Going for gold:

Academy releases crowded, competitive Oscar field

It almost goes without saying that the Oscars tend to disappoint, year in and year out. In my humble opinion, the Academy gets it wrong far more often than right, and the lengthy award ceremony itself has been upstaged as of late by the much leaner and meaner Golden Globes boozefest. That being said, as a glutton for punishment, or a “movie masochist,” so to speak, I find it impossible to resist scrutinizing the Oscar nomination list, predicting the likely winners, fantasizing about the possibilities of upsets and snubs, and preparing myself for the evening of garish devastation that awaits on March 2, when sappy speeches and cheesy montages will assault my laptop screen.

As far as movie years go, 2013 was phenomenal, and even the incompetent Academy has managed to pull together an incredibly strong list of nominees, overlooking much of the typical Oscar bait in favor of genuine cinematic marvels. Among the nine Best Picture nominees, all of which are at the very least rock-solid, only three films stand a reasonable chance of winning. While the little golden man should be handed to the audacious and bombastic “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which impeccably blends riotous comedic sequences with culturally savvy commentary, the Academy will likely opt for “American Hustle,” “12 Years a Slave,” or “Gravity” instead. Much like last year’s “Lincoln” or 2010’s “The Social Network,” “Slave” ran at the front of the pack for much of the awards season, but a recent burst of buzz has made “Hustle” a worthy competitor. Unless the latter and better movie loses steam, director Steve McQueen’s Academy-friendly period-piece seems likely to lose out to David O. Russell’s groovy dramedy.

As we move into the four acting categories, the competition becomes less predictable. Though Chiwetel Ejiofor’s stoic turn in “12 Years a Slave” seemed poised to land the veteran Brit a Best Actor trophy early in the season, the role’s range and depth have been recently called into question, and Matthew McConaughey’s nuanced and dynamic work as homophobic hick-turned-AIDS treatment pioneer Ron Woodroof in “Dallas Buyers Club” has deservedly gained traction. In a just world, Leonardo DiCaprio’s career-best performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street” would earn him the golden boy, but alas, we live in a world of injustice, and Leo will likely be snubbed yet again, especially given his exclusion from the Screen Actors Guild nominee list.

In some ways, Amy Adams serves as DiCaprio’s counterpart in the Best Actress field. Both 39-year-olds have earned numerous Academy Award nominations, only to lose every time, and both actors won Golden Globes for their nominated performances this year. That said, DiCaprio has the advantage of not having to compete with Cate Blanchett. Adams, Sandra Bullock (“Gravity”) and Dame Judi Dench (“Philomena”) all deliver show-stopping star turns, but Blanchett’s rangey and riotous work in “Blue Jasmine” both should and will win the golden statue come March 2.

Unfortunately, whereas the Best Actor and Best Actress fields have rarely if ever been stronger, the supporting categories have slightly less to offer. Jared Leto has garnered well-deserved rave reviews for his turn as a transgendered AIDS patient in “Dallas Buyers Club,” and given the Academy’s apparent love for the film as a whole, he seems almost guaranteed to earn the Supporting Actor statue. Nevertheless, Jonah Hill’s gutsy work in “The Wolf of Wall Street” deserves the Oscar, and if he can somehow sell his admittedly polarizing performance to the oft-conservative Academy voters, then we’ll be treated to at least one hilarious acceptance speech for the night.

The same goes for Jennifer Lawrence, whose endearing and relentlessly funny work in “American Hustle” seems likely to nab an Academy Award. While Lupita Nyong’o has received ample attention for her tear-filled turn in “12 Years a Slave,” Lawrence’s charismatic persona and impressive acting chops set her apart, especially given the weakness of the field as a whole.

Oscar night will undoubtedly come with its fair share of surprises, and we can only hope that the list of winners will encourage enough double-takes and crushed spirits to make the evening interesting. At the same time, regardless of who wins or loses, the Academy Awards will serve as an ideal occasion to celebrate the greatest year for film in my lifetime.

Published January 16, 2014 in Arts and Entertainment, tableau

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