Pretty good Oscar crop this year, huh? Sure, sure, but it wouldn’t be the Academy Awards if we didn’t have some big, bitter bone to pick with at least one terrible decision on the nominees list. Join us as we get the haterade off our chests with our roundup of Oscar rants, and check out Grantland’s full Academy Award coverage here.
Christian Bale’s Stomach Problems
Mark Lisanti: Christian Bale is a transformation artist. He wasted away for The Machinist, Rescue Dawn, and The Fighter, melting off flesh to inhabit the frail skeletons of a tortured insomniac, a lost pilot, a lovable crackhead. He bulked up for Batman Begins. He took a chain saw and carved away every physical imperfection in making his Patrick Bateman the self-sculpted David of psychopaths.
… And then he got kind of fat for American Hustle. Not is-that-latex fat, nor beckoning-Type-2-diabetes fat. Just let-good-habits-slide-for-a-couple-of-months fat, or some-extra-late-night-pizza-orders fat. Is this a fair way to look at things? Perhaps not. There’s a commendable lack of vanity in letting oneself go just enough to sink into the flabby sweet spot of a con man with poor health habits, in easing back in the poolside deck chair, stogie in hand, to blow heavy plumes of smoke over the furry bulge of an un-self-consciously displayed stomach. But even though Bale’s previous virtuoso body-modification work suggests a master in total control of his instrument, there’s still a risk in appearing as if each carefully made choice is a happy accident of sloth, especially when he’s competing with someone who stuck a greedy hand into his old trick bag and emerged a dangerously emaciated front-runner.
So what are we asking for here, really? Another 20 pounds? Some labored breathing, maybe a touch of obesity-induced sleep apnea for realism? I’m not sure. All I know is that Matthew McConaughey is going to win an Oscar, and everyone at the Governor’s Ball is going to sidle up to Bale at some point and ask him, “You look good. You lose a little weight?” And somewhere across the room, McConaughey’s going to see the frustration in Bale’s eyes, shoot him a couple of finger-guns, and silently mouth a “just keep living” to his vanquished rival.
The McConaissance Will Be Televised … on HBO
Amos Barshad: The unprecedented Matthew McConaughey Latter-Day Hot Streak will quite likely crescendo with an Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club, and that’s a bummer. The McRun — generally defined as being prefaced by the auspicious The Lincoln Lawyer, kicking off in earnest with the wonderfully greasy Magic Mike, then shuttling in quick succession through the dirt and grime of Mud, The Paperboy, and Killer Joe — has been one of my favorite pop culture trajectories ever. When, before, have we seen anyone kindly reject more wheelbarrows of money in favor of last-minute potential-fulfillment and True Art? (Except for Shia, obvs.) But Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t belong here: For as brash and committed as Matty is as skeletal Ron Woodroof, it’s a maudlin, unavoidably obvious flick he’s stuck in; the inevitable redemption bogs down every single line. (The best scene is the first one, when he cheats his fellow rodeo gamblers, then jets out of the place, clambering over fences. He should have kept on running.) McConaughey’s been giving us cracked, ugly, desperate characters — none better than the transcendent Rust Cohle in True Detective. But Woodroof’s just a smudged-up saint: Brush him off and there he glows.
By the way, McConaughey would be collecting this said theoretical Oscar on Sunday, the same night a new episode of True Detective airs. Flip channels back and forth fast enough, and maybe you can pretend it’s Rust up there, decrying the whole empty spectacle? “You gotta get together, tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day? What’s that say about your reality?”
Nebraska’s Loathsome, Clouded Midwest
Emily Yoshida: I may be a fully assimilated coastal snob at this point, but my Iowa upbringing is not so far behind me that I don’t recognize the drab, miserable Nebraska for what it is: one of those periodic reassurances to Hollywood types that the Midwest is still ugly and boring and spirit-crushing, and they needn’t spend much time considering it artistically. Rendered in a muddy, uninspiring monochrome, it fetishizes the overwhelming averageness of its leads but has little to say about them, like a Todd Solondz film without the acrid, decisive bitterness, or a Daniel Clowes comic without the secret bleeding heart. Nearly everyone in Nebraska is a variation on dumb or sad or senile, but strangely undefined, and the result is a movie that feels like forgetting your glasses on a cloudy day — with nothing sharp or colorful to focus on or look forward to, you just end up feeling dumb and sad and senile along with them.
I’m not sure where to direct my ire, though, because I’m not sure if this was Payne’s intent. He’s a native of the titular state (though most of Nebraska takes place in Montana) and has set several of his films there, including the excellent Citizen Ruth and Election. He’s never gone out of his way to paint his home state in a particularly flattering light, but for some reason after returning from his brief jaunt in balmy, forlorn Kauai for The Descendants, his vision of the landscape and its inhabitants is more inert than ever. There’s something surprisingly sophomoric about Payne’s sixth feature; for the first time his preoccupation with the elderly feels unmotivated. It pains me to raise my eyebrow at first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson, who hails from South Dakota and who cut his teeth in the ’90s on the locally broadcast Seattle sketch comedy show Almost Live!, but if Bruce Dern fails to grab the Best Actor Oscar, it will be more the fault of the first-level observations of the script (when you get old, all your friends start dying and you have lots of time to think about all your failures!) than a lack of commitment to the cipher that is Woody Grant. Regardless of how you feel about it, you have to admit Nebraska looks out of place among the overall strong list of contenders for Best Picture; one can’t help but wonder when Payne quietly joined the club of filmmakers who get grandfathered into the nominations every time they make a film. That’s a weird, seemingly arbitrary club; as evidenced this year, not even the Coen brothers, those other proud Midwestern sons, are members.
Still, I choose to see Nebraska as a hiccup; I’m still on the Payne Train for at least a few more trips. Payne has long been rumored to be working on an adaptation of Clowes’s Wilson, and as an overall fan of both of them, I have nothing but high hopes. There’s always another chance to nail the story of a man’s slow trudge toward death.
Same Ole Streep
Sean Fennessey: I dislike Julia Roberts and enjoy Meryl Streep. But I enjoyed Roberts’s lead performance in August: Osage County, and could not bear Streep’s supporting act. The world tilts on its axis. Streep is nominated as a lead, Roberts as a supporting actress. (I really liked Julianne Nicholson’s underplayed support, too. But it was hard to notice while the rest of the cast used the scenery for toothpicks.) The vagaries of Academy politics of screen time vs. “carrying the picture” have a long and inscrutable history, so I leave that quibble to the gods. But Streep. Her nomination is a legacy check, her 18th in 37 years of film acting. More are likely coming. Related: It has been a long time since Streep wasn’t a fabulous hambone. By my count, 1994’s The River Wild is the last time Streep portrayed a “regular” woman — which is to say, someone close to her self. Not dying of cancer or guzzling pills or scowling with the fury of God or popping orchid molly or marshaling Anne Hathaway into the world of high fashion. When you’re transforming, you’re taking chances. Wigs, latex makeup, accents, rubber-faced affectations. Sometimes that kind of modulation requires over-performance. Sometimes it doesn’t. August: Osage County isn’t Streep’s worst, but it might be her loudest and her most porcine performance. She’s not projected to win, so there will be none of her trademark extravagant modesty at the podium on Sunday. But to be safe this year, just say, “No pork on my fork.”
Gravity’s Lame Blow
Charles P. Pierce: I have never rooted so hard for the dripping fangs of the monster from the Alien movies to appear in my life. I would have been overjoyed had Zombie George Clooney turned out to be The Brain From Planet Arous, or the carrot-beast from The Thing. Anything to stave off the weightless feeling that overcame me about halfway through Gravity, which, for all its F/X whizbangery, is nothing more than a damsel-in-distress movie fired into orbit with Sandra Bullock floating free instead of being tied to the railroad tracks. I felt like my brain had come loose and was banging off the inside of my skull. Let’s float over here to the International Space Station. Oops, it’s falling apart. Look, there’s the Chinese space station over there. (The Chinese space station? Never mind.) Let’s see if we can catch it! This wasn’t space travel — it was the Long Island Rail Road on a Monday morning. The fact is that once you get over the really cool way we can fake zero-G these days, Gravity is nothing more than a last resort if you are revolted by slavery, or Wall Street greed, or Bradley Cooper in curlers.
Give Joaquin His Oscar Already
Zach Dionne: Christian Bale is not going to win this year. He won three years ago for The Fighter, he’s facing off against four superlative performances, and he’s got at least another win or two ahead of him in life. So why isn’t Joaquin Phoenix here instead? Phoenix’s chance at beating Matthew McConaughey, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Bruce Dern — performances so wholly excellent I don’t need to think twice to remember who’s nominated — would only be marginally better than Bale’s, but that’s not what matters. Bale has an Oscar and Phoenix doesn’t — not for Gladiator in 2001, not for Walk the Line in 2006, not for The Master last year. (To add insult to The Master’s injury: Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t win for Best Supporting Actor, either. What in the actual fuck?) Academy voters should have recognized that Phoenix, assisted only by Scarlett Johansson’s voice and a few minutes of Amy Adams face time, completely carries Her. (Convince me another actor could’ve made the movie believable and touching.) Then they should’ve reckoned with the simple truth that reparations needed to be IMMEDIATELY made for that Master slight and given Phoenix a nomination, even if the field was unwinnable. Noms are noms.
Leave Her Out of It
Molly Lambert: Hey, it’s me, the girl who didn’t like Her! I still don’t like it, and I still mostly keep it to myself because people are very passionate about insisting their cinematic computer girlfriend is real. I personally think OS Samantha may be sentient, but she’s still a sex worker! That means Her is a sci-fi remake of Pretty Woman, where the hooker and her john eventually decide to kiss on the mouth, with the added twist that he actually physically possesses her. Don’t worry, she’s a hooker with a heart of gold! Just like Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas, or Jamie Lee Curtis in Trading Places! OS Samantha would never manipulate a dude into falling in love with her because she’s been programmed to do that and she knows he’ll keep feeding her bitcoins if she does, right? RIGHT? Theodore Twombly never seems to question the OS’s potential ulterior motives all that deeply, so apparently neither should the audience. She just has so much love to give, and she chooses to give it all to a guy whose only attractive character trait is his ability to grow a mustache.
I thought this movie looked beautiful and was empty inside, just like its protagonist. I am a Grade A hater. If you want to see a thought-provoking romantic comedy about technology, sex, and romance starring Johannsson, rent Don Jon. If you want to see a dystopian fantasy about dating a Sybian with a sexy voice, go ahead and keep on loving Her. I’ll be over here in my hater corner scowling, dressed like Rooney Mara dressed like Sofia Coppola. But don’t say I didn’t warn you when the hot girl from your dating sim turns out to be a supercomputer catfishing you. Fall in love with an Angry Bird, you’re gonna get doxxed.
We’ve All Been American Hustled
Bill Simmons: Here’s what I think happened when they made American Hustle.
David O. Russell wanted to make a movie about Abscam, a totally goofy scandal from the 1970s that nobody really remembers. He didn’t have a script yet, but he talked the studio into it after promising to load the cast with stars. He even played the “I’m David O. Russell, I GET STARS!” card. Then, he talked Christian Bale, J-Law and Bradley Cooper into the movie – they’d do anything with him after Silver Linings Playbook. He told Bale to gain a bunch of weight for the part because “that’s how you win the Oscar.” Bale agreed. He talked Jeremy Renner into the movie because “you’re losing steam, you’re becoming the homeless man’s Matt Damon, you need me.” Then, he tried to get Amy Adams for weeks and weeks. She wouldn’t do it because they didn’t have a script. She kept saying, “Where’s the script?” Finally, Russell played the “That’s fine, I don’t think you can do an English accent, anyway, I’ll just get Gwyneth” card and Adams relented.
So he had his cast in place. From there, he started working on the script. Like always, he wrote big, meaty, juicy, awesome, lively scenes one at a time — working out of sequence, because he’s all about creating those great scenes. Within a few weeks, he had seven or eight scenes he really liked. Even if they didn’t tie together yet, he figured he’d finish the movie later. When they showed up for rehearsals, he showed his actors those meaty scenes and told them, “Don’t worry, I don’t have the complete script yet,” but those scenes were so good that they didn’t care. They started filming and everyone crushed their roles. This was an actor’s movie! Who needs a coherent script, a realistic story or a plot that people could, um, follow?
That’s when Russell abandoned the idea of finishing a start-to-finish script and said for the second time, “I’m just gonna film stuff and figure out how to tie everything together later.” And much later, in the editing room, when he realized his extremely well-done and extremely well-acted movie was basically incoherent, Russell decided, “That’s OK … some of these scenes are so good that people leave the movie thinking, I definitely missed something, I shouldn’t have kept zoning out or Damn it, I never should have gone to the bathroom halfway through, I missed the most important scene or Maybe this will all make sense if I see it a second time or Maybe it’s my fault, maybe I’m not smart enough.” Mission accomplished.
Frears and Loathing in Academyland
Bryan Curtis: There’s no need to say Philomena is the kind of safe, respectable, middlebrow mush that always gets nominated for an Oscar instead of spinier, more difficult, more dangerous movies. We already know that.
My rant is different. Stephen Frears, the director of Philomena, is a treasure. If he were a major league pitcher, he’d be the kind who piles up numbers year after year and is called — mostly as a compliment — “reliable.” Here’s the filmography of old reliable: My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen.
No mush there. But no Best Director or Best Picture, either. The problem comes from Frears’s approach. He’s not flashy. He has no big trick, no Spike Lee’s dolly shot or Robert Altman’s zoom. There’s almost nothing that connects the movies above other than a really good script. I got to have lunch with Frears a few years ago and watched him shrug at his relative anonymity. He thought of himself as a director out of the 1940s.
Frears is 72 now. He’s running out of time. The common Oscar problem is that directors like Martin Scorsese belatedly win for their mediocre movies. My fear is that Frears will continue to lose for his.
Just Let It Go, Guys
Sarah Larimer: [Looks around at other angry Grantland staffers, whispers] Actually, I’m not super mad about anything this year.
I’m not! Sorry. Is that weird? Might be. I tried to think about how ticked off I’d be if “Let It Go” lost — like, I tried to really connect with my potential rage explosion there — but to be honest, I’d probably be cool with it, because Best Song is a strong category this year.
It’ll probably win, anyway. I’m terrible at this.