Formed in 1927 by Louis B. Mayer, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was designed to deal with improving the industry’s image. At that time, movies were not seen on the same sophisticated level as literature, music, and painting, so the Academy decided to congratulate its own in hopes of lending credence to their medium. It worked, and 86 years later, the Oscar ceremony is the largest, most watched and possibly most discussed award ceremony of the major four (Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Awards being the other three).
2013 proved to be one of the best and most diverse years for moviegoing in recent memory, thus making this year’s Oscar ceremony all the more interesting. Of the fifty-eight fifty-seven nominees, I managed to see fifty-six (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom came and went before I could squeeze in its two-hour and thirty-two-minute run time). There are movies that I was baffled by their omission (Wadjda, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Inside Llewyn Davis from the major categories) but this is not an essay about which movies I felt should have been nominated. Nor is this an essay of what movies I think will win, because I am awful at trying to determine what other people like. In an excellent article for The Los Angeles Times, John Horn broke down the Academy voting body and found that women and minorities were vastly underrepresented, the median age was 62 and 64% of voters have not been nominated or awarded that coveted statue. If you want to win your office pool, figure out which nominee a white, middle-class father would like, and you won’t be far off. You can also bet on two old adages, actors get awards for transformations and directors get awards for degree of difficulty.
The following picks are based on two things: I saw the movies and this was the one I liked the best. Nothing more and nothing less.
ACTOR IN A LEAD ROLE
Christian Bale American Hustle
Bruce Dern Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor 12 Years a Slave – One of the great tragedies of the victim is that someone must bear witness. What to make of all this suffering if there is no one to tell the tale? Solomon Northup was both the victim and the witness and you can see that all in the eyes of Ejiofor. That is what makes one of the last shots of his face so heartbreaking and so profound.
Matthew McConaughey Dallas Buyers Club
ACTRESS IN A LEAD ROLE
Amy Adams American Hustle
Cate Blanchett Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock Gravity
Judi Dench Philomena – A unique grouping of women, where all five of them play age appropriate roles. Dench’s Philomena Lee is both the best of the bunch and the most enjoyable. She breathes life into a complex and human character. Rather than just plucking out the notes, she hits full chords.
Meryl Streep August: Osage County
ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Barkhad Abdi Captain Phillips – He was an amateur actor that answered a casting call in Minnesota and now moviegoers far and wide know his face and voice. Abdi gives an excellent performance, but it was how he looked Tom Hanks in the eye and said, “I’m the captain now” that solidified his place and performance.
Bradley Cooper American Hustle
Michael Fassbender 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto Dallas Buyers Club
ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Sally Hawkins Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o 12 Years a Slave – In a movie full of victims, there is one character that draws the short straw, and that is the small and beautiful Patsey, the favorite of Master. None of these slaves did anything wrong to deserve such horrendous punishment, but Patsey is especially punished for no other reason than she is the forbidden object of Master’s eye. Nyong’o brings a vulnerability to the role that isn’t just painful, its devastating. When Northup leaves Patsey behind, it doesn’t just break her heart, but ours as well.
Julia Roberts August: Osage County
June Squibb Nebraska
ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Célestine
The Wind Rises – The other nominees are good, but The Wind Rises simply bites off more. This biopic about Jiro, an airplane engineer tackles history, obsession, sickness, mortality, love, and much, much more. Magical and dreamy, Miyazaki’s swan song may not be his best work, but it is the best of the bunch.
Philippe Le Sourd The Grandmaster
Emmanuel Lubezki Gravity
Bruno Delbonnel Inside Llewyn Davis – Of all the categories, this one is the most loaded with amazing talent. All five of these cinematographers should be recognized, but it was Delbonnel’s work that really reached out and struck me. Delbonnel make Llewyn’s world look as bleak and drained of life as Llewyn’s insides. The wide shots look like an Edward Hopper painting, the close-ups are a Rembrandt come to life. I cannot heap enough praise unto this masterpiece, and the cinematography is an excellent place to start.
Phedon Papamichael Nebraska
Roger A. Deakins Prisoners
Michael Wilkinson American Hustle
William Chang Suk Ping The Grandmaster – The Grandmaster is a movie that is concerned with the exactness and particulars of a martial art style. It only makes perfect sense that the characters in the movie each have their own distinct and elegant style of dress. From Master Ip’s White Fedora to Gong Er’s giant black fur coat. Each character has their own philosophy, their own style and it is expressed in both movement and dress.
Catherine Martin The Great Gatsby
Michael O’Connor The Invisible Woman
Patricia Norris 12 Years a Slave
David O. Russell American Hustle
Alfonso Cuarón Gravity
Alexander Payne Nebraska
Steve McQueen 12 Years a Slave
Martin Scorsese The Wolf of Wall Street – This category has always bothered me because I don’t know how you can say that Scorsese’s direction of his story is better direction than McQueen gave his story. Or Payne to his and Cuarón to his (I did find Russell’s style problematic, so I have no qualms leaving him off the list). Wouldn’t it be fun if the Academy gave each of the nominees a couple thousand dollars to make a short film of one of the other nominated films? How would Cuarón approach Nebraska? Or how would McQueen film Gravity? Using this idea, I have to award the best director of this group, or probably any group for that matter, the director that I honestly think could tell any one of these stories (maybe even any story) and make it his own. Martin Scorsese.
Joshua Oppenheimer & Signe Byrge Sørensen The Act of Killing – Tasha Robinson of The Dissolve said that of all the movies she saw this past year, this was the one that taught her the most about humanity. Of all the movies that I saw this past year, this was the one that haunted me the most. I almost don’t want to believe that it is real, that it is some elaborate hoax. But it isn’t. It’s all right there in the frame. Powerful stuff.
Zachary Heinzerling & Lydia Dean Pilcher Cutie and the Boxer
Richard Rowley & Jeremy Scahill Dirty Wars
Jehane Noujaim & Karim Amer The Square
Morgan Neville, Gil Friesen & Caitrin Rogers 20 Feet From Stardom
DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall – Roger Ebert called the movies, “empathy machines.” I’ll take it one step further, movies aren’t a substitution for the experience, movies are the experience. Watching PFC Jack Hall suffer was one thing, but watching the other convicts and Hall’s son help bring dignity to Hall in his final days touched me deeply. A magazine article would have given me the information, maybe a short story would have conveyed the emotion, but only by watching could I see the honesty in their eyes.
Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers & Alan Baumgarten American Hustle
Christopher Rouse Captain Philips
John Mac McMurphy & Martin Pensa Dallas Buyers Club
Alfonso Cuarón & Mark Sanger Gravity – A collection of long takes manage to trap the viewer in the world of the character(s) and display true cinematic bravado. Some shots could go on forever, but Cuarón and Sanger decided to cut when the emotional impact was greatest. Here the editing is less for the convenience of shooting and storytelling and more for the emotional connection. Gravity is a giant leap forward in the technique of moviemaking and the editing plays a major role.
Joe Walker 12 Years a Slave
The Broken Circle Breakdown
The Great Beauty
The Missing Picture
Omar – The first movie funded entirely by Palestine is also an incredible portrait of a life rarely seen. Regardless on which side of the Israel/Palestine conflict you come down on, Omar is essential viewing.
MAKE-UP & HAIRSTYLING
Adruitha Lee & Robin Mathews Dallas Buyers Club – Apparently Lee & Mathews had a $250 makeup and hairstyle budget to work with. Not for each actor, but for the whole cast. That is pretty astounding.
Stephen Prouty Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
Joel Harlow & Gloria Pasqua-Casny The Lone Ranger
MUSIC: ORIGINAL SCORE
John Williams The Book Thief
Steven Price Gravity
William Butler & Owen Pallett Her – It’s unclear how far into the future Her is set, but if there is any band that might have a sound that best fits the near future, it’s Devo. But, if you can’t get Devo, then the boys from Arcade Fire will do the trick. Actually Devo wouldn’t fit with this movie, there is too much melancholy, too much nostalgia for the present that constantly slips through our fingers. That is precisely the music that Butler and Pallett bring.
Alexandre Desplat Philomena
Thomas Newman Saving Mr. Banks
MUSIC: ORIGINAL SONG
“Happy” Despicable Me 2 Music & Lyric by Pharrell Williams
“Let It Go” Frozen Music & Lyric by Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez – Another powerful Disney anthem that we will hum from years to come.
“The Moon Song” Her Music by Karen O; Lyric by Karen O & Spike Jonze
“Ordinary Love” Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom Music by Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton & Larry Mullen; Lyrics by Paul Hewson
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street – As excited as I was for this movie, I simply was not prepared for it. I was not prepared for the commitment of the performances, I was not prepared for the energy, and I certainty was not prepared for the total evisceration of the American Dream by master Martin Scorsese. I was so taken by it, I had to return to it a day later. That was the only movie of 2013 that provoked that reaction, and I still cannot say enough good things about this movie. Richard Brody said that watching The Wolf of Wall Street is like, “mainlining cinema for three hours.” It’s more than that. It cinema, it’s America, it Homeric, it’s human. It’s like listening to a long rock n’ roll song that you just don’t want to end and can’t get enough of. It’s what I hope for when I go to the movies.
American Hustle Judy Becker (Production Design); Heather Loeffler (Set Decoration)
Gravity Andy Nicholson (Production Design); Rosie Goodwin & Joanne Woollard (Set Decoration)
The Great Gatsby Catherine Martin (Production Design); Beverley Dunn (Set Decoration)
Her K.K. Barrett (Production Design); Gene Serdena (Set Decoration) – Spike Jonze supposedly used the colors of the Jamba Juice logo to provide Her’s palette. It’s a nice touch.
SHORT FILM: ANIMATION
Get a Horse! – Of all the five, Get a Horse! is the most inventive, the most joyous and the most entertaining. A lovely homage to a Buster Keaton short (Sherlock Jr.) becomes a chance for Mickey to mess with the logic of cinema and animation, as well as the parameters of 3D. All that, and Mickey is voiced from beyond the grave by Uncle Walt. Joie de cinema!
Room on the Broom
SHORT FILM: LIVE ACTION
Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)
Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything) – A couple of the shorts were fun, one is infuriating and one is a nice little diversion, but Just Before Losing Everything is both gripping and important. The story involves a mother and her children fleeing an abusive husband and how it takes a village to make an escape. It also manages to address the issue of the gaze while ratcheting up the suspense. All culminating in a final long shot, held long enough to give one big cinematic sigh.
Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)
The Voorman Problem
Steve Boeddeker & Richard Hymns All Is Lost
Oliver Tarney Captain Phillips
Glenn Freemantle Gravity – I’ve never understood these two categories and what separates them, no matter how many times they have been explained to me, but Gravity is a technical achievement in every category.
Brent Burge & Chris Ward The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Wylie Stateman Lone Survivor
Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith & Chris Munro Captain Phillips
Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead & Chris Munro Gravity – Ditto.
Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick & Tony Johnson The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff & Peter F. Kurland Inside Llewyn Davis
Andy Koyama, Beau Borders & David Brownlow Lone Survivor
Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk & Neil Corbould Gravity – And once more, because duh.
Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton & Eric Reynolds The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash & Dan Sudick Iron Man 3
Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams & John Frazier The Lone Ranger
Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann & Burt Dalton Star Trek Into Darkness
WRITING: ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke Before Midnight
Billy Ray Captain Phillips
Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope Philomena
John Ridley 12 Years a Slave – Ridley keeps the period dialog and it’s the perfect touch that keeps 12 Years afloat. It manages to make the movie feel less dramatic and more documentary. It’s a style and cadence of language that American viewers rarely hear, and it lends authenticity to a movie loaded with authenticity.
Terence Winter The Wolf of Wall Street
WRITING: ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Eric Warren Singer & David O. Russell American Hustle
Woody Allen Blue Jasmine
Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack Dallas Buyers Club
Spike Jonze Her
Bob Nelson Nebraska – Nebraska felt like home to me. My family is originally from South Dakota and I have spent time in these living rooms, had these conversations, witnessed these arguments and behaved this way. Every word rings authentic and true, and that is not an easy thing to do. Sometimes I feel that invoking reality is much harder than creating fantasy because the critics are much harsher and have more firepower. A conversation I commonly had over Nebraska was how true to life it was. That’s quite a hallmark in my book.