In my last column, I lamented the fates of those who deserved but did not get Academy Award nominations this year. (The omission of Robert Redford, giving a remarkable, nearly wordless solo performance in "All is Lost," was particularly unjust.) Like the fabled year of 1939, 2013 had an unusually large crop of meritorious films, and the Motion Picture Academy would have been well-advised this year to expand the number of nominees in each category, as it did last year and this with the Best Picture nominees.
So far I have seen seven of this year's nine Best Picture nominees; only "Her" and "Dallas Buyers Club" have eluded me so far. In any case, it currently seems like a two-movie race between the Golden Globe winners, "12 Years a Slave" and "American Hustle," though "Gravity" could conceivably slip through to victory if the vote is split between the other two. All three films are of unusual excellence, and each is as different from the other two as it is conceivable to be. "American Hustle" is the most fun of the three, and "Gravity" the most awe-inspiring, but I think that "12 Years a Slave"--the rare message movie that achieves and even exceeds what it sets out to do--will be the eventual victor.
The other Best Picture nominees have little or no chance of winning. "The Wolf of Wall Street" conceivably could win, but there is a vocal minority condemning the film's perceived immorality. (Personally, I think it's an extremely moral film about extremely immoral people, but more on that in a future column.) "Nebraska" is wonderful, indeed almost novelistic in the richness of its story and characters, but too small a picture in comparison with the three front-runners. "Captain Phillips" is an exciting action picture with political overtones, not quite on the level of the front-runners. I loved Judi Dench in "Philomena"--if there were a ballot to elect the Greatest Actress in the World, she'd have my vote--but I was only medium-warm about the movie itself, and I'm not quite sure why. It may be because Steve Coogan, for me, is like kippered herring on the breakfast table--definitely an acquired taste.
For Best Director, I foresee an Oscar for Alfonso Cuaron, who won the Golden Globe and who in "Gravity" achieved esthetic and even moral splendor through his transcendent mastery of special effects. The Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor awards also seem settled after the Golden Globes: Cate Blanchett and Jared Leto should start rehearsing their acceptance speeches now. Personally, although I adore Blanchett, I'm not sure she deserves to reign so completely over her category this year. I haven't yet seen Meryl Streep in "August: Osage County," but I have seen Amy Adams, Sandra Bullock, and of course Dame Judi. Blanchett's performance is on a par with theirs, but doesn't tower over them. (Aside: If you want to see two great actresses at the top of their game, rent "Notes on a Scandal," starring Dench and Blanchett.) Blanchett was masterful in "Blue Jasmine," but both her character and the movie itself left me slightly cold. For that I blame Woody Allen, whose screenplay for "Blue Jasmine," though well-crafted, suffered from a slightly skewed moral viewpoint and the "dese-dem-and-dose" cliches he created for the male characters.
I haven't yet seen Jared Leto's performance, but the Best Supporting Actor category further demonstrates what a plethora of worthy performances we had in 2013. The Best Supporting Actor category has always been a haven for memorable screen villains, and all four of Leto's fellow nominees--Barkhad Abdi in "Captain Phillips," Bradley Cooper in "American Hustle," Michael Fassbender in "12 Years a Slave," and Jonah Hill in "The Wolf of Wall Street"--provide textbook examples of different styles and nuances of villainy. (Abdi--deadly serious and sympathetic; Fassbender--deadly serious and psychotic; Hill--total clown and total scoundrel; Cooper--gradually unveiling successive degrees of instability, egomania, and general doofusness.) However, I wish there had been room for other memorable bad guys, such as Stacy Keach in "Nebraska." I also wish there had been room for good guys other than Leto, such as Kyle Chandler, playing a shrewd and upright FBI agent in "The Wolf of Wall Street." The best-played movie scene of 2013, bar none, was between Chandler and DiCaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street," sizing each other up over a thin veneer of bonhomie.
The Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories are much harder to read. At first I thought Chiwetel Ejiofor was a shoo-in, but the many critics' prizes going to Bruce Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio, and especially Matthew McConaughey make this a wide-open race. Christian Bale has had a somewhat lower profile during the awards season, but he is a perennial Oscar favorite, and an Oscar sweep for "American Hustle" could well raise his chances of winning. The award could credibly go to any of the five.
As for Best Supporting Actress, everybody loves Jennifer Lawrence (including me), and her Golden Globe for her delightfully ditzy performance in "American Hustle" raises her chances for an Oscar. But Lupita Nyong'o gave such a commanding performance in "12 Years a Slave" that she cannot be ignored. I think this is a two-woman race, but it is not inconceivable that June Squibb could prevail for "Nebraska" (especially if Bruce Dern wins Best Actor). Also, Julia Roberts cannot be completely counted out any year she is nominated. Sally Hawkins, unfortunately for her, is just along for the ride.
For Best Adapted Screenplay, I would love to see Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater win for "Before Midnight." the capper of a romantic trilogy that was a supreme act of skill, courage and insight on the part of all three. But John Ridley also is deserving for "12 Years a Slave," and I think he will win. For Best Original Screenplay, I can't yet judge Spike Jonze's screenplay for "Her" or Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack's for "The Dallas Buyer's Club," but the general acclaim for their films make them viable candidates for the award. So are Bob Nelson for "Nebraska" and Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell for "American Hustle." The overwhelming popularity of "American Hustle" would seem to give Singer and Russell the leg up. I would just beg the Academy: PLEASE don't give the Oscar to Woody Allen again this year! His screenplay for "Blue Jasmine" really isn't one of his best.
So that's my take on this year's Oscar race. The Screen Actors Guild Awards are tonight; between those and the BAFTAs, there may be a little more light shed on this year's Oscar race. Stay tuned.