Obligatory Oscar Commentary (surprises and predictions)

Alright everybody, whether you want to read it or not I've got some things to say about the Oscar nominations. If nothing else, writing this article is meant to keep me from talking off the ears of my friends and family. So yeah, if you're here then ostensibly you'd like to hear what I have to say about the Oscar nominations. This entire discussion will bear the caveat that I realize the Oscars do not really determine what the best movie of the year was. Not only is enjoyment obviously subjective, but even if there were a way to objectively determine the technical quality of a film I doubt the "best" movie of the year would ever win much. The Oscars are obviously part of the bigger game of awards season, a cyclical event which celebrates movies which were released in December and sometimes November. That said, it is a fun game to play, so let's get to it. (Predicted winners in bold.)

          Best Picture          
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Not too many surprises here. Most notable is the exception of Inside Llewyn Davis, a film praised by many as one of the Coen brothers' best. Also missing are August: Osage County and Rush, both films nominated for Golden Globes which met with wide critical approval. Instead we have Dallas Buyers Club, presumably included because of the incredibly buzz surrounding Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto's performances. Both actors have strong chances to win their respective Oscars, but I think nominating the movie instead of Inside Llewyn Davis was a mistake.

Performances no matter how strong don't make a movie good (although they may make it more enjoyable). This is also something that has been said about American Hustle, that it has amazing performances but isn't a great movie, and while I loved the movie when I saw it in theaters I can see where the criticism is coming from. Even despite this fact, I think Hustle has a chance to win based on its critical acclaim and on the sheer number of categories it was nominated in (tied for 1st place with Gravity at 10; see list below).

I think the obvious choice for Best Picture is 12 Years a Slave, not only because it would perhaps be controversial not to pick it (especially with all the other awards it's already won), but because it's an incredibly well-crafted and critically-acclaimed film. I think the next two obvious choices besides Hustle would be Gravity or Her, but what I think will happen instead is that Gravity will win Directing and Her will win Original Screenplay with Hustle picking up a couple of smaller awards (that way the Academy won't have to worry about not giving great films big awards).

          Best Actor          
Christian Bale (American Hustle)
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Best Actor is an incredibly strong category this year. There are many great performances missing, most notably Joaquin Pheonix for Her and Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips. That said, I can't say any of the actors they chose deserve to be swapped out. I think Matthew McConaughey has a strong chance to win because he gave an amazing performance, he transformed himself physically for the role (he lost a lot of weight), and he has been winning a lot of other awards. I also wouldn't be surprised to see it go to Leo or Chiwetel, both of whom gave equally strong performances but who have not received quite as much recognition for it yet.

          Best Actress          
Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Judi Dench (Philomena)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

The biggest surprise here is obviously Meryl Streep—who can even remember the last time she was nominated, let alone won? Seriously though, the easiest choice here is Cate Blanchett, who not only won the Globe for her efforts, but who also conveniently gave an intense performance. Personally I'd like to see Amy Adams win because she's an incredibly talented actress who recently seems to have found her voice, and maybe more importantly because she managed to overshadow her three very talented co-stars. The biggest snub seems to be Emma Thompson for her role in Saving Mr. Banks, but again I don't know who would be cut to make room for her. 

          Best Supporting Actor          
Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

I think this is Jared Leto's year. His performance was amazing, and like McConaughey he transformed himself physically and has been winning all the smaller awards. He deserves the Oscar. That said I really would love for Michael Fassbender to win since (like Amy Adams) he is a powerful actor who seems to recently have found his voice, he made an unbelievably evil character feel human, and he managed to do it next to Chiwetel Ejiofor's outstanding performance.

Definitely glad to see Jonah Hill nominated since he really earned it despite not necessarily being the kind of person you might expect to win an Oscar (likewise for the newcomer Barkhad Abdi). In comparison to the Golden Globe nominations, Jonah Hill takes Daniel Bruhl's position (nominated for Rush) which I think was a good decision. Bruhl was great in Rush, but his performance wasn't quite as dynamic as Hill's (I think Bruhl gets a lot of praise which should instead be directed to the makeup department). I'm also not quite sure why Bruhl counts as a supporting actor, but that's neither here nor there.

          Best Supporting Actress          
Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave)
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
June Squibb (Nebraska)

Oh, Jennifer Lawrence. This is your time. If she wins this year she will be the first woman to win two consecutive Oscars for their acting since the immortal Katharine Hepburn in 1968-1969. I think she gave a great performance, and it's almost as hard to say anyone else deserves it more as it is to believe she could actually do it. I would love to see Lupita Nyong'o win, and I've heard great things about Julia Roberts in August: Osage County, but who knows? Maybe it will happen.

These are literally the same nominations as the Golden Globes so there's not much terribly surprising about them. Supporting Actress wasn't the strongest category this year. I heard a lot of buzz surrounding the possibility of Scarlett Johansson winning for her voicework (which was indeed great), but I wouldn't consider this a snub since it's hard to decide what would constitute an Oscar-worthy voice-only performance.

David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Alexander Payne (Nebraska)
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Very strong category this year. Like I said above, I think this category goes to Alfonso Cuaron, but I could also see Gravity winning Best Picture and have Directing go to Steve McQueen. I wouldn't be surprised to see Martin Scorsese win for Wolf either, but I think that while he's a very consistently excellent director the hype points more to the other two. Too bad Spike Jonze wasn't acknowledged for Her, although again like I mentioned I think he's going to win for his writing, so I guess that equals out?

I could see David O. Russell winning too, but for a bit of a strange reason. This is the second year in a row his movie has had an actor nominated in all four acting categories. From what I've read, Russell's directing style emphasizes his actor's performance rather than focusing on maintaining consistency (a critique that's been leveraged against American Hustle), so maybe it's partially thanks to him that the actors gave such good performances and he'll be recognized here for that.

The Grandmaster
Inside Llewyn Davis

Finally, some love for Prisoners and Inside Llewyn Davis. I mean, I think Gravity wins this category hands-down, but I almost hope it doesn't since this is the only category Prisoners was nominated in and one of only two for Llewyn Davis. Also nice to see Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster acknowledged. I thought the camerawork in both 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street was beautiful so it's too bad they didn't make it in, although both have wide recognition in the other categories.

          Film Editing          
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave

This is a category I struggled with in the past since I didn't really understand what constituted great editing. I have a bit of a better sense now, and if it helps anyone else out there, there's often a strong correlation between Best Editing and Best Picture (you'll notice all the films were nominated in both categories). Basically it's about keeping the pace of the film consistent.

There's one film that I thought deserved to be nominated and maybe even win this category which is strangely missing: The Wolf of Wall Street. Not only did they cut that film up incredibly fast in order to have it come out in time for awards season, it's a three hour film that goes by in an instant. There's not a single scene which felt like it should have been cut, and there are a lot of scenes.

With the nominees we have, my vote would be for 12 Years a Slave which for me felt like it maintained nonstop emotional and narrative tension. My second guess would be Gravity, which had me on the edge of my seat for most of it and which I've heard people call a horror movie for its intensity.

          Production Design          
American Hustle
The Great Gatsby
12 Years a Slave

I've heard from a lot of people who don't know what this category means, so let me offer a quick explanation. Production design is the "overall look" of a film, with set design being the biggest aspect not already covered in another award (costumes, makeup). It generally excludes anything done with the camera (cinematography), although production designers almost always collaborate with the director of photography. It can also refer to what you could call a film's art direction: it's used of color, visual themes, etc.

Some of the nominees are obvious: The Great Gatsby is a movie that has an incredibly strong "look" to it (whether you liked it as an artistic choice or not, you couldn't ignore it). My favorite example of production design is the Lord of the Rings movies. They got cutting edge CGI to animate large crowds but also dressed huge groups of extras in beautiful (if that's the right word) orc makeup. They shot in gorgeous New Zealand just to get the look of the film right (and, you know, tax credits). Gone with the Wind is another classic example of groundbreaking production design.

So why do I think Her should win this category? Well, for one I'd like it to win something and I think its chances at the other categories are pretty slim. The Academy and Joaquin Pheonix don't exactly get along. But more importantly, Her makes you feel like you're in the not so distant future without being obvious about it. With movies like Star Trek Into Darkness or Ender's Game you know you're in the future not only because there are spaceships flying around, but because everything is blue and there are lens flares everywhere.

Her is more of a pink or yellow movie, and it plays visually in the opposite way you'd expect a sci-fi film to operate. Watching the film you might even forget it's science fiction because it looks so natural, but without being boring. It looks like maybe yeah, that is how the future might look in 5 years. It also plays beautifully with Joaquin Pheonix's wardrobe, dressing him differently to fit his emotional state of mind. 

That said, the other movies in the category also did great jobs even if they're all less subtle. I'd really like to see The Great Gatsby not win, but it's hard to say they didn't put a lot of effort in even if I didn't like the result.

          Sound Editing          
All Is Lost
Captain Phillips
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Lone Survivor

Another category I've heard is confusing for many people, sound editing is the process of creating artificial sounds for movies. You know that sort of twisty, crunchy, eletro-mechanical noise the transformers make while they're transforming? Somebody had to make that noise for it to be in the movie and this is their time to shine.

Gravity might seem like a strange pick since it was often a very quiet movie, but the quality of the silence is what really impressed me. It's not actually silent: you hear incredibly muted echoes, not just like the volume was turned down, but like the pressure you feel when you're under anesthetic and the doctor touches your injury. Everything sounds softer than you know it is in reality, and this jarring aural discrepancy is part of what feels simultaneously so real and so menacing about the film.

That said, maybe it's a gimmick and one of the other movies did a more subtle job. I don't think it was The Hobbit though, as much as I loved Smaug's voice. I've heard a lot about All Is Lost, but unfortunately haven't had the chance to see it myself.

          Sound Mixing          
Captain Phillips
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor

The necessary corollary to sound editing, sound mixing is when you take all those made-up noises and put them together to make the soundtrack. My vote is for Inside Llewyn Davis partially because it deserves to win something and partially because it integrated the songs it used effectively into the narrative. My second guess would be Captain Phillips which I thought did an excellent job maintaining narrative tension through the use of its score. Gravity also wouldn't be too much of a surprise again because the arrangement of both the sounds and the music worked very effectively to build tension for the film.

          Writing: Adapted Screenplay          
Before Midnight
Captain Phillips
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

I don't understand why they list these categories last. Writing is one of my favorite categories. Adapted Screenplay is always a tricky question (see: everything else I've written): do you mean which movies adapted its screenplay most faithfully, or which did the best job turning it into a movie? If in the end it's just about the writing quality, are there just two categories so they can nominate more movies? I don't know.

The Wolf of Wall Street was exceptional both for its ability to keep audiences entertained for 3 hours and for its portrayal of Jordan Belfort. The controversy that erupted following the films release is a testament to its success. Some people think it celebrates the excesses of Belfort's life, some say it condemns him, and some say it just tries to tell a story (basically my perspective).

For my money, it is not a movie's job to give you the answers. This is what can be frustrating about science fiction occasionally: writers will invent something that makes their message easy to force upon their movie. Like a good documentary, a good movie presents both sides of an issue equally. This is what was so great about the movie Rush from this year, a movie tragically lacking an Oscar nomination for anything (although it was recognized by the Globes). It shows both racer's perspective of the events.

Likewise Wolf of Wall Street shows us everything bad Belfort did, but it also shows us that he was human. And as an added bonus it was freaking hilarious.

          Writing: Original Screenplay          
American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club

Her managed to take the two most overplayed genres (sci-fi and rom-com) and make them feel fresh and original. Her managed to make us feel like we intimately knew a person we'd never met and who never existed. Her managed to make us sympathize with and understand a character with fewer than 5 scenes. Her managed to make us fall in love with a voice. For all this and more, Her deserves to win the Oscar for its screenplay. Her is the kind of movie I would take to folks with English degrees (like myself) to show them that film can be literary, that not everything is directed by Michael Bay.

          Visual Effects          
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness

Alright, I know it wasn't the best movie of the year, but where is Pacific Rim? And really, The Lone Ranger instead? I haven't seen it, but it looks like it relied more on makeup than special effects. Star Trek Into Darkness even felt more like a rehash of techniques from Star Trek 2009 (see: lens flares). Sure, the big robot thing has been done before with the Transformers movies, but this has giant robots and giant monsters, and they were giant! I don't know, I'm confused.

I've been hearing that this is far and away Gravity's game, but I thought the beauty of Gravity came from its camerawork rather than more artificial techniques. That said, Gravity is a "better" movie than the rest of the pulp nominated, so maybe it will win on that count. The Hobbit is an easy nomination but a hard win, especially since I thought it looked worse than the Lord of the Rings movies. Same for Star Trek Into Darkness: sure it looked good, but did it really look significantly better than what came before? I haven't seen either Iron Man 3 or The Lone Ranger, but between a threequel and a flopped reboot my hopes aren't very high. Maybe it is Gravity's game after all.

          Animated Feature Film          
The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine
The Wind Rises

Pretty sure Frozen will win this. The Wind Rises is also a strong contender, but I don't think it will quite make the cut. Also, someone at the Academy needs to write me a letter explaining why The Croods is a better movie than Monsters University.

          Costume Design          
American Hustle
The Grandmaster
The Great Gatsby
The Invisible Woman
12 Years a Slave

This isn't a great category for me since I tend to not notice Costume Design. American Hustle is an easy pick because the costumes were so excessive and really stood out, but maybe not standing out and instead making a period drama which looks natural and is easy to get lost in (12 Years a SlaveThe Invisible Woman) is more commendable. Personally I would have nominated The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but I think I also maybe like that movie more than it deserves.

          Makeup and Hairstyling          
Dallas Buyers Club
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger

Where's American Hustle? I mean, it's not like the movie has a dearth of nominations, but of all the things it could have been nominated for this seems like the most obvious one. I realize Bad Grandpa succeeded not only in making Johnny Knoxville look like a grandpa on camera but also in front of the people they were pranking, but I mean really? I guess I have to give it to Dallas Buyers Club, but I'm not sure if I can separate Jared Leto's makeup from his amazing character.

          Music: Original Score          
The Book Thief
Saving Mr. Banks

I'm a little biased here, but I loved Gravity's score. It built the tension incredibly effectively (some thanks also to sound editing and mixing here). That said, Her also had a great score which showcased a bit more variety than Gravity's. On the other hand, The Book Thief's score was done by the unparalleled John Williams, so who knows. I'm confused not to see 12 Years a Slave on here as Hans Zimmer really did a number on that film's score. I don't know, I'm not a good music critic.

          Music: Original Song          
"Alone Yet Not Alone" (Alone Yet Not Alone)
"Happy" (Despicable Me 2)
"Let It Go" (Frozen)
"The Moon Song" (Her)
"Ordinary Love" (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)

I don't know, I haven't seen Mandela, but I don't really like Bono and I did really like Frozen (even though I don't like musicals), so that's my vote. Mandela won the Golden Globe, let's give Frozen some love. Again, not a music critic.

          Foreign Language Film          
The Broken Circle Breakdown
The Great Beauty
The Hunt
The Missing Picture

Another category in which I'm not qualified to speak. I've heard a lot about The Hunt, but I have it on high authority that The Great Beauty was the best foreign film of the year (that's you, Ian) so I guess that would be my vote.

          Documentary Feature          
The Act of Killing
Cutie and the Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet from Stardom

Anybody that knows my taste in film knows I don't really like documentaries, so I'm not the most qualified person to talk about this category. I can tell you what I've heard, and the word on the street is The Act of Killing seems the most likely to win. There's also been some surprise that the controversial documentary Blackfish wasn't nominated, but (again, from what I've heard) it was controversial not because it was a good movie but because it presented the issue at hand (something about SeaWorld) in a very one-sided way.

          Documentary Short Subject          
Facing Fear
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Yeah, I don't even know so I won't pretend to.

          Short Film: Animated          
Get a Horse
Mr. Hublot
Room on the Broom

          Short Film: Live Action          
That Wasn't Me
Just Before Losing Everything
Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?
The Voorman Problem

Sorry, I didn't get a chance to see any of them. If Coolidge Corner or Kendall Square gets them then hopefully I'll get a chance to go (hint hint).

          Total Nominations per Movie          
American Hustle: 10
Gravity: 10
12 Years a Slave: 9
Captain Phillips: 6
Dallas Buyers Club: 6
Nebraska: 6
Her: 5
The Wolf of Wall Street: 5
Philomena: 4
Blue Jasmine: 3
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: 3
August: Osage County: 2
Despicable Me 2: 2
Frozen: 2
Lone Survivor: 2
The Grandmaster: 2
The Great Gatsby: 2
Inside Llewyn Davis: 2
The Lone Ranger: 2
Everything Else: 1 (or 0 I guess)

Agree? Disagree? I want to hear about it!


  1. The more I think about 'American Hustle', the more I hate it. If 'American Hustle' wins nothing, I'll be very happy. Throw that movie in the bin, Academy. Just give all the awards to 'Gravity' (a film that didn't exactly impress me completely the first time, but which I could see myself watching again happily). But I haven't seen some of these films and I hold a grudge against the Oscars because they think they'll clever for leaving out good films in exchange for stuff I hate like 'The King's Speech' and 'Hugo'. Remember when 'Godzilla '98' didn't get nominated for 'Visual Effects'? That triggered my indifference towards them telling me what's great. Their love affair with stuff I consider only okay such as 'The Hurt Locker' and 'The Artist' means maybe I'm just a little shallow. Nah, the Academy sucks - I don't need my fav movies to win Oscars. 'Terminator 2' and 'The Matrix' won four awards each their respective years, but I don't care. Even though they won for the technical awards, I like them for their stories and characters. The only category I really follow is 'Visual Effects' and it's a joke this year. 'Iron Man 3', 'Star Trek 2' and 'The Lone Ranger' instead of 'Man of Steel' or 'Ender's Game'? Anyway, I'm done. 'Gravity' all the way.

    1. I totally agree with you to a certain extent. As I point out in the first paragraph of the article, enjoyment is subjective and everybody looks for different things in movies. At the end of the day the Oscars are decided by a group of people who saw certain things they liked based on their individual taste. As such there will always by necessity be disagreement with what movies get nominated for Oscars and which ones win.

      The only point where I differ from you is that this doesn't make me feel indifferent towards them. The Oscars are a game played by the members of the Academy and it's enjoyable for me to watch on those grounds. I might disagree with which movies were nominated or which win, but it's fun to root for your favorites so long as I think of it as all in good fun. The Academy members all have their particular tastes and definitions of what constitutes greatness, and whatever wins "Best Picture" wins it for being their favorite movie, not ours. It's fun if I treat it as disagreeing over which movies are my favorites rather than any sort of definitive decision on what will constitute the great films of the year. Only time can tell us that.

      I think the idea that 'the Academy sucks" is just a little too easy. They're people and they're just voting for what they like. Obviously there will be some strange picks every year, but that's not because some white guy in a suit was like "You know what, screw Ender's Game, I really liked The Lone Ranger." The voters got their screeners, they watched the movies, and they voted as they saw fit. I don't know, I agree with you that your favorite movies don't need Oscars, but I think being dismissive of the Academy isn't exactly the right response.

      You're definitely right about Gravity, that movie deserves to win all the technical awards. I agree that Star Trek Into Darkness is a bit of a weird pick but after watching ILM's video explaining the Lone Ranger special effects I understand why they picked it. I'll be writing about that movie some time next week.

      Anyway, sorry for being longwinded, and as always thanks for your input. We should start our own Oscars for sci-fi.


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