Month: December 2013

Oscar Season Diary #7: Passion and Transformation

Gravity-Movie-Space-2013-640x360We spend so much time arguing about movies. 2013 is no exception, as one of the most intensely scattered races in recent memory has brought showers of praise–and an equal amount of detraction–upon a vast array of potential frontrunners.

Tomorrow, the Academy’s 6,000 members begin the nomination process, which should provide a bit of clarity by the time their selections are made public on January 16th.

As last year proved, the Academy encounters another difficult task thanks to the date change. Without the usual nominations from the DGA or PGA to use as a springboard, Academy members must again this year do two things they’ve never been much good at; see every film in contention and make up their own minds.

The film purist in me holds on to the idea that the sacred art of quality cinema is what leads Oscar voters to make the right choice. Year after year, that’s proven to be nothing more than a fantasy we go out of our way to believe will prevail when, 90% of the time, we’re slapped in the face with the exact opposite.

There’s an affection for longevity of career and for persistence that runs in-line with Academy voting. It’s at the root of all praise, regardless if it’s capped off with a golden statue at a fancy, televised ceremony, but thanks to the preferential ballot the Academy has used for the past few years, affection can now be wielded as a champion’s sword.

Last year, we saw Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour garner critical nominations in key categories over seasonal favorites such as Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow. We all know how that one turned out.

2013’s frontrunners tout themes about passion or attaining the ideal (Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle) or trying to regain it (12 Years a Slave, Gravity). These are films with intense emotional pull and drive, things that people very easily latch on to. With these 5 films heading into the Oscar nomination process as frontrunners, it’s not difficult to see the full affect of the Academy’s decision to up the cap of Best Picture nominees to 10.

With the old 5-nominee standard of yesteryear, you’d never see more than two films heading into mid-season runs at the head of the pack. This year, we have five, perhaps six. If anything, the expanded category has inspired more passion for individual projects from wider nets of people in all corners of the industry.

Gravity and Her tied for the LAFCA Best Film award, American Hustle stampeded into the race with a major early Best Film from the NYFCC, and 12 Years a Slave continues to rack up multiple, consistent nominations and wins in major categories with each of the critics circles and industry guilds.

In a continued ripple felt throughout Oscar season, each guild, each critics circle, and each Oscar blogger is out to prove one thing in the midst of the Academy’s shift to earlier voting deadlines: that they, solely, are to be trusted as prognosticator.

So who, then, does a film need to impress?

With scattered results, it seems that each precursor award thus far has only served to bolster the frontrunners’ positions as, well, frontrunners. Impressing the overall Academy is absolutely vital to scoring a Best Picture nomination.

The Wrap predicts that some 549 votes are needed to secure a nomination in this category. Films with general or overly emotional/passion-based appeal succeed on this system (even those that are divisive, like Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild). For acting, directing, and technical categories, smaller nominating branches choose nominees, the largest being the directors and the actors, which makes the SAG and DGA Awards perhaps the most indicative of Academy voting behavior.

Let’s take a look at how past Best Picture front-runners have fared with precursors, and how they’ve fared in key categories that usually indicate an impending Best Picture win (Directing, Editing, and Screenplay):

PastWinnerPastWinnerTechUntitled(Frontrunner Key Category Ranking is projected position based on my opinion on their likelihood of winning)

It’s important to note that this year there is not a single film from 2013 which casts its net of appeal over all categories or precursors. Each have taken a top award somewhere. Gravity is hampered by its lack of an ensemble or strong script, while Her lacks push in the screenplay department as well. Gravity does lead the race in two key non-Best Picture categories, however, as its looming presence as a technical masterpiece (game-changer, some have said) will propel it to wins for Best Film Editing and Best Director.

Taking the burden of too-early over-ecstatic praise unto its shoulders from 12 Years a Slave, Gravity is victimized only by the sheer praise it received upon release that seems to have exhausted itself to the point of becoming one-note. People were rightly ecstatic about it for all the reasons it would become one of the most interesting Best Picture winner in history, but the praise got ahead of itself.

If it were to win Best Picture, Gravity would be the first female-centered film to win in nearly 10 years. It would also become the first “science fiction” (note: I don’t consider it science fiction, but the trade headlines have been labeling it that since its release, so I’ll side with the inevitable, here) film to win the top prize. These would be two precedents that would solidify the Academy’s attempt to diversify its membership.

Its close competition, American Hustle, teeters on the edge of the director race, though Russell’s film follows the hugely-successful Silver Linings Playbook. Hustle appeals to actors thanks to its huge ensemble cast–it garnered a SAG ensemble nomination as well as a nomination in each individual category–but, none of those performers are frontrunners. Best Picture is extremely hard to attain without a strong performance-based award (another reason Argo was such a glaring anomaly last year), and Hustle‘s luck fate will be determined by the SAG and HFPA and if they choose to push Jennifer Lawrence ahead of Lupita Nyong’o.

12 Years a Slave seems like, on paper, the safest choice for Best Picture at this point. Though, with reports coming from Academy screenings for The Wolf Of Wall Street of older members recoiling viciously in shock and disgust, one begs to question the Academy’s ability to handle powerful, disturbing material as in 12 Years a Slave.

Black films tend to have the least amount of luck when it comes to the Best Picture race. The Color Purple most notably garnered a staggering eleven nominations without a single win. Older voters might have appreciated the film if it were a straightforward, Americanized version of slavery, but the film is an intensely challenging, artful refocusing of the historical drama. It’s clear that there’s a push for this film, but it remains to be seen if the Academy will bite. If they’re going based on historical sentiment, they will. If they’re going based on the actual content of the film, it won’t be hard to understand if they don’t.

Each film has its strengths, but other weakness which would mar its chances in any other year. Where one film falls short, another is there to pick up the slack in a different category and vice versa.

new-images-from-the-hobbit-american-hustle-and-the-monuments-men-142354-a-1375953418-470-75
What will ultimately propel a film ahead of the others? Unless Gravity pulls an upset and adorns Sandra Bullock’s performance with its Best Female Actor award, I think we’ll have another Director/Picture split this year. American Hustle is the film to beat, if only for David O. Russell’s persistence. American Hustle is picking up steam (and substantial box-office) as the season rolls along, and that indicates only one thing: passion.

There’s a huge, generally-appealing blanket of passion for Russell’s recent work that transcends any rules or formulas used to predict the Oscars. Silver Linings Playbook was popular enough to receive surprise acting nominations in all four categories, and American Hustle will be Russell’s restitution. It’s lighter, prettier, and settles far more traditionally than 12 Years a Slave does, and Gravity simply lacks the push from the actors that Hustle has on its side.

It’s hard to get at what exactly is driving the Oscar race this season. Pundits and bloggers each seem to be skirting around the issue while being afraid to say it, but everyone is talking about everything and nothing with the 2013 Oscar race. No one really knows which way the race is headed.

It’s clear that a genuine love for championing artists, their visions, and the pure impact of their work is making its way back to the forefront of the Oscar discussion. The race is now justifiably a multi-perspective arena where every voice does matter. While Argo‘s win was insufferable because of the quality of the film, it gave the Oscars a voice, one that said–while their opinion may be juvenile at times–it’s getting back to being its own. I hope the trend continues, that these past two years have not been flukes, and that next year we don’t regress back to the campaign-and-steamroll process.

You can’t predict the heart, and the Academy might have finally found a way to let voters follow good old individual passion as its pulled along in front of their faces, seeping back into the race.

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The Problem with Perfection – Life, Death, and ‘Homeland’

Homeland3It’s been grumbled about for ages. Viewers are growing increasingly frustrated, critics have griped here and there, but someone finally put their foot down, and Showtime’s Homeland received the rude awakening its had coming for an entire season, shunned by the HFPA with zero Golden Globe nominations for a staggeringly-uneven third season.

Homeland tonight attempts to rebuild its image as the formidable drama it once was.

Previews of the finale function as a foreboding alternate eulogy of the living, if you will. The life of Nicholas Brody–the bane of the show’s once-promising existence–flashes before us as he speaks. “There’s a man in Caracas who called me a cockroach,” Brody tells us, as we take a melancholic look at his life as it splashes across the screen. “Unkillable,” he says of himself, as we’re reminded of the despicable things he’s accused of (bombing Langley) and the actions he’s readily taken responsibility for (abandoning his family, lying to those he loved, and succumbing to the brain-washing control of an Al-Qaeda leader).

There’s massive fallout (emotional and physical) from his actions that seems unforgivable on all fronts, but Homeland continues to paint Brody as a tragic hero fallen from greatness. We’ve only  known him as an image of post-war destruction. As a soldier, he fell away from his country and aligned with the enemy; as a husband, he drifted apart from his wife and had sex with another woman. The palette of a man tainted by insecurity of mind, insecurity of heart, and security in pursuing selfish satiation is what we’ve seen.

From good to broken, Brody’s arc has reached a corner it can’t possibly make its way out of as he infiltrates the Iranian government for the CIA in a final act of mending what he’s carelessly wrecked.

Conversely, in three seasons we’ve seen the show’s primary focus, CIA agent Carrie Mathison, undergoes a shift that has less to do with character and more to do with lazy writing and, consequently, an almost complete ideological shift of the world surrounding her.

The Carrie we knew from Season 1 was a woman dedicated to her work, to her convictions to her country, and to herself. She was rogue in the sense that she didn’t take anyone else’s word as end-all guidance, and saw the world in alternates. Brody was presented as a hero, and she saw him as a threat, validated by his plans to carry out a terrorist attack against the United States. “I didn’t get it wrong, I’m the only one who got it right,” we hear her say in each week’s opening credits. Yes, Carrie was a free-thinker who happened to get caught up in a romantic entanglement with a dangerous man, but her affections for Brody seemed, at least to me, as another way for Carrie to fall in love with herself.

Homeland2We spend little time with Carrie when she’s happy. We’ve only seen her in true bliss when she’s in an isolated world of intimacy with Brody. At the cabin, when she helps him escape Langley; these moments seem almost suspended in time, when she has the ability to sit back and enjoy a man who sexually stimulates her, wants her, and validates her hard-headed convictions to what she knows is right by simply existing. She was right about him, and the conquest is hers alone, as Brody comes to represent her success and a symbol for her security of mind.

Season 3, however, has turned Carrie’s flaws into terribly pathetic crutches that validate quintessentially-backwards patriarchal fears of women in the workplace. Her anxieties have carried over from her personal life and into the work she valued throughout the first two seasons. Her affections for Brody have nearly compromised every mission she’s been apart of over the past few weeks. Hell, she was even shot in the arm for entering the field in an attempt to prove Brody’s innocence.

Carrie can no longer see the big picture, and has lost track of the importance of her work. Her interior motive is hinged upon Brody, and she’s come to embody the stereotypical, emotionally-unstable woman whose workplace antics are fueled by affection and emotional instability.

Brody’s existence on the show now serves as nothing more than to keep up an entanglement with Carrie that’s long since grown stale, and has caused her to shift from someone we’ve sided with because of her firm convictions into a woman we’re concerned for thanks to her willingness to shed all that we fell in love with in the first place.

Her relationship with Brody has consumed nearly every other aspect of the show. Carrie’s relationship with Saul has shifted from one of mutual respect to one no different than a father policing his unruly daughter. Carrie has been downgraded from the plane of power Saul once preserved for her. She’s now a dangerously loose cannon he has to monitor.

Season 3 has, to this point, boiled down to little more than bouts with frustration for the characters and for the audience. Carrie is merely a dangling thread on the life Brody seeks to win back. His concerns span a massive array of missteps, whereas Carrie is hanging on to the singular fantasy of a life with Brody that can no longer exist, and has let her impulses guide her to erratic levels of irresponsible hysterics.

As an audience, we’ve only been able to watch as the characters flounder in futile attempts to regain what they once had. Brody is far too gone to have a family–or a life, for that matter–in the US. He’s damaged beyond repair, and regaining a relationship with his wife, his children, and with Carrie all seems like a distance no one on the show is willing to run for little payoff.

“This is about redemption,” Brody says in the closing moments of the preview. The words don’t only resonate with Brody as a character, but also seem as a sort of extension from the show’s creators to its viewers. Brody’s presence loomed over the past 11 episodes like a anchor dangling from a tugboat, collecting sediment and barnacles as it sinks slowly into the murky depths. It’s entirely surprising that Carrie’s let herself become this attached to him, so much that it interferes with the only thing she’s shown us to be more dedicated to than her affections.

Her job has been compromised countless times thanks to her insistence on remaining true to the tiny semblance of a relationship she has with Brody. It’s time for Carrie to regain independence again. The Carrie Mathison we once knew is a shrieking, unhinged, babbling shadow of the other, and she can’t function with Brody acting as a tether to a side of her that’s ugly, unstable, and altogether unmanageable.

Homeland1It was once possible to draw parallels between Carrie and Maya from Zero Dark Thirty as examples of strong female characters spitting in the face of the way women are traditionally portrayed. Maya is on-point without being cold, dedicated to a separation of work and personal life, giving in to zero temptations regarding men and sex, even outright rejecting it, as she’s justified as a person instead of as a woman. Maya lives with her job, whereas Carrie now seems to exist in spite of her job. Carrie is defined by outbursts, harping on ships that have long since sailed, and it’s slowing everything down.

Perhaps we’ve run into an instance of a show jumping its own shark before anyone could have ever realized it. At the time, the pairing of Carrie and Brody seemed like a good thing. Two rogue, powerful people joining forces amidst the steamy, insatiable appetite for the other’s body, but it’s clear that the runoff from their initial pairing has pooled stagnant.

I don’t want to think that this show has been running on momentum from a single relationship for three seasons. I know the show is better than this. We’ve seen it, and we’ve reaped all we can from the relationship between Carrie and Brody. It’s run itself into a corner no one can escape from–literally, for Brody.

There is only one solution: Brody must die.

The survival of Brody means death for the show, and I can only hope that its creators have enough faith in her to sell Homeland’s  cow before Carrie can drink any more milk.

HFPA Announces, Pushes ‘Rush’ In, ‘The Butler’ and Oprah Out

12-12-2013 8-58-55 AM

Oprah feels her first major pre-Oscar sting as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announces its list of nominations, continuing their recent string of somewhat-against-the-grain nods. 

The Queen of all media suffers a huge blow to her Oscar chances. Once the clear front-runner in the Supporting Actress category, she’ll head into Oscar voting without a Golden Globe nomination, which essentially takes her out of the race for top honors. Though she received a SAG nomination for the role just yesterday (and the actors branch of the Academy will likely push her to a nomination), she really needed recognition from the HFPA to remain a legitimate contender. Instead, Sally Hawkins gets a major push for her work in Blue Jasmine, a performance which most likely allowed her to take Oprah’s spot here.

Lee Daniels is also feeling the shaft for the film as a whole, which didn’t receive a single Golden Globe nomination this morning. This is entirely surprising, as the HFPA generally loves his work (Precious received three major nominations, and just last year The Paperboy received a surprise nomination in a major category without a significant awards push from any other precursor).

So, how does a film with a vast network of  strong support (thanks largely to its ensemble A-list cast with roots extending deep into the industry) get shut out? It’s hard to tell, but I think The Butler‘s identity crisis has a lot to do with it. The film was a huge hit with audiences, as it made nearly $115 million at the domestic box-office, though critics chimed in with a rather lukewarm response.

The film teeters on the edge of melodrama and historical camp, deals with issues of race and class structure, and paints a relevant portrait of American life that resonates well into today’s society. The Butler is all of these things on the surface, though it isn’t as hard-hitting or, frankly, as “good” at doing these things as it should be. It’s a colorful, glossy, temporary glance at our culture, though it reaches perhaps a little too far and brings back a little too much for itself to handle.

I used to be staunchly opposed to the categorical separation that the Globes so passionately favors (does separating Drama and Comedy imply that one is inherently othered or better than the other?), but in years such as this one, it’s refreshing to see the work of so many outside the general conversation be recognized. Greta Gerwig for Frances Ha (Lead Actress – Comedy), Julie Delpy for Before Midnight (Lead Actress – Comedy), Julia Louis-Dreyfuss for Enough Said (Lead Actress – Comedy), and Kate Winslet (Labor Day) are all enjoying their deserved share of the awards season spotlight with nominations from the HFPA thanks to the division of genre. Does it portent Oscar recognition for any of these women? Not at all, but it’s the most prestigious honorable mention of sorts that any of them could ask for.

Rush also sees a later-than-expected push into the race with huge nominations in key categories (including Best Picture – Drama and Supporting Actor) over the likes of Saving Mr. Banks, a film that was largely expected to dominate the Globes.

So, what’s left? We’ve got Oscar voting in a couple of weeks, SAG final voting, the PGA Awards, the DGA Awards, and, of course, the Golden Globes ceremony on January 12th. That’s plenty of potential steam for many films and filmmakers to pick up.

The full list of Golden Globe nominees: 

Best Picture – Drama

12 Years a Slave
Gravity
Captain Phillips
Rush
Philomena

Best Picture – Musical/Comedy

American Hustle
Her
The Wolf of Wall Street
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska

Best Director

Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity
Paul Greengrass – Captain Phillips
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
David O. Russell – American Hustle
Alexander Payne – Nebraska

Best Actress – Drama

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Judi Dench – Philomena
Emma Thompson – Saving Mr. Banks
Kate Winslet – Labor Day 

Best Actress – Musical/Comedy

Greta Gerwig – Frances Ha
Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Enough Said
Julie Delpy – Before Midnight
Amy Adams – American Hustle
Meryl Streep – August: Osage County

Best Actor – Drama

Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
Idris Elba – Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Tom Hanks – Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford – All Is Lost

Best Actor – Musical/Comedy

Christian Bale – American Hustle
Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street
Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
Joaquin Phoenix – Her

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Daniel Bruhl – Rush
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
Bradley Cooper – American Hustle

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

Best Screenplay

Her
Nebraska
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle

Best Foreign Language Film

Blue is the Warmest Color
The Great Beauty
The Hunt
The Past
The Wind Rises

Best Original Song

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Frozen
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Inside Llewyn Davis
One Chance

Best Original Score

All Is Lost
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Gravity
The Book Thief
12 Years a Slave

Best Animated Feature

The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Frozen

Screen Actors Guild Announces 20th Awards Nominations

20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards Nominations Announcement

No Redford. No Larson. No Exarchopoulos.

It’s a little early to stick a fork in these contenders, though lacking a nomination from the Screen Actors Guild–the largest and one of the most influential on the Academy–heading into the thick of the race doesn’t bode well for their Oscar prospects.

As I predicted, The Butler received multiple nominations (Cast, Actor, Supporting Actress), and emerges as a serious contender in the Best Picture race. This is a clear case of reviews having less and less to do with how the industry votes, as box-office, colleague loyalty, and scope of influence (the film is a true ensemble starring Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Terrence Howard, Mariah Carey, Robin Williams, etc.) trump the sway of the critical voice.

A few other surprises here and there (Dallas Buyers Club for Cast, Daniel Bruhl for Rush) won’t shift the race much, though it will be interesting to see how Redford’s exclusion from the Best Actor category will affect his Oscar chances. To his credit, the race is monumentally crowded in his category this year, though he’s an industry veteran many had placed at the top of the list of 6-7 locks as a surefire bet for the major precursors.

Perhaps this is a case of the SAG nominating committee assuming the frontrunner will receive enough votes anyway, and voting for others to push them through (such as Hanks, whom I believe took Redford’s spot here).

Stay tuned, as tomorrow’s Hollywood Foreign Press Association announcement will likely put the spotlight back on Redford.

The SAG Awards airs January 18th at 8 PM (EST) on TNT

Nominees: 

Cast: 

12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
August: Osage County
Dallas Buyers Club
The Butler

Actress:

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Judi Dench – Philomena
Meryl Streep – August: Osage County
Emma Thompson – Saving Mr. Banks

Actor:

Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks – Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
Forest Whitaker – The Butler

Supporting Actor:

Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
Daniel Bruhl – Rush
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
James Gandolfini – Enough Said
Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

Supporting Actress:

Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts – August: Osage County
June Squibb – Nebraska
Oprah Winfrey – The Butler

Tomorrow – What to Expect from the Screen Actors Guild

SAG
If we’re judging the race thus far by say of the critics circles, Her, Spike Jonze’s fourth feature film, emerges as the clear underdog-that-could. Though the New York Film Critics Circle shied away from recognizing it in major categories, the Los Angeles Film Critics and the National Board of Review named it their top film of the year.

Gravity also regained its footing in the race, snagging attention amid the slew of announcements this past week from the likes of the Online Film Critics Society, and circles from St. Louis, San Diego, Detroit, and Washington D.C.

Now that a few of the visible critics circles have nominated, it’s time for the major players to step into the game.

Tomorrow, the first major guild announces its nominees, and if there’s one group with a hefty influence over Academy members (largely due to heavy crossover membership), it’s the Screen Actors Guild.

Of the past 10 calendar years, SAG has awarded its top ensemble honor (the stand-in for a Best Film award) to the eventual Best Picture winner 6 times. Of the four major acting categories, the Oscar winner has been present in the SAG nomination categories 100% of the time, with the SAG-to-Oscar winner ratio playing out as follows:

SAGChart

Green = Oscar Nominee

The SAG Awards are an influential Oscar precursor, though they still seem to be in their adolescent phase as a young guild. They’ve got a hard time carving out an identity for themselves, as crossover membership into the Academy is large. SAG has the largest voting base of any Oscar pre-cursor (over 165,000), only a few thousand of which are on the nomination committee (I believe it’s around 2,000). All members are allowed to vote on winners, which usually tends to result in safe choices.

On the surface, you’d think that actors–of all industry members–would be the most willing to recognize names existing “outside” the traditional race each calendar year, but they prove to be a major Oscar litmus test time and time again. Though we consistently push for the Academy to diversify its ranks, the SAG represents a huge portion of the industry and, in turn, a more dynamic voice. If the Screen Actors Guild seeks its own identity, a real wrench could be thrown into the race if they elected to announce nominations first (imagine the reverberations felt from the Film Independent Spirit nominations to the critics circles). The NYFCC’s decision to announce their awards earlier than the other circles this year may have an impact on SAG nominations, as American Hustle had found surprising footing with the circle as SAG nomination ballots were still out (in fact, the deadline was just yesterday).

If there ever were a year for the SAG to go rogue, however, 2013 would be it. The awards race is still young, though there seems to be an expansion of possibilities versus huddling around potential winners as each precursor announces their nominations and/or wins.

The critics have proven that expectations are a dangerous thing to harbor this year, as early momentum tipped in the favor of American Hustle thanks to the NYFCC, though latter buzz settled on the likes of Gravity12 Years a Slave, and Her, though Steve McQueen’s sophomore film has yet to see forge its expected clear path to victory. This is where Gravity will struggle, though, as its cast consists of two people, though Bullock will surely receive a nomination (she’s an industry savior, a woman who can drive box-office by name alone).

So, the potential for biggest surprises tomorrow? What we won’t see nominated versus what we will see. Since the acting categories are so crowded this year (at least 5-6 “locks” in each), it’ll be entirely unsurprising to see big names knocked out of the race in favor of those on the outskirts of the race. Brie Larson or Adele Exarchopoulos instead of Emma Thompson or Meryl Streep (actors don’t take kindly to their own being mistreated, and Adele’s potential nomination could come as a compensatory nod for the disturbing reports surrounding the production of Blue is the Warmest Color) is an entirely possible scenario, as is Forest Whitaker taking the place of any of the current leading men.

THE BUTLER
Tomorrow morning, if we go by statistics, we’ll hear the name of our eventual Oscar winner read aloud as one of the nominees, though we’ll also likely see films like Nebraska and The Butler get a much-needed shove into the ring.

SAG has a soft passion for Alexander Payne’s films (Sideways won the Ensemble award, About Schmidt received multiple nomiations, as did The Descendants), and Nebraska will be no exception. This is Will Forte’s chance to break through an already-crowded category, and Bruce Dern’s to add more high-profile recognition after his win at Cannes.

The scope of The Butler‘s underestimated reach into the industry could be felt immensely tomorrow, as the film is a true ensemble starring major Hollywood players with lengthy roots and loyal connections (Jane Fonda, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Robin Williams) strong enough to push it into at least two major categories. Recognition for Best Ensemble, Actor, and Supporting Actress absolutely aren’t out of the question.

Is this year’s diversity of recognition fallout from last year’s Academy balloting date changes (circles and guilds trying to compensate and maintain relevance), or is the vast openness of the race merely indicative of a great year for film with so many choices that critics and guilds can’t come to a consensus? Are we actually witnessing a growing appreciation for individual opinion and a separation from the traditional “flow” of Oscar Season, where the Academy is looking less to the typical precursors to do the work for them?

Check back here for a live update of the SAG nominees as they’re announced tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM EST (6:00 AM PST) on TNT.

Who needs SAG recognition to remain a powerful contender:

Tom Hanks – Captain Phillips
Brie Larson – Short Term 12
Will Forte – Nebraska
Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
Joaquin Phoenix – Her
Adele Exarchopoulos – Blue is the Warmest Color
Kate Winslet – Labor Day
Jake Gyllenhaal – Prisoners
Julia Roberts – August: Osage County
Margo Martindale – August: Osage County

Predictions:

SAGPredix

National Board of Review Announces Winners: ‘Gravity’ Hurts, ‘Her’ Soars Into the Race

spike-jonze-her-joaquin-phoenix

The National Board of review has announced its annual list of year-end bests, moving in a drastically different direction than yesterday’s New York Film Critics Circle Awards, crowning Spike Jonze and his film Her with its top two honors.

The NBR generally tends to favor showy titles, big names, big budgets, and audience-friendly fare, which makes it entirely surprising that Gravity–a film right up the NBR alley–walks away with only a special achievement award here. If Gravity‘s finds little success with the LAFCC later this week, its chances at its previously-expected Oscar glory might plummet, though I have faith that the HFPA will eat the film up in its dramatic categories.

Gravity could also prove to have been a mid-season fluke. Its existence as a massive box-office success helmed almost entirely by an Oscar-winning actress (one of the most powerful in Hollywood, mind you) might have bogged the film down with unrealistic expectations that were entirely ahead of themselves just before awards season.

Gravity is, compared to other films in the race, a crowd-pleasing stroke of surface entertainment. It delves beyond the surface if you’re willing to look, but seeing through to its thematic/metaphorical structure isn’t necessary to enjoy the film. It’s still a lock in key technical categories.

The one thing that’s remained consistent throughout the precursor awards is an outpouring of love for Ryan Coogler and his Fruitvale Station. Though it seems to be sweeping minor categories (directorial debuts, breakthrough performances), it’s becoming clear that there’s a passionate push behind the film that extends into other areas, as Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer have been recognized by the Film Independent Spirit Awards and NBR, respectively.

So far, Coogler’s film has received honors and nominations from Sundance, Cannes, the Gotham Awards, the Film Independent Spirit Awards, the NYFCC, the Satellite Awards, and now from the NBR. It would be a huge mistake to discount Fruitvale Station‘s chances in the Oscar category for Best Picture.

Sarah Polley adds another win to the ongoing tally for her documentary Stories We Tell, which is now poised as the frontrunner in the Best Documentary Feature category.

Last year, the National Board of Review honored Kathryn Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty with multiple awards (including for her Direction and Jessica Chastain’s lead performance), though it fell just short of Oscar glory thanks to an ugly political agenda aiming for its demise. Whereas the critics circles tend to exist in their own world (somewhat exemplified by the NYFCC’s love for American Hustle), the NBR usually takes a few steps further, throwing in random mass-appealers (Lone Survivor this year) year after year, or pushing an unexpected film to the forefront of the discussion.

Will the NBR’s push for Her extend the film’s reach into big categories at the Oscars? Maybe. We’ve only just witnessed the opening of the gates, and Her is now positioned for a healthy run.

Top 10 Films (in alphabetical order):

12 Years a Slave

Fruitvale Station

Gravity

Inside Llewyn Davis

Lone Survivor

Nebraska

Prisoners

Saving Mr. Banks

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Wolf of Wall Street

Best FilmHer

Best Director: Spike Jonze, Her

Best Actor: Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Best Actress: Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

Best Supporting Actor: Will Forte, Nebraska

Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station

Best Original Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Adapted Screenplay: Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Animated Feature: The Wind Rises

Breakthrough Performance: Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station

Breakthrough Performance: Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color

Best Directorial Debut: Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station

Best Foreign Language Film: The Past

Best Documentary: Stories We Tell

Best Ensemble: Prisoners

Predator or Sponge? – The Role of the Camera in ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ and ‘Gravity’

Blue is the Warmest ColorIt sees for us, though we often–literally and figuratively–see through it.

At the root of it all lies a single tool we all too often take for granted: the camera.

It’s our immediate recognition of the camera’s innate desire to funnel our perspective that unites us all. Film students, critics, and entitled bloggers alike love to throw around terms like “sexual objectification” and “penetrating” when referring to the way the camera sees sexuality. We find it so easy to implicate the presence of bare flesh–a nipple or the genitalia–as a window into the filmmaker’s mind. It’s either “he’s penetrating the character with his gaze,” or “overcome by his own sexuality,” quite possibly “objectifying the female form as a desirable conquest.”

It’s hard to separate the truth from a viewer merely seeing what they want to see or find fault with. With the open forum of the internet affording nearly everyone the opportunity to hold filmmakers to new standards of accountability, it’s extremely difficult for a director to escape such accusations while in any capacity exploring topics of sexuality.

In 2013, decades after sexuality found its way into commercial films post-Production Code, Abdellatif Kechiche gives us Blue is the Warmest Color, his adaptation of a French graphic novel about two young women involved in an intricate, fiery, fiercely-sexual, and powerfully-emotional relationship.

The film is a masterwork on countless fronts, though its explicit depictions of raw sexuality have become synonymous with even its mere mention, allowing an unfair predicate to–in some instances–overshadow the quality of the film itself. Again, thanks to the internet and the public’s fixation with sex, the film has gone from being a work of art to “that lesbian movie with the 20-minute sex scene.”

Kechiche was awarded the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and, in a rare turn of events, the prize also went to the film’s two stars. Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos shared one of the most renowned recognitions in the industry with a director accused of degrading their bodies, when it was the actress’ openness to lend their physicality to the depiction of a beautiful, pure, and honest depiction of love and sexuality–seeing past the superficiality of sexuality as a mere image–which legitimized the honor.

While Kechiche undeniably incorporates heapings of nudity and graphic sex throughout his film, he does not allow their presence to go unjustified. Removed from context, any sex scene is merely “porn” (that’s not to degrade pornography, but merely to reduce it to its intent: to elicit a sexual response or accompany the experience of your own sexual pleasure). Blue is the Warmest Color pairs the adult qualities of sexuality with the playful innocence of budding maturity in young adulthood.

Its focal character, Adele (Exarchopoulos), is a young woman on the brink of her adult life. She’s still in school, messily chews her dinner with her mouth open, and struggles to find her identity beyond fitting in to what society tells her being a young girl should be. She experiments with boys and girls, but ultimately develops romantic feelings for Emma, an artist well into her twenties.

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As their relationship blossoms, Adele is not confined–in terms of script or the camera–to being an object of sex. Sex becomes a part of her, as she explores herself socially and within the scope of her relationship with Emma. We never get the sense that the immediacy or urgency with which the sex scenes unfold is exploitative, as Kechiche also shows us tender nuances outside such scenes.

For every tongue that meets vagina in the bedroom, there are two sets of lips meeting in front of a sunset, the light cascading from behind to envelop the scene in overwhelming beauty. Scenes of tender beauty and raw sexuality characterize a relationship, not a director’s fixation with sex. Why waste time shooting a film for 5 months to satiate his own desires?

As Adele matures, so does the film and what Kechiche chooses to show us. Messily eating her mother’s homemade spaghetti and her distaste for shellfish are soon trumped by Adele’s newfound ability to singlehandedly cook for an entire party or sling back oysters with Emma’s family.  Adele grows, and sexuality is a natural part of human evolution. We experience all aspects of Adele’s maturation with her, and the blossoming of her body into a sexually aware one (versus sexual experimental, as it was with a boy from her class early in the film) is comfortable, fluid, and beautiful.

Kechiche’s camera is a sponge for atmosphere and his characters’ desires, not a predator seeking to titillate us on a personal level. This is Adele’s story, and we need to see what she sees and how she sees it.

The sight of flesh does not mean we are meant to gaze upon it in blind lust. Real sex is exploitative to an extent, is it not? To satiate our own desires and receive pleasure from another person is, at the core of it, using  them. Observing the act (whether prolonged or explicit) on a cinema screen makes the act a part of something much larger that has little to do with us, and therefore becomes art.

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Kechiche is not one to let us forget that the human body has been sexualized all throughout history. He peppers the film with bountiful discussions about classic literature, shots of early paintings which exaggerated the female form, and pillowy shots of Adele sleeping–fully clothed–in contorted, primal positions.

Art is art with or without implication beyond its means, and he creates a convincing portrait of growth by pooling from the elements which make us all human, not by “othering” his stars’ bodies as sex objects. His camera is aware, and it is lustful when the film’s narrative calls for it. Adele is overwhelmed with sexual desire, and Kechiche makes sure we’re along for the ride, and it’s that mindful presence of it all having purpose that frees the film from any accusations of exploitation.

Gravity, another fantastic film from 2013, proved itself as a rare female-driven formidable force at the box-office. Sandra Bullock carries the film–a one-woman show–as Dr. Ryan Stone, an astronaut cast adrift in space after rogue debris destroys her ship and the rest of her crew. Emotionally scarred by long-ago earthly happenings, Dr. Stone is forced to confront her own mortality alongside budding existential crisis, which forms the basis for the film’s running metaphor for rebirth.

The camera in Gravity initially serves to dominate Dr. Stone, often dwarfing her body against the neverending backdrop of space as if she were a tiny embryo at the beginning stages of life. As the film progresses, the dynamism of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera becomes clear, as we alternate between sweeping shots of the cosmos and intense, personal close-ups of Dr. Stone’s face as she faces her demons alongside her physical predicament.

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While Dr. Stone remains in a bulky space suit for the majority of the film, there are a few key scenes of her boarding a space craft and removing it. She slips the top off, shimmies her way out of the bottoms, and reveals Sandra Bullock’s slender body. While the shedding of space gear rings sexual in a film like Alien, the undressing of Dr. Stone instead functions to humanize her amidst a sea of titanic atmosphere surrounding her.

In one scene, her body glistens against a circular backdrop of the air lock, she brings her feet to her chest, and a few expertly-placed hoses just behind her navel create the image of Dr. Stone as a fetus. She is nearly nude–only small black underwear and a skimpy shirt cover her–though the scene is completely devoid of sexuality, as Dr. Stone isn’t defined as a sex object. She is vulnerable and fresh, ready to begin her emotional and spiritual rebirth as the film progresses. In shedding the suit, we allow her to become pure and reborn in front of us. Whereas Adele’s journey to full-on nudity matures her, Dr. Stone’s revealed flesh takes her back to the infantile form of beginnings.

Kechiche and Cuaron are two filmmakers with a clear vision, with endowing everything within their frame with significant purpose. It is lazy and disrespectful to the craft when placing personal opinions about what justifies sexual objectification next to our analysis of a film. There is so much more to Blue is the Warmest Color than its aspects of sexuality. There is much more to the “male perspective” than sexual desire, and a male behind a camera capturing female flesh does not equate exploitation.

We must learn to have a little more faith in the camera. It guides our vision, though a skeptical eye will see only what it wants to.