Oscar race kicks off with surprises

Sony Pictures
5 min

The year’s first film prizes boosted Academy Award hopes for "American Hustle", "Her", "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Fruitvale Station" instead of favourites "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave." FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at a shifting Oscar race.


The Oscar race got off to a somewhat confusing start this week, with three different films taking home three different top prizes seen, to varying degrees, as accurate predictors of Academy Awards glory.

The least influential of those honours, the Gotham Independent Film Awards, on Monday gave its Best Picture statuette to the Coen brothers’ mournful deadpan masterwork “Inside Llewyn Davis”, about a struggling folk singer in 1960s New York.

A day later, the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle unexpectedly crowned David O. Russell’s flamboyant period comedy “American Hustle” – based on a 1970s FBI operation in which an agent collaborated with a pair of swindlers – best movie of the year.

And on Wednesday, the National Board of Review, composed of film professionals and scholars, further changed things up by handing its top prize to Spike Jonze’s melancholy futuristic romance “Her”, in which a man (played by Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with a computer operating system.

In what came as a jolt to Oscar prognosticators and critics who took to Twitter to voice their irritation, neither Steve McQueen’s slavery drama “12 Years a Slave” nor Alfonso Cuaron’s 3D space thriller “Gravity” took home a Best Picture award. The two rapturously praised films are thought to be locked in a tight two-way race for Oscar’s most coveted prize.

Gothams give momentum to McConaughey and ‘Fruitvale Station’

The Gotham Awards, which allow select juries of filmmakers to vote for their favourite independent US films and performances of the year, also gave a boost to Matthew McConaughey, whose physically committed turn as a homophobic Texan suffering from AIDS in Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Dallas Buyers Club” earned him a Best Actor award.

Rising star Brie Larson won Best Actress for her portrayal of a young woman working with troubled teens in Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12”. Larson is still considered a long shot in a crowded field of contenders led by “Gravity”’s Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett, whose bravura turn as a former socialite facing financial ruin – and teetering on the brink of madness – in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” has made her the favourite.

One film that emerged from the Gothams with new momentum was “Fruitvale Station”, the stirring fictionalised account of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a young African-American man killed by a police officer in Oakland in 2009; the movie’s director, Ryan Coogler, and star, Michael B. Jordan, won “Breakthrough” directing and acting awards.

New York critics champion ‘American Hustle’

Meanwhile, the New York Film Critics Circle confounded Oscar pundits by turning “American Hustle” into the big winner on Tuesday. In addition to declaring the movie – an irrepressible burst of style over substance – Best Picture, the 38-member group gave it a Best Screenplay prize and named Jennifer Lawrence Best Supporting Actress for her scenery-chewing performance as the protagonist’s mercurial housewife.

Lawrence, the popular star of the “Hunger Games” films, narrowly beat out Lupita Nyong’o, who has been considered the Best Supporting Actress frontrunner for her big-screen debut in “12 Years a Slave”.

If that film’s many champions were disappointed that it lost a few prizes to “American Hustle”, they could, at least, take solace in McQueen’s Best Director win.

“12 Years a Slave” is almost certain to score Oscar nominations for its lead and supporting actors, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender. But the New York Film Critics Circle chose to name Robert Redford Best Actor for his near-wordless turn as a man stranded at sea in J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost”, and gave the Best Supporting Actor award to Jared Leto, whose touching performance as a transsexual AIDS patient in “Dallas Buyers Club” ranks as his best work to date.

Blanchett unsurprisingly snagged Best Actress for “Blue Jasmine”, besting runners-up Amy Adams, playing against type as a slinky con woman in “American Hustle”, and breakout French star Adèle Exarchopoulos, whose work in the shattering lesbian romance “Blue is the Warmest Colour” earned her the top Palme d’Or prize (shared with director Abdellatif Kechiche and co-star Léa Seydoux) at Cannes in May.

National Board of Review picks ‘Her’ and the men of ‘Nebraska’

Mixing it up further on Wednesday, the National Board of Review thrilled many critics with a few unusual picks – even beyond its selection of Spike Jonze’s “Her” as Best Picture.

If Bruce Dern’s Best Actor win for his crotchety old dreamer in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” was hardly out of left field – he won the award at Cannes and is considered a shoo-in for an Oscar nod – the choice of Will Forte, who plays his patient son, for Best Supporting Actor was pleasingly quirky.

And while the Best Actress award for Emma Thompson as “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers in John Lee Hancock’s “Saving Mr. Banks” seemed a somewhat safe pick, the Best Supporting Actress honours for Octavia Spencer, who plays Oscar Grant’s mother in “Fruitvale Station”, was less so. With Spencer, Nyong’o and “The Butler”’s Oprah Winfrey all strong contenders for nominations, this year could mark the first time three African-American actresses compete in the same category.

The Los Angeles Film Critics Association is set to unveil its choices on Sunday. Those now wondering if the 2014 Oscar race will end up with more twists and turns than initially anticipated should stay tuned.

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