Academy Awards Preview, Part 3: Top Honors

In the last part of a three part series, our resident film buffs Max O'Connell and Nick Schmiedicker talk about who will take home the top prize tonight at the Oscars.

It’s that time of the year again, where Hollywood gathers to give itself a good ol’ pat on the back for a job well done, regardless of whether or not they’re really honoring films or performances that will stand as the most memorable of 2013. 

The Academy Awards have a habit of giving out trophies to films that make them feel good about themselves and performances by people they believe are “due” for an award,  but to their credit, they’ve nominated some fine films and performances this year (12 Years a Slave, Her) among the usual middling choices (Philomena, anyone?). 

With that in mind, movie gurus Nicholas Schmiedicker and Max O’Connell are going to go through the nominations in each category and talk about what they think should win, what they think will win, and who was wrongfully left off the nominee list.

Best Director

American Hustle (David O. Russell)

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)

Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

Max O'Connell: There were really only a few people who looked like possible nominees other than the ones here: the Coen Brothers, whose Inside Llewyn Davis the Academy clearly and unfortunately didn’t respond to, and Spike Jonze, whose work on Her likely just missed out in favor of Payne or Scorsese. Jonze should be here over David O. Russell, whose American Hustle is his weakest film and who’s gravitating away from the bold, deeply idiosyncratic work of his past films (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) in a way I find a little disheartening.

Right now the race seems to be between McQueen and Cuarón, but who should win? Here’s where I know you’re going to disagree: Scorsese. I loved seeing McQueen apply his pitiless aesthetic to a story of this magnitude, and I’m as impressed as anyone with Cuarón’s pyrotechnics. 

But Scorsese made his most formally inventive film since The Age of Innocence, not to mention one of his most brazen: freeze frames on dwarf-tossing, long tracking shots through chanting crowds of stockbrokers, slow motion sequences to approximate the feeling of being on quaaludes, the works, all without the moral tut-tutting that a lot of people wanted. To see a director trust his audience to get that these guys are a bunch of rats was really refreshing for me.

Nick Schmiedicker: To start off with on who should be on this list, I’m with you from the beginning. Her should be on here. The entire movie was an emotional gut-punch that was shot, scored, and written beautifully. Jonze did an incredible job with a concept that should be alienating and weird but proved to be heartwarming and very touching.

In favor of this not descending into 10+ pages of us discussing Wolf and Scorsese’s direction, I’ll say that I disagree. The examples you gave are nothing new technically and it is only choosing an opportunistic point in the film to place things like a slow motion or tracking shot. I was underwhelmed by it all and the horrible bits of 90’s aesthetic he tried injecting with commercials that looked nothing like a video from the 90’s and instead came across as an ultra-high definition video with people wearing 90’s clothes on a screen with black space that ripped me from the “illusion” of the cinema.

Who should win from this lineup? McQueen. While the cinematic techniques he employed as a director are also nothing technically groundbreaking - like Cameron’s Avatar or Cuarón’s Gravity, he used them in a way that empowered the narrative. Instead of freezing the frame on an airborne dwarf he lingers with a static camera on Solomon being hung on a tree, the only movement the other slaves going about their day and the endless struggle of his feet, just barely touching the ground. It’s a directorial choice that made me feel something and study the composition of the shot, rather than what came off as nothing more than cheap gimmicks - such as the quaaludes scenes. But enough of our dream winner, who’s actually gonna take home that statue?

MO: Nothing new except in the way Scorsese used them for these characters and this story, a sensory overload for a world of sensory overload. Moving on, though: I think it’s going to Cuarón. McQueen’s touch is worthy of David Lean, as far as I’m concerned, but I think the Academy is going to respond to the technical tour de force of Gravity, rewarding what could be derogatively described as “most directing” rather than “best directing” if one doesn’t go for it. I think it’s a deserving win, but I do think  that the Academy can most clearly see what Cuarón is doing is what’s going to be the deciding factor.

NS: And it’s here that you and I agree completely. The overwhelming experience that was Gravity was enough of a spectacle that I don’t think the Academy will ignore it. I agree it’s a deserving win, and this category more than some others is a little more of a close call, but you’re right, Gravity will take it.

Best Picture

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club





12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

NS: Ah, best picture. The big cheese. There’s a great lineup this year, Her, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street (according to some people that aren’t me). But, I think we both know what should’ve made the list but didn’t. Man of Steel… 

I’m only messing with you. I am actually surprised there is no Inside Llewyn Davis or All is Lost on the list. I can understand All is Lost, it didn’t seem to have that much attention around its release and I think slipped under a lot of people’s radars. But the marketing campaign for Davis was pretty strong and I thought definitely merited a nod.

We’ve talked about it before, and I know I mentioned it above, but Her should take this one home. For all the reasons I listed above, and more, it is just an amazing film and struck an emotionally sympathetic chord within me that’s a shared pain. 12 Years a Slave had a similar experience but I wasn’t able to directly relate, to put myself in the movie wholly. And while I have never fallen in love with an artificially intelligent consciousness voiced by Johansson, I have fallen in love and had my heart broken.

MO: Those snubs you mentioned were expected, if unfortunate. I’d be happy with at least a few different films winning: 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Nebraska, and yes, The Wolf of Wall Street, my second favorite of the nominees. But if I were a member of the Academy, I too would cast my vote for Her. It has nothing to do with it being relatable to me (although it’s certainly that), it has to do with it being the wisest and warmest film about love, relationships, heartbreak, and moving on in ages. It’s a high concept film that works precisely because it’s handled with such disarming sincerity and openheartedness, simultaneously deeply personal and universal. I wish it had any chance of winning Best Picture.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it does. Schmiddy, does any film have a chance other than Gravity or 12 Years a Slave? What’s ultimately taking home the top prize?

NS: Honestly? No. This is going to come down to one of those two films. Which one? My gut is telling me to stick with 12 Years. Despite the beautiful cinematography of Gravity the writing was a little poor and I think the Academy has a history of picking films that have a little more to say than the pretty pictures on the screen. Gravity was too much of a blockbuster type film and didn’t have the same depth of 12 Years. Ultimately, it’s going to go to 12 Years a Slave, or at least that’s where my money’s going.

MO: “...the Academy has a history of picking films that have a little more to say that the pretty pictures on the film.” We disagree here, they have a habit of picking films that have “important” subjects but have little say about them, occasionally lucking into picking something that’s as meaningful as its subject matter is weighty. That’s why lousy movies like Crash, Dances with Wolves and Driving Miss Daisy have won Oscars but have since been turned into examples of why the Oscars usually pick the wrong movie. And while I don’t think Gravity is quite at the same level, there are plenty of blockbusters that would’ve been better picks over the Best Picture winners of their years (Raiders of the Lost Ark over Chariots of Fire, E.T. over Gandhi). 

That said, I do think it’s going to be a Best Picture/Best Director split, with Gravity taking Director but losing Picture to 12 Years. The Academy could decide they want an escapist film rather than an emotionally grueling one, but right now my gut says 12 Years has that “important” label thrown onto it, and we’re just lucky that this time it’s for a movie that actually deserves it.

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