Visual Effects: Gravity - Timothy Webber & Chris Lawrence & David Shirk & Neil CorbouldWhat the special effects team achieved with Gravity was truly something special this year. Unlike the other nominees – accomplished though they may be – what Gravity does with visual effects is something wholly different, unique and, yes, ground-breaking. Through the blending of expert cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, and painstaking 3-D work, which is truly the best of its kind I have ever seen, the visual effects on Gravity place the audience right alongside the Sandra Bullock character as she floats in space, in danger of simply floating away. The visual effects place us in the same dizzying headspace – the same visual expanse as the character. Watching the film is a theater is to get as close as possible to floating in space as you can while still being in a theater. It is exciting work – visionary work – and deserves to win this prize easily.
Sound Mixing: Gravity - Skip Lievsay & Niv Adiri & Christopher Benstead & Chris MunroFor those who do not know, Sound Mixing is everything we hear in a movie – the complete aural experience. Even if I think there was great work done by other nominees – notably the work on Inside Llewyn Davis – I have to say the work done by the crew of Gravity is truly exceptional. Unlike many special effects laden spectacles, Gravity does not hit us with non-stop noise – it has the intelligence to even give us absolute quiet at a few moments – which makes the sound work later hit even harder. The film blends together the special effects noises, with Steven Price’s excellent score, expertly to create a film that sounds as good as it looks – and given what Gravity accomplishes, that is impressive indeed.
Sound Editing: Gravity - Glenn FreemantleSound Editing is the special sound effects created for the movie. Again, some superb work was done by other films – notably All is Lost, who in my understanding pretty much created everything we hear in that movie – but the work done in Gravity is truly the best of the year. I’m only three awards in, and I feel I’ve already praised Gravity to death, but the individual contributions of the sound effects editors cannot and should not be overlooked. They helped to create a truly immersive cinema going experience.
Production Design: Her - K.K. Barrett & Gene Serdena.There are things I could praise about most of the nominees this year – how everything in 12 Years a Slave looked appropriately rugged and hand built or the opulence of the work done for The Great Gatsby in particular, but when it comes to Production Design, I keep coming back to the world created by work done on Spike Jonze’s her. Perhaps it isn’t quite as noticeable as some of the other work, but I thought it was brilliant. What they have done is essentially create a world in the not too distant future – one that resembles ours in many ways, but is still distinctively different, colorful and unique. It is a little strange this world – with things so familiar, but not quite. It is a difficult thing to pull off, and absolutely essential to the entire look and feel of Her. It gives the characters a strange physical world to play around in – and it is brilliant work.
Original Song : Frozen – Let It Go - Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez.It’s too bad that this category has been subject of so much controversy this year – it was embarrassing that the Academy voted in an awful song like Alone Yet Not Alone from a movie no one had ever heard of because of some prodding on the part of the songwriter – a former governor of the Academy and head of the music branch. It’s even worse that they rescinded the nomination in what was a fairly hypocritical move. The music branch certainly needs an overhaul. Having said that, the song Let it Go from Frozen really, truly is the best song in a Disney animated film in a long time – a wonderful ballad, sung with expert control by Idina Menzel, and placed at the perfect moment in the film. It really is the high point of Disney’s return to form animated film – and clearly deserves to win.
Original Score: Her - William Butler and Owen PallettFirst after I insulted the music branch in the song section for simply voting for their friends, let us commend them for nominating these two relative newcomers to film work. My favorite work of the year – from Shane Carruth’s not eligible Upsteam Color to Daniel Hart’s romantic work on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, to David Wingo’s Southern charm on Mud, to Cliff Martinez & Skillerex’s pulse pounding Spring Breakers to Alex Ebert’s haunting work on All is Lost was all overlooked. Oh well, the work done by Butler & Pallett on Her was the last cut I made, and the best of the bunch nominated here. I do love the work by Steven Price on Gravity as well, but I felt that Butler & Pallett’s work helped to set the entire tone for Her, and as such, would make a fine winner. By the way though guys – you don’t need to nominate John Williams for every damn score he does.
Makeup and Hairstyling: Dallas Buyers Club - Adruitha Lee & Robin MathewsThere is no doubt to me that the makeup work on The Lone Ranger and Bad Grandpa is excellent – the aging effect on Johnny Depp in the former and especially Johnny Knoxville in the later make them worthy nominees for this category. And yet, I’ll go with Dallas Buyers Club for the win – for a very specific reason – it’s harder to do the type of makeup work done on that film effectively than it is the splashier, more attention grabbing work on the other two. Think about it – how many times do we see sick people in a movie that is meant to portray that illness realistically, and how often does the makeup call horrible attention to itself? Often. But it doesn’t in Dallas Buyers Club. We believe McConaughey and Leto – and the rest – are sick and dying, and that is at least in part because the makeup work is so stellar. So the work done on Dallas Buyers Club gets my vote.
Film Editing: 12 Years a Slave – Joe WalkerI fear that too often, the award for Film Editing goes to films where the editing is very noticeable – like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or The Bourne Ultimatum, etc. But the real tricky part in editing is finding precisely the right pacing for a film, to know where and when to cut to help the flow of a film. On that level, of the nominees, I think Joe Walker’s work on 12 Years a Slave deserves the win (it’s worth noting that none of my favorite five – Her, Upstream Color, The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis or Spring Breakers made the cut here). What Walker does in conjunction with Steve McQueen is find the right pace for 12 Years a Slave, finds the right places to cut a shot, and the right places to hold the shot, perhaps a beat or two longer than expected. He makes us feel not only the agonizing moments pass, but also the slow years go by as well. You could argue the work done on Gravity and Captain Phillips deserves praise as well – I won’t argue (I will argue about American Hustle) – but I think Walker’s work on 12 Years a Slave is perfect for the movie – even if it doesn’t call overt attention to itself.
Costume Design: The Great Gatsby - Catherine MartinI wasn’t a huge fan of The Great Gatsby – I thought Baz Luhrmann was so in love with the surface of the film, that he never got to what lies beneath that surface, which has made the book such an enduring classic. But what a surface the movie has! The costume by Catherine Martin are probably the single most praise worthy element of the film – from the cloths DiCaprio’s Gatsby wears, where he’s trying hard to project the illusion of old wealth, while giving away his nouveau riche origins, to the gorgeous clothes that Carey Mulligan lounges around in, oblivious to their opulence, to the more garish clothes of Isla Fisher – and pretty much everything in between. Often I criticize the Academy for rewarding the “most” Costume Design instead of the best – in the case of The Great Gatsby it’s happily both.
Cinematography: Inside Llewyn Davis - Bruno DelbonnelThere is only one thing that even gave me slight pause before picking Bruno Delbonnel’s excellent cinematography on Inside Llewyn Davis – and that is that it would somewhat sadden me that a Coen brothers film FINALLY winning the Cinematography Oscar – and it go to someone other than Roger Deakins – who has worked with them 11 times (and received 5 of his 11 Oscar noms for his work with the Coens) – especially since Deakins is a nominee again this year – for Prisoners. Yet, as cruel as that would be to arguably the best living cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel’s work on Inside Llewyn Davis is so clearly the best of the year, that there is no question it deserves to win (and also, we all know he has not shot of actually winning, right?). From the bone chilling cold he makes you feel in the streets of New York – to the desolate roads to Chicago, to smoky, backlit performance scenes – Delbonnel’s cinematography ranks amongst the best I have ever seen in a Coen film – and considering that all of their films look great, that is saying something. I’m sure Deakins will work with the Coen’s again – and get nominated and lose again for his work – but this year, Delbonnel deserves to be the winner.
Foreign Language Film: The Broken Circle Breakdown - BelgiumI am at a disadvantage here – I have not had the opportunity to see The Missing Picture from Cambodia or Omar from Palestine yet – and I have a feeling that either film may end up being my favorite once I finally do see them when they are released later this year. So, I’m stuck picking out of the other three nominees – and of those, I’ll take the bittersweet The Broken Circle Breakdown over the over rated The Great Beauty, and even the quietly powerful The Hunt. Like the best film of the year – Inside Llewyn Davis – The Broken Circle Breakdown uses some great music – in this case, bluegrass – to advance and deepen its story or an unlikely married couple who meet, fall in love, have a daughter, and then struggle when she gets sick. The film has a complex (perhaps too complex) back and forth in time structure, but mainly it works, and it builds to an emotionally devastating climax, that at the same time feels wholly earned. For some reason, the film failed to connect at the box office this fall – it’s far and away the lowest grossing of the three films that have been released – but it is deserving of respect. And, based on what I have seen, the Oscar as well.
Documentary: The Act of Killing - Joshua Oppenheimer & Signe Byrge SørensenFirst, let’s take a moment to chastise the Academy for overlooking Sarah Polley’s brilliant Stories We Tell – a wholly unique documentary, in favor of some safer choices. With that out of the way, let’s celebrate the Academy for nominating something as truly daring, innovative and controversial as The Act of Killing – and hope they do the right thing in giving it the Oscar this year. The Act of Killing is a one of a kind film where director Oppenheimer essentially gives a camera to people who were responsible for the death squads in the 1965-66 Indonesian “revolution” where thousands of people were murdered. I understand why some object to giving these murderers a camera and asking them to recreate their actions – but the results truly are stunning, and I do not think you can accuse Oppenheimer and company from excusing their actions. What the film does do is humanize people who committed atrocities – which makes those atrocities all the more disturbing, because we cannot simply blame them on faceless monsters, but on real people who did evil things – and have never had to deal with the consequences of that. This is perhaps the most disturbing film of the year – and that is how it should be.
Animated Feature Film: The Wind Rises - Hayao Miyazaki & Toshio SuzukiThis was not a banner year for animated films – less so for those who, unlike me, were not lucky enough to see Hayao Miyazaki’s final masterwork at a film festival before the end of the year. The greatest animator of all time, Miyazaki is apparently retiring, and has decided The Wind Rises will be his cinematic swansong. And what a way to go out. The film is less fantastical than any of Miyazaki’s other films – but no less visually stunning because of it. The film is basically about a Japanese aeronautical engineer who wants to build beautiful planes, and ends up seeing his planes used as weapons of war and death. To some, Miyazaki didn’t go far enough in decrying the use of the war machines, but I think his subtle approach in doing so is more effective and less didactic than the alternative. A fitting goodbye from one of cinema’s living masters.
Original Screenplay: Her - Spike JonzeIf the word “Original” in Original Screenplay means anything, that I think Spike Jonze should win an Oscar for his excellent screenplay for Her. True, I love Bob Nelson’s screenplay for Nebraska – and like the film even more than I liked Her – but what Jonze accomplished in writing Her is truly unique. What Jonze does is take an idea that could have been play for laughs – could have been completely ridiculous, as it was in an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Raj falls in love with Siri – and instead crafted the most unique and touching romance of the year. That the romance is between a man and an operating system is no matter – Jonze’s screenplay makes you feel the connection between the two of them. Jonze also doesn’t shy away from making his lovable loser Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, into a not altogether nice guy – he is somewhat creepy, and he is more than a little responsible for his marriage ending. This is a complex work – every bit as daring as the work Charlie Kaufman did for Jonze in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation – but also more heartfelt.
Adapted Screenplay: The Wolf of Wall Street - Terence WinterMost of the praise for The Wolf of Wall Street has gone to Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio – and they are very deserving of all that praise – but I think Terence Winter’s screenplay is every bit as good. If you’ve read Jordan Belfort’s autobiography, you know it is basically him bragging about how rich he was and what he got away with. What Winter’s screenplay does is take that book, and take that larger than life persona Belfort tried so hard to make look cool in his book, and instead makes it look absolutely ridiculous. This is a smart satire and comedy from beginning to end, where the joke is ultimately on the audience. Winter’s screenplay is great – and he deserves an Oscar for it.
Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a SlaveI know to some, Michael Fassbender’s performance in 12 Years a Slave was a one note, snarling villain role. It’s easy to see why some thought that – Fassbender is an actor not afraid to go big, and he does so frequently – yet brilliantly – throughout his performance in 12 Years a Slave. And yet, Fassbender’s real accomplishment in this movie is to make Epps into a human character – cruel, sure – but also a man henpecked by his wife and tormented by his desire for Patesy. Fassbender was probably better in both of his other performances for director Steve McQueen – Hunger and Shame – but his performance here comes close to those other two, and confirms that theirs is one of the best director/actor combos currently working.
Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue JasmineI was impressed most this year by a trio of newcomers – Amy Seimetz in Upstream Color, Brie Larson in Short Term 12 and Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue in the Warmest Color – but seeing as how the Academy didn’t nominate any of those three, I’m more than happy to throw my support behind (the almost certain winner) Blanchett in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. There was a danger in this movie – that Allen’s play on A Streetcar Named Desire, with a slightly dubious look at class – wouldn’t really work. But in stepped Blanchett to deliver one of her best performances ever as the title character – a brittle woman, trying to get her life back together after her Bernie Madoff-esque husband is arrested and kills himself. Almost all of her problems are her own fault – she was willfully blind to what her husband was doing – yet while there was a chance that Jasmine could lapse into caricature, Blanchett’s tour-de-force performance doesn’t allow that happen. She is one of the best actresses in the world – and certainly deserving of a second Oscar by this point in her career.
Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall StreetI have long been of the belief that DiCaprio is one of the best actors of his generation – a major movie star who uses his clout to get great movies, by great directors, made with far more frequency than almost anyone else out there. The one thing I did not expect about DiCaprio is that he could be as great at comedy as he is in The Wolf of Wall Street – his larger than life rants and pep talks are hilarious in their hubris, his Quaalude afflicted scene in the country club is the great feat of physical comedy of 2013. DiCaprio has always seemed like an intense actor – his previous best performance was in Scorsese’s The Departed, where he essentially played a trapped animal trying to survive. But in The Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio goes brilliantly over the top and delivers one of the best performances of the year – and of his great career. Yes, I would have loved to see Oscar Isaac get nominated and win for Inside Llewyn Davis – but DiCaprio would be a great consolation prize. With four nominations and no wins, he is due.
Director: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a SlaveAsk me another day and I may well say Martin Scorsese or Alexander Payne – hell I don’t even really have a problem with Alfonso Cuaron (who will probably win) for the brilliant technical achievement of Gravity. But at this moment, I’ll go with Steve McQueen – and I pick him for a variety of reasons. The first is the direction of 12 Years a Slave is stunning – he gets great performances out of a large cast, and visually the film is striking – containing some of the best, most memorable shots of the year (the fact that Sean Bobbit’s cinematography was not nominated is an embarrassment). But there is another reason I would vote for McQueen and it’s really simple: He took an extremely difficult subject and not only didn’t shy away from it, he also didn’t compromise his own artistic vision to make the film. What I worried about when I heard McQueen was making a slavery movie is that what we would get is a sermon – another film that plays on the audience’s guilt and sentimentality. But McQueen doesn’t do that in 12 Years a Slave – he did not make a sermon of a movie, but a film that continues the exploration of the human body, how they are used, abused, exploited and treated as commodities. McQueen is more in line with a director like Kubrick than he is with a director like Spielberg – this is why I understand why some were left cold by 12 Years a Slave – a film that examines the nature of slavery, violence and cruelty in an almost detached way, rather than doing what most directors would do with the same material. There is another reason why I would vote for McQueen as well – he’s one of the best filmmakers working right now – and he’s almost one of the least commercial ones. If he doesn’t win for 12 Years a Slave, I doubt he ever will, and if he continues to make films as good as Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave, that will eventually become an embarrassment to the Academy – much like it’s embarrassing that Kubrick never won the Best Director Oscar..
Best Picture: Nebraska - Albert Berger & Ron YerxaThis choice will likely strike many as odd – after all, I didn’t choose Nebraska in any other category, and yet I am choosing it for Best Picture? Yes, I am. Part of that is because my two favorite films of the years (Inside Llewyn Davis and Upstream Color) were not nominated – part of it is because I do think as individual achievements, the cinematography of Inside Llewyn Davis, the screenplay for Her, the performances by Lupita Nyong’o and Leonard DiCaprio and direction of Steve McQueen – are better as individual achievements than those nominated for Nebraska – not by much, but by a little. But when taken altogether, I think Nebraska is the best of the nominees. In many ways, it is the simplest of the best picture nominees (well, Philomena is probably simpler, but it’s close) – a near perfect father-son road movie, in which Will Forte finally gets to know what makes his dad, the brilliant Bruce Dern, tick after spending days on the road with him – and in their old home town that they have not visited in years. The black and white cinematography is wonderful – really, the entire movie takes place in eternal grey, so it’s perfect. The performances are funny, yes, but they are also heartfelt. Nebraska is a perfect example of director Alexander Payne’s strategy of at first making you think his character are caricatures, and then making them more complex than they first appear. The Academy doesn’t much award movies like Nebraska – movies about normal people, living out their lives full of tiny triumphs and failures – movies where things don’t always turn out the way we want them to. The Academy gives Oscars to movies about more important subjects or people – or ones with larger budgets and casts that leave you awestruck. But there is something quietly moving, and even a little profound about Nebraska and what it says about the way most of us live of everyday lives.
For the record, since the Academy now uses a Preferential ballot for the Best Picture category – where you rank the nominees from Best to worst, here is how I would rank the 9 nominees: 1) Nebraska, 2) The Wolf of Wall Street, 3) 12 Years a Slave, 4) Her, 5) Gravity, 6) Captain Phillips, 7) Dallas Buyers Club, 8) Philomena, 9) American Hustle