Oscars Combat: Chiwetel Ejiofor vs. McConaughey

Kevin Spacey, in “House of Cards,” just played one of the best villains I’ve ever watched. But in 1994, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Verbal Kint, his character in “The Usual Suspect,” was a disabled “gimp” getting interrogated by a hard-ass special agent who keeps calling him “piece of shit.”

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Back when I was pickin’ beans in Guatemala . . .

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This is another installment of The Flip Side’s Oscars Combat series. We’ve previously engaged the Best Supporting Actress battle, the Best Documentary battle, and the Best Supporting Actor battle. Go Fassbender. “The Wolf of Wall Streetis second or third in Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Picture.

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“You’re stupid,” Agent David Kujan tells Verbal. “Worthless rat cripple.” Then it turns out he’s the baddest gangster in the entire world. He was lying and faking the entire time, to escape with $91 million he killed all those men for. On top of the money, his enemies are wiped out.

That was a classic performance. Spacey deserved to win an Oscar and he did and it was great.

There are people who claim to have figured out the ending of “The Usual Suspects” ahead of time. They shouldn’t talk. Because even if you knew Verbal was Keyser Soze, there’s a moment toward the end of the movie when Kujan says “It was Keaton,” and explains why. It’s a shockingly good case. So you might have know it, but for second there you thought you were wrong.

But wait, Keaton dies in the first scene, when a ship full of something worth $91 million that isn’t dope explodes. McManus yells. Hockney: “You sure you brought enough guys?” Benicio Del Toro’s Fenster mumbles like a young, drunk Vito Corleone. There’s a suitcase full of blueprints and blackmail files. “The Usual Suspects” was a thriller about huge heists and strong men’s secrets, with a twist ending and Keyser Soze. What a screenplay! By Christopher McQuarrie.

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The movie was nominated for two Oscars and won both. 13-year-old me knew Kevin Spacey was the best supporting actor. And that “The Usual Suspects” absolutely had to win Best Screenplay. I feel the same way about Chiwetel Ejiofor this year. (Choo-it-tell Edge-ee-oh-for.)

Ejiofor is indeed that great in “12 Years a Slave.” There’s a scene toward the ending, after poor Patsey’s back is obliterated by lash, when Ejiofor stares into the camera for a very long time. It’s how we finally get to take a break from the craziness, with Solomon Northup’s beyond-addled face looking right at us.

That’s acting. That’s something especially powerful. In some of the best scenes (like the funeral), the camera just frames Ejiofor’s face and holds still while he carries the best movie of the year. (Click here for another tiresome slobberfest over Ejiofor’s performance, and here for The Flip Side’s review, ecstatic over the cameos by Omar from “The Wire” and Eli from “There Will Be Blood.”)

Ejiofor deserves to win Best Actor. And Kevin Spacey rules.

P.S. I realize this is not a clean argument. The point I’m trying, without succeeding, to make is that one of the reasons the Oscars are cool, when the Academy Awards show is so uncool, is when you love movies you find yourself rooting for some of them to be rewarded in very specific ways. I loved Kevin Spacey’s performance in “The Usual Suspects,” and that was the first time I realized movies were written, and could be written amazingly well. Heath Ledger as Joker and Day-Lewis in “Blood” and Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for “The Social Network” were other times I really loved a movie and knew how I thought it could best be acknowledged. “12 Years a Slave” is probably going to win Best Picture, but I really hope Ejiofor upsets Matthew McConaughey and wins Best Actor.

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