooping up gold with Argo's unstoppable winning streak. Then again, had Ben Affleck nominated, he'd be the frontrunner, not the underdog, and his film arguably wouldn't be enjoying such an unstoppable winning streak. But then again, who knows? Even the British and the French awarded Argo over the other brilliant American films of 2012. Affleck being outside the race as he is, Best Director is wide open.

Let's presume Benh Zeitlin is the contender that's just happy to be there for his micro budget, breathtaking Beasts of the Southern Wild. That's one down.

David O'Russell seems the most lightweight contender, but his film has a fanatic support base that takes his quirky mental illness rom com very seriously indeed. It was fairly rapturously received by the Academy with not just nominations in the big four - Picture, Director, Editing and Screenplay - but every one of the four acting categories as well. His film is a strong contender for Best Actress and Supporting Actor and remains an outside threat for Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture - so a Best Director win is not out of the question. What he has going for him, other than an extremely popular film, is that, unlike Spielberg and Ang Lee, he has never won an Oscar and, unlike Haneke and Zeitlin, everybody knows and, surprisingly (given his notorious fallouts with Lily Tomlin and George Clooney), likes him. There could be a perception that he is due after not winning for The Fighter. What he has working against him is that every other director deserves it more. I just can't see Kathryn Bigelow being snubbed and David O'Russell winning. But stranger things have happened.

That leaves three distinguished directors at the top of their game: Spielberg, Ang Lee and Michael Haneke. Haneke would be the art house pick. He is a first-time contender with a respectable, distinct filmography whose film was a surprise hit with the Academy. His leading lady is a big threat to win Best Actress and he is all but guaranteed to win Best Foreign Language Film. There is no Oscar precedent for a Foreign Language Film actually winning Best Director (although they were fond of nominating Federico Fellini in the 60s and 70s), presumably cause it's hard to really notice the directing when you have to read all those damn words at the bottom of the screen. Technically The Artist was a french film, but not a language one, so it doesn't count. Haneke's films are also known to be cold and, while Amour isn't, it is uber sad, in a very detached, realistic way. 

Which leaves the more likely Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee. The Academy adored their films, adorning them with 12 and 11 nominations respectively. Both directors are previous winners who have lost Best Picture in legendary upsets. Both are also respected enough to warrant additional directing Oscars on their mantelpiece. With Argo the de facto Best Picture winner, however, both men would be winning detached Directing Oscars for the second time in their careers (Spielberg won Best Director for Saving Private Ryan when Shakespeare in Love took Best Picture, and Lee won Best Director for Brokeback Mountain while - shudder - Crash took Best Picture), which would be a curious distinction.

I favour Ang Lee for two reasons:
  1. Spielberg has two previous wins - for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. If the Academy is going to give him a third Director gong, it will be because they love Lincoln. And if they love Lincoln that much, it would win Best Picture as well. But given the Argo situation, that won't be happening, so I just don't see Lincoln winning an isolated Director Oscar. That is weird logic, I know, but there it is.
  2. Ang Lee has only one previous win, and it makes more sense for Life of Pi to win an isolated directing Oscar. Though it feels just a slight touch too lightweight to win Best Picture, it is an undeniable director's accomplishment - Lee balances epic spectacle with nuanced spiritual metaphors and gentle emotions and pulls off both with aplomb. His film is already likely to win 3 to 5 technical Oscars; adding Best Director to the list seems as plausible as anything, to me anyway.
Will win: Ang Lee
Should win: In this list? Probably Spielberg.
Could win: Michael Haneke

Best Actor:

Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
Denzel Washington - Flight

Hugh Jackman and Bradley Cooper are Box Office stars making good as legit Oscar Contenders, and are sure to secure good ratings for the Oscars Telecast. But neither hold a candle to Daniel Day-Lewis' landmark performance. That doesn't mean Bradley Cooper can't win. But I don't want to think about that. So let's move on.

Denzel Washington is a hugely accomplished actor turning in a great character study as a brilliant but reckless pilot struggling to face up to his alcoholism. In another year, he would be a strong contender to win. But even Denzel boozer redemption can't beat Daniel-Day Lewis channeling Abraham Lincoln.

Joaquin Phoenix is a sadly unpopular actor turning in a blazingly brilliant performance in a sadly unpopular film. His against-the-odds nomination (which should have been a slam dunk Day-Lewis threatener) is a testimony to the power of his performance, but sadly he's not currently likeable enough to give ol' Dan a run for his money.

Daniel Day-Lewis loses himself in his nuanced, gentle, funny, inspiring, unsentimental, intimate performance as probably America's greatest president since Josiah 'Jed' Bartlet. Even though this will be the THIRD Golden man Day-Lewis takes home (and remember how nearly he won for Gangs of New York), it seems nothing but logical to give him the prize. And although he has enjoyed a practically unbeaten winning streak so far, his win will still feel like a triumph rather than a bore. There is more than enough unpredictability elsewhere.

Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Could win: Bradley Cooper Daniel Day-Lewis

Best Actress:

Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts - The Impossible

An 85-year-old french woman, an indomitable 9-year-old, a bizarrely underappreciated Australian thesp and two rapidly rising stars battle it out for Best Actress.

Both Naomi Watts - as a real life Tsunami survivor and mother hanging on to life by a thread - and Jessica Chastain - transforming from a delicate, driven CIA operative to a fierce, relentless terrorist catcher over the span of ten years - should be strong contenders for the prize: Watts has been overlooked for years and Chastain has made herself impossible to ignore in the space of just 48 months.

Let's face it, though - Best Actress is now a two-horse race between the irresistible Jennifer Lawrence and the brilliant Emmanuelle Riva. With dozens of Critics awards to her name, a Golden Globe and the influential endorsement of the Screen Actors Guild, Lawrence has the clear edge to win for breathing new, unpredictable life and captivating energy into Tiffany, a typical tramp with a heart of gold. She's extremely funny, she's constantly surprising, and her emotional beats are genuinely touching. To add to that, Lawrence is young, hot, hard working and almost bizarrely level-headed (she took her parents to the SAG awards). She also owned the Box Office this year, headlining the Hunger Games franchise with another strong performance. Being likeable and owning the Box Office is a trick that worked wonders for Sandra Bullock just three ominous years ago, and Lawrence gives a better performance, although she has less industry cred. It also doesn't hurt having Harvey Weinstein backing your campaign.

But Emmanuelle Riva has an ace up her sleeve - simply the most breathtaking female performance of the year. She's been surprisingly overlooked in the awards race - sidelined by the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild in favour of hotter Frenchy Marion Cotillard - but those that have had the good sense to nominate her have also been smart enougn to let her win (with the exception of the Critics Choice Awards, who went with Jessica Chastain). The BAFTAs signalled her first victory directly against Lawrence and, sadly, she wasn't there to make an acceptance speech (a good speech does wonders for a campaign, and Lawrence gives great speeches). But BAFTA upsets are known for creating Oscar prescendents (see Marion Cotillard finally getting the edge over the great Julie Christie in 2008 or The Pianist suddenly becoming a real contender after winning big at the BAFTAs in 2003). The Oscars were one of the few awards bodies outside Europe to generously appreciate Amour with five nominations, so presumably enough Academy members actually saw Amour to know that no-one deserves it more than Riva. If they need more convincing, someone should mention that, if she wins, it will be on her 86th birthday and she will be handed the award by hugely charming frenchman Jean Dujardin. That's a better morning after story than Lawrence peaking at 22.

Will win: Emmanuelle Riva (I know I am voting against the odds, but what's the use of predicting the obvious?)
Should win: Emmanuelle Riva
Could win: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Supporting Actor:

Alan Arkin - Argo
Robert De Niro - Silver Linings Playbook
Phillip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained

Not since 1995 has this category been so hard to predict. That year, Brad Pitt had won the Golden Globe (12 Monkeys), Ed Harris the Screen Actors Guild (Apollo 13), Tim Roth the BAFTA (Rob Roy) and they all contended for the Oscar, which Kevin Spacey won (for his legendary performance in The Usual Suspects). The Academy made the right call and, to be fair, it was a plausible call after Spacey's good run with the Critics Awards.

This year, Christoph Waltz has the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, Tommy Lee Jones has the Screen Actors Guild, Phillip Seymour Hoffman won the Critics Choice, but nothing else, and is the only contender whose film isn't in the Best Picture race. Alan Arkin and Robert De Niro have no big wins (De Niro even lost the Golden Satellite, where Silver Linings Playbook cleaned out), but Arkin is the only acting nominee from the De Facto Best Picture frontrunner (and Screen Actors Guild ensemble winner) and De Niro is an Oscar veteren in a hugely popular film with more acting nominations than anything else.

For the first time in Oscar history, there is not a single first-time Oscar nominee among the Supporting Actor contenders, and - to up the stakes - each of these men have an Oscar on their mantelpiece already. Which makes for an interesting race.

Alan Arkin & Christoph Waltz are the most recent winners and, arguably, don't stray far from their previous winning roles. Waltz bested the strongly buzzed Leonardo DiCaprio to a supporting nod for Django, and it's easy to see why - he is the only sustainably likeable character in the film and has all the best dialogue (and he sure knows how to deliver Tarantino dialogue). He's brilliant, but his work is more subtle than in Inglorious Basterds and giving him another award for another Tarantino film so soon may feel like overkill. Arkin, on the other hand, has a tiny part in Argo, but all the best lines. He is reliably cranky and funny as a jaded Hollywood Producer and aces all his scenes, but he won just six years ago as the cranky, funny grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine, and he lacks the tender moments in Argo that he had in Little Miss Sunshine. The only reason to think he could win is that Argo is winning everything.

Hoffman is the only one in the bunch never to have won Supporting Actor, which seems an odd distinction to make since he did win Best Actor for Capote but, given that he is one of the most reliably brilliant and brilliantly reliable supporting actors in Hollywood, it seems only fair that he should have a Supporting Actor gong to go with his Capote gong. And there's no doubt he is deserving - his complex performance as a charismatic cult leader struggling to conceal - and deny - his own flaws and insecurities is easily the best in the category (although to be fair it is actually a lead performance). Sadly his film wasn't particularly embraced by the Academy and he feels destined to be an also-ran.

Tommy Lee Jones and Robert De Niro are probably the easiest to imagine as winners. The case for each of them:
Robert De Niro has been absent from the Oscar race for a good 21 years. And with good reason. The legendary actor has been making the worst movies of his career, one after the other. That he redeems himself in Playbook is significant, and welcome, but he hardly stretches himself far from the cantankerous father he played in the Meet the Parents movies. That being said, this is a strong supporting part, even if it doesn't live up to De Niro's best work (little could). He plays a difficult, superstitious OCD gambler, husband and father. His mental illness, unlike the cute, quirky variety afflicting Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, is genuinely unpleasant at times, and affords De Niro some good screen rants. More significantly, he also has tender moments with Bradley Cooper, even shedding a few tears, which are probably the bits that will earn him the win. He has won no prizes for this part, but Silver Linings Playbook is a hugely popular film, and De Niro is an Oscar legend who has been doing some solid campaigning. He hasn't won since 1981. A third Oscar seems plausible.

Tommy Lee Jones is great fun as the grumpy (seems to be a bit of a trend this year), acerbic Thaddeus Stevens, forced to publicly compromise his strong ideals to see his cause succeed. It's a meaty performance with some great lines, plenty of good laughs and a significant chunk of the film's climax. His sourpuss demeanour at the Golden Globes earned him momentary grumpy cat meme status, and he didn't show up to collect his award from the Screen Actors Guild. He doesn't seem too interested in campaigning for the award, which shouldn't make a difference but does. So who knows how this will turn out for him. If Lincoln does well, he'd be unstoppable, but that seems unlikely. He also turned in a strong performance opposite Meryl Streep in Hope Springs, which could count in his favour. He won supporting actor for The Fugitive in 1994 and was nominated once, for Lead Actor for In the Valley of Elah, since.
Will win: Robert De Niro
Should win: Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Could win: Tommy Lee Jones

Best Supporting Actress:

Amy Adams - The Master
Sally Field - Lincoln
Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
Helen Hunt - The Sessions
Jacki Weaver - Silver Linings Playbook

Amy Adams is unsettlingly creepy as the devoted wife and disciple of Seymour Hoffman's cult leader - who may or may not be aware of the extraordinary power she wields over himSally Field redeems Mary Todd Lincoln from the footnotes of history, playing her in multiple shades of intelligence, social awareness, vigor, intelligence, obsession, barely suppressed hysteria and madness; Helen Hunt is brave, warm, honest and mostly nude as a compassionate sex surrogate (note, not a prostitute) and Jacki Weaver is the most lovable mother of the year, making crabby snacks and home mades as she quietly keeps her family of crazies together.

But Anne Hathaway has owned this Oscar from the moment the first Les Mis trailer showed her singing I Dreamed a Dream, with a shaved head, waning hope and plentiful supply of bitter tears. Her live singing, single take, close up performance of the song has almost become a cliché, but that shouldn't detract from the sheer power and force of her performance. It's a tricky thing to pull off and Hathaway is intensely mesmerising as she gives herself completely to the part she saw her mother perform on stage as a little girl. Tragic prostitute with a heart of gold who sings? No competition.

Will win: Anne Hathaway
Should win: Arguably, Sally Field
Could win: Highly unlikely, Sally Field

Best Original Screenplay:

Wes Anderson & Roman Coppolla - Moonrise Kingdom
Mark Boal - Zero Dark Thirty
John Gatins - Flight
Michael Haneke - Amour
Quentin Tarantino - Django Unchained

Mark Boal may have won in 2010 for The Hurt Locker, but there's no one who deserves it more this year. His painstakingly, and controversially, researched procedural of the hunt for Bin Laden is nothing short of masterful. But sadly his film has suffered badly from the controversy surrounding it's depiction of torture. His recent win from the Writer's Guild may or may not have redeemed in but, sadly, Boal is not currently the frontrunner he should be.

John Gatins, an open former alcoholic, presumably poured much of his heart and soul into the story of a heroic pilot struggling to come to terms with his alcoholism. It's a strong character piece but likely not enough to wipe out the competition - where he goes up against three Best Picture nominees.

Wes Anderson is back in the Original Screenplay race, this time with Roman Coppolla, and his tale of troubled pre-teen lovers fleeing their small town angst is as tender as it is unpredictable. It's got all the usual Anderson trademarks - precocious children, emotionally stunted grown ups, random activities for Bill Murray - but touches on something enigmatically poignant.

Michael Haneke wrote and directed a spare, ferociously unsentimental portrait of a loving, complex elderly couple facing the realities of physical decay and death. It's a downer, but a touching one, and it has a lovely circular structure that echoes the way we tend to end life the same way we started.  

Which just leaves Tarantino's anarchic, post-modern take on American slavery. It's a conversation-starter, I'll give it that, and its red hot anger at America's sordid, lingering, past is seductive, but it's not the best Tarantino effort - it's overlong, indulgent and morally unsettling. From the film's opening scene it is clear that there is no moral higher ground here; in Tarantino'd bloodthirsty world the oppressed, given the chance, gleefully turn as sadistic and inhuman as their oppressors. That belies the phenomenal, unwarranted restraint with which Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela demanded rights for black citizens in America and South Africa respectively. But, you know, it's bold and it's funny and Tarantino lost to Mark Boal in 2010. Though this is a far less sophisticated script than Inglorious Basterds, conventional wisdom says the Oscar is Tarantino's to lose. I'm not convinced he won't, though. I just don't know who they're likely to prefer.

Will win: Mark Boal (again, I am voting against logic here)
Should win: Mark Boal
Could win: Michael Haneke

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Tony Kushner - Lincoln
David Magee - Life of Pi
David O'Russell - Silver Linings Playbook
Chris Terrio - Argo
Benh Zeitlin & Lucy Alibar - Beasts of the Southern Wild

This one should be Tony Kushner's to lose - his detailed, thoughtful account of Lincoln's struggle to get slavery abolished in a country that didn't want to let it go is both a fascinating window on an amazing man and a time and place. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's definitive biography on Lincoln, Kushner's gorgeous dialogue illuminates ideas and dilemmas we should would do well to keep discussing today. It's a detailed labour of love that should easily win, but sadly there is the matter of:

Argo keeps winning everything. The Academy might resist the trend and vote otherwise, but groupthink is a powerful thing - if everyone else thinks something is that good, there must be something to it. There's nothing wrong with Chris Terrio's script. It's a near-perfect thriller blended with an unlikely Hollywood farce and it all happens to be true. Personally, the resolution was a bit too tidy for my liking, but it's good writing nonetheless. Doesn't mean it's the best, though.

David O'Russell is a big potential upset here, as he's made no secret of why he adapted Matthew Quick's novel - to make his son, who himself suffers from mental illness, feel like he has a place in the world. And it's a beguiling backstory that's hard to resist. It even makes you forget that this is basically an upgraded romantic comedy. But I guess there's nothing wrong with a good romantic comedy. Especially if it gives people hope.

David Magee beautifully distilled Yann Mantell's sleeper hit literary novel, and Benh Zeitlin crafted the most poetic script of the year from Lucy Alibar's play. But this is a three-way race:

Will win: Chris Terrio
Should win: Tony Kushner
Could win: David O'Russell

Best Editing:

William Goldenberg - Argo
Michael Kahn - Lincoln
Tim Squyres - Life of Pi
Jay Cassidy & Crispin Struthers - Silver Linings Playook
William Goldenberg & Dylan Tichenor - Zero Dark Thirty

I include Editing as a Main Category, rather than a technical one, as it so often has a direct bearing on the directing, and therefore the Best Picture, race.

William Goldenberg is a double nominee. Zero Dark Thirty is the film he should win for, Argo is the film he will win for. Simple as that. (Barring Lincoln, Life of Pi or Silver Linings Playbook taking over the Best Picture race).

Will win: William Goldernberg (Argo)
Should win: William Goldenberg & Dylan Tichenor (Zero Dark Thirty) 
Could win: Jay Cassidy & Crispin Struthers (Silver Linings Playook)

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