The Oscars 2014 – a few thoughts

Posted: March 2, 2014 in English language
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As I write, there are just a few hours to go until the 2014 Oscars. I certainly couldn’t comment on all the categories, but happily I have managed to see all the films nominated for the Best Picture award so can share a few thoughts about this category as well as one or two others.

First, though – omissions. Everyone will have their own view about films that should have been included in the Best Picture category but weren’t, as well as those that are less deserving of inclusion. For my money, the most notable omission was the Cohen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Although this was a virtually plotless movie, it was a perfectly pitched and paced character study, melancholy in mood but punctuated by fine moments of humour. I also thought that All is Lost was a strong achievement. Like Gravity, this was a story about one person’s survival. But what was so unique about it was that it managed to be gripping whilst breaking some of the usual rules of cinema. There was no backstory for the character, monologue but not dialogue, not another person seen in the film (apart from one body part), and no real development of character. Despite all this I found myself really rooting for Robert Redford’s lone sailor. I would rather have seen either of these included in the nominations than Her, which failed to interest or convince me.

One of the controversies following the recent BAFTAs in London was the choice of Alfonso Cuaron as Best Director for Gravity, with many thinking that award should have gone to Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave. However, whilst there was a minimal cast involved in Gravity, it is pretty clear to me that this film had quite extraordinary challenges in terms of direction. Cuaron (and his crew) had to solve all kinds of problems, and much of the direction involved working with an environment that looked very different from what was finally experienced on screen. So, for my money, I’d be quite happy to see the Best Director award go to Cuaron.

I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons there was so much controversy about the BAFTAs is that we are particularly spoilt for choice this year. There are some very strong contenders for prizes. From the shortlist for Actor in a Leading Role my own three main contenders would have to be Christian Bale (bulking up for Hustle), Matthew McConaughey (slimming down for Dallas Buyers Club), and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Bale shows great humour and nuance as the overweight grifter with the world’s worst comb-over. McConaughey is virtually unrecognisable from his role in The Wolf of Wall Street, in which he was also brilliant, and he perfectly conveys the journey from reckless, homophobic redneck to a man who sets up business with a transgendered individual in order to provide medicine to help desperate HIV sufferers. Chiwetel Ejiofor displays a masterful use of facial expression in order to convey the plight of a slave, filled with rage at his and others’ treatment, but who must hide his education and intelligence in order to survive. I think any one of these would be deserving winners, but in my opinion Matthew McConaughey just shades it.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 years a Slave

I am at a slight disadvantage in commenting on Actress in a Leading Role, as I have not seen August: Osage County, for which Meryl Streep is nominated. This aside, as with the men’s category, all of the nominations are surely justified. My preference would be for either Judi Dench, conveying both pathos and humour in her titular role as Philomena, or Cate Blanchett as the troubled socialite in Blue Jasmine. Ultimately, Blanchett’s performance as someone both mentally fragile and also a victim of circumstance, is so powerful that I find it hard to imagine that anyone else could win this category, and I think Blanchett would be fully deserving.

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Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

The category where I have the greatest difficulty forming a firm opinion is Actor in a Supporting Role. If I try to find rational reasons to judge the strength of these performances, I find it hard to put a cigarette paper between them. Intuitively, I would narrow the options to Jared Leto’s transgendered HIV sufferer in Dallas Buyers Club, or Barkhad Abdi as the Somali pirate in Captain Phillips. Here, I would follow BAFTA’s choice in giving the award to Barkhad Abdi for his fully convincing naturalistic performance.

For Actress in a Leading Role, whilst acknowledging the quality of all the nominees’ performances, there is really only one option as far as I am concerned. The award should go to Lupita Nyong’o for her proud, fiery performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. That said, I did love June Squibb in Nebraska, particularly the hilarious moment where she tells her extended family “You can all go and fuck yourselves!”.

For Best Adapted Screenplay I would opt for Philomena (Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope), which used the device of an odd-couple road trip to tell an important story. However, the third part of Richard Linklater’s lovers’ tale, Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpie, Ethan Hawke), once again contained the most wonderful, natural, extended dialogue.

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Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

For the category of Original Screenplay, again I would have loved to see Inside Llewyn Davis included in the nominations, and indeed this might well have been my favourite. I loved Blue Jasmine, but as it seems to be a modern update of A Streetcar Named Desire I’m not sure it scores top marks on the originality criterion. My choice from the final shortlist would have to be Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack), but with a nod to Nebraska (Bob Nelson).

Finally, which film should get the Best Picture award? Gravity is obviously being seen as one of the front runners in this category. However, whilst this film was a great technical achievement that produced a spectacular experience in the cinema, outside of the cinema I found that this was not a film that lingered particularly long in my mind. For me personally, the strongest contenders in this category are mostly those based on real-life events (albeit most of those films have taken a few liberties for the sake of dramatic effect). My personal favourite among these was Philomena, which recounted a dark episode in the history of Irish Catholicism, in the form of a journalist helping the title character trace the child that was taken from her years earlier by nuns, and sold to an American couple. What could have been a thoroughly depressing tale is elevated into something much more compelling and enjoyable by balancing the darker elements with some laugh-out loud comic moments arising from the character conflict between the two main figures.

However, some films have such an historical significance that they are impossible to ignore when considering best picture awards. Slavery is such a huge part of America’s history, with ramifications that continue today, and yet the topic has received precious little attention from Hollywood. It may indeed be telling that it has taken a British director to bring Solomon Northup’s biographical story, 12 Years a Slave, to the screen. This is a very powerful film with some scenes that are extremely uncomfortable to watch. For tackling this topic so skillfully I think 12 Years a Slave probably deserves to take the Best Picture award.

Summary of my preferences (not predictions!):

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)

Best Adapted Screenplay: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (Philomena)

Best Original Screenplay: Craig Borten and Melisa Wollack (Dallas Buyers Club)

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