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

theres-an-app-just-like-the-greeting-card-company-joaquin-phoenix-works-for-in-her

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.

12_years_a_slave_1_large

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.

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