Just as we begin to settle into the rhythm and expectations of a new year, the Oscars come around to throw us back into the previous one. Always extravagant and never necessary, the Academy Awards stand as the paradigm of Hollywood’s self-obsession, equally viewed as an exciting, glamorous occasion of talents coming together and an absurd parade of meaningless prize-giving. It was Humphrey Bogart who mused – back in 1944, when the Oscars were held on March 2nd, exactly seventy years prior to this year’s ceremony – that “awards are meaningless for actors, unless they all play the same part”. That year he was nominated for his role in Casablanca, one that people still watch and enjoy, but lost the award to Paul Lukas for Watch on the Rhine – a movie that I daresay hardly anyone living today has ever even heard of, let alone remembers.
The Oscars have always been a popularity contest, damned by the short-sightedness and frivolity of voters who seem to value trends over trajectory – but that doesn’t stop some of us from attempting to gage which picture or which actor is going to leave a long-lasting impact on the industry and on our cultural conscience. Maybe none of the films discussed here will be remembered in the way that Casablanca is and always will be, but at least our choices can show future scholars of cinema just what was valued at this moment in time. Whatever insight is lost on the part of contemporary voters will be gained on the part of those looking back.
The clear winner for me this year is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave; not only is it the first film in the history of world cinema to directly observe and relate the horrors of American slavery, but it is a superb cinematic creation on its own terms. Allegedly inspired by the artwork of Francisco Goya, the film’s visuals capture the essence of violence as it was inflicted upon American slaves only one hundred-sixty years ago with a mature forthrightness. The sense of danger, the nightmarish surrealism of protagonist Solomon Northup’s experiences, make this film an uncompromising work; it is an overwhelming emotional and moral experience that reaches into the depths of our understanding of humanity, and reminds us of our nation’s darkest truth, the deep stain on our collective conscience – the effects of which are still, disturbingly, felt today.
Naturally, for me, 12 Years a Slave warrants the awards for Best Picture and Director, and I also feel that Chiwetel Ejiofor – who portrays Solomon Northup – is deserving of the award for Actor in a Leading Role. Although he is up against a few worthy opponents (DiCaprio for Wolf of Wall Street, Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, Bruce Dern for Nebraska), I feel that Ejiofor, who is extraordinary in this film, should be the one to win due to the simple virtue of his role’s importance, and the key place it will take among the array of notable male protagonists over the history of American cinema. (Incidentally, I also feel that he is the nominee whose career would most benefit from an Oscar.)
Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o, also of 12 Years a Slave, deserve to pick up the awards for Supporting Actor and Actress; Fassbender’s ruthless slaveholder Edwin Epps offers a fascinating glimpse into the inherent human weakness and insecurity behind the institution of slavery, and Nyong’o’s Patsey – the innocent slave whose beauty makes her the target of sexual and physical abuse – is, again, a role that demands recognition for what it teaches us about the lives of female slaves. Finally, before moving on from 12 Years a Slave, I feel that the film is deserving of the awards for costume design and film editing. The outfits worn in this film do much to reflect character and strongly assist in developing a sense of environment; the editing is what holds the movie together, delivering us through the visceral work at a gratifyingly sensitive pace.
So, that makes seven awards accounted for; and of the seventeen remaining awards that will be doled out on Oscar Night, I feel comfortable making claims as to what the winners of ten of them should be. The award for Actress in a Leading Role should go to Judi Dench for Philomena; not only is her work in that movie sublime, but the film itself deserves to be honored with an Oscar far more so than, say, Blue Jasmine (for which Cate Blanchett is nominated) or American Hustle (for which Amy Adams is nominated). Also, keeping in line with the theme of slavery, here we have a female protagonist who was held against her will and stripped from her infant son because of religious dogma; in a way, Philomena Lee was as much a victim of corrupted morality as the American slave, if under far less inescapable and physiologically destructive circumstances.
The adapted screenplay award belongs to Before Midnight, a movie that is so breathtakingly authentic in its use of dialogue that it generates a feeling of wonder and magic – one that is due entirely to the charisma of its lead actors and the strength of its writing. It is my favorite movie of the year, and deserves at least this one acknowledgment of greatness. And the award for original screenplay should go to Her, which features not only a touching and completely original storyline, but is written in a clear, elegiac style by Spike Jonze.
For cinematography, my pick is Prisoners; the cloudy, lifeless, autumnal atmosphere comes through brilliantly in this film, generating a distinctly suggestive and dark environment, where dangerous truths are huddling off somewhere through the trees, just out of sight. The award for production design should go to Her – not as flashy a choice as American Hustle or The Great Gatsby, perhaps, but one in which there is a distinct unison between character and environment. The style of its sets and setting are unique, dimly-lit spaces with décor that is faintly reminiscent of the 1970s. They suggest intimacy and solitude, a dream-like wonder for isolation and love.
Sound is, as always, a difficult category to judge; I’d like to think that I have some idea of the difference between a sound editor and a sound mixer (the former creates and edits the audio, while the latter orchestrates it), but even then it is difficult to recall how the sound played in a given movie, unless it was particularly noticeable. Such was the case with Gravity, a movie where sound served as a central agent in generating the extreme sense of tension and danger that pervades its action. The inventiveness of its auditory atmosphere is distinct, and that it why I designate Gravity with the award for Sound Editing.
In terms of sound, Captain Phillips is an equally evocative auditory experience – but, given its more concrete sonic resources (water, guns, shouting), I would imagine that the process of inventing and editing various sounds would demand less imagination than the fantastic environment of Gravity. On the other hand, I imagine that the act of balancing and refining audio feeds within such compact spaces as a cargo hold and lifeboat would be very challenging, and therefore I would grant Captain Phillips the award for Sound Mixing.
Now, music. I feel that Thomas Newman’s work for Saving Mr. Banks is the most full-bodied and self-assured out of this year’s nominees for Original Score; it is as whimsical and inspiring as his very best work, and does much to benefit the movie for which it was composed. His only credible rival, in my mind, is Alexandre Desplat, whose theme tune for Philomena is delicate, moving, and cleverly conceived in its use of carnival-like instrumentals to suggest the site of its protagonist’s impregnation – the root of all her suffering, yearning, and love. However, Desplat’s collective output for Philomena lacks the melodic variance of Newman’s work, and doesn’t work to elevate its movie in the way that Newman’s does.
And as for Original Song, “Ordinary Love” is the clear winner for me; oftentimes, songs that are written for movies sound strung-together and lack a certain edge, but this U2 song sounds as though it were composed purely for its own sake – a verifiable pop song that can stand on its own two feet, independently of the movie.
Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Director: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Actress: Judi Dench, Philomena
Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Adapted Screenplay: Before Midnight, by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke
Original Screenplay: Her, by Spike Jonze
Cinematography: Prisoners, Roger A. Deakins
Costume Design: 12 Years a Slave, Patricia Norris
Film Editing: 12 Years a Slave, Joe Walker
Original Score: Saving Mr. Banks, Thomas Newman
Original Song: “Ordinary Love,” from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom; Music by Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen; Lyric by Paul Hewson
Production Design: Her, K.K. Barrett and Gene Serdena
Sound Editing: Gravity, Glenn Freemantle
Sound Mixing: Captain Phillips, Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith and Chris Munro
Visual Effects: Gravity, Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk and Neil Corbould