Thursday, January 30, 2014

THURSDAY THROWBACK: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

One of the most endearing things about the films of Robert Altman is his seemingly effortless ability to create a world around his central characters.  Not a world in the sense of scenery or detail of landscape - although that is prevalent as well - but a true community of people.  Even the most minor of characters in a Robert Altman picture work in symphony with anyone and everyone around them to cultivate a world in and of itself.  After a few smaller films in the sixties, Altman directed his breakout comedy, MASH, defining his signature style of cinema as a communal atmosphere on the screen.  A year later Altman, in my opinion, perfected what he started in MASH with a transcendent Western.  McCabe & Mrs. Miller was one of the films that helped launch the 70s renaissance in Hollywood, and is still widely considered as one of his three or four masterpieces.

Like almost any Altman picture, multiple viewings are almost required.  For me, the first time with an Altman movie is simply an absorption process of sorts, where the terrain is laid out in front of me; all viewings beyond the first allow me to take my spot alongside these characters, right where Altman had intended.  The communal vibe of his pictures allows us not to be spectators but to be participants in the war-camp hospitals or saloons in these early films.  Characters often speak over one another, because it isn't as vital as what they are all saying as it is the mood they create with their speech.  And yet, as he does so masterfully, Altman is still able to hone in on such rich characters like John McCabe and Constance Miller, even amid so much wonderful chatter.

McCabe, played by a youthful and bearded Warren Beatty, is a gambler and a hustler who drifts into a sleepy, snowbound town high in the mountains in the dead of winter.  He immediately conducts court in a saloon where some men know him and others are simply curious.  Before long, McCabe picks up the angles of the town and decides to open up a whore house with some local women.  Things don't go well early on; the women are inexperienced, they attack some men, they are unhealthy and unkempt, and they take care of their customers in ramshackle tents.  McCabe has the right idea, but not the right tools to make his business function properly.  This is where Mrs. Miller comes into play.

Beautiful and elegant Julie Christie plays Constance Miller as a beautiful and elegant woman whose had just enough world experience and spent enough time running brothels in her time to know how to handle the roughnecks in this mining town.  She immediately sees the weak spots in McCabe's operation, decides to bring in some of her own women from San Francisco, and basically takes over the day to day.  Of course McCabe, a prideful and resourceful man, wants to object, but he cannot in all honesty.  Beatty plays McCabe as an introverted man who keeps himself isolated much of the time, opting to have most of his emotional outbursts while talking to himself in his room.  Some of the best chemistry Beatty and Christie have with each other is early on, before their frustrations and banter become more emotionally weighted.

Things are going along well for the company of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, until larger entities begin to show up in town and start staking their claim to the town.  The third act involves a shootout in the snow, with McCabe trying desperately to hide.  The scenery is majestic, almost always hidden in fresh snow, concealing the rugged nature of the men and women in the saloon.  Altman wanted the film to have a tarnished look, as if it were filmed in the time it were made, so his exposed the reels throughout to give it a faded, grainy feel.  This technique is even more prevalent in these later sequences, and adds a great external layer to an intimate Western.  And Altman captures the mood perfectly of a town lost in the snow, of souls abandoned and sad and in need of attention, regardless of where that attention may come from.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of Altman's best, but it's hard to believe it arguably isn't even his own personal best of that decade.  He had many more years in the 70s to work, and McCabe was simply a master perfecting his craft in time to deliver an even better film the next time out.  But as a Western, this picture is a permanent fixture.  And aside from the organic nature of Altman's camera in McCabe, the haunting and tormented voice of Leonard Cohen on the picture's soundtrack enhances the sadness and loneliness of this sleepy mining town.  The plot is almost secondary to character and environment, and Altman always realized those aspects were the most important in trying to tell human stories.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit


JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT: Chris Pine, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Costner, Kiera Knightley, directed by Kenneth Branagh (106 min.)

You aren’t going to find anything new in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the latest Hollywood reboot attempt of a dormant franchise.  We’ve all seen Jack Ryan, the Tom Clancy super agent/diplomat, portrayed throughout the years by a total of three different actors, dating all the way back to 1987 when Alec Baldwin brought Ryan to life in The Hunt for Red October.  Harrison Ford defined the role in Patriot Games (still the best) and Clear and Present Danger, while Ben Affleck flattened the franchise with the lifeless The Sum of All Fears.  Now it is time for actor number four, as Chris Pine steps into the Ryan role with plenty of physical presence and arguably just enough screen aplomb to pull off such a no nonsense hero.  Jack Ryan is no revelation of a film, but with one important caveat, this film can be enjoyed on a certain level.  That caveat being… it’s January.

Kenneth Branagh directs a script most thriller fans could write with their eyes closed, where we see the “origin story” of Jack Ryan through a series of pre-credit snippets.  We see him in college in London, then enrolling in the Marines after 9/11 only to be shot out of the sky and suffer a crippling spinal cord injury.  This, however, allows Ryan to meet his future wife, Cathy, played by Kiera Knightley who is slightly better used than one would expect in a film like this.  Around the same time, Ryan also meets with Harper, the shadowy figure of the film played by Kevin Costner.  Harper liked Ryan’s dissertation and wants him to join the CIA as an analyst working in secret on Wall Street.

Fast-forward ten years and Ryan, working comfortably in anonymity in downtown Manhattan, notices some account discrepancies that help get the plot ramped up.  These suspicious bank accounts send Ryan to Moscow, where he meets our appropriately stoic, serious, and (of course) afflicted villain, Viktor Cherevin, played by Branagh himself.  Cherevin, who is also (of course) eccentric and filthy rich, is in charge of operating some scam against America that will send the economy into a downward spiral the likes of which we may never recover.   We get many ominous lines of dialogue from Ryan and Harper, like “this will be the second Great Depression,” and so on.  That’s the only way to really lay out the plot, because the details are insignificant.

We all know how the puzzle fits together with a movie like Jack Ryan.  There is a quick set up and back story, a love interest, a shady mentor, a flamboyant (and foreign) villain, and a whole mess of action scenes.  We must also have several swooping exterior shots of buildings and cities with title cards reading “Manhattan” or “United Nations Building.”  Typically, this formula winds up with the hero saving the day at the last second in some form or another.  The action scenes are well crafted here, but not terribly original.  There is the “time crunch” scene where one character must divert another character while yet another character must steal something within a set time.  Then there is the car chase.  Sprinkle in a few hand-to-hand battles and some misdirection and voila!  You have an action movie.

It may sound like I am picking on the movie, and I suppose I am a little.  It’s more like I am just pointing out the reasons the picture was released in January.  That being said, I wasn’t bored with the film.  Pine has room to grow as a screen power, but I enjoyed him in the title role.  He doesn’t have the emotional strength of Harrison Ford’s portrayal, or the intensity of Baldwin, but he is leaps and bounds above what Affleck turned in.  I tried to imagine Pine placed in the role in Red October, and I think he would do well.  The issue is really the script, a paint by numbers factory piece that was co-written by David Koepp, who has shown so much more with his brilliant writing in something like Mission: Impossible. 

Jack Ryan is a nice little thriller, but one that will vanish as quickly as it appeared.  It’s January fluff, and plenty of escapist fun for an hour forty-five.  But is it a good jumping off point for a franchise reboot?  I don’t really know if we need more of these movies because, honestly, there are richer and more interesting characters out there.  Ryan is all business, little pleasure, so why not go see Bond instead?

C+


Thursday, January 16, 2014

MY TOP 10 of 2013

What a year it has been.  2013 was, in my opinion, the best year for cinema since 2007 when the Coen Brothers won Best Picture for No Country for Old Men, beating other fantastic pictures like There Will Be Blood and Michael Clayton.  This year may have been more completely stacked from top to bottom with marvelous and diverse films and more vivid and wonderful performances.  The Oscars this year should be a fantastic celebration of 2013, the bad part being that so many films and performances will be left behind.

Typically, I struggle to compile a top ten list, and the last couple on the list are significantly weaker than the top few.  This year, my list could easily expand to fifteen films, maybe twenty, that deserve recognition.  But I suppose, like the Oscars, I have to draw the line somewhere.  Here goes...


10) Gravity - Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity was the definitive cinematic experience of the year, a technical marvel the likes of which we have never seen.  I have never been a proponent of 3D movie watching, but this film begs to be seen in such a way.  Sandra Bullock delivers a great physical performance as an astronaut/scientist who must fight space itself - as well as a rather nasty debris field - to make it back to earth alive.  While the screenplay was flat and uninspired for great stretches, and George Clooney's character is nothing more than Clooney playing himself in a space suit, there is no denying the majestic cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki and the technical mastery of Cuaron.  The score from Steven Price enhances the harrowing moments to a fever pitch.  Gravity begs for the silver screen, and will most certainly lose something in home viewing.


9) Captain Phillips - It has been a long stretch of time since Tom Hanks delivered a performance we had once come to expect from Hanks.  Teaming up with director Paul Greengrass, Hanks plays real-life merchant mariner Rich Phillips, whose freight ship was overtaken by Somali pirates.  The energy of Greengrass' direction keeps the action immediate, and he allows the pathos of his characters to dominate the screen rather than having set pieces dominate.  What is special about Captain Phillips, however, is that it takes time to develop the enemy, led by Muse (certain Supporting Actor nominee Barkhad Abdi), where many action films of this nature simply keep the adversaries nameless and faceless.  And the final emotionally devastating moments of Captain Phillips are where Hanks shines so brightly, like Hanks once did each and every time he appeared on screen.


8) All is Lost - The screenplay for All is Lost, written by director J.C. Chandor, is only 36 pages long.  But I would love to read those 36 pages to see how he pulled off a film that has absolutely no dialogue.  Robert Redford, spry and able at 77 years old, is the only character on screen, and aside from one or two cries of desperation, says nothing throughout the duration of his ordeal.  Stranded at sea with a hole in his boat and all electronic communication severed, it is up to Redford to navigate his way through treacherous waters and to find help.  What begins as routine preservation becomes almost helpless desperation over the run time of the picture, and Redford delivers the best performance I have seen from him in ages. 


7) Mud - Matthew McConaughey has completely transformed his career from rom-com dolt and spaced out bongo player to one of the most prestigious and well-rounded actors of this generation.  The metamorphasis is stunning to say the least.  McConaughey is certain to grab a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of a man dying of AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club, and he appears to be the front runner.  While he is fantastic in Dallas Buyers Club, his best film of 2013 in my opinion was Mud, a smaller and more intimate film where McConaughey portrays a simple man with simple dreams.  Mud is a mystery film, a suspense film, and a coming of age story surrounding two boys that McConaughey's enigmatic character befriends along the way.  It is a simple tale of friendship and loyalty, wrapped in a complex narrative rife with solid work from all involved.


6) The Wolf of Wall Street - This is a film that is not for everyone, deceiving given its family-friendly Christmas Day release.  The Wolf of Wall Street is rude, crude, sexist, vulgar, disgusting, and hilarious.  It is the work of a legend in Martin Scorsese, teaming up for the fifth time with Leonardo Dicaprio.  As New York stock scam artist and hedonistic monster Jordan Belfort, Dicaprio towers over a picture that seems impossible to outshine in excess.  It runs three hours and is a non stop orgy of drugs, booze, debauchery, and actual orgies.  Everyone is amped up to eleven here, including Belfort's right-hand man, played by Jonah Hill with capped teeth and a hilariously husky Brooklyn accent.  The Wolf of Wall Street is completely offensive, but it is also a hypnotizing cinematic achievement from the best American filmmaker of all time.


5) Prisoners - Here is a film that has been criminally overlooked throughout awards season.  Prisoners is a tense and gritty thriller with tough subject matter and even tougher performances from all involved.  The story begins simply enough, as two children are abducted outside their homes on Thanksgiving.  The parents, played by Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, and Viola Davis, all try desperately to find their children.  Enter Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, an enigmatic investigator who slowly and steadily becomes the main draw of the picture.  Gyllenhaal delivers an amazing performance, somehow besting the fiery and determined father by Hugh Jackman.  The twists and turns in Prisoners keep the energy level up, though the end may not even be as impactful and satisfying as the means. 


4) Upstream Color - For a long time this was number one for the year, and it's still the film I have seen the most.  In each of my five viewings, much like the organism which overtakes the people in the film, Upstream Color evolves and enriches.  What exactly is it about?  Well, there are explanations out there from writer/director/star Shane Carruth, who waited nine years for this sophomore effort after blowing people away with 2004s time travel enigma, Primer.  And while the explanation clarifies the very dense and complicated story, there are still outlying elements of the narrative that are open to interpretation.  Aside form the complexities of the plot, Upstream Color is an involving thriller, a peculiar love story, and a haunting tale of what can control our body and mind.  The opening sequence is as nerve racking as anything I have ever seen, and the organic flow of the picture matches the nature of the plot to perfection.  Not many have seen Upstream Color, but everyone should, simply to see what they take from it in the end.


3) Fruitvale Station - Writer/director Ryan Coogler tells the true story of Oscar Grant, a troubled but genuinely goodhearted young African American who was wrongfully "murdered" at the hands of transit police on New Year's Eve, 2011.  Michael B. Jordan plays Grant not as a thug, or a misanthrope, yet not as a pure hearted young man who makes all the right choices.  Grant is both sides of the coin, and this is displayed in each carefully crafted moment in the film.  Melonie Diaz, who plays Oscar's girlfriend and mother of his young girl, is fantastic, and Octavia Spencer is Oscar worthy as Oscar's tough-loving mother.  Despite the fact we all know the trajectory of the film - real phone footage opens the picture - the emotional impact is no more or less hindered thanks to the powerful performances.  Fruitvale Station was the breakout hit of Sundance, and while it didn't grab any Oscar nominations, it announced the arrival of Coogler as a wonderful new directing talent.


2) Before Midnight - The end of what might be the best trilogy ever written is the most emotionally and aesthetically engaging of the Before films.  Before Sunrise showed our players, Jesse and Celine (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), as young idealists trying to find their way through life.  Before Sunset showed us Jesse and Celine as young professionals who think they have found their place in life.  But their day and night spent in Paris reveals their new life as merely the first step in becoming a true adult.  Before Midnight, while it does fit the mold and style of the previous two, is the most unique story.  Jesse and Celine have not been apart, but have started their life together since Sunset, so the dynamics of their relationship have evolved and passed the point of loving admiration.  Emotions take new shape and discussions are heavier and more engaging as the two young lovers have since become middle-aged spouses.  Before Midnight is, in my opinion, the most honest and touching portrayal of what it takes to love and be loved.


1) 12 Years A Slave - Despite my admiration for all the films on this list, namely the top five here, there has never been more separation between nine and one.  12 Years A Slave affected me more than any film has ever done.  That is superlative, indeed, but hyperbole?  No.  To this point in my life and throughout my years watching and analyzing films, never before has a film gotten burrowed so deeply into my soul.  The story of Solomon Northup, an educated, free African-American family man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, is a brutal and unflinching look at the darkest time in American history.  Chiwetel Ejiofor is captivating as Northup, and Michael Fassbender is seething with wickedness as a plantation owner.  Lupita Nyong'o is sublime and soulful in her Oscar nominated performance.  Such emotion, such devastating sadness, and such wonderful filmmaking is this.  12 Years A Slave is a true experience I will never forget.

HONORABLE MENTIONS include the stellar acting of McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, the sublime love story - a sneaky technological romance - her, and the complex and compelling Derek Cianfrante film, The Place Beyond the Pines.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

OSCARS 86 PREDICTIONS: Director and Picture

This is tricky, now that the Academy has opted for the 5-10 Best Picture floating total yet kept the Best Director category at five.  Back in the days of five and five, the directors and their pictures lined up for the most part, with only a few outliers along the way.  With the nominees set up this way, the five matching directors and pictures are obvious front runners for the big prize, with the remaining films happy to be invited.



BEST DIRECTOR

Two locks in this category are on the opposite ends of deserving the nomination.  Steve McQueen will most certainly be recognized for 12 Years a Slave, and is completely deserving.  David O. Russell should get the nod as well, though American Hustle feels slight in comparison to the work of McQueen.  A third certainty for Best Director will be Alfonso Cuaron, whose technical mastery on Gravity makes him a definite and deserving candidate. 

And then there were two spots, and arguably a dozen possible nominees.  Alexander Payne could be recognized for Nebraska, The Coen  Brothers for Inside Llewyn Davis, Spike Jonze for her... But they will be left on the sidelines.  As difficult as it was for Martin Scorsese to win his Academy Award, the Academy still loves him.  And the energy and technical mastery he shows in The Wolf of Wall Street will bring about a deserving nomination.  The fifth slot should, and I think will, belong to Paul Greengrass for Captain Phillips, simply because Captain Phillips is a wonderful film.

PREDICTIONS
 
Steve McQueen - 12 Years a Slave
David O. Russell - American Hustle
Alfonso Cuaron - Gravity
Martin Scorsese - The Wolf of Wall Street
Paul Greengrass - Captain Phillips
 


BEST PICTURE
 
An easy way to nail down the first five Best Picture slots is to look at who the director nominees are going to be.  From my five predictions, I fully expect 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Captain Phillips to be nominated.  And with a year like 2013, I almost expect a full slate of ten films, but there may be too many quality films to divide.  The sixth film on the list should be Alexander Payne's heartfelt family drama, Nebraska.  Beyond six, if there are seven, her should be there.  The final three slots are wide open...
 
  PREDICTIONS
 
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Gravity
The Wolf of Wall Street
Captain Phillips
Nebraska (if 6)
Her (if 7)
Inside Llewyn Davis (if 8)
Dallas Buyers Club (if 9)
Lee Daniels' The Butler (if 10)
 
The OSCAR NOMINEES will be announced Thursday Morning, January 16 at 5am Pacific Time!

Monday, January 13, 2014

OSCARS 86 PREDICTIONS: The Leads

A great year in film always means a loaded pool of candidates in the lead categories.  The lead acting nominees also fluctuate more than others, with favorites and odds on winners changing from week to week all the way up to the big night.  And this year, it seems the actress category is getting stronger than in years past...



BEST ACTRESS

There have been several years where filling out the lead actress category has been a struggle.  This is no knock on the Hollywood actress, but an indictment of the system and the fact that female actors have been short changed when it comes to strong roles.  This year, familiar faces should fill up the category.  Meryl Streep should be here for her performance as the feisty matriarch in August: Osage County.  Along with her is Dame Judi Dench for her heartfelt interpretation in Philomena.  Beyond these two staples of Oscar night, the field is loaded with familiar faces who all deserve a nomination.

I expect Sandra Bullock to get a nod for her physical performance in Gravity, and I am optimistic than Julie Delpy will be recognized for her honest and stripped down portrayal in Before Midnight.  However, the field is too crowded for her, and Cate Blanchett will get this nomination for Blue Jasmine.  This leaves one final spot.  Amy Adams should get recognized for American Hustle, but so should Delpy.  I think Delpy will be on the outside looking in, as Adams nails down the fifth nomination.

PREDICTIONS
 
Meryl Streep - August: Osage County
Judi Dench - Philomena
Sandra Bullock - Gravity
Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine
Amy Adams - American Hustle
 


BEST ACTOR
 
As solid as the lead actress category is this year, lead actor is once again absolutely overloaded with great performances and deserving candidates.  You could almost say there are more than five "locks" in this category, which is obviously impossible.  At the top of the list you have the brave and searing performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club.  These two should fight it out in the ballot box.  But don't count out America's best friend, Tom Hanks, who gives his best performance in a decade with Captain Phillips
 
That leaves two spots, and so many qualified candidates.  I fully expected Robert Redford to be nominated for his harrowing one man show in All is Lost.  And Bruce Dern should get a nod for Nebraska.  But does this mean Leonardo DiCaprio is out once again?  If he takes anyone's spot, it's Redford's, and I think the Academy will make this choice simply because Leo deserves it for his role and for the career he has assembled as one of our finest actors.  Beyond this, there is Oscar Isaac for Inside Llewyn Davis, Christian Bale for American Hustle, and a half dozen other well-deserving candidates.  Unfortunately, there are only five slots...
 
PREDICTIONS
 
Chiwetel Ejiofor - 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey - Dallas Buyers Club
Tom Hanks - Captain Phillips
Bruce Dern - Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio - The Wolf of Wall Street


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

OSCARS 86 PREDICTIONS: The Supporting Players

If you want surprises on Oscar night, this is where you will find them.  Over the past several years, decades in fact, Oscar has stunned us with unlikely winners.  Remember Marcia Gay Harden winning for Pollack, beating out sure thing Kate Hudson for her work in Almost Famous?  Or how about Ralph Fiennes losing for Schindler's List to Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive?  That isn't to say those two winners weren't deserving, they just beat out what seemed to be a lock.  Those are only a few examples of supporting upsets, but what of the nominees?  With so many large casts in so many quality films, these categories are sure to be overloaded.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

It's difficult to decide who deserves the inevitable American Hustle nomination, Amy Adams or Jennifer Lawrence.  One argument against Adams' performance, which shows that she is the most versatile actress working today, is that it may be a lead role.  Also, Lawrence gives the flashier performance, and that dance in her living room should be enough to nab her a nomination. Another name at the top of the quintet will be an unknown, Lupita Nyong'o, whose debut turn in 12 Years a Slave is an intensely unforgettable performance.  And it certainly seems that June Squibb's wiry performance as the bad-mouthing matriarch of the Grant family in Nebraska will earn her a nomination as well. 

Aside from these top three, the field thins out and opens up quite a bit.  Julia Roberts is gaining some late steam for her role in August: Osage County, and the Academy would definitely love to have her back in the pool of nominees.  Some have said Oprah's role in Lee Daniels' The Butler is deserving, Sally Hawkins is a possibility for Blue Jasmine, but I want to lean once again towards Fruitvale Station, and the heartbreaking performance from Octavia Spencer, who is proving she is not one and done after her win for The Help

PREDICTIONS
 
Jennifer Lawrence - American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o - 12 Years a Slave
June Squibb - Nebraska
Julia Roberts - August: Osage County
Octavia Spencer - Fruitvale Station
 

 
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
 
This is a heavy category, but heavy on nominee possibilities rather than possible winners.  This race may shake out differently in 3 through 5, but make no mistake, this is a two-person race between Michael Fassbender, the evil plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave, and Jared Leto as the dying, cross dressing man in Dallas Buyers Club.  Both are brilliant performances in their own right, and it seems like a toss up on who should win at this point.
 
Now for the also rans, great performances that might have a shot to win in a different year.  First up is another newcomer, Barkhad Abdi, who stands toe to toe with Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips as the leader of the Somali pirates.  He deserves a nomination.  And with such a wave of publicity behind The Wolf of Wall Street, I expect Jonah Hill to nab a nomination, beating out people like James Franco for Spring Breakers and Will Forte for Nebraska.  This leaves a final slot, and an interesting conundrum.  Bradley Cooper seems to be in line for his flashy American Hustle role, but out there as well is the final acting performance of James Gandolfini in Enough Said.  Many feel Gandolfini deserves a nomination not simply because of his untimely passing, but because his performance is nuanced and softer than anything he had ever done in his career.  I will go the sentimental route here.
 
PREDICTIONS
 
Michael Fassbender - 12 Years a Slave
Jared Leto - Dallas Buyers Club
Barkhad Abdi - Captain Phillips
Jonah Hill - Wolf of Wall Street
James Gandolfini - Enough Said

Monday, January 6, 2014

OSCARS 86 PREDICTIONS - The Screenplays

It's that time again, and what an exciting year this should turn out to be for The Oscars.  Exciting and frustrating, because 2013 was the arguably the best year for films since 2007, which means so many great films and performances will be overlooked.  Small films and some very big films are in the running for a big night on March 2.  Let's kick things off with a look at the possible nominees for adapted and original screenplay...


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY - I see two sure things in Best Adapted Screenplay, for films that could not be more different.  John Ridley's screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, based on the novel by Solomon Northup, is one of many locks for Steve McQueen's masterpiece.  The heart-wrenching narrative thrives on the power of words just as much as it does on the power of its performances and visual poetry.  On the other end of the spectrum, Terrence Winter's screenplay for the debauchery-fueled insanity that is The Wolf of Wall Street should get a nod due to its fevered energy and absolutely unhinged narrative structure.  While these two films are sure to get slots, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater's script for Before Midnight will surely be recognized.  In an odd twist, the fact that these characters were already created makes this an Adapted nominee rather than an Original.

Billy Ray's taut thriller screenplay for Captain Phillips should get notice here as well, leaving a handful of films battling for the final slots.  In a tight race, I expect Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope's Philomena screenplay to edge out Tracy Letts' adaptation of her novel, August: Osage County.  This cold really go either way, but the sweet soul of Philomena will carry it over the top.  This leaves screenplays for The Spectacular Now and Blue is the Warmest Color out of the race; these films were simply too small.

PREDICTIONS
12 Years a Slave - John Ridley
The Wolf of Wall St. - Terrence Winter
Before Midnight - Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater
Captain Phillips - Billy Ray
Philomena - Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY - In a much more crowded race, there are almost too many sure bets to decipher.  Bob Nelson's screenplay for Alexander Payne's heartfelt dramedy Nebraska will pull in a few nominations, and this will be one for sure.  Spike Jonze should be recognized for her, and Awards favorite David O. Russell, working with Eric Singer, should be recognized for their American Hustle script.  Although I feel there are many more deserving.  A few months ago Joel and Ethan Coen would have been shoe-ins for their Inside Llewyn Davis screenplay, though it doesn't seem as sure a bet these days.  Still, I think they find a slot.  Woody Allen could get the nod, once again, for Blue Jasmine, though this also feels like a film that has lost steam. 

There are any number of worthy nominees left on the board, from Craig Borten and Melissa Walack's work on Dallas Buyers Club, to Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron's Gravity script (though that was the weakest aspect if you ask me), but the nominee I am pulling for is Ryan Coogler, whose pitch perfect work on Fruitvale Station deserves to be recognized.  I don't expect many other places for such a great film to get noticed, and this is where small indie hits typically get their due.

PREDICTIONS
Nebraska - Bob Nelson
her - Spike Jonze
American Hustle - David O. Russell, Eric Singer
Inside Llewyn Davis - Joel and Ethan Coen
Fruitvale Station - Ryan Coogler