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January 2014 Archives

January 16, 2014

Locked Out of the Dolby Theatre

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its 86th roster of nominees earlier today, and on March 2 the lucky winners will accept their awards at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. One distinguishing feature of this year's nominations was the incredibly large number of omissions of eminently deserving films and performers. I personally was shocked by the almost total lack of love shown to "Saving Mr. Banks," "Inside Llewyn Davis," and "All is Lost," each with only one or two nominations among the less prominent categories, and the total back-of-the-hand treatment afforded to "Enough Said, "The Butler," and "Fruitvale Station." That doesn't even count the award-worthy movies that received no Oscar buzz at all, including "Mud," "The Place Beyond the Pines," and Joss Whedon's idiosyncratic version of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing."

As always, one can only speculate as to why some movies were dissed, and others showered with certificates of nomination. One could guess, for instance, that the denunciations of Walt Disney as a bigot, sexist and union-buster--by authorities including Meryl Streep and Walt's own niece Abigail--created a backlash against "Saving Mr. Banks." Then why all the nominations for "The Wolf of Wall Street," against which a backlash began as soon as it opened? (Jordan Belfort makes Bernie Madoff look saintly, never mind Walt Disney.)

This was a year where the Academy should have taken a cue from its decision last year on Best Picture nominees, and expanded the number of nominations for the Best Acting categories as well. It's hard to fault the choice of those who actually were nominated, but it's still inexcusable to omit the likes of Robert Redford, Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Oscar Isaac, Michael B. Jordan, Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Carey Mulligan, George Clooney, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, or the late James Gandolfini. And again, there were actors who gave superb performances in 2013 who were completely ignored by the awards-givers. Chief among that group, in my opinion, were Dane DeHaan, who brought a rare excitement to the screen in both "The Place Beyond the Pines" and "Kill Your Darlings," and Nathan Fillion, a lovable scene-stealer in "Much Ado About Nothing."

Let us take a moment to honor these excellent performers in our hearts. I'll be back in a few days to consider the lucky band of this year's nominees; meanwhile, to see a full list of nominations, go to http://oscar.go.com/nominees.

January 17, 2014

An Overcrowded Field

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.

January 29, 2014

A Tale of Two Seegers

But I've a rendezvous with death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
--Alan Seeger (1888-1916)

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?
--Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

I am not a scholar of either Pete Seeger, who died quietly in New York last Sunday, or of his great-uncle Alan Seeger, who died in the Battle of the Somme on the Fourth of July, 1916, while fighting with the French Foreign Legion. It just seems supremely ironic, and supremely fitting, that the author of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" should be a descendant of the author of "I Have a Rendezvous with Death." It is both ironic and fitting that "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" was a favorite of John F. Kennedy, while "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" became the anthem of a generation that became passionately divided because of the war that, for Americans at least, began during the administration of John F. Kennedy.

I have no brilliant insight regarding these ironies, but it occurs to me that Pete Seeger was born during the administration of Woodrow Wilson--the president who re-segregated the White House cafeterias and lunchrooms integrated by Theodore Roosevelt, and whose histories of the Ku Klux Klan provided material for "The Birth of a Nation." Seeger died during the second term of Barack Obama, who carried former slave states in both his presidential elections. The questions of war and peace may have proven as elusive for Obama as they were for Wilson, but Obama's very presence in the White House signifies that the sort of society Pete Seeger fought and sang for is moving a little closer all the time. "We shall overcome," Seeger sang, and he was right.

About January 2014

This page contains all entries posted to MDM in January 2014. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2013 is the previous archive.

February 2014 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.