Oscar Update: Memo to the Academy

The Broken Circle Breakdown
There are now only two weeks left for Academy voters to complete their final screenings and turn in their ballots. The critics have spoken and the guilds have endorsed a myriad of nominees, so the Oscar race is more wide open than ever. Here are a few nominees and potential dark horses that we’re hoping the Academy considers:

Best Foreign Language Film: The Broken Circle Breakdown

This year’s Oscar race marks a significant change in the voting procedure for Best Foreign Language Film. Previous years dictated that voters had to attend screenings of all five nominated films in order to be able to cast a ballot. This year, however, voters received screeners of the five nominees, which suggests that the winner for Best Foreign Language Film might be decided upon by the largest but most uninformed voting body to date if voters cast a ballot without making it through all five films. Don’t make the mistake, though, of assuming that films with subtitles won’t play well at home.

While it’s always best to watch a film in a theatre, Belgium’s contender The Broken Circle Breakdown might be one that you’ll enjoy watching in the comfort of your own home. This beautiful roller coaster of a film, one of my picks for the 10 best of 2013, will have voters singing one moment and blubbering tears the next. The sweet bluegrass tunes that fuel Broken Circle’s love story between Didier and Elise, played by the excellent duo of Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens, has a decidedly American twang that should appeal to voters. As this film by Felix Van Groeningen crosscuts between past and present as Didier and Elise fall in and out of love, the songs on the film’s harmonious soundtrack are bound to speak to some corner of a viewer’s experience as they watch lives and destinies transform with the mere change of a key. Few films have ever captured the transformative power of music quite as powerfully as The Broken Circle Breakdown does. You’d be hard pressed to find a film—American or foreign—to offer such an artful and touching composition.

Best Documentary: 20 Feet from Stardom

Here’s a film that goes hand in hand with The Broken Circle Breakdown. 2013’s other great music movie, which also happens to be one of the year’s ten best films, is the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom by director Morgan Neville. Stardom, for one, is simply a phenomenal feat of filmmaking that eclipses all of the other documentary nominees in terms of scope and craftsmanship: it’s a flawlessly made film that, like The Broken Circle Breakdown does with its tale of love and loss, spins a specific story into a universal one. The portrait of unsung back-up singers like Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Darlene Love could be a very particular take, yet Stardom looks at the tumultuous careers of these artists with an eye that is both unique to the specifics of the music industry and open to the element of shared experience that links the stories together. There’s something about the chorus of voices in 20 Feet from Stardom that somehow invites a viewer to inject his or her own voice into the mix as Neville draws together stories from different corners of the industry into a seamless unison. The film speaks to that inadequacy we all feel in the pursuit of our goals. 20 Feet from Stardom gives voice to that hunger a person can feel wanting to transform a passion into a career. To be able to do what one loves for a living shouldn’t be taken for granted and 20 Feet from Stardom is a soulful ode for anyone who ever felt like they could dream.

Best Animated Feature: Ernest et Célestine

Is there a better film to make a viewer nostalgic for hand drawn animation? I usually abhor anything that puts a moviegoer in the vicinity of children, but the storybook magic of the French animated feature of Ernest and Célestine brings out the kid in me each time I watch it. I first saw the film almost a year ago when it screened as part of the Canadian Film Institute’s Diverciné festival, and seeing at The ByTowne in a theatre full of rugrats could not have provided a better atmosphere to bring out the kid in me.

There’s something enchanting about the painterly animation of this fable that conjures memories of lying in bed, all snug with a pillow and a teddy bear, as your parents read a bedtime story. The images of the film are like watercolour illustrations of a storybook coming to life before one’s very eyes. As Ernest and Célestine tells of the unlikely friendship between a mouse and a bear, the film delights in a flight of the imagination as the whimsical animation invites viewers to round out the images of the film’s heartwarming palette with their mind's eye. The timeless style Ernest and Célestine reminds a viewer of how one came to love movies in the first place. This whimsical and endlessly entertaining film should appeal to voters of all ages for it makes even the crankiest of film bloggers feel like a kid at heart.

Amy Adams in American Hustle

Best Costumes: Michael Wilkinson, American Hustle

Michael Wilkinson’s costumes in American Hustle are the tits. Has side boob ever played such an essential role in a film? Amy Adams boasts the most Oscar-worthy cleavage since Queen Latifah was good to Mama in Chicago, and Wilkinson’s stylish threads are an essential element for fueling character, story, and meaning unlike any of the other exquisite period wardrobes among the nominees this year. The costumes of American Hustle are a mix of vintage clothing and costumes made specifically for the film. It’s hard to say which are which since they’re so expertly tailored and selected to match the characters’ unique flairs and personalities. The fun costumes bring the hustle of Russell’s picture as they, er, expose what characters like Sydney (Adams) do to survive.

Best Score: Alexandre Desplat, Philomena

Best Score is the one category that could easily see any of its five contenders walk away with the trophy. It might be nicest to see Alexandre Desplat earn his first Oscar for Philomena, which might also be the film’s best chance at a win, although the screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope is also a contender. Desplat’s subtle, nuanced score for Philomena deserves the prize for how sensitively and skillfully it guides, rather than dictates, a viewer’s emotions throughout Philomena’s journey. The music for Philomena is a lot like the title character herself: understated in its simplicity, but full of life, spirit, and bouncy optimism. The sprightly music infuses the film with a playful inquistiveness as Desplat buoys Philomena throughout what is ultimately a devastating quest. The music is much of what helps Philomena navigate its expertly balanced tone as it finds the right middle ground between comedy and drama, and social commentary and crowd pleaser. Mr. Desplat, as Philomena might say, is one in a million.

Best Actress: Meryl Streep in August: Osage County

Karina Longworth notes in the introduction to her excellent book Anatomy of an Actor: Meryl Streep that one of Streep’s formative influences in her evolution as an actress was Liza Minnelli. Quoting Streep’s assessment of Minnelli’s performance in Martin Scorsese’s live show The Act, Longworth highlights a characteristic that makes Streep such a hypnotic chameleon of the cinema. Longworth goes on to note how Streep noted that it was Minnelli’s desire to open the character up and let her evolve through the performative element of acting that both shaped and illustrates her own work as an actor. Longworth, drawing on Streep’s own words, explains that Minnelli “made Streep understand that as much as realism and ‘truth-telling’ were the core of character creation, ‘there is a further leap to the understanding of the importance of brilliance, sparkle, and excitement. “Performing” is the final gloss. It’s the means to attract the audience to your character.’”

Performing as the final gloss of a character receives its greatest evolution in Streep’s filmography with her creation of the virulent Violet Weston in August: Osage County, which is my pick for the best performance of 2013. Violet Weston is a loud, coarse, acid-tongued woman with a nasty mean streak, but she’s also a deeply damaged woman who uses verbal abuse to hide her pain and to mask her insecurities. This performance requires a decent heft of theatricality to make it fully alive. Violet, for one, has been worn into stages of dementia thanks to her Texas-sized cocktail of painkillers, so there is a necessary looseness that comes with such an aspect of character, especially when she is already grieving and vulnerable. Her meanness keeps her alive by feeding off the insecurities of others.

It’s a tricky role to manage, playing an over-the-top character without going too far, but Streep’s handle for the “brilliance, sparkle, and excitement” behind Violet’s showboating makes the character both relatable and attractive. Take, for instance, when Violet goes on attack mode at the dinner table. Okay, let’s be specific and talk about the moment where Violet lashes out at Karen (Juliette Lewis) and her fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Streep reminds the audience why Violet is head of the table as the Weston matriarch uses her cigarette not as a prop, but as an extension of her performance, as she teases Karen and Steve and goes in for the kill. The cigarette becomes like a sixth digit for Steep to command Violet's authority and acts as a punctuation mark for the moment that Violet seizes the upper hand in the conversation, exhaling smoke with so much dramatic flair that she may as well be spitting across the table, and hammering the smoking stick at Karen both to pronounce her judgement and to invite the rest of the table to join in. This is a character viewers should love to hate, but Streep makes Violet’s flair for the dramatic so palpable that we can’t wait to see what lies beneath.

When the power of the Weston family shifts from Violet to Barbara (Julia Roberts, equally worthy of the Academy Award), Streep conveys Violet’s sense of victimization that reveals how the character justifies her meanness. The apparent playfulness of Violet’s meanness only moments before invites the audience to assume an awareness of Violet’s motivation while she keeps the rest of the table on edge and on guard. Then, in a Streeply monologue reminiscent of Miranda Priestly’s naked confession in The Devil Wears Prada, Streep humanizes the monster by making the inner pain of her character ring more genuine, candid, and natural than the pain Violet inflicts with her über-dramatic façade. The veneer of theatricality to Violet Weston makes apparent the shifts in the character's consciousness apparent and reveals the monster to be a deeply troubled woman. One can’t look at Violet the same after she breaks down and speaks of childhood trauma.

Streep herself joked that she was never going to be at the podium again when she accepted her Oscar for 2011’s The Iron Lady, but if there’s ever a performance that merits a return to the stage so soon, it is Streep’s work in August: Osage County. Streep’s desire to give the audience something within her character makes a viewing of August: Osage County much like the enchanting experience the actress herself described of watching Liza Minnelli: the tangible thrill of sensing not only the actor while she is performing, but of seeing how the actor’s delight in the performance raises the character to new heights. Streep’s desire to attract an audience to a woman they could hate should not go unnoticed.

Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor on the set of 12 Years a Slave

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave and Best Director: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

I’ve saved the big prizes for last and I’m almost tempted to leave the case for 12 Years a Slave and Steve McQueen as an invitation to see the film and explore it for yourself. Slave, my pick for the best film of 2013, is a worthy contender to stand as the Academy’s choice to represent the year in film. No other film of the year tackles American culture with such ferocious—and decidedly cinematic—intelligence as 12 Years a Slave does. In dramatizing the story of Solomon Northup as starkly and boldly as he does, Steve McQueen furthers the story by drawing out in images what couldn’t find its way into print when Northup’s book was first published. The violence of 12 Years a Slave, on one level, is central to what makes the film hit deep down in one’s gut. This is a remarkably compelling film that finds catharsis through brutality as the intense performances by nominees Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o engage with the viewers on an emotional level and transport them back to the antebellum South. On another level, the film’s brutally honest depiction of America’s history of slavery invites one to engage with the film on an intellectual level and ask why audiences haven’t seen something like this before. Had McQueen not inflicted the violence on the characters as 12 Years a Slave as provocatively as he did, the film would ultimately perpetuate the sanitized portrait of history it seeks to correct.

Which Oscar nominees would you like to add to the memo to the Academy?