The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 2013-2014)
The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.
I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.
This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
So this year, I remember there being three locks, one obvious choice, and one surprise that doesn’t seem so much like a surprise in hindsight.
Every precursor had Abdi, Fassbender and Leto on their lists. So those three were always on, and nobody questioned that. Then, among the other precursors, Bradley Cooper only had a Golden Globe nomination, but he still seemed like he was gonna get on because — more on that in a second. Daniel Bruhl actually had a SAG, BAFTA and Globe nomination for Rush, and on that alone, seemed like a lock. Yet just looking at him, the film and the performance, it never really felt like something that fit except based on pure data. Which is how Jonah Hill snuck in. More on him too in a second. The only other person who managed a precursor was James Gandolfini (posthumously). And that was its own different thing. He was never seriously going to be nominated.
So, only having three locks and one probable lock, Bradley Cooper seemed like an easy nominee, and most people had that. The Jonah Hill nomination came as something of a surprise. Though we do know the film missed SAG deadlines, which is how that didn’t happen. And as we know now (especially after Tom Hardy’s nomination this past year), Leo brings actors with him when he gets nominated. So in hindsight, it’s an obvious choice, though at the time, it seemed more like a dark horse and pleasant surprise, since Bruhl looked like he had that fifth spot all sewn up.
And then, once the category happened, Jared Leto led it from wire to wire and wasn’t ever going to lose. That much is definitely true. There was no competition here.
As for the category…
Captain Phillips is one of those films that didn’t sound particularly appealing when they announced it. And even when I saw a trailer I only reluctantly said, “Okay, I guess that could be okay.” I was not prepared for it to be as good as it was. Which is probably due to Paul Greengrass.
It’s about an American cargo shipped that’s hijacked by Somali pirates. And we follow the ship throughout the entire ordeal. It’s really great.
Barkhad Abdi plays the leader of the pirates. And, while he doesn’t really have so much of an arc, you completely understand why he’s doing what he’s doing, who this guy is, and man, does he make an impression. It’s one of the more impressive film debuts I’ve seen. I’m not sure I take him here, but he definitely merited a nomination and even strongly contends in what might be one of the five strongest Best Supporting Actor categories of all time.
American Hustle is a real fun film. I don’t think it’s a masterpiece, but I do think it’s a rollicking good time. It’ll be nice to have some separation from this, since I don’t know if this is actually a good film or a mediocre film hidden underneath layers of good actors and great music. But whatever.
It’s about ABSCAM. A couple of con artists who get pulled in by the government to create a scam to trap government officials accepting bribes. And then you get into the specifics — Christian Bale is married to Jennifer Lawrence but has been separated from her for years. He’s with Amy Adams. Meanwhile Bradley Cooper is an FBI agent trying to bring down politicians, namely Jeremy Renner. And they all create a whole fake scam about Arab oil money, and pretending it’s gonna go to fix the city, and entertaining shit happens.
Bradley Cooper is really good as the FBI agent. He’s overly ambitious and allows his ambitious to get him caught up in this plan. He allows Adams to seduce him and gets caught up in the ever-growing web of this plan, and starts to lose his shit in his obsession with Adams and his increasing drug use. He’s really strong in the film, and I remember thinking he was the best of all four of the nominees from the film. This is a rough category though. Most years I’d have him second or even first. Here, he might drop as low as fourth, if not fifth. It’s a really tough category.
12 Years a Slave is a self-explanatory film. Free black man in the north is wrongly sold into slavery down south, and remains a slave for 12 years until he manages to get out and return to his family. Great film. Chiwetel Ejiofor is terrific, as is most of the cast.
Michael Fassbender plays the slave owner of the plantation where Ejiofor is sent. Or rather, the second place he’s sent. The first one has a kind owner and a terrible foreman, and he gets sold off before he can be killed there. Fassbender, meanwhile, is a mean drunk who sleeps with one of his slaves, and whose policy is whoever picks the least amount of cotton that day gets beaten. He’s a mean, mean son of a bitch. Fassbender plays him perfectly. He’s big when he needs to be and subtle when he needs to be. Terrific performance and a fantastic first nomination for him.
Here’s a performance that, in a regular year, is a perfectly acceptable winner. But here, I don’t think I take him. Maybe he’s third. I say that Cooper is more entertaining but Fassbender gives the better technical performance. And then Abdi is just believable enough to be in there too. I still say these next two are my favorites.
The Wolf of Wall Street is just a great movie. Scorsese, DiCaprio, fun shit.
Jordan Belfort is a guy who goes from the bottom of wall street to the very top… by doing lots of illegal stock trading. But hey, it makes him rich, and we get to see him party and do lots of drugs and have sex with Margot Robbie. So it’s not all bad. This movie is almost three hours, and nobody cares. It’s great.
Jonah Hill plays Donnie Azoff, a neighbor of his who steals the movie from the first minute he’s on screen. He may have married his cousin, and he also immediately quits his job when he sees that DiCaprio makes a crazy amount of money each month. He also, within the first five minutes of being on screen, invites DiCaprio to smoke crack with him. The rest of his scenes are all just crazy fun. There’s not really a character arc here, but fuck is Hill good in the part. At the beginning of the film, I kept waiting for Matthew McConaughey to come back, and then Hill showed up and I stopped thinking about him. To me, this was the best in the category. Was the performance technically the best? No, but he was my favorite.
Dallas Buyers Club is a film that walks such a tightrope that it could have easily been a VOD piece of shit. But it’s the performances that keep it as strong as it is.
It’s about Ron Woodruff, your classic beer drinking, woman chasing rodeo rider from Texas, who one day finds out he has AIDS. Which, this is back in the 80s, so everyone just assumes only gay people get AIDS. So he fights with the diagnosis that he has no time left, and seeks out alternative medicine and treatment, eventually smuggling in all sorts of medication from Mexico and starting a “club” that gives it out to those who are infected.
Jared Leto plays Rayon, a trans woman who is also HIV positive. She and Woodruff share a hospital room and Woodruff eventually warms up to her and they become friends. They even become business partners. And there’s a heartbreaking scene where she goes to her father to ask for money, shortly before she dies. Leto’s characterization of this woman is heartbreaking. And while Jared Leto might not be my first choice for an Oscar, there’s really no denying this win. Everyone in this category was good enough to take this down, but shit, did Leto really earn this one.
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The Reconsideration: I don’t really know what there is to consider, since we’re not even three full years out from this, but this is a category with five legitimate vote-worthy choices. So I’m gonna treat this the way I treated it last time.
Abdi, to me, is great and utterly believable, but so much of the performance is already there for him. While I will rate him solidly, I wouldn’t take him over at least two other people, so I can’t take him. Cooper gives what’s probably the weakest performance, so he’d probably be fifth for me. Three years ago, I’d have taken him over Abdi, but now I’d take Abdi over him. I think he’s great but the others all have more compelling cases and performances.
Fassbender is fantastic but something about the performance doesn’t make me want to take him over the other two. And it’s insane to me that he’s a #3 and with just a hair’s length difference he’d be a #1. But that’s this category.
To me, it’s Leto and Hill. Hill clearly doesn’t give the type of performance that you’d think is worthy of an Oscar. And most people would have him at the bottom with Cooper, I imagine. But I love the performance and it’s my favorite in the category.
But to be perfectly honest, and I’m sure I said this last time — Leto gives the best performance. So he’s the choice. Hill is my favorite and I took Hill at the time because I wanted to see him win and vote for my favorite performance, but with time to think about it (and my wanting to pick the best performances this time out), I’ll vote Leto, because he really did deserve this.
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- Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
- Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
- Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
- Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
- Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
- The Wolf of Wall Street
- 12 Years a Slave
- Captain Phillips
- American Hustle
- Dallas Buyers Club
My Vote: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
All five of these movies are essential. 12 Years a Slave is a Best Picture (and Supporting Actress) winner and is gonna hold up great as a winner and solidly as a film. It’ll stay essential. The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese and it will always be essential. Plus it’s great and will be one of those entry level films like Goodfellas and the like in a few years, if it’s not already. American Hustle is David O. Russell, and as I said yesterday, pretty much all his films from Three Kings onward are essential. Everything before is negotiable. Though I guess, with Joy, even that’s negotiable now too. But that stretch with all the Oscar nominations — totally essential, this movie. This will also be one of those entry level movies in a few years. Captain Phillips is essential because it’s fucking great. Paul Greengrass, Hanks — this is gonna be an essential movie, just not on the level the others are. In its own way, this will continue to be an essential film. And Dallas Buyers Club will mainly be essential because of the two wins, but also because it’s a great film. For now, it’s essential. Maybe ten years, it’s less so, but for now, it is.
The Last Word: Leto was the best performance, and will probably be the best choice in the category over time. But we’re not even close to knowing if that’s the case, so I can’t say anything else except he was a great decision. This might be one of the strongest categories of all time and they’re all worthy of the win, but for now, Leto was the best choice.
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Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K Simmons, Whiplash
This was one of the most boring races in recent years. These five were nominated across the board, the only alternate being BAFTA, who put Steve Carell supporting instead of lead for Foxcatcher. Other than that, all five nominated everywhere, and the only alternate possibility was Josh Brolin for Inherent Vice, which never seemed like a legitimate possibility (even though I’d have loved it).
And then, after that, J.K. Simmons had it won from the jump. It was locked before nominations happened. He coasted all the way through the season.
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The Judge is an Oscar film that wasn’t. The only reason it got this is because Duvall is such a veteran in such an Oscar bait role (and such a thin year for supporting actors. There was really only one alternative to him when voting happened). But it’s cool. This will probably be his final nomination after a long and great career (42 years after his first film, too).
It’s about a big time lawyer coming back to his small town to defend his father, a famous town judge, on a murder charge. And they have a strained relationship, of course, and it’s about him coming to terms with his past and his family and also getting to the bottom of this charge.
Duvall plays the father, of course. And the crux of the character is that he’s crusty and is bitter toward his son because of an incident when he was younger. Duvall is fine here. Good enough to warrant a nomination, but also not great enough to miss him if he weren’t here. Plus, the film isn’t doing him any favors. He’s easily #5 here and I don’t think anyone actually puts him above any of the other performances in this category. It’s a nice veteran nomination, and nothing more. This is what Fred Astaire was in The Towering Inferno without the crazy notion that he would win simply because he’s a veteran.
Boyhood is Richard Linklater’s masterpiece. Which is weird to say, since he’s made about a half-dozen or more great films.
It’s about a boy growing up, from 6 to 18, and we have a 20 minute segment of his life each of those years. And the film was shot every year for 12 years. It’s a brilliant concept and quite a good film too.
Ethan Hawke plays the boy’s father. And that’s pretty much it. Hawke is always solid, and he does his usual thing here, and mostly he’s rewarded for playing the same part for 12 straight years. That’s really it. I don’t love the performance. For me, he’s fourth in the category and all the other three were clearly stronger than him. I don’t think anyone can really take him here. But hey, some people really like this movie. So maybe.
Birdman is gonna be a really interesting film to track over the next couple decades. I wanna see how it holds up.
Michael Keaton plays a washed up actor who used to be in the biggest superhero franchise in the world but now can’t get work. And he’s put all of his money into an adaptation of a play on Broadway and is really hoping it works. And of course a lot of horrible shit is going wrong as they approach opening night and he’s slowly working his way to a mental breakdown, including his own superhero character following him around and talking to him. What makes the film so great is that they shot it to look like it all happens in a single, continuous take.
Edward Norton plays Mike Shiner, a top Broadway actor who is as well-known as he is eccentric. He takes over for an injured actor and immediately he starts making weird demands and almost trying to take over the play from Keaton. He and Keaton start a weird rivalry, and he also starts flirting with Keaton’s daughter. At one of the previews he breaks character and starts ranting because they didn’t put real gin on the stage, and tries to have sex with Naomi Watts while on the stage.
Norton’s great here. I loved him in this and I think he’d have contended much more if there weren’t such a clear cut winner in this category. Unfortunately, there is, so he’s handing around 2/3 with the next nominee. Not to mention the fact that he basically disappears for the entire last act of the film. That hurts him. The film just gives up on him and leaves him alone for the rest of it.
Foxcatcher is Bennett Miller. And every time Bennett Miller makes a movie (which is twice now, since you can’t do it before his first one), I go, “That seems like a weird choice. How can that be good?” And then it is.
This is about Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler who ends up starting a wrestling team for a weird millionaire John du Pont. He brings his brother with them and they start training for the next Olympics. Only things are really strange, the millionaire is possessive, and… yeah. It’s a hard movie to explain, but it works.
Mark Ruffalo plays Dave Schultz, Mark’s brother, and from the opening scene, it’s clear how great he is in this performance. He’s the older brother who is a better wrestler than his brother and has his shit together. And he’s not trying to rub it in his brother’s face but it’s something that constantly eats away at his brother in the most quiet, subtle ways. Ruffalo plays it perfectly. He loves his brother, and he constantly shows it. Which makes the whole situation so sad — because everyone knows he loves his brother, yet that only underscores how lonely and isolated his brother is. The opening scene is terrific, where they’re just warming up together. And then it gets a little more competitive, but not really, and it becomes clear that Ruffalo is just better, and Tatum starts to try harder to beat him, and it just doesn’t happen at all, and he gets upset about it. Of course it’s immediately dissipated because Ruffalo brings him in for a hug. But it perfectly encapsulates these two guys’ relationships.
Ruffalo is perfect here. In another year, he might win. Here, I loved him, but I put him third, just because Norton was more entertaining to me. He’s quietly better than Norton, and he’s probably second in terms of pure performance. But he’s still second, and there’s still a clear winner in the category.
Whiplash is a film that I did not see coming at all. It won Sundance and my response to Sundance winners is always, “Yeah, okay, whatever.” And then, usually without fail, when I see them I go, “Oh, this is great.” Going back — this, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Like Crazy — all in my top 20. And then you have Fruitvale, Precious, Winter’s Bone… they’re all pretty solid. Anyway, as this was coming out I started to get really excited for it. And then when I saw it, I was just blown away by how good it was. This is one of those movies I can show to anyone and know they’ll love it.
It’s about a drummer studying at a musical conservatory who wants to be in the top level band the school has, which is run by J.K. Simmons, who is known as the hardest, but best teacher out there. And he’s… a character. He’s loud, verbally abusive, and when he gets on screen, your eyes are glued to the screen. I can’t so much as explain the character as much as say, yes. When you see this film, you will understand why he won this award and why he should have won this award. This should be one of the most unanimous categories in history. And the fact that there are two strong performances in the category as well and it’s still that way should tell you how strong Simmons is in this film. Sometimes someone is just that good. And he is.
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The Reconsideration: This is J.K. Simmons’ category. Is there any question about that? No way is he not the most memorable, most exciting, most electric performance in the category. He steps on screen and that movie takes off. Give this five years, he’ll still be the vote. Doesn’t matter how good everyone else was, Simmons was better. He earned this, he deserved this, he’s the vote.
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- J.K Simmons, Whiplash
- Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
- Edward Norton, Birdman
- Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
- Robert Duvall, The Judge
- The Judge
My Vote: J.K Simmons, Whiplash
We’re two years out, so these don’t mean a whole lot. Birdman is essential. Won Best Picture, and people love it. Not gonna change. Might even become a near-entry level film for people. Curious to see how that plays out.
Boyhood is already all-time essential. The way he made it, this will continue to be essential for all film buffs. Conceptually it’s a masterpiece. This isn’t going anywhere.
Whiplash is essential because of the win and because it’s fucking incredible. Also might be entry level in a few years. Until then, see it if you love film, because it’s a movie that 95% of people will love.
Foxcatcher is essential because of Bennett Miller. His three films have all been essential in their own way and they’ve been great. For now, I’m erring on the side of essential. Maybe in ten years it’ll be just very good and a high recommend (kind of like Capote is slipping into, but even there the win keeps it afloat), but for now, essential.
The Judge — ehh. It’s a good idea. But this is an Oscar movie from the 90s made today. It’s overlong, not particularly great, but solid. Worth a watch if you have the time, but otherwise is completely skippable.
The Last Word: Simmons is the choice, he was the best choice and he’ll hold up over time as the best choice. I don’t think anyone can argue that. This is his category, and he’ll probably end up being one of the better choices for all time in this category.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)