Month: January 2014

Oscar Season Diary #9: ’12 Years a Slave,’ the PGA Awards, and the Dangers of Expectation

PGA-tie-618x400So much of the film industry is driven by expectation.

Studios expect box-office returns. Audiences expect to be entertained. Critics expect to be impressed.

Most Oscar bloggers and awards season pundits place themselves outside of these categories. Most of us have no interest in the business side of the industry, nor do we elect to be as willingly passive as those who think going to the multiplex on a Saturday night is an excuse to switch your brain into idle mode.

We chug along on the perimeter of the industry, poking and prodding at the seams of awards season, championing our favorite films of the year and (sometimes) throwing the others under the bus, because we expect the Academy’s taste to coincide with quality, not whichever film happens to press the least amount of buttons to fall in line with a safe consensus.

The most dangerous thing about awards season, however, is the baggage that expectations can place on prognostication. It’s not a particularly important part of the actual awards, but predictions and expectations are often the push that gets the ball rolling.

Usually, by mid-January, all of the guilds and critics circles have announced their annual set of winners, and the consensus generally tends to funnel into a single lane. By this time last year, Argo was set firmly ahead of the pack, and a year before that The Artist was sitting pretty in a similar position.

If this weekend’s Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild ceremonies proved anything, it’s that the immense quality of the films released in the calendar year have interfered with the industry’s ability to come to that dreaded (but necessary) consensus.

The SAG (the largest voting base of any industry guild, with about 120,000 eligible voters) often aligns with the film with the broadest appeal (in essence, the film that’s easiest for its members to come to a consensus on), which, for 2013, is unmistakably American Hustle (Lupita Nyong’o, however, was able to notch a win over Jennifer Lawrence, plunging the predictability of that race further into oblivion once again).

As all prepared to stick a fork in 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, the seemingly-impossible happened: the PGA announced its first-ever tie, awarding top honors to both films at its awards ceremony last night. Not only were Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron’s respective films kept alive in a race they’d otherwise fallen behind in, they were actually catapulted ahead of American Hustle just as it was gaining the upper hand.

We’ve got the Directors Guild of America left, and their top honor will likely go to Alfonso Cuaron for his work on Gravity. That would, effectively, place Sandra Bullock’s one-woman show in prime position.

Alas, what have we learned? Expectations are limiting and evil, especially in such an unpredictable Oscar year. Just take a look at the likes of Inside Llewyn Davis and Saving Mr. Banks, two films largely expected to dominate this year’s race, but only mustered a paltry three Oscar nominations between the two of them–not a single one in a major category. Again, this goes against what our expectations would tell us. Both Emma Thompson and the Coen brothers have excellent Oscar track records–both are winners–and worked on films that were immense critical successes. 2013 taught us not to listen to history, generally a fail-safe way to predict the Oscar mentality.

The tide could very easily shift toward 12 Years a Slave, bringing the narrative of the season back full-circle onto itself. When you think about it, the path is always uncharted, it’s just the critics, guilds, audience wallets, and pundits that determine who lives and who dies in the race. After all, the hype machine is to blame for building up most of our expectations and then violently shooting them down. It happened with Silver Linings Playbook last year, nearly happened to 12 Years a Slave this year, and is (most likely) currently unraveling American Hustle‘s late-race dash for Best Picture.

rs_560x415-140118172006-1024.Lupita-Nyongo-SAG-011814_copyIt’s a constant circle of self-made praise. Each publication–from Variety to Entertainment Weekly to Awards Daily–wants to be there at the start of glory. They want to champion the buzzy film-that-could that comes out of Toronto, Venice, and Telluride. They want to advance the narrative, and gain traction for pin-pointing excellence.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but this essentially kills any genuine reaction from general critics (the “legitimate” ones are usually already at these festivals, and are doing their fair share of feeding the hype monster) and audiences, as they’re either over-hyped to the point where it’s impossible to be impressed, or they’re unable to think for themselves and merely pile on the praise to fit in with the tide that’s been crafted around them. It’s a self-starting, self-destructive bubble.

12 Years a Slave is, on paper, a film that seems a fitting Best Picture for the 2013 calendar year. The Academy appointed its first female black president and made numerous efforts to diversify its voting base by inviting more women and people of color than ever before.

It only makes sense, then, that a film like 12 Years a Slave would be championed as a harbinger of change, as the perfect vessel to carry us through this monumental year for change.

As evidenced yesterday on Twitter as the film was announced as one of two PGA winners, many champion the film because they say it’s a symbol of hope for minorities in the United States. I’ve always had a problem with this, seeing as the film is a triumph in its mere existence, and doesn’t need what is essentially a majority award to justify its presence.

According to the LA Times, the Oscar voting base is overwhelmingly white and male (90% white, 75% male). If 12 Years a Slave were to win with these voters, the only thing it proves is that the film is playing into the majority’s taste, and isn’t really triumphing over the majority, then, anyway. Do not let the film be a symbol of “hope,” as that is a false appropriation of credit. All this means is that the film received the white majority’s approval, and played to their tastes. If it wins, the film will win as a great film, and should not be used as a tool for validation of race or presence. If hope lies in the hands of playing to the majority’s fancy, freedom for the minority voice is a missing part of the equation, as objectification then becomes the issue.

Again, people’s expectations for the film are that it must be the harbinger of hope simply because it was crafted by black hands, stars black actors, and is adapted from a book written by a prominent figure in African-American history. It is a marvelous film that should be championed because it does represent the minority voice, and represents it extremely well.

12 Years a Slave is a moving, powerful work of art that both challenges the majority stylistically and thematically, but to demean its value by validating its greatness at the hands of a white male-dominated is an insult to what it stands for.

The seething, lurking, ever-present tentacles of expectation have no right to impede 12 Years a Slave‘s existence as a cinematic landmark.

Charting the Course: SAG Awards Predictions

12-years-a-slaveTonight, the island is within sight, and the anchor begins its descent.

The Screen Actors Guild will this evening chart the course of awards season with its 20th set of award winners. With three films leading an awards discussion without definitive direction, the SAG has the power to shift the tide in favor of one.

While a small nominating committee (of around 2,000) tosses contenders into the ring, the entire SAG base of 120,000 (the largest of any industry guild) votes on winners. This means that the film/performances with the most general appeal will win. This
means that tonight there are three possible outcomes:

1) The SAG can go with the tide of the season, choose American Hustle for ensemble and Supporting Actress, placing the film essentially on a platter for the pundits to pick apart, allowing Gravity or 12 Years a Slave to swoop into the lead

2) The SAG can go with the tide of the season, choose American Hustle for ensemble and Supporting Actress, making the film indestructible, allowing it to plow through the DGA and PGA on to the Oscars

or

3) The SAG can shift momentum toward 12 Years a Slave with ensemble, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress wins

If American Hustle–undoubtedly the film with the most general appeal–sweeps with the SAG, the momentum will likely continue with the DGA and PGA, all the way to the Oscars. It’s already enduring an onslaught of backlash, not for the quality of the film, but because–yet again–in the minds of Oscar pundits, the general consensus gravitates more toward pure entertainment value than foreseeable longevity, cinematic value, and historical significance.

12 Years a Slave is an important film in an important year for diversity within the industry. The Academy welcomed its first black female president, and three black filmmakers all put forth massive efforts that won over audiences (Lee Daniels’ The Butler grossed nearly $150 million worldwide) and critics (Fruitvale Station brought Ryan Coogler recognition from the Film Independent Spirit Awards to the various critics circles around the country) alike.

When 12 Years a Slave was making the festival circuit, it seemed nearly unstoppable. I’m not sure “divisive” is even the proper word to use to describe its appeal, because there are people who completely refuse to watch it in the first place. It’s a disservice to the history of the country and to the brilliant filmmakers behind the film to shun it based on personal discomfort with the subject material, and the film would fit nicely within the shifting narrative of our nation’s political and social landscape. Art and society often compliment each other, and in a year that was so huge for the minority voice in the arts, 12 Years a Slave is a fitting film to represent the year.

It’s an unfortunate fact that the Academy is rarely on the side of history, and often overlooks films with the potential to embed themselves as historically significant.

Once a film becomes the Best Picture “frontrunner,” it’s dead in so many ways. It becomes the “it-girl” of awards season and, when it wins, becomes throwaway. It becomes the film everyone has seen and the film everyone is expected to love. It fails to carry significant dramatic weight, as its status as the golden film of the year precedes the content of the picture. It’s happened for the past three calendar years (The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, and now American Hustle) are all universally-appealing, adequate, entertaining slices of quality filmmaking that represent our quick-fix culture’s taste. They’re films that make us happy in the moment, but don’t ask much of us at all in terms of intellectual engagement.

The backlash is instant, or slowly seeps into the film’s identity over a slow period of time, and the very same hype machine that took 12 Years a Slave from end-all frontrunner to the underdog is now already heating up to take American Hustle down.

Some have labeled American Hustle’s female characters as throwaway, forgettable, and poorly fleshed-out. They might pale in comparison to the women Russell’s earlier work, but these characters (and the women playing them) are some of the most buzzed about topics about the current awards race. They’re sexualized and flaunted, but they’re also charismatic and appealing because of the enormous talent bringing them to life. Jennifer Lawrence is arguably the biggest star on the planet. She helmed the first female-driven film (Catching Fire) to top the domestic box-office since 1997 earlier last year, and has earned Oscar recognition three times in the past four years (two nominations, one win). To reduce her work in American Hustle (and the recognition she’s getting for it) to the appeal of her sexuality is demeaning to Lawrence’s star as a whole. It’s just a shame that her performance pales in comparison to her fellow nominess (both with the SAG and the Oscars).

jennifer-lawrence-first-american-hustleThe whole detractor “old white male Academy members are voting with their dicks” theory surrounding American Hustle‘s popularity holds up to a certain extent, but it can’t be cast over the entirety of the film. Porn is now more accessible than ever. It’s free and only a few mouse clicks away. I hardly think that you can attribute an old white male’s sexual attraction to the idea of Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams to the film’s scope of appeal. Academy members aren’t using American Hustle as a source of sexual pleasure. It’s an exciting, showy period picture that’s sleek, flashy, and allows them to leave the theater with no weight on their shoulders. It’s not particularly challenging, and doesn’t exactly say a whole lot, nor is it about much at all. At its core, the film is pure escapist porn, and that’s what a general audience is going to gravitate toward.

The only Oscar frontrunner at a complete disadvantage here is Gravity, as the SAG obviously focuses solely on actors. Though Sandra Bullock does appear in the Lead Actress category here, the film never had a shot in any other category, as the only other actor physically present in the film (George Clooney), is a miniscule part of the overall product.

What Gravity loses here is pure visibility, and that’s a shame because this is a film that’s relied largely on its spectacular presence. Though Bullock last week snagged an award for the film at the People’s Choice Awards, she’s had little traction with awards season voters at any other major Oscar precursor. Her appeal, too, is largely based on her endearing persona and ability to captivate a crowd. The SAG nominated her, which is huge, though the award is Cate Blanchett’s to lose.

In terms of the big picture, however, lets not forget that the SAG can deviate largely from the Best Picture narrative. Just two years ago, they awarded The Help’s ensemble with top honors, and Inglourious Basterds took the same award just two years prior. The SAGs voters are inclined to vote for, again, the films, performances, and stars from the most general appeal, and that’s something 12 Years a Slave simply doesn’t have. It’s great for the impending Best Picture Oscar winner when its cast lines up with the ideals of the SAG’s 120,000-strong voting base, but it doesn’t always mean that an ensemble award here indicates Oscar glory further down the road.

Oscar voters still have time to mull their decision, though the 2013 awards season map needs an X, and it’s on the SAG to plot its coordinates.

Full Predictions:

Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture: American Hustle
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role: Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role: Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role: Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role: Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Outstanding Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture: Lone Survivor

Russell’s Race to Lose: The Oscar Nominations Are In

1-16-2014 8-40-12 AMShow me someone who earned at least 90% accuracy predicting this year’s nominees.

You can’t? Of course you can’t. The Academy puts the finishing touches on a monumental year for cinema, stirring the pot with major snubs and surprises, icing the cake on an unpredictable year with a crop of exciting nominees that defy expectations in typical Academy fashion.

When the snaps of encouragement for Cheryl Boone Isaacs died down as she took the stage (maybe that was just me), she summoned Chris Hemsworth to help her announce the nominees for the 86th Annual Academy Awards.

The one thing the Academy seems not to be—at least this year—is on the same page as history. 20 years from now, as we look back at the Oscar calendar year, 12 Years a Slave will be the one of the films that defines the era. It’s a film with powerful resonance at a time when even the Academy attempted to diversify its ranks and leadership, though it falls to a statistical third place with 9 nominations, trailing both American Hustle and Gravity with 10 nominations each.

Of its respective nominations, 12 Years a Slave seems poised only to take Adapted Screenplay. Declared an end-all champion early on during the festival circuit, the urgent support for the film died out, as the NYFCC shifted the tide, awarding American Hustle its top prize first out of the gate in December. When will pundits and bloggers alike learn to stop throwing titanic support behind early favorites? It does far more harm than it does good, and often allows other films circling the race to swoop in unexpectedly.

The momentum for Hustle surges because of this, as David O. Russell once again directs four of his cast members into each of the four acting categories. Though Russell has yet to win an Oscar (he came very close last year), having mastered this four-category feat two years in a row (as well as having directed 3 other Oscar-winning performances) cements a positive answer to the question the Academy has only toyed with until this point: Is Russell worthy of an Oscar? If you can direct that many performances to Oscar glory in such a short amount of time, something is working.

Gravity takes a firm hold on second place, here, missing out only on the all-important Screenplay category. While Russell now threatens the once-unstoppable Alfonso Cuaron’s position with the directors, we’ll have to wait for the DGA to settle this one (I can see them going for either).

Dallas Buyers Club powerfully emerges, playing 4th-fiddle to the aforementioned, but roaring into the race with key nominations in major categories (including two traditionally reserved for serious Best Picture contenders—Screenplay and Film Editing). Captain Phillips loses its momentum, missing out on Best Director and Best Actor, and Emma Thompson misses out on another nomination for Saving Mr. Banks (which, surprisingly, only received a single nomination).

Thompson was one of the many casualties in an overcrowded year, and snubbing was statistically inevitable. The fact that Amy Adams and the rest of the Hustle cast were able to squeak into the major acting categories (replacing expected nominees Thompson, Winfrey, Hanks, and Bruhl, respectively) without any help from the Globes (ballots were due prior to the Globes announcement) speaks volumes about the steamrolling power of American Hustle that’s only now becoming crystal clear. If the film had played the festivals (if it wins Best Picture, it’ll be the first film since The Departed to win without a festival showing), we likely wouldn’t be having this discussion. Silver Linings Playbook was destroyed by early festival reaction—not because people didn’t like it, but because the hype machine bludgeoned it to a premature death, just as it did to 12 Years a Slave this year.

Rounding out the major nominees is Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, scoring huge nominations for Best Director and Best Actor, Philomena mustering recognition in the Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay categories, Her garnering four huge nominations, and Blue Jasmine rightfully snagging nominations for Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins (shockingly snubbed in 2008 for her wonderful performance in Happy-Go-Lucky), and Woody Allen’s screenplay.

Left out of the Oscar race was everyone involved with Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a film which exceeded expectations as a “black” film, directed by a black man, focusing on a black cast at its core, that went on to gross nearly $150 million worldwide. How a film that defies so many expectations and proves the minority voice is not only acceptable to mainstream audiences, but profitable, is left out of the Oscar race is entirely baffling.

The biggest disappointment, however, comes as Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell misses out on a Best Documentary Feature nomination. The film seemed to sweep the critics’ awards in the same category. It’s funny that two strong documentary films (the other being Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish) directed by women missed out in the category. Again, in a year where the Academy attempted to diversify its ranks and leadership, the lack of support for female filmmakers who made real waves within the industry (Blackfish’s reach extends far into the real world, as protests and an outpouring of criticism against SeaWorld is ongoing) is disappointing, hurtful, and altogether perplexing.

Though they might not be on the “right” side of history, or concerned with recognizing the films that will define our society for years to come, the Academy has been on a mission to re-establish itself as an independent entity, free from the influence of traditional precursors such as the Golden Globes, DGA, and PGA. It’s clear that they’re still the biggest diva in the room, and they’re going to do their thing as they see fit. That’s mucks up the windshield for those of us who enjoy predicting their taste, but it’s refreshing to be wrong when the crop of films to choose from is so delectable.

Through murkiness comes clarity, and it’s obvious that the race is now Russell and co.’s to lose.

Best Picture:

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

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

Actress:

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

Director:

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

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

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

Original Song:

Alone, Yet Not Alone 
Despicable Me 2
Frozen
The Moon Song
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Adapted Screenplay:

Before Midnight
Captain Phillips
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Original Screenplay:

American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club
Her
Nebraska

Animated Feature:

The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine
Frozen
The Wind Rises

Documentary Feature:

The Act of Killing
Cutie and the Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet From Stardom

Foreign Language Film:

The Broken Circle Breakdown
The Great Beauty
The Hunt
The Missing Picture
Omar

Cinematography: 

The Grandmaster
Gravity
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska
Prisoners

Costume Design:

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

Film Editing: 

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
12 Years a Slave

Makeup and Hairstyling: 

Dallas Buyers Club
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger

Original Score: 

The Book Thief
Gravity
Her
Philomena
Saving Mr. Banks

Production Design:

American Hustle
Gravity
Her
The Great Gatsby
12 Years a Slave

Sound Editing:

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

Sound Mixing: 

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

Visual Effects:

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

Funneling the Insanity: Predicting the Oscar Nominations

cn_image.size.oscar-statue-nominationsI’ll keep this short and (relatively) sweet, as we’re just eight hours away from having this vibrant, bountiful, confusing, immensely-exciting, wildly-unpredictable awards season funneled into some semblance of harmony by the AMPAS as they announce their annual list of nominees.

I’ll post full impressions once nominations have been announced (5:30 AM PST, 8:30 AM EST), but I’ve sort of dawned on something as I whittled my predictions down to their final state (as seen below).

Of the three films that have dominated the awards season discussion thus far, only Gravity has history and statistics on its side. Traditionally, there are four categories within which a film must be nominated if it has a legitimate shot at winning Best Picture (Screenplay, Director, Editing, and Picture). Gravity is currently the frontrunner in two of those categories (Director and Editing), while American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave are poised to take the Screenplay awards in their respective categories.

With a slew of nominations for Gravity expected tomorrow, the Best Picture race is, statistically, Gravity‘s to lose. Though, when a film wins Director and Editing, it tends to win Screenplay as well. Gravity isn’t even on the radar in that category. Let’s take a look at past Best Picture winners and how they fared in their respective categories, and then at the current frontrunners’ and their numbered rankings (in terms of potential to win) in the same slots:

UntitledIf you’re predicting with your brain, Gravity should be way out front. The problem is that I get the impression that no one wants to put their finger on a single film and stick with it, and the Globes proved this. They divided each of the top awards amongst the three frontrunners. 12 Years a Slave won only one award (Best Picture – Drama), American Hustle picked up Best Picture – Comedy/Musical, and Gravity snagged Best Director. None of these films won Best Screenplay, which went to Her. Do the Globes represent the larger voting base of the Oscars? There are far too many factors acting upon each of the films, and if Gravity  had support from the SAG (its 2-person cast, largely helmed by one woman for the majority of the film, can’t qualify as an “ensemble” to make it into the SAG Awards’ top category), it’d be a lock for the Academy’s top honor.

If 2013 taught us anything, however, it’s that riding the tide of awards season can be a daunting task–especially when no one’s dropping an anchor. My full predictions are below:

Best Picture: 

12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Gravity
Captain Phillips
Nebraska
The Wolf of Wall Street
Her
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club
Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Alternates: Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, Philomena, Saving Mr. Banks

Best Actor in a Leading Role:

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

Best Actress in a Leading Role:

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

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:

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

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:

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

Best Director:

Paul Greengrass – Captain Phillips
David O. Russell – American Hustle
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity
Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Original Screenplay:

Her
Nebraska
Inside Llewyn Davis
American Hustle
Blue Jasmine

Best Adapted Screenplay:

12 Years a Slave
Philomena
The Wolf of Wall Street
Before Midnight
August: Osage County

Best Film Editing:

12 Years a Slave
Gravity
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Rush

Best Cinematography:

Gravity
Inside Llewyn Davis
12 Years a Slave
Prisoners
Nebraska

Best Production Design:

Gravity
12 Years a Slave
Her
The Great Gatsby
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Best Sound Mixing:

Gravity
Rush
All Is Lost
Captain Phillips
Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Sound Editing:

Gravity
Rush
Pacific Rim
Star Trek: Into Darkness
Iron Man 3

Best Costume Design:

American Hustle
12 Years a Slave
The Great Gatsby
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Great Beauty

Best Original Score:

Gravity
All Is Lost
12 Years a Slave
The Book Thief
Saving Mr. Banks

Best Foreign Language Film:

The Broken Circle Breakdown
The Grandmaster
The Great Beauty
The Hunt
Omar

Best Documentary Feature:

The Act of Killing
Stories We Tell
Blackfish
Tim’s Vermeer
20 Feet From Stardom

Best Animated Feature:

Frozen
The Wind Rises
Despicable Me 2

Best Visual Effects

Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Pacific Rim
Iron Man 3
Star Trek: Into Darkness

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:

American Hustle
The Great Gatsby
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Beauty of Fibbing, Fiction, and ‘Fruitvale Station’

betcom_fruitvale_station_trailer__tmbRyan Coogler understands fiction.

He’s a master of atmosphere, and a composer of visual harmony. He does what only the most skilled of directors can: he simply takes reality and makes it art.

You can re-interpret, re-envision, and re-invent other media. What that does, however, is make you the authority. You must do what we’re told from a very young age is a cardinal social sin: you must become the fibber when taking on projects with real-world roots, as reality doesn’t nicely fall together with cinematic flow. You must embellish, and you must create.

Coogler understands the delicacy of his situation and takes charge of it with his Fruitvale Station, choosing to weave a cinematic retelling of the controversial events surrounding Oscar Grant, a 22-year old black male who was shot to death by police officers in 2009.

The film contains no preceding titles telling us if the film was “inspired by” or “based on” true events. We know it is, and Coogler knows we know it is. After all, as the circumstances that bolster the film still ring in our collective memory all too painfully.

Accusations of police brutality sparked riots across the country after Grant was killed. Some accused Bay Area Railway Transit police of extreme negligence; of racism; of lacking compassion for their fellow man. The face of law was tainted with seemingly innocent blood.

We can never fully understand the motivations of the officers involved, and events of Grant’s life will forever remain a mystery. We were not with him at the time of his death, nor were we at his side as his the final twenty four hours of his life unfolded.

Coogler crafts a daring interpretation of the final day Grant was able to pick his daughter up from school, have sex with his girlfriend, hug his mother, and plead with his ex-boss for a second chance at a job he’d been fired from. Grant’s life as a human ended in tragedy with real-life reverberations, but Coogler understands the power of fictional affect, and Grant as a character becomes a dynamic canvas for us to feel so much more.

We must never forget that Fruitvale Station is fiction, and that fiction sometimes can be just as powerful as the truth. You can feel the real-world implications of Grant’s death (oppression, anger, injustice) coursing through the film’s veins in its atmosphere, as Coogler takes on his role as the God of his own universe. We see Grant how Coogler wants us to see him–not as he was, but how the film requires us to: in beautifully-framed glimpses against the sunlight, in the quiet moments of his personal turmoil, scenes with surreal beauty we can’t experience in real life.

Fruitvale Station is best when it does what it needs to do as a narrative, as a work of art, and as an entity that’s complimentary to the truth, not substituting itself for the truth. The film does not make Oscar Grant out to be a hero. It does, however, mold a character from shreds of his actual existence.

The film feels impressionistic, but it is not aimless. Coogler weaves a tale of a man without direction, but with massive heart. It’s a mistake to take this as a testament of the real person. None of us knew Oscar Grant, but the film’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t place judgment upon him, nor does it elevate him to heroic status. He’s swamped by a million different things. He’s lazy, he’s lost his job by his own error, and boasts a lengthy criminal history, he does drugs, he cheats on his girlfriend, but he’s also a loving father, an indebted son basking in the light and love of his mother, and chugging along the rails of a life that seeks to reject him as a minority. There’s no evil in that. There’s fault in his actions, but only from the perspective of the rest of us in glass houses. We’re all surrounded by panes of glass; Grant’s just happened to be collecting societal grime, easier to see, and easier to shatter.

The film does become important as a testament to contemporary American culture, not merely as a recreation of “true” events. The circumstances surrounding the real Oscar Grant’s death are ambiguous. Was he resisting arrest? Was the officer rightfully fearful of Grant’s behavior? These are questions that seductive fiction–such as the story of Coogler’s Grant–can give us perspective on. Art forces us to question the world around us, not take it for what it is; there’s no reason a film based on true events should be taken as gospel, and there’s never an inkling that this is how Coogler wants us to see his film.

There’s a scene in Fruitvale Station which sees Oscar Grant step onto the BART train that would serve as his dinghy across the River Styx. From the platform, we see the doors open. Grant is pulled into a mass of people already on the train by his girlfriend, the doors shut, and the train whisks them away. We remain fixed, watching each car pass by, and the faces and bodies it contains blend together in a blur of human mass.

The real Oscar Grant was probably like those people on the subway, blending together as we pass them at breakneck speed on a train or casually on the sidewalk. He was probably the flawed character Coogler paints for us in Fruitvale Station. He was probably the adoring father his daughter most likely knew. We’ll never know, but Coogler insists on celebrating the mystery, making it beautiful, and prodding us to want in.

Fiction embellishes truth, creates image, stages scenes of  beauty, and gives us perspective on the burden of our reality waiting on the other side of the credits.

Golden Globes Aftermath: 5 Wins That Matter

6092ae492552d664b924123652eb0543b13032bcHave you recovered? Have you gotten over Paula Patton’s dress? Have you had your fair share of Jacqueline Bisset-filled nightmares?

Of course you haven’t.

Last night’s ceremony proved that the Globes have evolved into perhaps the most fun night of awards season; they’re about flair, charisma, and grasping for a handful of spectacle but only coming up with a fistful of gifs and a few vodka tonics.

Last night’s telecast was, for sure, the highlight of the season thus far. The fact that the Globes are owning their identity and capitalizing on their second-in-line status allows us to do something that’s so rare this time of year: enjoy and indulge in the spectacle of stardom, and sit back to watch, free from the burden of our brains.

After all, the Globes no longer have the power over the Academy that they were growing accustomed to. Their nominations still take place before Oscar ballots go out, but their winners are now announced after Oscar balloting has closed. This means that Globe winners are more likely to win at the Oscars—if they were able to score a nomination with the Academy in the first place.

And, let’s not forget who’s voting on these things. Amy Adams might have been hawking her teeny tiny actress tear droplets as a result of her win last night, but she, too, is well-aware that it’s really not that big of a deal to win a Golden Globe.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is a group of 85 foreign-born, U.S.-residing journalists. They’re not industry professionals, they’re not filmmakers, and they’re small in number. This means they’re easily swayed towards a group consensus and, as their voting tendencies have shown, enamored with star power and profitability.  At most, Amy was given a stage to rehearse an Oscar speech (should she get one, which seems entirely unlikely) and shove her brand down our throats (“I ask my manager all the time, ‘Why did you take a chance on me?’” she said, teary-eyed, and I hope she wasn’t lying and this interaction with her manager has occurred once per week for the last decade).

Theatrical speeches like this (and studly winks to the camera, a’la Matthew McConaughey) coupled with the essence of stardom is what wins you a Globe, and allows you ample space to give a taste of what you’d do with an Oscar podium, should you be given one.

That brings me to the first key win of the evening, among others, that has real potential to influence the Oscar race:

rs_634x1024-140112180743-634.jennifer-lawrence-winner-golden-globes-20141)      Jennifer Lawrence winning Supporting Actress

Is star-appeal and star-power how you explain the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence winning in their respective categories? Most likely. In Leo’s case, he was arguably the biggest star in a bunch that included Bruce Dern, Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, and Joaquin Phoenix. In Lawrence’s possession is quite possibly the fastest-rising star in the industry. She’s starred in four films that have crossed the $100 million mark in the past two years, and has two Oscar-related honors to her name (one win, and one other nomination).

In American Hustle, she’s simply far too aware of camera. Her appeal here is in the same vein as being back in high school and watching a friend act in a school play. She’s engaging by default, and you find comfort in the familiarity of her charisma. She’s got a genuine ability to have fun with a role, but this isn’t a genuinely good performance. She makes you love her—for being Jennifer Lawrence—but doesn’t create a character that’s strong enough to wrangle her persona to second fiddle.

The problem is that these awards season voters wants to forge her path for her, instead of letting her find it on her own. They want to be there at the point of conception, and see it all the way through. That doesn’t make for an interesting star. Putting a fish on the line, plopping it in the water, and reeling it in a second time doesn’t count as one in the bucket. But, the Globes have long had a knack for trying to pre-determine longstanding success. They proved their affinity for the untried-and-not-quite-yet-true just last night, as they awarded Andy Samberg and his “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” comedy series top honors in the comedic category.

There’s a chance that their affections for Lawrence won’t carry through to the Oscars. The Globes tend to get ahead of themselves in more ways than one, and it’s difficult to imagine Academy members outside of the actors branch consuming her mere presence for a third time since 2010. Lawrence’s trajectory is set, and she doesn’t need another Oscar to tell us that. She was working Oscar voters with that speech, however, and the film surrounding her meh/ok/endearing-because-it’s-J-Law performance  is a strong enough contender that she’s, by default, the strongest contender heading into the Oscars. Lupita Nyong’o, Lawrence’s closest competitor, will need some heavy support from SAG voters if she’s to remain alive.

rs_560x415-140112183328-1024.amy-adams-winner-golden-globes-20142)     Amy Adams winning Lead Comedy/Musical Actress

We might be looking at an entirely different Best Actress race if Oscar ballots had an extended due date. As it was prior to last night, Adams’ presence on the Best Actress front was sketchy at best. The film has picked up serious momentum over the last few weeks, but Lawrence’s ability to trump Adams in the off-screen personality department has done its fair share of stealing the discussion away from the film’s best female role.

If Adams had been a long-standing part of the Best Actress race from the start of the season, this win might not mean as much as it does now. It just so happens that this year, the Comedy/Musical separation bore just as much weight as the drama category, as both genres felt packed with legitimate Oscar contenders instead of being stuffed with filler by over-reaching, star-hungry HFPA voters.

Adams’ fate lies within Oscar voters’ ability to pick up on the shifting momentum, and if they felt strongly enough about her work without the validation of a Globes acceptance speech to put her name on their ballots.

If Adams managed to squeak into the Best Actress Oscar race, expect Meryl Streep to sit this year out.

tumblr_mzbpgv41U51r87glvo1_5003)     Her winning Screenplay

Spike Jonze’s genuine shock at winning last night’s top honor for his Her script was enough to endear himself to Academy voters with an adorable speech—again, should Her have already found its way onto their ballots. American Hustle has long since led this category on the Oscar side of things, but Jonze’s upset here comes as a genuine surprise in an awards season with an otherwise murky trajectory.

71st Annual Golden Globe Awards - Show - Season 714)     12 Years a Slave winning Drama Picture

Without snagging a single award in any other category last night (unless you count the subtle victory of having African American cultural icon Reese Witherspoon present the film’s accompanying montage to the world), 12 Years a Slave surged back into the race with a surprising win in the prestigious Best Motion Picture – Drama category. The only problem for 12 Years a Slave seems now to be American Hustle, as that film won 3 Globes in the comedic categories (including two for acting).

Without consensus support (Gravity won Best Director, a category both men behind 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle were also nominated in) there’s yet to be a single frontrunner in the Best Picture race, and that’s exactly what we needed the Globes to do for us. Instead, they crowned each of the three frontrunners with top awards in key categories.

12 Years a Slave’s win proves that there’s still a great deal of push behind the film (enough to resonate with Oscar voters? It’s surely nominated in Best Picture, but a win is still going to be tough for it to pull off), but it’s difficult to watch an awards season where no one wants to take a single film and run with it. The number of Oscar nominations the film receives on Thursday will give us a much clearer idea of just how strong support is for this film.

5)     Matthew McConaughey winning Drama Actor

In the wide-open Best Actor race, it was all whittled down to one deciding moment that secured his Oscar. This:
1-13-2014 3-16-06 PMThat smile-and-point (he said he was talking to his children) was enough to take out Hollywood legends like Bruce Dern and Robert Redford in one fell swoop. No, Matthew McConaughey’s children, he wasn’t actually talking to you: he was pointing straight to the hearts of Oscar voters. You’re not going to tell me AMPAS member Gabourey Sidibe didn’t react to that smile with a few snaps’ worth of attention alongside a Google Calendar reminder to vote for him once final Academy ballots are out in a few weeks.

All in all, the Globes did what they needed to do. They played the Oscar game (and maybe shifted the tide a little bit), they gave us stars, they gave BuzzFeed and Gawker a few gifs that will get old by tomorrow, they gave Amy Poehler a Golden Globe, and—most importantly—gave us reason enough to tune in next year.

Knocking a Few Back with the HFPA: Predicting the Golden Globes

tina_fey_amy_poehler_golden_globes_-_h_2013It’s tough being number two, but it’s a status the Golden Globe Awards have known per annum throughout their 71-year history.

Playing second fiddle to the Academy Awards has given the Globes an identity unto themselves, however, as their lighthearted approach to greatness in film lacks the stuffiness, all-importance, and weight of the Oscars. At best, the Globes have always been a no-frills romp through Oscar-preview territory.

The Oscars, in recent years, have made numerous changes to their voting deadlines, including moving a key voting deadline for nominations prior to the Golden Globe winners being announced. How, then, does an organization that prides itself upon influencing the Oscars forge an identity for itself?

For one, the Globes have long celebrated the art of movie stardom and the harmony it shares with quality film. Their nominations come early enough that Oscar voters can still look to them for nominations. Though the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is a vital prognosticator for Oscar voting, they’ve since become a spectacle of industry showiness.

The Globes are an excuse for stars to get dressed up without feeling the pressure of doing something of any great importance, and more importantly, are a key stage to increase the visibility of a potential contender. Even with the Oscar voting date changes, Globe winners will still have an impact on Oscar winners.

It’s refreshing to see, as of late, that the Globes aren’t trying to compete with the Oscars anymore, as they’ve made attempts to embrace and embellish their inferior stance; the hosts grew looser, the drinks grew stronger (and more acknowledged, as they’ve carried their drinks onstage for the last few years) and the Globes got–dare I say it–fun.

At the root of it, there’s really no sense comparing the HFPA to the AMPAS in the first place. The Academy’s 6,000+ membership dwarves the Globes’ voting base, which stands at just under 100. The type of voters drastically differs as well. Whereas the Oscars are voted upon by film industry professionals (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc.), the Globes are decided by a bunch of U.S.-residing, foreign-publishing journalists (The LA Times reports that they’re most predominantly active in Europe, while on the other hand only one HFPA journalist is publishing in huge international markets like India, China, and Hong Kong). It’s easier to come to a consensus with numbers that small, and it’s also much easier to be swayed (remember when Burlesque made it into a few key categories in 2010 after that private concert Cher gave to voters?).

It’s for this reason that the Globes are an interesting pre-Oscar entity. While they generally provide ample audition space for imminent Oscar-winners to prep the viewing public with a tester acceptance speech, the Globes tend to capture the spirit of what the Oscars don’t. HFPA members have never forgotten the power of stardom and its massive appeal–it’s the first thing Globes voters latch on to, and what they value most. Big-name stars and flashy productions with huge commercial appeal are what the Globes thrive on. Films that anyone–from any nation–can plop down in front of and enjoy are the ideal Globes candidates. They tell us what has appeal to the masses, and therefore tell us what is likely to appeal to the broader voting branches of the Academy (including the more generalized voters of the actors branch, in particular).

The Globes champion commercial appeal, which can drive box-office, which increases visibility, and that can all influence an Oscar voter when they sit down with their final ballots in a few weeks.

Often, the same crop of films end up being nominated for the Oscars (the Globes aren’t entirely rogue and often don’t deviate, in a general sense, from the tide of awards season consensus), though the HFPA is far more inclined to nominate a name over quality of work than the Academy is.

For the first time in years, the Globes’ two-genre system of awards separation doesn’t feel like it’s filled with placeholders. The Comedy/Musical categories are usually wastelands filled with films whose stars are the only things on the HFPA radar (The Tourist, Burlesque, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, anyone?), but 2013 was such a strong year that both categories feel appropriately stuffed, with each film nominated having a legitimate shot at a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.

On the Drama side, we have Rush, Philomena, Gravity, Captain Phillips, and 12 Years a Slave. The latter three films have dominated the awards season discussion since the September festivals. Rush was pushed into the race largely due to its euro-centric content and appeal (the same can be said for Philomena).

gravity-movie-review-sandra-bullock-shiopWhile my heart is telling me to select 12 Years a Slave as the winner here, my brain pulls me toward Gravity. Sandra Bullock’s one-woman show grossed nearly $700 million worldwide in an age where female-driven narratives still aren’t taken as seriously as the boys’. Keep in mind, this is largely the same voting base who awarded star-studded films like Atonement and Babel over eventual Oscar-winners No Country for Old Men and The Departed, respectively. In terms of worldwide appeal and presence (capped off by an international superstar in the lead role), Gravity has this one in the bag.

Gravity’s success is further bolstered by films with female-driven performances topping the domestic box-office, as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire becomes the first film driven by a female performance to top the U.S. box-office since 1997’s Titanic (and even that was arguably driven by a male and female performance). In fact, three of the ten highest-grossing films of 2013 were driven by women: Frozen ($712 million worldwide and counting), Catching Fire ($846 million worldwide and counting), and Gravity ($670 million worldwide)–the first time this has happened in years.

With an awards season narrative on its side, Gravity is soaring into the race the old fashioned way; on appeal, on critical championing, on audience reaction, and on box-office returns. With ease, it puts a mark in every box.

Contenders in the Musical/Comedy category include Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Her, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Nebraska. While there’s not a single film in this category that I’d consider a comedy or musical, the collective quality of the pictures represented here–for once–eclipses that which is represented in the drama category.

David O. Russell’s American Hustle is arguably the front-runner for the Oscar at the moment, and it received a stunning seven nominations from the HFPA (including one in each of the major acting categories). Pushed head-first into the race by the New York Film Critics Circle after being awarded their top prize, Hustle has built momentum for three reasons:

1) David O. Rusell’s prolific output over the past 5 years
2) David O. Russell’s track record (having three films in the awards race over 5 years without any significant wins)
3) David O. Russell’s actual direction (to get the performances he’s gotten out of his actors, a multitude of which have won Oscars or been nominated for them, is incredible)

None of American Hustle‘s appeal has to do with the quality of the film much at all. Russell has been gunning for an Oscar for the better part of the last five years. After skirting around the edges of awards season glory with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook (he came very close last year), his time has come. All he had to do was produce a film that wasn’t a dud, and what he did was produce a film that’s star-studded, fast-paced, and showy, the perfect mix for a Globes voter coma. The awards circuit loves their narratives, and Russell sweeping the major awards late in the season is a fitting cherry atop his massive, multi-year bid for glory.

Hustle’s closest competitor seems to be Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, seeing as both Russell and Payne are the only two directors to receive a nomination from the Musical/Comedy category. They join Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), and Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips) in an extremely difficult category to predict.

Whoever wins here will surely funnel some of the 2013 Oscar race into much less chaotic waters. While the Oscars might have a Director/Picture split this year, it’s increasingly difficult to come to a logical consensus for the Globes’ pick for director. Usually we already have a frontrunner whose dominance stretches high and above its other awards season contenders. Here, we’ve got three films all arguably neck-and-neck within the race as a whole. It’s unusual to have films from both the dramatic and comedic categories on the same playing field in the director category, but here McQueen, Cuaron, and Russell are sharing the same stage with three incredible pictures.

The case of the actors is an equally perplexing one this year. The only race that seems to be locked at this point is Lead Actress Drama, where Cate Blanchett will extend her reign over the category with a win for Blue Jasmine.

How things play out on the comedic end are sort of irrelevant at this point, seeing as Oscar nominations were turned in last week, though if the deadline had been extended, Amy Adams (the frontrunner at the Globes for American Hustle) might have been able to squeak in with Oscar voters. As it stands, she’ll do her part in pumping up support for the film alongside Christian Bale (also a likely winner in his respective category for the film, though Leo and Bruce aren’t out of the mix).

Jennifer Lawrence also has a legitimate shot at scoring a win for her supporting performance in American Hustle. At one time hovering around the fringes of the category at the beginning of the season, again the NYFCC pushed her into the race with early recognition, so much so that she’s now arguably neck-and-neck with previous frontrunner, 12 Years a Slave‘s Lupita Nyong’o. Lawrence is everything the Globes love: she’s a worldwide superstar, she’s young, she’s hilarious, she’s endearing, and she’s got two films released over the past year that have been incredible critical and box-office successes. At the tender age of 23, she embodies not only a massive amount of contemporary success, but portents greatness for a massive career in the future as well.

For the men, the supporting category has been the most difficult, wide-open race for any category. Jared Leto has built a solid base for himself, earning rave reviews and a multitude of recognition from critics circles and precursors for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club, a role with massive awards appeal (he’s a straight male playing a loveable, endearing transgender woman in a showy, dramatic role). Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) and Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) shouldn’t be counted out of the race entirely, as both of their performances are in films that are frontrunners in other major categories (including Best Picture and Director), whereas Dallas Buyers Club has only resonated with Globes voters in the acting categories.

Many have brought up the appeal of Barkhad Abdi and his performance in Captain Phillips, though he’s a first-time, non-professional actor in his first role here. Let us not forget that the HFPA does not take warmly to anything small-scale (that’s the Academy’s job). This is the same voting base who shunned Beasts of the Southern Wild just last year. Its cast was primarily made up of non-actors in their first roles as well, and the HFPA loves to push pre-existing star-power and greatness to even more astronomical heights of success, and Abdi’s potential as an actor bodes little for future achievement.

i.2.matthew-mcconaughey-dallas-buyers-clubBest Actor Drama proves similarly murky. Chiwetel Ejiofor seemed all but indestructible for his performance in 12 Years a Slave, but as we slowly began to realize that the film had a weaker grip on awards voters as previously expected, his name all but fell back in line with the rest of the pack.

No one seems to be talking about Tom Hanks’ potential to burst ahead with a Globes win (no one can stop raving about his final scene in Captain Phillips), or how everyone is afraid to proclaim Matthew McConaughey as the category’s default frontrunner. His character has a distinguishable, showy arc, and the role calls for far more overt “acting” than, say, Ejiofor’s or Redford’s do. While Hanks is an international household name, McConaughey is earning industry-wide attention for his ability to transform his career from hunky rom-com staple to a legitimate, powerhouse actor’s actor in such a relatively short amount of time. A win here will be a win for not only Dallas Buyers Club, but also for Mud, and 2012’s Magic Mike.

Though he missed out on an all-important SAG nomination last month, I wouldn’t count Robert Redford out of the Globes race entirely. The film has support in another category (Best Original Score), so that means that the voters have seen it, have paid attention to it, and that there’s a small push for it beyond the Best Actor race, where it has been largely defined all season.

It’s a headache of a year that the Globes might be able to sift through and give us some much-needed direction. With only a short window open for Oscar voters to submit their final ballots (February 14th-February 25th), the Globes will probably have long since melted away from Oscar voters’ memories, as the DGA, PGA, SAG, and Independent Spirits each have ceremonies coming up within the next month or so.

What will most likely happen is that the Globes will build up the bases of those who are slightly ahead, and little else. 12 Years a Slave’s Oscar run entirely depends on the Globes, however. If it doesn’t walk away with any significant wins tonight, its chances with the Academy will likely dwindle. Gravity and American Hustle are far more marketable, have much larger box-office returns, and are general crowd-pleasers that didn’t sharply divide audiences or critics, and there’s no reason to believe that these two films will fare any differently with Oscar voters.

The Globes might not wield the same power with the Academy as they used to, but they’re no less fun to knock a few back with and watch as the mess of awards season comes (a little bit more) together under their tent.

FULL PREDICTIONS: 

Best Motion Picture – Drama: Gravity
Best Motion Picture – Musical/Comedy: American Hustle
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity Best Actor – Drama: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Best Actor – Musical/Comedy: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Best Actress – Drama: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Best Actress – Comedy/Musical: Amy Adams, American Hustle
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Best Screenplay: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, American Hustle
Best Original Score: Hans Zimmer, 12 Years a Slave
Best Original Song: “Let It Go” by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, Frozen
Best Animated Feature Film: Frozen
Best Foreign Language Film: Blue is the Warmest Color

The Golden Globes air tonight at 7:00 PM EST on NBC.

Oscar Season Diary #8: ‘American Hustle,’ ‘Her,’ and the War of the Heart

3022037-slide-her-filmWe’re a fatherless culture heading in an unclear direction.

Can we sense, at this point, anyone at the wheel?

We’re overrun with greed, with corruption, with politics and media; we have little time to ponder the individual, or to see the soul behind the person staring back at us in the mirror. Survival is merely moving on to the next superficial stimulus.

Spike Jonze’s Her and David O. Russell’s American Hustle reveal a battle our preoccupation with the media has distracted us from acknowledging: the one within us as individuals. Both films remind us of the power of the heart–listening to it, working to preserve it–and resonate within an Oscar year that champions that very attitude.

The news is cluttered with headlines of a new war every day. From Washington to Syria, we hear about wars of ideals, wars of politics, wars of culture, wars of preference and wars of intellect. Some see bloodshed, and others exist as a momentary annoyance when, for a brief moment, we flip the channel to yet another news story about the deepening split between two roaring factions of our nation’s right and left.

If we’re given a spare moment away from the news tickers, push notifications, blinking lights, emails, and texts, it’s only natural to fall back on our own thoughts, emotions, and affections,  though we seek validation, pleasure, and stimulus from technology, and have grown dependent on it to rile us from the state of simply being able to, well, be.

Simplicity is an increasing rarity: this is the struggle that Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) undergoes on a daily basis in Her.

In the not-so-distant future, he’s a ghostwriter for countless clients who hire him to write personal letters to their loved ones. He spends his days recalling emotions he once knew as a married man, but for other people. He’s now divorced and trudging through the remnants of his soul as the world around him vacuums itself deeper and deeper into an outbreak of isolationist technology separating human from human, soul from soul.

Theodore, swayed by a convincing television ad, purchases a highly advanced operating system to cope with the loneliness. Her name is Samantha, and she’s programmed to adapt to new environments as she experiences them. Theodore is forced to confront his feelings of loneliness as he falls in love with Samantha.

The most intelligent thing about Her‘s script is its consistent urgency propelling Samantha forward as a fully-formed character. She grows, adapts, and forms feelings for herself, but most of all is able to understand that she isn’t human, which perhaps is the most beautiful thing about the film. It’s actually quite tragic in that sense, as Samantha yearns for a human body, but never loses her grip on reality. She knows she will never be human, and never tries to be.

Whereas Samantha can’t attain a sense of humanity, it’s Theo’s that she helps restore. At its core, the interactions between Samantha and Theodore are nothing more than Theodore talking to a version of himself filtered through a complex sequence of data. Samantha can only learn through her interactions with people, and she soon begins to interact with Theodore in a way that subtly holds a mirror to his face. His divorce shattered him, and his feelings of isolation and loneliness forced him into a machine-like state. It’s only thorough his acceptance of his feelings for Samantha that he can be truly happy, and he learns to be a human once again.

The film’s form is highly dependent on its content, and vice versa. There’s a gorgeous visual motif running throughout the film involving Theodore gazing out of enormous windows. Whether he’s on a subway, at work, or at his apartment, his view of the outside world is obscured by a glass shield that he can see the other side of, but can’t quite reach just yet. Without giving anything away, it’s only after he spends time getting to know himself (and Samantha), that he’s able to view what’s on the other side free from obstruction. It’s a beautiful film about the best and worst of technology, how it expands our perspective yet limits it, and how–if you don’t lose touch with your humanity–it can open your eyes instead of distract them from seeing what’s around you.

American Hustle explores these issues in a far less subtle manner. It’s classic David O. Russell spectacle. The film is about everything and it’s about nothing in particular, it’s about sexy people in extravagant costumes and the risky business they get themselves into. But, at its heart, its a story about preserving the all-encompassing, overwhelming impression of love.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) tells us of his childhood, one where he helped his family’s window business thrive by throwing rocks through storefront glass. It becomes clear that passion drives his actions, and that he’s not above taking control of his fate, even if it means involving himself in his own hand-spun circle of success.

He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a beautiful woman struggling to find herself amidst the hustle and bustle of urban life, and the two become inseparable. Their love spans the duration of the film, and its the glue of their affections that holds the entire film together.

american-hustle-amy-adams-1The pair embark on a scam operation together as a means to profit from what they deem to be the “lesser” men of society. They start a loan scam, where they promise to get people with poor credit loans–for a fee of $5,000. They’re eventually caught by FBI agent Richie Di Masso (Bradley Cooper), who lets them off the hook if they agree to help him bag corrupt politicians by (similar to Irving smashing windows so his family’s business could thrive) constructing a series of set-ups where they will accept bribes in exchange for political favors.

Sydney and Irving’s actions might be deplorable, but they’re motivated by the love they have for each other. They want the successful American life everyone is promised from birth, it’s just that they take an alternate route on the way there. Happiness is at the root of their actions. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want, whether we achieve it morally or by climbing down rungs tinged with grime?

Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), is an essential part of the film’s recipe. Of course Irving is cheating on her with Sydney, and she knows it, though she consistently tries to one-up him instead of laying down and taking her final laps through marriage as a victim. The space she occupies (the home she shares with Irving and her son) becomes a surreal place of mockery, where she has lost her grasp on how to safely parent her child, causing fires, smoking, and regressing to a childlike state herself. The home isn’t a place where happiness lives simply because you paint a smiley face on it by marrying and staying together for the sake of normalcy. A home requires work and, most of all, love. It is not a puzzle that fits together just because you want square A to fit into circle B.

If the fantasy of American life doesn’t fit, you must change it.

American Hustle is a story of selfish people with selfish intentions. Russell’s outlook on the world is that it is simply too self-centered for its own good. Everybody is in the game of life for themselves, and survival becomes a tainted, layered byproduct of manipulation, jealousy, and greed

But, the film celebrates a rebel’s instinctual desire to buck the system of control, to never be confined to a single space, and to never relinquish control of his or her own destiny, and that’s far more “American” than staying inside the lines (or within the confines of your white picket fence dreams). American Hustle celebrates its right to be about so simple an idea in such an intriguing way, that the ambition and pacing of the the film as a whole become synonymous with its characters’ drive to attain freedom on their own terms.

Both Her and American Hustle show the lengths that humans will go to in order to feel something, whether it be success, monetary comfort, love, or otherwise–the desire of the human spirit to regain consciousness of itself so that it can exist in peace is at the root of both films.

Many of the year’s films revolve around these ideas of breaking free from confines. A self-imposed prison (Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis), unjust incarceration (12 Years a Slave, Prisoners), or an emotional cage in the wreckage of heartbreak (Her, Blue is the Warmest Color), screenplays about regaining a sense of self have overwhelmingly dominated the awards season discussion.

GRAVITYIt’s interesting that, in 2013, the Oscar race is so filled with these films that revolve around characters attempting to regain what was once lost. Gravity’s Ryan Stone has lost faith in humanity and in herself after losing her daughter, and the film systematically constructs a beautiful cinematic metaphor for her emotional and spiritual rebirth that carries the film to its conclusion. 

12 Years a Slave sees Solomon Northrupp kidnapped from his life as a free black man in 1800s America to become a slave in the Deep South. He confronts the evils of racism and travels to the brink of his emotional stamina.

2013 ultimately was a year of battles won. When the Academy itself makes huge changes in an attempt to diversify its image, leadership, and voting base, it’s clear the tides of culture are changing, and victory can be seen for those long seen as inferior.

The year saw three black filmmakers’ names soar through the season as legitimate awards contenders. Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station was an early season favorite in key categories (Best Actor, namely), while Lee Daniels’ The Butler spat in the face of those who deemed “black cinema” (a  general descriptor, I know, but it’s for the sake of the argument, here) an unmarketable venture (it grossed nearly $150 million worldwide). I can’t remember the last time this happened, if it has ever happened in the 86-year history of the Academy Awards.

This year’s Oscars are once again, thanks to the preferential ballot, going to be driven by passionate support for smaller projects that normally wouldn’t catch Academy voters’ eyes in a year where only five Best Picture nominees were allowed.

It seems that the Academy has been attempting to restore the heart into the race, when massive campaigns and PR brainwashing has driven the awards race into an endless domino entity. Usually, we look to the precursors to definitively outline the trajectory of the Oscars. Critics circles positioned their awards earlier in the season, so they could do things like push films like American Hustle into the race with first-out-of-the-gate praise (NYFCC, here’s looking at you).

There’s a passion for the craft and a passion for a vast array of films, as we’ve seen major precursors deviate from what was expected to push what they think is the strongest film of the year. With only one week to go until Oscar nominations, there’s an entire herd heading into a pen that’s usually, this late in the game, largely less crowded. Passion is power, and people seem to be voting with their hearts.

Ultimately, as Theodore is in Her, we’re left alone to look in the mirror in the wake of these films. At the heart of top box-office draws of the year was escapism, which is equivalent to throwing a blanket over our eyes. If we’re consistently entertained by pure spectacle, how do we accept art as something multi-dimensional?

We must champion the great films from this monumental year in cinema, because they do what pure spectacle can’t—they take our hand and give a reflective clarity through the dark.

Tomorrow: DGA Decides Who Lives and Who Dies in the Race – 6 Directors to Watch

ryan-coogler-2-fruitvale-stationAll eyes are on the Directors Guild of America to sift through the murky depths of the 2013 awards season and bring some much-needed clarity.

Sitting firmly at the tail-end of the major precursor nomination timeline, the DGA is usually the wisest of the group. I get the sense that they vote with their hearts a great deal of the time, favoring grand, difficult, complex works which reflect the best of their faction–at least they have for the past 10 years or so.

While clarity is the last thing the DGA brought us last year–they actually broke a 9-year streak of agreeing with the Oscar winner by giving Ben Affleck (who wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar) their top prize for feature film–their nominations will help whittle the current race down to a solid crop of contenders.

Things to look out for tomorrow, when the DGA announces its annual nominees:

1) Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis has had a rough week. Days ago, they missed out on any love from the Producers Guild. Shortly thereafter, though, they nearly swept the National Society of Film Crtics’ awards. The film is polarizing audiences and industry figures alike, as the critics seem to love it, but the guilds are hesitant to reward such a peculiar, subtle film.

The highs and lows the film has seen over the last month don’t bode well for its once-promising position as a prime Oscar contender. The DGA aren’t fond of the Coens. They’ve won once for 2007’s No Country for Old Men, and Joel was nominated for Fargo in 1996. True Grit missed out on a nomination entirely, as did A Single Man, both of which were Best Picture contenders within their respective years. If Inside Llewyn Davis misses a nomination here, the film’s Oscar chances will drop drastically.

2) Ryan Coogler and 3) Lee Daniels

Along with Steve McQueen, both Coogler and Daniels have helped make 2013 a historic year for black filmmakers. Each has directed a film that was highly influential. Coogler’s Fruitvale Station riled overwhelming critical and precursor support (its name has consistently shown up everywhere from honorary critics’ awards to the Independent Spirit nominations).

Daniels’ The Butler might not be on the same trajectory to Oscar greatness as McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but it has solidified itself as a legitimate hit with audiences worldwide, grossing $116 million domestically and another $45 million around the globe. Daniels has also established himself as perhaps the most prominent black filmmaker of the modern age, what with his 2009 film Precious also garnering intense awards season love. Both Coogler and Daniels represent the shifting landscape of American cinema, where black films and filmmakers are no longer voices the American public are afraid to hear, but rather ones they are willing to shell out money to see on more than just a fluke basis.

Daniels’ film is an epic of vast proportions, encompassing a huge ensemble cast (that was nominated over with the SAG, mind you), and shows the director’s ability to effectively helm material with a gargantuan scope. Coogler’s film is a bit small for the DGA’s taste, but Daniels could very well prove to squeak a nomination out of a guild that favors drama and spectacle not unlike that which he gave us with The Butler.

4) Alfonso Cuaron and 5) Steve McQueen

Both filmmakers have dominated the Best Director discussion since their respective films wowed festivalgoers at Telluride, Toronto, and Venice late last year. Both helmed fantastic films, and will become first-time DGA nominees tomorrow morning. The only problem is that their films are vastly different.

Gravity is a showy spectacle for the most part (not to discount its thematic and visual metaphors running throughout the film), while 12 Years a Slave is a challenging, gritty masterwork that remains firmly rooted in an emotional tone that lacks the grandiose, loud, overwhelming visual presence of Gravity. My money is on Cuaron for the win, but McQueen’s story would fit nicely into the narrative the Academy would like to weave (McQueen would be the first black director to win at the DGA or the Oscars, or both) what with their evolving image, membership, and taste.

Gravity fits within a narrative as well. In a year where, for the first time since 1997, a film with a female-driven performance rules yearly U.S. box-office (Catching Fire today surpassed Iron Man 3 as the year’s top-grosser), the Sandra Bullock-driven, one-woman show that is Gravity would be a welcome Best Picture winner for the Academy’s diversifying image. The DGA nominations for both men will tomorrow cement their positions as leaders within the race.

6) David O. Russell

Only nominated here once before (for The Fighter), even Russell’s heyday failed to impress the DGA. Even as Silver Linings Playbook swept the early awards discussion in 2012, his name was left off of DGA ballots in favor of Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper, and Ben Affleck (Lee and Spielberg had been locks for quite some time). This year, his monumental achievement American Hustle is far too big for the DGA to ignore. He’s played the Oscar game so well, crafting three drastically different films over the course of four years, showing range, dynamism, and an ability to get three Oscar-winning performances out of his casts (along with another four acting nominations for other cast members). His on-set antics undoubtedly rub many directors the wrong way, but his achievements are no less significant. A nomination here will further fuel American Hustle‘s position as one of the top three contenders for Best Picture.

Though the DGA has little clout over Oscar nominations with the recent date changes (their announcement comes only one day before Oscar ballots are due), their crossover membership with the Academy is generally good for influencing winners once Oscar nominees are announced.

The Directors branch of the Academy tends to favor more independent, smaller films than the DGA, most likely because the guild itself is for the advancement of their craft, and showy films like Avatar or Argo encompass vast sources from all reaches of the industry, and people can easily see the spectacle a showy director creates. This is how you explain Tom Hooper getting in for Les Miserables last year over the likes of eventual Oscar nominees Benh Zeitlin and Michael Haneke.

The issue of Martin Scorsese has come up a lot, as well, and I just don’t see him making it into the race this year. His film is polarizing, and the film was released far too late in the year to have been a legitimate awards contender. Recognition for the film will come for the picture as a whole  when the Academy nominates it for Best Picture, a broad inclusion that doesn’t pinpoint anything specific is the least controversial route to go. Honoring Marty with a nomination implies that they agree with the film and its trajectory as a thematic vehicle, not just as a spectacle of superb film direction.

My predictions for tomorrow’s DGA nominations, ranked in order of potential:
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Without PGA Support, Can ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Survive?

LLEWYN2013 introduced this interesting Oscar dynamic where, even if a film misses out on what used to be a key Oscar precursor, it’s resuscitated by intense love from another guild or group.

The cycle of pre-Oscar awarding has shifted from recognizing good films to celebrating the ability of the respective guild or group to champion the right film of the year, considering the Academy can no longer use the majority of these precursor awards as springboards for their own nominations (with the new schedule, winners generally aren’t announced during or after Oscar balloting has already commenced).

All we’re doing is dancing around in circles with a different crop of films each time we pass the 360 mark.

The recent highs and lows of Inside Llewyn Davis on the awards circuit couldn’t have more fittingly encapsulated the 2013 awards season.

Within a matter of days, the Coen brothers’ latest offering went without recognition from the Producers Guild of America–a key Best Picture Oscar prognosticator–to nearly sweeping the National Society of Film Critics’ annual awards.

The National Society of Film Critics’ top honors for Best Film were bestowed upon Davis, with other wins in the Directing, Actor, and Cinematography categories, each a category that other Oscar contenders have led across the board since the beginning of the season. Gravity‘s Alfonso Cuaron and 12 Years a Slave‘s Steve McQueen have dominated the Director race, while Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew McConaughey, and Bruce Dern have control the discussion on Best Actor.

The PGA turned a cold shoulder to the film (as have general audiences and other Oscar precursors), which undoubtedly hurts its chances (as crossover membership is a legitimate factor here, where it isn’t with the NSFC), considering Oscar ballots aren’t due for another three days. This will work in one of two ways:

1) Academy voters will read the headlines proclaiming “Coens Left Out of PGA Nominations” as a springboard for voting for something else (“If the PGA didn’t vote for it, why should I?” mentality)

or

2) Academy voters will read the headlines proclaiming “Coens Left Out of PGA Nominations” and use it as an opportunity to vote for the film in lieu of something else (my guess is that the film occupies the same space of appeal as something like Her or The Wolf of Wall Street).

Days before Oscar nominations, one thing remains clear: no one has any idea what they’re doing–or where the race is going.

Since 2000, only two films that the National Society of Film Critics have awarded their Best Film award have gone on to win top honors at the Oscars. The difference? The Academy’s preferential ballot allows films the NSFC generally goes for (polarizing, low-profile arty films) to succeed based on passionate enthusiasm. Since films can extend their reach into the Best Picture category like never before, the NSFC’s love for Inside Llewyn Davis (which doesn’t correlate with how Oscar voters will fill out their ballots) does prove that support for the film can be all-encompassing and firm despite typical precursors which are supposed to influence other precursors. This year, everyone seems to be doing their own thing.

On the Academy’s end, they tend to recognize the Coens when they’re doing something different. That might sound like it speaks for every film in the Coens’ library (evolving their style has become key to their recent work), but taking a look at the Coens’ Academy history, it’s not.

Inside-Llewyn-Davis-trailer-1877774A Serious Man rushed the Best Picture category the first year the Academy expanded the Best Picture category to include 10 nomination slots. Undoubtedly the wild card of the group, the film was boosted by staunch Coen supporters. A year after that, True Grit caught the Academy’s eye for being an uncharacteristically showy, genre-confined turn for the duo, and received a staggering 10 nominations without a single victory. 2008’s Burn After Reading, however, was completely left out of the Oscar race because, out of their most recent work, is more reflective of the classic work the Academy fell in love with in the first place (I like to think of it as Fargo-lite).

And then we have No Country For Old Men, perhaps the best work the brothers have done over the course of their entire career. It’s hard to compare anything to Fargo, let alone to an entirely separate work from an entirely separate period in the career of the most dynamic set of directors working today. No Country For Old Men exists as an entirely separate filmmaking fantasy roaming the stratospheres far and above just about every other film made over the last two decades. The film seemed to sweep awards season with the major critics circles (NYFCC, NBR) and key guilds (including PGA, SAG, and DGA) all the way to the Oscar for Best Picture.

Inside Llewyn Davis is perhaps the most drastic departure from their signature style that the Coens have taken in their entire career, and we know people (especially the Academy) aren’t comfortable with having their expectations challenged. It’s a film which starts as a playfully pessimistic peep into the life of a struggling artist but, as it concludes, is a depressing portrait of struggle making the art, not the artist spinning it for himself. It’s showy in a way that we haven’t really seen from the Coens, incorporating an extra-filmically appealing component–its soundtrack–that resonates in ways and places the film can’t. The majority of Academy voters–the guys in the sound department, for example–are going to tick off the more outwardly appealing films instead of the subtly challenging ones such as this.

When there’s a strong push for a Coens film, its almost always strong enough to break through to the Oscar race. Misfires and delvings into more commercially-appealing territory such as The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty lacked even a critical push into the awards race, proving that voting members are actually paying attention to the Coens as directors with a standard of quality that’s tangible and ever-changing. It isn’t just a voting process that rewards the name. The passion for Davis is strong.

The industry as a whole learned its lesson after Fargo fell short of the prize in the 90s: when you go for the Coens, you must go big–and for the right picture–and I’m not sure they’re convinced Inside Llewyn Davis is that film. It’s still alive without PGA support, but this week’s DGA announcement will seal its fate–hopefully for the better.