The Academy Awards are on Sunday night. Who will win? Who should win? National Review asks discerning movie watchers.
This year’s Best Picture race is the most competitive in years, with three films that have a real shot — Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, and American Hustle — and a dark horse, Philomena, that can’t be entirely discounted.
Since Gravity and 12 Years a Slave are, respectively, my No. 3 and No. 2 films of 2013, I’m pleased that they are the front-runners. (I admired American Hustle and Philomena, but not enough to root for either of them. My No. 1 film of 2013, a little indie called This Is Martin Bonner, went unnoticed by the Academy.)
The last three Best Picture winners — Argo, The Artist, and The King’s Speech — were all entertaining crowd-pleasers with feel-good endings. Gravity would continue that trend.
Gravity is also the first front-runner since Avatar that pushed the medium forward and appealed both to critics and to popular audiences. You’d think that would be in its favor. Paradoxically, it may sink it.
After all, Avatar didn’t win. The Oscar that year went to The Hurt Locker, a much-praised, little-seen, hard-hitting character study about a politically important subject — like 12 Years a Slave. The Academy may like crowd-pleasers, but it hasn’t had much use lately for blockbuster spectacles.
12 Years a Slave is the standard bearer in a year with an exceptional string of films about injustice and the African-American experience (Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Fruitvale Station, and the Jackie Robinson biopic 42). As the first major fact-based film about the slave experience in America, it’s also a historically important film.
Finally, 12 Years a Slave is, I think, a better film than Gravity. Both are visually gorgeous, and Alfonso Cuarón will likely take home Best Director. But 12 Years a Slave is also verbally elegant, whereas the less said about Gravity’s popcorn dialogue, the better. (There’s a reason it’s the only one of the front-runners with no screenplay nomination.)
— Steven Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and writes regularly for Catholic Digest, Christianity Today, and Catholic World Report. You can find more of his work at Decent Films.
This year’s Oscar race for Best Picture comes down to a fundamental, timeless question about the nature of the film medium itself: What is the highest, worthiest goal to which any motion picture can aspire?
Those Hollywood insiders who believe that movies at their best will make a social statement, enlightening the mass audience with fresh perspectives on past or present, will cast their ballots for 12 Years a Slave. Based on a true story, with vigorous attention to historical detail, the film achieves a deep visceral impact with its portrayal of the unspeakable brutality of the slave-based society in the ante-bellum South.
On the other hand, many film fanciers cherish the notion that the greatest achievement for motion pictures involves the convincing creation of an alternative reality, placing the viewer in a fantastical universe that offers more adventure and astonishment than the drab world of the everyday. Academy voters who see imagination and visual razzle-dazzle as the greatest gifts of any movie-maker will rally to support the Best Picture campaign of Gravity, which takes people along for an unforgettable ride with death-defying astronauts far above the earth’s surface.
And finally, there’s the strong sentiment behind American Hustle, based on the old-fashioned idea that the greatest films emphasize characterization above all — creating a rich array of fascinating personalities who take on a vivid, electrifying life of their own and insert themselves, permanently, into our consciousness. Few recent films have achieved that goal more effectively than David O. Russell’s latest masterpiece, and it’s no surprise that all four of his leading cast members (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper) have been nominated for acting awards by the Academy.
So, which one of the leading Best Picture contenders will go home with an Oscar?
I’d still bet on 12 Years a Slave, which easily qualifies as the year’s “most important” film for its educational and historical value. But the increasing de-politicization of the Hollywood establishment, motivated in part by growing disillusionment with Barack Obama and his presidency, means that victory isn’t assured and a plurality of voters could turn instead to the other-worldly adventure of Gravity or to the astonishingly accomplished ensemble acting of American Hustle.
The wide-open nature of the race for the gold makes it nearly as captivating and revealing as the wide-open race for the GOP presidential nomination two years from now.
— Michael Medved hosts a daily, nationally syndicated radio show heard on 200 stations. For twelve years he served as co-host of Sneak Previews on PBS, and for five years as chief film critic for the New York Post.
Cheryl Felicia Rhoads
For last year’s NRO symposium, I observed that the nominees were generally better than those the previous year. Unfortunately, the reverse is true for this current crop. That being said, I still have favorites. With the exception of Amy Adams, all the ladies nominated are previous winners (and, in the case of Meryl Streep, they just ought to retire her number like they do in baseball).
Still, this year’s clear winner will be Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. Blanchett is mesmerizing as a modern-day Blanche DuBois, balancing on the edge of sanity, in Woody Allen’s thinly veiled homage to A Streetcar Named Desire. While some speculate that the controversy surrounding Mr. Allen will hurt her chances — it won’t.
Meanwhile, last year’s recipient in the leading-actress category will scoop up this year’s supporting trophy. In American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence simply owns any scene she is in. She is the younger generation’s Meryl Streep. Christian Bale is terrific as the sleazy “good/bad” guy in American Hustle. But Matthew McConaughey radically transformed himself into the AIDS-infected hero of Dallas Buyers Club. And it is Hollywood 2014, so there is just no way McConaughey and Jared Leto in the supporting role of a dying transvestite won’t each be thanking the Academy come Sunday night.
Finally, as I am a voting member in various entertainment unions, each winter I get my L.A. screener DVDs, so I saw almost everything in spite of being snowbound in Virginia. However, I still prefer my annual viewing of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar. I just find the preponderance of today’s edgier films tiresome. Perhaps I’m tragically unhip, but I cherish those long-ago voices reflected on TCM. And so I wistfully recall the end of an earlier Woody Allen film, the nostalgic Radio Days . . . those voices do seem to grow dimmer and dimmer.
— Cheryl Felicia Rhoads is an actress and writer, and she heads The Cheryl Felicia Rhoads Northern Virginia Acting School.
Mark Rodgers and Michael Leaser
The Schindler’s List of American slavery, 12 Years a Slave will likely take home a deserved Oscar for Best Picture Sunday night (though American Hustle and Gravity are also strong contenders). This personal, visceral, authentic take on slavery from the perspective of an adult New York citizen who had known nothing but freedom his entire life may become essential viewing for mature students of this period.
The tightly focused, armchair-gripping, visual tour de force that was Gravity will earn Alfonso Cuarón a Best Director Oscar, but it won’t be enough to get the film the Best Picture trophy.
Historically underrated Matthew McConaughey will probably take home the Best Actor Oscar for his all-in performance in Dallas Buyers Club as a straight man diagnosed with AIDS in the Eighties who uses any means he can to locate medications, legal or illegal, that will keep him and members of his buyers’ club alive.
Cate Blanchett is a shoo-in for Best Actress with her work as a wealthy New York socialite who loses practically everything in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. There has been buzz that recent stories about Allen’s alleged child abuse may put a dent in her chances, but if they do, it won’t be enough to keep her from talking home the gold statue.
Best Supporting Actor may be one of the more difficult major categories to call this year. Michael Fassbender was brilliant as the cruel slavemaster in 12 Years A Slave, and there has been some buzz around Barkhad Abdi for Captain Phillips because of the actor’s inspirational personal story. But this is Hollywood, so we’re giving the edge to Jared Leto, the guy playing the transgendered AIDS victim in Dallas Buyers Club.
Though many people liked Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, she just won an Oscar last year for Silver Linings Playbook, and it is rare for an actor or actress to win an Oscar two years in a row, the last being Tom Hanks in the early Nineties, so our pick is for Lupita Nyong’o in her heartbreaking performance as slave Patsy in 12 Years A Slave.
— Mark Rodgers is the principal of the Clapham Group. Michael Leaser is an associate of the Clapham Group. He edits FilmGrace and has written more than 50 film, television, and culture articles for World magazine.
I’m often wrong about the Oscars, so keep that in mind when I tell you that 12 Years a Slave will win. It’s actually a very good movie, so that wouldn’t be so terrible. Matthew McConaughey will take Best Actor, though the four actors more deserving — Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips, Robert Redford for All Is Lost, Oscar Isaac for Inside Llewyn Davis, and especially the Italian actor Toni Servillo for his towering performance in the probable foreign-film winner The Great Beauty — weren’t nominated. And in one of the cosmic crimes of our time, Cate Blanchett’s dreadful overacting in Blue Jasmine will lead to her second statuette. As for the ceremony, expect about 10,000 gay-marriage jokes.
— John Podhoretz is the editor of Commentary.