We're less than a week away from the 86th Annual Academy Awards Ceremony, which shall (finally) bring the 2014 Oscar race to a conclusion and reveal which directors, actors, and technical artists are recognized by their Hollywood peers for having done great work in 2013. Whereas in recent years there's generally been a Best Picture front-runner headed into the ceremony (see: Argo last year, The Artist in 2012), this year there isn't a single film that's swept the awards shows preceding the Oscars - and thus, gained enough momentum to really suggest that the Academy's top prize is its to lose, at this stage.
Still, like we've done in previous years, we shall analyze and examine the 2014 Best Picture Oscar contenders in terms of their strengths and weaknesses as works of art, before looking at their Oscar prospects. Our breakdown of each film (listed in alphabetical order) will be as follows:
- Why It Should Win (i.e. What's good about the film?)
- Why It Shouldn't Win (i.e. What's not-so-good about the film?)
- The Bottom Line (i.e. What are its chances?)
Why It Should Win: Co-writer/director David O. Russell's latest film uses the real-life ABSCAM sting in the 1970s as the spring-board for a funny (and loopy) con artist caper that examines American values and lifestyles. Intricate historical details and strong performances by Russell's trusted acting troupe (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, etc.) make this movie the entertaining (and revealing) cinematic equivalent of a funhouse mirror.
Why It Shouldn't Win: American Hustle, even by Russell's standards, is a film with a sprawling narrative structure - one that can feel improvisatory to a fault. So much focus and attention is placed upon the cast's performances that there's (literally) little room left for much else, in terms of onscreen action and/or development.
The Bottom Line: American Hustle was recognized early in awards season (see: the Golden Globes), but has slowed down of late. Couple that with a backlash in popular opinion and its best chances at the Oscars might lie with categories like Production and Costume Design - not the top prizes (acting, Picture, etc.).
Why It Should Win: Director Paul Greengrass and writer Billy Ray use the ripped-from-the-headlines story that inspired Captain Phillips as the foundation for a white-knuckle drama/thriller - one which also doubles as an intelligent parable about the modern global economy and American militarism. Oh, and did we mention that the film offers yet another great performance by Tom Hanks (one that, at times, is arguably his most raw to date)?
Why It Shouldn't Win: Captain Phillips often feels like a work of journalism, which is to say that certain elements of the story are explored in depth while others are short-changed. Similarly, the film is sometimes hurt by the docudrama approach, which doesn't always allow for newfound insight (i.e. the kind only a movie can offer) on the subject matter.
The Bottom Line: Both Hanks and Greengrass were snubbed by the Academy, which is a sign that Captain Phillips probably won't be recognized outside of technical categories (see: sound mixing, editing).
Dallas Buyers Club
Why It Should Win: In Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey delivers a show-stopping performance in a "inspired by real events" dramedy that offers a more intimate perspective on the U.S. HIV/AIDS crisis during the 1980s. Similarly, costars Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner offer excellent performances - ones which help to put a human face on, respectively, AIDS victims and the conflicted medical establishment at the time.
Why It Shouldn't Win: Jean-Marc Vallée's direction on the film doesn't exactly make a lasting impression, while the script written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack is a pretty straight-forward historical melodrama. Indeed, Dallas Buyers Club arguably is to the AIDS crisis what The Help is to African-American history - not in a good way, mind you.
The Bottom Line: McConaughey and Leto are both front-runners to win for their performances in Dallas Buyers Club, but the film is a dark horse candidate in the other top Oscar categories.
Why It Should Win: Co-writer/director Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity features more of his impressive long-take sequence shots, combined with stellar 3D filmmaking techniques and Sandra Bullock providing a great one-person show for much of the running time. The final result is a fantastic (meta-)physical meditation on spiritual rebirth, presented as a non-stop heart-pounding adventure to survive in space.
Why It Shouldn't Win: The story by Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonás Cuarón is not on the same level as the rest of the film. Indeed, the digitally-created space environment is a key component of the storytelling, but has to make up for some less-innovative plot components (especially, in the third act).
The Bottom Line: Alfonso Cuarón may well be crowned Best Director for Gravity, while the film should clean-up in the technical categories (effects, and so forth). HOWEVER, this could well be the year that the Academy recognizes a 3D "event" movie as Best Picture.
Why It Should Win: Her - the latest creation from writer/director Spike Jonze - paints a semi-plausible (but still imaginative) portrait of the future, in order to tell a meaningful story about how people find, keep and/or lose love in a technology-heavy world. Joaquin Phoenix excels at serving as the strange, yet empathetic heart of the film, while Scarlett Johansson engineers (no pun) a rich character using only her voice.
Why It Shouldn't Win: The marriage of Jonze's idiosyncratic voice as a storyteller with a straight-forward relationship story is rocky, meaning there are parts of Her (again, no pun) that simply do not work well. Indeed, certain aspects that fall on the "twee indie" side are more likely to prompt head-scratching than anything else.
The Bottom Line: Jonze is a contender to win for screenwriting (he was passed over as director), but a Best Picture win is a real long-shot. Oh well, at least cinephiles seem to enjoy discussing Her as Jonze's film about his breakup with Sofia Coppola.
Why It Should Win: Filmmaker Alexander Payne takes moviegoers on another funny, yet melancholic road trip with Nebraska - boasting Bruce Dern, June Squibb and Will Forte (all in fine form) as passengers. Payne's direction and gorgeous black-and-white visuals capture the mood and feeling of a fading world, offering a compassionate look at Americans whose unflattering ways often make them the butt of jokes.
Why It Shouldn't Win: Bob Nelson's screenplay is thoughtful, but doesn't stray too far from convention. The final result is a simple and steady-paced narrative, which gives rise to a film that is equally so - one that could also be taken as sluggish and condescending, depending on how you look at it.
The Bottom Line: Nebraska doesn't have a lot of momentum in any categories, headed into the Oscar ceremony - which is to say, it could well go home completely empty-handed.
Why It Should Win: Director Stephen Frears returns with yet another solid work of social realism, featuring a very good headlining turn by Judi Dench (and nice support by co-writer/costar Steve Coogan) in Philomena - a worthwhile story that examines true faith, heritage, and forgiveness while carefully examining touchy political subject matter (like institutionalized abuse by the Catholic Church).
Why It Shouldn't Win: Frears' directorial choices sometimes give rise to a film that's clunky in motion, in addition to being fairly standard on the whole. More importantly, the script by Coogan and Jeff Pope is somewhat philosophically at-odds with itself, striving not to be a "human interest story" when it kind of is.
The Bottom Line: Philomena appears to be a dark horse candidate in every Oscar category that it's been nominated in - though, that's not to say it could never manage an upset, mind you.
12 Years a Slave
Why It Should Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor offers a soulful performance (even while Michael Fassbender plays quite the unforgettable monster) in this drama based on the true story of free man-turned-slave, Solomon Northup. 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen portrays Solmon's horrifying plight through meticulous editing and powerful imagery, so as to create a vivid portrait of slaves' hellish existence in the antebellum South.
Why It Shouldn't Win: McQueen and writer John Ridley examine the physical atrocities of slavery, but short-change others key elements - like the characters' psychology or plot points that illustrate how the institution of American slavery functioned - resulting in a slavery movie that arguably doesn't have all that much to say about its subject matter.
The Bottom Line: 12 Years a Slave costar Lupita Nyong'o may well be recognized for her acting, while the actual film is one of the more likely candidates to secure a Best Picture win this year.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Why It Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese reunite for a wickedly biting deconstruction of reckless alpha-male behavior in the financial sector, in the shape of The Wolf of Wall Street. Screenwriter Terence Winter adapted Jordan Belfort's memoir into a grand spectacle of bad behavior and debauchery, brought to life through Scorsese's technical finesse and DiCaprio's fully-committed performance.
Why It Shouldn't Win: Scorsese's latest film plays out like an overlong gangster feature disguised as a Wall Street satire. Moreover, it's somewhat guilty of making Belfort look wonderfully despicable before his fall, which results in a film that feels often less like a warts-and-all confessional - and (unintentionally) more like a grand boast.
The Bottom Line: Wolf of Wall Street seems pretty unlikely to walk away with a Best Picture win, but there's a (slight) chance that DiCaprio might beat out McConaughey for the Best Actor win.
The Bottom Line
The 2014 awards season has been quite the roller coaster ride, with regard to the differences in which films have been recognized at the biggest pre-Oscars events (Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and so forth). That's not to mention, the back-and-forth tide of public opinion towards the Best Picture nominees; whether it's Captain Phillips being denounced for its inaccuracies or the controversy surrounding Wolf of Wall Street's naughtiness, almost every one of the films has experienced some amount of "backlash" at some point.
At this point in time, the two top contenders to win the Best Picture Oscar seem to be Gravity and 12 Years a Slave - which could mean that we see a split this year, where one wins for Best Director (Gravity, more likely) while the other is crowned Best Picture. We'll have to see how the actual Oscar night plays out, but until then my take is:
What WILL WIN: 12 Years a Slave
What SHOULD WIN: Gravity
How about it, readers - which film you think will be named Best Picture at the 2014 Oscars ceremony? And which film do you think SHOULD be honored with that title?
The 86th Academy Awards ceremony will air on Sunday, March 2nd, 2014.