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Eleanor Ringel Cater

Critiquing the Oscars — the good picks and those names left off the list

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

I’m not sure I can write about the Oscars yet again. Well, I can’t do it without admitting to my hypocrisy.

I think the Oscars are junk.  I stopped watching them for 10 years, then was forced by my job (film critic at the Atlanta newspaper) to watch them for about 30 years.

They could be interesting. They could be unintentionally hilarious.  And sometimes I really, truly cared a lot about the results. Mostly because a favorite performer or director finally got some recognition they probably deserved long before they actually won.

Of course, there are exceptions. Listing them would bore you to tears. Just for example: I was very happy when the Coen brothers and Frances McDormand got some long overdue kudos when they won for “Fargo.”

However, Peter O’Toole never won. Richard Burton never won. Orson Welles never won. Charlie Chaplin never won. And only one woman has won for directing (I think the ones who have been nominated can be counted on one hand). Ditto black directors.

That said, social awareness, fair play and the like have no place in movie awards. Nor should they. It’s the flicks, not eradicating world hunger.

The Golden Globes are pretty junky, too, but at least they’ve become more fun to watch.  Name the last time you enjoyed an Oscar show? I think my pick goes back to Billy Crystal, Round One…and that’s a long time ago.

I didn’t have a movie I was head-over-heels in love with this year.  I usually do; “True Grit” (the Coen version) or “Hugo.”

But 2013? I liked “Gravity.” Liked “Blue Jasmine.” Liked “Enough Said.” Liked “Saving Mr. Banks.” Liked “The Great Beauty” (came pretty close to loving it). Came close to loving “All is Lost,” too.

Here are my reactions to the recent nominations in the six main categories. The Good, The Bad and…well, as I’ve said, a lot of it is pretty ugly.

Best picture:  
”12 Years a Slave” 
”The Wolf of Wall Street” 
”Captain Phillips” 
”American Hustle” 
”Dallas Buyers Club” 

I simply can’t fathom “Nebraska’s” appeal.  I would’ve much preferred “Enough Said” which got totally shut out. No director (Nicole Holofcener). No Best Actress (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). No Best Supporting Actor (the late James Gandolfini).

And I think “All Is Lost” is one of the most amazing movies I’ve ever seen.  Again, no Oscar love.

I’m glad “Philomena” got a break. And I’m inordinately happy the revolting “Inside Llewyn Davis” did not.

Best director:  
Steve McQueen — “12 Years a Slave” 
David O. Russell — “American Hustle” 
Alfonso Cuaron — “Gravity” 
Alexander Payne — “Nebraska” 
Martin Scorsese — “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Again, I do not get “Nebraska.” I don’t get how Alexander Payne, whose other movies I’ve admired (especially “Sideways” and “About Schmidt”), got away with it. And Scorsese finally has his Oscar. He doesn’t need the “honor of the nomination.” Plus, “Wolf” is not his best work.

I’d replace both with  “Enough Said’s” Nicole Holofcener (gee, a woman; what a concept) and “All is Lost’s” J.C. Chandor whose debut film, “Margin Call,” (also excellent) couldn’t be more different from his work here.

Best actor:  
Bruce Dern — “Nebraska” 
Chiwetel Ejiofor — “12 Years a Slave” 
Matthew McConaughey — “Dallas Buyers Club” 
Leonardo DiCaprio — “The Wolf of Wall Street” 
Christian Bale — “American Hustle”

The Robert Redford (“All is Lost”) snub is criminal.  He and Dern are the same age, 77, and people are falling all over themselves about Dern’s blank-stare portrayal (and he still managed to over-act, as is his wont). Meanwhile, Redford delivered a courageous and hugely physical performance as a man facing his own mortality. And he did it all on his own, all by his lonesome…on a boat.

I’m also more than a little curious as to why both of Tom Hanks’ fine performances (“Captain Phillips,” “Saving Mr. Banks”) were shut out.  My theory is, nobody at Fox or Universal or whatever is going to vote for a Disney movie that glorifies Walt Disney (Personally, I love Unca Walt)). As for “Captain Phillips,” without Hanks, I don’t think Barkhad Abdi (see below) could’ve delivered the portrayal he did.

I don’t care much for Joaquin Phoenix. Still, I’m surprised he isn’t in the running for “Her,” which is almost a one-man show. Maybe he could’ve taken Christian Bale’s slot; Bale already has an Oscar and while he’s fine in the film, he doesn’t really show us much that’s new.

Best actress:  
Amy Adams — “American Hustle” 
Cate Blanchett — “Blue Jasmine” 
Judi Dench — “Philomena” 
Sandra Bullock — “Gravity” 
Meryl Streep — “August: Osage County”

I’m not surprised by any of the nominees except for Amy Adams. She’s a good surprise. I think she’s hugely deserving. A bad surprise is that both Emma Thompson (“Saving Mr. Banks”) and, again, Louis-Dreyfus didn’t make the cut.  But I don’t know whom I’d toss to get their names on the list.

But it comes to this: everyone except Adams already has an Oscar (in Streep’s case, multiple Oscars).  A nomination would have been more of a career boost for Louis-Dreyfus. Thompson already has an Oscar or two, too, so maybe her snub doesn’t matter as much.  It’s just that she’s very, very good.

Best supporting actor:  
Barkhad Abdi — “Captain Phillips” 
Bradley Cooper — “American Hustle” 
Jonah Hill — “The Wolf of Wall Street” 
Jared Leto — “Dallas Buyers Club” 
Michael Fassbender — “12 Years a Slave”

I’m not all that happy with these nominations. Applause for Fassbender and Leto.  But Cooper has done much better work than he does in “American Hustle;” Abdi is more of a fluke (see Hanks above); and Jonah Hill’s on-going career is a mystery to me.  I enjoyed him in “Superbad,” but that’s been few years.  Either his parents are very connected or he…maybe somebody’s got a, well, crush on him. I can’t go any further than that in a mainstream publication.

Who got left out? Try Chris Cooper (“August: Osage County”) and Gandolfini, as I mentioned. Or John Goodman, who’s phenomenal in the otherwise odious “Llewyn Davis.” Or Peter Sarsgaard in “Blue Jasmine.” Or even George Clooney for “Gravity” (again, his performance helped Bullock’s immeasurably).

Best supporting actress:  
Jennifer Lawrence — “American Hustle” 
Lupita Nyong’o — “12 Years a Slave” 
June Squibb — “Nebraska” 
Julia Roberts — “August: Osage County” 
Sally Hawkins — “Blue Jasmine”

Sally Hawkins’ nomination is the smartest thing Oscar did this year. And even if Lawrence did win Best Actress last year, she’s so good I wouldn’t mind her making it a double play by going home a winner in a different category. Roberts is fine, but her co-star, Margo Martindale, is better.

Octavia Spencer is better in “Fruitvale Station” than she is in “The Help,” for which she won her Supporting Oscar. I also think Scarlett Johansson’s voice-only work in “Her” is pretty sensational.

But I’m glad the Academy didn’t fall for either Margot Robbie (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) or Jennifer Garner (“Dallas Buyer’s Club”), both of whom had plum Oscar-ready roles, but couldn’t pull them off.

The show airs Sunday, March 2. Look for lots of talk-show appearances between now and then and lots of pontificating along the lines of, well, what I just did.

Finally, one early complaint: Hey, I like “12 Years a Slave,” but I don’t like the new ads that play Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech over the clips. Some things Hollywood shouldn’t tread on. Just shameless.

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


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