This awards season, an interesting pair of films, 12 Years A Slave and American Hustle, are in a fight to the finish. There is a natural clash between the heavy subject matter and mercilessly honest storytelling found in 12 Years and the light-hearted tone that buoys Hustle. The Golden Globe results reflected this contrast exactly by awarding both films in their respective categories, drama and comedy. These films’ success at the awards is most compelling because they were the most underwhelming films of the season.
12 Years A Slave is little more than a collection of abuse methods and tragic anecdotes weakly orbiting a protagonist, with little to offer in the way of cinematic excellence or character complexity. If it wins, it will be for its grandeur, the significance of its subject matter and its impressive performances (a nice bonus).
American Hustle is a well-executed piece in most respects, with a cast of characters that have been written with nuance and acted with elegance. It tells a story that stops at entertaining and whose pace drags now and then. The troubling factor is not the weakness in these films themselves, but how they pale in comparison to the wealth of quality films that came out in 2013.
Her should win for its outstanding combination of novelty and accessibility, but does not have a chance against the more Oscar-typical choices.
Matthew McConaughey is the rightful shoe-in for this category, considering his track record (winning the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild Award). Moreover, the Academy loves when celebrities with a B-movie filmography challenge expectations by not only taking on a serious role, but proving commitment to the art by making a significant body adjustment.
McConaughey lost 45 pounds to play AIDS patient Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club. Who doesn’t love that? I know I’m a sucker for it. The category saw two instances of this, with Christian Bale going to the other extreme and putting on quite a gut for American Hustle. Bale, though, has had his day in the sun with his win for The Fighter in 2011, in which he incidentally also played a role that called for serious weight loss. Chiwetel Ejiofor gave a remarkable performance, but 12 Years A Slave did not offer a complex or challenging enough character to truly showcase his talent. Leonardo DiCaprio would be my second choice, but McConaughey is the clear standout—in Dallas Buyers Club he does not just play his character, he becomes him, and that is what a great performance is.
This will almost certainly be Cate Blanchett’s year to take home the Oscar for a leading role, which will join the mantelpiece next to her award for a supporting role in 2005’s The Aviator. I am, as I think much of the country is, jaded by Meryl Streep’s talent as she continues to fulfill her yearly quota; she will have to make movies for another hundred years if she wants to win a third time.
Amy Adams’ damsel-in-distress doesn’t stand a chance against Blanchett’s two-hour nervous breakdown, which provides the token mental instability performance of the nominee. Can’t offer anything on Judi Dench or Sandra Bullock, who I didn’t get to see in Philomena and Gravity, respectively.
Best Supporting Actor
Gender bending is another thing the Academy loves, which is why Dallas Buyers Club was an automatic powerhouse with the combination of McConaughey and Jared Leto, who plays Woodruff’s transvestite business partner. But the merit of Leto’s performance does not end with the simple fact that he wore make up and a dress. He, like McConaughey, was utterly devoted to the world of the film, and fully inhabited the character he played. His track record this awards season bodes well, naturally, with the two most important wins—at the Golden Globes and the SAGs.
Michael Fassbender was certainly up to the task in 12 Years A Slave as an abusive slave master, but like Ejiofor was undermined by the quality of the script, which was fueled mostly by archetypes—atrocious white slave owner (Fassbender), resilient slave looking to escape (Ejiofor), sympathetic white savior (Brad Pitt).
Jonah Hill broke the Oscar wall in 2012 with Moneyball, so his nomination is not a surprise, and is well-deserved. Though it will be difficult for Bradley Cooper to top his performance in Silver Linings Playbook last year, his nomination for American Hustle is on point. But Leto has no real competitor, and if he loses, that will be a true upset.
Best Supporting Actress
It would be quite an achievement for Jennifer Lawrence to bring home the gold two years in a row, but it also seems quite possible that audiences, even the Academy, are still high on her talent. The truth is, she deserves the win (for the record, I did not see June Squibb’s performance in Nebraska), but if the Academy is unwilling to grant her a consecutive victory, Lupita Nyong’o’s performance in 12 Years A Slave will be the one to beat Lawrence. This is all in the context of the nomination pool, but if Oprah Winfrey’s performance in The Butler was in the fray, I’d reconsider.
It’s always hard to avoid assuming that the winners for Best Picture and Best Director will be synonymous (despite Ben Affleck’s nomination snub for Argo last year), so Steve McQueen or David O. Russell are competing shoe-ins. Alfonso Cuaron, has been treated kindly by the awards, winning the Golden Globe and several critics association awards for Gravity, and is predicted to win the Directors Guild Award.