Mercury film critics predict who will take home the gold for primary categories at 86th Academy Awards airing March 2.
Best Picture – Shyam Vedantam
American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, Gravity
Picking a film to exemplify a great year in cinema is interesting in theory but difficult to qualitatively identify. The Oscar tends to go to a film that sends a message or pays tribute to a group. Look to 2013’s winner “Argo,” in which Hollywood takes part in saving hostages in an international crisis, and 2012’s winner “The Artist,” an ode to Hollywood’s early beginnings, as recent examples of this. This year, the essentially two-horse race can be summed up as a look to the past and a leap toward the future.
“12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” stand head and shoulders above their competition. “12 Years a Slave” is shot with a painter’s technique and viewpoint depicting a terrible era with striking and punishing realism. The film is an example of how the arts are an important way for humanity to reflect on itself. A free black man is taken into slavery, and it’s from this perspective that director Steve McQueen forces the audience to relive what this society was truly like.
“Gravity” pushes the medium of film itself forward. 3D and IMAX are utilized to their fullest capacity, to a degree that has only been touched by “Avatar” and “Life of Pi.” Two astronauts, played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, are cut off from their space station and have to try to find a way to survive among the vast emptiness of space. The formal elements of film — the cinematography, mise-en-scéne, editing and sound design — are truly remarkable. It’s an exemplar of how technology can be used to advance film into the future.
“12 Years a Slave” is an almost masochistic catharsis while “Gravity” is a visceral experience that won’t be replicated in the foreseeable future. In the end, “12 Years a Slave” will win Best Picture. It has an unbelievable story, brilliant performances by talented actors and strong direction. It is a way for the Academy to hold high to the world this achievement in drama. To be fair, “Gravity” will get its due in most of the technical awards and also will probably win Best Director.
Best Director – Miguel Perez
David O. Russell (American Hustle), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Alexander Payne (Nebraska), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)
A quick glance at recent winners of Best Director and Best Picture (which are usually one and the same) shows films that have entered into the canon of great American film: “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Brokeback Mountain” to name a few.
A great film should also capture and keep your attention, never letting a space open up for the audience to leave the world within the film. “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” both have these qualities. With one looking at the past and the other slightly into the future, both films are bewitching in their own way.
Based off the title, “12 Years a Slave” carries the expectation that there will be a generally happy ending for Solomon. It is during the relieving scene of his rescue when he looks back at Patsey that it is realized: There is no rescue for her, and she will never know anything but pain her whole life. Slavery was not a faceless experience defined by numbers; it was an painful personal reality for Solomon and every slave involved. McQueen communicates that with every delicate detail.
“Gravity” is unexpected considering it’s Bullock and a green screen for the majority of the film. Cuarón manages to take a terrifying notion — being lost in space — and molds it into a beautiful film. Even with all the crashing space debris, the film manages to find a sense of balance.
Cuarón has made something that feels so refreshing, so new in its execution that he will win the Oscar for Best Director. No one will forget the movie about the astronauts hurling through empty space.
Best Actor – Miguel Perez
Christian Bale (American Hustle), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
History dominates the acting category this year. On one hand, there’s the deeply harrowing account of a man kidnapped and sold to an antebellum plantation in 1841. On the other, there’s the intriguing story of a Dallas low-life cowboy who contracts HIV in the mid-80s and deals with the trials and misconceptions of the disease’s initial outbreak in the United States. At the end of the day, these two performances, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup and Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, are the strongest contenders for Best Actor.
In “Dallas Buyers Club,” McConaughey’s character begins to smuggle prescription drugs that are more effective in moderating HIV-related illnesses and less toxic than the FDA-approved standard. The actor has been burning up the awards circuit, having already picked up a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe for his role in the film. McConaughey’s also been on a roll with a slew of challenging roles in well-received films (“Mud,” “Bernie” and “Killer Joe”) in recent years. All bets are on him to win with his subtle and captivating depiction of a drug dealer with a conscience.
But, Ejiofor should win. It is his portrayal of Solomon Northup, a black freeman living in New York, which frames this portraiture of one of America’s darkest periods. “12 Years a Slave” will go down as the best historical narrative about American slavery in recent memory for director Steve McQueen’s careful and considerate method, but it is Ejiofor who brings it to life in the eyes of the audience.
Best Actress – Shyam Vedantam
Amy Adams (American Hustle), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Judi Dench (Philomena), Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
Oddball performances seem to be a running theme in this category. Adams plays a lowly con artist who gets involved in an FBI plan and gives a lively performance; she becomes the focus of a scene in which every person in the shot is a big name actor. Dench, as a simple-minded British woman who wants to know more about the son she gave up for adoption, gives a relatively smaller performance, but she carries the film she’s in.
Streep is overly emotional in “August: Osage County,” and is the weakest and least-nuanced performer in the group. Though not an oddball character, Bullock gives a truly great, but understated performance. By herself, in a machine in a studio against a green screen, she gives herself to the camera without anyone to lean on.
However, Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine” is the outright favorite in this category, and duly so. It’s a role none of the other actresses in this category could have done as well (disregarding age). Woody Allen has always written strong, emotionally engaging and interesting female characters, and this character is no exception.
Blanchett plays a New York socialite who loses her wealthy lifestyle and must return to San Francisco to live with her estranged step sister, and she carries the film. She’s able to transcend the neurotic tendencies Allen writes into his characters that hamper so many other actors who are just trying to impress Allen.
Best Supporting Actor – Shyam Vedantam
Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
As a Somali pirate, Abdi’s first film role stuns and he holds himself well against acting veteran Tom Hanks. Hill plays Robin to DiCaprio’s Batman as disgusting Wall Street brokers who give in to carelessly to their id. Cooper’s performance is overrated in “American Hustle.” He gets a boost from the amazing cast he performs with, but if he wins the Oscar, it will truly be shocking.
It comes down to Fassbender and Leto. Fassbender disappears as the psychotic and maniacal plantation owner. Leto pulls off an acting stunt, losing an unhealthy amount of weight, but it is the vulnerability that Leto brings to the role that mesmerizes.
Fassbender should win this category. His pairing with director McQueen has yielded two award-worthy performances, and this role should be the one that finally gets him the Oscar. However, Leto has been sweeping the awards circuit so far and has momentum in his favor, so if anyone is betting money, it should be on Leto.
Best Supporting Actress – Miguel Perez
Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Lupita N’yongo (12 Years a Slave). Julia Roberts (August: Osage County), June Squibb (Nebraska)
In her film-debut performance, Lupita N’yongo plays Patsey, a young woman who endures violent mental and sexual abuse at the hand of her plantation owner in “12 Years a Slave.” Her performance, like others in the film, is one that you just melt into, without being aware that what you’re watching is a dramatization. Something is so well-executed in the film’s portrayal of suffering that you’ll have to wait a long while before you can stomach it again.
Lawrence, in her role as the neurotic housewife of a New Jersey con man in “American Hustle,” could win, but it’s doubtful considering she was awarded an Oscar for a similarly neurotic character in “Silver Linings Playbook” just last year.