Academy Awards 2014 Picks

Once again the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have come upon us to ordain their choices for best that cinema had to offer in 2013. Below are my personal choices for what should win versus what the Academy will likely choose on Oscar night. In full disclosure, I have not seen every nominee in every category.


WILL and SHOULD WIN – Gravity

Gravity - Best Picture

To preface, 2013 was a very robust year in cinema, and the Academy’s Best Picture slate reflects that. In this collection of contenders, there are at least four options for the top prize that I would have no qualms against winning, but above them all (yes, I know) is Gravity. From the starting gate, the film was widely acclaimed upon its release, yet curiously critiqued for its ostensibly thin narrative and dialogue. I grant Alfonso Cuaron’s tale may appear simple in its storytelling, but that is what is precisely what is so brilliant about it. Yes, there are so many technical achievements on display in every frame, but they are all in support of the emotional journey that Dr. Ryan Stone takes. Gravity is both a minimalist and maximalist masterpiece, teeming with extraordinary metaphoric imagery, and beating with a human heart.


WILL and SHOULD WIN – Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity

Gravity - Best Director

Since its release, there have been dozens of interviews with Alfonso Cuaron on how he managed to conjure Gravity to the screen, and its still difficult to wrap one’s head around how it was made. Natural to Cuaron’s aesthetic, the long takes in this film are mind boggling in execution, and yet never feel as if they are calling attention to themselves. The action set pieces are among the best ever conceived, and the totality of Cuaron’s vision is never compromised. What is most impressive, however, is the emotion he conjures. For Cuaron to find such extraordinary depth in Sandra Bullock when she is mostly acting to nothing is a true testament to his talent. So many films of this caliber are relegated strictly to sensory delight, but when Gravity is seen in decades to come, it will be for the emotional journey that Cuaron deftly navigates.


WILL WIN – Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

SHOULD WIN – Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street


When all is said and done, its very likely that The Wolf of Wall Street may be the magnum opus of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career. Yes, there are certainly a number of A-listers who can carry a film on their shoulders with ease, but how many can throw a three hour debauchery fest on their back, appear in nearly every scene, and never tire? As Jordan Belfort, DiCaprio pushes himself physically and emotionally like never before, commanding every moment with a ravenous appetite. Few actors would dare go to the lengths DiCaprio dives headfirst into, especially in the instant classic quaalude set piece, in which he even recalls his old Gilbert Grape muscles. Jordan Belfort is a despicable soul, and DiCaprio rightfully makes no attempts to redeem him, going for the fences in every scene and emerging as, yes, the king of the world.


WILL WIN – Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

SHOULD WIN – Sandra Bullock – Gravity


Even after winning her Academy Award four years ago, Sandra Bullock still wasn’t fully taken seriously as a legitimate dramatic actress. In Gravity, she dispels all those doubts and then some. There’s a moment early on in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the space shuttle Explorer as Dr. Stone tumbles into the void, gasping in each breath. With the frame in close up, she suddenly stops, her mouth agape, but refusing to inhale. In that moment of complete shock, Bullock completely sold her character and situation, despite her on set circumstances being far removed from it. To bring the depth of the human soul to the fore in such an isolating environment is no small feat, so as her floating tears glisten like perfect orbs, we’re right there with her.


WILL WIN – Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

SHOULD WIN – Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips


While Captain Phillips represented a continuation in style for Paul Greengrass and a return to form for Tom Hanks, the film’s most valuable asset came in an unknown quantity. Prior to his transfixing portrayal as Muse, the chief Somali pirate, Barkhad Abdi had a job as a limo driver, and had never acted professionally. Suffice to say, he’s likely to get behind a new steering wheel now. From the moment he arrives on the deck, its striking how Abdi immediately seizes control of the chaos with cocksure ease. As the film progresses, Muse proves himself to be more than a mere terror, and as the pressure builds, Abdi does understated work in allowing the secretly terrified man to unfold. The fact that he nearly steals the film from Hanks speaks volumes to his presence.


WILL and SHOULD WIN – Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave - Supporting Actress

Like Barkhad Abdi, Lupita Nyong’o was a completely fresh face in 2013, but her absolutely raw work in 12 Years a Slave ensures that she will be sought after for years to come. Her character of Patsey, the slave under the torture of Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps, is somewhat underwritten, but Nyong’o conveys an entire history with her eyes. It is in them that we see a life eradicated, a vague shadow of a human utterly destroyed by man’s intolerance. To a certain extent, Patsey is the film’s symbolic ambassador for all the slaves who never escaped, but she never functions as just a placeholder. In the film’s pivotal moments, Nyong’o summons such raw vitality within herself that it’s hard not to be blown away.


WILL WIN – 12 Years a Slave

SHOULD WIN – Before Midnight

Natalia: Well, when I think of Elias, what I miss the most about him is the way he used to lie down next to me at night. Sometimes his arm would stretch along my chest. I couldn’t move, I even held my breath, but I felt safe… complete. I miss the way he was whistling walking down the street. Every time I do something, I think of what he would say: “Well its cold today, wear a scarf.” But lately I’ve been forgetting little things. He’s sort of fading and I’m starting to forget him and it’s like losing him again. Sometimes, I make myself remember every detail of his face – the exact color of his eyes, his lips, his teeth, the texture of his skin, his hair – that was all gone by the time he went. And sometimes, not always, but sometimes I can actually see him. It is as if a cloud moves away and there he is. I could almost touch him, but then the real world rushes in, and he vanishes again. For a while, I did this every morning, when the sun was not too bright outside because the sun somehow makes him vanish. He appears and he disappears like a sunrise or sunset, anything so ephemeral. Just like our life – we appear and we disappear and we are so important to some, but, we are just passing through. 


WILL WIN – American Hustle


Theodore: Well, the room’s spinning cause I drank too much, cause I wanted to get drunk and have sex. There’s nothing sexy about that woman… cause I was lonely… maybe just cause I was lonely. I wanted somebody to fuck me. I want somebody to want me to fuck them. Maybe that would have filled this ti-… tiny little hole in my heart, but probably not… and sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel, and from here on out I’m not gonna feel anything new… just… lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.


WILL and SHOULD WIN – Gravity

Although I’ve already spoken at length as to the visual style that Alfonso Cuaron employs in Gravity, its vital to acknowledge his chief collaborator and amigo in executing that vision. Emmanuel Lubezki has worked on nearly every film of Cuaron’s and here he enters a completely new realm and pushes boundaries. Yes, its true that almost every shot in Gravity is in some way assisted by computer generated imagery, but take into account the intentions of those shots and the actual photography of the actors. If there’s one visual aspect of the film that deserves most praise its the lighting. Lubezki refrains from perfect photography here, allowing for overexposures and occasional lens flares. What’s most masterful is the consistency of those light sources (chief among them the Sun), and their use in the emotional storytelling, no small feat when the concept of up and down no longer exists in zero gravity.


WILL and SHOULD WIN – The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby - Costumes

The Academy often takes to rewarding the most lavish and visually resplendent of costumes, and Baz Luhrmann’s jazz age adaptation certainly fits the bill. From the outlandish parties to the intimate encounters, every inch of The Great Gatsby is packed with vibrant detail, none more so than in the the fabrics. From the dozens of dresses worn by Daisy, Gatsby’s opulent wardrobe, and the hundreds of extras frolicking in the parties, there is no shortage of extravagance here. More importantly, however, is to recognize that much like all the other excesses, they serve as a mirage, concealing the decaying splendor of Gatsby’s world coming to a close.


WILL WIN – Captain Phillips

SHOULD WIN – Gravity

For a film with so many long takes, it may be somewhat deceptive to give too much credit to the editing behind Gravity, but its valuable to make a further examination. On a macro level, the film has a remarkably tight run time of 91 minutes, yet also has its fair share of deep breaths and pregnant silences. From scene to scene, the editing is incredibly economical, and only accelerates to a regular clip in the throttling climax. Also, the entire pipeline in which Gravity was made was completely unconventional, requiring pre visualization all of the edits in advance of even shooting a single frame. The end result is an endlessly suspenseful and involving epic, and editing plays a vital role in realizing it.


WILL and SHOULD WIN – Dallas Buyers Club


In the case of the makeup and hairstyling contenders, I’ve only seen Dallas Buyers Club, but that does not mean it is unworthy of recognition. The primary focus in this category is towards Jared Leto’s cross dressing Rayon, and the results are thoroughly convincing, especially considering the tight budget that the crew was working from. Indeed, on a quick glance, one might be convinced the above photo is of a woman, which is a credit to the practical use of the makeup. In a category where the other two contenders (Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger) clearly had much more money and prosthetics to convey their characters, Dallas Buyers Club does much more with very little.


WILL and SHOULD WIN – Gravity

How do you tell a story aurally when there is no sound in space? In the case of Gravity, it begins with the score. More than any other score in the past few years, the music that envelops Gravity plays an immensely vital role in the literal storytelling of the film. While most scores serve to provide an emotional tone or atmosphere, Steven Price’s compositions do that and so much more. Suitably weird and nerve rattling yet at times oddly comforting and ephemeral, the score keys us into Ryan Stone’s journey through the abyss. Price’s emphasis on strings and electronics and absence of percussion was a wise decision. It isn’t until the finale that the full orchestra comes to service, in an emotional crescendo unlike anything offered by any studio picture in decades.


WILL WIN – “Let it Go” – Frozen

SHOULD WIN – “The Moon Song” – Her

Admittedly, of the four nominees in Best Original Song, I’ve only heard Karen O’s “The Moon Song” from Her. While its unlikely to take the prize over Disney’s behemoth, its a genuinely lovely piece with relevance to its film. Never posturing as an excuse for a show stopping musical number, nor laboriously telegraphing its themes, “The Moon Song” arrives at a pivotal moment in Her. When Theodore and Samantha leave the comforts of home and journey out in the world, the song reflects the culmination of their unusual relationship. Relying on its acoustic guitar and Snuggle soft vocals, “The Moon Song” is both eerie and sweet, a natural fit for the tone of Her.


WILL WIN – 12 Years a Slave


Her - Production Design

There have been countless visions of the future put on screen, and all involve painstakingly realized production design. Her is another of these, but its future is much sleeker, deceptively simple in its design, as if the Apple Store combined its aesthetics with Ikea and invaded every interior on Earth. Shanghai subs in for a near future Los Angeles, and the city looks pristine, but never calls much attention to itself. The truth is that behind all of the sublime architecture and easy on eyes pastels is the decay of social life. In drawing from the existing present and inching it forward, the production design in Her is critical in prophesying a future that may be closer than we think.


WILL and SHOULD WIN – Gravity

Gravity - Sound Editing

The vacuum of space may not allow for sound, but that did not mean Gravity was exempt from portraying aural elements entirely. The standout sound effects in use here derive from the sounds that the astronauts would hear from inside their own suits, be they the dulled vibration of hand drills in the film’s opening scene, or the muffled inner fabrics reacting as they slam up against the space shuttle. Further, there are dozens of effects in use in the film’s interior scenes, like knobs, switches, static, and a fire. Though the visuals are dominant, its entirely facile to discount Gravity as anything less than a sound design masterclass.


WILL and SHOULD WIN – Gravity

Gravity - Sound Mixing

In its audio mix, Gravity once again had an immensely complex task at hand, and it delivered in spades. Take into account all of the sound effects, the dialogue, and the omnipresent score. In total, its a daunting challenge to gauge the proper balance of these elements from scene to scene, moment to moment. What is most memorable about the mix is its preference in lending weight to Ryan Stone’s breathing, which is absolutely integral to keying into her character arc. Above all, Gravity was mixed in Dolby Atmos, where such outfitted theaters have speakers above the audience in addition to both sides, furthering the level of aural immersion.


WILL and SHOULD WIN – Gravity

Gravity - VFX

With respect to all the other nominees in this category, this competition has been over ever since Gravity premiered at Venice. There is no way that Alfonso Cuaron’s film could not have been achieved without the use of CGI, and implementation here is a new high water mark for the industry. From the textures of the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station, to the fabrics on the astronaut suits, and especially Earth, strikingly recreated with every ridge and river intact, the achievement is overwhelming in its audacity, and moving in its service of the story.


WILL WIN – 20 Feet from Stardom

SHOULD WIN – The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing - Documentary

With each passing year, documentaries grow more and more vital in revealing new perspectives to stories that have been tucked away or never before explored. The Act of Killing feels like it came from Mars. It’s three fascinating films whipped into one engrossing narrative: In Indonesia, the former executioners of the existing regime literally killed hundreds of people in the 1960s, and are making and starring in a film reenacting their atrocities. One third of the film involves interviews with these subjects, another third is the making of the film, and the other third is the film. Ultimately, The Act of Killing seeks to find if there is any remorse in these men. With searing scenes and disturbing imagery, what follows is a journey into darkness, one that may never find a parallel in cinema, documentary or otherwise.


WILL WIN – The Great Beauty



The foreign language film category is once again a case in which I’ve seen only one contender, but if The Academy chose The Hunt as the victor, its a suitable choice. Mads Mikkelson plays Lucas, a divorced preschool teacher who is beloved by all the children in his class, but when he is suddenly accused of pedophilia, the entire town gradually turns its back on him. The girl that Lucas is accused of molesting is the daughter of his best friend, and The Hunt wrenchingly tears him apart as he protests his innocence. The Danish film takes on unsettling subject matter that would never have been green lit by an American studio, and does a delicate job of balancing and twisting sympathies. Mikkelson is never less than terrific, and while there are beats which might not work on the whole, the film’s ambiguous final moments linger long after the credits roll.


~ by romancinema on February 28, 2014.

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