Oscar picks: Writing

Ironic that one of my favorite categories is getting the short shrift on the writing end (*she does the test for proper usage of “irony”) …

Anyway, with just a half-hour to go before the festivities begin, I must get it down on record.

The nominees for Original Screenplay

American Hustle

Blue Jasmine

Dallas Buyers Club

Her. This is the cool, hip flick of the year, and I loved the concept and the production design (I kinda want it to win for Production Design). But the script went downhill for me three-quarters of the way in. Spoiler alert: HOW is Joaquin Phoenix’s character supposed to get a book published of the letters he writes when his job is ghost-writing those letters for other people?! Isn’t that some sort of lawsuit waiting to happen? That bugged me so much that I was disgruntled over the story’s resolution.

Nebraska

My pick: Nebraska

My prediction: Her

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In “Her,” Joaquin Phoenix’s character works for a letter-writing service — he ghost-writes personal, handwritten letters for people too busy or inadequate to do it themselves. What’s weird is: His OS publishes a book of the letters on his behalf. Kinda defeats the purpose of being a ghost writer and ruins his character arc, in my view, for him to become a successful author. Bad writing?

I didn’t see all of the nominees for Adapted Screenplay — still missing “Before Midnight” — but I am rooting for “12 Years a Slave.”

The nominees for Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight

Captain Phillips

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

And no, I haven’t read any of the books or seen the original the sequel is based on.

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In “12 Years a Slave,” the Solomon Northup character also crafts a letter — using a whittled stick and berry juice. Amazing to think this man went on to write down his story to enrich our lives 150 years later.

Hmm. I’m thinking next year the only way to fairly judge these categories is to read all the books.

OH NOOOOOO! WHY is February the shortest month?!?

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.

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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.”

Saving Mr. Hanks

Poor Tom Hanks. Once dubbed “the most likable guy in Hollywood,” his star is sullied by so-called Oscar snubs this year — or so the Tinseltown media are buzzing. A Los Angeles Times headline last week asked: “Is the academy over Tom Hanks?”

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Tom Hanks falls for a mermaid in “Splash” — another Everyman’s fantasy.

Save your hankies. From Saving Private Ryan to Saving Mr. Banks to (spoiler alert) getting saved by the SEALs in Captain Phillips, the charming, Southern-flavored (though he’s from California) Hanks has enjoyed a charmed career. Getting his start as a comic actor, with those signature deer-in-headlights, goofball gazes, he made a splash in Splash (1984), made it bigger in Big (1988), and then started to shed his comic veneer with Punchline that same year. His character in that film was a stand-up comedian down on his luck looking for his big break. When he reveals his tears-of-a-clown side in a famous meltdown onstage, Hanks exposed himself as a multifaceted, “serious” actor.

It didn’t take him long to command iconic roles (and million-dollar salaries): He is the astronaut who utters “Houston, we have a problem” in Apollo 13 — heroic not because he flew to the moon but because he survived as his dream to do so died. He’s the good soldier on a hellish mission to extract from the battlefield the last surviving son of one family in World War II in Saving Private Ryan, representing the best of our best, even in a killing field. He’s a 9/11 victim in 2011’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — and not just any victim, but one of those photographed jumping from one of the twin towers. Although his role is small, he looms large as a spiritual guide to those left to grieve and suffer.

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A waif of a Hanks in “Philadelphia.” Take that, McConaughey.

And even though he’s not nominated as best actor this year, he has already plumbed some of the territory the best actor nominees are being recognized for. In 1993, Hanks starred in one of the first mainstream movies to shed light on the HIV/AIDS epidemic (Philadelphia) — and shed about 30 pounds to do it. (To achieve his own dramatic weight loss as an AIDS patient 20 years later for the Oscar-nominated Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey admits he consulted Hanks — while also eating little more than daily spoonfuls of pudding.)

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WILSON!

Hanks also pulled a De Niro (re: Raging Bull, a 1980 Best Picture Oscar winner) by gaining 55 pounds for Cast Away (2000) and then losing it again during filming. Besides providing catharsis for yo-yo dieters and workaholics alike in that movie, he caught the wave of Americans’ growing love affair with soccer. Not to mention spoonfuls of sugar and Type 2 diabetes.

perdition-splshHe did a sort of prequel to The Wolf of Wall Street exposing Wall Street’s festering greed in 1990’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. I guess his Road to Perdition (2002), in which he plays a hitman whose son witnesses what he does for a living, is maybe the closest thing to Bruce Dern’s delusional dad on a road trip with his son in Nebraska. Or maybe Toy Story — they were both named “Woody.”

That Thing You Do! — which Hanks wrote, directed and starred in — has the retro vibe of American Hustle, although he’s pretty much one of the suits. As for hairpieces to compete with Christian Bale’s, pick any one of his looks from his six roles in 2012’s Cloud Atlas. All bad hair days.

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Hanks plays a karmic, cosmic chameleon in “Cloud Atlas.” And his savage, fake language seems trickier than his New England accent as Captain Phillips, or any of his faux Southern twangs.

And the 12 Years a Slave guy? Well, Hanks can’t compete, but he had some tender moments in 1999’s The Green Mile with his prisoner, that mountain of a man Michael Clarke Duncan. Together, they helped us believe in miracles.

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A glimpse of salvation in “The Green Mile.”

So it’s been there, done that for Hanks. Do you think he CARES whether the Academy no longer loves him?

Poor Hanks. So omnipresent yet so underrated.

Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter recently noted that, with this year’s Captain Phillips, Hanks has starred in seven films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar over the years:

Forrest Gump (1994)

Apollo 13 (1995)

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The Green Mile (1999)

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

Captain Phillips (2013)

Of those, only Forrest Gump nabbed the Best Picture Oscar. Gump. Forrest Gump. And for only two was he singled out by the Academy for his performance with an acting nomination (Saving Private Ryan, Gump).

It’s not as if Hanks hasn’t been duly recognized by the Academy — he remains one of the few actors to win back-to-back acting Oscars, for 1993’s Philadelphia and 1994’s Gump (beating John Travolta in Pulp Fiction?!?) — but maybe the golden boy has lost some of his golden touch.

0_61_hanks_tomIt could be age-ism — the hefty role of Captain Phillips shows the realistic heft (shirtless) of a nearly 60-year-old middle-of-the-road Everyman. And now that he has joined the ranks of the nearly 26 millions diabetic Americans (7 million of whom don’t know it), you can’t say he doesn’t stay relevant.

In 1998’s You’ve Got Mail (the digital upgrade of 1993’s treacly Sleepless in Seattle), he first opened the can of worms on obsessive hours spent at the computer and online affairs, a precursor to Joaquin Phoenix’s Her fixation.

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The warm-and-fuzzy “You’ve Got Mail.”

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When it comes to roles, you never know what you’re gonna get with Hanks. But it’s likely to feel good.

As gooey love stories go, chocolate lover Forrest Gump was Hanks’ most iconic figure of all. That square of very little brain but big heart stood up for everything American: the plinth of motherhood, battle-scarred vets, persecuted dolts, AIDS victims so callously mowed down, and such fads-turned-fabric of our lives as fitness running (New Balance, made in America), smiley-face memes and the Apple computer. How could he top that marquee role with his fingers in everything? Perhaps only by playing Walt Disney, the magic king himself, in Saving Mr. Banks.

We all love Tom Hanks. Screenwriters, moviegoers, his acting peers, marriage advocates — he has one of the longest Hollywood marriages going, and to the same, original person. True story: While out promoting Saving Mr. Banks on Ellen last year he talked about wife Rita Wilson, saying: “I’m not one to suck up to an audience, but the only thing we really argue about is who loves each other more.”

Awwwwwwwww, darling. He’s still just a little boy in a big person’s body.

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BREATHE, Tom. Breathe.

In Captain Phillips, he takes on real-world piracy — terrorism, again — but he pays wondrous homage not only to the by-the-book union workers but (again) those brave men in uniform. His greatest acting moment — another Oscar-worthy meltdown, I’d say — comes when he demonstrates a type of post-traumatic stress in present tense (emphasis on TENSE). And it’s his interplay with his nurse caretaker that finally has me, anyway, looking for my hankie.

That’s when you realize that Hanks has been nothing but wingman all these years to the people he plays.

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Woody meets … Walt Disney?

Hollywood reporters have it all wrong, confusing the message with the messenger. Hanks would be the first to say it’s about story. But it’s never been about him.

The Navy SEALs, in fact, seem to have slipped into the position of Hollywood darlings lately, what with all of these salutes based on memoirs from these formerly shadowy figures: 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty and Act of Valor, and this year’s Oscar contender Lone Survivor dramatizing a debacle of a mission in Afghanistan (up for Sound Mixing).

Flaws and failures are fertile fodder for films and those who create them. So by passing over Hanks … well, I’d like to thank the Academy.

You probably did the guy a favor.