The 93rd Oscars – Best Actress

In today’s post, I will review the Best Actress category, home of the most wide-open race at this year’s Academy Awards. Who will win is anybody’s guess, so let’s dive in for an analysis of the category.

The Nominees

Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)

Based on August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows the real-life Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis), a highly influential African-American blues singer in the 1920s. The film focuses on a tumultuous studio recording session with Ma Rainey and her band in Chicago. Viola Davis is one of the best and most talented actors currently working, and with her turn this year as Ma Rainey, she further demonstrates her impressive range, taking on a distinct physical transformation to play the brash blues legend.  Over the course of the film, it becomes apparent Ma Rainey’s generally difficult demeanor with respect to her producers is shaped by her experience as an African-American woman in a world controlled by white men, and Davis depicts the character’s tough-nut-to-crack temperament with strident passion and exquisite flair.

Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday)

Set in the 1940s, Lee Daniels’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday follows the life and struggles of Billie Holiday, one of the most instrumental jazz singers in the history of music. In particular, the film focuses on the U.S. government’s racially motivated preoccupation with targeting and harassing Holiday. The government persecuted Holiday under the guise of drug-related offenses, but Daniels explores another motivation—stopping Holiday from performing “Strange Fruit,” her anti-lynching song, which became an anthem for the civil rights movement. Three-time Grammy Award-nominated singer Andra Day’s performance in this film’s leading role is absolutely stunning, made all the more startling by the fact it is only the third film credit of her career. (She previously played the role of “Minton’s Singer” in Marshall and voiced the character “Sweet Tea” in Cars 3.) Although the film as a whole had a number of flaws, Day’s take on Billie Holiday was surely not one of them—she was singularly the film’s dazzling high point. Day transformed into Holiday, delivering striking moments of passion and restrained moments of intimacy, and it deservedly earned her an Oscar nomination this year.

Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman)

The setup for Pieces of a Woman is simple—a young couple, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), lose their baby during a home birth gone wrong, and they are left to grapple with the emotional toll of this tragic event, while also dealing with the stress of a legal case being pursued against the midwife who delivered the child. For me, it was impossible to watch Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman and not come away thinking, “Wow, that is what acting is all about.” The film’s storyline is, at its very core, crushing and heartbreaking, and Kirby delivers every single one of her character’s raw and painful emotions with devastating exactitude. It is a shame Kirby hasn’t been shown more love this awards season in what has turned out to be a wide-open Best Actress race. (She’s been nominated at a number of noteworthy award shows, but her only significant win was the Volpi Cup for Best Actress, the award given out at the Venice Film Festival.) The portrayal of Martha required Kirby to embody the essence of a shattered woman, consumed by inconceivable grief, while also to methodically demonstrate the character’s ultimate revival and enduring spirit to press on—Kirby checked these boxes off with apparent ease. It was an outstanding expression of pure acting prowess.

Frances McDormand (Nomadland)

In Nomadland, following the death of her husband and the closing down of the manufacturing plant in her hometown (at which she worked), Fern (played by Frances McDormand) makes the decision to sell most of her personal possessions, purchase a van, and essentially live a “nomad” life without any fixed residence, driving from city to city in search of odd jobs here and there to make enough money to survive. Make no mistake, the legendary Frances McDormand is, in accordance with every other role she’s ever played, wonderful in Nomadland. However, for me, if I was going to sneak in another performer who was snubbed this year (see discussion of such snubs below), McDormand would probably be the one to make way. Nomadland is definitely one of the best films this year (when I reveal my rankings in a few days, you will definitely hear more about it), but considering its beautiful story, cinematography, collective supporting performances, and near-documentary style of filmmaking, it’s a film where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts, including McDormand.

Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman)

Although Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is full of unique and intriguing twists and turns, the setup is fairly straightforward: Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan), motivated by the rape of her best friend Nina, spends her nights pretending to be drunk at bars in an effort to attract morally corrupt men (who pass themselves off to her as “nice guys”) in order to ultimately confront those guys about their skeezy behavior and hold them accountable—Cassie is most definitely a modern-day femme fatale. Eventually, Cassie directs her mission to everybody connected to Nina’s rape, which is where the story takes off. Carey Mulligan is nothing short of amazing in this darkly comedic thriller, a bona fide departure from her trademark appearances in period pieces and hard dramas. Cassie is ice cold and vastly different than any character I’ve ever seen Mulligan depict, and if her entrancingly exceptional performance in Promising Young Woman is any indication, I hope we see Mulligan again in the near future taking on another complex modern figure—Mulligan is a first-rate pro!

Snubs and Other Performances

In addition to the nominees, this year supplied movie watchers with a number of other incredible acting performances from female leads who easily could have gotten Oscar nominations themselves—this category is just so unbelievably stacked. First, Jessie Buckley was hauntingly superb in Charlie Kaufman’s enigmatic psychological thriller I’m Thinking of Ending Things, nimbly navigating a cinematic maze of strange, surrealist ideas. Second, in a movie chock-full of first-rate acting performances, Han Ye-ri wonderfully delivered a quiet, yet poignant, depiction of a wife struggling to balance her own happiness against the dreams of her ambitious husband in Minari. Third, Rosamund Pike is enthralling in the Netflix dark comedy I Care A Lot as Marla Grayson, a charismatic (yet brash) con artist who preys on elders in assisted living communities to steal their money and valuables. I couldn’t help but see a lot of similarities in this character to Amy Dunne (the character Pike played in 2014’s Gone Girl, which earned Pike her lone Oscar nomination), so it’s no wonder Pike knocked the performance out of the park. Additionally, one of my favorite acting performances this year came courtesy of breakout actress Bukky Bakray, who starred in Rocks, a British film about a teenage girl who must take care of not only herself, but also her little brother, after her mother abandons the family. Bakray, just a teenager herself, gave a beautiful, gut-wrenching portrayal of the film’s lead, which earned her a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress and a win for the BAFTA Rising Star Award.

Although these performances above were certainly stellar, there was one this year that stood out to me as a performance that absolutely deserved an Oscar nomination (and yet got snubbed): Elisabeth Moss as the lead protagonist, Cecilia Kass, in Leigh Whannell’s rendition of The Invisible Man. Whannell’s version of this classic tale focuses heavily on abuse and the effects it can have on victims, and Moss was nothing short of astounding in her portrayal of this character. Her performance is incredibly intense at moments, while also meticulously subtle at others. With every apprehensive glance, with every hurried breath, Moss skillfully portrays her character’s fear and emotional exhaustion with fastidiousness. Ultimately, Cecilia gets her revenge, in the most badass way possible, and Moss executes the whole operation to perfection. For years, dating back to Mad Men, Elisabeth Moss has been a critically acclaimed staple of television—this year, Moss deserved an Academy Award nod for her silver-screen talents.

Conclusion

Who Could Win: Viola Davis or Frances McDormand

This year, the Best Actress category at the Academy Awards is by far the most competitive of any other acting category. So far, a different woman has won the Golden Globe Award (Andra Day), Critics’ Choice Movie Award (Carey Mulligan), Screen Actors Guild Award (Viola Davis), and British Academy Film Award (Frances McDormand) for Best Actress. Carey Mulligan is getting slightly better odds than the rest of the field, and of the three other Best Actress award winners this season, Viola Davis and Frances McDormand stand the best chance to pull off an “upset.” (In light of how tight this race is, nothing will actually be an upset this year.) McDormand is currently getting +400 odds, while Davis is getting a stunning +200 odds, which is insanely close to what Mulligan is receiving. I wouldn’t be surprised if either Davis or McDormand took home the Oscar on Sunday.

Who Should Win: Vanessa Kirby

I truly enjoyed each performance nominated in this category, but for me, the most emotionally affecting of the year—Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman—deserves the Oscar. It is a beautifully soul-crushing portrayal of a first-time mother struck by tragedy, and Kirby would have my vote, full stop, if I had one to give.

Who Will Win: Carey Mulligan

As I alluded to above, this category is going to come down to the wire. Carey Mulligan, this year’s winner at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, is currently getting the best betting odds to take home the gold at +125. Although not really a frontrunner due to the razor-thin margin between the nominees, my educated guess is Mulligan takes home the Oscar. Promising Young Woman is a vital, timely piece of cinema, and Mulligan is its standpoint star. Prior to this year’s nominations, Davis and McDormand accounted for a combined 8 Oscar nominations and 3 wins—this is only Mulligan’s second nomination ever, and I think the Academy will welcome her into the winner’s circle.

Fall Preview 2013: No. 10 – No. 6

Hey movie fans!  I hope everyone enjoyed the introductory post to my Fall Preview 2013 a couple days ago, which included five honorable mention films set to debut in theaters in the next few months.  Today’s post reveals films No. 10 through No. 6 on my list of Top 10 most anticipated movies coming out during the fall season.  This batch includes some surefire, award-quality works of cinema, and if you are looking for a great movie to go see in theaters in the next few months, this post will give you some top-notch options.

No. 10 – Prisoners

Prisoners is a film about two girls that go missing and follows a detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a desperate father (Hugh Jackman) as they work to track both girls down.  Even though the trailer presents the film as a thriller following two families trying to track down their daughters, Gyllenhaal says it is much more than meets the eye: “What’s different about this story is the idea that revenge just begets more revenge and you become a prisoner of that need to seek revenge.”  The trailer initially caught my eye with its dark, menacing demeanor, and not only was I captivated with the idea in general, I was even more fascinated with Paul Dano’s role.  He has long been a fantastic character actor, and I expect nothing but a superb supporting performance in this film from the twenty-nine-year-old star.  Prisoners is set for a theatrical release on September 20, 2013.

Director: Denis Villeneuve (Incendies)

Starring: Hugh Jackman (Les Misérables, Wolverine), Jake Gyllenhaal (Brothers, End of Watch), Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood), Terrence Howard (Crash, Hustle & Flow)

No. 9 – Rush

Rush tells the true story of Formula One rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda.  At the 1976 German Grand Prix, Lauda (Daniel Brühl) was involved in a disastrous crash that nearly took his life.  The film follows his comeback and relationship with Hunt (Chris Hemsworth).  I am always a sucker for a quality sports-themed movie, and I have been aware of Rush for quite some time.  Not only is the story emotional and uplifting, but the film also features two exceptional actors playing these infamous lead roles.  Over the past couple of years, I have become a huge fan of Hemsworth’s acting abilities, highlighted in Thor, The Avengers, and The Cabin in the Woods.  I also expect big things in this film from Daniel Brühl, whose breakout performance was in my favorite film of all time, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds.  Lastly, the film features a supporting performance by one of my favorite actresses in cinema, Alexandra Maria Lara.  Needless to say, this movie has everything going for it, and I anticipate moviegoers everywhere to “rush” to the theater to see it (pun clearly intended).  Rush is set for a theatrical release on September 13, 2013.

Director: Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Cabin in the Woods), Daniel Brühl (Inglourious Basterds), Olivia Wilde (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Drinking Buddies), Alexandra Maria Lara (Downfall, L’affaire Farewell)

No. 8 – Her

Her is a film about an introverted writer named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who is dealing with the end of a long relationship.  He decides to buy a new computer operating system named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and through their conversations, Theodore begins to fall in love with “Samantha.”  The first time I saw this trailer, I thought, “wow, what an odd premise.”  But the more I watched it, the more engrossed I became with the subject matter.  Half of my intrigue dealt directly with this unique plot, but the other half came from the people involved with the film.  No matter how odd he may be as a human being, Joaquin Phoenix is still one of the single most talented actors working in Hollywood, and his involvement with the film foreshadows an excess of award praise for the movie.  I am also looking to this movie to put Spike Jonze, the director, back on the cinematic map.  He has had success directing on the silver screen in the past, with movies like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, but his 2009 live-action adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are was clearly less than spectacular in my book.  I am hoping Her revitalizes my enjoyment of Jonze’s films.  Her is set for a theatrical release on December 18, 2013.

Director: Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are)

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, The Master), Amy Adams (The Master, American Hustle), Scarlett Johansson (Hitchcock, Don Jon)

No. 7 – Out of the Furnace

Out of the Furnace is a film that follows an ex-convict (Christian Bale) as he seeks revenge on a crime boss (Woody Harrelson) that he suspects has something to do with the disappearance of his missing brother (Casey Affleck).  Obviously, with a couple of the heavy hitters of Hollywood in this film, specifically the always-remarkable Christian Bale, it will definitely be one to look out for come Oscar season; however, I am most eager for the film because of the director, Scott Cooper.  Cooper has only directed a single feature film before Out of the Furnace: the 2009 drama Crazy Heart, which earned Jeff Bridges the Academy Award for Best Actor.  I immediately fell in love with Crazy Heart after seeing it for the first time, and I have been eagerly awaiting Cooper’s next film for four years.  Luckily, he has come back strong with a motion picture that is already receiving a fair amount of Oscar buzz, and I cannot wait to see how his second go-round pans out.  Out of the Furnace is set for a wide theatrical release on December 6, 2013.

Director: Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart)

Starring: Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises, American Hustle), Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), Woody Harrelson (The Hunger Games, Now You See Me)

No. 6 – Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about an anti-social musician (Oscar Isaac) and the struggles he faces as he tries to salvage any success in his personal and professional lives.  The newest Coen Brothers film does not quite look like any other that they have created before, but my devotion to their work is unrelenting, and I believe this film will captivate not only myself, but also all movie fans alike.  For Mumford & Sons fans, this movie will be right up your alley—Marcus Mumford and Academy Award-winner T-Bone Burnett produced the folk-style music incorporated throughout the film.  Some gifted young performers appear in the film in addition to Isaac, including Mr. “Suit and Tie” himself, Justin Timberlake, and Carey Mulligan, one of the most popular and talented young actresses in the business today (not to mention she’s Marcus Mumford’s wife).  The film debuted at Cannes earlier this year, winning the second-most prestigious award available, the Grand Prix, and it was met with rave reviews—based on 23 critics reviews, the film has already garnered a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  With this film, expect the same amazing product the Coen Brothers have been handing out for many years, including just the precise balance of emotion and their classic satirical humor.  Inside Llewyn Davis is set for a theatrical release on December 6, 2013.

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, True Grit)

Starring: Oscar Isaac (Drive, The Bourne Legacy), Carey Mulligan (Drive, The Great Gatsby), John Goodman (Argo, Flight), Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy, Country Strong), Justin Timberlake (Trouble with the Curve, Runner, Runner)