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.”

Oscar picks: Cinematography

The nominees:

The Grandmaster (Philippe Le Sound). How do you translate Terrence Malick into Chinese? Bingo. Every shot here is painstakingly precious — the super-slow-mo kung fu gang warfare in a downpour is an explosive but choppy opening.  Impressive that the cameras didn’t get waterlogged. This movie does play like an epic poem.  Eventually, though, the effort to make every frame a piece of framable art (or velvet painting, in some cases) gets cumbersome. Cinematography should be the medium, not the entire masterpiece. Solly, Chalrie, too indulgent for my tastes. The trailer deceives you into thinking there is more story there — the movie feels more like a brochure for a martial arts school than a history lesson. Could it be the language barrier?

Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki). Contrast the choppy opening of The Grandmaster with Lubezki’s 12- to 20-minute continuous opening shot (depending on your source). OK, now that’s just showing off. Academy voters are likely to vote for this because the vista of space tickles their fancies — even though it was all done with wires and “mirrors,” i.e. the Light Box that I’m sure you’ve read about. Great invention, this 3-D projection chamber with 4,096 programmable twinkly lights.  I simply can’t vote for robotic cameras and puppetry in this category. For visual effects, sure, hands-down, it wins the Oscar, but give me humans operating a camera any day.

Inside Llewyn Davis  (Bruno Delbonnel).  Now we’re talking cinematography. Delbonnel did Amélie — he has a magic touch. This movie was like a painting, so lyrical … mostly blue hues, with spots of brown marking Llewyn and the cat, little splashes of red opportunities and life flashing by. It’s the kind of film you can watch with the sound off and it will still hold your interest. The cinematography supplies half of its character. Perfection.

Nebraska (Phedon Papamichael).  I’m really torn between the previous nominee and this one, a rare black-and-white entry. Papamichael also shot 2011’s The Descendants — he’s a master at narrative photography. And that’s what he calls it, “photography,” so in that respect I feel the images were a bit static. Sometimes I got the sense I was looking at a storyboard not a finished film. But the black-and-white wasn’t flat at all —it somehow helped bring the bleakness of these folks’ lives to life.  There was one shot that made me disgruntled, though —one weird rack focus moment in which Will Forte and Bruce Dern switch places in their vehicle, and the camera lens changes shape then rights itself — I tsk-tsked that, was it intentional? Made me dizzy. But overall this is a true contender. Stacy Keach! That was Stacy Keach. At 72,  he’s only five years younger than Bruce Dern, but man, he looked 20 years younger.

Prisoners (Roger A. Deakins). I may be the only one who saw this movie showcasing Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo and Viola Davis. I know, right? The cinematography was so suspenseful it pulsated like a horror movie, even though it’s your basic twisty crime detective story —expertly crafted.  Sadly, because no one saw it, it can’t possibly win.

My prediction: “Gravity”

My pick: “Nebraska”

(Ultimately, because these are American awards, Nebraska should win over the foreign-feeling Inside Llewyn Davis — also probably too many words in the title for folks to remember, as this is The Year of One-Word Titles. Nebraska is like an American Gothic, or Wizard of Oz without the color fantasy section … but I wouldn’t be sad if Inside Llewyn Davis took home an Oscar.)