Predicting the Oscars

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When I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” last fall, I said I didn’t expect to see a better film all year.  Guess what?  I didn’t.  Unfortunately, after faring well amongst almost all critics, “The Master” received just three Oscar nominations.  Perhaps it was the ambiguity of the story line; perhaps it was the fact that it came out several months ago rather than several weeks ago.  Whatever, the academy’s decision doesn’t sit well with me.  Paul Thomas Anderson’s brand of filmmaking is typically leaps and bounds above the standard Hollywood schlock, and “The Master” is, at the very least, one of his four best pictures.  In fact, I consider all four of them to be the best pictures of their respective years.

So now with that bit of shopkeeping out of the way, let’s turn our attention to the actual nominations – and with a whopping nine Best Picture nominations, I still fail to see why “The Master” couldn’t have been the tenth, but let’s go with what we have.  Of those Best Picture nominations I have seen (and “Amour” hasn’t even opened here yet – which is my big gripe with airing the Oscars during February now rather than March, simply because February is a ratings month), my personal favorite is Ben Affleck’s “Argo.”  It was a tight, well-written, two hours of high suspense, regarding a story almost none of us knew, yet all of us knew how it turned out.  This is the film about those Americans who escaped from the US Embassy in Tehran after it was taken over by Iranian militants in 1979.  Telling a story with a known outcome is always a risk, and elevating that story to edge-of-seat suspense is the mark of a great director.  If I had a vote (and why do they still never ask me?), I would choose “Argo,” and in a rare year of agreement, I believe the academy will also choose “Argo.”

Ironically, Ben Affleck was not nominated for Best Director.  This “directorial slight” is not unprecedented.  In fact, Bruce Beresford wasn’t nominated for his 1989 film, “Driving Miss Daisy,” yet it won Best Picture.  And I still remember Host Billy Crystral’s classic introductory line, “And then there’s ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ a film which apparently directed itself!”  The “masterful” Paul Thomas Anderson wasn’t nominated either.  Of those nominated, I’ll pick Steven Spielberg for “Lincoln,” a long, dry, talky movie about President Lincoln’s push for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution – that which outlawed slavery.  Again, to take a story with a known outcome and make it interesting is the mark of a great director.  Now “Lincoln” certainly isn’t high suspense, the way “Argo” is, but there’s not a wasted scene in it.  I never lost interest, but then I’m a history buff.  Again, in a rare year of agreement, I believe the academy will also choose Spielberg.  By my count, he should have won Best Director about five times by now, but the academy has only bestowed that honor on him twice.  This should be his third.

I also believe the academy will so honor Daniel Day-Lewis (with his third Best Actor Oscar) for his masterful portrayal of our sixteenth president.  Let’s face it, even though none of us ever saw Abraham Lincoln nor heard him speak, this isn’t a role most actors would dare attempt.  And the more well-known the actor (think Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise), the less likely Spielberg would have been to cast him.  Day-Lewis melded into the role the way Denzel Washington melded himself into Malcolm X.  Day-Lewis became Lincoln.  But here I’ll break with the academy.  If I had a vote, I’d go with Joaquin Phoenix for his brilliant, exciting, somewhat terrifying portrayal of an ex-military drifter in “The Master.”  This was the performance of a lifetime for Phoenix, but as with Malcolm MacDowell’s “performance of a lifetime” in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” he sadly won’t win.

I think the academy & I are in agreement, however, with the Best Actress award.  Jennifer Lawrence took a so-so comedy, “Silver Linings Playbook,” and made it hilarious and poignant.  Of all this year’s nominations, I don’t think anybody truly “made” a movie the way she did with this one.  The veteran French actress Emmanuelle Riva has received a lot of buzz for “Amour,” but again, that hasn’t opened here yet.  There’s also an outside chance of little Quvenzhane Wallis winning for “Beasts Of The Southern Wild,” and here’s my take on that possibility:  The academy loves to award very young actors and actresses for supporting performances, such as Anna Paquin in “The Piano” or Tatum O’Neal in “Paper Moon.”  They don’t award the very young for leading roles, however.  I suppose they assume the very young are happy to simply be nominated.

The best performance of all those nominated for Best Supporting Actor is easily Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of a bombastic cult leader in post-war America.  Unfortunately, he’s in the wrong category.  He, along with co-star Joaquin Phoenix, belongs in the Lead Actor category.  Still, Hoffman gets my pick, although of the true supporting performances, none surpasses Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens.  Jones has won this award before.  He’ll win it again.

One more observation about the Supporting Actor category:  Alan Arkin was nominated for his comedic-relief role as a sarcastic Hollywood director instrumental in securing the release of the US hostages from Iran in “Argo.”  While I’m a big fan of his, John Goodman was actually funnier in the same movie.  The nomination should have gone to him.

For Best Supporting Actress, I see no one more deserving than Amy Adams as the cult leader’s reserved yet forceful wife in “The Master.”  This was a small but key role in a great motion picture.  She’s never won before, and she will.  But watch and see if Sally Field wins early for her role as Mary Todd Lincoln.  If she does, “Lincoln” may walk off with the Best Picture honor rather than “Argo.”

In the Original Screenplay category, I can’t believe Paul Thomas Anderson was snubbed for “The Master,” but of those nominated, I’d pick Quentin Tarantino for “Django Unchained.”  I was disappointed that “Django” made light of extreme violence, but the script was very original and often quite comical.  I believe the academy will pick Mark Boal for the overrated “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Best Adapted Screenplay should go to Chris Terrio for “Argo,” and I believe the academy will honor him accordingly.  But again, watch out for “Lincoln.”  If Tony Kushner wins early for “Lincoln,” that picture may just snatch the Best Picture trophy at the end of the show.

What do you think.  Please feel free to comment and let me know!

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