Sunday, March 2, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Picture ("Gravity" faces off against "12 Years a Slave")

And here we go. In my estimation, this is the most intriguing Best Picture race since at least 2005 (when Crash stunned Brokeback Mountain), and probably the most openly competitive since 2004 (when Million Dollar Baby held off The Aviator). Even more intriguing, if the night pans out the way I expect (admittedly, it usually doesn't), the winner should remain a mystery right up until the actual announcement. Here's to some actual suspense at the Oscars.

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Let's be clear: Only three of the nine nominees have a shot here, and those three are American Hustle, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave. It's tempting to rule out American Hustle because Gravity and 12 Years a Slave tied at the Producers' Guild, but that's actually why I think it has a chance. I suspect American Hustle to be ranked #2 on a considerable number of ballots, so if the two heavy hitters split votes for #1, then it could make like that Siamese fighting fish in From Russia with Love, letting the top dogs tire each other out before suddenly darting in for the kill. (Also, poor form on the PGA's part for actually letting things end in a tie, which I'd previously assumed was unconstitutional. Where are we, Canada?)

So that's a possibility, but overall, this still seems to be a showdown between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. The latter already won at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, but it isn't unprecedented for a film to achieve that daily double and then lose at the Oscars (previous winners of that dubious honor include Atonement, Brokeback Mountain, The Aviator, and Sense and Sensibility). What's more interesting is how the two movies stack up in the Oscar race as a whole. If we assume that my predictions in the remaining categories are correct—a hilariously charitable, undoubtedly erroneous assumption, but just bear with me—then excluding this category, 12 Years a Slave will only take home one Academy Award (for Best Adapted Screenplay), whereas Gravity is walking away with seven. Random trivia alert: Not since The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952 has the Best Picture winner received only one additional Oscar. Of course, it's entirely possible that I'm selling 12 Years a Slave short in other categories—for example, Lupita Nyong'o is basically in a coin flip with Jennifer Lawrence for Best Supporting Actress, with most pundits backing Nyong'o—but the expected quantitative gap between the two movies remains significant. Can 12 Years a Slave flex its muscle in the Best Picture race while receiving so little support in the ancillary categories?

Well, probably. Hell, Argo only won three total Oscars last year, and it had no difficulty cruising to the Best Picture trophy. But let's flip things around. In my view, the critical question is this: Are Academy voters ready to award Best Picture to a bombastic, effects-driven, 3-D blockbuster such as Gravity, especially at the expense of a sober, prestigious, undeniably Important historical film such as 12 Years a Slave? I just don't think so. Gravity is universally acclaimed in a technical sense, but in the end, I expect voters to view it through that narrow prism—as a work of stupendous craftsmanship, not as a terrific movie. 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture.

We're on the clock here, so let's break these nine nominees into four tiers:

Tier 4: Thanks for coming, the kids' table is over there. Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, and Philomena are all well-told stories that don't really break any new ground. Dallas Buyers Club is a straightforward redemption saga that stumbles in its efforts to broaden its scope and acquire political heft, but it's redeemed by Matthew McConaughey's committed, slippery lead performance. Philomena is narrower in scope and more effective as a result, and it smoothly blends a mismatched buddy comedy with a quietly powerful story of loss and forgiveness. Nebraska is the most angular and interesting of the three it that it declines to sand its rough edges, but in the end, it's really a heartwarming fable about familial devotion. All three are fine movies; none is worthy of a Best Picture nomination.

Tier 3: You're fucking crazy, but I love you anyway. American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street arrived in theatres within a week of each other, and if you watched them back-to-back, you could be forgiven for thinking you just saw the same movie twice. That's unfair, of course, as the two are actually quite different. American Hustle is a free-wheeling caper that divides its attention equally to every member of its delightfully colorful ensemble, whereas The Wolf of Wall Street is singularly focused on its protagonist's numbing lust for power. But stylistically, both embrace chaos, and both occasionally teeter into absurdity. They're also both a ton of fun, not only darkly humorous but also stealthily moving. They may not achieve classical notions of cinematic perfection, but it's their disdain for such notions that makes them great.

Tier 2: Prepare for your soul to be shattered. Captain Phillips is a tense, gritty, pulse-pounding action picture that feels entirely self-contained, with no larger agenda than simply placing you in the headspace of a smart-but-overmatched hero and making you quake with his fear. So it's all the more astonishing that this no-frills thriller delivers an emotional gut-punch in its closing moments, one that haunts you long after you gingerly shuffle out of the theatre. 12 Years a Slave wastes no such time in swinging its emotional sledgehammer, hitting you again and again with the sheer horror of its protagonist's unfathomable predicament. Yet both pictures employ subtle craft in addition to brute force in order to achieve their ends, Captain Phillips with whip-smart editing and visual immediacy, 12 Years a Slave with agonizingly long takes and fluid, restrained cinematography. They're powerful reminders that movies can not only tell painful stories about noble, overpowered individuals but can also make us share in the hurt.

Tier 1: Beauty comes in many hues. If you've been following my analysis of Gravity's Oscar chances, you may have picked up that I'm a rather ardent supporter of the film. Its technical prowess is beyond reproach, but I don't view Alfonso Cuarón's space saga as mere digital brilliance. Like all great directors, Cuarón uses various filmmaking tools—in this case, revolutionary 3-D camerawork, remarkable special effects, and immersive sound design—to articulate a narrative, and Gravity's story is beautiful and deceptive in its simplicity. Two astronauts are lost and want to get home. That's it. And from that skeleton, we bear witness to an epic journey of horror and hope, and a swooning paean to human endurance. Gravity is a movie about the fear of death, but watching it is a deeply life-affirming experience, and at its triumphant conclusion, I wanted to stand up and cheer. How extraordinary that a computer-generated motion picture about objects in space can feel so thrillingly, humanly alive.

But as much as I love Gravity, on my hypothetical ballot, I'm casting my Best Picture vote for Her, Spike Jonze's elegiac love story of man and machine. Conceptually speaking, it could have played as laughable (as evidenced by the adroit spoofs that popped up here, here, and here), but Jonze bathes his futuristic character study in warm, golden tones of unvarnished sincerity. Her functions beautifully on myriad levels—as an insightful exploration of the messiness of marriage, as a sharp satire of our dependence on technology, as a searching and soulful dissection of human loneliness. At its core, though, Her is about love and loss, and that its primary relationship is one between human and computer in no way diminishes its heartbreaking depiction of unfulfilled longing. There isn't a more thoughtful or touching movie to have reached screens this decade. How could I possibly vote for anything else?

With the Oscars now concluding, the Manifesto will return shortly to its Review of 2013, which will eventually wrap up with its top 10 list. Stay tuned, and in the meantime, enjoy the Oscars.

Previous Oscar Analysis
Best Director
Best Actor
Best Actress
The Best of the Rest
Best Supporting Actress
The "Gravity" Categories
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Original Song

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