Monday, May 1, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 2013

The Contenders:

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

What’s Missing

This is a strange year for this award. 2013 feels like a year where many of the best performances, or at least the snubbed performances are on the women’s side. There are plenty of non-Oscar type movies I like from 2013 like John Dies at the End and Warm Bodies that really don’t belong here. Performances I suspect belong here from movies like The Place Beyond the Pines, 42, and Fruitvale Station are movies I haven’t seen. I also suspect that some people will suggest Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis and Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips. I understand those suggestions but I disagree with both. In fact, the only real miss I see is a big one: Joaquin Phoenix in Her. I’m sure I’ve missed some; that’s what the comments are for.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I’m dropping Christian Bale and American Hustle immediately because of the five nominations, he’s the one who belongs the least. It’s a fine performance, sure, but Oscar-worthy? I don’t see it. That he’s here as a possible winner and Joaquin Phoenix was kicked to the curb makes no sense to me. Part of this comes from the fact that I don’t understand the massive love for American Hustle. It’s one of those movies that I can’t see a reason to watch a second time, and that doesn’t bode well for this or any Oscar.

4. Now things get tougher. I’m dropping Bruce Dern and Nebraska in fourth for one specific reason: he’s not the best thing in the film. Dern is good in this. It’s probably as good as Dern has ever been in anything, but I don’t consider myself a huge Bruce Dern fan. He’s not the reason to watch the movie, though; June Squibb is. It says less about Dern and more about Squibb that she steals every scene she is in, but she does, and that makes putting Dern on the pedestal a difficult proposition at best.

3. When Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for The Wolf of Wall Street, there was a groundswell of demand that Leo get his Oscar. Putting him third may be an unpopular position, but it’s one I’ll stand by. It’s a great performance, no doubt. It’s a reminder that DiCaprio is not merely a damn fine actor, but one who is capable of diverse and interesting roles. It’s simply not the best performance of its year. My guess is that a lot of the support for him in this year was support for him specifically and not the performance. I get that, and I wouldn’t have been terribly upset had he won, but it’s appropriate that he didn’t.

2. 2013 was a good year for Matthew McConaughey with both Dallas Buyers Club and Mud. In fact, the twin performances might be what put him over the top. I struggle to like McConaughey sometimes, but in this (as well as his memorable cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street) make accepting him as a talent a lot easier. There’s a part of me, though, that wonders if he didn’t win at least in part for the role. I think that’s absolutely true of his counterpart and co-winner Jared Leto. It’s not a terrible win, but it’s not one with which I agree. I get it, but my vote goes differently.

1. My choice at the time based on the five nominations is my choice here as well: Chiwetel Ejiofor and 12 Years a Slave. I’ve long been a fan of Ejiofor, which may color my view of this performance. What he brings to the role, though, is what is absolutely necessary to make it work. He has a natural dignity and gravitas, something that was desperately needed to make any of this believable. He also is capable of portraying a real desperation that doesn’t come across as acting. Based on these five performances, he’s my winner, but as much as I love him and the performance, he’s not my actual winner.

My Choice

This Oscar rightly belonged to Joaquin Phoenix and what he did with Her. Phoenix gives a completely affecting and believable performance, and does so in a role where he has only a voice to act against. There’s not a moment in the film that feels fake, and while the premise is strange, it’s also completely believable in the context of the film. Scarlett Johansson deserves a great deal of the credit as well, and she is a perfect case for why Oscar needs to start adding a Best Voiceover category, but it’s Phoenix who needs to carry the film and make it work, and he does in every frame. He should have been nominated, and he should now have an Oscar on his shelves.

Final Analysis


  1. This isn't a tough call, of these five Chiwetel Ejiofor would be my winner too, but it's a tough year because I haven't seen all the films and I haven't liked any of the ones I have. The two I have left Buyer's Club and Wolf of Wall Street I have almost zero interest in making the effort since the word of mouth I've heard on both is overwhelmingly negative.

    I'd be one of those in favor of Tom Hanks being in the mix even though I wasn't crazy for Captain Phillips. Otherwise perhaps Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy-again I hated the film but he was very good-yikes I'm starting to sound like a broken record, Domhnall Gleeson in About Time and maybe Robert Redford in All is Lost.

    1. It's hard to say that I liked Dallas Buyers Club, but I think it's worth seeing. The Wolf of Wall Street is, essentially, Martin Scorsese doing a three-hour exploitation film. It's interesting and there are some truly epic moments in it, but it goes on for far too long, and my ability to peaceably watch debauchery has its limits.

      I didn't consider All is Lost, another one I haven't seen.

  2. Of the five, I'd actually give it to DiCaprio. I haven't seen The Revenant yet, but I still think Wolf is his crowning performance. The Ludes scene alone wins him the Oscar. I was not a fan of Nebraska at all, but Squibb was definitely the standout there, I agree. I also do not get the love for American Hustle. I liked Dallas Buyers Club, though mainly for Leto. And I could be okay with Ejiofor winning, and your argument is valid... but I'd still give it to DiCaprio. Including Her--which was my favorite film of that year at the time--I'd still give it to DiCaprio.

    1. Completely fair. It's worth repeating here every now and then that these Oscar posts are nothing more than my opinion and have never been some sort of pronouncement of what is absolutely true.

      It is a good DiCaprio performance. See The Revenant, though. I'm not sure I'd give the Oscar to Leo, but it definitely doesn't feel like he won a lifetime Oscar in a competitive category.

  3. I think Isaac definitely deserved to be nominated more than Bale, but I share your lack of excitement about American Hustle. You have good actors wearing crazy outfits and some flashy camera work, but I really didn't care at all. Of the five nominated, I agree with your top pick. It's tough for me to pick between Ejiofor and Phoenix; those are really close.

    1. This would have been a lot more difficult had Phoenix been nominated. I think that he does so much of that performance essentially on his own acting only against a voice is what sells it for me. He has to make us believe it and he does.

  4. I have seen all the nominees (for a change!), and would likely rank them as follows:

    5. Cooper (I agree, 2013 has many better non-nominated performances)
    4. Ejiofor (the character is mostly a victim; the power is in the story)
    3. Dern (I admire the understated performance)
    2. McConaughey (good, but probably won for the subject matter and the physical sacrifice more than the role)
    1. DiCaprio (the stand-out performance -- likely to be his career defining role.)

    Worthwhile non-nominated performances that have not been mentioned yet:

    Forest Whitaker (The Butler)
    James Gandolfini (Enough Said)
    Josh Brolin (Labor Day)
    Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman (Prisoners)
    Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl (Rush)

    Gandolfini and Phoenix would easily make my Top 5 for the year.

    1. I always find other people's takes on these awards interesting. I can't really say that I disagree with a lot of your reasons for ranking things as you do.

      I find it additionally interesting that while there has been some disagreement on placements here, everyone seems to wonder how anyone from American Hustle got nominated in the first place.

      Regarding Ejiofor, you're right that a great deal of the power of the film comes from the story itself. I don't know that I can think of another actor who could do that role the same way, with the same combination of traits. Ejiofor is a commanding presence, and to put him in that situation is, at least to me, fascinating.