Spike Jonze's 'Her' Will Test How Far Oscar Voters Will Go for Love
by Joey Magidson
October 14, 2013
It has been a few days since I saw Her at the New York Film Festival and I can't even begin to get it out of my head. Not only is it far and away the best movie I've seen all year, it could very well be heading to the All Time list for me. That's pretty rare stuff, and I wasn't alone in heaping tons of praise on Spike Jonze's flick over the weekend. I'm sure it's going to develop a strong following, but when it comes to its Oscar potential, things are a lot more complicated. Up until I saw it, I was mostly dismissing its awards chances (outside of Joaquin Phoenix, as I wrote here) but once you actually see the movie, and specifically see how this is a universal story about love… it's a whole new ballgame now, at least in terms of deserving to be considered.
I'm not alone in being absolutely in love with this movie. Alex is pretty over the moon for it, too (believe it or not, I like it even more than he does), and at the NYFF screening I attended the reaction was easily the most positive of any premiere at the fest this year. There aren't that many movies that can bring out such diverse personal reactions in people and yet seem universal in its themes as the same time, but Her does it. Whatever baggage you bring to it is reflected back at you, but still within the themes of the movie. That's something special, no doubt about that.
Her, directed by Spike Jonze, contains some terrific acting (besides Phoenix's tender performance, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde deliver in big ways), Jonze's best directing yet (along with evidence that he's an amazing writer as well), and some of the most gorgeous production design this year (the film is set in the near future, but more of an utopian one than the standard dystopian futures we see so often). Factor in Hoyte Van Hoytema's stunning cinematography and the sure to be underrated score by Arcade Fire, and there's the skeleton of an awards contender here, that's for sure.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, there actually is a lot here to appeal to an Oscar voter. Beyond the admittedly quirky concept of a man (Phoenix) falling in love with his Operating System (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), this movie gets deep into ideas like how does one fall in love in the age of technology, what real love means, and the profound impact of loneliness on all of humanity. It's all done without a heavy hand and evolves over the course of the film, just like a true romantic classic should. After all, Oscar loves love.
Relationship tales have a long history with the Academy, so if voters actually look at this as a love story, they could possibly realize this has more in common with something like Annie Hall or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (or even Blue Valentine, which they didn't completely ignore) than straight science fiction, which as I mentioned previously doesn't usually catch on with them. "Siri: The Movie", this isn't. Look at what gets nominated for and usually wins Best Picture. Oftentimes, love is a central theme. Now, I'm not saying that Her is going to be like The Goodbye Girl and got nominated for Best Picture (or win like the aforementioned Annie Hall, which ironically came out in the same year - 1977), but it has a more legitimate candidacy than one could ever imagine before laying eyes on the finished product.
Being about love isn't enough to just waltz into Best Picture when it comes to the Oscars, but it's something that unites us all as human beings, so that includes members of the Academy (insert whatever joke you feel is appropriate here). Being relatable helps to offset some of the quirk on display here with Her. The odds may not be in its favor from the outside at this point, but as you dig deeper into the film, you do see how it could potentially appeal to enough Academy voters to make things interesting.
A hunch of mine is that voters will have no choice but to at least consider more "out there" titles like Her. It was reported earlier that an Academy screening of 12 Years a Slave was sparsely attended, unlike a similar one for Gravity that was packed. In no way does that mean that Oscar voters are already dismissing Steve McQueen's acclaimed film, but it does mean that they'll have to eventually leave their comfort zone this year. Especially if no easy option appears in the next few months for consensus Best Picture voting, the Academy will at least have more unique contenders on their mind. That bodes well for something like Her, which at least from the outside exists far from what Academy members usually want to see.
I'm still not positive it will have any appeal to the Academy, but Her certainly has a shot. It speaks directly to your heart, as mentioned above, and that's the easiest way to get votes. For all the issues someone might have with a film like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it was able to score a Best Picture nomination because it brought out emotion in its audience and made Oscar voters cry. The waterworks came early and often during Her, at least at my NYFF press screening.
If you forced me to put money down on where Her could score Oscar love, I'd only be confident in talking about Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. Neither are locks, but Phoenix and Jonze will definitely get votes. Johansson could force some to reconsider their thoughts on voice work, but Best Supporting Actress is sadly a pipe dream. Best Picture and Best Director are well deserved, but long shots, unless of course the brilliant technical work on display is rewarded with Best Production Design and Best Cinematography nods. If those noms somehow happen… watch out.
This is one of those movies where I almost don't care if it gets any attention from the Academy, I love it so much anyway. At the same time, my job does revolve around analyzing the awards season and the race to the Oscars. With Spike Jonze's Her, I personally will have a rooting interest in it succeeding, but I won't delude myself or any of you about the tough road ahead that it will have to Oscar glory. What works in its favor more than anything else is, frankly, its quality. If voters get over themselves and give it a try, they'll have just as hard a time getting Her out of their minds as I did. If they wind up crying, too… oh man.