Sprint the marathon: a look toward the Oscars

by Varun Bhucar | 1/20/14 7:48pm

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Not weather-wise, of course. I’m talking about awards season. Although the Golden Globe Awards and Screen Actors Guild Awards are already behind us, an abundance of other awards shows in February and March — the Grammy Awards, British Academy Film Awards, Golden Raspberry Awards and, of course, the Academy Awards — are reason enough to huddle inside with hot chocolate, popcorn and a mock-up ballot sheet.

The 2014 Academy Awards nominees were announced at 5:30 a.m. on Thursday, so by the time I woke up, there were already full analysis articles published on film and media websites. The nominees included a number of front-runners for best picture and director, while the acting categories appear to be more competitive.

The coveted best picture prize included some baffling nominees, as the 45-car pileup known as “American Hustle” (2013) managed to make the cut. The race, however, will most likely come down to the two most talked about films of the year, “12 Years a Slave” (2013) and “Gravity” (2013). Thematically, these films are as different as night and day — the former breaks new ground in racial discourse, while the latter is a technological triumph. Either would make a worthy winner.

The best director field will likely be competitive between these same films, though I think Alfonso Cuaron’s amazing visual achievements in “Gravity” will make him the winner over Steve McQueen.

As far as the nominations for actors, there are a number of clear favorites. Cate Blanchett’s performance in “Blue Jasmine” (2013) and Jared Leto’s role in “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013) make the best actress and best supporting actor categories almost foregone conclusions. I was pleased to see Jonah Hill nominated for his absolutely bonkers performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), although I doubt he will win the little golden man this year. In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Hill is hubris and selfishness personified, and the role shows how much he has developed as an actor.

The best actor and best supporting actress categories are, however, very different stories. Once the front-runner in a stacked race, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance in “12 Years a Slave” may no longer be the Academy’s favorite. My leaning is that Matthew McConaughey’s portrayal of an AIDS victim in “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013) will take the prize.

If there were any justice in the world, June Squibb would win best supporting actress for her show-stealing performance in “Nebraska” (2013). Instead, she will likely have to settle for a nomination, as front-runners Lupita Nyong’o of “12 Years a Slave” and Jennifer Lawrence of “American Hustle” duke it out for the prize. Nyong’o was nominated for her heartbreaking turn as an abused slave in “12 Years a Slave,” while Lawrence plays an unpredictable, heavy-drinking young wife to con man Christian Bale in “American Hustle.”

As you may be able to tell, I do not like “American Hustle.” While the full explanation would take a few pages and another article, I find it a mediocre film filled with actors whom the Academy loves and wishes to reward, a dangerous combination. It did not deserve to earn 10 nominations, putting it in the same league as “Gravity,” which also received 10 nods, and “12 Years a Slave,” with nine.

Given that many excellent films never win or even receive nominations, people often ask why we should care about such awards. I’d argue, however, that they serve a purpose — they grant legitimacy to the winners. The fact that there is only one Academy to choose the victors limits the prizes, although the selection process is also influenced by greed and petty politics.

In one glaring example, the little-known film “Alone Yet Not Alone” (2013) received a nomination for best original song, beating out original songs by Taylor Swift, Coldplay and Lana Del Rey. The number in “Alone Yet Not Alone” was composed by Bruce Broughton, a former governor of the Academy’s music branch, so one cannot help but speculate that he schmoozed his way to a seat at the glitzy event. Hopefully such politicking does not mar the ceremony, as it has in the past.