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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best 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.

2013

Christian Bale, American Hustle

Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Chiewetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Analysis:

SAG matched 3/5. No DiCaprio, no Bale. They had Forest Whitaker for The Butler and Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips instead.

BAFTA matched 4/5. No McConaughey and Tom Hanks instead.

BFCA matched 4/5. No DiCaprio. They had Hanks and Robert Redford for All Is Lost instead.

The Globes matched 5/5 across both categories. Three of the five were in Musical/Comedy. Which is rare.

McConaughey won all the categories he was nominated in, and Ejiofor won BAFTA.

This was pretty much a landslide all across the race. The only intrigue was how the nominations were gonna shake out. The three up top were locked, and everyone knew DiCaprio was gonna get on and the reason he missed so many precursors was because the film was so late to come out. But everyone also figured Tom Hanks was gonna get that last spot, and Bale snuck in there and knocked him out at the last second.

American Hustle is David O. Russell’s Martin Scorsese film. Loud, energetic and fun from start to finish. Yet it doesn’t seem to have the lasting power that Scorsese’s films have. Though, only three years out from it, that’s not something anyone can say definitively just yet.

It’s about a pair of con artists who are entrapped by the FBI to help with a sting operation on politicians taking money. It’s weird to say that, because it sometimes feels like the movie doesn’t even really have a plot at times. And it’s just fun stuff happening that occasionally means something.

Christian Bale is, technically, your main character. At first glance, I thought he had next to nothing to do in this movie. But on further review, he actually has a layered character that actually is quite complex and a performance that is quite good. This nomination will hold up. The stuff about the hair and him gaining the weight is one thing, but it’s the emotional moments that make the performance stand out.

I’ll admit, he’s still fifth for me in the category, but he is a very strong fifth. I did quite like the performance and fully support the nomination.

Nebraska is Alexander Payne. A man who has not made a critically acclaimed film to date. This is also the first film he didn’t write or co-write himself.

It’s a father-son story. Bruce Dern is an aging alcoholic who becomes convinced he won a sweepstakes and has to go to (insert title here) to pick up his check for $10,000. Will Forte is his son who tries to convince him the whole thing is a scam and that he shouldn’t, but Dern won’t listen. So Forte accompanies him on the trip. Which becomes a nice little bonding moment for the two of them, as they visit places like his old hometown and the house he lived in as a child. It’s quite touching.

Dern is really good in the role, though I do feel that some of it is the gravitas of age. But I can’t downgrade him for that. That’s just an observation. I think he’s perfectly solid, and in a weaker year, I’d look to throw him a vote. But here, at best he’s a third choice. I probably vote for him fourth, in all. I like the performance but do not love it. He is great here, though.

The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese doing Scorsese. Totally reminiscent of all his earlier work, and you know what? I don’t care. You don’t care. It’s fucking great. Now get me some fucking quaaludes.

It’s about Jordan Belfort, who started as an idealistic wall street trader and became a hedonistic, corrupt inside trader who eventually went down for securities fraud (as you do). And it’s about all the crazy shit that happened on Wall Street before the bubble burst.

DiCaprio is fantastic here. It’s actually a very comedic performance. The scene where he can’t walk and crawls to his car is thought of as over the top by some, but it’s actually very strong physical comedy out of DiCaprio. I really respect this performance quite a bit. Would I vote for it? No. Should he have won for it? Not really. He’s been better and I’m sure will be better. He could have won for this, but it wouldn’t have felt representative of what he’s capable of and felt like them throwing him an Oscar. It’s more of a fun tune up for what he’d actually win for. (Also strong physical comedy. With a bear.)

12 Years a Slave is a fucking incredible film. It grows on me more and more as the months pass.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is a respected man in Boston, I believe, who is captured and sold into slavery down south. And it’s about his experiences throughout, until eventually he is returned to his family with nary an apology or reparation to be had.

Ejiofor is sublime here. And honestly, any other year, he’d have won this hands down. I also feel like, when I go back to this category in five years, he might be the vote. He’s that good here. He practically wins it for me right now. Definitely top two, and still could actually be the choice in the end.

Dallas Buyers Club is a solid film with two great lead performances.

It’s about Ron Woodruff, a hard drinking, hard fucking bullrider who gets diagnosed with AIDS. He’s told there’s nothing medicine can do and that he only has about six months left. He then starts the (insert title here), which is a club where members pay and get (illegal, non-FDA approved) drugs from Mexico, which seem to work to at least stave off the disease.

There’s no denying that Matthew McConaughey is great in this film. And, given the year he had, between this, True Detective and his amazing cameo in Wolf of Wall Street, he was going to win this pretty much no matter what. You could take Ejiofor over him. I do understand that and may sort of be even leaning toward it. But you have to understand how much of a lock McConaughey was at the time. That’s the major note for this category.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s a really strong category. All the films are good, and three of them may stand the test of time as being great. This one needs time to really even things out, but as it stands — would not take Bale, would not take Dern over the competition. Leo having won alleviates some of that pressure that was felt at the time to think about voting for him more. I honestly didn’t think he should have won for it at the time, so it’s even easier now to not take him.

This one is either McConaughey or Ejiofor. Both feel worthy and both give great performances. I haven’t watched these films in at least a year, and I don’t feel qualified to change my opinion at the moment. So I’m gonna stick with McConaughey, but something tells me in five years when I watch these movies again, there’s a really good shot I could switch my vote to Ejiofor.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
  2. Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
  3. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
  4. Bruce Dern, Nebraska
  5. Christian Bale, American Hustle

Rankings (films):

  1. The Wolf of Wall Street
  2. 12 Years a Slave
  3. American Hustle
  4. Dallas Buyers Club
  5. Nebraska

My Vote: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Recommendations:

At this point, consider all five films essential.

The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese. Essential.

American Hustle is David O. Russell (plus that cast). Essential.

12 Years a Slave is Best Picture winner. Essential.

Nebraska is Alexander Payne. Essential.

And Dallas Buyers Club is Best Actor winner and a strong film. Essential. Might not be essential in five years, but for now, film buffs must consider it essential.

The Last Word: McConaughey is a good winner. Time may say he wasn’t the best choice, but at the moment, he is a fine winner.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

2014

Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

Michael Keaton, Birdman

Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Analysis:

SAG matched 4/5. No Cooper. Jake Gyllenhaal instead for Nightcrawler.

BAFTA matched 3/5. No Carell (he went Supporting), no Cooper. They had Gyllenhaal and Ralph Fiennes for Grand Budapest instead.

BFCA matched 3/5. No Cooper, no Carell. They had Gyllenhaal, Fiennes and David Oyelowo for Selma instead.

The Globes matched 4/5 across both categories. They missed Bradley Cooper.

Cooper was the shocker of the morning. He was hovering around and had already pulled off the non-SAG nomination nomination the year before this. But with Jake Gyllenhaal hitting every list it was a real surprise to think he was gonna be left off. And yet, here we are.

The entire race was between Redmayne and Keaton, and even though Redmayne won all the important awards, it still was looked at as a slightly tight race until the very end.

Foxcatcher is some of the strangest subject matter, and yet… you can’t look away.

It’s about Mark Schultz and his brother Dave Schultz, Olympic wrestlers. Mark constantly lives in the shadow of Dave, and is approached by millionaire John Du Pont to start and train a men’s wrestling team. He does, and pretty soon he and his brother are in the weird web of this creepy rich guy.

Steve Carell plays Du Pont. He is great in the part. There’s no denying that he is great here. The main issue is whether or not this is a lead role. It certainly doesn’t feel like one. He feels like a strong supporting role and might have been better served in that category. Even though every precursor treated him as a lead. He’s very solid and it’s a great performance, but he’s up against two other great performances in his own film, and there’s a sense that the role itself is appropriately creepy, and while he brings a lot to it, I don’t know if I feel like he accomplishes enough here to make me want to actually take him. I think he rates a solid third, and I might vote for him fourth. But he’s solid.

American Sniper is Clint Eastwood’s surprise hit of the year. This was the highest grossing film of 2014 out of nowhere.

It’s a biopic of Chris Kyle, (insert title here), who was part hero and part self-aggrandizing douchebag, depending on what part of the story you want to believe. But that aside — it’s basically about this dude who goes to war and ends up with more confirmed kills than any sniper in history.

Cooper is strong here. The material and Eastwood’s directing style don’t necessarily lend themselves to great performances. But Cooper has a couple of strong moments that make the performance worthwhile. I really appreciated the work he put into it, but I still don’t consider him much more than fifth in the category. It’s solid work and I’m fine with the nomination (even though I know we’d all have preferred someone else in this spot), but it’s just that, a star nomination.

The Imitation Game is a movie that has everything right on the surface, but somehow never still feels like it comes together in the end. It’s the classic Weinstein Oscar biopic. Great subject matter, great writing, great performances, great story. And yet… two years out now and I’ve basically forgotten about it.

It’s about Alan Turing and the cracking of the Enigma code during World War II. It’s a mix of that and of his personal life — closeted, gay and unable to say anything (eventually they chemically castrated him for it).

Cumberbatch is really solid here, and I quite like his work. The awkwardness and inability to communicate with others, and especially the emotional moments. He has a breakdown near the end of the film that is just spectacular work. I really liked this, and he’s either a very solid third or a fourth, but I did quite like the work. Though, as is going to be the case with this one, it’s a two horse race all the way through.

Birdman is one of the most curious Best Picture winners ever. Sure, it was my favorite film of this year, and it was a lot of people’s favorite film of this year, but it still doesn’t seem to fit the mold of a Best Picture winner. I really want to see what happens to this in ten to fifteen years.

It’s about Michael Keaton, a washed up former superhero actor, who is putting on a production that he wrote, directs and stars in, and all the craziness surrounding the production mixed with his own impending mental breakdown. The entire film is shot to look like a single continuous take, and it’s glorious.

Michael Keaton is sublime here. This is a part made for him and he’s just wonderful in it. Perhaps my favorite single performance of 2014, and pretty much the only person I would vote for in this category. At worst, he’s a second choice in this one.

The Theory of Everything is a biopic of Stephen Hawking.

Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking.

So you get him as a student, and then him dealing with the ALS diagnosis, and then much later on, in the throes of the disease.

This is a movie made for a Best Actor win, and the performance pretty much delivers. I think Redmayne is terrific here, even though the win feel a bit on the nose. This is one of those performances you respect the shit out of, but, for me at least, I don’t have any passion for it. I’m cool with the win, but I’m much more passionate about the Michael Keaton performance, so I vote for that instead. I get it, and he’s worth the win, just — I don’t know. It feels almost paint by numbers.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s Keaton for me. Redmayne’s the only other person to take. The others are fine for nominees, but you can’t actually take them. Redmayne is the easy winner because he checks all the boxes, but Keaton is the fan choice, and I’m certainly a fan of his and of his film and of his performance in his film. So he’s my vote.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Michael Keaton, Birdman
  2. Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
  3. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
  4. Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
  5. Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Rankings (films):

  1. Birdman
  2. The Imitation Game
  3. The Theory of Everything
  4. Foxcatcher
  5. American Sniper

My Vote: Michael Keaton, Birdman

Recommendations:

Birdman is essential because it won Best Picture, is great, and is just gonna be one of those films every film buff sees when they’re starting out. You can just tell already it will be. So it’s essential.

The Imitation Game is a strong film and a high recommend, but it’s already not essential, and I don’t think time is gonna be overly kind to it. So just a film that’s worth seeing, but not one you need to see.

Foxcatcher is gonna be essential because Bennett Miller directed it. He’s proven himself, with three films, to be an essential filmmaker.

American Sniper is probably essential for a lot of reasons. The Eastwood factor, the fact that it was so respected and made so much money. Give it five years and it won’t be essential and it’ll just be a solid film that I recommend solidly-to-highly, but now, it feels somewhat essential.

The Theory of Everything is only gonna be essential because of the win. Otherwise it’s just a very good film that gets a high recommend. But the win will be the only reason people really go back to this. It’s very formulaic in a lot of ways and not overly memorable outside of the performance.

The Last Word: Redmayne is fine. I prefer Keaton, and time may say Keaton was the choice. I don’t know, and it’s too early to tell. The only thing I can definitively say is that they are the only two worth taking and they both feel like they’d be good winners, so at the moment, they made a good choice.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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