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411 Oscar Preview 2.27.14: Best Picture and Director
Posted by Ben Piper on 02.27.2014

Welcome back once again to 411's continuing Oscar coverage. I am and shall continue to be Ben Piper.

Hollywood's biggest night where they all collectively pat themselves on the back and congratulate one another is now firmly upon us. It is the night the beautiful people come out of the woodwork to be seen, hopefully collect the trophies they have coming their way, and then enjoy the rest of the evening getting their Oscar Party on. Hey, it's good work of you can get it.

After last year's controversial choice for host Seth McFarlane ruffled feathers, set tongues wagging and caused outrage with his performance, the Academy decided to go back to the safe route and chose Ellen DeGeneres to host this year's festivities. She previously hosted the 2007 Oscars, which went off without a hitch if memory serves. I'm personally expecting a decent outing for her, but not spectacular by any means.

12 Years A Slave remains the Best Picture frontrunner, but one can't help to wonder if another nominee comes out of nowhere to steal its thunder. A Gravity or an American Hustle perhaps? We shall see.

So now let's take a look at all the Best Picture nominees as well as those for Best Director…

Best Motion Picture

American Hustle
By Michael Weyer

Other Oscar Nominations: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Costume Design, Best Director, Film Editing, Production Design, Best Original Screenplay

David O. Russell has always specialized in modern-day stories but with American Hustle, he takes on a retro feel of the 1970's and in a wonderful way. Using the real-life AbScam operation as his inspiration ("Some of this really happened" an opening crawl tells us), Russell weaves a fantastic tale of con artists and an FBI agent taking on a mayor who's not quite as corrupt as he may seem. Russell captures the time perfectly with music, fashions and amazing mood, driving it on with that terrific energy that only he can provide, keeping the show flowing well so you don't mind the two-hour plus running time.

As always, Russell benefits from a fantastic cast who have worked with him before. Christian Bale and Amy Adams both find wonderful depth to their con artist characters, not really bad folk, just over their heads as they continue to run their scams and hope to run away together. Bradley Cooper wonderfully showcases an FBI agent who's not playing with a full deck, obsessed with making a name for himself above all. Jennifer Lawrence steals every scene as Bale's possibly crazy wife who doesn't seem to mind how she destroys their homes with her antics while trying to "help." Jeremy Renner shows how his mayor is fighting for his people with Elisabeth Rohm as his loving wife and Robert DeNiro's cameo reminding you of how terrifying he can be on screen given the right material. Together (along with Louie C.K. as Cooper's badly-treated supervisor who can't believe people are listening to this lunatic), they turn in fantastic performances that hold the movie together.

It may get over the top at times but in a good way, showing how this decade was all about excess and people reinventing themselves. Yet, it holds together as a great dark comedy where you can't tell good guys from bad or even if there is such a line. It may not be as "important" as other Oscar films but Hustle still shines thanks to its great cast and sharp writing that pulls you totally into a wild period of American history and a movie you can't look away from.

Captain Phillips
By John Dotson

Other Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Best Adapted Screenplay

When I say 2013 has been one of my favorite years for movies in a long time, I absolutely mean it. We were given so many great titles and Paul Greengrass's dramatic thriller Captain Phillips is no exception. When it calls for crafting tension, Greengrass knows exactly what he's doing, and every single scene of this film is a pressure cooker. When it calls for selling emotion and drama, Tom Hanks is MVP. Together these guys made a dynamic duo for engrossing an audience in a riveting true story.

Direction and acting pushed aside, what really works at the core of Captain Phillips is the excellent storytelling. The film is hard to watch because one way or another, the situation is going to end badly for somebody, whether it be Captain Richard Phillips or Muse and his Somali brothers. Billy Ray's screenplay is crafted so you end up rooting for both to come out of the situation unharmed. When Greengrass takes the climax up to eleven, it's all you can do to keep yourself from gripping your armrest and forgetting to breathe. At the core of this story is two desperate men just trying to survive and make a living. Phillips ships in dangerous waters because he has to provide for his family, and Muse has to rob ships because that's the only way his world knows how to survive. Barkhad Abdi - who plays Muse - does a stellar job holding his own with Tom Hanks.

Captain Phillips is certainly not the Best Picture of the Year, but it honors the category. While it may not be the best overall film, this writer would argue Captain Phillips is the best action-thriller of the year, and I do include Gravity in this conversation as well. Paul Greengrass once again delivered a fantastic film mixed with intensified action and drama to match. Captain Phillips is definitely worthy of the Oscar nod.

Dallas Buyers Club
By Tony Farinella

Other Oscar Nominations: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Film Editing, Hair and Make-up, Best Original Screenplay

Few films affected me as strongly as Dallas Buyers Club in 2013. Lots of critics and press have discussed at length the extreme weight loss for both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, but even more than that, it is the power and punch behind their performances that allow this film to stand out and be a worthy addition to this year's Best Picture nominees. It is a complicated film, but frankly that is what makes it so good. The film doesn't deal in simplicity or having its characters be black and white and run of the mill. There is a ton of meat and potatoes to each and every main character in the film. There is a rhyme and a reason behind their actions. You actually start to care about them deeply and passionately, even with all of their flaws. Not every character in a film has to be a good guy as we have seen more and more with some of the antiheroes that we can't keep our eyes off of, such as Tony Soprano and Walter White.

I think it's safe to say that McConaughey's performance as Ron Woodroof is going to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. It is well deserved after some of his performances in films such as Mud, Killer Joe, Bernie, and now Dallas Buyers Club. He seems to truly have his pulse on interesting and complex roles. As far as Best Picture, I don't think it has a shot at that award, but it is one of the best pictures of the year and maybe even my favorite film of 2013. I couldn't stop thinking about it days after it was over. It really stuck with me. It's a powerful piece of filmmaking and an important film to see. There are few things more inspiring than someone refusing to die and doing whatever it takes to survive and keep on going, even if it is just for another day.

By Bryan Kristopowitz

Other Oscar Nominations: Best Actress, Cinematography, Best Director, Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects

Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is both a major cinematic spectacle and a small, personal story about one woman's survival against seemingly impossible odds. One the spectacle side, Gravity is a science fiction movie brimming with all sorts of amazing special effects that make it seem as though the characters played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are actually in outer space working on the Hubble telescope. It tries very hard to remain as scientifically plausible as it can without damaging the movie (you don't have to know anything about space travel or science to know that Cuaron and company were trying to make each sequence as "realistic" as possible) and for the most part it seems to succeed (Neil deGrasse Tyson did the world a service by letting us know what is "real" science and what is just storytelling). The sequences where the various space entities are destroyed because of the passing debris field, even without sound, are both terrifying and beautiful to look at.

The performances are deceptively simple. Clooney plays a brash, uber confident space veteran, while Bullock plays a sort of shaky, timid astronaut that always seems as though she's on the verge of a breakdown. She isn't meant to be a squeamish "typical" female or anything like that. But she's left alone to fend for herself in space. How would you (how would anyone) handle that situation?

I don't know how well the movie is going to play on TV/a smaller screen. Cuaron clearly crafted Gravity to be seen on as big a screen as possible. I saw it on a regular movie theatre screen, but I probably should have tried to see it in IMAX. Space is big. Gravity should probably be seen in a similar environment.

Gravity, while not the greatest movie ever made, is still a master work of cinema. It will live on into the future as a technically brilliant action movie that takes place in space. That's something to be proud of.

By Jeremy Thomas

Other Oscar Nominations: Original Score, Best Song, Production Design, Best Original Screenplay

I remember when I first heard about Spike Jonze's Her. I would like to say it was the first moment that it was announced, or when Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson were cast in the film. But the truth is, I didn't hear about it until much later when my 411 brethren Jeremy Wilson revealed that it was one of his most anticipated films. For my part, I merely shrugged it off. I had a distinct dislike for Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are and while I love his other films, Joaquin Phoenix was still in recovery mode in my mind after the I'm Still Here debacle and I didn't think that this film was something that would resonate with me.

How wrong I was.

Her is considered, to be generous, a dark horse in the Best Picture race. It's unfortunate that sometimes the best movies of the year don't get a hefty shot because they're simply less scene or tackle a less meaty subject matter than others. But make no mistake; it deserves the nomination and should it win, it would deserve that too. Jonze's film clearly a much better shot in the Original Screenplay and Production Design categories, but as we've learned in the past you can never count any film out especially in a year where the frontrunners are so neck and neck. It would not at all be outside the realm of possibility for 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and American Hustle to split the votes and allow a movie like this one to slide in and claim the spot. To some the fact that the film didn't garner a Best Director nomination hurts the film's chances, as few films that didn't get nominated for that award win. But one of those situations happened just last year with Argo. The betting man wouldn't put money on Her, but the man who takes calculated risks just might because between incredibly strong performances, a heartfelt story, impressive production and more, you really do have the total package here. It's a worthy film of a Best Picture win, whether it gets it or not.

By Chad Webb

Other Oscar Nominations: Best, Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay

In talking with different people about the Oscar nominated movies, it seems that Alexander Payne's Nebraska is one of the titles that much of the public didn't have an opportunity to see. Sometimes they just don't open in a theater close to us, but Nebraska does hit DVD & Blu-Ray this week and is absolutely worth checking out before the ceremony.

This is such fantastic motion picture. The acting is uniformly brilliant with Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, and Bob Odenkirk just to name a few. And these are not merely "good" turns from these actors. Many of them hand in career highs. Payne is in top-form with Nebraska, a project with a modest budget in which he uses digital cameras and anamorphic lenses for the first time. The decision to use black-and-white instead of color was wise, and as added trivia it was post-converted to that. The cinematography from Phedon Papamichael is marvelous and the music from Mark Orton is suitably solid.

This is a profound, hilarious, and highly engrossing slice of Americana that resonated with me. It's not condescending or ordinary, it is fresh, multi-layered, and incredibly satisfying. As far as its chances go on Sunday evening, it will likely go home empty handed knowing the momentum other films currently posses, but it certainly doesn't deserve that. This is a worthwhile motion picture you will look forward to watching again and again.

By Terry Lewis

Other Oscar Nominations: Best Actress, Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay

A British outsider on our Best Picture nominations sure, but Philomena still deserves your attention. A wonderfully crafted true story which will move you through it's powerful debates. How far would you go to go against your respected beliefs to find your personal gain? The story of Philomena Lee's son being taken from her in an Irish Catholic Magdalene washhouse and her quest as an elder to find out what happened to him through disgraced journalist Martin Sixsmith is engrossing as well as thought provoking.

I've written about Judi Dench's efforts in our Best Actress category but British comedy actor Steve Coogan's portrayal as the slippery but truth and rightous seeking Sixsmith is a performance worth seeking out. The tag team are at odds with different backgrounds between Philomena's humble and simple life compared to Sixsmith's former Government spin doctor and well travelled reporting credentials, yet director Stephen Frears plays up the nice, pacy comedic beats between the pair in a worthwhile quest, which climaxes in a speechless ending. The music is fabulous and really adds to the various emotional peaks Philomena puts you through as well as the balanced witty and serious script.

As much as I'm happy to back Philomena, I must still acknowledge it's difficulties to make a splash this year in possibly the toughest Best Picture race in years. Still, at the end of the day, it's just a nice, sweet film about a lovely old lady finding out what happened to her son. Simple but highly effective.

12 Years A Slave
By Jeremy Wilson

Other Oscar Nominations: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Costume Design, Best Director, Film Editing, Production Design, Best Adapted Screenplay

Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave doesn't need the Academy Award for Best Picture to affirm its status as a towering achievement and one of the finest films of 2013. Then again, it wouldn't hurt. It may not have the commercial success and technical achievement of Gravity, the star power and fun '70s vibe of American Hustle, the sheer wild originality of Her or the in-your-face brashness and over-the-top take on The American Dream of The Wolf of Wall Street, but what 12 Years a Slave does have is the unofficial title of "Best Reviewed Film of 2013" and arguably the most landmark depiction of slavery and the Black Experience in America since Roots. The fact that it took a collection of mostly foreign artists to bring us this exquisite, devastating work of art about the darkest stain in American history goes to show how race and the evils of slavery continue to affect this nation and how we deal (or don't) with our past collective sins.

12 Years is a difficult film to watch. Many of the best works of art are tough to stomach. However, 12 Years isn't torture porn or some dry moral history lesson. What makes 12 Years so special is that it doesn't stop to moralize or attempt to cram every bit of history into its running time, instead focusing on characters, specifically its protagonist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Northup's journey from educated free man living in upstate New York to kidnapped hostage sold into bondage in the Deep South is harrowing enough; there's no need to "Hollywood-ize" it even more. It's also a remarkable film because it is a period film made by a black man, based around the point of view of black Americans of the time. It shows the true toll and depth of evil, not in simply black and white terms (both literal and figuratively), but in all its various shades. The fact it features a somewhat "happy" ending that is far more tragic and bittersweet than it is uplifting adds to its power. Solomon doesn't escape because he, like so many others, couldn't. He got out due almost to a technicality, a literal deus ex machina arriving to whisk him, and him alone, away. Solomon Northup was both exceptional and an exception. And it is thanks to exceptional exceptions like Solomon – and 12 Years a Slave itself – that we have stories that both break our hearts and challenge our souls, historical figures and works of art that serve to feed the intellectual, emotional and spiritual foundation of us as a people. There is no other film like 12 Years a Slave at this year's Oscars and for its singular achievement and significance it wholeheartedly deserves the title of "Best Picture."

The Wolf Of Wall Street
By Terry Lewis

Other Oscar Nominations: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay

Ever since a teaser was released in the summer, I knew there was something a bit special about The Wolf Of Wall Street. And wouldn't you know? It has the best word of mouth I have ever seen for an Oscar nominated flick. This biopic of the mad and wonderful career of disgraced former stock broker Jordan Belfort is the classic tale of the guy who had it all, then lost it all, but wrapped in attitude. Massive injections of attitude.

Leonardo DiCaprio reunites with Martin Scorsese yet again for another shot at Oscars gold in probably one of the most controversial films ever put up for nomination. You just know it was going to have its critics when the opening five minutes contains DiCaprio snorting cocaine from a prostitute's butt. Yes, this film is filled with midget tossing, uncontrollable amounts of substance abuse, more nudity that a Game Of Thrones boxset and the most utterance of the world "fuck" in a mainstream film in probably the most laugh out loud hilarious black comedy ever shown on the big screen.

Yet it never feels like shock value. In a very honest film, the three hour spectacular charts the meteoric rise of Belfort and all the wonderful and dubious things he can buy with the ludicrous amounts of money he earns. For all the times he can just walk away, his ego says he can't and sets up the darkest hour of character-based cinema I've seen in awhile.

If anything, Scorsese lit and thrown a pipe bomb for future nominations lists for comedy. Whilst I appreciate Wolf is more of a black comedy, why not go full the full hog now? What goes too far in terms of controversy, after seeing a whore have cocaine snorted out of her arsehole? A morally ambiguous stranger of a film who strides up to you and keeps punching you in the face until you stop asking why before telling you. Masterpiece.

And The Oscar will (Presumably) go to: 12 Years A Slave

Potential Spoiler: Gravity

Best Director

Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
By John Dotson

Previous Nominations: 3- Children Of Men (2X, Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay), Y Tu Mama Tambien (Best Original Screenplay)

I have to admit that at first I didn't just love Gravity as much as the rest of my colleagues did. In retrospect, I might have been harsher than I should've been in my review. My issue was expectations, and that was all on me, not the film. I did enjoy it overall, but the fact is, I wanted a moving experience again, in the same respect as Children of Men. While it may not be as emotionally moving as the latter, it certainly pushes us further into on-screen universes we've never thought possible, and for that fact Alfonso Cuaron deserves every nomination he's gained from Gravity, including Best Director.

Before now, without actually going through NASA training, one couldn't dream of getting such a realistic voyage to space.That's what makes Cuaron's film a technical marvel. Never has space been depicted on film in such an immersive manner. You can literally feel the zero Gs as the spectacle unfolds. It is easy to nitpick the flat story line or the scientific inaccuracies (what little there are) involved with Gravity, however, what they were able to accomplish visually and technically certainly makes up for any minor missteps one could name. For example, never in my life have I ever experienced motion sickness, nor has a movie ever caused such an effect on me. But the sequence where Sandra Bullock is ordered to detach and is catapulted into space, draws one into that uncontrollable feeling of vertigo. I literally had to shut my eyes for a matter of seconds while she was spinning up and down away from the shuttle. This scene alone shows how far we have come in our ability to put the viewer into space, and for that reason, Cuaron exceeds in his direction. He took us to the stars and gave us the true feeling of being "lost in space."

From Star Trek to Star Wars to 2001 A Space Odyssey, Gravity's technological and visual accomplishments give us a new canvas to work with when it comes to space films. Even though I did not love Gravity, I felt Alfonso Cuaron's space thriller was definitely worthy of the recognition it has gained this Academy season and I would not be surprised if he walks away with the prize come March 2nd.

Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
By Jeremy Thomas

Previous Nominations: None

Steve McQueen has found his way to the top of Mount Hollywood. The British director has been building his reputation with cinephiles for a while, earning raves for his work on Hunger and Shame. Those films were phenomenal but were too out there, too indy for Best Picture or Best Director love. It took tapping into an issue that remains a hot button across the world--racism and slavery--to get him in front of the mainstream movie-going public and he hit it out of the park. 12 Years a Slave is his crowning acheivement to date, with the movie hitting every target and firing on every cylinder. There isn't a single aspect of this film that isn't exceptionally done, and with McQueen at the helm it's become a front-runner.

This isn't to say that he doesn't have some stiff competition. Alfonso Cuaron is standing in his way with a critical and commercial blockbuster in Gravity and it's very possible that he could be a spoiler. McQueen is at the Oscars for the first time as a nominee while Cuaron has previously been nominated in other categories and that often gives someone an edge, especially if they haven't won for films that are still well-regarded. David O Russell and Martin Scorsese are potential threats as well. But I would in no way be shocked to see McQueen accepting this award come Sunday; he would certainly have earned it.

Alexander Paine, Nebraska
By Chad Webb

Previous Nominations: 6- The Descendants (3x, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay), Sideways (2x, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay), Election (Best Adapted Screenplay)

My fondness for the movies of Alexander Payne occurred gradually. I saw Election and About Schmidt and enjoyed them for what they were, but it was Sideways and his short film on Paris, je t'aime that truly opened my eyes to his talent. At this point, Sideways has become one of my favorite films, and Payne has a fan in me for lifer as a result. There will never be a movie he makes that I will not give a chance to at the very least. I was highly looking forward to Nebraska, but it did not expand very wide and thus I had to travel to see it, but it was worth the trip.

This is consummate Payne, a director who can mix comedy and drama just as magnificently, if not better than, any other filmmaker out there. This is a low-key movie, but not as slow as it is made out to be. The beauty of several of Payne's movies is a great deal happens when it comes off like nothing is going on. What I love about Nebraska is that nothing feels artificial or hackneyed even though the plot is not exactly revolutionary. This is about Mid-America, the Heartland, an area of the US many of us are not familiar with, or have preconceived opinions about. Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson integrate oodles of amusing nuggets of truth. It's also about the relationship between a father and son and how they both grow from this trip. This is the first time Payne has made a movie he did not also pen the script for, and the first since Citizen Ruth that is original, not adapted. Yet somehow Nelson, a writer with a fairly short resume for being born in 1956, captures all of Payne's trademark themes and his skill at blending charm and humor with a sense of longing and melancholy.

This is Payne's seventh Oscar nomination, his third in the Best Directing category. He has won twice previously for screenwriting, but never as a director. It feels as though that is destined to happen at some point down the road. He is too skilled and consistently seen getting nominated whenever he releases a movie. Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron will be battling for this one, but Payne elevates and pushes the competition. He is always a threat and Nebraska is yet another fabulous piece from a master at his craft.
David O. Russell, American Hustle
By Terry Lewis

Previous Nominations: 3- Silver Linings Playbook (2x, Directing, Best Adapted Screenplay),The Fighter

David O. Russell has certainly carved out a bit of a niche as that guy who comes close but doesn't quite cross that finish line. For all his skills in developing actors & actresses and having a clear vision for what he's directing in front of him, I can see why people would label him as a maybe man at the top level of awards. The thing is with O. Russell, over other directors, you have a film simply dripping with quality in terms of talent, looks, setting, and yet it all seems to come so natural.

Perhaps not a surprise that this is his third Best Director nomination in four years after impressive presentations in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. O. Russell's shot at glory this year in American Hustle gets together you'd want from a comedy-crime caper flick from 70's America. In terms of high suspense and double crossing whilst retaining the inevitable coolness of that decade, O.Russell keeps it together, whilst juggling at least five awards worthy performances in this case AND get them working at the peak of their powers in the context of the time.

Where American Hustle holds itself together is O. Russell keeping it in check. There's the music, costume and appearance of a film representing the 70's coming into consideration which is no surprise why he has a shot at this year's Best Director award, albeit with it his third in a row, he has to take home something soon, even if it's not as good as other works.

Martin Scorsese, The Wolf Of Wall Street
By Jeremy Wilson

Previous Nominations: 10= Hugo(2x, Best Director, Best Picture), The Departed (Won), The Aviator, Gangs Of New York, The Age Of Innocence (Best Adapted Screenplay), Goodfellas (2x Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay), The Last Temptation Of Christ, Raging Bull

At 71, Martin Scorsese has nothing left to prove. Of course, one could have said that after 1980's Raging Bull, 1990's Goodfellas and certainly after finally bringing home his one and only Academy Award for 2006's The Departed. Unlike so many filmmakers whose edge and ambition fades as they enter the twilight of their careers, Scorsese has somehow managed to reinvigorate himself and his work. Whether fair or not, there was a feeling that the Scorsese of the 1970s and '80s – the Scorsese of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy and The Last Temptation of Christ – was gone and that a slow, steady decline had naturally set in, resulting in a slew of the filmmakers's perceived "lesser" efforts. Finally winning it for The Departed seemed to free the filmmaker, allowing him to break away from the kinds of films he had been doing and using new technology to both bring back films he loved (his restoration efforts) and work in new genres and styles.

Which brings us to The Wolf of Wall Street, the ambitious, creative nexus of his pairings with his post-De Niro muse, Leonardo DiCaprio (Wolf is the fifth collaboration between the two in the last dozen years). Wolf also marks a return to black comedy for the director and oh what a return it is. Wolf may be 3 hours of unadulterated, outrageous, entertaining hedonism, featuring a character in Jordan Belfort that rivals any of the testosterone-infused thugs at the heart of so many Scorsese classics, but it is patently absurd to believe that Wolf is "soulless" (a word used by more than one Academy member) or that it even tacitly endorses the hyperaggressive, hypermasucline drug-fueled money-making of its characrers and history. Creating shot after shot that would make younger filmmakers blush (not to mention a few audience members), Scorsese has done some of his finest work with Wolf, and while he won't win his second Oscar, two nominations in three years – this late in his life and career – further prove that the master is still at the top of his game.

And the Oscar will (presumably) go to: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Potential Spoilers: Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave

And there you have it. Stay tuned to 411 over the course of the coming weekend for more Oscar coverage as I attempt to defend my title for the second year in a row as 411's chief Oscar prognosticator as well as the staff's thoughts on the ceremony itself. We'll see you then.


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