Oscars 2014 picks: Best Director

Before we talk director, let’s talk producer. When it comes to putting a stamp on a movie, the director traditionally holds the most sway. The industry trend, though, is for the producer to represent much more than moneybags — even to have a degree of artistic control.

maxresdefaultConsider Brad Pitt, who co-produced “12 Years a Slave” and likely cast himself. When his character speaks up near the end as the voice of reason, it’s as if he’s making a pitch for this movie. He pivots the plot, becoming Solomon’s hero. Not only is he an ambassador for New Orleans (getting the film shot there), but we understand his progressive ideals and attachment to the subject matter. And you wonder whether his influence extends further — maybe into the nominating and voting arenas.

Pitt played the same roles for “Moneyball” — producer and star. It seems if we pay actors enough, they will give back to their community by creating more meaningful art in a holistic way.

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Photo by Michael Buckner, Getty Images

Exhibit B is Megan Ellison, who produced both “Her” and “American Hustle,” two of this year’s BestPicNoms. A film-school dropout, she is a quiet creative force behind quality projects such as these and 2012’s “The Master” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Savvy, hip, embedded producers such as these are changing the way the game is played. Less division of labor … does it also mean a loss in jobs in Hollywood?

Anyone who stays through to the end of movie credits as I do, on the off-chance I can pick up some nifty behind-the-scenes factoid or catch those occasional, clever parting shots, knows it takes a village to make the director look good. In evaluating the merits of a film, the director and movie itself are entwined — which might explain why whoever picks up the Best Director Oscar is often a good clue who will win Best Picture.

According to Wikipedia: “Of the 85 films that have been awarded Best Picture, 62 have also been awarded Best Director. Only four films have won Best Picture without their directors being nominated: Wings (1927/28), Grand Hotel (1931/32),Driving Miss Daisy (1989), and Argo (2012).”

I predict this year will prove another exception. The Best Picture and Best Director awards will be untwinned because there are so many good candidates we must spread the love. I’m just not sure how it’s gonna go down. The suspense is killing me.

The nominees:

Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity). Being of the Hispanic persuasion myself, I can’t suppress the pride I feel admiring Cuarón’s achievements. He is a visionary pioneer and wrangled all of these complicated moving parts to go where no director has gone before. You gotta hand it to him.

Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave). But don’t hand it off quite so soon. “12 Years a Slave” only whetted my appetite for more McQueen movies, and I am thinking he could eclipse the fame of his namesake in the movie industry.

Alexander Payne (Nebraska). Big, big fan of Payne. This choice is painstaking. His commitment to stories that are emblematic of our culture is deep. Considering his plumbing of Hawaiian life in “The Descendants” (my pick two years ago), his work is like a collection of Americana knickknacks. I hope he does every state.

David O. Russell (American Hustle). Again, his body of work is persuading me. Last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook” was a revelation. His movies are like a too-short ride at a theme park.

Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street). Only in the master Scorsese’s hands could this story have come off  as so lascivious and rich — and keep us rooting for the bad guys. The fact Scorsese consistently puts us in the head of criminals and shows us heart … he’s a genius.

I am hard-pressed to choose — I want them all to win —but, you know, just being nominated, yadda-yadda. Time is running out. So let me do this without overthinking.

My prediction: Alfonso Cuarón

My pick: Steve McQueen

My quick-and-dirty Oscar picks (OK, not that quick)

Been lagging behind other, more qualified Academy Award prognosticators. Wait. Who could be more qualified than someone who has seen 74% of ALL the Oscar-nominated feature and short films (not merely the top prizes, but covering every category including sound mixing and catering)?

Kidding on catering, but one peeve: Why isn’t there an award for Best Casting … or Best Cast? My pick for this year: “Margin Call.” We’re talking Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Simon Baker and the devilishly handsome Zachary Quinto, who wins for Best Eyebrows. Now, that’s a cast-iron hot cast.

 
Enough procrastinating, on to my prognosticating.

BEST PICTURE

Prediction: The Artist
Pick: The Descendants

  • “The Artist” … all I can say is “f*** joie de vivre.”
  • I wanted to love “Loud/Close,” but there wasn’t enough of an emotional payoff – no “wallop,” as my friend and movie partner Ellen put it.
  • “The Help” was manipulative and rewrote history, but I could live with it winning: empowerment is a solid, inspirational theme.
  • “Midnight in Paris” was a great “Cinderella” story and intellectual fun, but seeing Owen Wilson “do” Woody Allen got tedious.
  • “War Horse” was “E.T” with a horse, meets “Saving Private Ryan.
  • “The Tree of Life”? I’d rather watch the Discovery channel.
  • “Hugo” would have to be my second choice – even the dust was 3-D!
  • “Moneyball” was the only movie I saw on the regular cycle, when it came out … it inspired previous blog posts and made me a temporary card-carrying baseball fan, but “The Social Network” may have blown Aaron Sorkin’s wad.
  • My pick, “The Descendants,” is the kind of movie that seeps into your skin, awakes your senses. I saw it weeks ago, and still remember every scene. Who would have thought a land deal and a coma could prove so suspenseful? All I hope for in a film it had: a well-told story, memorable and insightful characters, a non-formulaic and unpredictable plot, amazing performances, and, this is technical: I put a lot of weight on the opening and closing shots/scenes. The wife with the wind in her face, then the father and offspring cocooning to “March of the Penguins” – such spectacular choices. Speaking of which, I love it when movies show other movies within the movie. “Bridesmaids” did this, too, with “Castaways,” when Annie had hit bottom, felt as if she had no friends, just like Tom Hanks’ character befriending sports gear.

BEST ACTOR

Prediction: Jean Dujardin
Pick: Brad Pitt

I want someone (anyone?) to upset Dujardin’s au jus (French gravy) train.

 I’ve gone ’round and ’round on this one. There’s only one actor I can easily eliminate: Gary Oldman, who reminded me of something out of “South Park” with that poker face of his in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” … Tin Man.

And though I love George Clooney — and “love” is too tame a word — I just couldn’t buy the fact his kids didn’t find him equally as charming as I do. He couldn’t turn off the charm, not even with “the run.”
Jean Dujardin is the French George Clooney, and Demian Bichir is the Mexican George Clooney … they can’t all win. Bichir did take a cliché of a script and make me cry. But he’s such a long shot …

I think it’s time for Brad Pitt’s lifetime achievement award. As far as I can tell, I am the only one. He was intense in “The Tree of Life” as a family abuser, and I know he isn’t nominated for that movie, but he HATES baseball, and look how he sold “Moneyball” – his arc as a father, his insecurities … he showed us a different side of Brad Pitt. So I’m pulling for the underdog, in the spirit of the Oakland A’s.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Prediction & Pick: Christopher Plummer

(see previous post, “Bummer for Christopher Plummer?” When I wrote it, I had no clue he was the front-runner.)

BEST ACTRESS

Prediction & Pick: Viola Davis

But I wish there were room for Glenn Close. Maybe in the Best Actor category? heheh.

Ever since “Doubt,” I have adored Viola. She was also smashing this year in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” sharing praise with Sandra Bullock for giving that movie an emotional center. But what a shame for Glenn Close, whose beach scene with Janet McTeer should become as legendary as those from “Chariots of Fire,” “10,” and “From Here to Eternity.” I was transfixed by her performance. After the movie was over, and it truly settled within me, I sat weeping in the theater. But because Close spent 15 years working to bring this movie to the screen, and had already honed the Albert character onstage (and what brilliance in her interpretative manly movements), I’ll say that’s an unfair advantage. As for Mara Rooney, I liked her, but think I liked the actress in the Swedish version more. Meryl Streep, oh, Meryl. You were a better Thatcher than ever Thatcher was, but I think I’ll give it to you for makeup this year. Michelle Williams was a creampuff surprise, rounding out Marilyn with her Norma Jean essence. She wasn’t an impersonator; she was an incubator. Still … it is definitely Viola’s time.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Prediction: Octavia Spencer
Pick: Jessica Chastain (see previous post, “Moonlighting at the Movies”)

ANIMATED FEATURE

Prediction: Rango
Pick: Chico & Rita

Because it was the jazziest animated feature ever.

ART DIRECTION

Prediction: Hugo
Pick: War Horse

Because the horse-getting-stuck-in-the-barbed-wire scene sticks with you.

CINEMATOGRAPHY

Prediction & Pick: The Tree of Life

Because it can’t possibly win anything else.

COSTUME DESIGN

Prediction: W.E.

Because Arianne Phillips has Madonna on her side.

Pick: Anonymous

Not THAT Anonymous! Now, that would be an easy costume ...

I also liked “Jane Eyre,” but the best costumes were over in the first 15 minutes, whereas Lisy Christl had to costume entire crowds authentically and also hand-sew all those noodly collars. Plus, Vanessa Redgrave’s gowns were to-die-for. By beheading.

DIRECTING

Prediction & Pick: Michel Hazanavicius

I’ll give him that one, because he WAS the movie. But I would be happy if Alexander Payne or Martin Scorsese managed to win. And I would like to cast anti-votes for both Terrence Malick and Woody Allen. I imagine Woody telling Owen Wilson: “Be more me.” Ugh. He even made him wear his pants like him.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Prediction: Undefeated

But I didn’t get to see it.

Pick: Hell and Back Again

 I saw only this one and “Paradise Lost,” and this one was brilliant — and daring.

FILM EDITING

Prediction: Thelma Schoonmaker for “Hugo”
Pick: Kevin Tent for “The Descendants”

FOREIGN LANGUAGE

Prediction & Pick: A Separation

 If I could select this for Best Picture overall, I would.

MAKEUP

Prediction & Pick: Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland for “The Iron Lady”

MUSIC (Original Score)

Prediction: Ludovic Bource for “The Artist”
Pick: Howard Shore for “Hugo”

MUSIC (Original Song)

Haven’t seen either movie or listened to either song yet. I’ll decide tonight, but I’m leaning toward “Rio.” Coin toss.

SOUND EDITING

Prediction: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Because voters are gonna wanna give it something.

Pick: Drive

Because this was an AWESOME movie. It’s “Taxi Driver” for stunt men.

SOUND MIXING

Prediction & Pick: Hugo

VISUAL EFFECTS

Prediction & Pick: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

WRITING (Adapted Screenplay)

Prediction: The Descendants

And I’d be thrilled for it, but I am faulting it for its narration.

Pick: Moneyball

Because OMIGOD how did they turn THAT dry book into a gripping MOVIE?

WRITING (Original Screenplay)

Prediction: Midnight in Paris
Pick: A Separation

“Margin Call” was quite interesting, but it was written in code. “Bridesmaids” was an unexpected treat, but because it was half-improv, it shouldn’t count. “The Artist” had a meatier plot than I expected, but Michel will get enough overblown credit, and because it’s silent, it’s borderline writing.

Phew. Let the Oscar parties begin!!

Human-side economics: Fairness at play

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for capitalizing on a good idea. The person who invented Post-its -— NOT Romy or Michele from Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, although Lisa Kudrow‘s character makes a darn compelling case, below, that it could have been anyone — well, that person should profit from his genius and good business sense. (See previous post “Scotch Tape, Post-Its and the stickiest problem yet.”)

Where then does our capitalist system fail? It’s in this concept of one’s “fair share.”

Movies teach us a lot. Take the new all-American baseball biopic Moneyball; and if you haven’t yet seen it, you must.

Spoiler alert: You should probably run see it before finishing reading this post.

Moneyball shows us how Ivy League economics and a few scraps helped turn around a tanking baseball team. Formulas alone, though, wouldn’t work. Brad Pitt, as Billy Beane, had to factor in some human chemistry to help define his success. His decisions weren’t always “winning” ones, but they were the right ones. He rejected a $12.5 million salary, for instance, on the basis he already had what he needed — or he knew the salary wouldn’t help him achieve what he wanted.

As a cog in the news business, I recently earned a 2.49% raise, after a straight record of “superior” performance ratings and two (or was it three?) years of pay freezes, forced furloughs and rising health care costs. You think they could have squeezed out one more hundredth or a percentage for a round 2.5%. Musta been based on some cold calculation to not upset someone else’s chock-full apple cart. No doubt those in the company’s upper echelons still managed six-figure bonuses on top of plump salaries during these lean times.

Is this fair? Of course, the answer is “above my pay grade.”

I’m not complaining, as I am thankful to have a job. But it seems to me the problem with our system is we get saturated at the top, with very little trickle-down action.

I’m not saying the people at the top are all villains — they were human once, too, ha. And those “bean-counters” in the Oakland A’s front office with Billy Beane merely were saturated, stuck in their ways. They lacked the vision and drive he had. You gotta be a little hungry for that kinda magic.

I never set out this morning to write about this sticky wicket, or Scotch Tape or Post-its. I merely looked up the year 1925 doing other research and found what I thought was an interesting story about men with ideas — the human story behind economics.

Although I don’t advocate the Saudi way of doing things, it’s interesting how Saudi Arabia spreads its oil wealth among its citizens. Not unlike Alaska. If every businessman and -woman made decisions based on the human element, or at least evaluated things on the basis of what role his/her product and business plays in people’s lives, always remembering where s/he came from, and the legitimacy of those who work and those who COULD work for them, maybe more of us could benefit — not to the point of saturation, but at least on the cusp of fulfillment, with evenly distributed pangs of hunger driving our economy.

In other words, the perfect capitalist system would work better applied imperfectly, with some take-and-give.