Thursday, February 27, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Actor

As with Best Actress, it's fun to imagine the Best Actor field that could have been this year. This is a category that could have included Joaquin Phoenix (Her), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniels' The Butler), and many expected Robert Redford (All is Lost) and Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips) to be among the nominees. This is all to say that this category was extremely competitive this year, and any configuration of these men was possible up until the moment the nominees were announced.

So who are the nominees? Check them out below.


Christian Bale, American Hustle

What's not surprising: Christian Bale is excellent in American Hustle, playing con artist/bad combover enthusiast Irving. Bale brings his A-game here, taking the film's most three-dimensional character on paper and adding even more depth and humanity to him. He plays Irving as a guy who just wants to get by, scam some people out of their money but not so much that he's insanely wealthy. He's a man of modest ambitions who gets in way over his head, but having been kicked around by life before, he knows how to craft an escape plan. Bale manages the tricky feat of playing Irving's confidence and desperation in way that, despite better judgement, is nonetheless sexy and alluring. It's performance-as-con: he makes you believe everything he says, and in the end gets the upper hand without you even noticing. What is surprising: that he managed to crack into the highly-competitive field with this performance. It's an unusual choice, but a worthy one.

The rest of the nominees after the break.

Bruce Dern, Nebraska

There are some roles that seem so tailor-made for the actors who play them that it becomes impossible to imagine anyone else doing it. The role plays on the actor's history and personality so well that the character almost seems like an extension of the actor. A terrific recent example of this is Mickey Rourke's stunning performance in 2008's The Wrestler, where it was hard to separate Rourke from Randy "The Ram" Robinson. The same can be said of Bruce Dern's splendid turn as Woody Grant in Nebraska this year. Dern's career began in the countercultural American independent cinema of the 1970s, and though he was never a star, he was nonetheless an everyman icon of a disillusioned generation. Woody is an alcoholic with a increasingly tenuous grip on reality, with only a single goal in mind: collect the winnings from a sweepstakes in Omaha, Nebraska. He doesn't say much, but Dern fills in those moments with an incredible inner life that only barely peaks through his weathered countenance. It's a remarkable performance from a singular talent who's more celebrated overseas than at home, as evidenced by his Best Actor win this past year at Cannes. Woody may be disappointed by his ultimate prize, but for audiences, Dern's performance is a terrific reward.

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Until last year's performance as sadistic slaveowner Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, Leonardo DiCaprio had never fully played a villain in his robust career. This year, he played another one: Jordan Belfort, the founder of investment company Stratton Oakmont who took advantage of every possible loophole - legal and illegal - to earn his expansive wealth and fuel his sex-and-drugs lifestyle in The Wolf of Wall Street. DiCaprio is a force of nature, fully committing himself to every devious act and thought that Belfort dreams up, and shows off a previously-unseen knack for physical comedy in one quaalude-fueled scene. Most importantly, though, DiCaprio never lets us forget that Belfort was never naive or innocent; this is a man who made a deal with the devil because his soul was already tar-black and rotten, and kept pushing his luck because he was getting high on his own bullshit. On the surface, it seems like a wild, crazy performance, an actor letting loose and having fun with an indulgent role. But take a closer look, and you'll see the complexity that lies beneath the bacchanalia and the very delicate line that DiCaprio expertly walks. This is, hands-down, the best performance that DiCaprio has ever turned in. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

As pretty much everyone else has noted, it seemed as if Chiwetel Ejiofor was on the cusp of stardom for years, just waiting for the role that would make everyone recognize his amazing talent. Sure enough, his stirring performance as Solomon Northrup, a free man in antebellum New York who is enslaved in the South, in 12 Years a Slave has done exactly that. It's truly remarkable, though, because it's a performance that never begs for attention. Much of Northrup's development is internalized, as he keeps his head down in his efforts to survive the hostility that he must endure, and Ejiofor plays this perfectly through his expressive face. There were plenty of physical challenges, of course: the famous scene in which Northrup is forced to struggle for his life while barely hanging from tree, or the scenes immediately after his capture in which he's beaten mercilessly. The one moment that stands out the most, though, is a quiet one: a single shot - held for an unusually long time - in which Northrup processes the fact that he is once again a free man. He never says a word, but Ejiofor runs an entire gamut of emotions in an instance, confusion and disbelief chief among them. It's an unbelievably powerful moment, and showcases the phenomenal and subtle talent that Ejiofor possesses. He's never short of amazing.

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Five years ago, anyone who suggested that Matthew McConaughey could deliver an Oscar-caliber performance would have been laughed out of the room, or at least treated to a mocking "alright, alright, alright." Today, it seems like an inevitability for a recent body of work that stands as one of the finest of any currently working American actor. Of all of his recent terrific performances, it was his work as Ron Woodroof, an AIDS-striken hardass who establishes one of the largest "buyers clubs" for unapproved medications in America, in Dallas Buyers Club that caught the Academy's attention. McConaughey is remarkable, dedicating himself fully to this role and elevating beyond the "bigot begrudgingly learns tolerance" arc that it ultimately is. In his hands, Woodroof is more than "just in it for himself." He's a man with something to prove, and he's determined to stick to the medical community (and his disease) no matter what. It's not McConaughey's greatest performance (check out HBO's True Detective), but it is strong work that is worthy of the nomination.

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." So far, the heat has been on McConaughey's side, including his wins at the SAGs and the Golden Globes in January. There's been a longer period between the nominations and the actual ceremony this year, though, and the layover has had the most interesting effect on this category. Whereas McConaughey seemed invincible this time last month, the past few weeks have seen the amount of buzz for DiCaprio reach a point where he seems like a credible threat to win. There's a possibility that Ejiofor could squeak out a (deserving) win here, but only if the Academy goes all-in on 12 Years a Slave. Despite the cries that DiCaprio is "overdue" for his first win, I would bet that we'll be using the phrase "Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey" come next Monday morning.

My ballot:

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

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