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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014

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Hold off on the applause, "Wolf of Wall Street." The odds of a Best Picture win aren't looking good.
Hold off on the applause, "Wolf of Wall Street." The odds of a Best Picture win aren't looking good.

An idiot's guide to the 2014 Oscar Best Picture nominees

After a month and a half of buzz, conflicting awards results and Hollywood gamesmanship (some that made the bizarre Best Original Song nominee "Alone Yet Not Alone" a nominee yet not a nominee), yes, the Oscars are finally happening this Sunday night.

It’s one of the closest races in years – maybe since "Crash" and "Brokeback Mountain" in 2005 – so there’s actual drama going into the evening (other than the usual question of who will degrade E!’s Mani-Cam the best).

So as a little refresher for your Oscar parties and betting pools, here’s a quick guide to the big nominees (my picks are coming Sunday), listing off why or why not each movie has a chance – and a question to either start conversation or drive your friends away with. 

"12 Years A Slave"

Why it will win: I mean … it needs to win, right? It’d be like "Schindler’s List" losing to "The Fugitive." Ever since its premiere at Telluride, Steve McQueen’s painfully powerful third feature has been pegged as the frontrunner. It’s a movie that certainly feels important (it’s now apparently being used in some schools), something the Academy loves.

Putting aside things like social importance and merit, it’s just a brilliant piece of art, one that’s certainly challenging and punishing but also filled with beauty and humanity. It pushes hard, but McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley find just how hard to push without making the film an exercise in endurance.  

Why it won’t win: Nobody loves "12 Years a Slave." People respect it, admire it and find it "important," but it feels like the film that you should put your vote down for, but maybe not want to. The head says to vote for "12 Years a Slave," but the heart … ?

Interesting/annoying party question: "Without using the words ‘important,' ‘necessary' or 'What are you; a racist?' explain why '12 Years a Slave’ is the best movie of the year?"

"American Hustle"

Why it will win: Consider it the anti-"12 Years." Yeah, it’s messy and sloppy. But it’s so much fun, filled with contagious energy and the kind of big performances the Oscars love to put their arms around. If McQueen’s film is a demanding college professor who grades harshly and teaches to the bell, "American Hustle" is the fun, laid-back college professor who doesn’t take attendance, makes pop culture references in his lectures and might even go out to the bars with the class. Yeah, you’ll probably appreciate the former more later on in life, but right now? 

Why it won’t win: Eventually, even the most ecstatic highs have to come down. After the few weeks of buzz that followed its initial release, the "American Hustle" excitement has tampered down by a loud chorus of "… so that’s it?"

Plus, do the Oscar voters want to be on the wrong side of history? Do they want to be the people who passed on "12 Years a Slave" for fluff? Do they want every post-Oscar talk to reference how the Academy is still overwhelmingly white? Because some will likely make that argument.

Interesting/annoying party question: "So when is it revealed that Martin Scorsese directed this the whole time?" "Did you hear how the real-life story ended for Jennifer Lawrence’s character?"

"Captain Phillips"

Why it will win: It’s a crackerjack action movie, fueled by a great lead performance by a beloved actor and a script that’s far smarter and more humanist than anyone could’ve expected. Plus, recent wins for Barkhad Abdi and screenwriter Billy Ray at the BAFTAS and Writers Guild Awards respectively – plus a nomination for Best Editing, typically an area of favorites – imply a quietly powerful following.

Why it won’t win: From the buzz, Greengrass’ film seems to be everyone’s second or third choice. In a year of movies with enormous historical ("12 Years"), cinematic ("Gravity") and emotional ("American Hustle") potency, "Captain Phillips" might be left out at sea.

Interesting/annoying party question: "How does Abdi get nominated but not the man who played Captain Phillips himself? Who do you kick out of the Best Actor race to put in Tom Hanks?"

"Dallas Buyers Club"

Why it will win: Well, that was unexpected … and also kind of expected. The story of Ron Woodruff is everything the Academy loves, mainly physically demanding performances and a story based on true events that takes on a social relevant subject with a feel-good aftertaste. Yet it’s managed to play dark horse and underdog this whole time. It’s Oscar bait that doesn’t feel like Oscar bait, and I don’t know much about fishing, but that seems like a good strategy.

Why it won’t win: It’s still a dark horse, one with a newly found groundswell of perfectly timed backlash. Bigger though, there are too many competitors ahead of "Dallas Buyers Club." Instead, it’ll reap its rewards in the acting categories, with Leto almost a lock for Best Supporting Actor and the McConaissance narrative too tempting to leave unrecognized.

Interesting/annoying party question: "Does the reality of Woodruff’s story ­– that associates say he wasn’t a homophobe that he was possibly openly bisexual ­– make you think of the movie differently? Also: Should they have cast an actual transgender actor for Rayon?"

"Gravity"

Why it will win: As they remind us every year in seemingly endless montages, the Academy is dedicated to the wonder of the movies and the big screen. And has there been a better pure cinematic experience in recent note than "Gravity"? Plus, a tie for Best Picture at the Producers Guild Awards with "12 Years" shows it’s actually a contender, the happy medium between the sloppy fun of "American Hustle" and the depressing art of "12 Years."

Why it won’t win: It's this year's "Life of Pi." "Gravity" will clean up in the technical categories – including director for Cuarón. But Best Picture? Seems like a reach, especially since sci-fi doesn’t traditionally do well around awards season.

Interesting/annoying party question: "Are the tracking shots and cinematography as impressive knowing that so much of it was done in a computer?

"Her"

Why it will win: There is a strong following (including myself) of people who love "Her." It’s original, beautifully shot, elegantly performed and filled with emotional depth that hits the heart. And its use of technology is almost unnervingly relevant.

Why it won’t win: Remember that part where I said the Academy is overwhelmingly white? Well, they’re also overwhelmingly old. This is the same group of people who overlooked "The Social Network," an incredibly acute portrait of today’s techno-obsessed society (and just a great movie period), in favor of a solid BBC movie. "Her" has its devoted followers, just nowhere near enough. The fact it merely got nominated is its victory (and maybe a Best Original Screenplay win if it’s lucky).

Interesting/annoying party question: "Wouldn’t it have been great if Scarlett Johansson was nominated?"

"Nebraska"

Why it will win: Frankly, it’s hard to come up with reasons why it could win Sunday night. It certainly has fans, and it is a lovely, charming movie. Plus, it has a Best Director nomination, which means there’s certainly a strong level of respect being sent its way.

Why it won’t win: Too small. Too low-key. Too modest. Too light. Too many other nominees going more aggressively for the prize. Other than that, I like its chances.

Interesting/annoying party talking point: "Do you think Alexander Payne is condescending to Midwesternites?"

"Philomena"

Why it will win: It’s been a surprising road for the little Judi Dench movie that could (though maybe not all that surprising since it comes fueled by notorious awards season guru Harvey Weinstein). "Philomena" is a modest movie, but it’s surprisingly effective, and it’s just the kind of story that could continue to win over the graying hearts of the Academy.

Why it won’t win: It’s so modest and tiny that even Harvey wasn’t expecting "Philomena" to make it this far (he had his bets on "August: Osage County" … womp womp). "Philomena" is nice and sweet, but there’s nothing about it that grabs the audience, much less votes from other, bigger, sexier nominees.

Interesting/annoying party talking point: "How much does your grandma love this movie?" "Since this is seemingly the obvious ninth-best Best Pic nominee, who do you put in its place instead?"

"The Wolf of Wall Street"

Why it will win: You can never count Scorsese out, especially when "Wolf of Wall Street" is his biggest, boldest, brazen movie in years, if not decades. His tale of Wall Street coke, hookers, greed, more coke, more hookers, corruption and one last snort of coke (probably off a hooker) definitely has its fans – myself included – who find the film not only outrageously funny but outrageously biting as well. Plus, between this and "Django Unchained" last year, Unhinged Leo is easily my favorite Leo.

Why it won’t win: For as many fans as "Wolf" has, it has just as many detractors who find it long, repulsively overindulgent and morally repellent. An early Academy screening got a lot of publicity when some members brought their issues to Marty himself. Angrily. That’s a bad sign, especially since Scorsese is one of the most respected people in the industry.

Most harmful, however, is that "Wolf" is a movie with edge and an angry edge at that. And simply put, edgy movies don’t win Best Picture. Just ask "Zero Dark Thirty," "Do the Right Thing" … you get the point.

Interesting/annoying party talking point: "Does ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ indict or condone Jordan Belfort’s behavior (takes a swig of bleach)? Also: Do you think a movie like ‘Taxi Driver’ could win Best Picture today?"

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