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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 2011-2012)

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.

2011

Demian Bichir, A Better Life

George Clooney, The Descendants

Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Analysis:

SAG matched 4/5. No Oldman. They had DiCaprio for J. Edgar instead.

BAFTA matched 4/5. They had Michael Fassbender for Shame instead of Bichir.

BFCA matched 4/5. DiCaprio and Fassbender instead of Oldman and Bichir.

The Globes matched 3/5 across both categories. No Oldman, no Bichir.

This one was 4/5 locked, I remember, and then Oldman was a dark horse fighting for the fifth spot alongside Fassbender and DiCaprio. Mostly DiCaprio. I was so happy when I saw him get on.

Dujardin won SAG, BAFTA and the Globe for Comedy.

Clooney won BFCA and the Globe for Drama.

This was 75% Dujardin, 25% Clooney, even though people liked to think of it as a tighter race.

A Better Life is one of the quieter Best Actor nominations. That is, it’s a very great, smaller performance that almost never gets on. And it was nice to see, even though this has already joined the ranks of “what the hell is that” when you go back to look at it.

The best way to describe this movie — Bicycle Thieves with Mexicans.

Demian Bichir is a guy who trims palm trees in LA. His boss wants to sell his gardening business and goes back to Mexico. Bichir decides to buy it, taking all his savings (and a loan) and putting it into purchasing the man’s truck and tools and things. However, on his first day, the guy he hires to help him steals the truck. So Bichir takes his son out to try to find this man, as the truck is basically the only thing he has going for him in the world. And without it, he’s fucked.

Bichir is really great in this movie, and the nomination is clearly his reward. Normally this would go totally unnoticed. It’s a very indie kind of performance, and not one that really stands out to me. It’s good work out of him, but not something I’d want to nominate. I’m happy he’s here, but he rates fifth for me in the category.

The Descendants is Alexander Payne, man. Every time I want him to make a bad movie, he doesn’t.

George Clooney is a Hawaiian dude (I know, I know) whose wife gets into a jetski accident. They put her in a coma to keep the brain swelling down, but pretty soon we find out that she isn’t gonna wake up. So now he’s faced with the prospect of raising his two daughters on his own and figuring all these things out. It gets more complicated when he finds out his wife was having an affair.

Clooney is really fucking good here. He gets rid of a lot of his looks and stylishness, portraying a sort of flubby, middle-aged dude. He has a lot of really strong moments, particularly, as everyone remembers, the scene at the end where he says goodbye to his wife. Somehow, with Clooney, it always ends with “in any other year…” In this case, this could have been his year. It was a really weird situation, where they completely fell in love with another performance and went for that. I’m not totally disagreeing with their choice, but, if there was ever a performance of his that both could have won and would have looked good based on who he beat, this would be the one. He’ll contend for sure for me. Top two, likely.

The Artist is just a fucking wodnerful movie. One of those films destined to be my favorite film of the year that somehow caught on and became the Academy’s favorite film of the year. (This would happen again in 2014 and may happen again this year as well.)

This is a silent film about a silent movie star whose career goes down the toilet once sound happens. Meanwhile an actress he sort of has a relationship has her star rise while his falls. It’s a mix of many situations you’ve seen before, but wonderfully, wonderfully done.

Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, the star, and he’s fucking wonderful here. It’s a charming performance that really makes use of the silent film style, especially given that English is not Dujardin’s first language. He’s really terrific here, but I can’t say the performance is anything truly special. He’s just really charming and maybe makes third for me just because I love the film so much and appreciate the work he put in. But this isn’t the best performance in the category, as much as I’d want it to be.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is John le Carré, which is just the recipe for a great movie.

After a botched mission in Budapest, British Intelligence realizes there is a spy in their midst. It’s one of a core group of four men. George Smiley, a retired agent, is brought back to investigate who the spy is. And it’s fucking great.

Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, and this is the performance of his career. He’s so restrained and wonderful here, this is the kind of acting that makes you realize what a treasure Gary Oldman is as an actor, and how horribly unnoticed he’s gone throughout his entire career. I’ve never hid the fact that I thought this was the best performance of this year and would vote for it no matter what. This is another one of those situations where most people figure the award is A vs. B, and I end up going, “Well my favorite is option C. What about that one?” I’m going to vote for him because I can’t imagine this isn’t the best performance in the category.

Moneyball is a film that was set up for disaster, and then turned into a near masterpiece.

The film is about Billy Beane and his adherence to sabermetrics in order to try to get a winning team out of a smaller market with only a fraction of the payroll the larger market teams have. So he hires a bunch of people that get on base rather than seem flashy to the older scouts. And this method, while seeming terrible at first, actually does start to work out, and may, just may, change the face of baseball forever.

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, and he is just wonderful here. The best moments of this film are the quiet moments of him doing almost nothing. There are full scenes here where Pitt barely moves, and when he moves so much as an inch, it conveys all the emotion he needs to. It’s really fucking great work out of him. He’s probably third on performance for me and, unfortunately, I’d only vote for him fourth just because I am a bit of a sucker for the Dujardin performance. But still, Pitt is really good here and deserves to be taken very seriously for a win in this category.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s Gary Oldman for me. It always was Gary Oldman, and it’ll likely always be Gary Oldman. He’s so good here as Smiley, I can’t believe he was such an afterthought when this category went down. Clooney is a solid second who would have been a good winner otherwise. Pitt is third on performance but I prefer Dujardin, who is charming, but not wholly transcendent with his performance. I get it, but I wouldn’t take him over at least Oldman or Clooney. Oldman is the choice for me. What he accomplishes here is really great.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  2. George Clooney, The Descendants
  3. Jean Dujardin, The Artist
  4. Brad Pitt, Moneyball
  5. Demian Bichir, A Better Life

Rankings (films):

  1. The Artist
  2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  3. Moneyball
  4. The Descendants
  5. A Better Life

My Vote: Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Recommendations:

The Artist is a Best Picture winner and as such is essential for film buffs.

The Descendants is Alexander Payne and his movies are essential.

Moneyball is Bennett Miller and his movies are essential.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a movie I consider essential and don’t think any film buff should skip. Objectively, it’s just a very, very high recommend, but for my purposes, you need to have seen this movie.

A Better Life is a solid indie. Worth a watch, but not essential and not something you need to rush out and see. I’d see it and then if you like it go, “Well, now check out Bicycle Thieves, because if you thought this was good, wait til you see this one.”

The Last Word: This isn’t gonna go down as a particularly great winner just because Dujardin isn’t gonna have the career of three of these other actors. I think Oldman was the best performance and should have won. He’d likely have been a decent, but not overly memorable winner for most. Clooney would have been the most memorable and probably held up best. Pitt actually would have been solid, but this doesn’t feel like the kind of performance that wins. Dujardin only holds up okay because the film won Best Picture, and you can tie his win into their overall love for the film and make the case that it’s not actually that bad because at least they went all in on it. But on performance and everything else, this isn’t a particularly great winner. I can’t say it’s that horrendous, though (outside of the names of who he beat), just because there’s no other performance in the category I can point to as having been the clear better choice.

– – – – – – – – – –

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2012

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook

Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables

Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

Denzel Washington, Flight

Analysis:

Let’s get the easy part out of the way first — Daniel Day-Lewis wasn’t losing this.

SAG matched 4/5. They had John Hawkes instead of Phoenix.

BAFTA matched 4/5. They had Affleck for Argo instead of Denzel.

BFCA matched 5/5 out of six nominees. John Hawkes was the sixth.

The Globes matched 5/5 across both categories.

This one was easy. The five were the obvious five, with John Hawkes the likely sixth being left out. Very straightforward, this one.

Silver Linings Playbook is David O. Russell doing his “Fighter” thing again, but with better results.

Bradley Cooper plays a teacher who has a mental breakdown after he catches his wife cheating on him. We catch up with him as he leaves an institution and comes home to live with his parents. And he strikes up a friendship with Jennifer Lawrence, a widower who lives in his neighborhood. And together, they train to enter a dance competition together. Trust me, it’s better than it sounds.

Cooper is actually really good here. I never realized originally how great he is, but this is a really strong performance. He does the manic scenes really well, and conveys everything about this guy with energy that you don’t always see out of an actor. It’s quite, quite good. He doesn’t win here, but what may seem like a fifth or fourth choice and a nomination that came along with the film, he’s actually almost a third choice here. I’d take him fourth, but he’s surprisingly great in this role, and it’s a shame the performance happened in one of the strongest years in recent memory.

Lincoln is about Abraham Lincoln and his fight to pass the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln. And I’m not gonna say anything about this performance except — he wins.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about.

Les Misérables is one of the greatest stage musicals ever made and now is translated into a film with very mixed reactions.

Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. This basically ruins his life, as now he’s marked as a thief and cannot get work anywhere. He then starts a new identity elsewhere, breaking his parole, and tries to restart his life. However, he’s doggedly pursued by Inspector Javert, who stays on his tail for nearly twenty years.

Hugh Jackman plays Valjean, and this is the role of a lifetime for him. He knocks it completely out of the park, especially with the way that Hooper shoots the film, allowing his actors to both sing and act in single takes. At the time, I said Jackman would have won this if Daniel Day-Lewis weren’t nominated. I’m not sure I quite go that far, since the film does stray away from him at times. But I do think he delivers a career best performance and is well worth the nomination. I’d take him third, but most people would have him fourth here. I get it.

The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson. And shit, man, is it memorable.

I don’t even know how to describe this movie. Joaquin Phoenix comes back from World War II all fucked up. Even more so than he probably was beforehand. And he ends up in the circle of Philip Seymour Hoffman, an L. Ron Hubbard figure who has started his own religion. And he and Phoenix become fascinated by one another, and the film is about this weird relationship they have. It’s pretty spellbinding.

Speaking of spellbinding, holy shit, Joaquin Phoenix. He disappeared from movies for about three years and came back with this fucking performance. Goddamn, man. You figure it out about ten minutes in, “Look at what this fucking guy’s doing.” And then there’s that long scene where he’s taking people’s pictures in the store, and the camera just stays on him the entire time, as he’s walking around like a wild animal — you can’t take your eyes off him. But, what ultimately prevents me from taking him over Daniel Day-Lewis — as great as Phoenix is here, and he is really great, and the amount of inner turmoil and rage he conveys is truly breathtaking… I can see him working. I watch this performance and see Joaquin Phoenix trying really hard to put on a great performance. Most of the time, that’s enough. But not against Daniel Day-Lewis. Not this year.

Flight is a welcome back nomination for Denzel, who fell into a rut of the same performance for a decade. And promptly went back to it afterward.

He plays an airline pilot who is an alcoholic. He gets on his plane after a bender of drinking and cocaine where he fucked one of his stewardesses. And what starts as a routine flight ends up as a near death experience where the plane is about to crash and kill everyone on board. And his instincts lead to him turning the plane upside down in order to save everyone. And it works. However, now he has to face a board hearing (like Sully, same deal) for his actions, and his alcoholism proves to be a difficult point, since if they find it out, he’s done for. So he has to try to keep himself clean until the day of the hearing, all the while feeling guilt over everything and still being a pretty pitiful alcoholic. It’s a great performance.

This is the most un-Denzel role he’s had in a long time, and he’s wonderful in it. Most years, he’d be much higher than this. But here, he’s fifth. He doesn’t rate particularly well against these other performances. He might make fourth for some, but for me, this is a nice nomination but doesn’t contend at all against the competition. No way he’s the vote for anyone in this category. It’s too strong.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Fucking Daniel Day-Lewis wins this. You know how I know he wins this? Because I watched Flight and said, “Oh, Denzel is actually giving a real performance in this one.” And I watched Les Mis and went, “Fuck yeah, Hugh. Great job!” And I watched Silver Linings and went, “Damn, Cooper, this is some great work.” And I watched The Master and went, “Holy fuck, Joaquin, this is brilliant.”

But you know what? When I watched Lincoln, I went, “Tommy Lee Jones is so great. And James Spader is awesome.” And I went through actor after actor after actor, and then went, “And then there was President Lincoln.” And the minute I thought of Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln and not himself, it was over. I couldn’t possibly vote for anyone else. It’s nearly impossible for me to be so transported by a performance that I stop seeing the actor in it. I almost felt that way about Joaquin Phoenix, but to omuch of that performance draws attention to itself and shows you Joaquin Phoenix putting in the work. Daniel Day-Lewis is so effortless you literally think you’re watching the 16th President of the United States of America. And that’s game over.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
  2. Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
  3. Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables
  4. Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
  5. Denzel Washington, Flight

Rankings (films):

  1. Les Misérables
  2. Silver Linings Playbook
  3. Lincoln
  4. The Master
  5. Flight

My Vote: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Recommendations:

This is easy.

Lincoln. Spielberg. Essential.

The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson. Essential.

Silver Linings Playbook. David O. Russell. Essential.

Les Misérables. One of the five or ten greatest musicals ever made. I love the film, it won an Oscar, it has a great cast, most people should at least hear the songs in it. I think you should see it. Objectively it’s just a high recommend. I get that a lot of people will hate it. That’s fine. But I still think it’s worth seeing for a variety of reasons.

Flight is a really solid movie that’s really engaging and really well made. Zemeckis is usually good for a high recommend. And this is a really terrific film. Definitely worth a watch.

The Last Word: This is one of the five or ten best decisions ever made. It’s staggering what Daniel Day-Lewis achieves here. That renders all other arguments moot. I know there are other great performances here, but his… wow.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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2 responses

  1. I oh so hate it when those who rationalize voting for Joaquin Phoenix do so by talking down on DDL’s Lincoln.

    December 1, 2016 at 1:59 pm

    • DDL doesn’t just play Abraham Lincoln. DDL IS Abraham Lincoln.

      December 7, 2016 at 4:33 am

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