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The State of the Race: American Hustle Takes the Lead to win Best Picture


In all of the ways people think the Oscar race is predictable it always turns out to be surprising when the dust settles. There is no point in not saying what is the obvious writing on the wall — David O. Russell will finally collect the big Oscar for directing as American Hustle wins Best Picture.  That might mean Jennifer Lawrence wins her second Oscar back to back, or that Lupita Nyong’o and/or Chiwetel Ejiofor might win for 12 Years a Slave because it won’t be winning Best Picture.

That’s right, in this pivotal year when the industry — the Academy specifically – went out of their way to diversify their membership, in the second term of the country’s first African-American president, with three strong black filmmakers in the race, none of that is going to matter as voters pick what they like and the film everyone seems to be agreeing on right now is the one the New York Film critics chose as Best Picture and the one the National Society of Film Critics, which shut out 12 Years a Slave completely, had as their runner-up choice.

David O. Russell has come close to Oscar twice before with The Fighter, then with Silver Linings Playbook.  He has made a film that never takes itself seriously, is not really about anything particularly, but revels in what this director does best: great performances and a screwball non-plot.

Add to that, the early declaration by Kyle Buchanan that 12 Years a Slave would win put a big fat target on its back.  Then, it was Gravity’s to lose and now it seems like the consensus will settle on the movie that doesn’t really ask anything of you but seeks only to entertain.  No one is going to complain, least of all the critics. This is a movie that brings a big party with lots of big stars along with it, stars that are dressed up in disco attire, an era that many of the aging voters remember fondly.

American Hustle is going to be named Best Picture of 2013, that is the sentence I keep hearing in my mind.  There is nothing particularly offensive about this idea. It’s a really good movie in its own way.  Is it the best of the year? Well, that’s a matter of opinion and the opinion shared by many Academy members is likely going to be yes. It will likely win the Golden Globe, then probably the Producers Guild, then very likely the Directors Guild – and I bet it even wins the SAG ensemble.  These are the things you can just smell in the air.

The only way I see it turning around is if the film gains some backlash now that it’s out front (or once it becomes out front). But the season moves so fast there won’t be time.  12 Years a Slave was out front way too early — because it was out front so many people started complaining about it. The mantra I keep hearing is that it’s only about “slavery was bad.”  They prefer instead a film that doesn’t even pretend to be about anything. Or even if it’s “ABSCAM was bad” that doesn’t hurt it at all.  It’s a big party and the big stars show up at the party.  Moreover, it has everything the Oscar voters like — scantily clad women fighting over men who, in no way shape or form they would ever go for in real life.  Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams fighting over a bald paunchy sad-sack Christian Bale in that movie is something only Hollywood could dream up.

But for those who think 12 Years a Slave is just “slavery is bad” have not really spent much time using their brains. Yeah, you know that big fat organ that sits between your ears, took millions of years to evolve, helped mankind invent tools and technology? Yeah that. Give it a spin some time and see where it takes you.  What could it hurt? But most people go to the movies to be entertained not to problem solve, not to atone, and certainly not to think. If you want to win Best Picture give them something entertaining that doesn’t ask too much of them and sends them back out on the street with a grin. American Hustle — which is probably better than all of the Best Picture winners since The Hurt Locker — does just that.

I find it ironic that when the season first began many were predicting American Hustle to win sight unseen.  Jeff Wells, who is a big fan of David O. Russell beat the drum early for it to be Russell’s moment.  The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg had it predicted to win very early, before anyone had seen it. But then a test screening happened and that test screening downplayed the movie significantly. Everyone shifted their position.   When I first saw it at a SAG screening, the audience’s response was tepid at best.  I walked out of that screening along with Steve Pond, Anne Thompson and Kris Tapley thinking it was good but “not an awards movie.” Anne Thompson even wrote about that very thing.  This all changed when the New York Film critics chose the film as its winner. Suddenly it had the sheen of success on it and from then, I would argue, it became unstoppable, as much as a LOATHE to give the NYFCC any credit at all.  This is why being first can sometimes make the difference.  Being first for the NYFCC meant they could pick a movie most people hadn’t seen and elevate it to supreme status.

If life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, the Oscar race is about trying to make sure no one looks at your movie for Oscar until the time is exactly right.  Now American Hustle can look like the accidental winner, the one that captured the hearts of voters when they were supposed to be voting for more ambitious, more serious films.  But the truth is, American Hustle, like all of the other movies, absolutely had its eye on Oscar from beginning. These movies simply don’t get made otherwise.

Here are the films that have the best shot at winning and from the looks of it there are only three.

1. American Hustle – a film that is  a wacky screwball comedy about a man and a woman — Christian Bale and Amy Adams — pulling a scam. It opens with “some of this actually happened,” thus it never really has to tell the truth about anything and it can deceive you without having to adhere to history or common sense.  It is, I suppose, about fake masks, faux personas and desperation. It’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels meets Goodfellas.  Amy Adams is in love with Christian Bale, then plays Bradley Cooper, then ends up back with Christian Bale. Jennifer Lawrence steals the show as Bale’s wife.  In between are a lot of funny, quirky plot deviations but the story always winds up back on Bale and Adams.  At the end of the day it is really just a screwball comedy not unlike something Frank Capra might have made.

People come out of American Hustle with a smile on their face, toe-tapping to the ’70s soundtrack, jazzed up on the hair and the dresses.  More people say “I loved American Hustle” than they do any other movie.  That, my friends, is how you find a consensus vote. It reminds me of Chicago or Argo — just a big, funny party where nothing is particularly at stake.  Plus, David O. Russell is kind of overdue when you think about it. He’s been at the game a long, long time and perhaps his ship has finally come in.

2. 12 Years a Slave — still the big challenger. This breathtaking, difficult, challenging film is the film about slavery Hollywood owes us and the movie America deserves. No giant consensus of white voters wants to be confronted with either our past or our present, let’s face it. No one wants to confront the idea that the only film to win Best Picture that remotely dealt with American slavery was 1939’s Gone with the Wind – “happy negroes” helping the white folk out of their predicaments.  Hattie McDaniel won the Oscar but was seated so far in the back it took her a very long time to make it to the stage.  In 2012, Quentin Tarantino made a “fun” slavery movie, Django Unchained. Hollywood rewarded it by giving Oscars to Tarantino and Christoph Waltz.  McQueen’s unflinching look at slavery is every bit about today as it is about those times.  It isn’t just “slavery was bad” but how could this man have been put into slavery so easily and for 12 years? How many of these stories exist today and are never told? We wait around for white people to tell those stories but here is one whose source material was written by a slave, whose screenwriter is an African American and was directed by a new voice in cinema, Steve McQueen.

It’s not a rolling party of hard nipples poking through polyester and it doesn’t have a glittering disco ball following it around nor funny teasy sexless sex scenes. It is so much more than that. Hard, yes, intense, absolutely.  Painful and somber? No doubt.  How do you get people to vote for something they can barely think about? No easy task.  When it comes to voting for movies people do what they want to do. They pick what they “like” not what they should.  And what a shame that is.  In the almost 15 years I’ve been Oscar watching I always wondered if there would come a time when a black director would have a shot. They would have to pass the gauntlet of film critics — mostly white, straight males who like films they can relate to. So when 12 Years came along it seemed, for a little while, like it could actually have a shot.  History might be made after all.  For the first time in 86 years a black director would take the stage to accept a gold statue for directing.  Turns out we would see a black president before we see a black director winning an Oscar.

It has stars – check. It has Brad Pitt producing. It has Fox Searchlight’s mighty Oscar campaigning behind it. It has history on its side.  It is one of the most memorable films of the year. And yet, here we are again.  Kitten in a teacup. LIKE.

3. Gravity — all of this might change when the Producers Guild announce their winner and it’s Gravity.  At that point heads will nod in agreement that, yes, Gravity is the one to beat.  Cuaron’s groundbreaking odyssey of a woman in space — who would have figured any director would have the balls in 2013 to make a movie about a woman?  A singular woman who must fight for survival.  For all of the humanity in Cuaron’s brilliant work, the dazzling special effects are part of what makes this film such a standout in 2013.  Gravity, to me, is as much a metaphor about endurance as J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost but Cuaron somehow managed to make it be about women specifically.  Women who must juggle being mothers with working with aging with attractiveness with sexiness. And all the while gravity is pulling them down every day, aging them, making them saggy and wrinkly.  But you know, Sandra Bullock found the truth in who she was in those dark, silent moments in space.  That sense of identity and strength is what pulls her back down to earth, to a place where she very much appreciates every minute that gravity pins her to earth.

The truth is that we don’t know how the consensus will go when all is said and done. But my thinking is this. If the National Society of Film Critics, the highest and most elite group of critics in the country, can’t even reward 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture what hope does it have with the much bigger groups?  If there was going to be any group that rewarded a film of such beauty it should have been them.  They went for Inside Llewyn Davis but their runner-up was American Hustle.  And if American Hustle is good enough for New York and the National Society, it sure as shit will be good enough for the industry.

The question for me is whether I will officially change my prediction over at Movie City News and Gold Derby or not. I haven’t quite learned how to let it go.


Best Picture

1. American Hustle
2. 12 Years a Slave
3. Gravity
4. Captain Phillips
5. Nebraska
6. Her
7. Dallas Buyers Club
8. Saving Mr. Banks
9. The Wolf of Wall Street
10. Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Actor
1. Bruce Dern, Nebraska
2. Chiwetel Ejiofor. 12 Years a Slave
3. Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
4. Robert Redford, All is Lost
5. Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips

Best Actress
1. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
2. Sandra Bullock, Gravity
3. Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
4. Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
5. Judi Dench, Philomena

Supporting Actor
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Barkhad Abdi Captain Phillips
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Daniel Bruhl, Rush
Alt. Bradley Cooper, American Hustle, James Gandolfini, Enough Said

Supporting Actress
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Oprah Winfrey, The Butler
June Squibb, Nebraska
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

David O. Russell, American Hustle
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
Alt. Spike Jonze, Her, Alexander Payne, Nebraska, Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis, Jean-Marc Vallée, Dallas Buyers Club

Original Screenplay
Eric Singer, David O. Russell, American Hustle
Spike Jonze, Her
Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Bob Nelson, Nebraska
Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
Alt. Craig Borten, Dallas Buyers Club

Adapted Screenplay
John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Tracy Letts, August: Osage County
Terrence Winter, Wolf of Wall Street
Steve Coogan, Philomena
Billy Ray, Captain Phillips
Alt. Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater, Before Midnight