Oscar Preview 2014 – Best Director and Best Picture

By D.G. McCabe

Here we go with the last two categories – Best Director and Best Picture.

Best Director

1. Alfonso Cuarón – Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón takes a fairly standard plot and uses innovative shots and an extraordinary setting to create a masterpiece.  The camera work is just one aspect of the skill needed in this one, since handling fewer actors for longer periods can be more difficult than managing many actors over shorter periods.

2. Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave

While Cuarón uses innovative methods to tell a familiar survival story, McQueen uses the established conventions of European cinema to tell a groundbreaking story.  McQueen doesn’t really push the creative envelope as much as Cuarón, and that’s why he will finish a close second.

3. David O. Russell – American Hustle

Russell is quickly establishing himself as the premier actor’s director in Hollywood.  He gets great performances out of his entire cast in American Hustle and, by now, I’m sure a-listers are lining up to work with him.  The construction of the film just isn’t up there with the top two, however.

4. Alexander Payne – Nebraska

Payne is another quickly emerging Hollywood auteur, and Nebraska continues a streak of well-shot, poignant, family dramas.  A solid effort from an up and coming director just doesn’t have the juice to win this year.

5. Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street

If Goodfellas (1990), Raging Bull (1980), Taxi Driver (1976), Gangs of New York (2002), and Mean Streets (1973) can’t get Scorsese a Best Director statue, this one certainly won’t either.

Best Picture

Here’s the top of the heap – the category that everyone is looking forward to and debating.  To be honest it’s a two horse race – but what a two horse race!

1. 12 Years a Slave

I had to separate in my mind the movie that I think is going to win from the movie that probably should win.  I don’t want to take anything away from 12 Years a Slave – it is one of the best four or five movies of the last ten years.  So is #2 on this list, however, which I felt was more innovative from a technical standpoint and therefore potentially more influential.  One has to take into consideration who is voting – a great portrayal of historical trauma is going to beat a genre thriller every time in the Academy’s mind.

2. Gravity

12 Years a Slave should be required viewing for anyone who wants to understand American history – and it will win on Sunday night because of that.  Gravity is a more impressive artistic achievement.  Ultimately, both these films will be watched and re-watched for years to come, but Gravity pushes the envelope of technical achievement in the most technically difficult genre – thrillers.  It’s a shame they both can’t win, as they are easily better than many of the best picture winners from recent years.

3. American Hustle

Anyone who thinks American Hustle can win is banking on a concept that the heavyweights will knock each other out.  It has happened before in Oscar history.  Arguably Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson’s greatest performances canceled each other out in 1974, allowing Art Carney to win.  American Hustle has gotten a lot of support from the Acting Branch as its SAG victory suggests.  It won’t happen – American Hustle is a very good movie, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave are great movies.  There’s a clear difference, and the Acting Branch can differentiate between great ensemble performance and great films in general.

4. Dallas Buyer’s Club

Like American Hustle, this one has strong performances.  Like 12 Years a Slave, it deals with historically traumatic social issues.  Unlike either of those movies, it feels disjointed and unfocused at times.

5. Nebraska

Rounding out our “this is all the nominees there should be” segment is Nebraska.  It is hard to argue against including it, but harder to argue that it really has that extra oomph to pull off an upset.

6. Captain Phillips

This one has a lot to commend it for, it is accurate and intense.  The Academy didn’t really like it though, as noted by Tom Hanks being left out of the Best Lead Actor race.

7. Her

This one had the potential for heavyweight status on Oscar night, but something just doesn’t feel right about it.  Great timely concept, check.  Up and coming director, check.  A-list performances, check.  Timely subject matter, check.  Resonated with audiences, meh, not so much.

8. Philomena

I can’t really comment on this film, beyond the fact that it doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy.  It may just another good film that gets nominated because the Academy likes it and we need 9 nominees for some reason.

9. The Wolf of Wall Street

Opening up the field to nine movies virtually guarantees that whatever movie Scorsese makes that year will get nominated.  The Wolf of Wall Street seems a bit too much like a remake of Casino set on Wall Street.  I haven’t seen it, so I can’t confirm that.  Based on mixed reviews and people I know who have seen it though,  I can tell you that if we had 8 nominees, it wouldn’t make the cut.

That’s it for Oscar Preview week!  Enjoy the ceremony on Sunday Night!

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe