Hey, Mister Postman!: His Preferential Oscar Ballot

posted Feb 20, 2014, 8:16 AM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Aug 16, 2014, 9:36 AM ]

As is my new modus operandi, I defer to The Postman and his impressive knowledge of films, film production and film history for his preferential Oscar ballot ahead of this year's 86th annual awards presentation on March 2 -- which will be hosted by Ellen DeGeneres.

Dear Members of the Route,

In past years, I've made it my goal to see all the English-language non-documentary feature films nominated for Academy Awards.  Due to some privileged access and a surfeit of free time in the last few weeks, for the first time ever, I've seen every nominated film in every category: documentaries, shorts, foreign films, everything.  So this will be my most complete Oscar ballot ever (in the past, I've not "voted" in categories where I haven't seen all the nominees).

Please remember that these picks are my preferences, not my predictions.  And, because I am not a member of the Academy, and because I saw more than 100 films from 2013, I reserve the right to choose write-in candidates when the Academy's choices just don't please me.  Once again, the nominees are:

Documentary Short: CaveDigger, Facing Fear, Karama Has No Walls, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall 

This is a pleasingly strong selection of films, making me wonder if I've missed gems in the many years I've not watched the documentary shorts.  The only dud among these five is Facing Fear, which comes off as too self-serving to be effective.  CaveDigger is diverting but underfed, The Lady in Number 6 is a bit too uncomplicated for such a difficult subject but very enjoyable, and Karama Has No Walls has a great close-to-the-action urgency.  But my clear favorite is Prison Terminal which watches an inmate die in the recently developed hospice program in an Iowa penitentiary.  For personal reasons, this movie struck an emotional chord with me, but I think it's well-made and fascinating.

Winner: Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Live Action Short: Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn't Me), Avant Que de Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything), Helium, Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, The Voorman Problem 

On the other hand, this category is very disappointing.  Though the perceived frontrunner is The Voorman Problem, starring Martin Freeman and Mark Hollander, I found it an only somewhat clever one-joke premise.  Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? is similarly slight, and That Wasn't Me is fairly standard third world strife.  Just Before Losing Everything is an intriguing, involving film about a woman trying to liberate herself from her abusive husband, but my favorite by far is Helium, the story of a boy dying in a hospital and the janitor who softens the blow of his final days with his fanciful stories.  Quite moving.

Winner: Helium

Animated Short: Feral, Get a Horse!, Mr. Hublot, Possessions, Room on the Broom 

Another disappointing category.  Though most of these movies are very good looking (with the exception of Room on the Broom, which is bland through and through), there's precious little there there.  Possessions feels like it wants to be a feature: it looks great but doesn't have enough to say.  Feral has some haunting imagery but the story amounts to virtually nothing.  Mr. Hublot is beautifully mounted, but the choice of some awfully lame pop songs towards the end breaks whatever spell the earlier part of the film cast. That leaves my beloved Get a Horse!, a funny, fast, violent short that recalls Looney Tunes-level mayhem and should really be seen in 3D to fully appreciate it.

Winner: Get a Horse!

Documentary Feature: The Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, The Square, 20 Feet from Stardom 

I honestly don't understand the world's love affair with 20 Feet from Stardom.  The women profiled in the film are fascinating, and their singing is glorious, but I don't think it's much of a film.  I'd rather watch a concert featuring all of them.  Then again, Dirty Wars is simply awful; the subject matter is interesting enough (a journalist's discovery that American wars are now often fought by guns for hire), but the journalist is altogether too pleased with himself (the director loves his subject all too obviously, allowing the journalist to narrate the film in a style that recalls the worst excesses of old Dragnet episodes).  After its first 30 minutes (which feels like the longest trailer ever), The Square gets very good, with the same on-the-street access as Karama Has No Walls.  The Act of Killing is a fascinating film, a portrayal of a group of truly loathsome individuals allowed to live with impunity despite having committed unthinkable crimes.  And though I'm tempted to write in Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley's sadly not-nominated film, I'm equally fond of Cutie and the Boxer, an interesting portrayal of a complicated relationship between a couple of artists.

Winner: Cutie and the Boxer

Makeup: Dallas Buyers Club, ‘Jackass’ Presents: Bad Grandpa, The Lone Ranger 

Well, first off, I have to say that Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters was totally robbed here.  That said, my choice here is clear.  Bad Grandpa - a shockingly entertaining film, by the way - transforms Johnny Knoxville into a most persuasive old man and does such effective drag makeup on an 8 year-old boy that he successfully infiltrates a pre-teen beauty pageant.  

Winner: Bad Grandpa

Visual Effects: Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger, Star Trek: Into Darkness 

While I am very tempted to be a contrarian and give this award to The Hobbit for its utterly wonderful creation of the dragon Smaug, even I can't deny the visual effects brilliance of Gravity.  Even if I don't love the film as a whole, Gravity is a game-changer in terms of technology, and its look is truly extraordinary.

Winner: Gravity

Sound Editing: All is Lost, Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Lone Survivor 

Again, I could go the easy route and just give most of the technical categories to Gravity, but it's my ballot, and I'll cry if I want to.  So because I didn't give The Hobbit visual effects, I'm going to spread the wealth and give this award to it -- for Benedict Cumberbatch's voice as the dragon rumbling in my belly most satisfyingly.

Winner: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Sound Mixing: Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Inside Llewyn Davis, Lone Survivor 

Captain Phillips, Gravity, and The Hobbit are all excellently crafted movies (I'm no fan of Lone Survivor but the movie was certainly awfully noisy), but there was no sweeter sound this year than Oscar Isaac and the exceptionally talented cast singing folk songs in Inside Llewyn Davis.

Winner: Inside Llewyn Davis

Film Editing: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave 

Given the film's pacing problems, American Hustle's place here is a bit baffling, and while Dallas Buyers Club is a proficiently assembled film, I'd gladly have sacrificed its place here to superior film craft.  Despite its gloriously long shots, meaning less editing than your average film, Gravity is expertly put together.  And Captain Phillips is as wonderfully tense as 12 Years a Slave is lyrical.  But my favorites are both off the board here: first is Thelma Schoonmaker for The Wolf of Wall Street, who, at the very least, should have been nominated here.  Though most people I know, even those who like the film, complain that it's too long, for me, those three hours flew like no other film did this year, so much so that I felt I could easily have sat in the theater for three more hours.  But the tensest, most exciting film experience I had this year was the two hours of nail-biting tension found in World War Z, an expertly crafted popcorn film.  So it's zombies over stockbrokers for the win.

Winner: World War Z

Costume Design: American Hustle, The Grandmaster, The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Woman, 12 Years a Slave 

I can't say I love this category this year.  I'm not prepared to say that I didn't like any of these nominees (though American Hustle felt a little too aggressively costumed to me, and I didn't find The Grandmaster very memorable on any level), but I also can't say I loved any of these achievements.  The Invisible Woman was a dull film, and its costumes were admirably ordinary, but that still makes them... ordinary.  So between my default favorites 12 Years a Slave and The Great Gatsby, I guess I'll throw a nod to the splashier Gatsby.

Winner: The Great Gatsby

Animated Film: The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest & Celestine, Frozen, The Wind Rises 

How far we have fallen from 2009 when the nominees included The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline, The Princess and the Frog, and Up, four utterly wonderful animated films, all of which tower over this year's selections.  Now we range from the awful (Despicable Me 2) to the merely proficient.  Do I go with the beautiful but achingly dull The Wind Rises? The charming but slight Ernest & Celestine?  The adequate factory product The Croods? Or the severely flawed Frozen with its moments of absolute inspiration?  I don't love any of the choices here (nor is there a suitable write-in candidate).

Winner: Frozen

Foreign Film: The Broken Circle Breakdown, The Great Beauty, The Hunt, The Missing Picture, Omar 

The Broken Circle Breakdown and The Hunt both have their moments, but they are also both too on-the-nose to be totally effective.  The Missing Picture is deadly: though the director is to be commended for his artistic vision of presenting the liquidation of Phnom Penh by creating hundreds of clay figures to illustrate his country's history, the effect of the film is basically staring at a diorama for 90 minutes, like getting stuck on the Disneyland Railroad in front of the Grand Canyon and never getting to the dinosaurs. The Great Beauty is stunning, but it owes such a great debt to Fellini that it doesn't exist as its own film enough for me.  As my top 10 list indicates, I'm a huge fan of Omar, a twisty political thriller from Palestine.  The choice is very easy here.

Winner: Omar

Original Song: “Happy”, Despicable Me 2; “Let it Go”, Frozen; “The Moon Song”, Her; “Ordinary Love”, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom 

Unlike my disappointment with other categories this year, I can genuinely say I like all of these nominated songs (and considering how little I like U2's music, that is a surprise to me).  “Happy” is just plain fun, and “The Moon Song” hauntingly lilting (though I far prefer Scarlett Johansson's version in the film to Karen O's recorded version).  But “Let it Go” is undeniable: it sticks in your head like a Whitney Houston song from the 80's, and it has touched the public imagination in a way that no movie song has since, maybe, the ineligible "Come What May" from Moulin Rouge!  And I love it, plain and simple, as I wish I loved the whole film.

Winner: “Let it Go”, Frozen

Original Score: The Book Thief, Gravity, Her, Philomena, Saving Mr. Banks 

I'll admit it: I seldom pay attention to a film's score.  If a score is too noticeable, it distracts and annoys me (as the Gravity score did by the third time I saw the movie).  So I listened to 20 minutes each of the nominated scores before making my decision.  While I found Her's score effective in the film, it didn't thrill me out of its film's context.  Much as I normally like Alexandre Desplat's music, his Philomena score strikes me as twittery and insubstantial.  Saving Mr. Banks is nice, but it's all too typical Thomas Newman. Surprisingly, Gravity's music redeemed itself with me away from the film, but I'm going with the old master in this category, John Williams for his lovely music for the also lovely film The Book Thief.

Winner: The Book Thief

Production Design: American Hustle, Gravity, The Great Gatsby, Her, 12 Years a Slave 

This one's easy.  Though there are some good looking films represented in this category, the physical world of Her was so extraordinary - from the color scheme to the set design to even the video games - and the look so essential to maintaining the mood of the movie, that no other films need apply.

Winner: Her

Cinematography: The Grandmaster, Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Prisoners 

Another easy one.  As I've said before, I don't love the inclusion of visual effects movies in this category (my solution: create a category for visual effects cinematography, where films like Gravity, Life of Pi, and Avatar can justly thrive), so despite Gravity's beauty, I can't vote for it.  Besides, the painterly images of Inside Llewyn Davis are so stunning that this category isn't even a close contest.

Winner: Inside Llewyn Davis

Adapted Screenplay: Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street 

This one's not so easy.  Though a big fan of 12 Years a Slave, I feel its achievements are more to be found in other categories.  And the writing of The Wolf of Wall Street is dazzling and funny, but due to the amount of improvisation done on set, it's hard to know how much credit writer Terence Winter is actually due (I suspect quite a bit, still...).  But my affection for the script of Before Midnight - a movie that relies almost exclusively on the strength of its script - is unqualified.  Every conversation - every word, really - feels achingly real to me.  And maybe a fantasy Oscar that these filmmakers will never hear about will encourage them to make a fourth film.

Winner: Before Midnight

Original Screenplay: American Hustle, Blue Jasmine, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska 

I always tend to be partial to adaptations over original scripts, but this year the disparity seems very high.  I just don't love this category.  American Hustle has some wonderful lines (I'm very partial to the ice fishing story), but I think it's a structural mess.  Nebraska also has some nice moments, but its tone ended up rankling me quite a bit the second time through.  Dallas Buyers Club boasts an adequate but, to me, honestly unremarkable and occasionally troubling script.  That leaves Her, a near hit for me (the second time I watched it, that is), but it still reminds me so much of Woody Allen's masterpiece Annie Hall that I couldn't help but be distracted (seriously, the relationship between Joaquin Phoenix and his computer system has a number of parallels with the relationship between Alvy Singer and Annie).  That leaves Blue Jasmine, a very fine film but nowhere close to Allen's finest work.  So I'm going to throw a write-in bone to Inside Llewyn Davis, my favorite Coen brothers script, and unjustly left off this list a month ago.

Winner: Inside Llewyn Davis

Supporting Actress: Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine; Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle; Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave; Julia Roberts, August: Osage County, June Squibb, Nebraska 

It's one thing to give a great performance in an otherwise good film.  It's another thing entirely to shine through a film I can't stand.  Though I freely admit that co-stars Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, and Juliette Lewis did very nice work in August: Osage County, the fact that Julia Roberts could do the finest work in her career in a badly directed, badly edited, badly shot, badly scored film, is nothing short of a miracle to me. I'm a fan of a number of women in this category (though I wish there were space for Margot Robbie from The Wolf of Wall Street and Sarah Paulson or Adepero Oduye from 12 Years a Slave here), but Roberts - an actress I was furious upon hearing she'd even been cast in August: Osage County - blew me away.

Winner: Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips; Bradley Cooper, American Hustle; Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave; Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street; Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club 

Why, oh why, is this category the ugly stepchild of the acting categories, year after year after year?  While I don't hate any of these performances, I'm also not that wild about any of them.  My problem with Leto's performance is more a function of how calculated the role seems to have been written with an Oscar in mind, but even acknowledging that bias, I still think he only does what's required, little more.  Cooper impressed me more last year in Silver Linings Playbook: this role just seemed needlessly hysterical.  Fassbender is a wonderful actor, but I had problems with his role: the dots never connected to explain his evil to me.  I like Jonah Hill in Wolf, but I preferred him in Moneyball.  So I could go with Barkhad Abdi as my default favorite in the category, because I really did like his work in Captain Phillips.  Or I could go off the board and honor James Gandolfini's sweet anti-Tony-Soprano performance in Enough Said, or Tom Hanks' incredibly satisfying performance as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, or celebrate my favorite performance in American Hustle, Louis C.K.  I might almost flip a coin on this one.

Ultimately, sad to say, I don't really care.

Winner: Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks (though I admit what puts him over the edge here was his work in the last 15 minutes -- and only the last 15 minutes -- of Captain Phillips)

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

Is there even a reason to discuss this?  Though I'd be happy to champion Amy Adams' very fine work in any other year but this, though I could spend more time complaining about Meryl Streep's all-too-humanizing portrayal of her monster mother character, there's really no point in discussing anyone but Cate Blanchett, who gives the year's best performance regardless of category.  Blanchett is an actress I have never genuinely loved before.  I hated her drag queen portrayal of Katharine Hepburn that won her an undeserved Oscar nearly a decade ago, and I've just never felt a huge amount of emotion coming out of her: technical brilliance, sure, but not much of a heartbeat underneath. Until now.  Her work in Blue Jasmine is simply epic: funny and heartbreaking, intelligent and gut-wrenching.  The effect of this performance may do what The Queen did for me with Helen Mirren.  I may now love Cate Blanchett forever more.

Winner: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Actor: Christian Bale, American Hustle; Bruce Dern, Nebraska; Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street; Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave; Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club 

Now this one's more of a barn-burner.  While I question the choice of Christian Bale's place here, I also wasn't a huge fan of the two performances considered "snubbed" here: either Robert Redford's work in All is Lost or Tom Hanks' work in Captain Phillips (except, admittedly, for those last 15 minutes).  I'd throw Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis as my fifth choice here.  But the other four?  All excellent.  Bruce Dern's work as an aging man might not be as iconic for me as Jack Nicholson's in About Schmidt, Alexander Payne's far superior film, but it is very nice.  Though I'm not as seduced by Dallas Buyers Club as everyone else seems to be, I do love McConaughey here, if only because the world has caught up with the considerably good work he's done in the last few years (though I still prefer him in Magic Mike).  And Chiwetel Ejiofor is exquisite in his quiet, reactive performance in 12 Years a Slave.  But Leonardo DiCaprio is so dazzling in The Wolf of Wall Street.  I have always found him a charming actor, but I didn't know how funny he could be (based on his interviews, I'm guessing he didn't know how funny he could be either).  I'll say it again: that quaaludes sequence has to be the best physical comedy I've seen in a film in many, many years.  And since comedy so seldom gets Oscar love, I'll correct that in my small way. 

Winner: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Director: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity; Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave; Alexander Payne, Nebraska; David O. Russell, American Hustle; Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street 

As much as I love The Wolf of Wall Street, I will admit that it doesn't exactly represent a new chapter in Martin Scorsese's work.  And as much as I haven't championed Gravity as a whole, Alfonso Cuaron's work this year is really extraordinary: it would be a pleasure to give him this award.  But Steve McQueen gets my award here, because he has made a wonderful film that feels especially like a major directorial achievement to me.  12 Years a Slave is a beautifully artful film: though unsparing and harsh, it also feels like a finely calibrated piece of music, telling the story not simply of a man who endures almost impossible hardship, but how that hardship shakes him out of his relative apathy and makes him into an abolitionist.  McQueen blew me away with the power of his work this year.

Winner: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

Picture: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street 

Since I have already published my Top 10 of the year, with Inside Llewyn Davis as my #1 and (a mere) two of these nominees on the list, my ultimate choice is no surprise.  So, as I have done in years past, I will simply rank the Best Picture nominees in preferential order:

#1 - The Wolf of Wall Street

#2 - 12 Years a Slave

#3 - Her

#4 - Captain Phillips

#5 - Gravity

#6 - Dallas Buyers Club

#7 - Philomena

#8 - American Hustle

#9 - Nebraska

And with that, I close my ballot and my all-too-well-developed Academy Award member fantasies.  Now I have about 10 days to polish this year's Posties. 

The Postman

You want a fantasy Oscar ballot???  I'll give you... A FANTASY OSCAR BALLOT!!!