Spree Picks the Winners, Part II: Chris, Bill, and Jared on the Oscars for Best Screenplay, Director, and Picture
Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in Columbia Pictures’ AMERICAN HUSTLE.
Photo by Francois Duhamel © 2013 Annapurna Productions LLC All Rights Reserved.
Bill, Jared, and I took on the actors last time. In part two, we move on to the screenplay awards, Best Director, and Best Picture. Take it away, Chris … —Chris
Best Adapted Screenplay
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke)
Captain Phillips (Billy Ray)
Philomena (Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope)
12 Years a Slave (John Ridley)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Terence Winter)
Now things are heating up. The screenplay categories are so stacked that just about anyone COULD win. That’s rare, honestly. Take Adapted Screenplay. Before Midnight was one of the most critically acclaimed smaller-scale films of the year. Captain Phillips was taut, tight, and tough. Philomena was adorable, and moving. 12 Years a Slave was shattering. And even those who had issues regarding The Wolf of Wall Street would likely salute its script. But I think we can cut Midnight and Philomena (sorry, Steve Coogan) from the likely-winners list. Too “small.” I have a disappointing feeling Wolf is going to get completely ignored this year, and the only way I could see it winning here is if—OMG—it sweeps the biggies. I just don’t see that happening. So that brings us to 12 Years a Slave and Captain Phillips. And even though I found the film fine, but unmemorable, Phillips is an intriguing pick. I think John Ridley’s script for 12 Years was marvelous, but I’m not sure folks praising the film are giving it enough attention. So I am saying Billy Ray wins in a bit of an upset for a script that at the very least is constructed with real intelligence. Not my choice. But I think it wins.
Chris’s pick: Captain Phillips (Billy Ray)
I always feel funny about the screenplay categories. What difference does it make if the work is adapted from a different source? It seems like a distinction that doesn’t need to be made, particularly when, as is the case here, I am unfamiliar with the original source material? It amounts to two bites of the apple for the screenwriters, since the award isn’t really about how well the material was adapted. My other problem is that I am pretty solidly an auteurist. What I see on the screen is what the director put there—most of the time—so evaluating the work of the screenwriters seems daunting to me. All that said, it seems to me that Philomena was a performance movie, not a writerly movie; likewise Captain Phillips. Swap out either lead for another equivalent actor and you have two entirely different movies. I don’t see Wolf of Wall Street running the table, but it’s a hell of a movie, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it win here. Before Midnight is the culmination of an amazing collaboration. It would be great to see it win, and it is the movie I’ll have my fingers crossed for, but I think that 12 Years a Slave is what will take it. 12 Years really is an important movie, and it is the kind of movie that people like to give awards to.
Bill’s Pick: 12 Years a Slave (John Ridley)
I do like the double screenplay categories if only to show that those in the adapted half didn’t come up with their story idea themselves. Yes, some who adapt their own novel/play/etc. would be exceptions, but for the most part the delineation helps showcase the original work’s creator(s) as well. That said, why is Before Midnight here? Am I alone on this? Perhaps I missed the explanation in my internet travels? It’s a bona fide sequel so saying it’s an adaptation solely due to being based on characters Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke didn’t write is weird to me. But I guess from what I said above, this distinction does give Kim Krizan notice. So I’m not even going to consider Midnight mostly due to what Chris said about it being too small. I’m throwing Captain Phillips out too because I see it as more a tit-for-tat between Hanks and Abdi like Bill. I think Philomena and Wolf both have outside chances because it gives the former a chance at a win that I don’t think Dench will bring and the latter well-deserved praise for a fast-paced 3-hour film that’s consistently funny and entertaining throughout. That leaves 12 Years a Slave and John Ridley if only because I believe those who decide not to vote it Best Picture will feel a need to give it something. And while the performances are great and McQueen directs the hell out of it, a lot of its success is in Ridley’s ability to distill a decade plus of time into the Cliff’s Notes of emotional horror that it is. I’d probably have voted it either way.
Jared’s pick: 12 Years a Slave (John Ridley)
Best Original Screenplay
American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell)
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack)
Her (Spike Jonze)
Nebraska (Bob Nelson)
Damn! Another stunner of a category. Woody .. is not winning. And I don’t think that has anything to do with outside difficulties. Nebraska is, I think, seen more as Payne’s triumph than Nelson’s. The script for Dallas Buyers Club is one of its weakest elements, I think. So right away we’re down to two: Her and American Hustle. The Academy would love to award Spike Jonze, and feel as if it is doing something bold. And my goodness, it would be! The winner, I believe, will be American Hustle. Many have joked about the film’s script, but it is colorful and fun, and also awards David O. Russell, who has been close to an Oscar with his previous two films. I have had a theory for some time that Hustle could surprise us this year … Even if it does not, I think it wins this category.
Chris’s pick: American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell)
An abundance of riches here—each of these were movies that I walked out thinking that I’d seen something really, really good. As with Philomena I think Nebraska is mostly about the performance of the lead. To some extent I think the same can be said of Dallas Buyer’s Club as well. Her, for me works as well as it does because of Spike Jonze’s direction, to the extent that the distinction can be made at all. If Blue Jasmine is going to be recognized it will be for Cate Blanchett’s performance. Woody may not be all that toxic in Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean that the Academy is going to fall all over itself for a guy who isn’t even going to show up to say thanks. American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell) is an easy pick, and I agree with you that it’ll win.
Bill’s Pick: American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell)
Time for contrarian duties because I really think Her is going to take this. The direction and aesthetic are a huge part of why it was my personal favorite film of the year, but this category is Jonze’s only shot at victory. It’s such a fresh script, unlike anything else this year, and a sign of how good Spike is without the specter of Charlie Kaufman hanging over his work. Success for Nebraska and Blue Jasmine has a lot to do with their central performances, but to me Dallas Buyers Club and American Hustle are even more so with their ensembles stealing the show. I do believe both Dallas and Hustle’s scripts are their weakest link, relying heavily upon the amazing actors bringing every word to life in a way you would not read off the page. Her is more: it’s a sci-fi tale you could read and feel every emotion, the heart, and its authenticity. Phoenix, et al., only make it better onscreen.
Jared’s pick: Her (Spike Jonze)
American Hustle (David O. Russell)
Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)
Nebraska (Alexander Payne)
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
It is tricky, of course, to predict a different winner for Best Director and Best Picture. Most years see a sweep. But not all years — recall Soderbergh’s win for Traffic in the year of Gladiator, for example. I think this year’s Oscars will end in a similar fashion, with different winners for Director and Picture. But of the two, Director is the no-contest: Alfonso Cuarón takes this, and takes it easily. And despite my relatively mixed feelings regarding Gravity—it’s a good film, and a fantastic cinematic experience, but wildly overrated—I can certainly buy the argument that Cuarón is the year’s finest filmmaker. He crafted a giant, creative, complex monster of a film that was a critically acclaimed blockbuster. OF COURSE he’ll win.
Chris’s pick: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)
Best Director/Best Picture splits where rare when the Best Picture field was smaller. Now that Best Picture has opened up a bit I expect that we will see an increasing divergence—even though I’m not exactly sure why that should be so. This does look like a good year for a split. What we have here are a terrific technical achievement in filmmaking (Gravity); three powerful social critiques (12 Years a Slave, American Hustle and Wolf of Wall Street) and an idiosyncratic road picture (Nebraska). Of all of them the one I am most likely to go back to is American Hustle, and as a directorial accomplishment I think Russell did a fantastic job with a great cast. If I had a vote, that’s how I’d vote, but my hunch is that Hustle will split its support with Wolf. Wolf’s problem may be that it is a bit too strong for mainstream tastes—it is a pretty debauched movie. The Academy’s Director’s wing may not have a problem with that, but the at-large voters might. I don’t think it happens for Gravity because I have a theory that the Academy feels burnt by Avatar. With the benefit of hindsight Avatar was like a beautiful cake that turned out to be frosted Styrofoam, and I think the voters will stay away. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave wins this. It’s an opportunity to give a major prize to a person of color and to an Englishman, the film is certainly deserving, and everyone can feel high-minded about the award.
Bill’s Pick: 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
Ten films and only five directors is a sure-fire way to split more often than not and I too believe we’ll have it happen a second year in a row (poor Ben Affleck). My belief, however, hinges on my giving the Academy the benefit of the doubt that Gravity is not worthy of a Best Picture win. It’s just not. But like I said about Bullock’s mind-boggling inclusion at Best Actress, this spectacle is all about the entertainment value and sheer movie-going experience—two things credited to Alfonso Cuarón. Just think about the time it took for him to get this thing off the ground. He waited years for the technology to catch-up, found a way to seamlessly integrate everything like he did with Children of Men, and quite honestly proves why he is one of the best directors working. Payne has no shot and Scorsese won his (although for one of his least deserving films). Russell has an outside chance simply because he is Hollywood’s new darling and someone who knows how to work a cast, but to me McQueen is the only one who can give Cuarón a run for his money. The reason he won’t, though, is because everyone should (and I think will) give 12 Years the big prize. How do you praise Gravity? Give Alfonso his due.
Jared’s pick: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street
And so it ends, with an interesting group of nine films. Captain Phillips, Philomena, Her, and Nebraska won by being nominated; they stand no chance. If you had asked me a few months ago, I would have called Dallas Buyers Club a serious contender, but as time has passed its status as actors’ film has cemented. And so we come to American Hustle, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, and The Wolf of Wall Street. I think Wolf was the best film of the year, but it ain’t winning here. 12 Years a Slave is a stunner that still makes me shake—it might win. But I just don’t see it having the widespread support a film on a “difficult” subject like slavery needs. Gravity might win, too. It’s a hit, and a big one, and made people go to the movies. But for some time now, I have had a feeling that American Hustle hits voters just right. It’s fun. It’s light. It plays well at the theater or at home. It has a killer cast and a director on fire. And it could have been made at any point in the last three or four decades. It is timeless in an unthreatening way. I loved it, and I think the Academy does, too.
Chris’s pick: American Hustle
The Academy has nothing to be ashamed of with this line-up. I’d say Nebraska is a bit of an outlier, but if it had been released last year couldn’t you see it giving Silver Linings Playbook a run for its money? Her might be one of the worst date-night movies ever (or maybe one of the best?) but it was provocative and engaging and very much of its moment. In other years I can imagine Philomena sneaking in too. Perhaps it isn’t my cup of meat, but there is no disputing the quality of it, and I expect it will be the sort of movie that people come back to. Captain Phillips is the movie I’d swap out for something else—the under-rated Spring Breakers perhaps, or more realistically, Before Midnight. You know what would be good to see on the list? Wolf, it seems to me, is a half-bubble off from main stream tastes. Some of the luster does seem to have come off Dallas Buyer’s Club, as much as I liked and admired it. I wonder about 12 Years a Slave- indisputably great, how many people are ever going to put themselves through the experience of watching it a second time? I’m with you on this pick, Chris: American Hustle works on so many levels. For me it was a thrill just knowing that I don’t have to worry about having that hair.
Bill’s Pick: American Hustle
I’ll be honest, so much comes out every year that I very rarely revisit anything—even my favorites. Heck, I don’t even buy DVDs unless it’s a Criterion Collection entry or a TV set anymore. So to think about this award in terms of what voters would want to watch again is a tough sell. To me it’s a kneejerk reaction to the piece that hit them hardest or close-to hardest if the former already scooped up its fair share of gold. With that said, Nebraska, Her, Philomena, and Captain Phillips are out. And in all honesty, I think they would have been out had Oscar only been doing five films. Of what’s left, Dallas is too much about the actors like Chris said and Wolf is way too debauched like Bill explained. So it’s down to three for me. Gravity is something that has absolutely no replay value at home unless you have a Barney Stinson-sized TV in your house. It is an accomplishment for cinema like Avatar was before it and I believe it will suffer the same fate. American Hustle will give a tight race and could easily come out on top, especially with Silver Linings lovers still sore about it getting upset last year. Russell is the wild card, but I still don’t think it’s his year. Like so many of the lead-up ceremonies that ignored it for everything but Best Picture, this is 12 Years a Slave’s award to lose. I think the Academy has embraced the idea of rewarding as much work as possible and unless Lupita secures her trophy this is McQueen’s critical darling’s last chance. It will be close, but I think everyone’s favorite coming out of TIFF will pull it off.
Jared’s pick: 12 Years a Slave
And there you have it. We shall see how Bill, Jared, and I fare on Sunday night. In the meantime, Jared posted some of our picks from previous years on his site. And you can always visit Jared’s site, Bill’s site, and mine for more on these films and many others. Enjoy the Oscars! —Chris