Best Director

Chiwetel Ejiofor

This year, there is a broad range of Oscars experience within the group of directors nominated in this category.  Two directors have been previously nominated twice each for Best Director, while two others are receiving their first nomination in this category.  The last one is Martin Scorsese—the veteran filmmaker has been previously nominated seven times!  The following is my Oscars ballot for this category, Best Director:

WINNER: Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave)

Steve McQueen 2In 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen has created one of the greatest films of all time.  He is an absolute master of his craft, and after critically acclaimed directorial efforts in Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), he has returned with a true tour de force.  The 44-year-old British director has taken a brutally pragmatic perspective on a true story set in one of the harshest periods of American history, but his effort is commendable and exceptional.  Even though at times this movie is difficult to watch, given the ruthless behavior by many of the slave-owners, it is honest and emotionally impacting, and McQueen has created one of the more important films of our generation.  Steve McQueen has never previously been nominated for Best Director.

2. Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

To put in straightforwardly, I will watch anything Martin Scorsese makes.  I have been a fan of his work for as many years as I have been passionately watching movies, and The Wolf of Wall Street ranks right up with the greatest titles on his distinguished filmography.  Marty ScorseseOne of my favorite Scorsese flicks is Goodfellas (1990), and The Wolf of Wall Street shares so many brilliant characteristics with that classic film.  Here, the 71-year-old director packs in more sex, drugs, and crime than any 3-hour film could possibly hold, but somehow, it works.  I credit this to the wealth of veteran experience Scorsese has in this business.  Although I am not quite prepared to put The Wolf of Wall Street above the likes of Goodfellas or The Departed (2006), Scorsese has nonetheless created another cinematic masterpiece.  Martin Scorsese has been previously nominated for Best Director seven times, winning his only Oscar in this category for 2006’s The Departed.

3. David O. Russell (American Hustle)

Just one year after directing Silver Linings Playbook, my favorite film of 2012, David O. Russell is back with another fantastic movie in American HustleDavid O. RussellThis is Russell’s third trip to the Oscars in the past four years, and this says a lot about where he is as a filmmaker.  He is one of the most renowned directors in the business, and he is rapidly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers.  Even though American Hustle is a magnificent film, I still think The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012) were better movies overall; however, this is not a negative reflection on David O. Russell because it shows how dominant his work has been in recent memory.  David O. Russell was previously nominated for Best Director for both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook.

4. Alexander Payne (Nebraska)

Similarly to David O. Russell, Alexander Payne is becoming a director that I very much enjoy.  Alexander PayneI have only seen two of his films, Election (1999) and The Descendants (2011), but they are each two of my favorites.  I was beyond pleased with Nebraska when I saw it in theaters, and even though it seems quite different than his other films, it is stimulating in many distinctive ways.  Although it does not appear Payne will come close to winning the Oscar this year, he has still made a movie that I will enjoy watching over and over again in the future.  Alexander Payne was previously nominated for Best Director for his work on Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011).

5. Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)

Alfonso CuaronI will try not to waste much precious space discussing Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.  How on earth it has received so many Oscar nominations and award wins this season will continue to baffle me until the day I die.  Maybe the voters are smitten with the film in the way they were with Avatar (2009), but I do not believe a film should garner this much critical respect just because it “looks good.”  Both the acting and the plot are non-existent, and even though Cuarón has made a beautiful-looking movie, it is nothing more than a façade for a TERRIBLE work of cinema.  Cuarón has never previously been nominated for an Oscar.

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Best Actor

Matthew McConaughey 2

This year, the Best Actress category features a group of fantastic performers with a combined 33 previous Oscar nominations.  On the contrary, this group of Best Actor nominees features five well-known actors that have not been so abundantly recognized by the Academy.  Between the five, there is only one Oscar win on a combined five nominations.  The following is my Oscars ballot for this category, Best Actor:

WINNER: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

In Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey plays the real-life Ron Woodruff, an overtly homophobic man from Texas that begins smuggling life-saving drugs into the United States after he is shockingly diagnosed with AIDS.  Matthew McConaugheyAs many of you already know, McConaughey is receiving a wide range of attention for his role in Dallas Buyers Club, partly because of the physical transformation that took place—the 44-year-old actor dropped a staggering 47 pounds.  Even though this weight loss makes McConaughey closely resemble an AIDS patient from the late 1980s, it is his impeccable acting in this film that warrants his place at the top of my list.  Given his Texas roots, he always plays the Texan role with ease, but in this film, he takes on a part that is not your typical Southern gentleman.  The performance he gives is bold, empowering, and utterly heart-wrenching, and in a year where he had critically-recognized performances in Mud and The Wolf of Wall Street, he stands alone at the top of the acting world thanks to an amazing portrayal of a man on the brink of death.  Matthew McConaughey has never previously been nominated for an Academy Award.

2. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave)

Chiwetel EjioforIn 12 Years A Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the real-life Solomon Northup, a renowned Northern-born violinist that is abducted and sold into slavery during the pre-Civil War era.  The story of Solomon Northup is incredibly heartbreaking, but Ejiofor gives the tragic story the justice it most definitely deserves.  With every passing moment throughout the film, the tale seems to get worse and worse for the distinguished Solomon Northup, and in every single scene, Ejiofor gives his heart and soul to the character, evoking a wealth of emotions in the minds of each viewer.  If it were not for a career-defining performance from McConaughey, Ejiofor would be far and away above the rest of the acting performances this year, and 12 Years A Slave is forever indebted to this awe-inspiring portrayal by Ejiofor of the resilient Solomon Northup.  Chiwetel Ejiofor has never previously been nominated for an Academy Award.

3. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)

In The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonard DiCaprio portrays the real-life Jordan Belfort, a greedy stockbroker who took Wall Street by storm in the late 1980s through sex, drugs, and securities fraud.  Film Fall PreviewThis film was definitely one of the most wild and crazy movie experiences of 2013, and the way in which DiCaprio engrossed himself so deeply into this despicable role is absolutely incredible.  A year after staring in Django Unchained, Leo has again taken on a character with a serious lacking for any moral integrity, and once again, the results were certainly extraordinary.  Even though I think this is one of his most thorough and well-crafted acting performances of his dignified career, I do not believe it is enough to outshine both McConaughey and Ejiofor.  DiCaprio has previously been nominated for three acting Oscars, the most recent nomination being for Best Actor for his role in Blood Diamond (2007).

4. Christian Bale (American Hustle)

In American Hustle, Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, an intelligent con artist who is forced into working alongside the FBI to take down a group of corrupt politicians.  Christian Bale has a long history of outstanding performances, and this role can be added to his long list of acclaimed portrayals.  Christian BaleIt would be easy to talk about the incredible acting abilities Bale elicits on the screen in American Hustle, but one thing not receiving as much attention is his very own physical transformation for the part.  Similar to McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, Bale has lost a significant amount of weight for a role twice in the past: he lost over 60 pounds for his role in The Machinist (2004) and lost a substantial amount of weight for The Fighter (2010).  However, in American Hustle, Bale went backwards, gaining 50 pounds for his role as Irving.  This transformation was unbelievable, leaving Bale nearly unrecognizable for the duration of the film.  Christian Bale was previously nominated and won Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Fighter (2010).

5. Bruce Dern (Nebraska)

In Nebraska, Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, an old man who, after receiving a certificate in the mail saying he has won $1 million, embarks on a trip with his son from Montana to Nebraska to claim the prize.  NEBRASKABruce Dern’s portrayal of Woody is one of the highlights from Alexander Payne’s most recent film, and I could not imagine any other old actor playing this role.  Dern utilizes his sprawling acting talents, made up from over fifty years of film experience, to take this character on in a manner that is more than award-worthy.  Woody is a simple man, and Dern plays those characteristics to a tee, adding in some hilarious, witty dialogue along the way.  In most years, a performance like this would garner a much higher ranking on my list, but this year, Dern is at a disadvantage because of four other unimpeachable performances.  Bruce Dern was previously nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Coming Home (1978).

Actresses snubbed in this category: Bradley Cooper (The Place Beyond the Pines), Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Hugh Jackman (Prisoners), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt), and Joaquin Phoenix (Her)

Top 15 Films of the Year, No. 9 – Nebraska

Nebraska - BP

Nebraska is a film directed by Alexander Payne, with a screenplay by Bob Nelson.  The film tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an old man from Montana who believes he has won $1 million in a sweepstakes.  Even though he does not believe his father has won any money at all, David Grant (Will Forte), Woody’s son, agrees to drive him to Nebraska to collect his winnings.  Along the way, the two Grant men encounter a wide range of characters, from greedy family members to a ruthless old friend of Woody’s.

US-ENTERTAINMENT-PREMIERE-NEBRASKAI have only seen two of Alexander Payne’s films, Election (1999) and The Descendents (2011), and I love them both; in Nebraska, Payne has created another film that I can now add to the list of his works that I greatly enjoy.  The entire film is shot in black and white, and honestly, I could not see this film working in color.  The characters are either tremendously brash or exceptionally bland; thus, the “black and white” style works utterly well.  The film is hilariously comedic but only in the subtlest ways, and Payne brings an established reputation to this tempestuous project.

NEBRASKAAs in many of the films that I rank highly each year, Nebraska thrives on a well-assembled, tremendous-performing cast.  The film is led by a wonderfully refreshing performance from one of Hollywood’s greats, Bruce Dern.  His character is plainly committed to traveling to Nebraska to collect his winnings, no matter how much his family tries to convince him of it being a hoax, and the innocent, blatantly ordinary man is highlighted on the screen thanks to a triumphant portrayal by Dern.  Equally as terrific is Will Forte in his portrayal of Woody’s son David.  An actor only known for his long stint on Saturday Night Live and his below-average film career, Forte significantly impacted this film for the better.  He uses his comedic background to illuminate his character’s witty dialogue, but it was the dramatic scenes that will stick in my head the most about Forte’s performance.

June Squibb cemetaryOne of the best performances in the film, though, comes from June Squibb as Kate Grant, Woody’s loud-mouthed, opinionated wife.  The veteran Squibb gives an absolutely hilarious performance as Kate, hysterically elucidated in many scenes, including one where she flashes her downstairs mix-up (Old Gregg reference) to the tombstone of one of Woody’s relatives.  When, at times, the film seems dry or bland, Squibb’s character quickly comes to the rescue in a blaze of straight-shooting glory.

Aside from Payne’s distinct filmmaking style and each actor’s skilled performances, the film’s hidden gem is the score—if ever a film’s musical composition matched the tone and color of the movie in such a brutally perfect way, it is this one.  Nebraska is rated R for some language.

Nebraska trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UT5tqPojMtg

Academy Award nominations for Nebraska:

Best Picture (Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, Producers)

Best Actor (Bruce Dern)

Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb)

Best Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael)

Best Director (Alexander Payne)

Best Original Screenplay (Bob Nelson)

Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of the Year:

10. Captain Phillips

11. Her

12. Philomena

13. Fruitvale Station

14. The Place Beyond the Pines

15. Dallas Buyers Club