Not many laughs among 2013 Oscar nominees

Yes, the 2013 crop of Academy Award nominated movies were superb efforts with excellent performances. But watching them was like sitting in a dentist chair — professional work but not much fun to sit through.

These movies included piracy on the seas, AIDS, an outer space disaster, a love affair with an operating system, slavery, fraud and greed and broken families. Looks like if you want to have a few good laughs, go to the animated features category — ah, those minions love life.

Of the nine Best Picture nominees, only one, “Her,” does not have an acting nomination. And of the 20 acting nominations only four — Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins in “Blue Jasmine” and Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in “August: Osage County”  — are in movies not nominated for Best Picture.

If the other awards presentations are any indication, Oscar night on March 2 will be a big one for “12 Years a Slave.” A grim and harrowing true story about Solomon Northup,  a free black man from upstate New York who is abducted and sold into slavery, is brutal in its depiction of the pre-Civil War south, and director Steve McQueen does not hold back in showing the violence toward slaves.

If there is a surprise on Oscar night, it could be a surge for “Dallas Buyers Club,” also a sober story about AIDS sufferers but with humor and an element that can draw votes — redemption. Also, it is boosted by a stunning performance by Matthew McConaughey that makes him a frontrunner for the Best Actor award. High-profile nominees like “Captain Phillips” (Tom Hanks’ omission as a nominee has triggered some grumbling), “American Hustle,” “Gravity” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” are drowning out the quiet but sweet movies like “Nebraska,” “Philomena” and “Her.”

BEST ACTOR

If McConaughey is not named, it will be the surprise of the evening. Already a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild winner, McConaughey’s performance is a blue print for an Oscar — the story of a man, Ron Woodroff, a hard-living electrician and sometimes rodeo performer who contracts AIDS and then finds a new focus on life as he works to provide non-FDA approved medications for AIDS patients and develops friendships with homosexuals and transsexuals, forcing him to change his biases toward them. McConaughey dropped a lot of weight for the role but still had his strong presence in the movie.

Like McConaughey, Chiwetel Ejiofor is a first-time nominee, a splendid actor who could have earned a nomination for his work in “Dirty Pretty Things” in 2002. Ejiofor’s role as Solomon Northup was a grueling physical demand, but the part forced him to spend much of his screen time being low-key and submissive.

Christian Bale, the only previous Oscar winner (“The Fighter”) in this category, also went through some physical alterations, putting on weight and pretending to have a receding hairline, to play con man Irving Rosenfeld in “American Hustle,” who is forced by an ambitious FBI agent to help bring down bigger criminals and who eventually turns the tables on the authorities. He’s very good, but not quite enough to overcome McConaughey.

Likewise, Bruce Dern, who last was nominated in 1978 for “Coming Home,” is funny and tragic but not not as showy as an addled senior citizen in “Nebraska” who believes he has won $1 million in a publishers sweepstakes and is determined to collect his prize. Along the way he finally emotionally connects with one of his sons.

On the other hand, Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street” runs the gamut of emotions as Jordan Belfort, a Long Island penny stockbroker who rises to superstar status on Wall Street using less than legal means to get rich. This may be DiCaprio’s best performance ever although it borders on parody, and he might have had a better chance at his first Oscar in four nominations were it not for “Dallas Buyers Club.”

BEST ACTRESS

Up until a few days ago, it was looking like Cate Blanchett would be a shoe-in for her second Oscar, having won the 2004  Best Supporting Actress for “The Aviator.” Her work as New York socialite Jasmine in “Blue Jasmine” took the Golden Globe. She is stunning and sad, a woman in denial as her high-class life falls apart when her philandering husband, played by Alec Baldwin, commits suicide while serving in prison for white-collar crimes, and she has to live with her sister, much lower on the social ladder. This was a role created by Woody Allen, and as Diane Keaton (“Annie Hall”), Dianne Wiest (“Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Bullets Over Broadway”), Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite”) and Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) have learned, Allen-written roles can lead to Oscars. Unfortunately, recent allegations regarding Allen’s personal behavior are creating speculation about an anti-Allen sentiment while Academy voting is still taking place that could cost Blanchett the Oscar.

If that happens, it could be a wide open race. This category is full of Academy Award veterans with the five actresses combining for 38 nominations and six Oscars. If Blanchett falls, Amy Adams, as Sydney Prosser, partner in crime with Bale’s Rosenfeld in “American Hustle,” a woman whose loyalties could be anyone’s guess, could bring home her first Oscar in five nominations. Another strong possibility is seven-time nominee Judi Dench as the lead role in “Philomena,” an absolutely charming performance as an aged woman forced years earlier by nuns to give up a baby boy she had out of wedlock trying to track him down as his 50th birthday has arrived. Dench previously won a supporting Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love.”

Meryl Streep continues to add to her unprecedented list of nominations, earning her 18th as Violet Weston, a strong-willed Oklahoma woman battling drug addiction and alienation from her husband and daughters in “August: Osage County.” Streep chews up the scenery here in yet another study of dysfunction in families.

Meanwhile, Sandra Bullock is a surprise nomination for “Gravity,” portraying a medical engineer who must keep her wits amid overwhelming odds of survival after a mishap on a space station. Grumblers noted all she did was pant a lot, from exertion and panic.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Jared Leto, folks. A gutsy performance as transsexual Rayon, who develops a volatile friendship and business partnership with the homophobic Ron Woodroof in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Leto’s Rayon puts up a fragile brave front in a losing battle against AIDS, strengthened by efforts to bring medications to fellow AIDS sufferers.

An upset is unlikely here, but calling it would be tough: Barkhad Abdi as the lead pirate in “Captain Phillips” who becomes overwhelmed by U.S. military might; Bradley Cooper as the FBI agent willing to bend the rules and abuse whoever to bring down big-time cons in “American Hustle”; Michael Fassbender as the Bible-quoting but cruel plantation owner in “12 Years a Slave” and Jonah Hill as partner in fraud with DiCaprio’s Belfort in :”The Wolf of Wall Street.” Hill’s work might slip ahead in this pack as it is a multi-layered role of a seemingly grounded man who can be a shark when selling bad goods to people yet be an incredible goof-up when the booze and drugs render him a babbling fool.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

This always seems to be a tough category to call. Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld’s wife who might be more sharp and lethal than he would expect in “American Hustle” has generated some enthusiasm, but so has first-time nominee Lupita Nyong’o in the heartbreaking role of Patsey, a favored slave of Fassbender’s Edwin Epps, making her vulnerable to abuse when he suspects her lack of loyalty.

Julia Roberts does have some moments as the oldest daughter in “August: Osage County,” but is bogged down by yet another “blaming my parents for my unhappy life” role. Sally Hawkins is cute and sweet as Jasmine’s sister in “Blue Jasmine,” trying to tolerate her sibling’s self-absorption while finding herself hooking up with guys who turn out to be jerks or liars.

The dark horse here has to be June Squibb, a first-time nominee at age 84 as the put-upon, loyal but obscenely candid wife of the mentally unraveling Woody Grant (Dern) in “Nebraska.” Hers is a performance that is fun to watch, coming up with observations that are painfully honest and squirm-inducing, a woman who has had to accept a less than rewarding life but refuses to go down without a fight.

Some tidbits:

Is movie acting only for young people? Note these ages of nominees: Dern 77, Dench 79, Streep 64 and Squibb 84. Squibb, incidentally, is the second-oldest nominee, behind Gloria Stuart, who was 87 when nominated for “Titanic” in 1997.

Speaking of ages: Adams, Bale and DiCaprio all turn 40 this year, Bullock 50.

“American Hustle” is the second movie in which Bale and Adams have worked together and earned nominations, having both been nominated for “The Fighter” in 2010. Blanchett and Dench both were nominated for “Notes on a Scandal” in 2006.

Dern’s two nominations occurred 35 years apart.

Nyong’o was born in Mexico, raised in Kenya and had her higher education in the United States.

 

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