2013 was an unusually rich year for movies. I felt strongly about both my top ten choices of the year and the runners-up, and I still left off a ton of movies that I enjoyed completely and that I’d recommend to audiences. One of the things that is hardest for me to get my head around when contemplating the Oscars is the idea of picking one thing to represent the year in each of these categories.
Still, if I were told today that I had an Oscar ballot and I was asked to vote, the only way I could do it would be operating from pure gut feeling. I wouldn’t worry about trying to predict anyone else’s response. This was an annual exercise for Siskel and Ebert for years, and they always seemed to use the opportunity to champion what they felt were the underdogs of the nominations.
We’ll run down every category here. If you want a list of all the nominees and in-depth writing about the entire race, you should be on In Contention, where Guy Lodge, Greg Ellwood, and Kris Tapley eat and breathe this stuff. What I’m doing here is what I imagine many Academy voters do… I’m going to run down the list and just pick what I pick, the thing that I think speaks the most to me about last year.
Best Actor In A Leading Role
Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf Of Wall Street”
DiCaprio consistently uses his commercial clout to help big-canvass filmmakers get the financial support required to make these big movies. “The Wolf Of Wall Street” is just the latest example of him working with Martin Scorsese, but it’s the most ferocious and vibrant things they’ve done together. It is an ugly performance, and by the end of the film, I think DiCaprio’s done a fantastic job of showing us someone who is hollowed out by his life’s work, a man who has become one simple act, selling things, at the expense of everything human, and he’s done it in a way that feels both tragic and despicable.
This premise seems like there is a huge margin for error and a preposterously small margin for success, but Spike Jonze created something that speaks to the largest ideas in the world about how we relate to one another, using a storytelling device that could have been very silly. It is both genuine smart science-fiction world-building and big emotional metaphor, and it works on both levels in a very satisfying way. But the main reason my heart belongs to “Her”? It moved me. It landed hard, and I haven’t been able to shake it since then.
Best Actress In A Leading Role
Amy Adams, “American Hustle”
This works on two levels. First, I think the role she plays in “Hustle” is the movie. Without her performance, none of it hangs together. She is ruthless, hungry, brittle, fragile, and completely intoxicatingly alive in the film. The way she uses her accent as a buffer between the real her and the world around her is brilliant, and the way she navigates the complicated and confounding relationships she has with the men in her life is brilliant chess playing. It also works for me to reward her for an astounding year overall. She’s the first great Lois Lane, she is one of the reasons “Her” works so well, and she did this? She is unstoppable.
Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”
One of the scariest tightrope acts in the world has to be starting production on a film unsure if the technology to tell the story even exists. It is not often that you can see new film language being explored for the first time, especially not in some giant Hollywood rollercoaster ride, but Cuaron expanded the palette for everyone with the work he did here. Watching other directors lose their minds after seeing this should be all the argument anyone needs. This is significant, memorable work and it’s time to recognize Cuaron for his almost ridiculous level of skill.
Best Screenplay Written Directly For The Screen
“Her,” Spike Jonze
This is delicate work, and it is just as smart about both sides of the relationship, something that is uncommon in movies about relationships. Sam is a fascinating character, and once she starts evolving, there is such a great sense of sadness to the idea that she’s going to grow out of the relationship that gave her the strength to doing that growing in the first place. Ted’s gradual realization of his own needs and flaws is navigated expertly. Jonze has always had other writers in the mix before now, which makes this even more impressive. This is a very pure expression of his voice, and it turns out to be just as singular as you’d hope.
Best Screenplay Based On Material Previously Produced/Published
“Before Midnight,” Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
Sure, they may work together to craft these scenes and these amazing tennis matches of dialogue and emotion, but that doesn’t lessen the accomplishment. Someone I was talking to dismissed this by implying that it’s “cheating” to have the actors be part of the process because it means you’ve somehow got some shortcut to great character writing. I wish it were that easy, but it’s not and these three are part of something very special with this series of films. The reason they hit so hard and cut so deep is because Delpy and Hawke have an ownership of these characters that is innate by this point. They know what they’re doing, and the audience benefits from that on every level.
Best Original Song
“Let It Go,” “Frozen”
Because it is inside people. The moment I saw the big scene in the film with Princess Elsa creating her ice castle, I both knew they would end up doing this show on Broadway and that this was going to be the next iconic anthem for the studio, on the same level as any of the songs from the Menken/Ashman era. Yesterday I was at a park watching baseball practice for one of my sons, and there was a little girl playing right next to them. She sang this song roughly 5000 songs, and even though the only words she knew were, “Let it go, let it gooooooo, cause it’s awesome/when you let it goooooo,” she sang her little heart out, and that simple message of empowerment, that gorgeous melodic embrace of the ethos “Let your freak flag fly,” has already become ubiquitous. Of course it wins.
Best Original Score
“Gravity,” Steven Price
Steven Price had a little extra added challenge with his work on “Gravity” because for much of the movie, his score would stand in for any and all sound effects, a decision that made it urgent that his music tells the entire story of what’s happening. Watching that first insane moment when the debris hits the space station, Price’s music works in place of any sound effects, and it is huge and chilling and amazing. His work on “World’s End” was pretty damn great, too, and I suspect this is just the first of many times he’ll end up in this race.
Best Production Design
“Her,” K.K. Barrett, Gene Serdena
Part of what makes this film so effective is the vision of the future that it offers. I want to believe that LA is going to become a better place to live instead of worse. I am so used to dystopian visions of the future that it feels almost revolutionary to show us a city that has cleaned up, that has embraced mass transit, and that offers up a very clean urban beauty that seems like the best possible version of what LA can be. It’s just one of the many things the film does so very, very well.
“American Hustle,” Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers
By all accounts, every single David O. Russell set is an exercise in organized chaos, and this one sounds like that’s doubly true. Amy Adams would often play scenes both the accent and without, and then Russell would go through line by line to decide which take sold the moment better. Building performances like that must be maddening, but the “American Hustle” team did a fantastic job of making it all seem invisible.
Best Actress In A Supporting Role
Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years A Slave”
There have been more conversations in the last year about the way Hollywood writes for women and the way they are represented on film, and Nyong’o’s work seems to encapsulate the entire conversation at once. It is a remarkable expression of the way powerlessness impacts someone over time, and there is such beautiful horror to much of it that I can’t imagine giving this to anyone else.
Best Sound Editing
“Gravity,” Glenn Fremantle
Again… the power of silence in this movie is impressive because there’s never a moment in the film where you miss it.
Best Sound Mixing
“Inside Llewyn Davis,” Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff, Peter F. Kurtland
Like with last year’s “Les Miserables,” the recording of live performance is important to this film, and they make it clear just how talented this cast was at bringing this era of live music to life on film.
Best Foreign Language Film
“The Broken Circle Breakdown,” Felix Van Groeningen
A piercing look at what happens to a couple over the course of their rocky relationship, from the moment they meet to the inevitable and crushing ending of things in the wake of their child’s death, told through a fractured timeline and punctuated by an amazing song score of bluegrass music. If this film had been seen by the full Academy, Veerle Baetens would be in the race for Best Actress In A Leading Role, and she might even take the whole thing.
Best Documentary Feature
“The Act Of Killing,” Joshua Oppenheimer, Signe Byrge Sorenson, Anonymous
There are very few films ever made that have a chance at actually changing this world for the better, but this is one of them. Notice how the film is credited to “anonymous” as a co-director? Well, that’s because there is genuine danger to the lives of these people if they ever learn who was involved in telling a story about the perpetrators of a genocide that was, for the most part, ignored by the rest of the world. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like it, and the final scene is one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen in a non-fiction film.
Best Make-up And Hairstyling
“Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa,” Steve Prouty
For this movie to work at all, it requires people to believe that Johnny Knoxville really is Irving Zisman when they’re up close to him. It has to be both invisible and authentic. At the same time, there are moments where it has to be exaggerated, most notably during a horrifying scene at a strip club, and the make-up walks that fine line perfectly.
Best Costume Design
“American Hustle,” Michael Wilkinson
Wilkinson evokes the era and also reveals character with the way he wraps these characters, and there’s one white dress in particular that he put on Jennifer Lawrence that should win him the award all by itself.
Best Visual Effects
“Gravity,” Timothy Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk, Neil Corbould
I’m not sure how this is even a conversation.
“Prisoners,” Roger Deakins
As much as I love the technical accomplishment of “Gravity,” I think the work Deakins does in “Prisoners” is insane. Next level. It feels like the world is rotting around these characters as hope slowly dies inside each of them, and when we move into the darkest places in this bleak moral landscape, Deakins keeps pushing things darker and wetter and more blasted. It is adventurous work, and further confirmation that no photographer working right now is better and pushing us out of a literal space and into one that is purely emotional.
Best Animated Feature Film
“Ernest and Celestine”
There is something gorgeous and simple about the illustration style, and the film posits this strange world of mice and bears with such authority that you just buy it. To me, this is what animation does best… brings life to characters and worlds that couldn’t exist any other way. It’s funny, it’s sweet, and it’s unlike anything else.
Best Animated Short Subject
“Get A Horse!” Lauren MacMullan, Dorothy McKim
Disney managed to push technology forward while paying tribute to their own history and the birth of what we think of as mainstream animation these days, and it may be one of the greatest uses of 3D for comedy effect so far.
Best Actor, Supporting Role
Michael Fassbender, “12 Years A Slave”
Fassbender’s done some amazing work in the last few years, but he is walking cancer in this film, a man being eaten from the inside out by his own moral failings, and watching him struggle with his own worst instincts, only to consistently fail, is emotionally bruising. He gives a face to the mental illness that it would require to be able to live within the framework of institutionalized slavery, and makes this horrible, disturbed man almost human.
Those are my votes. I have no doubt that Sunday night will not look like my list, but I have made my peace with that a long time ago. Why not tell me… if you could pick and you had your own Oscar ballots, how much would your list look like mine?
“The 86th Annual Academy Awards” airs Sunday March 2, at 8:30 ET, 5:30 PT, on ABC.