Way back in 1932 filmmaker Josef von Sternberg resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, noting it had "nothing to do with art and even less to do with science." While it's likely that this was in part the result of constantly losing potential awards to lesser talents, it was not without its truth. And every year they reinforce his statement by holding the Oscar awards — something that most of us approach with a strange mixture of apathy and addiction. We don't take them seriously really — especially now that every half-assed, semi-credible organization has awards — but we seem to be compelled to follow them and watch them through some kind of Pavlovian effect.
The question remains as to why we're addicted. The theory has always been that since the Oscars are chosen by people "in" the movie industry, they're more important. There are all sorts of flaws with this — starting with personal politics and loyalties that don't come into play with civilians — but the kicker is the concept of "in the business." Face it, the Academy is rife with members who haven't actually been "in the business" for 50 years. The average reader of Entertainment Weekly probably knows more about what's going on than some of them. For that matter, "in the business" is a very elastic term. Let's just say that those voters are not entirely comprised of Martin Scorseses and Alfonso Cuarons.
Part of the problem is that there has come to be an almost complete lack of surprise about the nominations. While there may be some notable omissions about this year's crop, there's really nothing surprising about them. There've been some rhubarb mumblings over the fact that Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is up for an Oscar for makeup and hair, but so was Eddie Murphy's fat suit in Norbit a few years ago, so it's really just business as usual. The idea that this might result in some kind of image-tarnishing embarrassment that would make all this more entertaining is wishful thinking. Anyway, let's look at the major award choices and see what to make of them.
12 Years a Slave. For a long time, this seemed to be considered a shoo-in — as did its lead actor and director, with its supporting actor and actress being strong possibilities. The film itself still has the edge — at least slightly. It's also developed something of a backlash. The reasons have to the perception that the film is excessive in its portrayal of the horrors of slavery. (Some folks just don't want to give up the Gone with the Wind model, because it's more comfortable.) But there's also the fact that director Steve McQueen seems uninterested in playing the promotions game. Will it win Best Picture. Probable, but it's no longer a lock.
American Hustle. David O. Russell's playfully amoral comedy is definitely the crowd-pleaser here. It's probably the second most likely winner. But the fact that it's not exactly a "serious" film will work against it, since the Academy likes to think of itself as serious-minded — and whatever American Hustle is, it's not serious-minded. Whether the perception that it's ersatz-Scorsese will lose it some votes is another matter. Frankly, it reminds me more of quirky-era Jonathan Demme than Scorsese, but that's just me, it seems.
Captain Phillips. This is the nomination aimed most to please the old guard. It's also one of the four films nominated that appears to have directed itself. (They really ought to expand the number of director slots to match the number of movies.) Despite the dose of shaky-cam from director Paul Greengrass, this is old-fashioned stuff with a shameless (and failed) Oscar-bait performance from Tom Hanks. Chances of winning? Pretty slim. And that's how it should be so far as I'm concerned.
Dallas Buyers Club. Another self-directed film. (Quick — without looking it up — who directed this? Exactly.) That said, I wouldn't count it out as a possible surprise win. It's certainly a good film. I wouldn't call it Best Picture material, but I'm not going to throw anything at the TV if it does.
Gravity. I have to admit that Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity pretty much went in one eye and out the other for me. It's good. It's technically impressive. It's involving as drama while it's on the screen. But, for me, there's no resonance. Nothing about the film lingers — and that's coming from someone who considers Cuaron one of our greatest filmmakers. I think it winning is a long shot and I don't want it to win.
Her. Here we have the Academy out to prove that it's all hip and edgy — even if they believe it directed itself. Whether it does any such thing is up to you. I don't see it winning. I don't think it should win either. (How is this on the list and Inside Llewyn Davis isn't?) This is more critic-bait and hipster-bait than Oscar-bait. They may make it up to Spike Jonze with a writing award, but I wouldn't bet on that either.
Nebraska. Another dark horse, but not a bad choice from an artistic standpoint. From a popular standpoint ... well, that's another matter. But it is a film that lingers. And it's a film that improves on subsequent viewings. (Once you connect with its tone and pace — easier to do on a second look — it plays like a dream.) I doubt it will win, but it certainly wouldn't be an embarrassment.
Philomena. The idea that this fine film from Stephen Frears directed itself is probably the Academy's most offensive move. Philomena — like nearly every film Frears has made for 30 years — is beautifully and sensitively crafted from a directorial standpoint. It's a very good — maybe close to great — movie, too. Again, I'd be surprised, but not appalled if it upset the Oscar cart.
The Wolf of Wall Street. This is here strictly because it's Scorsese. As filmmaking for its own sake, it's easily my pick. But let's be honest, it's not all that popular from a critical standpoint (in some cases, "not all that popular" is a mild assessment), and it's not all that popular with audiences. It's a very long long shot, but, oh my, there'd be a huge outcry if it did, which would be kind of amusing.
Best DirectorAlfonso Cuaron. A great filmmaker, but whether Gravity is a great film is another matter. He might win, but he shouldn't — not this year, not for this movie.
Steve McQueen. McQueen was the obvious choice — for a while. I have problems with him personally. His movies all keep me at arm's length. 12 Years a Slave is no different. I want to love this film, but I can only admire it as a powerful, but strangely distant work. I'd still be cool with him winning.
Alexander Payne. Possible, not probable. Neither he, nor Nebraska are really in the public consciousness.
David O. Russell. Russell is my guess for the winner in this category. I'm OK with that, but not thrilled. I can name two Russell films I like better than American Hustle. But he's a solidly safe choice here.
Martin Scorsese. Sure, why not? Well, the why-not is that The Wolf of Wall Street frightened the horses.
Best Supporting ActorBarkhad Abdi. The longest long shot, even if he did bring more depth to his role in Captain Phillips than was on the page.
Bradley Cooper. Cooper's role in American Hustle is at least close to being co-lead, so the category seems a pragmatic one. Worthy? Perhaps, but he's easily third on the list.
Michael Fassbender. Fassbender's fascinating and terrifying turn in 12 Years a Slave would be a certain win — most years, but probably not this one.
Jonah Hill. Much as I like The Wolf of Wall Street, no.
Jared Leto. If Leto doesn't win for the sweet, tormented, self-destructive, Marc Bolan-loving Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, there is no justice in this naughty world.
Best Supporting ActressSally Hawkins. I have nothing against Hawkins, but this nomination for Blue Jasmine seems almost frivolous.
Jennifer Lawrence. Yeah, Lawrence was entertaining as Christian Bale's wife in American Hustle, but Oscar-worthy? I'd say, no.
Lupita Nyong'o. Ms. Nyong'o stands a pretty good chance for her role in 12Years a Slave. Not my first choice, but certainly a valid one.
Julia Roberts. Whatever you think about Julia Roberts, it's not just anyone who can steal a movie from Meryl Streep, but Roberts did just that in August: Osage County. Will she win? Probably not.
June Squibb. The little-known June Squibb may well be one of the evening's surprises for her performance in Nebraska — and that wouldn't be a bad thing at all.
Best ActorChristian Bale. Though Bale's performance in American Hustle is probably my favorite thing he's done, I think this is a long shot — and it's certainly not the best performance of the year.
Bruce Dern. Dern actually stands a shot at this — as much for his whole career as for Nebraska itself.
Leonardo DiCaprio. In all honesty, I'd be more inclined to go with DiCaprio for The Great Gatsby than for The Wolf of Wall Street, but having voiced that unpopular opinion, I have nothing against this choice. But I doubt it will happen.
Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ejiofor is my first choice. However I feel about 12 Years a Slave, I have no reservations about his performance as a thing of tragic beauty. Yes, the fact that I've been singing his praises for ten years enters into this.
Matthew McConaughey. Any other year, I'd be in McConaughey's corner for Dallas Buyers Club, but not this year. It doesn't matte; he's almost certain to win.
Amy Adams. Adams is unlikely to win. My first thought was it was an absurd choice. Two more viewings of American Hustle changed my mind, but I don't see her winning.
Cate Blanchett. Despite efforts to dredge up moral outrage over Woody Allen yet again, Blanchett's performance in his Blue Jasmine is as close as you're going to come to a sure thing in this category. And that's fine with me.
Sandra Bullock. OK, I like Sandra Bullock. I'd have been happy to see her get Best Actress in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002). I'd have been over the moon to see her get Best Supporting Actress for Infamous (2006). I think she should have gotten a special hand-washing award for Premonition (2007), if it comes to that. She's fine in Gravity, but Best Actress? No, probably not.
Judi Dench. Judi Dench stands a slim chance for Philomena, and that'd be fine. It's certainly the best liked performance here, but that may work against it.
Meryl Streep. I'm not saying that Her Royal Streepness won't win, but I'm saying she's not the best choice and that, however entertaining her performance in August: Osage County is, it's not one of her best.