This year’s Academy Awards looks like it could be a very interesting one indeed. It the favourites were to win in each of the major categories we could see a real spread of awards, with no one film dominating proceedings. This means that the big gong of the night, Best Picture, is still a reasonably open contest. So what do each of the films have going for them? And what is standing in their way? What follows is a basic for and against for each of the nine nominees which will hopefully shed some light on their chances in tomorrow’s ceremony.
Notable Awards: Golden Globe Best Drama, BAFTA Best Film, PGA Outstanding Producer of Motion Pictures, AFI Movie of the Year, NBR Top Ten Films
Why 12 Years a Slave will win: There is no film in the field that looks more like a traditional Best Picture winner than 12 Years a Slave. It is a masterful piece of filmmaking, beautifully shot, well written and superbly acted. It is also a serious film dealing with socially important subject matter (filmmakers like to see themselves as playing an important social role so like to promote films like this). The fact that it is the first film about slavery to have been made by a black director and written by a black writer also gives the film a special significance. This has all been backed up by some good momentum coming into the Oscars having already won Best Drama at the Golden Globes and Best Picture at the BAFTAs and tied with Gravity for the Producers Guild’s top award.
Why 12 Years a Slave won’t win: 12 Years a Slave is rightfully the favourite, albeit a slight favourite, for the award. But while the film has been widely lauded it is not as widely loved as some of the other films in contention and in a tight race that could be significant. When it comes down to a fight between the film voters admire and the film they love, sometimes admiration alone doesn’t get the job done. Also, the Academy now uses a preferential voting system whereby voters rank the nominees from one through to nine. The votes are then counted, with preferences redistributed round by round until a film manages to secure more than 50% of the vote. In what looks to be quite a tight race, the odds that a film will secure over 50% of the votes in the first count is highly unlikely, so the preferences become very important and the system could end up favouring the film that can be everybody else’s second choice.
Notable Awards: Golden Globe Best Comedy or Musical, SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, AFI Movie of the Year
Why American Hustle will win: With ten nominations, American Hustle is tied with Gravity for the most nominated film in the field, but American Hustle’s nominations have come in more telling categories. For the second year in a row a David O. Russell film has been nominated in the big seven categories (Picture, Director, Actor and Actress, Supporting Actor and Actress, and one of the Screenplay categories), and American Hustle is the only film in the field this year to have achieved that feat. The four acting nominations may prove particularly important as actors make up the largest branch of Academy voters and it is possible that a film built on the strength of its ensemble cast is more likely to catch their eye than a film built on its outstanding technical achievement.
Why American Hustle won’t win: Of the major contenders, American Hustle is the one which seems to have lost a bit of momentum leading into the awards. Coming up to the announcement of the nominations it was arguably the front runner, and its ten nominations appeared to confirm that. Since then, however, people seem to be cooling on it. Even Jennifer Lawrence, who a month ago was an unbackable favourite to win her second Oscar, is no longer so far ahead of the pack. While Russell’s won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical, the Golden Globes have not proven to be a strong indicator of Oscar form, and it was also in a separate category from 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, the two films seen as being its greatest rivals for the Oscar so it is difficult to take much from that success.
Notable Awards: AFI Movie of the Year
Why Captain Phillips will win: Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is an intensely gripping thriller based on recent real life events which impressively also manages to really humanise the players on both sides of its hostage situation. But when it comes to the Oscars, Captain Phillips really has one very big ace in the whole. Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks has been an Academy favourite for a long time, and while Forrest Gump is his only film to have won Best Picture, he’s had a number of films around the mark. While he surprisingly missed out on a nomination for a performance many – myself included – felt would have had him as a serious contender for Best Actor, Argo’s win last year after Ben Affleck’s director snub showed that a surprise snub can help to build support behind a film.
Why Captain Phillips won’t win: In a nine film Best Picture field, one of the basic indicators of who the real contenders are and who are making up the numbers is to look at which films get nominations in the Best Director category. Hollywood is still a very auteur influenced film culture, invested in the overall artistry of the director. Captain Phillips is one of the films which wasn’t recognised in the Best Director category, and only four films have ever won Best Picture without a Best Director nomination. While Argo managed to do just that last year, what are the chances it could happen two years in a row? Also, given how central Hanks’ performance was to the effectiveness of the film, the fact that it was overlooked for a nomination suggests that Captain Phillips is not seen as a real heavyweight.
Notable Awards: NBR Top Ten Independent Films
Why Dallas Buyers Club will win: Like 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club ticks a number of the boxes of a Best Picture winner. It is a well written (it got a screenplay nomination) and directed film about a serious issue, based on a real life person, and built around two absolutely brilliant performances. The story of Ron Woodroof’s transformation from homophobic bigot to unlikely AIDS activist is quite uplifting and Academy voters have a bit of a history of being suckers for sentimentality over merit (Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption in 1995, Rocky over Taxi Driver in 1977). While Dallas Buyers Club has a hard edge which makes it far from the most sentimental film ever to get a Best Picture nomination it is definitely an inspirational, underdog tale.
Why Dallas Buyers Club won’t win: While Dallas Buyers Club has won a number of awards in the lead up to the Oscars they have been almost solely for the performances of McConaughey and Leto, not for the film as a whole. It is almost as though people have struggled to look past the brilliant performances to see the merits of the rest of the film.
Notable Awards: AFI Movie of the Year, DGA Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film, NBR Top Ten Films
Why Gravity will win: No film this year received a stronger audience response than Gravity. Alfonso Cuaron’s immersive, experiential film had audiences legitimately awestruck and is the highest grossing film in the field. Its ten nominations have it equal with American Hustle as the most nominated film this year. While it lost out to 12 Years a Slave for the big prize at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, it tied for the top gong from the Producers Guild of American and, more importantly, Alfonso Cuaron won the Directors Guild Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film. Of all the lead up awards each year, this one has the best track record of identifying the Best Picture Oscar Winner. Ten times in the last eleven years, including last year with Ben Affleck and Argo, the film whose director has been recognised by the DGA has gone on to win at the Oscars.
Why Gravity won’t win: Name the last science fiction film to win Best Picture. Here’s a clue… it’s never happened. Gravity is far from being typical Best Picture fare so would have to buck the trend of dramas being preferred over genre films. While it received ten nominations, many of them were in technical categories and it failed to receive a screenplay nomination. It is possible that Academy voters will see the film as a marvellous technical achievement more so than a marvellous all-round film. While Cuaron is the overwhelming favourite to take home Best Director, just last year we saw Ang Lee take home that award for a brilliant visual achievement in Life of Pi without the film winning the major award.
Notable Awards: AFI Movie of the Year, NBR Best Film
Why Her will win: One thing that Her really has going for it is that it is by far the most original film of the nine nominees. Jonze’s film about the relationship between a man and the operating system on his computer is really unlike anything we’ve seen before. It is also original in a way that garners praise and attention (as evidenced by the many screenplay awards it has already won) rather than merely confronting and frightening people. While it hasn’t won any of the major lead in awards, it was named Best Film by the National Board of Review, so there is at least one instance where it has trumped the other nominees.
Why Her won’t win: Another film without a Best Director nomination, Her is also the only film in the running to not have a single nomination in any of the acting categories (even though Joaquin Phoenix would have been a deserving nominee). So you can add to the fact that only four films without a directing nomination have ever won Best Picture the fact that only 11 films without an acting nomination have won. It all adds up to suggest that Her is up against it.
Notable Awards: AFI Movie of the Year, NBR Top Ten Films
Why Nebraska will win: This black and white, slow, small, indie film stands out a bit in the field. But unlike last year’s little indie nomination Beasts of the Southern Wild, Nebraska already has some serious Oscar credibility. It is director Alexander Payne’s third film in a row to be up for Best Picture – after Sideways in 2005 and The Descendents in 2012 – with each one being better than the last. Does that mean he’s getting closer? Many critics have likened the film’s tone and style to films of the Hollywood Renaissance period of the late 1960s/early 1970s, in particular Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. With that period being such a revered moment for many Academy voters could they really value that association in Nebraska? The stunning performance of veteran character actor Bruce Dern so late in his career also gives it a feel good element.
Why Nebraska won’t win: Left of centre indie films tend to earn critical praise and art-house admiration but that doesn’t have a history of translating into Oscar wins. That said, Alexander Payne has already won two Oscars for screenwriting. However neither of those films managed to capture the big prize. Nebraska is not the favourite to win in Best Original Screenplay and it would seem unlikely that it would win Best Picture without a win in that category.
Notable Awards: N/A
Why Philomena will win: While as a small, British film, Philomena would seem a real longshot to win the major award there are some punters who are seriously talking about it as a potential spoiler. Like 12 Years a Slave, Philomena has an important social message to its story, but the key to its chances lie in the fact that it is targeted at an older demographic. With the way the preferential voting works, there is the thought that with 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and American Hustle all so evenly matched they could steal each other’s votes, effectively cancelling each other out, and if the Weinsteins can effectively lobby the increasingly aging pool of Academy voters to get behind Philomena it could sneak through.
Why Philomena won’t win: Philomena’s four nominations are the least of any of the contending films, and it isn’t favoured to win in any of them. While Grand Hotel managed to win Best Picture in 1932 despite not being nominated in any other category, in the last 20 years The Departed with five nominations (for four wins) has had the least nominations of any Best Picture winner and it had the advantage of the Academy desperately wanting to give an Oscar to Martin Scorsese. Philomena hasn’t had any noteworthy wins in the lead up to the Oscars, so there is no evidence yet of judges rating it above the other nominated pictures, and it is another film which does not have a Best Director nomination.
Notable Awards: AFI Movie of the Year, NBR Top Ten Films
Why The Wolf of Wall Street will win: The Wolf of Wall Street appears to be the film most likely to challenge from outside the three favourite. One thing it has its favour unpredictable motives of the Academy voter. Scorsese is the filmmaker of his generation, but for a long time he went unrecognised by the Academy and it was seen as one of their great oversights. That would change in 2007 when he took home Best Director and Best Picture for The Departed. But even then, many felt that The Departed didn’t represent Scorsese’s best work, and more to the point it wasn’t a traditional Scorsese film. Academy voters, like tipsters, have been known to vote for the nominee they want to win rather than the one they think should win. With The Wolf of Wall Street being hailed as a return to the Scorsese of old, will the Academy voters jump at the chance to recognise a “real” Scorsese film?
Why The Wolf of Wall Street won’t win: The Wolf of Wall Street is easily the most controversial film in the field and controversy is something that is rarely rewarded on Oscars night. With its avalanche of sex, drugs and profanity, Scorsese’s film has been accused of distastefully celebrating and lionising the abhorrent behaviour of selfish, criminal stockbrokers. It only requires a small percentage of voters to conscientiously object to the film to have it out of the running.
So with all that in mind, for mine the nominees can be broken up into four categories…
The Contenders: 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Gravity
The Potential Dark Horses: Her, The Wolf of Wall Street
The Outsiders: Philomena, Nebraska
Thanks for Coming: Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club
By Duncan McLean
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn
The AIDS virus is a truly terrifying disease. In the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis in America, that terror was compounded by a lack of knowledge and understanding of the disease. To be told you were HIV positive was tantamount to being given a death sentence. It is from this desperate context that Jean-Marc Vallée’s powerful independent film Dallas Buyers Club brings us the true story of the most unlikely of crusaders.
After a workplace accident lands him in hospital, electrician and part-time rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof is informed that his blood tests have revealed him to be HIV positive. With the hospital participating in a trial of a new wonder drug, AZT, Ron bribes a hospital employee to sneak him the medication. When the AZT doesn’t appear to be doing the trick, he ventures across the border into Mexico where he is able to get his hands on a number of alternative treatments which have not been approved for use in the USA. Seeing an opportunity to make some money, Ron starts smuggling the unapproved medications into the country and, with the help of his transgender business partner Rayon, founds the Dallas Buyers Club, where a monthly fee gets you all the medication you need. The beauty of the Club is it keeps his hands clean. He isn’t selling drugs. He’s selling memberships. Ron quickly becomes the last hope for Dallas’s many AIDS sufferers and starts to face strong opposition from the authorities.
What differentiates Dallas Buyers Club from the standard AIDS narrative is its protagonist. Woodroof is anything but a sympathetic character. He is a whoring, drug-taking, brawling, cheating bigot. The first words we hear from him are a homophobic slander of Rock Hudson, shortly after the actor’s death from AIDS. Upon being diagnosed, Woodroof seems angrier with the doctor’s implication that he might have engaged in homosexual activity than he is about the fact that he is HIV positive. Ron is just as prejudiced against other AIDS sufferers as other people are against him. He founds the Club not out of any sense of charity or desire to help others, but out of simple opportunism. The Club presents him with the opportunity to get his medication and make some money on the side. The film’s drama comes from watching the way this degenerate is transformed by his circumstances and the people around him to the point that he can become an activist and voice for this marginalised community. Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s excellent screenplay makes that transition subtle while still apparent, and most importantly believable.
Sympathetic he may not be, but Ron Woodroof is engrossing and much of the credit for that has to go to the performance of Matthew McConaughey. Over the last couple of years McConaughey has gone from being a run-of-the-mill movie star hunk to one of the most interesting actors working in Hollywood and his performance here is undoubtedly the best of his career. Having lost approximately 20kgs in preparation for the role, his emaciated appearance is confronting, but Woodroof retains some of that McConaughey charisma, incorporating it into this unattractive package and keeping us hooked on him. But McConaughey doesn’t carry the film alone. His achievement is matched and maybe even exceeded by that of his co-star, Jared Leto. In his first feature film in five years, Leto is brilliant as Ron’s transgender business partner and, eventually, friend Rayon. Leto gives Rayon a real grace and sensitivity, successfully grounding a character that could so easily have been a caricature.
Dallas Buyers Club is a special film that manages to be uplifting without being sentimental and insightful without being preachy.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean