Academy Awards Preview, Part 2: Leaders of the Pack

In the second part of a three part series, our resident film buffs Max O'Connell and Nick Schmiedicker talk about who will win the lead performance categories this Sunday.

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 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)

Max O’Connell: I’m bummed that Robert Redford was left out for his intensely focused work in All Is Lost, and that the academy left out the great characters they might have found too prickly (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis) or meek (Joaquin Phoenix, Her), but I don’t think there’s a dud performance on the final list. I’m thrilled that they nominated my favorite performance of the year, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, which shows the actor taking his movie-star charisma and channeling it to play the most loathsome but darkly funny character of his career, not to mention showing heretofore unseen talents as a physical comedian.


Nicholas Schmiedicker: Well to start, I have to say I'm very disappointed not to see Joaquin Phoenix make the list. I know you and I have talked before and have shared our mutual love and admiration for Her, and I would've really liked to see Phoenix get a nod for his stellar performance (especially compared to Bale, who was more meh than anything) that really made me feel the joys and pains of his character. 


I know I'm a bit of an oddball in our group and didn't love The Wolf of Wall Street, but I'm a bit surprised at your mention of DiCaprio. I didn't find much of his performance to remark on past that scene you mentioned as a physical comedian. There was no subtlety or depth and instead it was a very, in comparison, uncomplicated character to portray. From this lineup, my hat tips to Chiwetel Ejiofor. In my eyes, his performance is one that will go down in the history books and we'll see studied, along with that film, in years to come.

MO: Regarding who will win: Bale and Dern are out. The former’s the only previous winner of the nominees, the latter is in a very small film. DiCaprio has the most previous nominations, which makes a lot of people think he’s overdue, but the film is controversial and the character thoroughly unlikable, so the conservative Academy voters won’t give him consideration. Ejiofor won a ton of critic awards and is the only one of the bunch starring in a real contender for Best Picture, and the quiet desperation of his performance should really give him the edge.


But I think Matthew McConaughey is going to nab it. If it were just this film, he might be an also-ran – he’s excellent, but I think it’s maybe the fifth or sixth most interesting performance he’s given in his recent career renaissance (or McConnaissance, if you will). But if you combine that with Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street, his new show True Detective, and the residual affection for Killer Joe and Magic Mike, his comeback is too good for them to resist.

NS: To the “who will win,” I’m with you on Bale and Dern. They just don’t have enough to justify the award in this case. DiCaprio, as you said, is overdue but likewise the film is too controversial for him to pull a win from the Academy members.

But here is where we differ. I really think Ejiofor will take this one. I’m all for the McConnaissance and I love what he’s done later both on television and the big screen, but we’re only seeing the beginnings of that shift. If the momentum he’s gained continues and we see him in more standout roles I think next year he’ll take it. 12 Years a Slave and the intensity with which Ejiofor handled what has to be the most uncomfortable time frame in American history will sway the votes in his favor. This may be the one odd shot when my should win and will win are aligned, but my prediction is for Ejiofor to take the win.

Best Actress

Amy Adams (American Hustle)

Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

Sandra Bullock (Gravity)

Judi Dench (Philomena)

Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

NS: I have to admit I’m a little disappointed with this years nominees for Best Actress. While the cinematic eye-pleasure that was Gravity was amazing to watch, and Bullock did an impressive job in her role as Dr. Ryan Stone, it wasn’t enough to truly sell me on the character past the surface-level background and over-reliance on Clooney’s charm. Likewise Dench and Streep in Philomena and August: Osage County respectively, were okay performances, but nothing really more than that. They both lacked the direction or the acting “oomph” to really make me feel anything for their characters other than a desire for the movie to end. (Which definitely sounds harsher than my feelings actually are for these films).


If I’m looking at the roles objectively, I’m going to have to side with Blanchett for a “should win” vote here. Her performance had all of the subtle grace that I typically enjoy while playing off the writing of the film note-perfect. I wish I could give a stronger recommendation to Bullock, who really did surprise me with her best role ever, but ultimately the weak writing of the film itself hampered her too much to get the “Best Actress” for this year.

I’m a little hard-pressed to come up with an actress/role, that I’ve seen, that deserves to be on this list but didn’t make the cut. Max, maybe you can give some better examples in that area?

MO: I’m with you, it’s a weak lineup. I didn’t totally hate Streep in August (I’m a noted Streep semi-contrarian), but she doesn’t take to Tracy Letts’ acidic world naturally. Dench is better, but the script doesn’t allow her any real surprises.  I’m more sold on Bullock, who gives her best performance in a walk, allowing herself to be truly vulnerable for the first time in a long time. The writing itself is a little clunky, but she made the character work for me. Adams is good, though I think American Hustle kind of loses track of both her and Bale at times.

Blanchett is the slam-dunk “should win” here for me, but she shouldn’t be. The unjustly unnominated include Greta Gerwig, effervescently charming in Frances Ha; Adéle Exarchopoulos, rawly emotional in Blue Is the Warmest Color; Brie Larson, heartbreaking in the indie Short Term 12

The person who most belongs here, though: Julie Delpy, nominated for co-writing Before Midnight but skipped over for Best Actress. It’s not only a perfect continuation of the character she played in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, but a role that has the kind of show-stopping scenes that the Academy usually goes for. If they went past the usual suspects and try to work a little harder when selecting nominees, I think Delpy would’ve made it. 

NS: I feel a little better about having a better idea of who should be in this category as I, unfortunately, haven’t seen any of the movies you listed above. Although I typically enjoy Brie Larson and Greta Gerwig so it’s good to know that they’ve been in things you consider to be Oscar worthy.

In the end I think it’s going to be a close-call between Adams and Blanchett. Tradition will ultimately prevail and Blanchett will take the award, but I have a suspicious feeling that Adams may ride in and claim it for herself, giving her her first win. Gun to my head, I’m going to have to go with the safe call of Blanchett for the win though.

Max? Who’s gonna take this one in your eyes?

MO: Blanchett was considered the easy front-runner for this category, but Adams has become a big threat. It’s a combination of appreciation for the performance, residual affection for her four previous nominated performances, and the Academy’s recent love affair with David O. Russell’s films. Also, some people also think Blanchett might face trouble because of the revived controversy regarding her director, Woody Allen.

Still, I think I’m still going to give Blanchett the edge. It’s just the kind of tour de force performance that the Academy tends to go for. And yes, I think she should win. I’m not sure I’d call the performance subtle necessarilyJasmine is a histrionic, neurotic, big character – but Blanchett brings such nuance to a role that might otherwise be just a collection of tics and mannerisms.

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