We take a break from our regular scheduled programming to bring you something a bit more topical. With the Oscars about to happen and considering the platform I have here, I’m giving you the Hungry Hippopotamus Movie Awards! It’s been an absolutely incredible year for movies, better than it was for music, and every Academy Award is overflowing with worthy candidates. Hip hop rarely inserts itself into the Oscar discussion however. Eminem and Three 6 Mafia have won Best Original Song in the past and Pharrell is up for the award this year, but otherwise you don’t find much rap. To remedy that, I’m forcibly combining the two in my own idiosyncratic way. Here are the album counterparts for all the Oscar Nominees for best picture.
American Hustle – Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail
David O. Russell doesn’t even come close to having the career and stature as Jay-Z, but what they both have is some great friends. For American Hustle, Russell brought back Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper from Silver Linings Playbook, and Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper from The Fighter. Likewise, Jay-Z sat on a couch with Pharrell, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, and Rick Rubin during the sessions for his platinum album. Both of these guys got some great performances and beats, but ultimately both American Hustle and Magna Carta Holy Grail got lost in the glamour. After it’s over, there’s the sense that nothing really happened and no amount of hairspray can cover that bald spot.
Captain Phillips – Pusha T’s My Name Is My Name
Captain Phillips was a film that could have gone terribly wrong: pirates capture America’s greatest treasure in Tom Hanks and the all powerful Navy saves the day. Luckily we were treated to a much more sensitive and thoughtful film than the trailer advertised. The pairing of Paul Greengrass’s shaky cam directing with Tom Hanks stoic charisma brought something new out in both actor and director. Pusha T’s G.O.O.D. Music debut benefited greatly from Kanye’s minimalism. Pusha’s snarl sounds much better over Yeezus type bare bones than it did over the orchestral production of “Runaway.” Both Captain Phillips and My Name Is My Name were products that aimed for both critic lists and box office sales and perhaps suffered because of it. Pusha T made some clunky stereotypical major label songs and Greengrass got a little out of hand with the final action scene of the movie. But both were great when they stayed in their sparse lane, and Tom Hank’s brilliant selfless ending is as good an analogy to Pusha T’s list-topping collaboration with Kendrick at the end of the LP, where the good kid proved who is the captain now.
Dallas Buyer’s Club - Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris
Dallas Buyer’s Club was a pretty unremarkable movie that was made pretty darn good through Matthew McConaughey’s star making earth shaking performance. New director Jean-Marc Vallee sticks his lens directly behind McConaughey and proceeds to let him breath life into a pretty banal story. Likewise, Doris is a pretty reserved album. The beats are great but they aren’t extravagant. Rather they just serve as padding for the tour de force lyrical onslaught that is Earl’s tongue twisting syntax gymnastics. In this scenario, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples, a young talented gangsta rapper who says that if this was ’92 he’d be in Death Row, plays the role of Jared Leto, who plays a drag queen. Well alright alright alriiiiiight.
Gravity - Drake’s Nothing Was The Same
Two huge blockbuster events that ended up being among the most critically lauded works in each field. They’re both astounding technical achievements, with Alfonso Cuaron redefining what CGI and 3D can do for the cinema and producer Noah “40″ Shebib scraping the ocean floor of the depths of Drake’s signature sound. They both could have used a rewrite though. Ultimately, it just comes down to the fact that neither could live up to the incredible trailers they dropped on us.
Her - Childish Gambino’s Because The Internet
In an always traditionalist pool, Spike Jonze’s Her is the only film that touches on the fleeting moments of human connection in the digital age. It’s strange premise and dexterous execution uncertainly left a mark on anybody under the age of 35, and probably alienated some older people. Childish Gambino’s entire career has been captured online and Because The Internet is his attempt at navigating humanity and real relationships when everything is transparent. Again, it’s an album that older critics didn’t like but several people my age are infatuated with. The themes of Because The Internet aren’t close to the fully fledged experience of Her, but both Glover and Jonze are reinterpreting classic love stories in a specifically 2013 context.
Nebraska - Danny Brown’s Old
The black and white Nebraska seems to be the literal opposite of Danny Brown’s colorful magnum opus. It’s a soft spoken film where Danny is more known for his kinetic squawk. But the works actually deal with the same thing in two very different ways. They tackle the fear of growing up and the desolation of looking back on your life and seeing a barren field. They speak on the generational divide and the acceptance (or full fledged flight) of who you’ve become. This is a lesson for people who can’t look beyond first appearances, be it the haircut on Bruce Dern or Danny Brown. Plus, Danny’s self loathing would fit right at home in any Alexander Payne film.
Philomena - Run The Jewels’ Run The Jewels
Ok this one’s a stretch. Philomena isn’t the most hip hop movie even if Judi Dench is an OG. But regardless of the fact that Killer Mike is the rap game Dame Judi, both of these works are no frills, straight to the point pleasures. Both are duos working to get to the bottom of things, whether it’s where a catholic church sent a stolen baby or where all the fuckboys are hiding. Judi Dench and Steve Coogan display their own type of chemistry, which bristles a bit more than Killer Mike and El-P, but both are endearing opposites which work better together. And what’s great about both is the lack of extravagance surrounding each. Philomena doesn’t have any flashy performances or big melodramatic moments, it’s simply an engaging story told in an efficient way that harnesses the professionalism of it’s cast. Run The Jewels isn’t going for any kind of high minded concept either, they just want you to give them your jewelry with no delay.
12 Years A Slave - Kanye West’s Yeezus
I’m not the only person the make this connection. The similarities between Kanye West and director Steve McQueen have been documented before, in their collaboration at the MTV Video Music Awards or when McQueen interviewed ‘Ye for Interview Magazine. But beyond the political and thematic connections about black life in America and how the systemic oppression has infiltrated every facet of life, both Yeezus and 12 Years A Slave bear stylistic elements in common as well. They both use minimalism for maximum effect; the old “less is more” approach. West lets each sound hit the listener with full impact, whether it’s a glitchy synth barrage or lectures about the Correctional Corporation of America. There’s nowhere to hide on Yeezus. But that doesn’t come close to the soul destroying focus that McQueen demonstrates in his film, where he lets single shots linger for so long that you feel you’re suffocating. The restraint that both artists used in their work is uncannily effective for the heady, dramatic subjects their breaking down.
The Wolf Of Wall Street - Juicy J’s Stay Trippy
I already brought this comparison to light in the year end album wrap up. Both movie and album treat drugs and hedonism as a professional enterprise. Let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Leo mutter “trippy mayn” in the movie or hear Juicy sample McConaughey’s humming for his next song.
The Oscars aren’t perfect by any measure and the nominees for best picture aren’t necessarily the best movies. So here are the Hungry Hippopotamus nominees and winners for the major categories. Five nominees for every race (as it should be), with the winners in bold.
Best Supporting Actress
Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
Scarlett Johannson – Her
Lupita N’yongo – 12 Years A Slave
June Squibb – Nebraska
Octavia Spencer - Fruitvale Station
June Squibb was a revelation in Nebraska, crafting hilarious scenes and serving as the moral backbone often at the same time. She stole the show every time she appeared and created a real character beyond the nagging wife she could have been. Scarlett Johannson also jumped a level in Her, doing more with her voice than she did with her whole body in movies like Don Jon. Fruitvale Station was snubbed at every level by the Oscars this year, and you don’t get sensitive performances like Spencer’s without dipping into melodrama very often.
Best Supporting Actor
George Clooney – Gravity
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years A Slave
Will Forte – Nebraska
Nick Frost – The World’s End
Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
I understand the hesitancy of giving Fassbender the award here. Having the one white guy in the movie winning the only acting award, right after Christoph Waltz won for Django Unchained (IN ONE OF THE BIGGEST SNUBS IN HISTORY), isn’t a good look for the academy. So the award will go to Jared Leto, who delivered a touching, if not slightly kitchy, performance. But 12 Years A Slave would not have been nearly the gut wrenching experience it was if Fassbender had not gone 100% on an emotionally disturbing dive into the human psyche. Being able to fully encapsulate the oxymoron between ownership and affection, of love and hate, is what made 12 Years A Slave such a magnificent film. Fassbender’s slave owner is the perfect vessel for McQueen to explore the violent, psychological afflictions of slavery beyond just the tangible destruction.
Amy Adams – American Hustle
Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Judi Dench – Philomena
Sarah Louise Dreyfuss – Enough Said
There’s no contest here. Everyone else in this category did some great work, especially Amy Adams who was the highlight performance in a movie filled with highlight performances, but no one is taking Cate’s crown here. Her tour de force showing as a mentally confused New York blue blood crash landed in the Bay Area was breathtaking. Watching Blanchett lend the same regal tone that she uses for movie stars and British Queens to a delusional housewife was amazing, especially with Woody Allen’s neurotic script. The brilliance here was convincing the audience of both her entitlement and wretchedness, often in the same sentence. There wasn’t a better performance all year, man or woman.
Leo Dicaprio – Wolf Of Wall Street
Chiwetal Ejiofor – 12 Years A Slave
Oscar Isaacs – Inside Llewin Davis
Michael B. Jordan - Fruitvale Station
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
It speaks to how good this year was for movies when you consider the great performances that were left off this list. Tom Hanks, Christian Bale, Bruce Dern, any of them would have found a Hungry Hippo nomination in another year. But it doesn’t matter all that much because 2013 is the year of the McConaissance. Dallas Buyer’s Club was the denouement of McConaughey’s rise to the top of the acting chain, one anti-heroic Southern gentleman role at a time. The physical transformation, the rugged charisma, the emotional depth. His performance here is remarkable because it combines two things that are usually disparate; a complete physical transformation for the role (a la Sean Penn in Milk or Daniel Day-Lewis in everything) and using the part to channel his own unique movie star charisma (a la Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart or Tom Hanks in nearly everything). McConaughey didn’t trade in his movie stardom for a serious role, he simply did both. Now that’s the entrance into an upper pantheon of acting.
Woody Allen - Blue Jasmine
Alfonso Cuaron - Gravity
Spike Jonze – Her
Steve McQueen - 12 Years A Slave
Alexander Payne - Nebraska
All of these nominees are worthy and created deep worlds for their movies to inhabit. But it comes down to two directors who are also fighting it out for the best picture; Cuaron and McQueen. One is a technological marvel, going where film has never gone before in such detail. The other is a period piece, capturing the scope of such an intense problem like no film has ever tried. Both of the directors work is more subtle than you’d expect. These are both clearly the director’s movies and not an actors movie, but the strategies they use aren’t often called to attention. Gravity is such a thrill ride that the audience doesn’t notice the grace in which Cuaron’s camera moves around the scene. And the magnificence of McQueen’s work isn’t any kind of centrality but rather the fringes of the screen, what he lets you see rather than what he shows you. It’s almost a toss up between the two and it’s not fair to choose. But we have to. Both movies keep you on the edge of your seat, but towards the end of Gravity it gets to be overwhelming; oh no Sandra Bullock is caught in ANOTHER disaster. But 12 Years A Slave slowly amps up the brutality as to never let you turn away. Where the constant terror of Gravity drags on at the end, 12 Years A Slave delivers it’s most devastating blow, one of the most incredible scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. So for that McQueen gets the prize.
12 Years A Slave
I suppose that would mean that 12 Years A Slave should win Best Picture right? It certainly deserves to, and I’ll be rooting for it at the Oscars. But for some reason comedy has fallen by the wayside in recent decades, somehow not deserving of critical appreciation. And Woody Allen’s latest chapter in his global travelling films is a pitch perfect movie. Not only is it hilarious but it’s meaningful, dealing with the current recession with such sensitivity that no other film can match. It’s relationships are both heartening and crushing and every character is nuanced. Normally having the best performance of the year would qualify for a best picture nod (look at Dallas Buyer’s Club), but Cate Blanchett wasn’t enough to carry this flick through the guys club of the Oscars. The other films here are great, but none of them are perfect. Gravity’s technological thrills grow old towards the end and 12 Years A Slave, as incredible a film as that is, sometimes bites off a bit more than it can chew. But Blue Jasmine is a perfect movie, thoughtful, touching, and timeless. It was my favorite experience of the year.
And that’s that! I’m certainly no expert on film as I pretend to be in Hip Hop, so let me know what I got wrong or what films I missed!