If I Picked the Winners . . .
All those years ago Siskel and Ebert had an Oscar tradition. They called it “If We Picked the Winners”, an annual, hour-long special devoted to choosing their picks among the nominees – not who they thought would win, but who they would have picked if (they said) the Academy was as smart as they were.
I presume to continue that tradition. Gene and Roger are gone now but the spirit remains. So, here is my own edition of “If We Picked the Winners” for 2014, using the same categories that the boys used on their show.
The Academy’s Nominees: American Hustle * Gravity * her * Nebraska * Captain Phillips * Dallas Buyers Club * Philomena * The Wolf of Wall Street * 12 Years a Slave.
My Choice: her
I have no real idea which of the nominated films the academy will choose as its Best Picture. All I can say for certain is that the voters won’t agree with my choice. Spike Jonze sci-fi love story called her is a goofy, but very touching love story that speaks to the head as much as it does to the heart. It takes place in the not-too-distant future and tells the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a man whose very existence seems defined by his loneliness. His wife has left him and his immediate world is full of empty spaces. Then he makes a friend after purchasing a new operating system that seems able to develop its own personality not only by talking to him but by researching his hard drive and by pulling information from the internet. Her name is Samantha and, although we never see her, we come to feel that this disembodied voice is more real than anything in Theodore’s life. What happens in this story is not what we expect, but it is extraordinarily moving. This movie could have gone wrong in a dozen different ways but Jonze script aims for the heart and forces us to question what constitutes romantic love. her was #3 on my ten best list behind two superb, but sadly unnominated dramas, Blue is the Warmest Color and Mud, and I think it better than any of the nominated films this year, and that’s saying a lot.
The Academy’s Nominees: Christian Bale in American Hustle * Bruce Dern in Nebraska * Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street * Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave * Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club
My Choice: Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street
Of all the acting winners this year, this category may be the easiest to call. I won’t say who I think will win (I’m saving that for another time) but I know who I would vote for if I had a ballot. Hands down, my vote would go to Leonardo DiCaprio who gave a ferocious, go-for-broke performance of the year as Jordan Belfort, an otherwise nice kid who comes to Wall Street during the Roaring 80s and quickly gets pulls himself out of the financial gutter by scamming his investors and pleasuring himself on piles of money, mountains of drugs, shipyards full of expensive toys and even a trophy wife. What ever good boy, heroic image that DiCaprio had before has gone out the window after this – and last year’s performance as a misogynistic plantation owner in Django Unchained. He has shown his ability to create a character that is beneath contempt but one who enjoys the hedonism that he has created for himself.
The greatness of DiCaprio’s performance is that he’s clearly having a great time despite the fact that he is playing a man devoid of moral scruples. He throws away his good-guy image as a man who lives by appetite alone. There are notes here that DiCaprio has never been able to display. Yes, he’s good looking, but he isn’t afraid to look like a jerk. Here he is able to display his talent for slapstick in a scene in which Jordan ingests a 15 year-old Quaalude that sends his body into a fit very close to cerebral palsy. That’s no good when he desperately needs to get to his car to stop Donnie from making a fatal mistake. What is surprising is that this scene is played for laughs and it works! He opens the film by telling us that “The year I turned 26 I made 49 million dollars which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.” That tells you all you need to know.
The Academy’s Nominees: Amy Adams in American Hustle * Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine * Sandra Bullock in Gravity * Judi Dench in Philomena * Meryl Streep in August: Osage County
My Choice: Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine
I don’t agree with all five choices here. I would have given Judi Dench and Meryl Streep’s nominations to one of the wonderful actresses from Blue is the Warmest Color or Emma Thompson from Saving Mr. Banks or Greta Gerwig in Francis Ha. At any rate, my choice seems to be the frontrunner. Cate Blanchett has been nominated for the Oscar five times – three times in this catagory alone – and she turns the tide this year because it is her first nomination for Best Actress in which she doesn’t play Queen Elizabeth I.
In Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, she plays Jasmine Frances, a woman as close to Blanche DuBois as Allen can possibly get. Like Blanche, Jasmine is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Once, her life sparkled with money and luxury. Now, it’s all gone, and what is left is an empty woman trying to get on her feet. Also, like Blanch, Jasmine is coming part at the seams. She was the pampered wife of a a Wall Street tycoon who padded their financial future with assets that the FBI didn’t know about. When he got caught, the house and all the money were seized and Jasmine was left penniless. The fact that her social status was her entire life has left her with few friends and even fewer relatives to depend on. Yet, Blanchett never asks for our sympathies. Like DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, she’s no wounded saint. She’s a full participant in her own undoing and now depends on those she cast away for help, a woman who has always depended on the kindness of strangers, but needs Xanax just to get through the day.
Best Supporting Actor
The Academy’s Nominees: Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips * Bradley Cooper in American Hustle * Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave * Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street * Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club
My Choice: Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street
It’s pretty well known by now that this award is going to Jared Leto for his heartbreaking performance as a AIDS afflicted transsexual in Dallas Buyers Club. If he wins it will be well-deserved, but my choice is the only actor in this category who went for laughs. Jonah Hill’s performance in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is just as good as DiCaprio’s work and just as deserving of an Oscar. He plays Donnie Azoff, second in command to DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, a portly Jewish kid with bleached white teeth and a failed attempt to pull off the appearance of being a Wasp. As Donnie and Jordan get caught up in the roller coaster of drugs and money, Donnie shows the consequences of being a parasite to a runaway train. He’s more than just Jordan’s right arm, he’s the yin to his yin.
Hill has always been a gifted comedian, but he’s displayed it in films that weren’t worth his time. His performance in The Wolf of Wall Street are an example of the right actor in the right role. Here he and DiCaprio show what great comic energy can come from the right material. Watch the scene in which the two, who are high on antiquated Quaaludes, wrestle for the telephone when it is revealed that Jordan’s house has been bugged. It’s a great moment of physical comedy and Hill plays it beautifully.
Best Supporting Actress
The Academy’s Nominees: Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine * Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle * Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave * Julia Roberts in August: Osage County * June Squibb in Nebraska
My Choice: Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle
A quick glance at the nominees might lead you to believe that the winner is going to be Jennifer Lawrence for American Hustle, but pre-Oscar awards (including the SAG) seem to push the award in the direction of Lupita Nyong’o. Yet, my heart is still with Lawrence. She continues to take chances, to create new characters and, in short, to give us something new. That’s what we got in the form of Roselyn Rosenfeld, the needy wife of a professional hustler. All through American Hustle we have followed a group of professional con artists, people who know every thread of the game. What Roselyn brings to the table is an heir of unpredictability. She’s a loose cannon who injects herself into the scam but at all times risks breaking the whole thing open. What we get from Lawrence is a woman who is not happy to sit at home and raise Irving’s son. She’s a fly in the ointment, not out of maliciousness but out of a need to be somewhere, doing something. Lawrence does something new here, she creates a character that we find it difficult to like, but also a character that we can’t help but feel for.