Do You Hear What I Hear?

And so here we are, on the morning after – well, not quite. It was only earlier (much, much earlier, if you live on the West Coast) today that the Oscar nominations were announced, although the current state of entertainment news and blogging means that by now you’ve probably read at least a minimum of five lists of the biggest “snubs” and two lengthy analyses of why, exactly, the Academy Awards don’t really matter. Or do. Or are racist. A combination of all of the above, most likely.

As someone who generally views awards-watching as an outlet, more akin to a crossword puzzle hobby than a platform for analyzing cultural trends, I find myself increasingly less interested in the latter. The Oscars are what they are, a reflection of the industry rather than the heart of it. Change Hollywood and you’ll change the awards, not the other way around. In the meantime, let’s have some fun scratching our heads over this altogether peculiar group and their choices for the best of the past year in film.

And really, what a maddeningly unpredictable slate when you get right down to it. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the pure number of contenders this time around; while there was very little revealed this morning that was shocking, there were any number of small surprises, both good and bad, depending on your point of view. Despite agonizing for many hours (and making some last-minute changes that I quite regret in hindsight), I couldn’t do much better in my predictions than three or four out of five in each category; Best Adapted Screenplay was the only one I nailed outright, although I’m rather pleased with going eight for nine in Best Picture.

My only mistake in that category was in my choice of which middlebrow piece would find the hearts of (most likely older) voters. While the Academy turned out to want none of the sentimentalized inside baseball of “Saving Mr. Banks” – rejecting not only the film itself but even, surprisingly, Emma Thompson’s acclaimed lead performance as “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers – they embraced Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” giving it not only a Best Picture slot but a Screenplay nod for star Steve Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope as well. I’m kicking myself, first because I had a hunch about the film for most of the season and only recently wavered, and second because I actually rather enjoyed the movie myself and it’s not the kind of film that usually ends up in my wheelhouse; a sure sign it would definitely register with the eager British bloc, then.

A greater personal disappointment was that my last-minute sinking feeling that “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which got mostly shut out on the guild circuit, wasn’t going to register was indeed borne out, in fairly brutal fashion. I prepared myself for the eventuality that passion votes for “Her” might take away some crucial support for the Coens’ latest in Best Picture, but not even a consolatory screenplay nomination? That hurts, and I think the Oscars will end up on the wrong side of history with that one. The other really stinging snub was of Sarah Polley’s remarkable “Stories We Tell” in Best Documentary Feature; granted, I haven’t seen all of the nominees in that category, but I have a hard time imagining Polley’s devastatingly personal film not beating out any of them. We’ll always have the EMOs, Sarah.

In terms of personal (or is it pyrrhic?) victories, though, there were certainly some. The Best Picture recognition for “Her” is richly deserved, and I had hoped/thought that Spike Jonze could even garner enough support for his unique, subtle work to slide into the Best Director slate. As it happened, that spot went instead to Alexander Payne, whose “Nebraska” I also greatly admired (more thoughts on several of these films coming soon, but I thought Payne’s work here far superior and more coherent than the inconsistent “The Descendants”). Payne also edged out Paul Greengrass, whose work on “Captain Phillips” earned a Director’s Guild nomination, but always seemed more respected than adored this season.

That attitude extended for “Phillips” through the rest of the nominations as well. While newcomer Barkhad Abdi pulled out a Best Supporting Actor nod for his wiry, intense performance as a Somali pirate captain, Tom Hanks unexpectedly missed in the lead category. Considering he at one point seemed destined for a double nomination, a goose egg for Hanks has got to be a disappointing end to the season. The severely over-crowded Best Actor race was always going to be the place to look for surprises, and indeed there were a couple. Late-season-bloomers Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale both crashed the party, pushing vets Hanks and Redford out of the picture. DiCaprio’s all-in performance is assuredly one of my favorites of the year, so his presence was another bright spot for me – in what suddenly seems a wide-open race, he might even have a shot at the win (McConaughey didn’t overly impress with his cut-off Golden Globes speech).

Bale’s nomination, along with Amy Adams pushing out Thompson in Best Actress, meant that the predictably popular “American Hustle” moves on with a nomination in all four acting categories – an astounding feat when you consider that makes two years in a row that David O. Russell has accomplished that for his cast (before “Silver Linings Playbook,” no one had done it for about 40 years). Once a highly unpopular director due to on-set fights with the likes of George Clooney and Lily Tomlin, Russell’s going to have actors beating down his door now.

Riding that love from the actor’s branch, “Hustle” tied for the field lead with “Gravity” at ten total nominations; “12 Years a Slave” right behind with nine. Those are your three contenders for the moment, and it’s really anybody’s game that I can see. Keep an eye out on the guild awards for the next month, and pay attention to the craft category victors early on Oscar night for signs of where we’ll be headed at the big finish.

A few final, random thoughts:

  • The most surprising snub of the day may have Sean Bobbitt’s exquisite cinematography for “12 Years a Slave.” Philippe Le Sourd and Phedon Papamichael both did great work as well on “The Grandmaster” and “Nebraska,” respectively, but that’s a wallop to Fox Searchlight’s campaign for McQueen’s film.
  • The masterful Roger Deakins, meanwhile, will get to lose that category yet again as the sole nominee for Denis Villeneuve”s thriller “Prisoners” (Deakins is 0 for 10 lifetime at the Oscars).
  • Deakins’ peer in futility, composer Thomas Newman (0 for 11 so far), also managed to be his film’s only nominee, for the original score of “Saving Mr. Banks.”
  • Indie animation distributor GKIDS worked its magic again to bring French charmer “Ernest and Celestine” into the fold. Particularly impressive considering it appears to have pushed out Pixar’s rote “Monsters University” (now only the studio’s second film, after “Cars 2,” to miss a nomination in Animated Feature).
  • Sally Hawkins earned her first-ever Oscar nod for her supporting turn in “Blue Jasmine.” Nice try, Academy, but it still doesn’t make up for ignoring her in “Happy-Go-Lucky.”
  • Jonah Hill is now a two-time Oscar nominee, and it’s not even really egregious. Try to figure that one out.
  • The “Jackass” franchise is now Oscar-nominated, and it also kind of makes sense. What is happening?
  • John Williams earned his 49th nomination for Original Score, because John Williams wrote something this year. Did anyone even SEE “The Book Thief?”
  • Speaking of not seeing things, this year’s winner for Best Original Song Nominee That Sends Everyone Scrambling to IMDB to Find a Movie You’re Pretty Sure Chris Hemsworth Just Made Up is “Alone Yet Not Alone” from “Alone Yet Not Alone” (no I still don’t know what it is, don’t ask me).
  • Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures became only the fourth producer ever to earn double nod in the same year, for “American Hustle” and “Her.” In the past two years, she’s carried five films to a total of twenty-four total nominations. Watch out, Hollywood.

Some Campaigns Start to SAG

It’s not strictly necessary to get a Screen Actors Guild nomination to be in the race for to win an acting Oscar. Just last year, Christoph Waltz ultimately snuck in for the win despite not being nominated for “Django Unchained.” But these nominations are the first read we have of how people inside the industry (and for that matter, inside the Academy) are responding to the season. And to that end, Tuesday’s nominations brought a few surprising inclusions and snubs.

Probably the most shocking, and debated, omission was Robert Redford for “All Is Lost.” He’s the kind of incredibly respected, hard-working industry vet that SAG usually adores, but he somehow missed out here. It’s hard to say if there’s something going wrong with Redford’s campaign (not enough people seeing the film, perhaps?) or whether they just really, really liked Forest Whitaker and “The Butler” (also a distinct possibility). Nearly as surprising, to me anyway, is no inclusion of Tom Hanks for his supporting turn as the legendary Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks” – in fact, the film also missed a Best Ensemble nod, which I had thought a sure thing considering its Hollywood-deifying subject matter.

Instead of Hanks, we got a very intriguing Supporting Actor lineup, with non-professional Barkhad Abdi proving that he’s made a huge impression from his fierce turn in “Captain Phillips,” Daniel Brühl making an unexpected comeback for his role in “Rush” (critically acclaimed at the time, but it had seemed like everyone had already forgotten about Ron Howard’s racing film), and SAG seizing perhaps the last opportunity to honor the tragically late James Gandolfini. I still haven’t seen “Enough Said,” but I am not one to argue with paying tribute to a terrific actor gone far sooner than he should’ve been (and if it means throwing some love to a comedy for once, so much the better).

The other major story here is probably “Dallas Buyers Club,” sneaking into the top Ensemble field despite being painted as a two-man show in most press. I’ve had a suspicion for a long time that the film would register strongly with actors and Hollywood at large; this would seem to confirm that it’s a major contender for a Best Picture nod come Oscar time. I’d also bet that “The Wolf of Wall Street” simply arrived too late to get traction with this particular group (it didn’t start screening until halfway through the voting period), so like “Django” last year, its exclusion doesn’t mean much.

By the way, expect that Best Actress field to stay pretty much the same all season. Not much that can crack that list, unless Amy Adams can get a big push behind her for “American Hustle.”

2014 Screen Actors Guild Award nominations

Best Ensemble:

  • 12 Years a Slave
  • American Hustle
  • August: Osage County
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Best Actor:

  • Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
  • Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips”
  • Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
  • Forest Whitaker, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

Best Actress:

  • Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
  • Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”
  • Judi Dench, “Philomena”
  • Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”
  • Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks”

Best Supporting Actor:

  • Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”
  • Daniel Brühl, “Rush”
  • Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
  • James Gandolfini, “Enough Said”
  • Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”

Best Supporting Actress:

  • Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
  • Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
  • Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”
  • June Squibb, “Nebraska”
  • Oprah Winfrey, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

Review: Captain Phillips

Captains from two sides of the world collide in Paul Greengrass’ tense thriller.

Paul Greengrass doesn’t mess around with his titles. “Bloody Sunday,” “United 93,” “Green Zone” – we’re getting right down to brass tacks here. It’s fitting for his aesthetic, that infamous frame-rattling shaky-cam that certainly gives his films a sense of pulse-pounding immediacy if nothing else. His best movies, and his best sequences within his movies, are those that totally strip down the narrative, tossing out extraneous material in favor of here-and-now sensual urgency.

That’s what made his two Bourne films exceptional, “United 93” masterful, and “Captain Phillips” inconsistent, with a number of bright sequences somewhat tarnished by heavy-handed writing. As with “United 93,” Greengrass has taken real-life events and turned them into startling, unbearably tense cinematic set-pieces; but whereas the 2006 film let the significance of unthinkable tragedy speak for itself, “Captain Phillips” looks to wrestle every scrap of geo-socio-cultural-political meaning out of the 2009 seizure of the MV Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates. Exploring the unintended consequences of globalization might be a great topic for Alex Gibney or another talented documentarian, but Greengrass and his screenwriter Billy Ray are not the best options for intricacy.

Take, for instance, the film’s opening sequence, in which our titular protagonist (Tom Hanks, sporting a passable-but-not-convincing Vermont accent) is dropped off at the airport by his wife (a wasted Catherine Keener). Their conversation, about the uncertain future facing their children, sounds like a first draft, a summarization of theme rather than an exploration of it. What’s frustrating is that formally, this scene juxtaposes quite nicely with the following sequence, of the parallel circumstances in Somalia, where a striking, gangly young man named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his peers are directed by a local warlord to take to the seas and seize what they can. Visually, Greengrass has made his point; the dialogue seems oddly less confident in the audience’s perceptiveness.

Luckily, the director quickly puts the pressure on, with the riveting pirate attack that led to the seizure of Phillips’ freighter by Muse and his crew. When Greengrass is cooking, in scenes like this or the fraught final confrontation between the pirates and the U.S. Navy, there are few directors working today that can provide more visceral, thrilling results. Any number of lesser action filmmakers have cribbed Greengrass’ choppy, staccato style over the past decade, but few have had an editor as talented as Greengrass’ reliable collaborator Christopher Rouse – the cuts come fast and furious, but Rouse never gets lost in the confusion. We know where the characters stand in relation to another, and what they are doing. The shaky-cam is a method of bringing us up close and personal to the action, of compounding an already gripping scenario, not a lazy substitute for artificial suspense.

The gas pedal lets off again when Phillips, in trying to get the pirates off the Alabama, finds himself as a lone hostage in the ship’s cramped lifeboat. This is veering into bottle-episode character-study territory, and for the most part the talented cast pulls it off with aplomb. Abdi, a non-professional actor and immigrant plucked off the streets of Minneapolis, is a particular revelation: gaunt and scrawny, he’s hardly an intimidating presence physically, but there’s a fire and desperation in his eyes that explains his position of power over the other pirates. The other three Somalis are vividly and convincingly drawn even with very little background: Najee (Faysal Ahmed), a hot-headed bruiser; Elmi (Mahat M. Ali), the overwhelmed mechanic/driver; and Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), a young relative of Muse’s out on his first run. This amateur cast, like the unknowns of “United 93,” lend a lived-in, authentic feel to a story that often seems too insane to be true.

Hanks, of course, doesn’t have the advantage of unfamiliarity – but the Hollywood mega-star has built his career on likable, heroic everymen like Phillips. His performance seems a good approximation of the real-life Phillips as we’ve now seen him on numerous late-night shows and news interviews: competent and courageous, but in a very quiet, humble fashion. In sharp contrast to Matt Damon’s superhuman, Bourne-like protagonist of “Green Zone,” Phillips is never portrayed as an action hero, but a regular guy just as capable of fear and empathy as resourcefulness and resistance. The film’s final moments, of a traumatized post-rescue Phillips, features some of the best work of Hanks’ career: raw, pure, reactive emotion.

When Abdi and Hanks go head-to-head, the film crackles, again despite the screenplay’s best efforts to burden them as symbolic stand-ins. The second act, which should be an opportunity for these two actors to really cut loose in tight quarters, has an unfortunate tendency to drag as Muse and Phillips literally repeat over-obviously “significant” lines at each other. As with Cuarón and “Gravity,” Greengrass might’ve done better to just let the inherent tension of the situation play itself out.

Still, Greengrass brings it all back around for the thrilling, perfectly executed finale. As we know, the cold efficiency and overwhelming force of the U.S. armed forces won out over the rag-tag band of unfortunate, desperate criminals. Greengrass is clearly not without sympathy for the plight of the third world, driven to extremes just to survive in a global economy that has no use for it; but there remains a matter-of-fact style to his presentation that suggests this is simply how things are. From the deserts of Africa to the wilds of Wall Street, there’s no room for the little guy. It’s a smart, if heavy-handed, message for a taut modern thriller.

Still playing in theaters.

Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars