Saturday, March 01, 2014

Oscar 2013: Predictions, Preferences

All feature-film categories now complete!

Look how distressed Sandra Bullock is, trying to glance into her crystal ball, straining to quantify how many Oscars her movie Gravity will win tomorrow.  I'm sporting the same look on my face as I publicly prognosticate winners for the first time since Jennifer Lawrence was in the Brownies.  But why not take a stab at it?  I've been spouting off on every other angle of the Academy Awards this year: diagnosing the narrowing field of "top" competitors for The Advocate; debunking popular myths about the Oscars and their biases in The Washington Post; and discussing some favorites among this year's nominees and some formative Oscar moments with Der Spiegel, though if Sie kein Deutsche sprechen, you won't be able to read it.  What I have not done anywhere, in any language, is forecast who is winning or fess up to my own choices.  So many of my favorite people are sticking their necks out.  So, as Charles Busch belts out in Die, Mommie, Die! - widely regarded as a near-miss for a Best Picture nod in 2003 - "Why not me?"

Best Visual Effects
Gravity will stomp all over its competitors, making it the sixth Best Picture nominee in a row to cop the prize (after Benjamin Button, Avatar, Inception, Hugo, and Life of Pi, just so you don't have to look it up).  You may take this streak as proof of the Academy's growth over the years—since even within my lifetime as an Oscar queen "effects movies" were often persona non grata in Best Picture—or all you may see is an industry increasingly compelled toward digital extravaganzas. Either way, Gravity would probably mop the floor even with the five past winners I just named, much less with the competitors it has to vanquish here... which in a way is too bad, because there's a lot to say for the invigorating spectacles and sleek execution of several sequences in Star Trek and Iron Man 3.  I was less taken with the effects work in The Lone Ranger (yes, even as regards that train crash), and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was one of a handful of Oscar nominees I missed in theaters. Will: Gravity  Should: Gravity  Hey, Where's The Great Gatsby, which owes the bulk of its locations, color schemes, camera movements, and memorably debauched extras to digital intervention

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
From an impressively strong field we slide over to an annoyingly weak one. Dallas Buyers Club will probably win on default, since voters tend to gravitate to Best Picture nominees unless there's a stirring reason not to.  Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is many things, but not that.  (Actually, Bad Grandpa on its best day is only a couple of things, which disappointed me, since I thought the first Jackass movie was a hoot.  Especially seeing it in a Detroit shopping mall, with people flashing laser sights on the screen midfilm.)  The Lone Ranger has the more-is-more thing nailed down, and a lot of graphically arresting cosmetics have been lovingly applied to actors like Barry Pepper and Helena Bonham Carter.  Still, AMPAS has recently rejected some ostentatious contenders who would have been shoo-ins in the Rick Baker era (The Time Machine, Norbit, Hellboy II) when a more broadly admired film presents itself as an option (Frida, La Vie en rose, and Benjamin Button in those cases).  I think it might have been nice if more of the Buyers Club's subscribers had looked visibly ill.  I would love to see a bruising throwdown between those who insist that Johnny Depp's bird-stapled-to-his-head "Native American" is the year's most horrifying faux-archetype and those who proffer Jared Leto's eyebrowless transwoman for the same distinction.  But failing that battle, and following the canny publicizing of Dallas's breathtakingly low budget, Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews ought to get own their chance to say "All right, all right, all right!" or possibly even speak about Neptune. Will: Dallas Buyers Club  Should: Lone Ranger  Hey, Where's American Hustle, obviously, but also the lightly greyed hair of Llewyn Davis and the wax-museum quality of so many of his acquaintances.  Also, Cate Blanchett's Park Avenue blonde tresses in Blue Jasmine, which are turning into dark roots before her eyes, or ours at least.

Best Supporting Actor
On the subject of Dallas Buyers Club, I thought the movie was fantastic and Jared Leto pretty good the first time I saw them.  Upon revisiting a week or so ago, Dallas betrayed more stress marks, and Leto—by now vaulted from Casting Stunt That Paid Off to Prohibitive Favorite for the Oscar—still seems ...pretty good, without quite explaining what Rayon's doing in this script.  There are some pearl-clutching gestures and other frou-fra in the performance that make it seem stale, conceived more for an audience than from a character who's been built feet up, as they say in American Hustle.  And speaking of Hustle, Bradley Cooper has a large enough part in that movie that he's drawn fire for being a lead falsely slumming in this category.  Yet there are lots of ways to confront the question of who's really "supporting" in a film.  Leto's scenes are more limited, but every single one is handed to the character to be charismatic, or tragic, or funny, or all three, just like Angelina Jolie's and Jennifer Hudson's scenes were in their Oscar-winning vehicles. The movie arguably supports him more than the reverse. Cooper is on screen bunches but, like most of his Hustle castmates, acts an over-the-top character in a strong way and still doesn't seem like he's showboating, or depriving his co-stars of the cues they need to enrich their work.  He and Abdi are the Bests in Show in their movies without ever looking like they realize it.  Fassbender, like Leto, is cleverly playing a thesis that's been posited in the script in place of a real character: in one case, the AIDS patient with a wavering commitment to living, in the other, a slave-owner as one-man multiplex of grimy perversions.  Hill is ...uh, very good in 21 Jump Street and Moneyball.  I have no idea who he's playing in Wolf of Wall Street, no matter how hard he's working to keep the badminton birdie from landing. Will: Leto  Should: Cooper  Hey, Where's James Gandolfini, who didn't need an iota of gratuitous sentiment to merit a nod for his middle-aged romantic, so tentative yet brave, so relaxed yet staunchly principled.  Plus the usual surfeit of guys who got no promotion (Ben Mendelsohn in Place Beyond the Pines, David Oyelowo in The Butler) or who indulged in the sin of acting in non-American films (Yiftach Klein in Fill the Void, Peter Kazungu in Paradise: Love).

Best Original Song
Usually this category poses no conundrum, because I dislike most or all of the nominees and think it should be annulled.  This year, on the one hand, is a fantastic exception because all five four nominees are quite good—a phenomenal feat, especially in a year that seemed pretty weak in this area for quite a long time (see also: Animated Feature).  But then something awful happens when I try to imagine how I'd vote, and all I can think of are the shortcomings of every entry.  "The Moon Song" delights me more in theory than in fact. Contextually, it's a low point in my experience of Her, a movie that absolutely did not need a ukulele, and in no other way suggests that these two characters would collaborate on a song like this.  It also exposes a weakness in the writing, insofar as whatever Samantha constitutes for Theo by this point, she is nothing like an Operating System (see also: Original Screenplay).  "Ordinary Love" is a good U2 track, but I object a little on principle.  Couldn't a South African outfit have been hired?  I get that the band was intimate with Mandela's subject, but... "Let It Go" is fun to sing even if you harbor suspicions that its similarity to "Defying Gravity" is a problem. Worse is the flim-flammy way in which a song that is unmistakably about misguided self-isolation (it is not a good thing that Elsa is espousing this idea, people!) winds up working double-time as an anthem of self-empowerment.  Is that a sign of clever flexibility or of one-size-fits-all blandness?  That leaves Pharrell Williams' "Happy," the current #1 song in America and a zippy tune by a talented guy, proving that you can score animation for kids with a contemporary panache Disney rarely attempts.  The only demerit is that I can literally never remember how the song goes, or what it was doing in Despicable Me 2 besides underlining an arbitrary montage—one of many time-fillers in a listless, character-altering film that was pretty much the definition of a cash-in.  So, I either want all the songs to win or none of them?  What's wrong with me?  I guess I'll just fall into line with the track that's best used in its film and serves as the aptest time capsule for 2013. Will: "Let It Go"  Should: "Let It Go"  Hey, Where's the actual, merit-driven fifth nominee that got jacked by the "Alone Yet Not Alone" fiasco?  When The Godfather's score got bounced after its initial nomination, AMPAS pulled up the sixth-place finisher, the Sleuth music, from the bullpen.  Sure, it's a sign of weakness, but (true story) I was initially the ninth choice out of eight semi-finalists for my current job, and only got an interview when someone else dropped out.  So, never say never!  Plus, wouldn't you rather be invited to the show and be able to call yourself an Oscar nominee, even if it was painfully obvious you were going to lose?  Dozens of nominees across other categories already have that experience.  Why not Lana Del Rey, or the songsmiths behind Kamasutra 3D, which hilariously submitted five tunes for consideration?

Best Sound Editing
I.e., as I understand it, most creative devising of ambient and incidental sounds, appropriate to image and story and/or fruitfully complicating of both.  Under those terms, I'm slightly less likely to vote for Captain Phillips or Lone Survivor, both of which had lots of sound cues to produce and did a sensationally crisp job across the board.  Still, the sharp shiishh-shiishh of bullets fired in water, the portentous clonnng of an iron ladder fastening to a metal ship's rail, the snap of twigs on a quiet Afghani mountain, and the snaps of bones or thumps of clobbered flesh as bodies tumble down that mountain were all things I felt I'd heard before.  Beautifully executed but familiar, and serving stories that were already gripping on their own terms.  As previously mentioned, I cannot comment on The Hobbit: The Megadilation of Tolkien.  I'd have an easy time throwing lots of votes to the sublime Gravity, as I imagine most AMPAS members will do, but I find it easier to defend its adventurous, somewhat rule-bending sound mix than to stand behind every decision made by the sound editors, who sometimes can't resist little fillips of audio when Bullock's body bumps against, say, a floating pen in zero gravity (why is that audible?).  Compared to the nail-biting scenarios and propulsive dramatics of Phillips, Survivor, and Gravity, the one-man shipwreck drama All Is Lost could easily have become tedious if the moment-by-moment conjuring of Redford's environment and predicament weren't so precise.  On the one hand, even mundane sounds took on piquancy or urgency within an increasingly life-or-death situation; on the other, many sounds, including "big" ones, are harrowingly muffled against a vast expanse of companionless sea.  I was entranced from start to finish, frankly against my expectations, and would have liked to see more All Is Lost craftsmen rewarded with nods.  This wound up as its only mention, but not only for that reason, I'd love to see it win. Will: Gravity  Should: All Is Lost  Hey, Where's World War Z, the best zero-nomination blockbuster of the year? It somehow fell off the radar, as inevitably did indies like Berberian Sound Studio, a slightly up-itself postmodern horror thriller that nonetheless delivers on plot-crucial sound cues.

Best Production Design
Hey, I like a fire-blackened formica cabinet as well as anybody does, particularly with a burned-out, perfectly cast "science oven" squatting underneath it, all within a cohesive envelope of thrilling yet threadbare 70s semi-chic. So on those grounds, I get the nomination for American Hustle but would never have made it myself.  Nor am I likely to have plumped for the barely-constrained Luhrmannia of The Great Gatsby, which does some things beautifully (the lurid colorism in shots of Myrtle midflight, the wildly laminated memories of Gatsby's parties) and other things less appealingly, whether they have antecedents in Fitzgerald (those billowing curtains!) or not (the seemingly all-digital Shutter Island where Nick mutters his regrets).  The other three are all eminently justifiable winners in my mind, and each has been my first-place vote at some point.  Adam Stockhausen finds perfect props to suit McQueen's knack for filming objects that emit their own stories: that shredded shirt, those horrendous manacles, the fraying "pencil" dipping in that bowl of blackberry juice.  12 Years also blends period realism with a sense of the plantation as an austere 360° theater with, by design, multiple sightlines.  His restrained work represents  a stunning departure from the hyperboles of clutter he helped devise for Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman.  Speaking of Kaufman, frequent collaborator K.K. Barrett finally reaps a nomination for being the only person alive who would read Her's script about isolated living and post-divorce despondency in a jaundiced, vaguely smoggy City of the Future and think to fill it with bold, primary colors, especially reds and yellows.  The actors aren't alone in warming up this film.  Extra points for the holographic video games, and for spaces that stride a line between apartment and office (is Amy Adams at work or at home?), for a future where that difference is unlikely to exist.  Lastly, Andy Nicholson, following a résumé that stretches from The Mummy to Thomas Hardy to Frankenweenie, contributed multiple miracles to Gravity, even though I keep reading people who question the nod.  Every spaceship has a specific, lived-in identity, while overlapping substantially enough that you believe Ryan Stone, in a pinch, would be able to apply piloting skills learned on one to any of the others.  The typically sleek, ceramic surfaces of Hollywood spacecrafts have been replaced by confusing jumbles of dissimilar parts, ragged edges, and (thank god) graspable handles, though not (oh, shit!) very many of them.  He designed the heck out of some corridors we barely glimpse as Ryan wafts through them, his color palette is elegant and credible, and images like that bronze-wired parachute gumming up the Russian station are as indelible as any in 2013.  I'd be happy with any of the three, so just watch 'em lose to Gatsby.  Heck, I'll go out on a limb.  The designers sure did. Will: Her  Should: Gravity, but ask me again in five minutes  Hey, Where's the creepy but remarkably effective future of Antiviral, simultaneously sleek and gristly, or the hilariously chunky pastiche of early-80s computing and conferencing in Computer Chess?  I bet they just missed.

Best Foreign Language Film
Entries get shorter when I don't have much that's nice to say.  Belgium's Broken Circle Breakdown has some very well-acted moments (especially from female lead Veerle Baetens) and intermittently moving moments.  Still, the writing gets patchy, even simplistic, with one cripplingly indulgent mad scene onstage; one character changes her name with just as crudely "symbolic" an implication as the "Jeanette" business in Blue Jasmine.  At the level of style, there's not much to claim for Breakdown, making it a reverse complement to Italy's The Great Beauty, which can sure execute a grandiloquent camera movement or a colorful party scene but has very little to say, and even less that's new to say.  And no, the stylistics aren't meaty or interesting enough to serve as their own reward.  Then there's Denmark's The Hunt, with its rigged scenario of modern-day witch-hunting that takes literally minutes to become an epidemic, while the accused target seemingly takes weeks to stick up for himself.  That one's nicely shot and handsomely acted by Mads Mikkelsen, but just loves wagging its finger at Human Behavior, without managing to stage much of it.  I do have words of praise for Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, all based on past movies; I got sold out of Omar at Toronto and it only opened in Chicago yesterday, so it remains for me an unknown quantity.  This will all sound like my vote for Cambodia's The Missing Picture is a process-of-elimination choice, but happily, it's the furthest thing.  A heart-wrenching yet creatively oblique recounting of the Khmer Rouge's mad regime—rendered primarily through clay-figure dioramas that are sobering and deceptively complex as metaphors—Picture would sustain this category's recent streak of atypically excellent winners.  It's also, give or take Omar, the least likely to score.  Harrumph.  Will: The Great Beauty  Should: The Missing Picture  Hey, Where's the absurdist Dutch crime thriller Borgman, or the blistering Mexican suspenser Heli, or the Singaporean family dramedy Ilo Ilo, or the crowd-pleasing yet carefully assembled Chilean comedy Gloria?  And those are just from the list of actual submissions.

Best Supporting Actress
While we're here, let's dispense with a few other categories where my median enthusiasm runs a little low.  And yet, we're talking actresses, so I have a lot to say.  I like Roberts fine in August: Osage County, but if you're used to her being a stern and committed presence on screen (and I'm definitely a fan), she doesn't feel that revelatory, nor did I ever stop thinking of actors who I'd have been interested to see as Barbara. I'm still with Guy Lodge, banging that Lisa Kudrow drum. I called Sally Hawkins for a nomination as soon as I read the first reviews of Jasmine; it's an exemplary "coattails" inclusion, likely to draw support from people who think she's great in it and people who feel bad that the movie's barely interested in her, despite the superficially sizeable role. I don't know that she solves the problems Allen builds into Ginger as foil and device, and though she's a talented performer, she can't save a semi-coherent part with the levels of charisma and magic-marker experimentation that Jennifer Lawrence uses to vivify Rosalyn in American Hustle. A lot of particulars in that performance feel off, where threads of craziness, sultriness, motherhood, disguised intelligence, sheer desperation, and fierce marital commitment don't quite sew themselves together.  She's doing riffs on a part an older, more experienced actress might have felt from the inside. Good for her, though: it's exactly the sort of exploratory risk-taking that a young actress riding high waves of opportunity ought to take, and a great reprieve, I imagine, from the burdens of planetary celebrity and of having to play roles like Katniss with close fidelity to a pre-set template.

June Squibb gives what I'd have to call a frankly poor performance in Nebraska.  I just don't see or hear what her advocates do, just a series of naughty lines read out in a flat, declamatory, table-read pitch. In a film where Dern's and Forte's whole performances are built around visible contemplation, thinking about what they'll say next, and visibly thinking while they're talking, Squibb rarely conjures any interiority at all, any sense that this woman is talking and acting from real experience. From the awful-as-scripted graveside skirt-lift to the squandered possibilities of richer scenes (like the one where she explains why she's parked in a neighbor's yard), she's a major emblem of Payne's unevenness in shaping performances and of this film's squandered possibilities.  This holds true even after second pass through Nebraska when I liked other elements marginally better  But from worst to best, Lupita Nyong'o is, to me, the inarguable champion of this category, finding angular physical vocabularies and a heightened way of speaking that make Patsey believable in period while also making her a condensed idea about a girl like this.  Her amplified tones and gestures—perfectly distilled in that moment when she apologizes for needing some soap while riskily haranguing Epps for the same reason—are the acting equivalents of McQueen's camera, which also plants one foot in naturalism and the other in deftly executed and slightly distancing self-consciousness.  You need real training to generate effects like that.  You need megawatt talent to convert the training, especially in your first role. Will: Nyong'o  Should: Nyong'o  Hey, Where's Amy Adams in Her, who not only crafts such a detailed, sympathetic confidant in a few short scenes but makes sure that Theo's love for an OS cannot be construed as a forced choice away from some opposing flaw or general dehydration in the "real" women around him.  Had she been nominated, given her streak of unrewarded nominations, her work in Hustle, and her stand-alone magnificence in the Jonze movie, she surely would have won.

Best Adapted Screenplay
12 Years a Slave is a bit of a default choice for me, since I think it has some limitations despite its many virtues. 19th-century slave narratives were often written in a high, florid rhetorical key even for their time period—a device for sentimental appeal, but even more so to demonstrate the learnedness and sophistication of authors who had so recently been treated like chattel. John Ridley has closely reproduced these winding locutions and highfalutin phrasings, but they sound awfully odd when transposed directly as actual speech. That said, and overlooking some wobbles elsewhere, it's a very forceful piece of writing, and it absolutely gets away with a subtly scrambled chronology, endowing this highly controlled and very candid spectacle with some sense of being innately elusive.  These memories prove difficult, even dementing for the film to conjure, despite its relative coolness. None of the other scripts stacks up.  I'd even argue that, among the also-rans, only the Captain Phillips screenplay even yielded a good movie, in part because Billy Ray lent such motive and complexity to the Somalians. But direction helped him out a lot.  Philomena's script, by contrast, might be better than the direction, which forces the comic passages into a tone of outright jauntiness that repeatedly jars.  Still, that screenplay integrates several themes that would be hard to blend, all the way from institutionalized, misogynist violence within the church to the difficulties mothers and sons often face in reaching out to each other, much less gay sons, mourning mothers, and sons given up for adoption.  It's a creditable achievement and the only worthy runner-up, I think.  As much as I loved its predecessors, Before Midnight is full of blatant and awkward foreshadowing of its own conflicts, windy and distended when it needs to be tight (I know, I know, takes one to know one!), and visibly stressed by its desire to please but also surprise the series' fans.  The unbearable conversation about how hard it is to write a good third novel, and a ridiculous-sounding one at that, is the nadir of what's nonetheless a pervasive pattern.  Sorry, internet.  And The Wolf of Wall Street's script is hard to judge, so obscured is it by Scorsese's elaborate conceits and all the improv from its actors, but I don't have a good feeling about any of it.  Will: 12 Years a Slave  Should: 12 Years a Slave  Hey, Where's Clio Barnard's dazzling extrapolation of the Oscar Wilde fairy story The Selfish Giant into a beautiful yet devastating jewel of child's-eye social realism?  That one and the Russian war drama In the Fog were easily the year's best adapted scripts but were, of course, nowhere near AMPAS awareness.

Best Original Score
The last category where I'm generally disheartened by my choices, though that shouldn't besmirch my choice of Steven Price's Gravity compositions.  Loud and aggressive, underlining the extreme precarity of our stranded protagonists, the dominant motifs furnish a "voice" to the space debris the way John Williams gave one to the great white shark.  Other passages are quieter, but still emphasize what is strenuous and severe in the film, even in moments of blessed and white-hot victory, avoiding as much as possible the mushy sentiments in the middle of Gravity's script.  I don't categorically prefer modern, electronic sounds to more traditional scores (Desplat's work on Philomena is probably my runner-up), nor do I demand a "memorable" score, necessarily.  But for me, in all ways, Gravity's music pulverizes its competition, especially by comparison to something like Thomas Newman's Saving Mr. Banks score, which only made a bathetic, fundamentally soppy movie seem more so.  I can smell trouble when it's coming, so I admittedly avoided The Book Thief.  The Her score falls somewhere in the middle of the pack for me, alternating moments of glory (like those jarring, atonal chords that open the film) with more embarrassing interludes (like the mawkish crescendo over the black screen as Theo and Samantha consummate their bond, in whatever way they're doing that). Will: Gravity  Should: Gravity  Hey, Where's Hans Zimmer's work on 12 Years a Slave, which indubitably repeats some of his earlier work, but not all the time, and in ways that work potently in context.

Best Animated Feature
The French entry Ernest & Celestine can get show-offy at times, which feels strange, given its baseline of old-fashioned delicacy and understatement.  The plot about tooth-harvesting and the unlikely friendship of a squeaky mouse and a bellowing bear was only appealing about half the time, but the hand-drawn images are so beautiful I still thought about seeking out the books that inspired it, for all my friends' kids.  That'd be enough for a win in either of the last two years, when the amiably noodly Rango and the half-successful Brave took the prize. This year it's only the fourth-best contender, which is a great sign for a category that often feels gratuitous.  Frozen commits some real errors of character design; some kind of jaw disorder seems to afflict the whole kingdom.  Its songs are a tad anonymous and weirdly apportioned among its characters, but the screenplay I found quite ingenious, full of engaging characters and powered by a layered scenario that's already moving from the prologue, and only more so by the end.  And it's only the third best in the category!  An even bigger surprise is DreamWorks' The Croods, which had looked to me like any number of indifferent springtime distractions for squalling kids.  Instead, it's inventive in character design, reliably funny, completely winning whenever it experiments with cave-art aesthetics, and as inspiring in its indictment of conservative, patriarchal politics as Frozen is in its defense of family bonds and female solidarity.  Plus, The Croods features Nicolas Cage's and Catherine Keener's warmest, loosest performances in ages.  And it's only the second best in the category!  All of them get trumped by Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises, which devises bizarre, disturbing, yet redolent images to blend a child's wonder at the miracles of aviation with an adult's and an artist's sense of a world gone sadly, deliriously awry.  No denying some provoking politics and hokiness in the script, but the film turns out to be deeply self-aware about the perils of sentimentality and about the pollution of dreams that only feel innocent and private.  It's the best in the category.  Will: The fully deserving Frozen—Disney's first winner in 13 years of this category!  Should: The Wind Rises  Hey, Where's the connecting material from scene to scene or even beat to beat of Despicable Me 2?  The movie keeps thinking of ways to foreground Gru's eraser-shaped minions, while proving it has absolutely no idea why they were so popular to begin with.  Because they're cute?  Because they're weird?  Because they make Gru seem sweeter?  Because they exist almost freely from the plot?  Should they be central to the plot?  Whatever, say the filmmakers, and whatever, says me.

Best Costume Design
Another embarrassment-of-riches category, all the way from the sequins of Gatsby and Hustle to the heavy, even abrasive fabrics of Invisible Woman and 12 Years a Slave.  Taking those in order, I admire the colors Catherine Martin risks for Gatsby (a pink suit!), and how beautifully she outfits 6'3" Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker.  When we meet Daisy, she's wearing a coconut-cake dress that not only screams noblesse oblige but is the outfit of someone who knows she is a) receiving, and b) has no other imaginable purpose in life.  Yet still it works as daywear.  She shows up to Nick's Hobbit-like cottage in matronly, oversized layers of lavender and magically manages to morph into the young lover she once was as they move to Gatsby's mansion.  Hustle has some great clothes, many of which you still believe someone might leave behind at the dry cleaner's and never retrieve.  Bale's ascots, bulky blazers, and motorcycle-cop sunglasses are as sure a sign of desperation as his comb-over, but even he is capable of occasional nattiness, just like he's capable of occasional wiliness.  Extra points for Amy Adams' everything, the number of Bradley Cooper's buttons that go open and or closed depending what he's thinking about, and the frilly cuffs on Jeremy Renner's sleeves in the scene where he toasts New Jersey and its new casino.  Also for that Halloween-costume "sheik" that everyone buys into anyway.  The Invisible Woman may look like run-of-the-mill Victorian drama, but not only are the acting, editing, and camerawork unusually sharp, the clothes evoke quite a bit through color and pattern, and they obligate each actor into very specific regimes of movement, from Nelly's heavy walks on the beach to Charles Dickens's loose-limbed effusiveness, even when he's being a prig or a shit.  As his rejected wife, Joanna Scanlan looks both like she's grasping at straws of attractive elegance and, at the same time, has totally given up.  12 Years a Slave errs wisely on the side of simplicity in its costumes, but they tell stories, too, like the fact that Fassbender's Epps, with his open vests and night-shirty smocks (and actual night shirts) looks like he's always just woken or is ever-ready for bed.  And there's the hilarious conceit of that weird hat in the scene where he first meets Pitt.  Gutsiest of all is the legendary but never-Oscared Patricia Norris' willingness to make Nyong'o and Woodard look so tacky and overdone in their masquerades as southern belles, at a moment when we also can't help sympathizing and marveling.  All of these would be worthy victors, as would the uncommonly plush and colorful Grandmaster, whose only debit is that none of the individual outfits made as strong an impact on me as the overall portfolio. Will: The Great Gatsby, in a squeaker over the Best Pic nominees  Should: American Hustle, in a virtual tie with Invisible Woman and 12 Years a Slave  Hey, Where's the captivating, camera-ready, and beautifully arranged kente cloths of Mother of George, and the seductive yet somehow sad-looking stolen couture of The Bling Ring, sported by kids who'd just as soon wear fluffy slippers and bikini tops?

Best Film Editing
People often ask how you can judge best editing, if you can't see the unused footage.  I get it, but it's like refusing to judge a book if you can't see all the prose that got cut.  There's plenty of art to assess in the given product, in terms of rhythm, concision, artful dilation, choices for harsh or silky transitions, choices for a sustained hold on a complex spectacle or a spliced-up tour through separate impressions in dictated sequence.  I see merits in every nominee here, even the one I'd be least likely to vote for: Dallas Buyers Club, which has an arrhythmia problem and rarely feels like it has a grasp on its whole third act.  Still, the movie faces a tough challenge of making Ron Woodroof's career on Earth feel miraculously extended and inevitably truncated.  Time has to slow down and whisk by, and the movie's cuts, movements, and punctuation marks have to imply a triumphal enterprise and a spit into the wind.  I think you get that, even through the abruptly-arriving title cards that sometimes feel like crutches.  Gravity rests on the back of so many sustained shots, from the bravura opening to the long hold on Bullock's monologue preparing for death.  In that context, editing feels minimal, much of it handled in-camera or written into the script.  Sometimes the cuts and longueurs arrive at the wrong moments: her long trip into the airlock on the Russian station feels clunky, and the pause on that family photo of the crewmember with the shattered face is an early sign of bathos to come.  And yet, there are dazzling and carefully cut set-pieces in that film, including every desperate crash into a new destination, or the harrowing sequence where Ryan's escape vessel gets snagged in the chute cords.  Bonus points for playing out in more than three hours of narrative time (the space debris arrives three times, with 90 minutes separating each return) while seeming to stay totally within the characters' temporality and experience.

American Hustle can feel a bit ragtag but there are some cheeky, creative cutaways in many sequences.  The movie also includes scene after scene of two, four, six, or more people, all of whose expressions are salient and plot-crucial, and yet we can only look in one direction at a time.  The fact that a complex story and a bevy of vivid but dissimilar performances all come through is a real feat.  12 Years a Slave might resort a bit too often to Ejiofor in close-up, but the whole feels powerfully compacted without rushing through things.  I get that the passage of time feels ambiguous, but what meaning does time have for most of these characters?  Extra credit for the cutaways to mute but articulate objects, the lingering on horribly eloquent spectacles like the churning wheel of the boat, and the perfectly managed ending, neither gutting nor uplifting.  I'm betting Captain Phillips will win the Academy's vote and could get mine, too.  Its editing rhythms aren't unfamiliar from other similar films, or even other Christopher Rouse projects, but it's hard to imagine the Somalians' two approaches to the ship (first failed, then successful) being tighter or clearer.  The fact that the movie "plays" as a standoff between two captains, as a standoff between two crews, and as a standoff between two countries, with different bully/underdog dynamics in each of those frames, is a tribute to how carefully the editors weave back and forth between the personal quality of tight shots and the political overtone of wider ones.  The confusion about just how quick and just how massive the American response has been is an inspired way to put us in the shoes of the pirates and the hostage, all bewildered by how this will go, and the steps toward Hanks's final catharsis are carefully laid by a series of prior cutaways inside the orange skiff.  Maybe it's not the most creative of the bunch, but it's sure hard to impeach on any grounds whatsoever, and I'd love for Phillips to win something.  Will: Captain Phillips  Should: Captain Phillips, but I've revisited all these movies in the last weeks, and they're all impressive from this angle  Hey, Where's the inspired cross-cutting and brilliantly managed interludes of anxious waiting and frantic flight in World War Z?  Or, many rungs down the studio-indie ladder, the affecting concision and slow, measured drain-circling of All Is Lost?  Or, even more indie than that, the bold montage, harrowing performance-shaping, and nervy balance of fact and fiction in Blue Caprice?

Best Documentary Feature
I skipped Dirty Wars in theaters and have now allowed it to languish for weeks on my Amazon Watchlist, awaiting any truly positive endorsement from anyone who's seen it.  I'm anticipating a mid-level achievement, but even if it's awful, it can't weigh this category down too much.  The Act of Killing is surely the year's bravest achievement, in part because it skirts the line of reprehensibility, asking perpetrators of genocide to re-enact their own murders of innocent victims and suddenly "see" what they did in a new way (which some do and some don't).  Abstract at moments and unbearably direct at others, Act of Killing is also alert to so many facets of its dizzying, disgusting topic, from the happy family lives of former executioners to the strangely permissive gender experiments of powerful figures in vicious regimes.  It's at least on a par with 12 Years and Gravity as a peak achievement.  If none of the others are equally exceptional, they're eminently worthy nominees: the sensitive yet subtly knife-edged marital portrait Cutie and the Boxer, the vibrantly entertaining and gently melancholic 20 Feet from Stardom, and the somewhat statically constructed but undeniably powerful and historically valuable Tahrir chronicle The Square.  I'm guessing the Oscar will go to one of the latter two, but Act of Killing's not out of it.  I previously thought The Square would take it, but fans of nonfiction film as political critique could easily split between Noujaim's and Oppenheimer's film, which puts 20 Feet from Stardom.  So does the new dispensation for all Academy voters to weigh in, not just people who have seen all five movies at specially designated screenings.  You can easily bet wrong underestimating the sophistication and inquisitive spirit of individual Academy voters, but given the "human spirit" appeal and even the "penguin spirit" accessibility of so many recent champs, the sweetest, most tuneful nominee is surely the best-positioned. Will: 20 Feet from Stardom, just nudging out The Square, though I already regret flipping this choice  Should: The Act of Killing  Hey, Where's At Berkeley, a milestone achievement even by the exalted standards of never-nominated Frederick Wiseman? Or The Last of the Unjust, a patient unraveling of the facts and myths around the Theresienstadt camp and propaganda village, by the never-nominated Claude Lanzmann?  Are these guys going to win Nobels before they're even acknowledged by Oscar?

Best Actor
How is it that I am still fuming a year later that Matthew McConaughey didn't win, indeed wasn't even nominated last year for Magic Mike; that I find his performance the most commanding of the five nominated here; that I am an excited follower of the entire McConaissance, even if I suspect a clock might be ticking underneath it; and yet I'm not more eager to see him win tonight?  I've taken two trips through Dallas Buyers Club and I'm still impressed with how he didn't just lose the weight but gave Ron such a jemmy-legged, unsteady physicality, equal parts immune suppression and rodeo-king braggadocio.  With how he finds such a cantankerous, gradually easier way of relating to Leto's Rayon that their relationship clicks even when the latter character seems most like a wafery construct.  With how he sanctifies Ron a lot less than the script invites him to, giving the greater and lesser sides of his single-mindedness and self-righteousness an equal hearing.  I like and admire the whole creation, and disagree with those who perceive a familiar McConaughey type in a priest's collar and a hospital gown.  I wish I liked Ejiofor even better in 12 Years a Slave, where he's certainly quite strong, because he's a strong, flexible actor who could benefit even more from a win.  I'm just not fully convinced that he found the right degree of withholding for a man who's instructed often to keep his head down, and starts advising others to do the same.  He might be too much of an open book, though he's fully capable of dialing that down in scenes like the heartbreakingly terse finale.  His suppression of skepticism, his possible awareness of danger in the early wining-and-dining scenes with McNairy and Killam are miraculously subtle.

Bruce Dern and Christian Bale only got better on second views, the first because I'm slowly cottoning on to what fellow actors admire about his underplaying and his sometimes obstreperous choices.  The way he shuts down in the face of Keach's public humiliations, to include the restaurant-booth revelation about a woman he once adored, make Woody's shame as palpable as his temper, cruelty, aloofness, and self-deception.  Bale was the performer I least admired my first time through American Hustle, and I still pine for a stronger emotional link to his mistress or his wife or his child, but he may be the most quietly self-hating of a very self-hating lot, and his reaction shots are often quite funny in a totally deadpan way.  I acknowledge moments of verve in DiCaprio's work, and I wonder if he'll allow himself similar abandon and equal distastefulness in other people's movies.  Still, I react badly to his storehouse of familiar mannerisms and expressions, his vocal limitations, and his basic lack of agility; he often feels cowed by the complexities in a script or a directorial conception, powering through on very superficial charm or anger or sangfroid.  But the superficiality is more varied and more context-appropriate in Wolf than elsewhere, so I'm trying to be nice. Will: McConaughey Should: Isaac McConaughey Hey, Where's Oscar Isaac's Llewyn Davis, with whom I was smitten on first pass, and continue to recall as someone I once met, not a character I observed in a movie.  A second viewing of Her vaulted Joaquin Phoenix up to a comparable level of esteem, not least for how against-type he is, and how measured yet specific he remains in glorious scenes like the lunch-date with Rooney Mara. Prisoners' Hugh Jackman deserved his first nomination this year, not last year, and I can only hope Isaiah Washington (Blue Caprice), Aniello Arena (Reality), Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now), Paul Eenhoorn (This Is Martin Bonner), and Israel Broussard (The Bling Ring) are getting lots of phone calls these days.

Best Director
Alexander Payne and Martin Scorsese come right out of it for me. In Payne's case, he shows so little discernment between good jokes (the unmanageable awkwardness of Aunt Martha inviting her relatives into her house for the first time in decades), flat jokes (the easy punchlining of the two loutish cousins on the couch), and awful jokes (were they arrested for rape or just sexual assault, har har?).  The whole gamut in that one interlude, and the whole film is up-and-down like that, even if some scenes work well.  For Scorsese, we of course have to allow our artists to change over time, so in principle it's obviously fine that he no longer makes anything that suggests the influence of neorealism or the empathic invitations of old MGM or a lucid view of contemporary America.  It's one thing to turn away from all that and become Aviator-ishly immured in a world of your own style; it's another to seem so detached, excessive, and scattershot in relation to material in which you alone see epic potential. Russell is a cannier shaper of American Hustle's material than I believed on first pass, though it's still going to be a great day when his formal execution of this new, over-the-shoulder, actor-driven style matches his enthusiasm for it.  He apparently directs from the gut, and for better and worse, it shows.  That still leaves two nominees, and happily two front-runners, who would might even exceed Bigelow as the most worthy anointees of this century so far; we haven't seen as worthy a standoff since the salad days of Spielberg vs. Campion, exactly twenty years ago.  Both McQueen and Cuarón can be a bit flaunting of style and a bit deterministic of audience reaction, the former in ways that tend to intellectualize his material, the latter in ways that tend to emotionalize it. (Please forgive me for "emotionalize"; you know what I mean.)  But with weaknesses like these, who needs strengths?  McQueen's camera placement, his artisanal conception of editing and lighting, his ability to use actors as vessels of personality and plastic properties in the frame, and his refreshing seriousness of outlook are all wondrous.  Cuarón's balancing of empathy and inquiry, his bifocal awareness of the intimate and allegorical registers of his scripts, his invigorating fusion of entertainment with technical advance, and his ingenuity at sequence construction are equally wondrous.  Neither of these projects, by Hollywood logic, should even have been green-lit.  That they now exist as paragons and that both have found an audience comes down entirely to execution: generic, listless, or unambitious takes on either script would have resulted in slickness (like Amistad) or, at best, a noble flop (like Solaris).  I'm a McQueen backer, but I can't believe we've been granted such a tough, illustrious choice. Will: Cuarón  Should: McQueen  Hey, Where's The Act of Killing's Joshua Oppenheimer, since nonfiction filmmakers ought to get a fair shake outside their own designated category, as foreign films and animated features occasionally do.  Or, in a world utterly unlike the one we inhabit, why not Harmony Korine, who picked up deeply unsavory material in Spring Breakers and alchemized it into a stunning gallery of stylistic marvels and also a weirdly lucid statement about the moral evacuation of American teens?  It's The Great Beauty with no center, higher stakes, bolder confrontations of the audience, and something to say.

Best Sound Mixing
If you're still confused, I tried to clarify the distinction from Sound Editing above, but maybe I can reiterate it through the following arguments.  Captain Phillips and Lone Survivor may not help much in that attempt, since my reactions are more or less congruent in both categories: they achieve a sonic density without feeling as haplessly loud and cluttered as lots of $100 million suspense dramas do, and they take advantage of the audio bounties made available by their scenarios: ballistics, water, underbrush, broken glass, cramped spaces, open spaces, staticky dispatches, tiptoe advances, elegiac scores.  Specifically regarding the mix, Lone Survivor occasionally sounds over-amped to me, in a way that tilts "Recruitment Commercial" or "Funeral Montage," which the rest of the movie certainly flirts with.  Captain Phillips' mix is a precision instrument, but my ambivalence about the score (with strong and fitful Irish elements, just like Tom Hanks' voice) had a lot to do with moments where it seemed too prominent.  And the dialogue track could get a little shouty, though that's to be expected, given this premise.  I won't keep repeating that I abstained from The Hobbit: The Extortion of Pocketbooks.

Coen Brothers movies always feature dynamite sound editing (that crinkly candy wrapper in No Country for Old Men) and artful mixes (the booming gunfire echoing across and against barren plains in the same film).  They also help characterize each movie's environment in specific ways, and I think the sounds of Inside Llewyn Davis are as impressively chilled as the images are; the songs do aurally what the cat does visually, allowing oases of brightness and rich pleasure against a basically gelid backdrop.  But still this is an easy call for Gravity, as both prediction and preference.  I know some folks wish Cuarón and his mixers had really, really committed to the lack of sound and space.  Folks who observe the stentorian prominence of the music or that of Bullock's breathing even when we're outside her helmet are correct in noting that Gravity is not, as it happens, a rigorously austere structuralist exercise, but in fact a Hollywood entertainment (breaking! inexclusive!).  That the film manages to blur that line as far and as fascinatingly as it does is a real miracle.  The demolition of various craft is all the more haunting for being so silent.  The dull, hideous thumps as Bullock and Clooney collide with the ship hulls or with each other exemplify smart sound editing but are also mixed loud enough to anchor us in their experience as characters, not (just) in the abstract spectacle of the whole.  Critique as you will, and I see why there are reasons to, but if it's not the "best" of these sound mixes, and I think it is, it's certainly the most innovative, the most vivid, and the one worthiest of debate. Will: Gravity  Should: Gravity  Hey, Where's Spring Breakers, worth stumping for a second consecutive time because the mix of giggles, murmurs, echoes, crowd noise, pop tunes, and assaultive electronica makes the whole movie feel both immediately present and grimly retrospective: a vacation chronicle whose participants are memorializing it even as they're having it, like a truly gruesome 90-minute selfie.  A comparable blend of dreaminess, sensual directness, and technical envelope-pushing bolsters the entrancing if often maddening Upstream Color as well.

Best Original Screenplay
How do you craft a con-job thriller where the two protagonists are both crippled by rarely-expressed self-hatred and simultaneously committed to each other and headed at every moment for a breakup?  How do you craft a Cavell-style comedy of remarriage around a mistress, and start it with a combover?  What happens when you toss in a hot-curled hothead, a totally disingenuous and weirdly ingenious wife as variables, and turn a bribe-taking politician into the hero of the piece?  And by the way, it has to have regular laughs, sometimes "at" but rarely "with," since just to repeat, few of these characters like themselves?  It's either a testament to or a shortfall of Russell's direction that it conceals what an ambitious, slinkily assembled screenplay he's co-written.  That is, the loopy cosmetics, unflattering photography, and parade of personalities can disguise the film's lightly watermarked ideas about politics, its ambiguous and unexpected solicitations of audience sympathy, and its carefully plotted sense of what does and doesn't work in this epic-pathetic bamboozle.  Riddled with indulgences, purposefully narrow in context, the American Hustle script is a really impressive object.  It's also a seeming frontrunner that I'm guessing will lose to Her, which for all I know is the front-runner at this point.  This category often rewards movies that start from an imaginative premise (using a saucy medium to save your imperiled wife, using a crazy technology to erase parts of your life) or that furnish the audience indelible moments, especially if they're funny (Olive's dance, Juno's sarcasm, Harvey's legacy, Django's revenge).  Her offers all of that, and often quite brilliantly, even if I balk at the greeting-card company, wonder about the exact nature of whatever Samantha is, and can't help noticing that the basic plot structure of Being John Malkovich is almost as present in Her as "Defying Gravity" is within "Let It Go"—right down to the disembodied voices, the faux commercials, the kooky workplace, the impossible romance, and the final migration of souls who long to be elsewhere, or even exist otherwise.  So, I have qualms about Her, but none about Jonze, who is creative, ambitious, selective about material, and as cute as a button. I'd #OnlyHuman Will: Her  Should: American Hustle, but despite all the above, I'm contented with either. Hey, Where's the messiness of Ron Woodroof's life, beyond a boilerplate Enlightenment arc? the scene that might convince me that Ginger and Jasmine have ever for a moment been sisters? the next draft of the Nebraska script that might chuck what's stale and work outward from what's already special, like the beautiful scene at the newspaper office?  And while we're at it, where are Inside Llewyn Davis, Frozen, Frances Ha, or never-a-prayer international movies like A Touch of Sin?

Best Picture
Having already blown my wad in earlier paragraphs, there's no reason to delay this category.  You'll have learned today, even if you don't regularly follow the site or its associated Twitter feed that I found Wolf of Wall Street and Nebraska pretty impoverished, as two viable ideas poorly executed; and Philomena a memorable night at the movies, but richer in concept than in delivery, dotted with very affecting interludes and with moments of amazing tone-deafness or mixed signals (he's not letting you in the house! he is! he's been waiting for you for years! wait, you left already!).  Every other nominee I'm pleased to see nominated and could hold its own against plenty of winners, even if Captain Phillips is more solid than spectacular and Dallas Buyers Club has taken more dents in my estimation than the others.  American Hustle and Her got even better on revisit, with an Altmanesque sadness tugging through the grifter flick, and such an ambitious bloom of questions, chuckles, and speculations growing out of the high-concept romance.  I already made clear in my Best Director write-up how highly I think of 12 Years a Slave and Gravity.  Conceding that I like but don't love No Country, Unforgiven, and There Will Be Blood, and granting that Schindler's List was always going to beat The Piano, I think it's fair to say that never in my lifetime have we had two such accomplished contenders in a down-to-the-wire race for the win.  Is the closest analogy the Annie Hall-Star Wars year?  That's technically in my lifetime.  Whatever: it's rare enough that the two best movies in a competition are the two with fighting chances to triumph.  That makes 2013 a great year for silly peccadilloes like Oscar obsession but also a really, really good year for mainstream filmmaking, producing twin towers like these two, nitpickable though they are.  I think 12 Years takes this by a nose, in the pre-Denzel sense of that phrase, and if it's artistic merit, political motives, queasy ads ("It's Time"), or AMPAS' craving for perceived importance that gets it there, I don't care.  Probably, hopefully, a combo of all four.  Fingers officially crossed.  Will: 12 Years a Slave  Should: 12 Years a Slave  Hey, Where's an even remotely conceivable alternative that measures up to these two?  Yes, I loved At Berkeley, The Selfish Giant, and The Act of Killing even more last year, but I know how to quit while I'm ahead.

Best Cinematography
Historically one of my favorite categories, because even if forced at gunpoint to name the quintessence of moviemaking as I experience it, I'd have to give the edge to cinematography, even over editing (that's controversial), well above sound and writing (controversial for different reasons), and from a different part of my heart than my adulation of actors (but please don't tell Jessica Lange).  Happily, this branch also does a great job nomination, even if I think Phedon Papamichael's photographing of Nebraska really misserves the film, aspiring to silvery elegance without generating much meaning from framing or depth, and lensing images in ways that seem to pin the actors against a hard backdrop, rather than opening up any breathing space for thought and behavior.  Step away from that nomination and the others are a delicious buffet.  The Grandmaster manages to equal many of Wong's best in elegance, color, and intriguing perspectives, diffusing light and palette in some shots while hardening both in others.  You wouldn't easily confuse it with the work of Wong's longtime d.p. Christopher Doyle, but it merits a spot in the same auspicious boxset.  Praising Roger Deakins is a reflex motion at this point, though I'm not always equally seduced; last year's Skyfall struck me as thoughtfully lensed and framed in some instances and rather scattershot in others.  Prisoners impresses me much more, and not just because of the chill, moral and environmental, that pervades every tableau, or the scrupulous camera placement that varies the blocking of image after image while refusing to distract from the story.  The script of Prisoners works as both grotty whodunit and philosophical inquiry: of revenge, of despair, of torture, of the ways work and family hail us into different moral responses.  Deakins allows those planes of meaning to work even when the film's narrative gets frankly silly, giving the images just enough of a heightened sheen to work as realism and as self-conscious allegory, and alternating between fully lit and limited-source compositions that play on the script's own thematizing of broad and narrow perspectives.

Isn't it crazy that all this is only enough to qualify it as my third favorite nominee, give or take the gorgeous glaciation of Inside Llewyn Davis?  I usually prefer cinematography that looks more light-driven and less processed than Llewyn's, but even more than Le Sourd's work with Wong Kar-wai, Delbonnel's collaboration with the Coen Brothers lends them a whole new photographic repertoire to play with while producing something utterly cohesive with their wider body of work.  Llewyn is such an obstreperous, even opaque character that tones and textures in the image are often our only inroads into understanding him, if we ever "understand" him.  Same goes for the film's tangential studies of a moment in time, a specific place, and a particular artistic idiom.  Delbonnel, who scored a very different triumph in Aleksandr Sokurov's Venice champ Faust (two years old, but only released Stateside in 2013), is as crucial as Oscar Isaac or T-Bone Burnett in making the Coens' weird, ambitious, aloof conception work.  The only negative thing I can say about the photography in Prisoners or Inside Lleywn Davis is that they don't redefine the possibilities of merging light with binary code, they don't have to devise and calibrate light sources in the void of outer space, they don't have to figure out new photographic angles on the perennial Hollywood spectacle of the drifting space vessel, and they don't have to execute camera movements within the cramped space of an astronaut's helmet.  Light is as crucial as sound in teaching us at every moment of Gravity where we are, in relation to what.  For various, film-specific reasons, the very phrase "deep space" feels reinvented here.  Even if my preferred candidate takes Best Actress, I won't be as happy to observe an Oscar win as I will when planetary treasure Emmanuel Lubezki finally gets his close-up. Will: Gravity  Should: Gravity  Hey, Where's the amazingly mobile and neon-licking lenses of Spring Breakers, the burnished contrasts and evocative visual textures of Mother of George, or the clinical eye and remarkable choreography of the camera in 12 Years a Slave?  I really wanted a chance to see these three lose to Gravity, especially since they're not just great films but new signature works by three great d.p.s: Benoît Debie, Bradford Young, and Sean Bobbitt.

Best Actress
Yes, this has been wrapped up since summertime for Cate Blanchett.  The bow has only been drawn more tightly through the past month, with every win you could possibly want: the New York Film Critics, the National Society of Film Critics, the Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild Award, the BAFTA, and now almost(?) certainly the Oscar.  She is impossible to take your eyes off of in Blue Jasmine.  Granted, Blanchett is often impossible to look away from, anywhere from Letterman's couch to dross like The Gift, but she's magnetic in a different way in Woody Allen's movie.  She decides that the way out of a strangely conceived, deeply erratic, mad yet not mad, Blanche yet not Blanche, alone yet really really alone character is not to dull down its odd edges and contradictory arrows but to play them all with gusto, and somehow make them all cohere through sheer force of charisma, inventiveness, close-range dynamism, and theater-trained technique.  Almost cohere.  Almost.  Let me say this: Cate Blanchett comes across as a preternaturally poised person leading a remarkably honest and productive life, while Jasmine French comes across as an exceptionally precarious person leading an emphatically unsustainable and non-generative existence.  This does not mean they have zero overlap. Cate, not unlike Jasmine, is trying to put over an image whose shaky foundations she surely recognizes.  I love her look, her sound, and the tremendous elasticity of both, but are they too elastic?  She is able to throw off unmistakably Allen-ish one-liners about her Xanax not kicking in, like Judy Davis' heir apparent.  She's capable of the madness-as-prattle we observe on the airplane, the madness-as-oblivion we witness outside the dentist's office, the madness-as-prevarication she attempts with new beau Sarsgaard, the madness-as-howl that erupts when she recalls working in a shoestore, and the madness-as-cubist-disintegration we behold as she comes apart in front of the nephews she is babysitting.  Setting aside the fact that half these scenes are dishonest as written (the last being the least plausible, and the most cynically built to flaunt a  performer), these are not the same madness.  How do you stride the line between reflecting and resolving the contradictions your writer-director has stitched right into your character, fascinating but missewn, like a Chanel jacket with thick, Expressionist, diagonal seams all across the front and back?

I'm not sure Blanchett gets there. I'm not sure who could.  Watching her is the best show in town, and she almost single-handedly makes Blue Jasmine fascinating and frustrating, instead of just the latter.  She has even bigger problems to solve than Sandra Bullock does, who acts not just in a vacuum but in The Vacuum, and asked to sell a dead-child narrative without seeming to pander.  She has much bigger problems to solve than Judi Dench, who's very good in a worthy part that is hard to perceive as an imposing challenge.  She may even have bigger problems than Meryl Streep does, who inherits the plum gift of Violet Weston, coruscating centerpiece of a prize-winning play, but who, like Blanchett, has to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of theatricality (required) and overstatement (concerning), of doing what's asked (a lot) and doing too much (debatable).  Blanchett has been consecrated as making right choices down the line, while Streep, had she shown up to do almost any promotion for August: Osage County, would have found herself endlessly defending her toxic, rumbustious, unabashedly Big take on this red-meat part.  I can't quite say why this is, except that we've been semi-away from Blanchett for some time, while seemingly immersed in Streep.  Plus, the scenes in Blue Jasmine are better-defined and more eclectic in character than most scenes in August, particularly the film version.  Thus, you feel like you're watching Blanchett excel at a decathlon of varying tasks, while Streep is running a marathon as Violet, 26 miles at one bullish pace.  I can see why the former seems more admirable, and more dazzling.  I think I admired the latter more, but they're each tremendous.

Not as tremendous, though, as what Amy Adams pulls off in American Hustle, which I wouldn't necessarily call her best performance, but it's the most strewn with pitfalls, the most vertiginously situated on the edge of possible failure, and the most tonally complex of anything she's tried.  Like Blanchett, she has a series of absurdly diverse challenges to master: those accents; those costumes; the thieving intelligence; the inadequacy to her task; the paralyzing sadness; the willingness to do anything, anything it takes; the passion and hatred for Bale; the rivalry with Lawrence, in the abstract and, suddenly, in her face; the guilt, and the refusal of guilt; the hunger for Cooper, and the pitying willingness to drop him.  I couldn't look away from her, either, but I believed the dizzying zoetrope of registers and personas she achieves in her big, Merteuil-ish, "This means war" scene with Bale, in a way I don't believe Blanchett's psychic break in the Chuck E. Cheese.  I don't even believe it was a Chuck E. Cheese.  I admired her series of short games, and I was positively amazed at the long one: the biography of a very sad fox but also the parable of a born survivor with real, ever-more-tested mettle.  You look back and wonder if Sydney Prosser got everything she always wanted, or everything she finally decided was attainable.  Adams' choices work in the moment and even more so in retrospect as a code-breaking legend to that puzzle.  Blanchett's choices amaze and impress, but they mostly work as a map to their own ingenuity, forcibly standing apart from a script, a character, and hence a performance that all make less sense than they first appear to.  This Best Actress race is stacked, stacked, stacked with hardworking, resourceful, engrossing performers.  But Amy Adams got one over on all these gals. That's what we need to be thinking about. Will: Blanchett  Should: Adams  Hey, Where's Adèle Exarchopoulos for Blue Is the Warmest Color, a French movie that actually had a prayer of being nominated; or Melissa McCarthy in The Heat, an American studio hit that never had a wick of hope, despite her miracle-working; or Anne Dorval in the much-delayed I Killed My Mother, Jo Min-soo in Pietà, Rachel Mwanza in War Witch, or Margarethe Tiesel in Paradise: Love, all of whom excelled in movies you should seek out if you care about platinum-class actressing, and one of whom gave my favorite performance of the year.  Stay tuned!

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Anonymous BVR said...

This is lovely, Nick. Love that you always twist up your Oscar coverage every year.

On a similar note, I would love to see a more lengthy write up about how gray (or not) the leading/supporting categorization can become with a lot of performances every year. Cooper, Watson, and Redford (kidding!) were some of the most divisive.

Looking forward to the finished product, and maybe even your Year-End picks!

10:32 PM, March 01, 2014  
Blogger James T said...

Loving this, obviously. Is the phrase "I was sold out" common or new? Because I think it's brilliant for its simplicity.
I have so many 2013 movies left to see, it's ridiculous. You've made me really curious to see what Amy Adams does in Hustle and Her.
And it's interesting how Let It Go is (as you said and we all know) similar to Defying Gravity and not as good (for me), yet I enjoy it immensely. Like Knightley and Winslet. Kidding. Kinda.

4:06 AM, March 02, 2014  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i would just like to say that you continue to be one of the most necessary voices in the world, always articulating what so many can't (even sometimes me, I confess) about the craft categories at the Oscars.

Loved every second of this.

11:54 AM, March 02, 2014  
Anonymous Mike M. said...

Such smart, thoughtful commentary. As far as I'm concerned, an endorsement from Nick Davis is the one of the greatest compliments a film can receive.

Regarding the Supporting Actress category, I must confess that the concept of a "coattail nominee" confuses me when the film is not a BP contender with many nominations. Why would enthusiasm for Blanchett's performance help Hawkins get in but not Alec Baldwin or Bobby Cannavale? Or is the idea that Hawkins benefitted from 'Jasmine' being a must-see for voters due to Blanchett's ballyhooed work?

3:33 PM, March 02, 2014  
Anonymous Patrick said...

I agree with you on June Squibb, just another old lady with a dirty mouth, anyone could have given that performance.

I was also glad to hear that you warmed up to Bale. I liked his performance and while there are many better choices that could have been made this is the Oscars we're talking about and it could have been worse. It just stings a little when you consider the quality of the work done by actors who had a chance to get into Bale's (5th?) slot.

Are we really going to get your thoughts on a Best Actress line up for this first time since what, 2009?

3:34 PM, March 02, 2014  
Blogger Dr. S said...

What they all said. Plus, I love you. Thank you for lavishing all this gorgeous attention.

4:05 PM, March 02, 2014  
Anonymous Matthew Eng said...

"...someone I once met, not a character I observed in a movie."

That's easily the most perfect summation of what Oscar Isaac achieved as Llewyn Davis, and such a sore reminder of what a richer field this admittedly fine Best Actor race could've been. And a pleasure to read, as always.

11:50 PM, March 02, 2014  
Anonymous Ryan S. said...

oh wow... i'm sure my face mirrored sandra's expression above while reading this... one of the tastiest, most illuminating and enriching breakdowns of a year's Oscar contenders i've ever had the pleasure of reading. Even if I believe one day you'll change you're Worthiest Nominee pick to Blanchett. ;)

9:10 PM, March 03, 2014  
Anonymous Ryan S. said...

your Worthiest Nominee pick to Blanchett. ;)

9:11 PM, March 03, 2014  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

In unrelated news, I notice on your twitter update that you're jumping headfirst into 1956. I'm not on twitter, so I thought I'd just post a comment here. Actress-wise,I really like Machiko Kyo's work in "Street of Shame". And I'm also impressed with what Barbara Rush pulled out of her cupboard for "Bigger Than Life". But I think Maria Schell's performance in "Gervaise" pretty much nails down best of the year honors. Hope you like it too when you get to it.

P.S. Am still looking forward to
hearing whether or not you enjoy
Irene Dunne in "Together Again"(1944). Did you ever get around to seeing it?

2:17 AM, April 08, 2014  

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