Oscar picks: Best Picture

Excuse my lapse — life got in the way of movies.

But with less than a week to go (Academy voting closes Feb. 25), I must make my final plugs. Starting with the top.

Best Picture

American Hustle. Heard of “A-List” entertainment? You don’t need me pointing out to you, I’m sure, that for the past two years, the Best Picture winning title started with “A” — i.e. ” Argo,” and “Artist, The.” Coincidence? Or should they simply stop alphabetizing the ballot because, as the list gets longer, voters seemingly can’t get through it?

628x471Since 1929-30’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” 11 “A” movies have taken home Oscar, including this threepeat from 1949-51:

(For those who forget how to alphabetize, the 11 winners do not include 2001’s “A Beautiful Mind” or 1966’s “A Man for All Seasons.”)

Didn’t expect such cutting analysis?

Seriously, you won’t find this anywhere else, and I’m happy to do the legwork for you. Besides “A,” have any idea what other initial letter has won more Best Picture Oscars?

It’s a tie. No, not “T.” (“The” doesn’t count.) And not “S,” silly.

Happens to be “G.” Think “Gone With the Wind” and the Godfathers. If “American Hustle” doesn’t win this year, I think “Grand Budapest Hotel” has a good shot at winning for 2014, based on the trailer alone — which would put “G” in the lead. Unless “Gravity” wins this year, which makes the “G” force supreme.

Gravity-posterSo does “American Hustle” have an “A” advantage? The full list of Oscar Best Picture winners, in alphabetical and backwards chronological order:

A’s

Oh, almost forgot. Should “American Hustle” win? I think if the Best Picture were only about acting, then yes. This flick is a marvelous showcase of A-list actors acting their best. It’s somewhat Argo-ish, reaching into our recent past with a fun Seventies sensibility. The plot is riveting, there’s just enough cleavage and comedy to make it feel all-American. But it’s not my pick.

Captain Phillips. We Americans like our sea crises, no? “Titanic” and “Mutiny on the Bounty” each won Best Picture, and 1972’s “Poseidon Adventure” won five of its 13 nominations. We also love us some Navy SEALs on the silver screen lately: “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lone Survivor,” even “Dirty Wars.” Plus, the Maersk Alabama, almost as if on cue, is back in the news with the discovery of two dead former Navy SEALs on board.

Another factor to weigh: Tom Hanks, recently named Forbes’ most trusted celebrity but who was otherwise snubbed this year.

My sister clued me in that this film was also a high-seas adventure in acting for the cast. Hanks and the novice actors playing the Somali pirates (who all hail from Minnesota) had not met before shooting their first scene together, the storming the boat. It wasn’t until after the third take that they started hanging out as colleagues, which created the taut tension and realism. But is realism always what we want from a Best Picture? Not me, so I’m not picking this one.

Dallas Buyers Club. There’s something beautifully transformational here: a rough-hewn, homophobic cowboy is diagnosed with AIDS and ends up playing hero to the gay community. Matthew McConaughey is spellbinding, as is Jared Leto as his transgender business partner. But it was McConaughey’s disappearing act that gave this film such a high profile. The film itself may prove too much of a downer to claim Best Picture in this day and age.

Gravity. Smoke and mirrors. This film will be remembered for its leaps and bounds in cinematic wizardry. But while overcoming all of the creative technological hurdles, somebody forgot about the writing.2001 it is not. I felt more sickening isolation watching the red and yellow astronauts spin into obscurity in that Kubrick classic than watching Sandra Bullock tumble like a quilt in a dryer. I felt more isolation watching the old man eat cereal at the end! Besides, the inside of astronauts’ helmets should not fog up. That just bugs me. When I think of this movie, I think of Bullock’s heaving sighs. And, no, I didn’t see it in 3-D. But I refuse to give an Oscar to a picture that relies on 3-D for quality of experience. Give it the Oscar for Visual Effects, but BestPic? I’m holding out.

Her. As the story of an anti-social writer falling in love with an A.I.-infused operating system, this had great potential as a cautionary tale for the 21st century. But three-quarters of the way through, the story breaks down. For production design, it clicks. And it makes a good parable, or even SNL skit, but can’t carry its weight in Oscar gold.

Nebraska. Now we’re talking form and function. The black-and-white format is your first clue that herein lies an old-style “meaning-of-life” movie. Truly sets it apart from today’s mountain of docudramas ripped from the pages of newspapers and history books. With its brilliant stasis and slow takes, “Nebraska” moves you. As the only official “comedy” in the field of nominees, its message about family sneaks up on you: how roles get reversed with age — the parents who once doled out our sustenance eventually rely on us for wish fulfillment. The characters are created out of thin air and, as odd as they are, we relate whole-heartedly to them.

Philomena. Phew, this is a long list of nominees. No wonder no one gets past the G’s. Did the Roman Catholic Church fail to boycott this film? Could have gotten more attention if it had. The sad story of forced adoptions in Ireland spans continents and decades, and is part buddy flick between dame Judi Dench and a wry, charming British journalist, part indictment of a greedy and sinister church masquerading as charitable, but mostly a testament to a mother’s unflinching faith, hope and love. Not since “Doubt” has so much doubt been cast on religion. Forgive me for not picking this one.

12 Years a Slave. If you’re like me and go to the movies to get stirred up or emotionally pureed, this is your winner. No other film made me cry as much this year — in fact, the only other time I shed any tears during any of the other BestPic Noms was at the end of “Captain Phillips.” Beyond that, “Lone Survivor” —a bloody war movie! — and “Saving Mr. Banks” (manipulated by the Mouse!) were my only tear-jerkers. From its poetic production design to at times nauseating narrative, “12 Years a Slave” hit all my buttons. It’s as if we each time-travel with Solomon, live through the outrageous abuses, and then land back in modern day to realize: Not enough has changed. Those characters and the pestilence of racism persist.This movie deserves every accolade and award it shall receive. And I expect it to sweep the Oscars.

This blurb from Entertainment Weekly”s Hillary Busis sums it up. My sentiments exactly:

Why it should win: Because 12 Years is clearly the most Important movie nominated for the Oscars’ main prize this year; you won’t see any high schools adding, say, Philomena to their curricula. And even beyond its historical significance, McQueen’s film is a phenomenal artistic achievement: On a purely visual level, it’s more striking than any other nominee, save perhaps Gravity. (Good luck getting the time-lapse sequence of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s near-lynching out of your brain.) The acting, too, is top-notch, from the film’s three nominated stars down to its less-lauded bit players (Paul Giamatti’s jovial slave trader, Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam’s snake-oil salesmen, Benedict Cumberbatch’s so-called “good” master). And John Ridley’s script manages to ape 19th-century speech patterns without ever sounding too stilted.

12-2

The Wolf of Wall Street. I’m a Scorsese fan but, honestly, I’m not sure why this one is nominated for Best Picture. The kudos for Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio are well-deserved but quite enough this time ’round, Marty. Poor Leo. I always want him to do well come awards season, but this is another case of my boy crying wolf — he was so convincingly loathsome and lovable that voters are only going to be confused. In another filmmaker’s hands, this film would have been less interesting, sure, but it doesn’t deserve a Best Pic nom and won’t walk away with much — maybe Supporting Actor, if it’s lucky.

My pick & prediction: 12 Years a Slave

Note: I’m going with an alphanumeric pick that, if properly alphabetized, should come before “A.” It’s as good a prognosticator as any. But if I’m wrong, the winner will probably start with an “A” or a “G.”

Oscar picks: Best Actress

Activate claws. Competition for the Oscar in the Actress in a Leading Role category this year is as fierce as it gets. Frankly, I live for the day when a trans actor gets nominated, forcing the Academy to rethink its gender labels. But onward.

The nominees:

amy-adams-american-hustle-movie-photos_1Amy Adams (“American Hustle”). Of the five actresses nominated, none is a newbie nominee, but only one has never won an Oscar: That’s Amy Adams. This is also the first time her nomination has been for a leading role, vs. supporting. Does this give her an edge in playing the sympathy card? Heaping on more sympathy: Two of her previous nominations came for work she did with Philip Seymour Hoffman, in The Master and Doubt (for which Meryl Streep also was nominated). In light of Hoffman’s untimely death, Adams may indeed be touched by an angel. She also is the only nominated actress featured this year in more than one Best Picture nominee (“Her” being her second).

The Academy likes “fresh faces,” and at 39 Adams is the youngest we’ve got by five years — odds may be in her favor. But let’s take a look at her work (not just her cleavage). Playing a hustler looks doubly attractive on her: She’s the beauty and true brains of the outfit. Her tiptoeing dance between vulnerability and vaVOOM, American social climber vs. British financier, con and conniver is phantasmic. Can she hustle one more win?

Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”). She’s the safe bet, but the Woody Allen-Dylan Farrow scandal could truly (unfairly) taint her chances. Final ballots are due the Tuesday before the awards show on Sunday, March 2.

This is Australian Blanchett’s sixth nomination. Her lone Oscar (supporting actress) came her second time out for her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator.” (Hepburn still holds the record for most acting Oscars: four.) Blanchett is the only one among the five nominees to have had two nominations in the same year: 2007, for her leading role as Queen Elizabeth I in the sequel to the film that gave her her first nomination in 1998 … and as Jude in I’m Not There — playing a man, a Bob Dylan doppelganger. She certainly wins the chameleon prize.

I-m-Not-There-1

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There.”

Even though critics say she’s channeling Blanche DuBois, Blanchett seems to be the only one of the five nominees who invented an iconic character in the role she’s nominated for — the Rx-addicted, fragile, fractured Jasmine. (Streep was iconic but only in re-creating Violet.) People in the future likely will say “you know, like Blue Jasmine.”

video-undefined-1BA51708000005DC-288_636x358Sandra Bullock (“Gravity”). Bullock has a perfect batting average, having won her first Oscar the first time she was nominated (2009 for The Blind Side). I especially love her non-flightiness, her groundedness; interestingly, she’s the only brunette in the bunch. She carried this whole movie, elevating some of the most banal lines like an aerialist. Of the five nominees, she had the most physically demanding task — she’s the Matthew McConaughey of the bunch, whittling herself down to dancer form to be suspended and manipulated like a puppet and to lie like Pinocchio. Unfortunately, the movie itself eclipses her achievements, and she likely won’t win.

Judi Dench (“Philomena”). This is the dame’s seventh nomination; she also won her second time out. Interestingly, she won for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I (“Shakespeare in Love”), a character she shares with Blanchett — it’s a royal showdown!

shakespearejd3blanchett-as-older-liz

I loved the light that shone through Dench’s Philomena — she delivered grace, piety, forgiveness — all of the values inherent in Christianity playing opposite some pretty unsaintly nuns. Her Philomena was both savvy and a simpleton. I loved how knowing and tolerant of others she was. But I got distracted examining Dench’s upper-lip wrinkles and eye creases and couldn’t always stay with her, preferring to think of her younger self (a rapturous Sophie Kennedy Clark). With all due respect, Dench is the easiest nominee for me to eliminate.

Meryl Streep (“August: Osage County”). Is this the year Streep will tie Hepburn’s record? I think she deserves that and more, plus she’s not getting any younger. This is her 18th nomination, of which she has won three Oscars (Kramer Vs. Kramer, supporting; Sophie’s Choice, leading; The Iron Lady, leading). Like Blanchett and Dench, she first won on her second nomination. Obviously, she killed in this role. Her name is synonymous with star power /acting goddess. I would not be sad at all if she proved victorious.

However, this is a race between Cate Blanchett and Amy Adams. And I think it’s Amy Adams’ year. No justification for that but a gut feeling.

My prediction & pick: Amy Adams

Doing the Oscar ‘Hustle’

american-hustle

Players in “American Hustle” are all dressed up and ready to collect their Oscars.

For the past two Academy Awards seasons, I have blogged about my attempt to see all of the nominated titles. “All” means not just those flicks up for Best Picture, but every film nominated for anything — from documentary shorts to makeup & hairstyling to sound editing and sound mixing (same thing).

I’ve never succeeded.

Because of my limited time, funds and hope, after two seasons of defeat, I had decided not to even try this year. Then, hello! I analyzed the list.

If it were possible to see all the films nominated for any Oscar in any category in any year, looks like this could be the year.

Look at it this way: Eliminate from the count the 15 shorts (there are always 15 shorts) and the 5 documentary features and 5 animated features and 5 foreign films. They’re all static categories whose films generally do not cross over into other categories (animated feature Up in 2009 and 2010’s Toy Story 3, or foreign offerings A Separation in 2011 and 2012’s Amour, are exceptions). With those slots gone, in 2012, there were 31 other unique films nominated. Last year, 24.

This year, there are only 28. Oh. Wait. That’s more than last year. Why does it feel as if there are fewer? Is it because the titles are getting so short?

I wrote about this last year, how titles are increasingly clipped, possibly because of Twitter and the need to get the word out in a condensed way. But compare one-word Philomena to one-word Her. Kinda hard to do a search for Her.

Joaquin Phoenix searches for meaning in "Her."

Joaquin Phoenix searches for meaning in Spike Jonze’s “Her.”

No matter. The nine Best Picture nominees still have a ridiculous monopoly across other categories, and I’ll find some way to back that up with statistics. (Maybe this guy cites the statistics I need.)

However you slice it, the way the Academy focuses on just a handful of films for praise, given the depth of the year’s pool, seems unfair. Lame. Maybe Academy members were also short on time and funds this time around and didn’t see enough movies. Maybe filmmakers were short on funds and ideas and didn’t make enough movies.

The only folks not lazy seem to be Jennifer Lawrence and Leo. Oh, and the marketers / promoters for the nine Best Picture nominees. Someone is being played, and it’s not just the victims of the con artists in American Hustle.

Well, count along with me, and help me decide whether to go for it. As usual, I’ve seen only two Best Picture nominees outta the starting gate (“Gravity” and “American Hustle”) and one other, from the best actress category (“Blue Jasmine”).

Here are all of the nominees, according to the official category hierarchy with no repeats:

  1. American Hustle
  2. Captain Phillips
  3. Dallas Buyers Club
  4. Gravity
  5. Her
  6. Nebraska
  7. Philomena
  8. 12 Years a Slave
  9. The Wolf of Wall Street
  10. Blue Jasmine
  11. August: Osage County (I saw the play; does that count?)
  12. The Croods
  13. Despicable Me 2
  14. Ernest & Celestine
  15. Frozen
  16. The Wind Rises
  17. The Grandmaster
  18. Inside Llewyn Davis
  19. Prisoners
  20. The Great Gatsby (read the book …)
  21. The Invisible Woman
  22. The Act of Killing
  23. Cutie and the Boxer
  24. Dirty Wars
  25. The Square
  26. 20 Feet from Stardom
  27. The Broken Circle Breakdown
  28. The Great Beauty
  29. The Hunt
  30. The Missing Picture
  31. Omar
  32. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
  33. The Lone Ranger
  34. The Book Thief
  35. Saving Mr. Banks (rhymes with “Hanks”)
  36. Alone Yet Not Alone (Update: This song has since been disqualified due to shady soliciting of votes. Good for me!)
  37. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
  38. All Is Lost
  39. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  40. Lone Survivor (anything like ‘The Lone Ranger’?)
  41. Iron Man 3
  42. Star Trek Into Darkness
  43. Before Midnight

I repeat: All is lost?

And the 15 shorts — always 15:

  1. CaveDigger
  2. Facing Fear
  3. Karama Has No Walls
  4. The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
  5. Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
  6. Feral
  7. Get a Horse!
  8. Mr. Hublot
  9. Possessions
  10. Room on the Broom
  11. Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)
  12. Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)
  13. Helium
  14. Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)
  15. The Voorman Problem

How are you doing? Who’s with me?