What a year, what a year! Well, movie-wise my whole year was – give or take some donations from generous studios – compressed to roughly three months, and I’m still playing catch-up on the cinematic offerings of 2013. Not that I’m complaining, though. Maybe the return from deployment has been messing with my head, but I have not been this impressed overall with the slate of high-profile American films in a long time. While comparing movie years to the great 1999 has become a cliché, this time I actually think the comparison may be apt (but please give me some time before I can really feel comfortable saying that, especially since I’m hardly “done” with the year as it is).
It’s certainly the most exciting and unpredictable Oscar race in years, with precursor awards bodies shattering expectations all through the season. It brings me such joy to remind myself that the two frontrunners for Best Picture are directed by two of the most ambitious and confident visual filmmakers of their generation being rewarded for continuing to challenge themselves. The fact that they’re jockeying to become either the first black man or the first Hispanic to be honored as Best Director is just icing on the cake. I can’t even really complain about most of the races elsewhere, though I wish American Hustle had hogged less of the categories and Inside Llewyn Davis managed more. But beggars can’t be choosers. How bad can the Academy be when Barkhad Abdi is a nominee and Emmanuel Lubezki could actually, finally be a winner (NO! I have to stop doing that, I’m jinxing him again!)?
Sadly, my lack of attention to this particular race and this year in general will probably mean that my predictions are going to be less reliable than before. But even this is going to be an improvement on next year when I’ll be persona non grata until the season is basically over. Nevertheless, here is the race as I see it…
Best Motion Picture of the Year
Will Win: I have never seen a year with so many precursors pushing for a Picture/Director split as this one. While the Golden Globes, British Academy Awards, and many major critics organizations seem to agree that the year’s best-directed film is Gravity, 12 Years a Slave has usually been selected as the year’s best film. I do not believe the Oscars will bear this out. Why? Two words: Preferential Ballot. Only one other awards body has that system of voting, and even if there are large swaths of voters who want to continue the split trajectory, I’m betting that even more will simply rank their favorites. This I think will give Gravity the edge, especially as it’s set on conquering the Oscars below-the-line.
Should Win: If there has been one awards season development that has surprised me more than all the others, it has been the fate of 12 Years a Slave. I was positive that we were all going to grow bored with all the precursors thrown at the film by this time, and yet despite its subject matter, acclaim, and constant presence in the widespread discussion of the best films of the year it has not been a strong frontrunner for Best Picture. That’s unfortunate because I would submit that it compares as favorably as one could hope for to the majority of films that have won this award in the last twenty years. Whatever minor flaws that crop up (occasionally overweening dialogue and Brad Pitt’s self-aggrandizing cameo among them) are quickly swept away by its unflinchingly raw look at an oft-neglected period in American history told with bold, lively artistry and powerful performances.
Should Have Been Nominated: Practically everyone with a Twitter account has noted the similarities between Inside Llewyn Davis’s almost total shutout and its titular character’s similar lack of recognition, but I still can’t get over how this failed to make the cut among the same group of people who honored the stranger, crueler, far less audience-friendly A Serious Man just four years ago. While I’m disappointed that my suspicion that Hollywood would not embrace a movie about a man who fails to succeed despite his talent might have been on the money, I’m certain that the film will easily stand the test of time. I wish I could be as confident with All Is Lost, a movie unfairly dismissed as the awards season went on. Far more than just a filmmaking stunt or showcase for Robert Redford’s workout regimen, J.C. Chandor’s sophomore feature depicts the sensation of true isolation flawlessly (no cutesy volleyballs or inexplicably working cell phones, here) in a way that is both formally interesting and thematically dense, yet always manages to be compulsively watchable all the way to its wonderfully open ended finale.
Achievement in Directing
Will and Should Win: Please don’t misunderstand me; just because I’m puzzled at the lockstep BP/BD split does not mean I wouldn’t support that outcome if it goes down. Because even more so than 12 Years a Slave, the identity and quality of Gravity cannot be viewed outside of its director. His fingerprints are on every bravura shot, every nail-biting sequence, every breathtaking moment. His accomplishments even reach outside the camera to his successful lobbying for the film’s lead character to be a woman and pushing for the usage of groundbreaking technology that even James Cameron believed was not ready yet. Many high-profile directors have attempted to stake out a new form of effects-driven high concept blockbuster filmmaking in recent years; none have succeeded as Alfonso Cuarón has.
Should Have Been Nominated: Compared to Russell, Payne and even Scorsese to a lesser extent staying in their comfort zones for their nominated films, it’s somewhat disappointing to see Joel and Ethan Coen left in the cold after revealing such an interesting, softer side of their directorial identities. I’m sure they care the least of anyone, though.