These were my Oscar picks from last year. They were not predictions about who would actually win because the whole awards contest still has about as much substance as a junior high student council election. Too much maneuvering behind the scenes for my taste. Similarly, it should not depend on the popularity and likeability of the actors or the political correctness of the films.My picks are based on the excellence of the products in and of themselves. Only three performances really stood out to me last year. Unfortunately, two of the best are in competition with each other.
In the category for Best Actor, I was blown away by Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln:
Day-Lewis embodies Lincoln’s humility in his eyes and face, a battlefield of sorts reflecting the blood and carnage that are a daily feature of those final months of the war. And there is his walk. It is slow and almost hesitant, as weary as a soldier limping home from battle.
But Joaquin Phoenix also was riveting in The Master.
There is an unspoken eloquence in the haunted eyes and furrowed brow, the way he walks with sunken chest and arms hooked behind his back, like a broken-winged crow pacing the pavement for that forsaken crumb or glittery wrapper. I will give the edge to Daniel Day-Lewis because it is more difficult to make goodness compelling than it is evil, as John Milton noted when he penned Paradise Lost.
The third performance that caught my eye was that of Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables, nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
Anne Hathaway wrings the longing and betrayal out of the lyrics in her vocal lament, “I Dreamed a Dream,” recounting her poignant tale, memories “when men were kind,” before “the tigers came at night” to “turn her dream to shame.”
In the Best Actress category, no one performance was an immediate standout. I pick Naomi Watts' performance in The Impossible, as the mother who survives the 2004 tsunami in South Asia, mainly because she is able to put such humanity into her character. (Personally, I was not that impressed with Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in Silver Linings Playbook, which I think was overrated and dependent on cheerleading by producer Harvey Weinstein. I must confess I have not yet worked myself up to seeing Armour, the French film about slow death and degeneration that features 86-year-old Emmanuelle Riva. If I’m going to see that, I at least want the light touch of say, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or 2013’s Quartet.)
I am going completely off the reservation for my Best Supporting Actor pick. The actual nominees had solid but not Oscar worthy performances in my mind. I would instead pick Ewan McGregor, who was sadly not even nominated for his role as the father in The Impossible. Almost all the real nominees play eccentrics with clever lines and borderline personality disorders. How much more difficult to play a straightforward decent human being in a memorable way? That is exactly what McGregor does in his role.
I believe the only two films I awarded five drum rating in 2012 were Les Miserables and Lincoln.
Les Miserables has the lyrical beauty of an opera, but with a cleaner, more compelling narrative and characters of unusual complexity. It is sad that so few films today ask what it means to be human, or explore our fleeting happiness and fragile dreams as this film does.
However, I give the edge to Lincoln. Steven Spielberg again reminds us that one purpose of great drama is to inspire as well as delight. His film does both. I can’t promise you’ll be a better person after watching this near perfect film. But you’ll want to be. And that is saying a lot.