Last night was the first time that I ever watched an awards show in full. Being a cynic, I always thought that awards shows were just a vehicle for pretentious people to bask in the applause of their contemporaries while wearing fancy clothes that cost a year’s worth in college tuition (that was just a guess, but could certainly be right). But I watched more new movies this year than I ever have before. I saw Solomon Northup’s story unfold in the extraordinary 12 Years A Slave; I witnessed Sandra Bullock make her astonishing escape from certain death in Gravity; I laughed in horror at Leonardo Dicaprio’s antics in The Wolf of Wall Street, and then stared in boredom at the Coke Zero version of Wolf (not just in the obvious cocaine way), American Hustle. In a year with so many great movies, it was surprising how many of the awards seemed locked before the show started. In the end, all of the locks won: Matthew McConaughey for Best Actor, Jared Leto for Supporting Actor, Cate Blanchett for Best Actress, Gravity in the technical categories. And while not locks, the two major awards were won by the heavy favorites: Alfonso Cuarón for Best Director and 12 Years for Best Picture. While I wasn’t interested enough to watch the various celebrities parade into the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, I was interested enough to care who won. So, in a year of great movies but little controversy in terms of which ones won the awards, I have 5 general takeaways:
1. 12 Years A Slave gets its due:
The best movie of the year is rewarded with the Best Picture. Seems obvious, right? But there were definite reasons for director Steve McQueen to be worried that his magnum opus wouldn’t win: Gravity was dominating the categories it was nominated in, and many people loved American Hustle. But in the end 12 Years walked away with the big award. Not only an important “message movie”, 12 Years is an extraordinary, seemingly impossible artistic achievement. McQueen films his movie with a sense of serenity. He could have opted for a much more frantic movie, but instead his calm shooting makes the film more powerful. The performances are excellent, from the Best Supporting Actress-winning Lupito Nyong’o, nominated Chiwitel Ejiofor in the lead, and Bendict Cumberbatch in a cameo, to the evil Michael Fassbender, also deservingly nominated for Best Supporting Actor. These actors thrive off of the superb script from John Ridley, which like McQueen’s shooting is powerful because of its willingness to be subtle at times. This subtlety only makes the more emotional parts more powerful.
2. Gravity’s technical wonder is rewarded:
While a great movie in its own right, Gravity cannot compare to the overall impact of 12 Years. But in one way, Gravity does surpasses 12 Years: its technical accomplishments. It won 7 Oscars, and 6 of them in technical categories, like Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound Mixing. Gravity is a technical masterpiece. Visually it is breathtaking: some of the shots of the earth are shockingly good, and Cuarón’s and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s long shot style is used to great effect, as Lubezki’s camera zooms in and out of the rubble surrounding Sandra Bullock. And Cuarón deservedly won Best Director. While McQueen also did an amazing job, not to mention Martin Scorcese, Cuarón is almost solely responsible for Gravity. A great movie that deserves the accolades it received.
3. The best Best Actor race in a long time:
Every single nominee deserved to win, from Dicaprio in Wolf to Bruce Dern in Nebraska. Even people not nominated (Oscar Issac in Inside Llewyn Davis, Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, and Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station, among others) had a legitimate claim to giving the best performance of the year. Now, McConaughey probably should have won for his great performance as Ron Woodruff, straight AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club. One of the great things about McConaughey’s performance is that even at the end, after he has saved the lives of many AIDS patients by providing them with illegal medicine, Ron Woodruff does not consider himself a savior, nor does he even like gay people. He solely considers himself an opportunist who now has some sympathy for people different than him. This ensures that the movie does not become too preachy and instead is focused on the internal struggle of a man. But even though that performance was so great, the other nominated actors have real gripes. Leo gives arguably his best performance yet in his already storied career, and Ejiofor gives a beautifully reserved performance in 12 Years. For my money, my favorite performance of the year was Issac’s, as he gives a truly despicable character some needed humanity.
4. American Hustle and Wolf of Wall Street both go home with nothing:
One of these movies I loved, the other I didn’t. Wolf of Wall Street broke barriers and went beyond normal measures in its efforts to depict the debauchery of Wall Street during the ’90s, while American Hustle wasted great performances from its A-list actors in a movie with no real climax or interesting hustle. But both movies went home awardless. I very much wanted Wolf to win something. I felt that such a bold movie should have been rewarded with an award. I was secretly rooting for Scorsese to bring home his second Director trophy, and for Leo to get his much deserved Oscar. And even though I didn’t like Hustle, I wouldn’t have minded Bradley Cooper winning Best Supporting Actor. American Hustle even had a chance at Best Picture and Best Director, as the Academy generally loves David O. Russell. Jennifer Lawrence also had a legitimate chance of upsetting Lupita Nyong’o. But none of these things happened. In a weaker year, these two movies would have dominated the Oscars. But in such a strong year, Wolf was too polarizing and Hustle too bland. Dicaprio must be shocked that The Great Gatsby won 2 Oscars while Wolf won none.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis is snubbed:
This is a true tragedy. In my opinion, Llewyn Davis was the only movie that could hold a candle to 12 Years. It was smart, sad, funny, interesting. Oscar Issac was truly phenomenal as the title character, a folk singer down on his luck. As I mentioned above, Issac inserts some essential humanity into this truly bad person. Without this humanity, the audience would feel no sympathy for Llewyn Davis. But instead, we spend the whole movie rooting for him, even as he takes advantage of people and criticizes his fellow performers. Issac is supported by stellar showings from Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and the amazing John Goodman (how he has not even been nominated for an Oscar, much less won one, is beyond me. He must have deserved to win for playing the immortal Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, another Cohen brothers’ classic). The cinematography is brilliant, creating a depressed atmosphere. And of course the score is superb. Issac not only sings his own songs, he sings them live. Overall, this was an outstanding film, which had very interesting things to say about the futility of being an artist, and whether creating art actually fulfills people. This is my favorite Cohen brothers’ movie, and that is saying something.
And one more: Ellen was funny!
I know, shocking! A funny awards show host host! The only other Oscars I’ve watched a ton of is last year’s, and Seth MacFarlane was just not funny. I don’t like his work in general… Actually, I hate it (I’m sure he’s a nice guy though!). So that was bad. But Ellen was good! The pizza bit was good, the selfie was funny though manufactured, and her other jokes were good. She was by turns self-depricating and self-promoting with her trademark sense of irony. Good job, girl.
Hopefully we get half as good a movie year in 2014. Happy movies!