Okay, y’all, the Academy Awards are coming: Sunday, February 24th on ABC-TV. Please check your local listings for times and channels. (I will be updating/correcting this massive entry –8,000+ words–over the next two days, but it’s pretty much ready to go…for your consideration.)
KEY: ASC (American Society of Cinematographers); BFCA (Broadcast Film Critics Association); DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics); DGA (Directors Guild of America); GG (Golden Globe); LAFC (Los Angeles Film Critics); NBR (National Board of Review); NSFC (National Society of Film Critics); NYFC (New York Film Critics); OFCS (Online Film Critics Society); PGA (Producers Guild of America); SAG (Screen Actors Guild); WGA (Writers Guild of America); USC (Friends of the University of Southern California Scripter Award)
^ Lincoln is the kind of movie that used to win Best Picture, and by that I mean intelligent, grandly scaled historical films such as, among others, Gandhi (1982) and The Last Emperor (1987). Lincoln also has what I believe is the statistical advantage of being the most nominated film of the year as well as the top domestic earner of the bunch. That noted, there is huge support for Ben Affleck’s Argo as evidenced by its ever-growing cache of awards, which by now includes top honors from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and the Directors Guild. That Argo has won both the Producers Guild award and the SAG prize for ensemble acting appears to be significant as well. Frequently, a movie with strong actor-appeal is a good bet. Still, Best Picture almost always goes to a movie with a nominated director–even if that director does not also win in his category; the last exception was 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, which was indeed the most nominated movie of the year. I think it’s worth noting that during the 1995/96 awards season, there was huge outcry when director Ron Howard was snubbed by members of the Academy for his popular Apollo 13, another fact based story that, like Argo, was turned into a riveting movie even though the outcome of its historic story was already a matter of record. Howard and his film nabbed the same prestigious accolades that Affleck/Argo has so far: DGA, PGA, and SAG; however, when it was all said and done, the Academy opted for Mel Gibson’s rousing historical drama, Braveheart, which was also the most nominated film of the year. Like Lincoln. Of course, in a race this tight, the Academy might be swayed by the other actor-friendly pic, Silver Linings Playbook which boasts a nominated performer in each of the four acting categories. I’m also sensing greater-than-expected buzz around Amour, but if the Academy is looking to expand its audience, a movie about 80 year old French people might not be the ticket. If I were voting, I would be torn between Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, both of which took me by surprise in a way that Lincoln did not. Argo is taut and highly entertaining, and it has just the right amount of Hollywood gloss: a movie at least partially about movies that doesn’t back away from what it is. On the other hand, Zero Dark Thirty is, to me, dense and complex, and I love that it is so disturbing that it confounds people on so many levels. Still, Hollywood loves great success stories, and the Academy seems inclined to glom onto the narratives that make “good television.” In that case, Affleck’s picture, which he co-produced with Hollywood royalty George Clooney, among others, is the stuff of boffo ratings. The Academy can feel good about awarding Affleck in a way that it cannot feel regarding honoring Spielberg who already has two Oscars and a whole bunch of money. Spielberg was once the fresh upstart; now, he’s old-guard.
Amour – LAFC, NSFC | German filmmaker Michael Haneke ‘s French language production chronicles the sad decline of an elderly couple, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Best Actress nominee Emmanuelle Riva, after the wife has a stroke. Though the husband does his best, he is not emotionally or even mentally stable enough to take care of his wife as well as she needs; however, she makes him promise not to send her to a hospital. That’s the movie. It is definitely not a crowd-pleaser though the acting is something akin to miraculous; Amour has been nominated for 5 Academy Awards.
Argo – BFCA, OFCS, GG for Best Drama, PGA, & SAG award for Outstanding Cast | This is actor-turned-director (and one-time Oscar winning screenwriter) Ben Affleck’s third feature film, and it is a massive commercial and critical hit that shines the spotlight on a once classified mission involving a CIA agent posing as a Canadian filmmaker in order to rescue stranded Americans from Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis that began in 1979. The cast includes Affleck, doing double-duty in front and behind the camera, Oscar nominee Alan Arkin, Kyle Chandler, Bryan Cranston, Clea DuVall, Victor Garber, and John Goodman; Argo has been nominated for 7 Academy Awards.
Beasts of the Southern Wild – PGA nom – A post-apocalyptic fantasia about a young girl trying to survive, along with her dad, in a rapidly eroding bayou community called the Bathtub, this indie sensation has been creating a stir since it first screened at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Though little Quvenzhané Wallis has delighted audiences and earned a spot among the Best Actress finalists, the movie also features a stunning performance by novice actor Dwight Henry (previously a baker in New Orleans) as Hushpuppy’s tired, conflicted papa; Beasts of the Southern Wild has been nominated for 4 Academy Awards.
Django Unchained – PGA nom | Director Quentin Tarantio’s latest genre piece merges so-called “Spagehetti Western” action thrills with a tale of the Old South, in which an escaped slave (Oscar winner Jamie Foxx) teams up with a bounty hunter (Oscar winner Christoph Waltz) in order to find the ex-slave’s wife (Kerry Washington). Their search leads them to a plantation owner portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio. Never one to back away from controversy, crude language, or blood-soaked violence, Tarantino’s latest has divided critics and/or scholars, but it has proven popular with audiences and apparently the Academy though Tarantino’s peers in the Directors branch–and in the DGA–declined to follow through with nominations. Movies without nominated directors tend not to win Oscars for Best Picture; Django Unchained has been nominated for 5 Academy Awards.
Les Misérables – GG for Comedy/Musical | PGA nom, SAG nom for Oustanding Cast | The long-running musical version of Victor Hugo’s monumental novel about a petty thief who spends most of his life on the run (after reinventing himself as a well-to-do-gentleman) from a high-ranking and tyranically single-minded officer of the law comes alive on the big screen at last with a cast that includes Oscar nominees Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway as well as Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sascha Baron Cohen, Isabelle Allen, and the smashing Samantha Barks. Director Tom Hooper is one of this year’s high-profile “Best Director” snubs though he astonished many skeptics by recording the musical performances live on the set rather than have the cast lip-sync or sing along with pre-recorded vocal tracks; Les Misérables has been nominated for 8 Academy Awards.
Life of Pi – | PGA nom | Director Ang Lee campaigned to make what was considered a largely unfilmable book into a 3-D epic, and he has mostly succeeded. Based on the acclaimed novel by Yann Martel, Life of Pi is a fantastic tale about a teenage boy (newcomer Suraj Sharma) travelling across the sea in a ship with his parents and some of their zoo animals. The boy survives a shipwreck along with a few of the animals, the fiercest of which turns out to be tiger. Well, that’s the short and relatively simple version. The consensus seems to be that Lee has crafted a technical marvel that may very well be too pretentious and/or preachy for its own good; another thought is that the movie’s conclusion is its undoing. Though far from a flop, Life of Pi has been a slow starter in the U.S., lacking any significant bump in ticket sales since it became the second most nominated movie in this year’s Oscar race; the movie’s 11 nominations must count for something.
Lincoln – DFW | GG nom, PGA nom, SAG nom for Outstanding Cast | Rather than present a traditional biography that spans decades in its protagonist’s life, Steven Spielberg chooses to zero in on the monumental task faced by Abraham Lincoln, our nation’s 16th president, as he struggles to persuade congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, thereby abolishing slavery as the Civil War draws to a close. Though historians have quibbled over some of the movie’s details, the critics have generally been respectful; some have even been rapturous. Spielberg’s film is anchored by the phenomenal Daniel Day Lewis with stunning support by Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones (both Oscar nominees) along with a scene-stealing James Spader and a host of others: Jared Harris, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Bruce McGill, S. Epatha Merkerson, Tim Blake Nelson, Gloria Reuben, and David Strathairn; Lincoln has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards.
Silver Linings Playbook – | GG nom for Comedy/Musical, PGA nom, SAG nom for Outstanding Cast | A substitute history teacher catches his wife with another man and goes ballistic. He avoids jail by entering a mental hospital. When he’s released, he contends with familial dysfunction, including a scheming, overbearing father, and a young widow plagued by demons of her own. With a quartet of nominated performers (Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, and jacki Weaver), Silver Linings Playbook joins the likes of Reds (1981), Coming Home (1978), Network (1976), and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), along with a handful of others as one of only 14 movies to boast acting nominations in all 4 acting categories. This is an important piece of trivia because the acting branch is the Academy’s largest and dare I say its most vocal. What that means is that actors have a lot of sway within the Academy, and actor-ish, character driven pieces are like manna from heaven. Silver Linings Playbook has been nominated for 8 Academy Awards.
Zero Dark Thirty – NBR, NYFC – | GG and PGA noms | Director Kathryn Bigelow has helmed the most controversial movie of 2012, a highly scrutinized docudrama about the CIA’s hunt for notoriously elusive terrorist Osama bin Laden. Three years ago, Bigelow broke decades of Academy patriarchal bias when she became the first woman to ever win a Best Director Oscar–for The Hurt Locker. Zero Dark Thirty is her follow-up and while it has proven to be far more successful with the general moviegoing public than The Hurt Locker ever was, the onslaught of negative publicity–mostly directed at the movie’s sequences of torture–seems to have tarnished the movie’s reputation with Academy members as evidenced by Bigelow’s omission from the Best Director race. The stunning cast includes Best Actress nominee Jessica Chastain along with Kyle Chandler (his second appearance in a Best Picture candidate in one year, both of them spotlighting the CIA), Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, and Harold Perrineau. Zero Dark Thirty has been nominated for 5 Academy Awards.
^ Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) – If I were voting, I’d be all about Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty. Her portrayal of the so-called “Maya,” the CIA agent who diligently pursued one lead for years until she finally found Osama bin Laden, threw me for a loop. Early in the film, she is merely an observer, it seems, without a lot to do, but as time passes, her single-mindedness becomes almost frightening, especially when she erupts in a moment of righteous indignation with one of her superiors. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I know I wasn’t expecting what Chastain delivered; however, I have a feeling that the Academy will go for Lawrence (above) whose character, while damaged, seems relatively “tame,” that is, likeable and/or vulnerable, compared to Chastain’s ball-buster. Even Lawrence’s triumphant Katniss Everdeen in the brutal The Hunger Games is coded in such a way as to be empowering rather than threatening. It’s hard to deny Lawrence’s talent and her allure though I wonder where her career can go when she wins an Oscar at the age of 22. I do not mean to imply that she is too young to win. I just wonder how it will impact her career. (I also want to add, for the last time, that the only performance by a leading actress besides Chastain’s that took me by surprise and just rattled me to my core was the great Beth Grant’s in Del Shore’s Blues for Willadean. Catch it if you can.)
Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) – BFCA, DFW, NBR, OFCS GG for Drama | SAG nom | This is Chastain’s second nomination and her first in this category. Last year, she was in the Best Supporting Actress race for her role as a seemingly ditsy social climber whose perky persona masked a lot of pain and a whole lot of backbone in The Help. Besides her role in that Best Picture nominee, she also appeared as the world’s loveliest earth mother in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, another Best Picture nominee. Her role in Zero Dark Thirty clearly announces that her fine work in 2011 was hardly a fluke. The question now is whether she will be punished in this race, so the Academy can stay free and clear of the whole Zero Dark Thirty controversy altogether. (Afterthought: Of course, the hunt for Osama bin Laden unfolded the way it did in the time-frame that it did, so Bigelow’s movie could not have come out any earlier than now, but, play along: if the movie had been made 5 years ago, I can imagine that the female lead would have been perfect for Hilary Swank; if it had been made 10 years ago, it would have been an ideal fit for Jodie Foster. Of course, both of those ladies have already won two Oscars each for roles similar to this one.)
Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) – LAFC [<TIE] GG for Comedy/Musical | SAG nom | Lawrence is currently enjoying her second Oscar race for Best Actress. She seemingly came out of nowhere to earn a slot on the roster with 2010’s indie favorite, Winter’s Bone. She was a teenager when she filmed the movie and a mere 20 when she earned her first Oscar nod. So compelling was she in that film, about a young woman living in the Ozarks and trying to hold her family together in the face of crushing poverty, she was clearly the first and best choice to play “Katniss Everdeen” the heroine of the dystopian young adult epic The Hunger Games, which spent 4 weeks atop the box office charts, earning over 400 million in this country and clocking in at #3 on the list of the year’s top grossing movies. Her role Silver Linings Playbook as a tart-tongued young widow trying to pickup the pieces of her life by entering a dance contest allows her to show a softer side and to play an actual grown-up. I think right now everyone in Hollywood loves this promising actress. She earns bonus points for taking her act to Saturday Night Live last month.
Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) – LAFC [<TIE], NSFC | At 85, Riva is the oldest-ever Best Actress nominee, besting previous champ Jessica Tandy, who was 80 when she was nominated–and won–for 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy. Riva’s current role is that of a stroke victim, and her performance has the painful, and exacting, ring of truth. I do not think anyone would be unhappy if she won, but I also think that it might be too much of a downer to be fully embraced all the way to the winner’s circle. On the other hand, Amour is apparently well liked enough to emerge a serious candidate for Best Picture. This actress has also claimed honors from the British Academy and at the European Film Awards for her work in Amour. Riva’s other credits include the now classic Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), Thérèse (for which she won Best Actress honors at the 1962 Venice Film Festival), Three Colors: Blue (1993), and 1999’s Venus Beauty Institute (winner of four César Awards, including Best Picture).
Naomi Watts (The Impossible) – | GG & SAG noms | Nine years have passed since Watts earned her first Oscar nomination for 21 Grams. In that time, her career has sort of been all over the map, including everything from prestige offerings such as The Painted Veil to big-budget spectacles, mainly Peter Jackson’s much-maligned King Kong reboot, a horror film or two (Dream House), a lesser Woody Allen film (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), and one of my personal favorites, Fair Game, a ripped-from-the-headlines dramatization of CIA operative Valarie Plame whose cover was blown by members of the Bush administration. That one, unfortunately, was not a huge hit. The Impossible is based on the true story of a family that survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami though the film has been met with some skepticism due to the fact that it emphasizes the struggles of European tourists over the troubles of Asian natives; moreover, Watts’s real-life character is actually Spanish, which Watts is most decidedly not. That noted, her portrayal of her character’s terror when the tsunami hits is palpable. Unfortunately, after the first hour (or less), Watts’s Maria is pretty much relegated to lying on a stretcher or a hospital bed. Sure, she looks and acts convincingly bruised and battered, but she does not have much to do–she’s barely lucid–and the emphasis shifts away from her to the other members of her family, most especially her son played by Tom Holland. On the other hand, a recent Entertainment Weekly article suggests that Watts is building momentum among Academy members.
Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) – BFCA Young Actress winner | Wallis was a mere 5 years old when she auditioned for the lead role in indie feature Beasts of the Southern Wild. Today, she is 9, and she is the youngest ever nominee in this category–the same age as Jackie Cooper when he became the youngest ever Best Actor nominee for 1931’s Skippy. The previous youngest ever Best Actress nominee, Keisha Castle Hughes, was a mere 13 years old when she walked the Academy’s red carpet for 2003’s The Whale Rider. Meanwhile, Wallis is currently nominated for an Image award as well as a Spirit Award (aka Independent Spirit Award).
^ Daniel Day Lewis (Lincoln) – Okay, the truth is, I think any of these performances are well worthy of the award. There’s not a weak entry in the lot. I have no true preference for one over the others; however, Daniel Day Lewis is by all accounts the man to beat. That noted, I think a landslide victory for DDL might be just a bit too easy. Yes, playing Lincoln might be the role of a lifetime for any actor, and, yes, Lincoln is both a smash hit and the most nominated picture of the bunch, but DDL already has two Oscars, and he was just named the greatest of all actors on the cover of Time magazine, so the Academy might be inclined to throw all of us a curve. Some prognosticators are preparing for an upset by Hugh Jackman. (I still feel badly for John Hawkes, who seemed a sure-fire nominee for The Sessions, but his startling omission only illustrates just how competitive this year has been for leading actors in films, specifically American made films.)
Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook) – NBR | GG & SAG noms | Cooper had been around for years, appearing in such TV shows as Alias and several others before he hit the big time with the 2009 comedy smash The Hangover. Since then, Cooper has not lacked for work in high profile projects–often with mixed results, and that includes last fall’s strange drama about a plagiarizing novelist, The Words. That movie was a dud, but Silver Linings Playbook is a wonderful showcase for this actor. He plays a man just released from a mental hospital into the care of his dysfunctional parents. The trouble is, he doesn’t want to take his meds, preferring to deal with his issues in his own way, which does not do him, nor anyone else in his life, any favors; however, as the title indicates, he has a plan–and that is to do whatever it takes to get back with his estranged wife, but that, of course, is not as easy as it initially seems. Cooper is quite wonderful in this tricky role. He’s fun to watch even when his character is insufferable. This well-liked actor has a great marketing team working in his favor, but so far he has not rocked the pre-Oscar prizes, and my feeling is that he is steadily losing momentum.
Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) – BFCA, DFW, NYFC, NSFC, OFCS GG for Drama, and SAG | If Daniel Day Lewis wins for his acclaimed performance as our nation’s 16th president, he will make Oscar history as the first three time champion in this category. If you think Jack Nicholson already pulled off this feat, you’re just a bit off as Nicholson does indeed have three Oscars, but only two of those are for Best Actor: One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and As Good as It Gets (1997). He also won Best Supporting Actor for 1983’s Terms of Endearment. At any rate, this is DDL’s fifth Oscar nomination. His two previous wins are/were for My Left Foot (1989) and There Will Be Blood (2007). He also scored nods for In the Name of the Father (1993) and Gangs of New York (2002). DDL is about as well-positioned as anybody ever has been in this particular category. First, the role of Abraham Lincoln is undeniably iconic–like Ben Kingsley playing Mahatma Gandhi–and Lincoln is not only a huge hit–so far, the top earner in this bunch–it is also the the year’s most nominated flick. Many prognosticators believe Daniel Day Lewis is about as close to a lock as anyone in the current Oscar race, but sometimes Oscar likes to watch the mighty fall and instead awards an underdog.
Hugh Jackman (Les Misérables) – GG for Comedy/Musical | SAG noms – Jackman’s career has certainly been erratic. Everyone loves him as “Wolverine” in the X-Men films, but how long can that gig last? Van Helsing (2004), his attempt at another big budget action packed franchise, flopped hard as did the splashy Australia from fellow country man Baz Luhrmann, which was supposed to be the Down Under equivalent of Gone With the Wind. Not so much; meanwhile, The Fountain, from director Darren Aronofsky, was a painful non-starter. Still, there have been some highlights, including The Prestige (for which he was nominated for the top Aussie film award) and Kate and Leopold (which netted him a Golden Globe nod). Les Misérables, as has oft been reported, is the first big screen role that allows Jackman to display the talents he has honed in musical theatre, winning Tony awards for The Boy from Oz and his own one man show (Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway) as well as an Olivier nomination for the West End revival of Oklahoma. The role of put-upon Jean Valjean not only allows Jackman to show off his fine singing voice–live, it seems–it also packs plenty of pathos and a wide character arc. That he bested Bradley Cooper for the Golden Globe in the Comedy/Musical category speaks volumes given the latter’s slick p.r. campaign courtesy of the Weinstein Company.
Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) – LAFC | GG nom – During the fall, just as The Master was being released across the nation, Phoenix made headlines by criticizing the whole awards season. At the time, many industry watchers began to wonder if the often controversial actor had doomed his chances of being considered for this year’s Best Actor Oscar. Clearly, that is not the case. This is actually Phoenix’s third Oscar dance. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for 2000’s Gladiator and for Best Actor for 2005’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. I personally think he was robbed that year. In The Master, he plays a WWII vet who cannot adjust to life during peace time, the nifty 1950s with all its alleged prosperity and goodwill for all. Instead, Phoenix’s character is mentally unstable, with an incredibly short-fuse, besides being a nasty alcoholic. He’ll drink just about anything it seems and in vast quantities. His misery lands him under the spell of a charismatic cult leader though even that relationship is pretty much a mess, a homoerotic contest of wills. Make no mistake, Phoenix, with his haunted eyes and twisted, tormented body language, is magnificent in The Master, and I don’t think anybody will complain if he wins, but his film does not have the same mainstream appeal as some of the other nominees in the bunch.
Denzel Washington (Flight) – | GG & SAG noms | Daniel Day Lewis isn’t only actor hoping to take home Oscar number 3. Washington is already a two time winner: Best Supporting Actor (Glory, 1989) and Best Actor (Training Day, 2001). This is his 6th nomination overall. The others include a Best Supporting Actor nod for 1987’s Cry Freedom, and two more for Best Actor: Malcolm X (1992) and Hurricane (1999); clearly, some of Washington’s most memorable roles have been men drawn from the pages of history. In Cry Freedom, he played slain South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko; in Malclom X, of course, he played the controversial civil rights activist (also slain), and in Hurricane, he played boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was railroaded in a New Jersey homicide case; after multiple appeals and almost two decades behind bars, Carter was released and the charges were dismissed. Lately, Washington has scored big at the box office in a series of action-thrillers, but Flight reminds all of of us that his is an extraordinary talent. Indeed, despite Flight‘s grim subject matter–a substance abusing pilot on the skids–it has turned out to be a solid hit. Washington deserves a lot of credit for that, especially given the movie’s “safe” marketing campaign.
^ Stephen Spielberg (Lincoln) – All bets are officially off on this one now that Ben Affleck has been snubbed by the Academy while being awarded the top prize by the Directors Guild. With the 12 nominations for Lincoln and all that, it seems like Spielberg would be the logical choice, but what has logic got to do with any of this? All the attention focused on Argo just seems to take away from Spielberg’s achievement, and, let’s face it: Spielberg and the Academy have had a rocky relationship. At this point, actors might be leaning toward David O. Russell while artists and technicians might be more taken by Lee’s vision. Spielberg might squeak by as the safe choice; after all, unlike Lee’s Life of Pi, which has no nominated performances, Spielberg’s film boasts a trio of acting contenders, maybe not as impressive as Russell’s–but not “nothing” either. Frankly, with Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow out of the game, not to mention Moonrise Kingdom’s Wes Anderson, I just don’t give a damn, really.
Michael Haneke (Amour) – NSFC | Haneke was not one of the five contenders for this year’s DGA award; however, he won the Golden Palm, the top award, at the recent Cannes fest. He is no stranger to accolades, having won at Cannes just a few years ago for the magnificent The White Ribbon, which was also an Academy nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Prior to his win for that particular entry, he earned other Cannes prizes for Cache and The Piano Teacher. His films also tend to do well at the annual European Film Awards and the (French) César Awards. Amour recently nabbed top honors at both of those events. The White Ribbon showed him to be a true cinematic visionary; Amour shows his skill and/or care with actors.
Ang Lee (Life of Pi) – DGA Nom | Lee is already an Oscar winner thanks to 2005’s alleged breakthrough hit Brokeback Mountain (the so-called “Gay Cowboy Movie” even though the two male leads were not technically “cowboys.” They were shepherds. Manly shepherds, true that, but shepherds nonetheless.) He was also nominated for the phenomenally popular martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which also broke ground as the first film of its genre to land a Best Picture nomination besides scoring more Oscar nods (10) than any previous foreign language film (Mandarin in this case), setting box-office records in the process. Lee was famously snubbed for directing 1995’s Sense and Sensibility even though it was considered a major Best Picture contender. The general thought on Life of Pi is that it is technically dazzling, thanks to Lee, though it has been slow to catch on at the box office, even with all the Oscar buzz. On the other hand, Lee’s passion and dedication to adapting what was widely considered an “unfilmable” book, starring an inexperienced juvenile actor and shooting sequences in water, in 3-D no less, might resonate within the Academy’s rank and file.
David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) – Two years ago, Russell turned around his nasty reputation–famous for on-the-set blow-ups (with George Clooney and Lily Tomlin for starters)–and scored a major hit with The Fighter, which not only earned him an Oscar nod but also landed victories for Best Supporting Actress (Melissa Leo) and Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale) besides netting a Best Picture nomination. Today, of course, there can be no doubt that Russell is known as an actor’s director, as further evidenced by the fact that Silver Linings Playbook has that rare distinction of earning nominations for all four performance categories. What’s more: actors, who make up the Academy’s largest voting bloc, tend to be attracted to directors who work well with actors. On the other hand, that whole actor-love thing did not work out so well for Rob Marshall, who guided four performers to Oscar nods (in three categories) in Chicago, 2002’s Best Picture winner.
Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) DGA nom | There can be no doubt that Spielberg is the heavyweight in this category. He is a two time winner already: Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). He also boast nominations for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Munich (2005); he was famously snubbed in this category for Jaws, the 1975 blockbuster that nonetheless earned a Best Picture nod; likewise, he was overlooked for the big screen adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer winning The Color Purple, a movie which went 0 for 11 at the 1985/86 Oscars. At the last Oscar race, Spielberg’s War Horse was in the running for Best Picture. Of course, Spielberg is not only a director, he’s also a producer and a partner in the Dreamworks SKG studio. In short, he is far and away the most successful American filmmaker of all time.
Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) – This isn’t just Zeitlin’s first nomination, Beasts of the Southern Wild is also his first feature film. He actually began developing the project with the support of the Sundance Institute. Once the film was completed, it won the Sundance Festival’s “Grand Jury Prize.” Beasts was also massively popular at last year’s Cannes fest, where it took honors in four categories, most prominently the “Golden Camera” for best directorial debut. Even though Zeitlin as not as many high profile “Best Director” awards as some of his competitors, he has earned his share of “newcomer” accolades from, among others, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
^ Sally Field (Lincoln) – If this category were entitled “Best Performance by Anyone Male or Female in a Single Scene,” then I would have no trouble awarding Anne Hathaway for her breathless rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” She simply becomes as one with the material, and the the effect is astonishing. At the same time, I do not believe she supports much of anything in her film. Even her big moment is a solo one. I think a better case can be made for Field, whose Mary Todd Lincoln is a formidable presence throughout the entirety of Lincoln. Plus, Field, an actress whose best work seemed long behind her, and with whom I’ve often found maddeningly inconsistent at best, made a believer out of me. She more than holds her own against the mighty Daniel Day Lewis. It seems like everyone is in agreement about Hathaway being the runaway favorite, and I don’t want to dispute that; after all, this category has often been won by the ingenue in the bunch though at 30, Hathaway might be a bit too seasoned to play the ingenue card. I’m not saying Hathaway can’t win–or that she won’t. I’m just saying I won’t be surprised if Field, my personal preference, wins instead. I also would not be too quick to write off Weaver as I think she would be the most surprising choice in the most welcome kind of way.
Amy Adams (The Master) – LAFC, NSFC | GG nom | Is it really just a matter of time until Adams finally, finally, wins an Oscar? This is her fourth nomination in this category, beginning with Junebug in 2005, followed by Doubt (2008) and The Fighter (2010). In The Master, she plays the seemingly eternally pregnant second wife of the buffoonish cult leader portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Beneath her “simple” exterior, there’s a lot of Lady Macbeth going on with this one. The whole relationship between Adams’s character and Hoffman’s is bizarrely comic because they’re both strange unbalanced people who live by their own rules, clearly making them up as they go. Though Adams has to play one of the most thankless scenes in the movie–in any movie for that matter–her role is not necessarily sympathetic, so even though she already seems “overdue,” so to speak, she might have to wait just a bit longer.
Sally Field (Lincoln) – DFW, NYFC | GG & SAG noms | Field is already a two-time Best Actress winner: first for 1979’s Norma Rae and then again for 1984’s Places in the Heart. This is Field’s first Oscar race since winning for Places in the Heart almost 30 years ago though I would have nominated her for playing the role of a protective mom in Steel Magnolias. In real-life, Field is actually older than Daniel Day Lewis in the role of Abraham Lincoln though Mary Todd Lincoln was actually younger than her husband; however, it matters not a whit in Lincoln since Field is practically ageless, and since she delivers a knockout performance. She represents inspired casting.
Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables) – BFCA, OFCS, GG , & SAG – In 2008, Hathaway was nominated for Best Actress for her role as a substance abuser with scads and scads of unresolved issues in Rachel Getting Married; she did not play the title character but rather the black sheep–make that dark cloud–whose presence at her sister’s wedding is like throwing acid on a festering wound. Frankly, I thought that movie was phony, and Hathaway tried too hard in it to make-like a serious actress. Her performance as Les Miz’s doomer Fantine, who finds release in the gut-wrenching ballad “I Dreamed a Dream” (arguably the show’s best known number), feels like the real deal. Did you know that Hathaway, who has a background in musical theatre, was reportedly one of the leading contenders for the role of “Christine” in the movie version of Phantom of the Opera (2004)? Ultimately, she was not cast due to a scheduling conflict with Disney’s The Princess Diaries sequel, the original of which was her first big break in movies. Hathaway has been busy lately. She also scored as Catwoman in the recent The Dark Knight Rises. Trivia note: Hathaway’s mom under-studied the role of Fantine in a touring production of the show.
Helen Hunt (The Sessions) | GG & SAG noms | Helen Hunt spent many years toiling as a child actress in the business, and then as an adult she became a household name and multiple Emmy winner when she was cast opposite Paul Reiser in the long running sitcom Mad About You. Her success in that venture no doubt gave her the necessary clout to land the leading female role in As Good as It Gets–starring Jack Nicholson–on the big screen. Hunt and Nicholson both won Oscars, and then Hunt returned for another season of her hit TV show. When Mad About You left the air, she capitalized on her success by appearing in quartet of movies in 2000, including Cast Away (starring Best Actor nominee Tom Hanks) and Dr. T. and the Women, a Robert Altman feature filmed in and around Dallas. After that burst of activity, Hunt slowed down and then all but disappeared. She’s been raising her family in the interim. Well, good for her. Her role as a sex therapist in The Sessions is an eye opening comeback, not the least of which is because she’s “very nude” throughout chunks of the movie–and that is something we do not often see a woman of Hunt’s age (she’ll turn 50 this year) do in American movies. Plus, it’s eye opening because Hunt’s a damned good actress, and this role reminds audiences just how powerful she is. We’ve missed her. That noted, I think Hunt is in the wrong category. Simply, she’s the female lead in a story that would not exist without her character: a male poet (John Hawkes) who spends most of his days in an iron lung hires a female sex therapist (Hunt) to help him learn about intimacy; the experience has a profound effect on both of their lives. Again, there is no movie without the therapist; however, the same cannot necessarily be said about, say, Sally Field and her role in Lincoln.
Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) – Weaver was nominated two years ago in this category for the Aussie film, Animal Kingdom, in which she portrayed the matriarch of a crime family; the part was apparently written especially for her. Interestingly, though she was positioned as a supporting player for that role in this country, she won the Australian Oscar equivalent of Best Actress for the same performance. She also has film awards in her own country for Caddie–which I saw 30 some odd years ago at the old Granada theatre (hers was a supporting role) and Stork. In Silver Linings Playbook, she holds her own–in a movie filled with much flashier performances–as a woman who just wants to maintain some semblance of order in an often dysfunctional family. I don’t expect Weaver to win, but I think there’s something engaging about this performance in the way that it plays well without seeming like so much awards bait, which might explain why Weaver was overlooked for both Golden Globe and SAG nods.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
^ Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) – Over the past several years, perhaps decades, the winner in this category has almost always been a veteran, and by that, I mean someone in the 40-50 and over range who has either been nominated multiple times and never won, or has never been nominated in spite of an impressive body of work. This is the first time that I can recall in which all five nominees are previous winners, so it’s hard to make a case for a sentimental favorite. That noted, when I first saw Lincoln, I was certain that Jones would be the guy to beat. His role as the tireless abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens is gutsy, quirky, and colorful. Plus, Jones is on a roll right now, what with last summer’s Hope Springs, co-starring Meryl Streep, and his upcoming gig as General Douglas MacArthur in The Emperor. No actor has truly dominated this race so far, but Jones won the SAG prize, and that is telling. I’m still betting on him though a strong sentimental case can be made for De Niro and the Weinsteins’ noise machine.
Alan Arkin (Argo) – GG & SAG noms | Arkin won in this category six years ago in the well-liked Best Picture nominee Little Miss Sunshine. His victory was as much for his role as a well meaning granddad who makes questionable choices as it was tribute to a career that has spanned more than four decades, dozens upon dozens of film and TV credits, and, yes, two prior Oscar nods: The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming (1966) and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968). His role in Argo is that of crabby producer of cheapie exploitation films who helps the CIA orchestrate a plan to free Americans during the Iran hostage crisis.
Robert De Niro ( Silver Linings Playbook) – SAG nom | Like Best Actor nominee Denzel Washington, De Niro already has Oscars for both Best Supporting Actor (Godfather Part II, 1974) and Best Actor (Raging Bull, 1980). This is actually his 7th Oscar nod; the others are all for Best Actor: Taxi Driver (1976), The Deer Hunter (1978), Awakenings (1990), and Cape Fear (1991). After too many years of over the top performances in films of varying quality (including such comedies as Analyze This and Meet the Parents), De Niro shows admirable restraint as Bradley Cooper’s controlling dad in Silver Linings Playbook. I didn’t think the performance was 100% convincing–which I’m willing to concede could very well be a flaw in the writing–but it was relatively fun to watch even when the character was hard to take.
Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master) – BFCA, OFCS | GG & SAG noms | This is Hoffman’s 4th nomination. He actually won a Best Actor Oscar, with his first nomination, for playing the one and only literary genius Truman Capote in the 2005 Capote biopic, a project expressly written for him. Since then, he has been back with supporting nods in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) and Doubt (2008). In The Master, he plays a cult leader who’s more charlatan than visionary. In theory, his character is based on L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. In actuality, the similarities are merely superficial. Because Hubbard is such a polarizing figure, especially in Hollywood, which is like ground zero of the Scientology movement, I cannot imagine that Hoffman can go all the way with this one even though, as always, he doesn’t mind going out on a limb for a characterization. (On the other hand, a little of Hoffman goes a long way for me since he seems to act from the head rather than the heart–and by that I mean I can seldom shake the feeling that Hoffman actually judges the characters he plays.)
Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) – DFW & SAG | GG nom | Jones is a Texas native–and current resident–who won Best Supporting for the law enforcement officer hot on the trail of Harrison Ford in the big screen version of the classic TV series The Fugitive (1993). It was Jones’s second Oscar race after initially being nominated in the same category for playing suspected Kennedy conspirator Clay Shaw in J.F.K. (1991). Jones eventually segued to the blockbuster Men in Black film franchise before earning his first Best Actor nod for 2007’s In the Valley of Elah…the very year in which he also starred in Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men.
Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) – GG | Waltz won the Oscar–and just about every other major award–in this category for 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, director Quentin Tarantino’s souped-up revisionist fever dream on World War II and America’s plan to stop Third Reich leader, Adolph Hitler. Well, that’s sort of what it was about. Waltz played the villain of the piece, an SS officer with a reputation for ferretting-out Jews. It was a grand showy performance that required Waltz to speak four languages. Now, Django Unchained finds him working with Tarantino again and also portraying a character who speaks multiple languages. This time, he scores as a bounty hunter in the Old South. Many critics have attacked Tarantino for filling his film with racial slurs–which he defends as being true to history–and basically trivializing the real issue of slavery for the purpose of reductive genre film that is part ’70s era “blaxploitation” flick and part “Spaghetti” western. On the other hand, some critics love the movie, and it has done well at the box office. That noted, I think the film’s moment has passed–and Waltz’s chances with it even with a Golden Globe though he also impressed in a recent SNL hosting gig, which now seems to be part of the Oscar game plan.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:
^ There’s no doubt that Lincoln’s Tony Kushner brings huge amounts of prestige to any projects, and the critics love him. I think he might just squeak by in a tight race with Terrio, who just nabbed the BAFTA, the British equivalent of the Oscar. Here’s how I think this works: victory for Kushner does not necessarily signal a Best Picture win for Lincoln; however, if Terrio triumphs, that most likely means it’s all over for Lincoln.
Argo by Chris Terrio – USC and WGA | After the records about the daring rescue mission upon which Argo is based were released, an article by Joshua Bearman about the case appeared in Wired magazine: “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran.” George Clooney optioned the material with his partners; Affleck and Terrio came aboard shortly afterward. Terrio shows scant credits on the IMDb; he co-wrote and directed 2005’s Heights and has also directed TV’s Damages
Beasts of the Southern Wild – by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin – USC nom | Beasts of the Southern Wild is based on Alibar’s one-act play entitled, Juicy and Delicious, in which the main character is a young boy rather than a young girl; Zeitlin and Alibar’s film was apparently ineligible for the WGA prize since it was not a recognized Writers Guild project
Life of Pi by David Magee – USC and WGA noms | Magee’s screenplay is based on Yann Martel’s Booker prize winning novel of the same name; Magee is a previous Oscar nominee for 2004’s Finding Neverland.
Lincoln by Tony Kushner – USC and WGA noms | The source for Kushner’s script is Doris Kearnes Goodwin’s massive Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The book reportedly weighs in at a whopping 900+ pages; Kushner’s screenplay only draws from about six pages worth of material–or at least that’s the tale being marketed. At any rate, Kushner is a previous nominee for 2005’s Munich though he is likely best remembered for the groundbreaking epic two part play, Angels in America, which won top top honors from both the Pultizer Prize committee and the Tony Awards.
Silver Linings Playbook by David O. Russell – USC and WGA noms | Though Russell has twice been nominated for Best Director, this is his first nod as a director. Silver Linings Playbook is adapted from Matthew Quick’s Silver Linings Playbook. Russell generally writes most of this own material, including Three Kings and Flirting with Disaster.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
If I were voting, I’d be all about Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola for Moonrise Kingdom, one of the most sheerly enjoyable movies I saw in all of 2012. It was not necessarily deep or profound or any of those things. It wasn’t even especially original as its tale of star-crossed puppy love clearly evokes Romeo and Juliet. Still, it was fast and fun. Plus, Anderson thinks visually, and that’s a plus for any screenwriter. I know some Oscar forecasters are projecting a win Boal, and that’s okay too, but I worry that he’ll suffer from all the Zero Dark Thirty backlash–unless the tide turns back in his favor, which might be the case give his recent WGA win. Still, my gut tells me that Haneke’s finely observed screenplay has just the right amount of gravitas to click with voters. That’s not a prediction by any stretch…just a hunch.
Amour by Michael Haneke – Once upon a time, it would have been just about impossible for a foreign language film to win in this category. Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her changed all of that. Still, films are a visual medium, and Haneke’s latest is stage-bound as its action unfolds largely within a nicely appointed though far from lavish apartment. Still, what’s onscreen is powerful without a lot of tricky cinematic flourishes, and that has appeal also.
Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino – Tarantino famously won an Oscar in this category for co-writing (with Roger Avary) 1994’s landmark Pulp Fiction, which was only his second feature film as writer-director; he was again nominated in this category for 2009’s Inglourious Basterds. Though Django Unchained is an original piece, Tarantino has gone on record acknowledging that he was influenced by such films as Django, Mandingo, and The Great Silence.
Flight by John Gatins – WGA nom | This is Gatins’s first nomination; he is perhaps best known for writing the fact based Coach Carter (starring Samuel Jackson) and Real Steel (starring Hugh Jackman); the latter film spent two weeks at the top of the box office charts in the fall of 2011. Gatins’s nominated offering is big on character development, but it also asks the audience to make a huge aerodynamic leap in a pivotal sequence, and without that leap, there is no story. Go figure.
Moonrise Kingdom by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola – WGA nom | Anderson is the Texas native who was once a cult wonderboy thanks to such films as Bottle Rocket and Rushmore; he’s in his forties now, but he’s still the critics’ darling. He was previously nominated in this category for 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums (shared with local dude, Owen Wilson); he also earned a nomination in the Best Animated Feature Film category for Fantastic Mr. Fox; Coppola, of course, is the son of Francis Coppola. Anderson and Roman Coppola previously collaborated on The Darjeeling Unlimited.
Zero Dark Thirty by Mark Boal – WGA | – Three years ago, Boal won in this category for The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow who also directs Zero Dark Thirty. Boal wasn’t as badly affected by the negative publicity surrounding Zero Dark Thirty as was Bigelow, but that doesn’t mean some Academy members don’t resent him.
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: If I were voting, I would award the Oscar to the great Roger Deakins for Skyfall, the most visually sumptuous movie I saw last year. Plus, I think Deakins, nomiated 8 times previously without a win (most recently for 2010’s True Grit), is long overdue. Deakins won the coveted ASC award, but that honor does not necessarily translate into Oscar victory. He should know since he has twice been recognized by the ASC for the likes of The Shawshank Redeemption (1994) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) while watching the Oscar go to someone else. My guess is the apparently seamless blend of live action and computer generated imagery in Life of Pi will prove irresistible for voters, thereby signaling a win for Claudio Mirando. Just like the cinematographers of Avatar (2009) and 2011’s Hugo before him, Mirando wins points for “degree of difficulty” since Life of Pi was also shot using 3-D technology. (Since I wrote this, I have actually–finally–seen Life of Pi; it’s beautifully done, and I can see why it seems like such a sure-bet, but I still prefer Skyfall.
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: The heavy betting is also on the team from Life of Pi to win in a contest hat also includes The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Avengers. (With these two awards seemingly destined for Life of Pi, it looks like a case can definitely be made for Lee to snatch a Best Director victory from Spielberg; even more likely if Life of Pi also takes BEST EDITING.)
BEST SONG: I have to believe that Adele and Paul Eppworth’s “Skyfall” will triumph here. Lyrically, I’m not a huge fan of the song; the rhymes are a little too simplistic for my tastes. On the other hand, I love the way the melody just soars. Of course, Adele’s powerhouse vocals and the full orchestral arrangement help tremendously. All in all, it’s just a beautifully crafted piece of pop music, and I think it has wormed its way into our collective consciousness. If it wins, it will be the first song from a Bond movie to do so, and that includes “Live and Let Die” (1973) and “Nobody Does It Better (from 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me); incredibly, the vintage title tracks to Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever, both performed to a fare-thee-well by Shirley Bassey, weren’t even nominated back in the day.
BEST ORiGINAL SCORE: Another likely victory for Life of Pi (by Mychael Danna). Danna’s score relies heavily on the influence of world music, which fits within the Academy’s message of international good will, and Danna already has the Golden Globe. Still, he’s got stiff competition among the likes of Thomas Newman (Skyfall) and John Williams (Lincoln).
BEST COSTUME: Right now, Anna Karenina’s Jacqueline Duran is the nominee with the most buzz, She’s the likely pick by the editors of Entertainment Weekly, and she already has the British Academy award. She recently won a Costume Designers Guild award (for period films). This is Duran’s third Oscar race. Her previous nods are for Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), with that now iconic green evening gown. The costumes in Anna Karenina are more than just appropriately lavish, they are also “fun” in that ridiculously over-the-top eye candy sort of way, and they fit perfectly with the film’s entire wildly theatrical conceit. I whole-heartedly agree with the folks at EW on a personal level, but the Academy members might prefer the relative realism of Les Miserables (Paco Delgado) and Lincoln (Joanna Johnston). The other two nominees are from the last spring’s dueling Snow White pics: Collen Atwood (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Eiko Ishioka (Mirror Mirror); both ladies are previous winners though Ishioka’s nod is a posthumous one. She won for 1992’s lavish Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Ishioka was also recently honored by the Costume Designers Guild in the “fantasy” category.
BEST ART DIRECTION/SET DECORATION – I could also easily, easily go for Anna Karenina in this category as well (the team of Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer). I’m gaga over director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s conceit of reimagining Tolstoy;s classic tale of star-crossed love among the aristocracy as a lavish theatrical pageant set in a magnificent performance hall. Sounds stagey, but it is not; however, the Academy might opt for, say, the authenticity of re-creating the Civil War era White House–and other historic–locations in Lincoln (Rick Carter and Jim Erickson).
A complete list of all the nominees, including a printable pdf, at the Academy’s official website: http://oscar.go.com/nominees#