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: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk
The road movie has always been a form that resonates with America, perhaps because it is such a large country, and one of its most interesting voices of late has been independent filmmaker Alexander Payne. Starting with a widower journeying to his daughter’s wedding in About Schmidt, and then a pair of middle aged men on a tour of the Californian wine country in Sideways, Payne likes to venture out on the road with unabashedly ordinary characters. He is at it again with a father and son in Nebraska.
After receiving an unsolicited piece of junk mail, ageing alcoholic Woody Grant is convinced that he has won one million dollars in a sweepstakes and needs to get to Lincoln, Nebraska – over 800 miles from his home in Billings, Montana – to collect his winnings. While his wife, Kate, and adult sons, David and Ross, are all too aware that this is a scam, there is no convincing Woody, and eventually David decides that the only way to put an end to it is if he takes Woody to Lincoln himself. On their way they stop off in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne where the news that he has struck it rich spreads like wildfire, bringing all manner of friend and relative out of the woodwork to stake their claim for their piece of Woody’s expected winnings.
With its Middle American locations shot in beautiful widescreen black-and-white by Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska moves at a slow, almost melancholy pace. Road movies don’t need to be defined by momentum, and this one feels no compulsion to be. We know from the very beginning that the thing they are journeying towards, Woody’s million dollars, will not be there in the end, so the film is free to meander. Instead, as the old cliché goes, the journey becomes more important than the destination. At its heart, Nebraska is the story of a father and his son, or rather of a son and his father. For despite it being Woody’s image that appears on the poster, this is David’s story. It is David through whose subjectivity we encounter this tale. Woody is not a talkative or relational man, and it becomes apparent that for the entirety of his sons lives he never has been. Woody has always been removed from his sons. For Ross, this is the cause of much anger and resentment, but for David it is just the source of disappointment. This journey provides David with the opportunity to spend some time with his father, and through the stories he hears from the people of Hawthorne he comes to gain some understanding of this man who for his whole life has been a mystery.
The veteran character actor Bruce Dern has stumbled upon the role of his career at the age of 77. Woody is headstrong but vague. Is that vagueness a result of his years of alcohol abuse, or is he retreating into his own mind and memories? He is a character who, aware that he is in his twilight years, is determined leave his mark on the world. There is a lack of contentment in him and it is in this regard that Dern really brings something to the character that a more celebrated name couldn’t have. While it is Dern who is deservedly getting all the plaudits, Will Forte is also brilliant. The casting of Forte as David, the more subtle of the two leads, was a brave move that paid off. As a Saturday Night Live alumnus, Forte is best known as a comedic performer and a particularly unsubtle one at that, but he brings a real humanity to David and the perfect amount of uncomfortableness to his interactions. Outside of the two leads, it is June Squibb, as Woody’s fed-up, eye-rolling wife Kate who makes the biggest impact. Payne had previously used Squibb as the wife of Jack Nicholson’s character in About Schmidt, but in that film she died early on. Here she makes it through to the end and the film benefits greatly from her presence. It is Squibb, rather than the more obvious Forte or Odenkirk, who provides the films comic relief. In particular, the matter-of-fact accounts she shares with David about all the men from the old town who had tried to get into her pants are very funny.
A film reminiscent of small town films like The Last Picture Show, Nebraska blends humour and humanity with the result being a heartfelt, poignant and even uplifting film.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean