The Academy Awards, Tom Hanks, and capping off the "McConaissance" / by Alec Kubas-Meyer

Matthew McConaughey

My original idea for this essay was about the lack of surprise in the videogame Gone Home’s narrative. That would probably have been much more interesting than this (and I will undoubtedly be writing about it in the near future), but it was the Oscars this past Sunday, so I figure now is as good a time as any to talk about that. But more specifically, the award for Best Actor.

When I look back at 2013 in cinema, I’ll think about two things: 1) How many different Korean directors tried their hand at English language productions (it was a lot), and 2) How many amazing male performances there were. Seriously. Look at what the Academy considered the five best performances of the Year:

  • Matthew McConaughey
  • Leonardo Dicaprio
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor
  • Christian Bale
  • Bruce Dern

Of those, the only I would drop with any confidence would be Christian Bale, and he was undoubtedly one of the best parts of a great film (though I’ll admit that American Hustle’s complete shutout was deserved). I haven’t seen Nebraska, so I can’t comment on Bruce Dern’s performance, but how about these five who didn’t get nominated?

Tom Hanks (We’ll get back to this) Joaquin Phoenix (Like, whoa) Oscar Isaac (Did you know he was the guy in Drive? Damn!) Robert Redford (Didn’t see All is Lost, but everyone else says I should be offended) Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight should have won everything)

There is undoubtedly a parallel universe where those were the five performances nominated, and while people would have argued that any Academy that didn’t nominate Chiwetel Ejiofor is racist, it would nonetheless be a completely legitimate list of five spectacular performances. Hell, it includes the best performance of the year: Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips.

Captain Phillips was probably the year’s biggest surprise for me. It looked fine, possibly even good, but there was something about its marketing that just never clicked with me. I had basically written it off entirely by the time it had its world premiere at NYFF. Had I been able to get to the press screening, I would have, but it certainly wasn’t something I was going to go out and spend movie theater ticket pricing on. I mean, I don’t think I paid to see more than seven films in theaters in the entirety of 2013. But then the buzz came out, and Captain Phillips ended up being one of those seven. And I loved it. Part of the reason I pushed myself to see it when I did was so I could participate in Flixist’s Best of NYFF awards properly, but the other part was that I was told it was a big screen movie, so I figured I may as well do it on the big screen anyway.

But those Best of NYFF awards were hard, specifically because the actors were so freaking spectacular. Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Tom Hanks? We had to choose between those three performances? (Note that my order for their performances is radically different than how I would rank the films themselves.)

But in the end, we went with Tom Hanks, and we went with Tom Hanks because of those spectacular final minutes. It’s been said a billion times and it will be said a billion more, but it’s really true: those last minutes of Captain Phillips feature the best acting of Tom Hanks’ career. And considering Tom Hanks has been producing amazing stuff for decades, that’s really saying something. Those last five minutes have to be something truly captivating.

And they are. But that’s not the point. The point is that how dare the Academy snub the best performance in for-freaking-ever?

But that’s not even really the point, because I think that Matthew McConaughey deserved his win on Sunday night, and I probably would have felt that way even with Tom Hanks in the running. Not just for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club, which was spectacular in its own right, but because it serves as a fitting cap to the so-called “McConaissance.”

Lincoln Lawyer was the first time I saw Matthew McConaughey as a serious actor. I thought he gave an excellent performance in a generally underrated movie. Up to then, I had associated him with rom-coms and eye candy. To some extent, I still did, but I understood there was something else.

And then 2013 came. Much is made of physical transformations, as actors gain and lose unhealthy amounts of weight to bring authenticity to a role. But what makes Dallas Buyers Club significant is that it’s the first time that Matthew McConaughey really doesn’t look good onscreen. He’s a handsome guy, and it clearly took a lot to mess that up, but they did it, and he did it. That’s worth something.

But where I think it becomes particularly impressive is in the body of work he’s produced. I know and understand that an award is technically only for one performance, but if we’re saying that he is the Best Actor of 2013, we should really be taking everything into account. We take into account his amazing turns in Wolf of Wall Street and Mud, and we also look at the fact that the super amazing True Detective was shot last year as well, even if it’s actually a 2014 show. As an actor in 2013, nobody had that level of quality. Leonardo DiCaprio will and should win an Oscar eventually, and Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Theodore Twombly juxtaposed against his role in The Master is extraordinarily impressive, but nobody hit as many high notes in 365 days.

We live in a world with Academy Award winning actor Matthew McConaughey. Trailers for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar will likely be among the first to trumpet that. And I’m excited. I still find it incredible that Jonah Hill has been nominated for two Oscars, and if he wins one before Leonardo DiCaprio, there will be rioting in the streets, but anyone who has followed McConaughey in the past two years even (Killer Joe and Magic Mike, anyone?) will see a man who has changed his image so drastically that he may as well be a different person.

And maybe that’s the performance that we celebrated on Sunday night.