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The State of the Race: A Wolf Crashes the Party

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The early morning streets of Los Angeles were virtually empty as I drove down Wilshire towards the Academy theater. Nothing the Academy does is ever, to borrow a term my mother often uses, “half-assed.” Parking was easy. Getting into the theater, easy. A lavish breakfast spread put out as a courtesy to the hungry press. Before the nominations were announced, press gathered in the best theater where I have ever seen movie — their equipment surpassing the velvet-covered seats. Camera flashed, tripods obscured the view and those of us without cameras, and without special VIP badges, were seated in the very back. By the time the nomination announcement ended, Academy staff would be waiting with the full nominations list packed neatly and cleanly in white envelopes. Dealing with them is always a pleasure. One of the only reasons to deal with them actually.

Today’s nominations would complete narratives being constructed by Oscar bloggers and journalists over the past several weeks. Would 12 Years a Slave become the first film by black artists – written by, directed by and starring — to surpass all its rivals? No, it would not. Would the recent controversy surrounding Saving Mr. Banks hurt its chances ultimately? And would the strong female role Emma Thompson played take the brunt? Yes. Would one of the only female writers in the screenplay race be shut out? Yes, she would. Would The Wolf of Wall Street make the cut, despite having been “too offensive” for some? Absolutely. That last thing very nearly vindicates the Academy’s otherwise annoying choices in some categories.

American Hustle becomes David O. Russell’s second film to earn four acting nominations. With that fact alone, it seems hard to imagine anything else winning at this point. This industry revolves around everything American Hustle represents – sex, the nostalgia of the past, a screwball narrative that’s entertaining without making you think too hard. Check, check and check. The flip side of Hustle is Wolf, which hits the bulls-eye, taking aim at the America most of us deserve. If there’s one thing we know about industry voters, however, they prefer the uptick rather than the downbeat which is the only thing that can explain the virtual shut-out of Inside Llewyn Davis.

Women really got fucked, and no I’m not talking about Amy Adams with her legs flipped over Christian Bale’s shoulders in Hustle — or Margot Robbie taking for one last unbearable time. No, the writers — Kelly Marcel for Saving Mr. Banks. The writer/director Sarah Polley for Stories We Tell. And the biggest and most heartbreaking snub of all, Blackfish’s Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Women did what they were required to do — make movies that struck a chord with critics and audiences. But they were not rewarded today. The Academy even managed to find a way to shut out Scorsese’s longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker for her dazzling, incomparable work on The Wolf of Wall Street, effectively crippling Wolf’s chances for a Best Picture win, which it would deserve.

There was much to celebrate, however. The Best Picture lineup does not seem to feature a single bad apple. These are all good films. 12 Years a Slave makes history once again just with the sheer number of nominations for black filmmakers. It becomes only the second film in 86 years of Oscar history written and directed by a black artists. 9 nominations does but it ahead of the pack but the film shows up in all the important categories, like editing, directing, writing and acting. Best Picture is very likely American Hustle’s to lose but the mere presence of 12 Years a Slave nipping at it’s stiletto heels might hopefully give some hope to filmmakers out there who don’t fit the usual industry demographic.

The BAFTA was a clear indicator that Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Leonardo DiCaprio were going to get nominations. It was also a harbinger that Robert Redford would not. Not even the members of the Academy could watch All is Lost, which is a shame, given what a courageous thing it was for J.C. Chandor to pull off. In the end, though, actors like to be seen and heard. Take out “seen,” (as with Scarlett Johansson) and you have disembodied voices or performance capture. Take out “heard” and you have Redford in All is Lost. I do think that was a bigger reason than his lack of campaigning, although for his pride’s sake I’m glad now that he did not campaign. If they weren’t going to reward him on the work alone campaigning would not be worth it. Chandor and his team should be very proud of what the film they made, what they set out to do, and what they accomplished.

The Best Picture race comes down to scoring in a few key categories, usually. Editing and directing are usually part of that deal, although last year’s omission of Ben Affleck proved that director matters less than star power, perhaps, or maybe it doesn’t matter that much at all anymore, at least not as much as it used to. Alfonso Cuaron, David O. Russell and Steve McQueen appear to be the ones to beat. Cuaron is Russell’s biggest problem, and vice versa. Or you might think Cuaron and McQueen divide their vote with Russell taking the lions share. Remember, American Hustle and Gravity only have one more nomination than 12 Years a Slave.

We are staring down at history for the first time since I’ve been watching Oscar — that’s 15 years ago. I’ve been here to see Kathryn Bigelow win. Alfonso Cuaron might become the first Mexican director to win. Steve McQueen might become the first black director to win. Or neither will win and we’re just see what we see every year: they pick the film they like.

Like the faces at the end of The Wolf of Wall Street we stare up at our heroes. That is the theme of this year’s Oscar Night broadcast. Heroes. Tom Hanks is a hero in Captain Phillips. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a hero in 12 Years a Slave. Sandra Bullock is a hero in Gravity. Judi Dench is a hero in Philomena. Matthew McCoonaughey is a hero in Dallas Buyers Club. But American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street, Nebraska, and Her do not feature traditional heroes. These films are about lost men who dangle off the edge of human existence, living lives of either quiet desperation or continually doing the wrong thing. Inside Llewyn Davis belongs on that list, and will remain one of the best-remembered films of 2013.

With nominations locked down, we now await a weekend where almost all the remaining puzzle pieces will fall into place. American Hustle is riding high, and will likely take the PGA, SAG this weekend and BFCA tonight. The dust will either settle from there or there will be a momentum shift that will swing things in another direction. We have never seen that happen since the Academy expanded the Best Picture race. Might it happen this year? It’s tough to say. We look to our heroes for the answer. It is so much easier to look to them than to look to ourselves.

To my mind there are two Best Pictures of 2013 — The Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years a Slave. In them I see vital, vivid filmmaking. Two maverick directors who don’t need to explain their artistic choices to anybody. They create by intuition. But the consensus isn’t going to agree. I tuck that opinion in the place I’ve put the rest of them when they didn’t align with the consensus. I have discovered that I really don’t need the validation of a consensus to tell me what is best. We might need heroes to transform us from the ordinary, but we should always remember, this year and every year, that none of it really means that much. This is the first night of a celebration, is all. We put on our finery, float upwards into the rarified air to share with our heroes their moment of triumph. But the lights will come back up. The balloons will float back down to the ground. We will be left to sweep up the confetti before stumbling back out into the familiar air of everyday reality.