Kathy's Oscar Picks, February 2014

Different Drummer has never been one to follow the herd, so my Oscar picks, as I noted last year, are not predictions. I will not, like the malleable Academy members, be influenced by the likeability of the actors, the politically correct social causes their films espouse, nor the predictable pack of gushing or scornful critics who seem to care more about what others think of them than making sound and independent judgments.  My picks are based on the excellence of the films and actors in themselves.

Five performances stand out to me, and again, two of them are in competition with each other.

Best Actor

Bruce Dern is excellent as an old, taciturn curmudgeon who vows to get to Lincoln, Nebraska (Almost Classic Meatloaf), to pick up his million dollar promised “prize,” even if he has to walk there all the way from Billings, Montana.  We don’t want to care about him, but we do. His futile quest for the prize echoes Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman’s longing for a past that lives up to his self-illusions. Despite or perhaps because of his almost mute stubbornness, Dern brings a spare dignity to this role, as austere as the high plains that surround him.

But I will have to give the edge to Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club (Barbecued Baby Back Ribs), who shed 45 pounds to inhabit the body of Ron Woodroof, a rail thin sex and substance abuser.  What really resonates, though, is that strange combination of inner grit masked in a bigger than life Texas con man charm, his authentic soft accent as sweet and pure as bourbon and branch water. 

We see shades of the late and great Paul Newman in McConaughey’s existential doomed rebel, echoes of Newman’s “H movies ­– The Hustler, Hud, and Hombre” as Roger Ebert dubbed them.  And there is much of Newman’s Cool Hand Luke(Easy Deviled Eggs) about MConaughey’s Ron Woodroof as well. 

And just like Newman’s Luke, the dying Ron Woodroof shows us that if you play your cards right, “Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”

Best Actress

August: Osage County (Blackened Catfish) is as harsh and unforgiving as the vast Oklahoma plains from which the characters arise. Chief among them is Meryl Streep’s matriarch, Violet Weston.  And as she does with her daughters, Meryl Streep holds the audience in bondage as well.  The stage is hers, and she is in total control, even if she’s swaying in a drug-induced dance-step or teetering around without her well-coiffed wig, her chemo-ravaged hair fully on display.

Best Supporting Actor

Hands down it is Barkhad Abdi, a Somali-American actor who made his debut in Captain Phillips (Sweet Somali Cake), where he plays Muse, a ship hijacker and pirate leader.  And what a debut it is!  As the leader of the rag tag band, Barkhad Abdi is a skeletal figure whose vaulting ambition overshadows his physical form. We see him struggling with the corrupt hierarchy of the Somali kidnapping ring, how the actual kidnappers are almost as much victims of the scheme as those they abduct.

Muse's boat is just a wooden skiff, but when he steps on board the Maersh Alabama, he immediately assumes equal stature with Phillips.  And just in case that fact is not clear to Phillips, Muse says succinctly, "I'm the captain now."

Best Supporting Actress

Anonymous, the Academy Awards member who made headlines recently, would beg to differ with this choice, as well as my pick of Meryl Streep for Best Actress.

For Best Supporting Actress I choose Julia Roberts, who plays Meryl Streep’s daughter Barbara, in August: Osage County.  Roberts really comes into her own in a fray with her mother that is choreographed like a violent ballet. The triumphant Julie Roberts, who croaks in baritone, “I’m running things now,” as she wrestles the bottle of pills from her mother, permanently erases any romantic comedy acting limitations falsely attached to her.  In a real sense, that jarring statement is true of the actors as well. 

It’s not just the character Barbara who is in control, we now realize, but Julia Roberts, the actress. She holds the stage with the legendary Meryl Streep as an equal demanding our respect. 

We again see Julia Roberts take center stage in another terrific scene.  If the funeral dinner is a violent ballet, then the fish lunch the next day is an opera, even if a profane one.  And just like an opera, it is seeped in several levels of irony.

Best Picture

The film I see as having the most merit this year, unfortunately, did not even get a nomination.  That would be August: Osage County. My reasons for picking this unnominated film also indicate some equal disdain for those who did get the nod

In Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (Blue Lagoon Cocktail) the neurotic New Yorker deconstructs Tennesse Williams, producing an overrated homage to dysfunctional narcissists, Allen himself being the chief among them

And Different Drummer also fails to join in the chorus of praise for American Hustle (Four Soup-er Dips from the 70s), instead seeing it as a reflection of Hollywood itself ­– its crass showmanship, self-obsession, and vulgar superficiality.

I damn them with faint praise and even contempt because I see them for what they are – contrived freak shows whose dark comedy seems both artificial and inauthentic.

August: Osage County has none of that.  These people are all too real.  In fact, that is the reason so many critics feel uncomfortable in this family war zone that takes no prisoners.  They would prefer the contrived happy endings that ensure Oscar gold – or it is brass?–a supremely significant symbol if so.  Popcorn movies with just enough edginess to reassure film critics of their literary depth….

But, if I have to choose from the real nominees, I am torn between Captain Phillips and Nebraska.  Captain Phillips demonstrates those rare occasions in film when everything comes together to create near perfection.  Because it does not try too hard to please us with Hollywood's standard visual and verbal excess, that's exactly what happens in this retelling of the 2009 hijacking of a U.S. container ship off the Somali coast. Some of the finest films in recent history, such as Lincoln (Mary Todd Lincoln Sugar Cookies)  or The King's Speech (Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding) have been based on real people and events.

Of course, Captain Richard Phillips is certainly not a president or king, but he is, nonetheless, a true hero.  He shares their very human qualities. What endeared us to Daniel Day-Lewis' portrait of Lincoln – his tender indulgence as a father or his homespun humor – are qualities of Lincoln as a man, not as the U.S. President.  Just as in The King's Speech when the stammering monarch stripped of his kingly robes made Colin Frith's performance so endearing, Tom Hanks brings an everyman core of decency to Captain Phillips that resonates with the audience. It is much more profound than any heroic pyrotechnics we have come to expect in our cinema.

My Better Half is rooting for Nebraska, which he insists has a wider scope.  And there is a lot to be said for this fine film as well.

The austere high plains come across as an almost claustrophobic vastness, captured so well in the muted tones of black and white film.  And when director Alexander Payne is courageous enough to lift his comic mask to show us true inner despair or hidden tenderness, we are reminded of classics like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath that featured a young Henry Fonda almost unrecognizable except for that flat voice that projected emotions while denying them. 

If I have to choose, I’ll go with Nebraska, but don’t hold me to it.

Au Contraire:  Some I Didn’t Pick and Why

Gravity (White Russian Milkshake)

While everyone else is busy goggling at the special effects, oohing and ahhing in a groupthink chorus that recalls George Orwell’s 1984, some of us want more than eye candy.

American Hustle (Four Soup-er Dips from the 70s)

I agree with fellow outlier critic Cameron Meir: “Writer-director David O. Russell has fashioned a beautiful, cinematic junk heap and apparently conned the New York Film Critics Circle into thinking it’s a masterpiece.”

Blue Jasmine (Blue Lagoon Cocktail) 

The film is so filled with thoroughly vapid and unlikeable characters, I was beginning to think I had overrated A Streetcar Named Desire, the Tennessee Williams play it so transparently, blatantly, and self-consciously mimics.

Now I realize Blue Jasmine is just a poor imitation, a glittery rip off of a designer gown that should only impress those without taste or judgment.