Slaves, Hustlers, and Space: The 2013 Oscars Conversation Begins

You know it’s important when Thor takes charge.

The other day on Facebook, I got involved in a conversation about anticipating the Oscar nominations with an old friend, Clifford Galiher (2007 Jeopardy college champion, defeater of Andrew Rostan in that year’s Tournament of Champions), who compared Oscar Nominations day to Christmas Eve, all full of anticipation, but Oscar Night itself to New Year’s Eve—we all know what’s going to happen, but we still drink and have a great time.

I loved the simile, but I don’t think it entirely holds for 2013. This year, I don’t think there’s a single race you could call certain. Not even Best Animated Feature, because when you put Frozen up against what may be Hayao Miyazaki’s last film, you get a fight I don’t want to call.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than among the three largest nominees, which present me with an interesting dilemma. Since I first became obsessed with cinema, there are two kinds of movies I have loved and always wanted to see get more Academy recognition, and you can probably blame Annie Hall and 2001: A Space Odyssey and David Lean’s movies for this. First, films that aren’t serious and weighty with importance but are lots of fun, with great acting, clever writing, plenty of laughs, and still able to leave you with some insight into humanity.

 

Second, intelligent spectacle, films with imagery and production which take your breath away while still having more on their minds than pure adventure or robots and monsters punching each other (NOT to put down Guillermo…and on the other hand, Raiders of the Lost Ark is the rare exception that proves the rule).

Two movies exactly like these ended up leading the pack with ten nominations each, but they had the bad luck, in my opinion, to come out the same year as a movie that got nine and happens to be, further in my opinion, one of the greatest American movies ever made.

All of them were nominated for Best Picture and Best Director and wracked up a huge presence in the other major categories.

There are plenty of other films to consider besides American Hustle, Gravity, and Twelve Years a Slave, but I’m going to kick off what I think will be an annual conversation with Alex by focusing on these three to ask, and answer, a series of questions which will make me wish Damien Bona was still around to offer smart and sarcastic home truths.

Why wouldn’t Twelve Years a Slave win Best Picture?

Alex spent most of nominations day gloomily assuming that the fight is lost for Slave, but I am not of that opinion. Not getting the most nominations is far from a death sentence: Lincoln, Julia AND The Turning Point, and even Airport (in a tie with Patton), to name three, led the way with the most nods in their years and came up with very little to show for the distinction.

Yes, Dean Martin and the woman who made that crazy speech at the Globes starred in a film that got TEN Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

And in terms of those nominations, Slave gained the all-important Writing and Editing spots, and while losing for Cinematography was very surprising given the immaculate production, that category was always Emmanuel Lubezki’s to lose, not anyone else’s to win. (See What is the only category Andrew thinks will be a lock?)

But now let’s take a look at Slave’s competition. Most of the field of nine, while definitely worthy, consists of small and quirky pictures and a genuine hit, Captain Phillips, that never excited any giant reaction, as witnessed by Tom Hanks not joining the Best Actor club. There are three movies, as my go-to expert David Poland pointed out, which have a genuine shot besides Slave to win the grand prize. The Wolf of Wall Street, which I’ll be seeing this weekend, is a film that HAS excited a giant reaction, but said reaction goes all over the place from idolization to condemnation, and the split may be too wide to overcome. (On the other hand, Jonah Hill is now a two-time Oscar nominee due to this film. Think about that. And think about how really outstanding Grand Old Man Scorsese has been with his modern-day version of a studio system star, Leonardo DiCaprio. The Academy might. I’ll know more in the next 72 hours.)

Again, this man has TWO Oscar nominations now.

To jump from the three-hour movie to the ninety-minute movie, as much as I’d like to think so, I can’t see the Academy being willing to hand over Best Picture to a tale of outer space, even if it’s a magnificently done two-character thrill ride of a movie capable of provoking awe, empathy, and so many other emotions. It’s still got loads of special effects. And that puts it in the Star Wars/Raiders field that only the undeniable excellence and audacity of The Return of the King broke out from. On the other hand, “undeniable excellence and audacity” are great words to describe Gravity.

Plus, because we never wrote about it (PART TWO, BEAN!), Sandra Bullock giving a performance of strength, will, and beauty inside and out. Incredible. She so, so won her Best Actress honor for the wrong film.

This leaves American Hustle, a movie with a glaring flaw for all its extraordinary qualities. Hustle has the loaded, far-ranging field, including the take-my-breath-away feat of getting an actor nominated in all four categories, the second year in a row David O. Russell has done this. (Let me comment for one moment that like Woody Allen, Russell is proving to be a man who knows so much of the human heart and soul but is a less-than-ideal human being. This saddens me especially since I cannot deny his talent.) But I’ve come to compare Hustle to Argo, a film I like much less, and the insight was revealing. Bean’s going to disagree with me on this, but I still believe, and will go to my grave believing, that Argo was a film of great substance let down by execution that only in moments (but what moments) rose above “pretty good.” Hustle is perfect execution, with one of the greatest ensemble casts I’ve ever seen, skilled direction, wonderful mise-en-scene…but almost no substance. I overstated the case a bit in my review when I said there were no ideas and drama in this movie. There IS an idea: the idea of how we survive through invention, reinvention, and the boldness to take daring chances and potentially change ourselves. But this is an idea so malleable to any situation with little effort, so easy to stretch around for the production of a positive ending, and so much less challenging than the metaphysics of Gravity and ABSOLUTELY the stark confrontation with what society is capable of at its worst in Slave that the film diminishes by comparison. And from recent conversations, more and more people are joining this chorus of not-disapproval but “this is fun entertainment, and it’s great as fun entertainment, it’s a movie I’ll watch every single time it’s on TV, but it’s not a Best Picture winner…”

Except I realize I also could have been describing the movie that won Best Picture forty years ago, a film about con artistry that happened forty years ago, The Sting. We even have a delightfully feminist Newman and Redford analogue in Adams and Lawrence, wily veteran and golden girl both reveling in their action and dialogue. Damn…maybe this is Hustle’s year. And I’ll be honest, I kind of wouldn’t mind…I loved so much of this film, Adams (see more below) and Lawrence, Louis C.K., Robert De Niro’s brief but mesmerizing turn, the way it had the feel and pace of a 1970s classic, and forget Russell…a win here would be a great vindication for Megan Ellison, who is devoting her life and money to bring daring cinema to our screens (Zero Dark Thirty, The Master, her) and who I would absolutely love to see recognized for that.

I have rarely been in so in awe of someone younger than me.

Except it’s NOT Hustle’s year, because name one film in 1973 that was so overwhelmingly emotional and technically excellent as Twelve Years a Slave. There was none. There have rarely been any. Even the commercial-minded dolts of the HFPA understood this. And above all, there’s no sense that Twelve Years a Slave is daring the Academy to ignore it. It is much less commercial than Lincoln, even more artistic and unconventional than Brokeback Mountain. It was not made to win awards. Like Citizen Kane and “Vertigo,it was made to tell the truth about who we are and do it in a spellbindingly beautiful yet still unflinching way.  That I don’t see Brad Pitt and Steve McQueen hawking it everywhere as one could expect points to how much integrity went into this. I’m not going to love it any less if it doesn’t win Best Picture. None of us will. We just know it should…oh, it should. And I think enough people in Hollywood know that as well. And with an increasingly young Academy and enough different kinds of films to split a vote, I think the odds are really damn good.

But on that note about the HFPA…

 

Is it possible to imagine that Twelve Years a Slave can repeat what it did at the Golden Globes?

Short answer: Uncontrollable laughter

Long answer: The Academy is not the type of body that will give something the grandest prize and nothing else….the type of body that chose to award Pia Zadora an acting honor, yes, but not this one.

“It Happened One Night” isn’t the only movie where Gable didn’t have an undershirt.

 

No film since 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty (which you definitely should watch if you’ve never seen it, because it’s damn good and has a moustacheless Clark Gable and Charles Laughton at their best) has won Best Picture and nothing else. The magic minimum number seems to be three: that’s how many Oscars, including Picture, a little film you might have heard of called The Godfather took home. With nine nods Slave should be able to reach three awards, but the question is WHICH three? The acting nominees have been eclipsed by the sudden love being shown Dallas Buyers Club, though Eijofor and Nyong’o should both have a shot.

This film I think would be very moving, once you get past how scary Matthew McConnaughey looks.

Here’s my feeling: if Slave wins some things early on, particularly if it beats Hustle in categories like Editing where they’re both nominated, I’d call it a Best Picture favorite. Adapted Screenplay would not be so much a lock but would be an encouraging sign. If it takes home an acting win in the current climate, definitely a lock. Director tells us nothing because Russell is, if not disliked, certainly not popular in Hollywood (which is strange for a man who keeps attracting dream casts). On the other hand, if Hustle starts winning and rolls on with the winning, it’s going to be the opposite conversation, although abnormalities are very possible. Remember that Network swept so many categories but lost Director and Picture, while The Social Network rocketed out to a great start before falling short to Tom “Dutch” Hooper and his British master class actors. (Is the rule that you just shouldn’t have the word “network” in your title?)

The bottom line is that we’re not going to know for sure until March 2nd. I will hold this position to the end. Although for one final mark in Slave’s favor…the Argo momentum wheel began when it unexpectedly won at the Globes, and by the time Johnny Depp called Slave’s name, it was definitely unexpected.
(By the way, as I write this, Slave won Best Picture at the Critics’ Choice Awards as well. Seeing how it fares at other ceremonies will be a very telling sign, although there is one coveted award I think Hustle should and will win: the SGA Best Ensemble. That is not going to take a thing away from Slave, which admittedly is more episodic than ensemble in terms of casting, with people coming in and out to make definite points and actions and not functioning as a unit…it’s Eijofor and eventually Nyong’o’s show all the way.)

Who wins Best Actress: Adams or Blanchett?

 

Let’s step away from Slave for the rest of the column and settle one last question. The second-tightest race after Picture is definitely Best Actress, with Amy Adams and Cate Blanchett steeped in accolades for their work in American Hustle and Blue Jasmine. Even in a year when there was a shamefully fallow field of great female roles—except in Disney movies and Megan Ellison productions because damnit, Megan Ellison has a knack for getting films with fascinating female characters made—the five nominees are all great actresses, and even with Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, and Meryl Streep in the running it’s still just a two-person race. My love for Adams’s turn has been well documented here. I did not see Blue Jasmine, an oversight I must rectify next month, but since June, every time I talk movies with my parents, my father Robert Rostan, a man who is so very hard to please when it comes to movies, brings up how Cate Blanchett gave the performance of a lifetime. That alone is enough for me to imagine how incredible she must be.

But even with this momentary bias, I think, in an unbiased appreciation of all facts, Amy Adams will win Best Actress for three reasons.

  1. The Academy has a long history of giving people the consolation prize after too many nominations without a win. Adams has been nominated for four Oscars already (Junebug, Doubt, The Fighter, The Master) and the sense that she’s due, right or wrong, especially when matched with four women who already have Oscars, is too strong to ignore. The bizarre twist in this scenario is that Adams’s potential “consolation prize” would be for the greatest work I think she’s ever done.
  2. At this moment, due to some very timely tweets, equally timely dredging up of past ills, and a lifetime achievement award that seems as unnecessary as the Oscar Elia Kazan got in 1998, Woody Allen IS disliked, and Blanchett, quite unfairly, will probably be dragged down with him.
  3. Finally, Adams is riding one of the two Oscar comets streaking across the sky with uncontrollable force in American Hustle. There are too many acclaimed things about the film to ignore, so it gets noticed, and Adams is the crown jewel. Blanchett only has Sally Hawkins to carry the awards prestige with her. It’s not good enough.

What were Andrew’s favorite nominees this year?

–       The Best Adapted Screenplay nod for the pitch-perfect Before Midnight, a fitting conclusion to one of the greatest trilogies in cinema history.

–       Steve Martin’s lifetime achievement award…and I wish they still gave these out during the main ceremony. The Oscars are a celebration of movies, and that should include giving fans the greatest looks at how film got to where it is now as it can possibly give.

–       Steven Price’s suitably epic score for Gravity, which I had feared would get lost in the well-deserved fuss over the visuals

–       And one of the finest Best Production Design fields ever. In addition to our big three, the minimalist future ethic of her and the Luhrmann  and Martin zeal of The Great Gatsby offer a range of five feats of recreation and imagination which should inspire anyone.

And now, I turn it over to Alex…with the last question, How are you going to disagree with almost everything I just said?

I wanted to end with a shot of Steve McQueen and his family…because I really want to have his life someday. He’s just really darn cool. Cooler than the other Steve McQueen, possibly.

CORRECTION: Andrew originally stated that Gangs of New York led in 2002 with 10 Oscar nominations. Alex immediately corrected that Chicago had 12. Both of them were wrong, as Chicago actually had 13.

Andrew Rostan

Andrew Rostan

Andrew Rostan's first graphic novel, "An Elegy for Amelia Johnson," was named one of the best comics of 2011 by USA Today. His second book will be published by Archaia/Boom! Studios in 2015. When not telling fictional stories, he enjoys nothing more than conversing with his fellow Recorder members and the rest of the world.

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