Wednesday, January 15, 2014

2013 Year in Review: Personal Oscar Ballot

Below is what this year’s Oscar nominations and winners would look like if they just did the smart thing and let me choose them all. I’ve listed some comments for each category explaining my decisions. Enjoy.

Best Picture
1.     Inside Llewyn Davis
2.     Upstream Color
3.     Nebraska
4.     The Wolf of Wall Street
5.     12 Years a Slave
6.     Her
7.     Spring Breakers
8.     Before Midnight
9.     Gravity
10. A Touch of Sin

Comments: I already explained in my top 10 list why each film made this list, so I won’t go too far into details here. I will say that the list is dominated by fairly major – and mostly American auteurs – and I already know some will accuse of me of overpraising some of my favorites. I’m okay with that, because I truly do believe that the films are among the best each filmmaker has made. It is mainly a dark list, but that’s par for the course for me.

1.    Joel & Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
2.    Shane Carruth, Upstream Color
3.    Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
4.    Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
5.    Alexander Payne, Nebraska

Comments: It shouldn’t be too surprising that the top five films of the year are also the top five for me in terms of direction – I was tempted to put in Spike Jonze for Her – which I feel is every bit as good as any of the five – but that would mean eliminating Payne – and I just couldn’t do it.

Best Actor

1.    Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
2.    Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
3.    Joaquin Phoenix, Her
4.    Bruce Dern, Nebraska
5.    Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

Comments: Again, I’ve done a list explaining these choices in much more detail, so I won’t delve in deeply here. The list does have some of the best actors currently working on it – Joaquin Phoenix and Leonardo DiCaprio would easily rank on my top 10 working actors list right now, alongside a legend in Bruce Dern, and an actor who should have be getting this kind of attention for a while now – Chiwetel Ejiofor. And I still cannot quite believe I didn’t have a spot for Robert Redford. But better than all of them was Oscar Isaac – who came out of nowhere and devastated me with a complex performance that may just be the best ever in a Coen Brothers movie.

Best Actress

1.    Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color
2.    Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color
3.    Brie Larson, Short Term 12
4.    Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
5.    Julie Delphy, Before Midnight

Comments: The Oscar race for this category has been dominated by veterans – which is all well and good, because it is rare far too rare to see women over 40 given great roles. And yet, it was a trio of newcomers who most impressed me this year. Brie Larson has been building towards the type of performance she gives in Short Term 12 for a while now – and she fully seizes the opportunity to play a complex character and nails it. Adèle Exarchopoulos goes all out in Blue is the Warmest Color – and is impressive in creating a complex, confused character. Above either of them is Amy Seimetz – perhaps the single greatest unsung performance of the year – who keeps Shane Carruth’s loopy Upstream Color completely grounded and delivers an emotionally gut-wrenching performance. Still, it’s impossible to deny likely Oscar winner Blanchett praise for her powerhouse performance in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. And when is everyone else going to notice just how great Julie Delphy has been in the Before series?

Best Supporting Actor
1.     James Franco, Spring Breakers
2.     Michael Fassbender, 12 Yeas a Slave
3.     James Gandolfini, Enough Said
4.     Matthew McConaughey, Mud
5.     Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

Comments: It wasn’t a banner year for this category – but the top performances are still all excellent. I easily could have put McConaughey here for his one scene wonder in The Wolf of Wall Street – but his work in Jeff Nichols’ Mud is deeper and far more complex – perhaps the best of his career (a mark he seems to be topping each time out in the past few years). I didn’t really think Jonah Hill deserved an Oscar nomination for Moneyball – but playing a complete asshole in The Wolf of Wall Street he does. James Gandolfini shows a different side of himself in Enough Said – a gentle, comedic side – and that makes it all the more sad that we won’t see more of him. Michael Fassbender would be the easy choice for a winner in most years – yes, he plays a snarling villain, but a recognizably human one – he’s one of the best actors we have. But for me, I cannot deny James Franco’s Alien – a thoroughly sleazy character, but one Franco somehow makes creepy and yet almost touching.

Supporting Actor
1.     Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
2.     Scarlett Johansson, Her
3.     Lea Seydoux, Blue is the Warmest Color
4.     June Squibb, Nebraska
5.     Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street

Comments: Perhaps the best thing I can say about these five performances is that my ranking of them is almost arbitrary – ask me on another day, I could completely change their order – they are all that good, but none of them tower over the others. Still, I think newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is probably the best – a devastating performance that comes out of nowhere. Seydoux makes her slightly older, slightly wiser character into a real one. Scarlett Johansson does so much with nothing other than her voice in Her – perhaps making it the most difficult one to pull off. June Squibb starts as a caricature, and then turns real as the movie goes along. And Emma Watson’s performance is merciless and spot-on. Everyone else has Jennifer Lawrence on their list – and she is great in American Hustle – but I was impressed by another blonde bombshell more – Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Best Original Screenplay
1.    Inside Llewyn Davis – Joel & Ethan Coen
2.    Her – Spike Jonze
3.    Upstream Color – Shane Carruth
4.    Nebraska – Bob Nelson
5.    The Counselor – Cormac McCarthy

Comments: The top four screenplays here are probably all better than the best one of in the adapted category – it was a banner year for Originals – not so much for adaptations. Still, I think the Coen’s screenplay for Inside Llewyn Davis ranks among their best ever – which makes them an easy choice. Spike Jonze shows he can write a complex screenplay without Charlie Kaufman with Her – which is just as daring, and even more emotional. Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is a complex piece of work – I have no idea what the screenplay looked like, but somehow it does come together. Bob Nelson’s Nebraska screenplay is simple – not as daring as the others – but perhaps more “perfect”. The controversial choice will obviously be Cormac McCarthy for The Counselor – but I’m okay with that. It was a narrow call between that and Jeff Nichols’ Mud and Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine or even Edgar Wright & Simon Pegg’s The World’s End or Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha – all of which are probably tighter, more flawless screenplays. Still, I couldn’t help loving all the monologues McCarthy gives the characters – it may well be a more interesting screenplay to read than it is to watch – so he gets my vote.

Best Adapted Screenplay
1.    The Wolf of Wall Street – Terrence Winter
2.    12 Years a Slave – John Ridley
3.    Before Midnight – Richard Linklater & Julie Delphy & Ethan Hawke
4.    Short Term 12 – Destin Cretin
5.    The Spectacular Now – Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber

Comments: This was not a great year for adaptations. Terrence Winter’s long, funny, disturbing work on The Wolf of Wall Street is clearly the best to me – although John Ridley deserves a lot of credit for 12 Years a Slave as well. I don’t really see how Before Midnight is an adaptation – there has never existed another “version” in this or any other medium of this story, but I’m not going to argue with the Academy rules, and just place it here – it is a great screenplay. Destin Cretton’s expansion of his pre-existing short film Short Term 12 also warrants notice (although I understand there is some controversy over if it should be original or not) – I placed it here, because it warrants a mention more than anything else I could come up with. The screenplay for The Spectacular Now is an uncommonly intelligent, thoughtful movie about teenagers.

Best Documentary
1.    The Act of Killing
2.     Room 237
3.     Blackfish
4.     The Unknown Known
5.     20 Feet from Stardom

Comments: There were quite a few interesting documentaries this year – but for me, the top three towers over everything else. The Act of Killing was daring, controversial, disturbing and unforgettable. Room 237 was about how we watch movies – and was extremely entertaining in its insane reading of Kubrick’s The Shining. Blackfish a disturbing look at a captive whale, responsible for more than one death, who is just as much of a victim as anyone in the story. I liked The Unknown Known more than most – it is a fascinating Errol Morris doc – and 20 Feet from Stardom was the best of the many, many music docs I saw this year. As a side note, I’ll be rooting for Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell in the Oscar race this year – the only reason it’s not on this list is because it was released in Canada last year – when I named it the best doc of the year. If I had to choose between it and The Act of Killing, I have no idea which one I would choose.

Best Animated Film

1.     The Wind Rises
2.     Monsters University
3.     Frozen
4.     From Up on Poppy Hill
5.     Ernest & Celestine

Comments: Hardly a banner year in animation – but the final masterpiece by Hayao Miyazaki The Wind Rises would be a great choice in any year. Monsters University is somewhat underrated – nowhere near Pixar’s best, but still easily the best mainstream animated film of the year. Frozen is wonderful, old school Disney musical magic. I’m not as enthused by From Up on Poppy Hill or Ernest & Celestine as the others – but they are still clearly better than any other animated films I saw this year. Hopefully next year will be a better one for animation.

Best Foreign Language Film
1.    A Touch of Sin - China
2.    Blue is the Warmest Color - France
3.    Bastards - France
4.    Beyond the Hills - Romania
5.    Our Children – Belgium

Comments: All of these films got a shout out in either my top 10 list or the runners-up section, so allow me time to vent on the Academy’s idiotic process for nominating Foreign Films. None of these are eligible this year A Touch of Sin because China didn’t like it (too controversial) and the two from France either because they choose something else, or because of the guidelines which made them ineligible. The final two were eligible last year – but didn’t get nominated. To me, the Academy should pick be able to pick the best Foreign films every year – whether their own countries like them or not. If I had to choose five films that were eligible (and I haven’t seen most of them, because they were not released in North America this year, making the whole thing even stupider) I would have gone with Belgium’s The Broken Circle Breakdown, Brazil’s Neighboring Sounds (which I love – and would be on this list, if I didn’t consider it a 2012 film), Denmark’s The Hunt, Hong Kong’s The Grandmaster and Saudi Arabia’s Wadjda – although I consider those choices meaningless because I’ve only seen 9 out of the 76 films selected that were eligible. Oh well. (For the record, I could have put The Wind Rises here as well - particularly because I did see it in the original Japanese - but decided against it, mainly because when it is released in February, it will be in English).

Best Cinematography
1.    Inside Llewyn Davis – Bruno Delbonnel
2.    12 Years a Slave – Sean Bobbitt
3.    Nebraska – Phedon Papamichael
4.    Her - Hoyte Van Hoytema
5.    Gravity - Emmanuel Lubezki

Comments: It shouldn’t be surprising that a Coen Brothers movie has the best cinematography of the year – that’s often the case, even if the Academy still hasn’t given one of their films an Oscar yet in the category. The work by Bruno Delbonnel is amazing – from the smoky, backlit performance scenes, to the cold desolate streets of New York and highways to Chicago, it ranks among the best of any work done for the Coens. Sean Bobbitt continues a great collaboration with director Steve McQueen – with some of the most memorable shots of the year in 12 Years a Slave. I’m a sucker for black and white, so I’ll gladly sing the praises of the grey palette used by Phedon Papamichael in Nebraska. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s work with Spike Jonze is precisely the opposite – the strangest, most unique color palette of the year. And while I usually shy away from putting work that is aided a lot by CGI on my personal list, I have to say that the sweeping camera work by Emmanuel Lubezki in Gravity is truly a remarkable achievement. I could go on listing great work – Roger Deakins for Prisoners, Frank G. DeMarco for All is Lost, Bradford Young for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Shane Carruth for Upstream Color, Sam Levy for Frances Ha, Phillipe La Sound for The Grandmaster, Simon Duggan for The Great Gatsby, Lubezki again for To the Wonder, Rodrigo Prieto for The Wolf of Wall Street, Benoit Debie for Spring Breakers – but we’d be here all day.


1.    Upstream Color
2.    Her
3.    The Wolf of Wall Street
4.    Inside Llewyn Davis
5.    Spring Breakers

Comments: If editing is working properly, you really shouldn’t notice it all that much while you’re watching the film – it should hit you after it’s over. On that level, the work by Shane Carruth and David Lowery (director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) is truly remarkable on Upstream Color – it takes a very complex story, full of rich, interesting ideas and characters, and turns it into a complex, moving movie – and it deserves to win this year. The work by Jeff Buchanan & Eric Zumbrunnen on Her is equally impressive – as it has to marry an unseen performance (that was replaced after the rest of the movie was shot) with everything else – and construct a believable relationship out of it. The great Thelma Schoonmaker is always worthy of notice – she is undoubtedly the most important collaborator of Martin Scorsese’s career and she finds the perfect pace for his latest epic. The Coen’s longtime editor Roderick Jayne (the Coens themselves) is brilliant as always, constructing a near perfect film. The work by Douglas Crise on Spring Breakers run the gamut from making it all seem like a party to the depths of depravity – from MTV style editing, to art film editing – and he nails it.


1.    Upstream Color – Shane Carruth
2.    Ain’t Them Bodies Saints- Daniel Hart
3.    Mud - David Wingo
4.    Spring Breakers – Cliff Martinez & Skrillex
5.    All is Lost – Alex Ebert

Comments: Another strong category this year – with many scores I cannot believe I did not have room for (12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Her etc.) But I do think I nailed the best five. Shane Carruth’s score for Upstream Color is perfect for the film, and perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the movie to follow. Daniel Hart’s work on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints does the same thing for its film – and is dreamily romantic. David Wingo’s work on Mud is subtle and memorable. There is nothing subtle about the great work done by Cliff Martinez and Skrillex on Spring Breakers – but it is a brilliant collaboration between the two. Alex Ebert’s excellent work on All is Lost helped the film immensely, with beautiful work. And all of this doesn’t mention by favorite score of the year – Mark Orton’s for Nebraska, but considering he pretty much took it entirely from a previous film he did, I cannot in good conscious put it on this list (for the record – nothing wrong with do that – it fits the film perfectly – but you cannot get an Oscar for it.).


1.     Short Term 12 – So You Know What It’s Like
2.     Frozen – Let it Go
3.     Stoker – Becomes the Color
4.     All is Lost - Amen
5.     Her – The Moon Song

Comments: I actually think this category is getting better than it used to be a few years ago – so much so that I decided to abide by the Academy ruling and eliminate Inside Llewyn’s Davis’ Please Mr. Kennedy from consideration so I wouldn’t have to drop anything else. The best two songs of the year play pivotal roles in their films – Keith Stanfield’s devastating rap So You Know What It’s Like from Short Term 12 is an emotional highpoint, and Frozen’s Let It Go is the best musical number of its kind in a Disney movie in years. The haunting Becomes the Color by Emily Wells is a wonderful piece of work from Stoker. I’m not usually a fan of end credits songs, but Alex Ebert’s haunting song Amen from All is Lost is a fitting way to end the film. Finally the goofy The Moon Song – from Karen O. – is a wonderful little ditty for Her.

Production Design

1.    Her
2.    Inside Llewyn Davis
3.    The Grandmaster
4.    The Great Gatsby
5.    12 Years a Slave

Comments: Production Design is all about creating the visual world – the sets – that the movie takes place in. For my money then, the work by K.K. Barrett & Gene Serdena on Her is the best of the year – a futuristic L.A. that is both recognizable, yet alien. Jess Gonchor & Susan Bode’s work on Inside Llewyn Davis is all about precisely recreating the film’s time and place – which it gets just right, from the clubs to the apartments and even the alleys. Wong Kar Wai’s films are always among the best looking of the year, and William Chang & Wai Ming Alfred Yau deserve a lot of credit for their period work. I wasn’t a huge fan of The Great Gatsby, but I find it impossible not to give huge credit to Catherine Martin & Beverly Dunn for their magnificent work. Finally, it may not be as showy as some of the others, but the work on 12 Years a Slave by Adam Stochausen & Alice Baker is brilliant as well.

Costume Design

1.    Stoker
2.    The Great Gatsby
3.    American Hustle
4.    12 Years a Slave
5.    Inside Llewyn Davis

The duo of Kurt & Bart did the best costumes of the year for Stoker – costumes that illuminate the characters at every stage of the movie. Catherine Martin’s gorgeous costumes in The Great Gatsby was perhaps the best thing about the movie. Michael Wilkinson’s work on American Hustle gives us many gorgeous dresses for Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams – and perfectly hideous clothes for the men. Patricia Norris’ work on 12 Years a Slave was perfect, subtle period work. The same can be said for Mary Zophres work on Inside Llewyn Davis – which isn’t flashy, but just about perfect. I really wanted to include Her here as well – for those high waisted pants alone – but I just couldn’t find the room.

Make-Up & Hair Styling
1.    American Hustle
2.    The Great Gatsby
3.    Dallas Buyers Club
4.    The Lone Ranger
5.    Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

Comments: The work on American Hustle is clearly my favorite of the year – other than Louis C.K. who had the same hair he always does, there wasn’t a character without insane hair in the film – and it all worked. The Great Gatsby’s work is not quite as outrageous, but it’s just as good. Dallas Buyers Club had more realistic makeup work – and it works perfectly. The Lone Ranger gets credit for Tonto – especially old Tonto. I may not be a huge fan of the movie, but dammit all if the makeup work turning Johnny Knoxville into an unrecognizable old man does not deserve an Oscar nomination.

Sound Mixing

1.    Gravity
2.    Upstream Color
3.    Inside Llewyn Davis
4.    All is Lost
5.    Berberian Sound Studio

Comments: The work on Gravity truly is the best achievement of the year in this category – no matter how great the film looked; it may have sounded even better. The complex sound design in Upstream Color deserves a lot of praise – even if most seemed to miss it. The work on Inside Llewyn Davis was wonderful – mixing in music is always a challenge. For a film with no dialogue, All is Lost truly has a complex sound design. Finally, how can I not give a spot to Berberian Sound Studio – a movie about a movie sound man that uses sound to terrify its audience?

Sound Editing

1.    Gravity
2.    All is Lost
3.    Pacific Rim
4.    The Conjuring
5.    Rush

Comments: Once again, the work on Gravity truly is remarkable in its use of sound effects. All is Lost may not have showed off quite as much, but it’s just as effective. The work in Pacific Rim certainly does show off – but it’s great anyway. All the strange sound effects in James Wan’s The Conjuring helped to create its great atmosphere. And finally, the work on Rush – with all those speeding cars – deserves more praise than the movie itself.

Visual Effects
1.    Gravity
2.    Pacific Rim
3.    Oblivion
4.    Man of Steel
5.    The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Comments: I really don’t have to explain why Gravity deserves this award – without any real competition – do I? Didn’t think so. Pacific Rim had great special effects – from the giant robots to the giant monsters – it was Guillermo Del Toro’s geek fantasy come to life. Oblivion’s special effects were – for some reason – mainly overlooked this year, although it uses them to create its distinctive visual landscape. I find it ridiculous that Man of Steel’s special effects didn’t even make the Academy’s shortlist – hate the film if you want, but the special effects were top notch. Finally, no matter what you think of The Hobbit films, you really cannot complain too much about their visual effects can you? Smaug himself should earn them yet another nomination.


  1. I just looked up Brie Larson on IMDB, just so I could see what she's been in. I didn't realize she was in US of Tara, a show I loved. I really need to check out Short Term 12. I've heard so many great things about it.

  2. I believe it's coming out for home viewing sometime later this month. Larson had a great year in 2013 - in addition to Short Term 12, she was excellent in smaller roles in Don Jon and The Spectacular Now.