By Jimmy Willden

Awards-season fervor is at its peak since the 2014 Academy Awards nominations were announced on Thursday, Jan. 16. Now with the Producers Guild of America (PGA) Awards crowning both 12 Years a Slave and Gravity as their top films, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Awards crowning Gravity’s Alfonso Cuaron as the best director of the year, and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) giving the awards to Captain Phillips and Her, there is added fire to the already burning blaze. Unlike years past, this year’s Academy Awards look to still be semi-wide open.

But let us pull back a moment, shall we, and recap this year’s nominees for BEST PICTURE, so we can prepare ourselves for my Oscars Picks & Predictions, which will be announced on Thursday, Feb. 27.

GRAVITY

A heart-wrenching thrill ride of a film, Gravity works on so many levels all at once, it’s hard to pinpoint one thing over the other that makes the film ring true; instead, it’s the entire formula, rather, the formulaic equation that adds up to the brilliant whole.

Gravity stars SANDRA BULLOCK as Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer in the midst of her very first mission in space, and GEORGE CLOONEY as Matt Kowlasky, an astronaut in command of his last mission. During what should have been a routine spacewalk, the shuttle is bombarded with space debris, destroying the shuttle – sending Stone and Kowalsky spiraling out in the deep and dark nothingness of space.

There are two main stars of this film: one, Sandra Bullock giving, in my opinion, the best performance of her career; two, the visual effects and cinematography.

We’ll start with Bullock. She delivers a knockout performance here. It is layered. It is nuanced. It is heartbreakingly honest. How she was able to pull this off in the face of a film project that relies so heavily on its technical mechanics and special effects astounds and excites me, as a filmgoer. Truth be told, I’ve never been the biggest Sandra Bullock fan, but after walking out of the theater after seeing Gravity (for the first time), I knew there’s wasn’t any way she wouldn’t be nominated.

I wish I could say the same for Clooney, but I just can’t. His performance, and character, is the weakest link in the formula of this powerful film. His performance is wooden; it is not alive.

Alfonso Cuaron’s direction is feeding this film with a breath of life that is so utterly striking, I still get goosebumps when I think about “Gravity.” The man gets better and better with each passing film; and since “Children of Men” was an epic masterpiece in its own right, I wasn’t sure if he could top it. I was wrong.

On Oscar Sunday, “Gravity” will go head to head with “12 Years a Slave” for the top prize, no doubt. It looks to also lead in the technical department as well. Unfortunately, I don’t think Sandra Bullock will pull a win, but with ten nominations, I guarantee “Gravity” will walk away with a handful. If I am wrong, I’ll take a picture of myself with a dunce hat on, holding a sign that says, “I was wrong.” 9 (out of 10).

HER

When films like “Her” are released, it renews my excitement in visual storytelling. Utterly unique and original, honest and poignant, and quirky all the same, Spike Jonze’s techo-romance is one that will linger with you long after you leave the theater.

“Her” follows JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Theodore Twomley, a lonely writer who develops an unlikely, and eventually passionate, relationship with his newly purchased operating system (OS), named Samantha (SCARLETT JOHANSSON).

Phoenix is great as Theodore, infusing utter truth into the character’s journey, thought processes, and in every decision he makes. But the real revelation of the film is Scarlett Johansson. Her portrayal as the voice of Samantha is effortlessly perfect. Early buzz was even giving Johansson a chance at an Oscar nomination, which would have been the first for an actor just lending their voice to a project. But, no dice there. Her was only nabbed 5 nominations, none of them in acting (or directing for that matter, for which I personally believe Jonze deserved a nod).

Her is nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score , Best Original Song and Best Production Design. The best chance Her has at Oscar gold come Sunday, March 2 lies with its original screenplay, written by Jonze. It has already won the Writers Guild of America Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Screenplay, placing it pretty, come Oscar Sunday. 9.3 (out of 10).

That’s it for now. Check back next week for my reviews of “Nebraska” and “Philomena,” as I break down their chances for Oscar glory! My Oscars Picks & Predictions will be released on Thursday, Feb. 27.



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