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So we are less than a week away from the Oscar ceremony, so I now feel like it’s my turn to chime in on what I think the best films in the major categories were and who should win.

I did this last year and felt pretty good about my choices. In hindsight, the only change I would make is that I wish I listed The Invisible War in both the Best Documentary Feature and Best Picture categories because the more I think about it as a film and the impact it has had, it should have merited more consideration. I think it’s a stronger film than Searching for Sugar Man, which is still a fantastic film.

Let’s do this:

Best Picture

oscars - 12 yearsThe Act of Killing
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
American Hustle
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Frances Ha
Gravity
Her
Inside Llewyn Davis
12 Years a Slave* (winner)
Upstream Color

I listed 10 films instead of the nine that the Academy nominated because I felt that these 10 represented the best films of the year, although there were plenty that could have slid into contention. I’ve try to make it painfully obvious that 12 Years a Slave is the best film of the year. From top to bottom, it is lush with fantastic acting and technical merit. Steve McQueen, whose two previous feature films were equally good, is at the top of his game here. As is typical, the Academy chose bigger studio fare over edgier films. The Act of Killing is a film that equals the power of 12 Years a Slave and I find it ridiculous that the Academy didn’t give it consideration in this category. Chicken shits. Maybe if Harvey Weinstein had been pushing it, it would have ended up with the nod. Gravity is a film that I struggled with, moving it off and keeping it on this list repeatedly. Ultimately, I decided it deserved a spot. I think Alfonso Cuarón makes really fantastic films (I think Children of Men is criminally underrated), but ultimately it had too much of a Titanic-in-space feel to it to have me slot it in the top spot. The effects are insanely mesmerizing, though, which is something Cuarón is very good at handling as a director (once again, see Children of Men).  I still can’t believe that the Coen BrothersInside Llewyn Davis was essentially shut out. What a joke. This film can easily be seen as a companion piece to the Best Picture-nominated A Serious Man and Oscar Issac‘s lead performance is simply stunning. Upstream Color is a film that would likely put off 9 of every 10 viewers, so it’s no surprise that it was not nominated for the Oscar. I would argue it is the most inventive film of the year and another triumph for writer/director/actor Shane Carruth who is joined as ably by Amy Seimetz.

Best Director

oscars - 12 years mcqueen

Shane CarruthUpstream Color
Joel & Ethan Coen – Inside Llewyn Davis
Alfonso Cuarón –  Gravity
Steve McQueen12 Years a Slave* (winner)
Joshua Oppenheimer - The Act of Killing* (winner)

As stated above, McQueen brought his A-game to 12 Years a Slave. This film is to slavery films what Schindler’s List is to Holocaust films. It’s that important and McQueen is a large part of that. Some say he is a sadist, that he revels in the pain that his films portray. I don’t agree with that. While his films do depict a tremendous amount of pain, they do so with a distance that allows the viewer to see these acts and reflect on their heinousness and how they apply to the world at large rather than situating the viewer in the position to view the film just to watch them squirm. McQueen gives it to us raw, but trusts us sort out what we see. I appreciate that. I can’t speak highly enough of Joshua Oppenheimer‘s work on The Act of Killing. It is a film that will forever stick with me and the effort and extent to which he went to create this film is just astounding. This is a film that enlightens, sickens and never redeems, which is an important lesson since life is often reflects this same pattern. That this film is a documentary is all the more amazing. Oppenheimer and co-producers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris (two of the finest documentarians in the history of the genre) did an AMA on reddit just yesterday which is chock full of worthy insights about the film. Check it out, here. They do a far better job at describing the film and its virtues.

Best Actress

blue-warmest-color

oscars - cate

Amy AdamsAmerican Hustle
Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine* (winner – tie)
Adèle Exarchopoulos - Blue Is the Warmest Color* (winner – tie)
Greta Gerwig - Frances Ha
Brie LarsonShort Term 12

This, to me, was the hardest category to pick a winner. All five of the amazing women I would have nominated knocked their roles out of the park and each of them are deserving of an Oscar for their performances. Blanchett absolutely stunned me in Blue Jasmine, but then again, she does this even in roles like hers in The Shipping News (a shitty film to be sure, but damn she was solid). She is an equal to the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis. Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (RIP), all chameleons in the roles they choose/chose. Exarchopolous blew me away in Blue Is the Warmest Color, the 3-hour tale of Adele’s maturation and metamorphosis from youth to adult. The range that Exarchopolous is able to achieve in the role is truly noteworthy and I can’t wait to see more from her. Just fantastic. Brie Larson actually received my vote for the Independent Spirit Awards for her role as troubled teen facility manager Grace. She, like Exarchopolous, are throwbacks to Hollywood’s Golden Age of acting, able to convey so much emotion without speaking a single word, just by using her eyes and gestures. After cutting her teeth in Showtime’s The United States of Tara, I knew we would see great things from her. Greta Gerwig is quickly becoming one of my favorite people to watch on film. Her collaboration with Noah Baumbach in Frances Ha is just the jumping off point for many people who may not have been exposed to her earlier work in the “mumblecore” arena in works by Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers as well as in Whit Stillman‘s fantastic Damsels in DistressAmy Adams is well past getting her Oscar. She’s been in the unfortunate position the last few years to be up against Hollywood darlings like Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett and co-actress in The FighterMelissa Leo. Her day will come and hopefully, it will come soon. She is spot-on in everything she does.

Best Actor

oscars - chiwetel

Chiwetel Ejiofor12 Years a Slave* (winner)
Oscar IsaacInside Llewyn Davis
Matthew McConaughey Dallas Buyers Club
Joaquin Phoenix - Her
Tye Sheridan Mud

While not as strong of a class of performances as the women, these five performances were quite incredible. McConaughey is a lock to win the Oscar and he was truly outstanding in Dallas Buyers Club (his best since Dazed & Confused), but I truly think this award goes to Chiwetel Ejiofor for his role as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. I already said it’s the best film of the year and Ejiofor‘s performance is a large reason as to why. A strong, measured approach, Ejiofor embodies the struggle that Northup had to go trough making it visceral. Two scenes absolutely broke me while watching this – the hanging scene (if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about) and when he finally gives over, singing the song to honor the fallen slave in the field. These are the two most powerful scenes in film this year, and plenty of the others come from Ejiofor’s castmates. I’ve mentioned it before, but Oscar Isaac was completely robbed for Inside Llewyn Davis. Playing another Coen Brothers lovable loser, Oscar‘s performance transcended the film and left one of the more lasting impressions for me this year. It’s unfortunate that Jeff NicholsMud has been so overlooked this year and in that same vein, that Tye Sheridan has gotten barely a whisper of praise for his performamce. Self-assured to the point you’d think he’s been acting for years, Sheridan had only acted in one film prior to Mud and that was the exquisite Tree of Life (directed by the one and only Terrence Malick). I expect great things from in the future as he has six new projects lined up or in some form of production. With the arrival of Her, I think many people can agree that we are happy that the supposed rap career of Joaquin Phoenix was a hoax. A sublime film and an equally sublime performance, it’s easy to see why Phoenix is one of the most exciting actors working.

Best Supporting Actress

oscars - lupita

Sally HawkinsBlue Jasmine
Daniella Kertesz - World War Z
Rooney Mara - Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Lupita Nyong’o - 12 Years a Slave* (winner)
June SquibbNebraska
Kristin Scott ThomasOnly God Forgives

This is a category that I literally could not whittle down to five nominees, so suck it, Academy. I would have nominated six women. That Sally Hawkins was not overshadowed by Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine should be a testament to how strong her performance really is. She holds her own and that is no small feat. A broken record, I know, but Lupita Nyong’o takes the trophy home in this category. As Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, she personifies the different dangers that female slaves, especially those favored by their white owners, faced – rape, torture and drawing the ire of the white mistresses. I was completely blown away by her. She is currently locked in a dogfight with Hollywood “it girl” Jennifer Lawrence for the Oscar, but truth be told, Lawrence‘s performance doesn’t hold a candle to any of the six I’ve mentioned here. Perhaps the biggest surprise here might be Daniella Kertesz. Her ballsy, hard-as-nails Israeli soldier in World War Z was one of the few bright spots of a totally uneven and often times silly movie. I could have watched a film solely about her character Segen. June Squibb made me laugh so damn hard during Nebraska and she completely deserves this nomination. Kristin Scott-Thomas goes full Don Logan is this film which was quite polarizing for the few who saw it. All the same, much fun to see her pull off a gangster. Rooney Mara is starting to show off her chops and I believe that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is her coming out party. She did well with the Lisbeth Salander role, but she had another film to base it off of. Her we see her full potential and I look forward to seeing more from her.

Best Supporting Actor

oscars - fassbender

Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
Casey Affleck – Out of the Furnace
Michael Fassbender12 Years a Slave* (winner)
Ryan GoslingThe Place Beyond the Pines
Jared Leto - Dallas Buyers Club

FASSBENDER. It’s hard to say how much I enjoy watching this man work. As deplorable as his character is in 12 Years a Slave, he crafts one of the great villains this year. Immersive, Fassbender continues to amaze in every role he undertakes. GET THIS MAN AN OSCAR. Casey Affleck continues his triumphs as he chooses grittier roles. While the film may have been uneven, his turn was a bright spot. Barkhad Abdi in his first film role wows as the chief pirate trying to overtake the ship in Captain Phillips. I thought he would be a frontrunner for this award, but everyone knows Jared Leto has this one sewn up. It’s hard to believe Jordan Catalano will be an Oscar-winner. I must admit he is better than I thought he could be, but I think there is something to be said for the many transgendered actors out there not having a shot at the role. Ryan Gosling continues his ascent by delivering a nuanced performance as the motorcycle-riding bank robber trying to do well my his baby son in The Place Beyond the Pines. This was an overlooked performance (and film, in fact) due to its early release date last April. Oscar voters have short memories, apparently. Shame, really.

Best Documentary

oscars - act of killingThe Act of Killing
Blackfish
Medora
Stories We Tell
Bending Steel

I’m not sure if it’s my age or what, but the older I get the more documentaries I watch. This is an area of film that is budding with possibility and so exciting to watch. My list of films in this category differs completely from the Academy’s. No surprise. I’ve spoken about The Act of Killing ad nauseum here, so I won’t expound on it much more. It is one of the two best films of the year and it deserves any and all accolades it gets and plenty of those that other films steal away from it. That Blackfish got no Oscar nod is one of the great tragedies of the year. The film, which details the life of killer whale Tilikum at SeaWorld (who has killed three people, including two trainers), sheds light on animals in captivity and how wrong it is. Incredibly gripping and in almost any other year, this would get my vote for the win. Sarah Polley‘s Stories We Tell is also another notable Academy Award nominee omission that deserves great praise. A story centered around the mystery of who is really the father of the director (also an accomplished actress – see Atom Egoyan‘s magnificent The Sweet Hereafter as well as Hal Hartley‘s pertinent No Such Thing). This gripping story filmed with the help of her family and the man who she thought was her father for 20 years, one can’t help but to be swept up in the tale’s twists and turns. This film is a phenomenal achievement. Medora is simply fantastic. On the surface, it’s about a struggling high school basketball team in small town Indiana, but it’s really a metaphor for the loss of small town America. Davy Rothbart and Andrew Cohn did for high school basketball what Undefeated did for high school football. It’s a shame it didn’t grab the same amount of buzz that Undefeated did. Bending Steel is a film that likely few have seen. It is still touring on the festival circuit awaiting distribution. It is about Chris “Wonder” Schoeck, an introverted personal trainer, and his quest to become an Oldetime Strongman, bending steel bars, horseshoes, tearing decks of cards, etc. A really engaging character piece about the literal triumph of man versus the elements. I can’t speak highly enough of it.

Best Original Screenplay

oscars - upstream color Andrew BujalskiComputer Chess
Noah Baumbach & Greta GerwigFrances Ha
Spike JonzeHer
Ethan & Joel CoenInside Llewyn Davis
Shane CarruthUpstream Color* (winner)

When I think original screenplay, I look for thought-provoking material that pushes the boundaries of what we expect from story. It is rare that we see the really original films nominated in this category and it’s a shame. We all know that Hollywood really is a mechanism to bring in money, so the truly original films have to find a niche audience if they want to succeed, which is a shame. I’m not saying that more conventional films can’t have great screenplays, because they can. But too often are these awards handed out for lackluster films that do not innovate in the way the story is told or the situations that the characters are positioned. I mean, fucking Gladiator was nominated in this category. How good was that script really? Recycled from Spartacus with a few changes and there you go. Boo, hiss. Let’s not forget Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Memento neither one scored this award, and who can argue that those are two of the most orignal, best executed scripts of the last 25 years? So, Upstream Color to me was the clear winner in this category. It is like nothing I’ve ever seen and is a film that kept me thinking for weeks after seeing it. To synopsize it is nearly impossible. It involves a mind control powder taken from worms that is used to bilk people out of their money. Check it out on Netflix. It will blow your mind. Her is such an inventive turn for a romantic comedy/quasi-science fiction film. Spike Jonze may well win the Oscar in this category and he would get my vote in that group of nominees. Computer Chess is another film that unfortunately flew under the radar for most folks. Rare is the movie that really captures the essence of the 80s as well as this film does. From its photography to its premise (creating computer chess programs in archais computer languages to battle against each other), this film is the 80s personified. And Frances Ha‘s brilliance lies in its dialogue, captured so beautifully by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. This is great set of films, most of which too few people have seen.

Best Adapted Screenplay

oscars - 12 years poster

Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope - Philomena
Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Richard LinklaterBefore Midnight
Abdellatif Kechiche & Ghalia LacroixBlue Is the Warmest Color
John Ridley12 Years a Slave* (winner)
Terence Winter – The Wolf of Wall Street

The process of adaptation can’t be easy. Usually the source material is far more expansive than one film can handle, so whittling it down to make a coherent story usually takes some license. However, when it works it can be magical. 12 Years a Slave fits this bill as I think John Ridley‘s script gives us the highest highs and the lowest lows of Solomon Northup’s journey. I was quite surprised by Philomena, I must admit. This is a film that is pure Oscar bait and it’s no wonder that Harvey Weinstein is pushing it out so hard, certainly his forte. But the way Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope fashioned the story caught me by surprise. I was entranced the entire time and wasn’t expecting that. I will say that The Magdalene Sisters is a far better film on the same subject, but Philomena is still very good. Blue Is the Warmest Color is a tremendous feat and worth every minute of the heartbreak and ebullient love. A finely crafted screenplay and worthy of a nod. Terence Winter‘s script for The Wolf of Wall St. is cheeky and smug and very representative of its protagonist, Jordan Belfort. Before Midnight, the third film in the collab between Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater, is just as endearing as the other two, and I find it hard to believe that I would ever have said that about any of them.

Best Cinematography

oscars - gravityShane Carruth - Upstream Color
Benoît Debie – Spring Breakers
Emmanuel LubezkiGravity* (winner)
Adam StoneMud
Bradford YoungAin’t Them Bodies Saints

This is a category that can literally make a mediocre film shine. Spring Breakers fits this bill. A tale of youth gone wild on Spring Break in Florida is average at best with an overinflated sense of edge by having two former Disney princesses (Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez) booze and fuck and do drugs while hanging out with gangsters. However, Benoît Debie‘s photography makes this a far more watchable film. Capturing the colors and the brightness of Florida, Debie elevates this film to heights that it couldn’t have reached without it. It will be no shock when Emmanuel Lubezki finally hoists the Oscar on Sunday. Frankly, he deserved it for both Children of Men and The Tree of Life, but here he will at last taste victory. Almost shot entirely in a space setting, he is able to catch every little detail and add lushness to a landscape of vast emptiness. No small feat. Bradford Young I would compare to Ben Richardson, whose photography in Beasts of the Southern Wild was last year’s best. An up-and-comer, I expect great things. Adam Stone is a wild card here, but his ability to capture the southern river culture in Mud was incredible. And once again, I can’t speak highly enough of Shane Carruth‘s work in Upstream Color. From the palette he used to the angles of the shots, the photography was fully integrated into the film creating this fully formed organism acting like the drug culled from the worms in the film – invading you and taking over your being. This film is so damn good. Watch it, people.

So there you have it, a little long-winded, but those are my picks for the major categories at the Oscars. It’s really a shame that I can’t vote for them. I saw all but 5 films out of everything nominated for an Oscar. Chances are I would be a better judge of what should win than say…Tom Cruise, right? Oh well. If I got to vote, I’d still find something to bitch about. Agree or not with my picks, 2013 offered some truly amazing films and plenty of shitty ones.