Academic Awards

ac·a·dem·ic (adj.):  Scholarly to the point of being unaware of the outside world.

Opening Monologue

This Sunday sees the eye of the worlds instantly perishable media turn to the annual Hunger Games, taking place in Hollywood California for the 86th (and hopefully final) time. For a variety of reasons (chief amongst them the desire to drive traffic from Twitter to this blog) here I present my own views on this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture. While it is hard to argue against the view that the winning of an Oscar has little to do with the quality of a movie or performance, I actually do believe that this year is very strong year for movies, and this is reflected in the Best Picture nominees discussed below. I will justify this blog post at the end, if you stick around that far. And so, here is the list, in reverse order of my preference.

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6. American Hustle

Plot: Christian Bale and Amy Adams have some kind of scam going, they get caught, and then have to work for the FBI.

Rant: There were a lot of things wrong with this movie, but what was most unforgivable was that the plot just really wasn’t as exciting as it thought it was. American Hustle is your typical ‘rise-and-fall’ movie, where the main characters meet, become successful, then too successful, and then run into trouble. See Goodfellas, Casino, Blow, and countless others. The problem with American Hustle is that the trickster duo of Christian Bale and Amy Adams never became that successful, and certainly not successful enough for us to care about them losing it all. The innovation in the formula is that since the central pair are professional con-men, they will have a trick at the end to take them back to the top (well, back to the middle, actually). That, and giving Amy Adams the sexy role while leaving Jennifer Lawrence to rumble around a kitchen complaining about microwaves for a total of about five minutes mean that there is something very frustrating about the whole experience. American Hustle looks great, and it is obvious they went to a lot of trouble to recreate the travesty of late-70s style and decor, but this added to its plot troubles and miscasting mean the whole thing adds up to a lot less than the sum of its parts.

Oscar Chances: The ladies could well take both the female acting awards. Has a chance at Best Picture

5. Captain Phillips  

Plot: Tom Hanks is captain of a freight ship that gets hijacked by Somali pirates.

Rant: Somewhere in a Hollywood movie studio, data analysts are hard at work crunching the numbers of past Oscar success in order to come up with a perfect formula for surefire Best Picture success. If Captain Phillips is a product of that initiative, I would be of the opinion that not the research is not far off the mark. It  has: a) Tom Hanks as b) an everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances,  it is c) based on a true story, it is d) set mostly at sea, and e) it goes on for ages. These factors should combine to make Captain Phillips a Best Picture favourite, but unfortunately for the data analysts, competition this year is too great and in this case what has worked just fine in the past is not good enough. That is not to say the movie is bad, as the director Paul Greengrass creates real atmosphere and tension from what could have been a typical American-saves-everyone story.

Oscar Chances: Best Supporting Actor

4. 12 Years A Slave

 

Plot: The true story of a free black man in pre-Emancipation America that gets kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Rant: I have visions of director Steve McQueen and the cast of 12 Years a Slave this time last year, watching Quentin Tarantino on the Oscar circuit for Django Unchained. Tarantino waxed lyrical about how his movie was the first to show slavery as it was, rather than how it was abolished, and about how this made American audiences very uncomfortable. McQueen and his cast would have looked at each other and probably hoped that Tarantino at least prepared America for what they were about to present later in the year. While Django was shocking and ultraviolent, 12 Years A Slave is calmly yet brutally horrific. Much was said last year of Leonardo Dicaprio’s maniacal slave owner in Django, yet he fades to a shadow compared to Michael Fassbender’s sadistic, tortured portrayal of essentially the same character in 12 Years. It’s a terribly hard movie to watch, and would be higher in this list if it didn’t make me feel bad by just thinking about it.

Oscar Chances: Outside bets for Best Actor, Director and Supporting Actor

3. The Wolf of Wall Street

Plot: Leonardo DiCaprio is a finance whizzkid who flies too close to the sun.

Rant: I was not impressed when I heard a few years ago that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio were making a movie about a former Wall Street millionaire who lost everything and lived to tell the tale. I felt that we all had seen this movie before, and that the two of them could be doing something better. I was wrong, as they managed to put a new spin on the traditional rise-and-fall movie. I referred to the rise-and-fall format earlier with regards to American Hustle, and my problem there was that they didn’t really rise high enough to justify us caring about the fall. This is not the case here, as DiCaprio’s character does pretty damn well for himself in a few short years. The best thing about Wolf is that it is so entertaining. I will go out on a limb and say that this is the most consistently entertaining three-hour movie ever made. This movie is laugh out loud hilarious at times, which is not something you can often say about a movie in the running for Best Picture. A lot of this is to do with DiCaprio, and I look forward to reading his autobiography in a few years when he tells us how he prepared for a movie where he is on cocaine in every scene…

Oscar Chances: Best Actor.

2. Her

Plot: Joaquin Phoenix develops a mature relationship with his new Operating System: A highly sophisticated ‘learning’ platform voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Rant: I just mentioned that it is unusual for Best Picture nominees to be funny, yet I will discredit my opinion here by saying that Her is one of the funniest films I have seen in years. I have talked to my girlfriend about this, and she disagrees, but I firmly believe that Her is a comedy. And a great one. The looks on Joaquin Phoenix’s face when he receives news from his love/operating system are just priceless. The casual societal acceptance of developing relationships with OS’s are also hilarious, as suddenly the whole world decides that all anyone really needs is an omnipresent voice that stores our information, runs our lives and learns through experience. I will not give away the ending, but Her also presents one of the greatest ripostes to the idea of The Singularity that I have ever seen.

Oscar Chances: If this doesn’t win Best Original Screenplay then there is something seriously wrong.

1. Gravity

Plot: Sandra Bullock gets lost in the Earth’s atmosphere. She tries to return home.

Rant: Gravity is probably the only movie I have ever seen that had me hooked from the first second until the closing credits. The tension created by director Alfonso Cuaron is at times unbearable, and for that I will forgive any criticisms of moot melodramatic plot points that crop up during the middle. My only regret is that I did not see this in the cinema, in 3D. One thing I learned from discussing this movie: lots of women hate Sandra Bullock.

Oscar Chances: Strong contender for Best Picture, Best Director.

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The Unseen: Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska.

Philomena and Nebraska, I am sure you both are very fine movies, you are just not for me. I have been meaning to watch Dallas Buyers Club, but will probably never get round to it either. None of them will win Best Picture, which is probably a good way to close this paragraph.

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Closing Monologue

I won’t be watching the Oscars, I don’t see how anyone could enjoy the pompous back slapping of a room of extremely rich and self-obsessed people, to be honest. I do pay attention to the Best Picture, Director and Screenwriting winners and nominees  every year however, as they can be a good indication of what type of filmmakers will have power in the coming years. Hollywood movie studios respect two things in filmmakers: money and awards. An Oscar nomination gains a Christopher Nolan or a Spike Jonze the leverage to make the movies they want to make, for appropriate budgets, and with full creative control. For this, and only this, I still follow the Oscar nominations each year. This year in particular, there are some highly creative voices included in the nominations, such as Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron, and this can only be good for a Hollywood system that is suffocating on its own vomit of Transformers and Avengers. In essence, the Academy Awards are about acceptance, and while the awards ceremony itself is excruciating, it is no bad thing that a lot of very talented filmmakers have been invited in this year.

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Anyway, that’s enough from me: what do you think, which one would you vote for?

 

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