The news today about Philip Seymour Hoffman's death, and the posting of the j'accuse article on Nicholas Kristof's NYTimes blog by "Dylan Farrow" repeating her accusations of child molestation against Woody Allen (not posting the links, this time) force my hand a bit in writing this lead:
Smart people sometimes do stupid things.
Famous people sometimes do stupid things.
Artists sometimes do stupid things.
People who are not smart, famous, or artists sometimes do stupid things.
I have no statistics on the relative frequency of those occurrences.
Clearly, Woody Allen is a guy who has major psychological issues, and has had them all along. He is "narcissistic" (totally in love with himself and his own thoughts), he could clearly be accused of misogyny, of having lusted after young girls (as an "older" man), and guilt is a major theme in his work (one could ask: why?). He also seems to have some traits of weirdness which don't all fit together, like claustrophobia, agoraphobia, fear of crowds, fear of publicity, going to Knicks games, and playing the clarinet in public. He is also a brilliant, extremely hard-working artist, and, like many artists, he routinely sublimates his neurotic impulses into his art.* I don't know that much about Hoffman, who was also brilliant in his craft (and I don't use this word lightly at all) and seems to have been quite messed up, as well. In the end, though, he may just have made a major error and latched onto some poisonous smack. I'm sure it will all come out, in much more detail than I want to hear about. For that matter, relating to the Woody polemics, I think Roman Polanski and, yes, Mia Farrow are pretty screwed up, too, in very similar ways, but still very accomplished artists.
So, the first two things we have to get out of the way about the Oscars are: 1) Hoffman is not nominated for anything this year (thank goodness); and 2) Allen is nominated for best original screenplay for "Blue Jasmine" this year; he will not win--that is certain. I don't think he should have won, anyway. I saw "Blue Jasmine" on a plane; I could be self-righteous and say that in this way I did not contribute to his wealth (which is somewhat the way I feel about "The Wolf of Wall Street", though it's not Scorsese's or DiCaprio's wealth I'm concerned about but Jordan Belfort's). I'll just say that it was not one of my highest priority films to see in a theater, but I thought I'd catch it since I had the chance. We'll get to it later when we discuss the Actress nominations.
I mentioned "on a plane"--it was January 5, and I was on my way to Italy, where I am now. Italy has lots of great things about it, but one thing that's not great is access to first-run movies in their original language (unless that language is Italian). So, I'm basically stuck at the number of movies that I had seen before I left (with one major exception, which I'll get to). The key omissions are "Dallas Buyers Club", "Philomena", "Inside Llewyn Davis", "the Hobbit....", "Saving Mr. Banks", and "Nebraska"--the first two (out, but hard to find) and the hobbit one are really the only ones for which I need to apologize for not seeing, as the others basically ducked the holiday season in all but a very small number of theaters. I certainly would have liked to have been able to see the Coen Brothers film on a big screen, but I'm afraid they blew it for me this time. ("Nebraska" is the only one of those really out here in Italy, and I think it would lose something being dubbed into Italian!) I also didn't see "Wolf of Wall Street" (see above), "August: Osage County" (not interested--I could not believe it was listed as a comedy at the Golden Globes), or "Frozen" (not to worry: I'm sure it will win the Oscar for Best Animated without my endorsement). Or any of the shorts or documentaries, of course--I'm not one of the privileged members of the Academy--I'll skip voting on those, as I have no informed opinion.
Best Movie Discussion
This section could be entitled "discussion of the movie that will win the Oscar for Best Picture", and I don't mean to suggest this is "the best" movie discussion you can find, but what I really mean is that this is (at least in the first part) a discussion of what was the best movie of 2013, something I do not think is limited to the nominees. The Academy limits itself to 5-10 nominees and has nine this year; I really don't know how they decide that (probably the ones recommended by >X% of the Academy), but I do think they missed a couple, and they showed a typical American, late-year bias in their selections.
The five movies released in 2013 that I saw and think were the best were: "American Hustle", "12 Years a Slave", "Gravity", "Her", and "The Great Beauty" (a/k/a "La Grande Bellezza"). Close behind were "Captain Phillips", then two films which had the double misfortune of being released too early in the year and featuring young adult-type stories ("The Spectacular Now" and "The Way Way Back"), while the best comedy/musical of the year was the long-forgotten "The Great Gatsby" (yes, you forgot that one, Golden Globes!), the soundtrack of which I bought, and which I would say is only slightly less impressive than that of "American Hustle" (since they don't give awards for best soundtrack--maybe the Grammys do?). To fill out my ten, I'm going to guess I will put "Inside Llewyn Davis" or "Frozen" when I get the chance to see them (and no, they were not nominated for Best Picture--for a good concise listing of the nominees, I suggest this one that came out the same day as the nominations on CNN).
Back to best movie: the one I enjoyed the most is "American Hustle"; it also clearly had the best ensemble acting performance. "Gravity" was the one which had the most impressive artistic creativity. "Her" and "La Grande Bellezza" made me think, and feel, in ways that I had not thought or felt before, while "12 Years", though absolutely brutal and cruel to its viewers, was a work of world-historical significance: I think that, like "Schindler's List" a few years ago, and maybe "the Pianist", these historical recreations can establish truths and settle things, once and for all (OK, "Shoah" may have already done that before Spielberg and "Schindler", but few will ever see that.) In the case of "12 Years", the argument that one sometimes hears in the South that slaves "didn't have it so bad", that "many of them were happy", etc. just should not be tolerated after that movie. (Not that they should have been tolerated before, though they were/have been.)
For me, that's the difference-maker, a great film, which also has a lasting, meaningful effect on society. The story of "Gravity" is full of holes, though the art and performances were breath-taking. "La Grande Bellezza" has been criticized here in Italy for political incorrectness, though I think that criticism is off the mark--it is apolitical, because its themes are beyond mere politics of the moment, the country, or even of this era. It is highly self-indulgent, though--that narcissism thing, again. "Her" is a movie before its time--actually, way before its time--that deals with one of the most interesting topics that is out there today. The subject is referred to as "the singularity"--I recommend looking into it, as I'm sure writer/director Spike Jonze did--when machine intelligence catches up, surpasses, then outdistances human intelligence. When it comes, it could come very quickly, but I hasten to say that machines are really stupid today, and it doesn't seem that this story is close to our lives today. Fifty years from now or so, it will be considered a classic of this age. OK, it's about some other things, too, like the search for love, how the feeling of loss can bring people together, but let's face it--I'm all in favor of love between humans, in all its varied forms, but "falling in love" with your operating system is just weird, either now or in the future.
"American Hustle" is the one that is trickiest to deal with, as the gossip suggests the Academy is apparently wrestling with this one right now. It is the early favorite for the Best Picture award, and the hype behind it has generated a backlash. Basically it is a pretty mundane period piece from the '70's that was jazzed up tremendously with an adroit Hollywood treatment--pretty much the same as "Argo", only a less interesting story. The key aspect of the film (SLIGHT SPOILER FOLLOWS) was the addition of the Mafia kingpin played by Robert De Niro; without that, it was just your typical entrapment job on sleazy politicians--plenty of that around. But the treatment, with the great actors, makeup, music, and that edge of danger which the Mafia threat brought in, those are what made the movie. So, great artifice--sort of like "Gravity". But "12 Years a Slave" is the real thing--a true story, made real, with performances that tear your guts out, for all the right reasons. So, I'll go with that.
Will the backlash win out? It did last year, when the resentment against Spielberg and his "Lincoln" gave the award to a far less deserving film, and I don't know what the Academy was thinking when it awarded "The Artist" over "The Descendants". It's still embarrassing to consider. So, who knows? I'll be content if either "Hustle" or "12 Years" wins, surprised if neither does, though "Gravity" may have a shot, too.
Best Picture--Will Win/Should Win: "12 Years a Slave"
Really, they shouldn't even have this category--the nominees should be the same as for Best Picture, and the award should go to the director, not the producers. I'm trying to think of a great movie that didn't have great direction, and I can't. At least they should open up the category in the same way they did for Best Picture, up to 10 nominees, and it wouldn't be hard to fill. So, my pick would be Steve McQueen ("12 Years"), for the reasons described above. (By the way, Steve McQueen the actor never won an Oscar--he was nominated once, for "The Sand Pebbles", in which he was great! I didn't care for his acting much, in general, but I loved his performance in that movie; kiddies, rent it sometime, you can really learn something from it. I won't spoil it and tell you what you would learn about, but it's not a beach/surfer movie.)
In terms of Hollywood politics, David O. Russell ("Hustle") is considered a jerk; I'd say he's a better shot to win for Original Screenplay (which is fine with me). Alexander Payne won for "The Descendants", so he's been taken care of; Martin Scorsese has also won (finally!), and I don't think "Wolf" should get him another; so the other main contender is Alfonso Cuaron, who is eminently deserving. Have I ever mentioned what an amazing movie was his "Children of Men"? I'll be content with either Cuaron or McQueen.
Best Director - Should Win: Steve McQueen
Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron
Best lead actor (male) was a difficult category to limit to five nominees this year. "I hear" that there were several deserving actors who were not nominated (Hanks, Redford, Oscar Isaac for "Llewyn Davis"...). Among those who were nominated, I've seen the performances of only two, Christian Bale in "Hustle" (who was great, but will not win--see David O. Russell above) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (it's really hard to type his name!) for "12 Years"--I really hope he wins. So far, from the other award shows it looks like Matthew McConnaughey (he lost a whole bunch of weight--I guess that's harder to do than gain a bunch of weight, which Bale did) is the favorite; and I should say I give Matthew props for his (forgotten) performance early in the year in "Mud". I'd say Bruce Dern is the dark horse candidate, as there are a lot of old-timers in the Academy who'd like to give it to him. Leo DiCaprio will have to wait another year.
Best lead actress looks to me to be a race between Cate Blanchett ("Blue Jasmine") and Amy Adams ("Hustle"). I think this Woody thing will end up hurting Cate's chances, which is unfair--she was spectacularly good (she's always very good, but this role was tougher and she nailed it). As for Amy, I would say this role wasn't quite as tough as the one she mastered last year (for "The Master"), but she (and her intentionally phony English accent) were good enough to win this year, I think. Meryl Streep's got plenty of award-winning roles (and this ain't one), Sandra Bullock got hers (otherwise, she would win), and fortunately for the leading candidates, Judi Dench has won an Oscar (supporting, for "Shakespeare in Love") out of her seven nominations. Note: Cate has also won, for imitating a multi-Oscar winner (Katherine Hepburn) in "The Aviator", but I don't think that in itself will be the obstacle.
When it comes to Supporting Actor/Supporting Actress, I think there's a chance for a breakthrough this year with two Africans winning (there's even a chance for three, with Ejiofor, but I think that's unlikely). When it comes to Supporting Actor, I think that Barkhad Abdi as the Somali pirate in "Captain Phillips" should win--Academy voters don't usually hold it against a supporting actor/actress that he/she is "the bad guy". I hear that Jared Leto was superb, though, as a transgender AIDS patient in "Dallas Buyers Club". As for Supporting Actress, I don't know: it's a tough field, with Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lawrence bringing strong, popular entries, and Sally Hawkins has earned her praise for her latter-day "Stella!" (called "Ginger" in Woody's version), but I'm going to go with Lupita Nyong'o's searing performance as a brilliant, trapped slave in "12 Years".
Best Lead Actor: Should Win--Ejiofor; Will Win - McConnaughey
Best Lead Actress: Should Win--Blanchett; Will Win--Adams
Supporting Actor: Should Win--Abdi; Will Win--Leto
Supporting Actress: Should Win/Will Win--N'yong'o
I'm tempted to use the old Bill Murray/SNL approach to the preview when it comes to the Original Screenplay category: "Nebraska", "Dallas Buyers Club"? Didn't see them--next! Seriously, I can imagine both getting some support as being truly original script ideas filled with human interest. I wasn't that thrilled with the quality of the wit in Woody's latest outing (and we have disqualified him above for other, less appropriate reasons), though I did think he did a good job with the flashbacks, using them to build the story and not making us all confused with their use. Failure to do that well was actually the problem with the script for "Hustle"--the flashbacks didn't always work so well, the initial scene (although hilarious) being a good example: it didn't tie back to the actual story very well. OK, the dialogue was often superb and chock-full of good lines (Jennifer Lawrence's character got most of them); despite its flaws I wouldn't mind if it won. No, the best original screenplay was "Her", by the almost-always genius, Spike Jonze. The back-and-forth between Joaquin Phoenix's character (how was he not nominated? I'd like to know...) and Scarlett's "character" was like a modern-day Platonic dialogue. Please, let him win!
Adapted Screenplay is one I always have trouble picking, and I have no confidence at all in my assessment of the nominees. I've heard "Wolf" went on far too long, so that suggests the screenplay was not tight. "Captain Phillips", on the other hand, had a very taut script, but I've heard a lot of the dialogue, like the amazing final scene when he's been (SPOILER) rescued, was improvised. I'd be really annoyed if "Before Midnight" wins--I did see it, and its script really annoyed me: very stilted, like Woody Allen but without the charm. The dialogue in the "12 Years" script could also be considered "stilted", but it was a very interesting approach: the words of all the characters, even the uneducated ones, had a flowing, well-reasoned quality, as if to say that folks 150 years ago could speak a lot better than we can today. Is it true? I don't know, but I think that principle is unlikely to be rewarded on Oscar night. So, I'll go with "Philomena"--Steve Coogan, one of the writers (and lead actor in it), is a really cool English guy and I think it will add some class if he wins.
Original Screenplay: Will win - "Dallas Buyers Club"; Should Win - "Her"
Adapted Screenplay: Will Win/Should Win - "Philomena"
Costumes! Makeup! Sound! Set!
OK, I'm not a pro in any of these areas, far from it, but I have had a pretty good track record picking these technical areas, using a few tricks. I can't really say, then, who I think should win, but I will say who I think will win.
Costumes - Edith Head (8 Oscars) is dead--she was an automatic pick, in her day. So, you go with the movie that had the fashion look that seems most interesting. "The Grandmaster" was Chinese silks, between the wars--definitely interesting. "Hustle"--'70's bimbos--out! "Great Gatsby" --'20's flappers and rich fops--been done too much! "12 Year" -1800's shabby, plus Southern slaveowners--too "GWTW"! "The Invisible Woman"--my first reaction was, "What the heck was this movie?" but when I looked it up, it's that hidden lover of Charles Dickens movie for which I saw a very interesting and attractive preview--I didn't even know it was out. Middle-class Victorian--boffo! I'll go with "Invisible", narrowly over "Grandmaster".
Sound Mixing/Editing--they always explain the difference, and I always forget (I think editing is the artificial creation of the special sounds, and mixing is the general sonorous feeling). These are ones that usually get swept up, when there's going to be a sweep (that's not this year, I think). Besides, the only nominee in these categories which is a potentially big-time Oscar winner this year is "Gravity", and everybody knows "there's no sound in space!" Still, I think it and the hobbit one are the main contenders. 'll go with "Gravity" on the editing side (lots of heavy breathing in costumes, muffled explosions), and the hobbit one for mixing. (Have I've confused myself again? Oh well...)
Makeup-- There are three nominees: one is a "Jackass" film, one is "The Lone Ranger"--a flop of historic proportion, and the ridiculous makeup for Tonto (Johnny Depp) was a main factor in its awkwardness--and the third is "Dallas Buyers Club". It's a pretty easy guess.
Production Design-- You want to pick the one which had the set that contributed most to the movie's success. "Her" had interesting sets--I think most of the futuristic look came from filming in Hong Kong; however, it's a choice between "Great Gatsby", where Gatsby's house was the star of many scenes, and the miraculous creation of deep space in "Gravity". I'd have to go with the latter.
Costume Design - "The Invisible Woman"
Sound Editing - "Gravity"
Sound Mixing - "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"
Makeup - "Dallas Buyers' Club"
Production Design - "Gravity"
Original Score -- this is not best soundtrack! John Williams is always a good bet, but "The Book Thief" didn't score, so to speak. "Gravity" had music that was a little too intrusive, as I remember, though sometimes the Academy voters reward that. I really can't remember the music in "Her", to be honest--I was too focused on the dialogue. Obviously, I didn't see "Philomena", but I like Thomas Newman's music a lot, it would be a good opportunity to reward "Saving Mr. Banks", which otherwise got snubbed.
Original Song - A good opportunity to give an award to Bono, and posthumously to award Nelson Mandela. There was a scandal and one of the nominees was pulled for the crime (!) of sending emails out to remind voters to vote for his movie as a nominee.
Score - "Saving Mr. Banks"
Song - "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"
Cinematography should be a slam dunk for Ernest Lubezki in "Gravity". Basically, they should retire the award after they give it to him, with future years' award being the "Ernest Lubezki award for Cinematography"--the camera work was that good, and that important to the film.
Film Editing - everyone was talking about the opening 15-minute single-take shot in "Gravity", and Cuaron is listed as co-nominee in this category for that film. But I ask you, how hard is it to edit a 15-minute take? No, I'm going to go with the hobbits on this one and hope the Academy agrees.
Visual Effects - This one often surprises, with the award going not to the big hit but one with a stunning visual. I would've thought "Elysium" could have won, but it wasn't nominated, so I'm going with the "Star Trek" one, as I remember a pretty dazzling scene where the Starfleet headquarters in San Francisco was totally destroyed.
Cinematography - "Gravity"
Film Editing - "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"
Visual Effects - "Star Trek Into Darkness"
One word: "Frozen"! The other guys don't even need to show up, unless they want to.
Animated Feature - "Frozen"
I'm going to close with a bit of rant: of course I'm pulling for "The Great Beauty" ("La Grande Bellezza"), but that's the only one of these I've seen. I'm sure that's true of a lot of others, and it should win. (The French lesbian film could've been a threat, but it didn't end up being nominated.)
Instead, I want to lobby for a little bit more consideration from the Academy for foreign films' being considered in other categories. Yes, "The Artist" won several awards--all mistakenly, in my view, and "Life is Beautiful" won best actor for Roberto Benigni--a highly entertaining winner, also probably a mistake. The point is, these are exceptions, and the Academy is not seriously considering the exceptional work being done regularly outside of the US and Britain for the most part, especially in the technical areas. If it were doing so in 2013, "La Grande Bellezza" would have been nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, there would have been some kind of nomination for Film Editing (selection of locations--where does that get an award?) and Toni Servillo should have gotten consideration--if not a nomination--for Best Actor. So there--!
Final Tally of "Will Win": "Gravity" - 4; "Dallas Buyers Club" - 3; "The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug" - 2; "12 Years a Slave" - 2; all others, 1 (or less). Amy Adams prevents an embarrassing shutout of pre-nomination favorite "American Hustle".
Enjoy Oscar night--I think Ellen DeGeneres will be a good choice: hip, but not too much.
*My five favorite Woody movies--and it is not a trivial question:
1) Sleeper; 2) Broadway Danny Rose; 3) Zelig; 4) Bananas; 5) Crimes and Misdemeanors. Me, I like the funny ones best--at his best (for me), the Woodster called in mind the inspired madness of the Marx Brothers. He hasn't been that light-hearted for a long, long time. .