And the Oscar (probably) goes to...
And the Oscar (probably) goes to…

2013 was an interesting year for movies and thanks to the belatedness of the Academy Awards ceremony we’re still talking about it well into 2014.

The nine films up for Best Picture are a solid lot and closely mirror my own personal Top 10 of 2013 (I would have snuck in “Fruitvale Station” and then swapped out “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Philomena” for “Short Term 12” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” but the gulf between those movies isn’t all that great so I’m cool with what we’ve got).

It’s setting up to be a “share the wealth” year at the Oscars with no single movie dominating the awards and a fair amount of suspense with few, if any, locks in any of the major categories.

But even though the crystal ball is a little cloudy this year, I will do my best to handicap the field and let you know what to expect when it all goes down on Sunday, March 2.

An Honor Just To Be Nominated –  “Nebraska” and “Philomena”: These two smaller, art-house films are warm and ultimately uplifting tales that focus on an elderly character facing up to the past and searching for some kind of closure. These movies snagged acting nominations for their venerable leads (Bruce Dern for “Nebraska” and Judi Dench for “Philomena”) but don’t pack enough of a punch to knock off any of the favorites. A nomination counts as a win for these movies.

We Have to Nominate It or We Will Look Silly When It Wins For Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor – “Dallas Buyers Club”: This is a decent, but flawed “issue movie” about the AIDS crisis that rides on the backs of two outstanding performances. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto began racking up awards and momentum built for this movie as the two became the prohibitive favorites in their respective categories (although either could easily get upset by an actor from “12 Years a Slave”). The movie slipped in thanks to this momentum. I am a full-fledged banner carrier for the “McConaissance” but even the powers of the Shirtless-One aren’t enough to push “Dallas Buyers Club” to the top.

Too Much Baggage – “The Wolf of Wall Street”: The non-controversy surrounding this movie is hurting its chances more than its actual problem in that it is about 45 minutes too long. The accusation that “The Wolf of Wall Street” celebrates and condones the lifestyle of excess of scumbag stockbrokers is more than a little misguided. Martin Scorsese has spent his entire career wading into the stagnant swamps of society and making us uncomfortable by unapologetically shoving what he finds there in our faces. “The Wolf of Wall Street” doesn’t glorify greed any more than “Goodfellas” glorified organized crime, “Taxi Driver” glorified vigilantism, or “Gangs of New York” glorified handlebar mustaches. This movie already surprised by snagging more nominations than expected, but the pearl-clutching regarding the film’s subject matter will keep it out of the victory lane.

Should Probably Have a Better Chance Than It Does – “Captain Phillips” and “Her”: I liked both of these movies quite a bit and if I ran the world these movies would be at least in the conversation for Best Picture Winner as opposed to just afterthoughts. “Captain Phillips” takes an exciting, ripped-from-the-headlines story and the best Tom Hanks performance in years and delivers a movie that is as thoughtful as it is thrilling. “Her” might wind up being the most prescient movie of the year as it details a man living in the near future falling in love with his computer’s artificially intelligent operating system. It effortlessly and engrossingly wrestles with BIG TIME questions, like our relationship with technology and issues of identity. But when you consider that most of the aged Academy voters are still terrified of email, it will probably just be rewarded with a Best Original Screenplay award. That’s thin praise for what is in my opinion the second-best movie of the year.

The Contenders – “American Hustle,” “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave”: The Best Picture Award is essentially a three-way race and at this point, I wouldn’t be shocked to see any of these movies come away with the prize. “American Hustle” is a frantic romp, packed to the gills with great performances, but its convoluted plot may turn some voters off. “Gravity” is the box-office champ and a technological wonder.

I’d like to take a second here to make a case for Sandra Bullock as Best Actress, which is a sentence that falls on the List of Things I Thought I’d Never Say just behind “Sure I’ll drink that turpentine.” The favorite, Cate Blanchett does an amazing job, but she’s playing a ridiculous cartoon character in an overrated movie. What Bullock presents on screen is just a shade above adequate, but when you consider that she did all that while strapped into all manner of harnesses while performing intricately choreographed movements with a rotating camera to sell the effect of weightlessness, then the degree of difficulty goes up tenfold.

What may hurt “Gravity” are the voters who saw the movie at home and not in 3D at the theater where the “Holy crap! I’m in space!” impact is in full effect. Regardless, Alfonso Cuaron will probably snag Best Director for pulling off one of the greatest technological achievements in motion picture history.

That leaves “12 Years a Slave” as the prohibitive favorite, which is fine by me because I consider it to be the best picture of the year and maybe the most important movie of the past 20 years. This movie is the most frank and straightforward portrayal of the greatest underlying and under-addressed shame in American History. It is powerful, unflinching, and finely acted. It is a testament to the strength of the other films in the field that “12 Years a Slave” is not the runaway favorite.

At any rate, it is shaping up to be one of the most suspenseful Oscar nights in recent memory which hopefully will make it possible to stay conscious for the entire show. Stay tuned!

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