A full rundown of my picks if I had an Oscar ballot
2013 was an unusually rich year for movies. I felt strongly about both my top ten choices of the year and the runners-up, and I still left off a ton of movies that I enjoyed completely and that I'd recommend to audiences. One of the things that is hardest for me to get my head around when contemplating the Oscars is the idea of picking one thing to represent the year in each of these categories.
Still, if I were told today that I had an Oscar ballot and I was asked to vote, the only way I could do it would be operating from pure gut feeling. I wouldn't worry about trying to predict anyone else's response. This was an annual exercise for Siskel and Ebert for years, and they always seemed to use the opportunity to champion what they felt were the underdogs of the nominations.
We'll run down every category here. If you want a list of all the nominees and in-depth writing about the entire race, you should be on In Contention, where Guy Lodge, Greg Ellwood, and Kris Tapley eat and breathe this stuff. What I'm doing here is what I imagine many Academy voters do… I'm going to run down the list and just pick what I pick, the thing that I think speaks the most to me about last year.
Best Actor In A Leading Role
Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Wolf Of Wall Street"
DiCaprio consistently uses his commercial clout to help big-canvass filmmakers get the financial support required to make these big movies. "The Wolf Of Wall Street" is just the latest example of him working with Martin Scorsese, but it's the most ferocious and vibrant things they've done together. It is an ugly performance, and by the end of the film, I think DiCaprio's done a fantastic job of showing us someone who is hollowed out by his life's work, a man who has become one simple act, selling things, at the expense of everything human, and he's done it in a way that feels both tragic and despicable.
This premise seems like there is a huge margin for error and a preposterously small margin for success, but Spike Jonze created something that speaks to the largest ideas in the world about how we relate to one another, using a storytelling device that could have been very silly. It is both genuine smart science-fiction world-building and big emotional metaphor, and it works on both levels in a very satisfying way. But the main reason my heart belongs to "Her"? It moved me. It landed hard, and I haven't been able to shake it since then.
Best Actress In A Leading Role
Amy Adams, "American Hustle"
This works on two levels. First, I think the role she plays in "Hustle" is the movie. Without her performance, none of it hangs together. She is ruthless, hungry, brittle, fragile, and completely intoxicatingly alive in the film. The way she uses her accent as a buffer between the real her and the world around her is brilliant, and the way she navigates the complicated and confounding relationships she has with the men in her life is brilliant chess playing. It also works for me to reward her for an astounding year overall. She's the first great Lois Lane, she is one of the reasons "Her" works so well, and she did this? She is unstoppable.
Alfonso Cuaron, "Gravity"
One of the scariest tightrope acts in the world has to be starting production on a film unsure if the technology to tell the story even exists. It is not often that you can see new film language being explored for the first time, especially not in some giant Hollywood rollercoaster ride, but Cuaron expanded the palette for everyone with the work he did here. Watching other directors lose their minds after seeing this should be all the argument anyone needs. This is significant, memorable work and it's time to recognize Cuaron for his almost ridiculous level of skill.
Best Screenplay Written Directly For The Screen
"Her," Spike Jonze
This is delicate work, and it is just as smart about both sides of the relationship, something that is uncommon in movies about relationships. Sam is a fascinating character, and once she starts evolving, there is such a great sense of sadness to the idea that she's going to grow out of the relationship that gave her the strength to doing that growing in the first place. Ted's gradual realization of his own needs and flaws is navigated expertly. Jonze has always had other writers in the mix before now, which makes this even more impressive. This is a very pure expression of his voice, and it turns out to be just as singular as you'd hope.
Best Screenplay Based On Material Previously Produced/Published
"Before Midnight," Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
Sure, they may work together to craft these scenes and these amazing tennis matches of dialogue and emotion, but that doesn't lessen the accomplishment. Someone I was talking to dismissed this by implying that it's "cheating" to have the actors be part of the process because it means you've somehow got some shortcut to great character writing. I wish it were that easy, but it's not and these three are part of something very special with this series of films. The reason they hit so hard and cut so deep is because Delpy and Hawke have an ownership of these characters that is innate by this point. They know what they're doing, and the audience benefits from that on every level.
Best Original Song
"Let It Go," "Frozen"
Because it is inside people. The moment I saw the big scene in the film with Princess Elsa creating her ice castle, I both knew they would end up doing this show on Broadway and that this was going to be the next iconic anthem for the studio, on the same level as any of the songs from the Menken/Ashman era. Yesterday I was at a park watching baseball practice for one of my sons, and there was a little girl playing right next to them. She sang this song roughly 5000 songs, and even though the only words she knew were, "Let it go, let it gooooooo, cause it's awesome/when you let it goooooo," she sang her little heart out, and that simple message of empowerment, that gorgeous melodic embrace of the ethos "Let your freak flag fly," has already become ubiquitous. Of course it wins.
Best Original Score
"Gravity," Steven Price
Steven Price had a little extra added challenge with his work on "Gravity" because for much of the movie, his score would stand in for any and all sound effects, a decision that made it urgent that his music tells the entire story of what's happening. Watching that first insane moment when the debris hits the space station, Price's music works in place of any sound effects, and it is huge and chilling and amazing. His work on "World's End" was pretty damn great, too, and I suspect this is just the first of many times he'll end up in this race.
Best Production Design
"Her," K.K. Barrett, Gene Serdena
Part of what makes this film so effective is the vision of the future that it offers. I want to believe that LA is going to become a better place to live instead of worse. I am so used to dystopian visions of the future that it feels almost revolutionary to show us a city that has cleaned up, that has embraced mass transit, and that offers up a very clean urban beauty that seems like the best possible version of what LA can be. It's just one of the many things the film does so very, very well.
"American Hustle," Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers
By all accounts, every single David O. Russell set is an exercise in organized chaos, and this one sounds like that's doubly true. Amy Adams would often play scenes both the accent and without, and then Russell would go through line by line to decide which take sold the moment better. Building performances like that must be maddening, but the "American Hustle" team did a fantastic job of making it all seem invisible.
Best Actress In A Supporting Role
Lupita Nyong'o, "12 Years A Slave"
There have been more conversations in the last year about the way Hollywood writes for women and the way they are represented on film, and Nyong'o's work seems to encapsulate the entire conversation at once. It is a remarkable expression of the way powerlessness impacts someone over time, and there is such beautiful horror to much of it that I can't imagine giving this to anyone else.