Sunday marks the 86th Annual Academy Awards – where we will once again witness Hollywood patting itself on the back for what they’ve done this past year. Just so you’re not completely confused as to what movies Ellen DeGeneres is talking about, here is a list rating the nine Best Picture nominees, with a short review for each.
9. American Hustle
I sat through American Hustle with a feeling of uncertainty – partially because I knew that a little more than halfway through I was going to have to leave the theater and feed the meter – but also because I wasn’t sure how I felt about the film. On paper it had everything you could want from a cast, with the delightful Amy Adams, the masterful Christian Bale and the generally entertaining Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. But it just didn’t feel like it lived up to its own hype. Amy Adams’ character confused me (perhaps intentionally) with her British accent that turned on and off in a fashion where it didn’t even seem like she noticed when she did it. Christian Bale seemed wholly uninterested in anything that was going on in the film, practically method acting as the balding loaf Irving Rosenfeld. Lawrence and Cooper practically ran a buffet in the film with all of the scenery they chewed up and spat out. The stakes in American Hustle never felt real to the characters, so they didn’t feel real to me. The schemes of the characters are barely comprehensible and turn on a dime to the point that you don’t remember why said changes should be important at all. American Hustle is a lot of glamor but lacks any real soul.
Of all of the Best Picture contenders, Gravity and American Hustle are probably the ones that have filled the gap between Oscar snobs and your average movie-goer. Gravity is definitely the most visually pleasing of the nominees, with its space landscape that is simultaneously monstrous and miniscule in the grander scheme of things. One of the most intriguing parts of Sandra Bullock’s one-woman space show was the incapability of a debris field of scrap metal that orbited the Earth every 90 minutes. For me, this was the faceless villain of the film that was unrelenting in its constant attacks. Watching Bullock’s efforts to survive, jumping from vessel to vessel certainly held its audience’s attention. The high tension score composed by Steven Price drove the film, especially in the otherwise silent space sequences. And though entertaining it may be, it’s not my cup of tea for Best Picture. The initial premise of Gravity was a woman’s struggle to survive, no matter what. However, it seems that somewhere along the line, the filmmakers thought they needed to throw in the back story of Bullock’s character losing her child; because the only way to overcome your child’s death is…in SPACE! That part rubbed me the wrong way, as did the characterization of George Clooney’s role as George Clooney. The guy was practically flawless; the type of guy that your mother never stops talking about after you break up with him…it was too much. An otherwise impressive film, Gravity was bogged down by too much cliché and painful metaphor.
7. Captain Phillips
I initially wrote off this movie with a personal tagline of “I’m over Tom Hanks,” (and I kind of still am), but Captain Phillips is definitely worth a viewing. The film definitely stirs up the feels in different places. Watching the pirates’ desperate attempts to board the MV Maersk Alabama is a heart-sinking experience, knowing that no matter how hard the crew tries to stop them, their hijacking is inevitable. Even if you know the broad strokes of the story, it’s hard not to root for the crew as they try to overcome these armed men. While Captain Phillips is held captive by the pirates, there’s a slight presence of the stereotypical group of captors: the dumb one, the nice one and the loose cannon. That being said, it’s not a huge flaw that distracts in any way from the tension. Tom Hanks does a great job in the role, especially in a scene immediately following his rescue. There is very little dialogue, but the overwhelming emotion pours off of him and really hits you hard. Side note: Henry Jackman’s score at the end of the film sounds nearly identical to the end score of Inception, by Hans Zimmer. Though Jackman and Zimmer have worked together in the past, which might be an explanation for this strange crossover.
6. The Wolf of Wall Street
Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese’s latest venture is a curious one for me. The film is most definitely an engaging experience, even if it is clocking in at just under 3 hours long. Though tired it may be, the quagmire of The Wolf of Wall Street is the debate of glamorizing vs. shaming bad behavior. Scorsese and DiCaprio will tell you that it is the latter, but man oh man, does it look like they had a lot of fun making this movie. DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort is a maniac who runs on a boat-load of drugs, booze and sex on a daily basis. And while he spends his life scamming others out of their money, Belfort is portrayed as a somewhat honorable thief, promising his employees their own generous portion of the steal. The Wolf of Wall Street is an Old School-style sex romp cloaked under a Scorsese guise. It’s as self-indulgent and streamlined as The Departed was, but it doesn’t really lose steam until shortly before the end. Most importantly, the film doesn’t bore you with the inner workings of Belfort’s scheme and prides itself on that fact; it knows you just want to see a lot of sex and drugs. So I guess honesty is good?
In a race with contenders that focus on the evils of slavery, the solitude of space and being hijacked by pirates, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a brief reprieve from the heavy issues of our world. Nebraska is very Payne-ian in the way that it hones in on and explores the idiosyncrasies of a small group dynamic. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced that he has won a grand prize of $1 million and makes multiple attempts to get to Nebraska to reclaim it. After trying to convince him that the whole thing is a scam, his son David (Will Forte) humors Woody and agrees to go on the journey with him. Will Forte has a great presence in the film, leading me to hope that he can use that uniquely talented voice of his in future films of this caliber. June Squibb absolutely steals the show as Woody’s wife Kate. Her character is unabashed in everything she says and does and it is a joy to watch. Bob Odenkirk pops up there too – who doesn’t love that guy? Like a lot of Payne’s films, Nebraska offers a view of a dysfunctional family/group that finally learns to just accept one another for who they are or get out of the way. At some point, we have to come to the conclusion that there are worse people out there than the overbearing mother or the drunk and absent father. Nebraska is a celebration of that kind of acceptance, with a family doing what they can to enable its patriarch’s misguided earnest beliefs.
I’ll be honest – I did not expect to enjoy Philomena as much as I did. From what I recall, the trailers and promos certainly did not do it justice. Just look at the international poster (see left); it’s just god-awful. Judging by that poster alone I would just go ahead and assume that Philomena was an odd couple comedy about a Steve Cooganish character played by Steve Coogan that would once again learn to love life from his 80-year-old nanny. Philomena is thankfully a lot more than that. Based on the true story of Philomena Lee, the film tells the story a woman who has kept a secret from herself and her daughter for 50 years – she had another child. In 1951, Philomena became pregnant out of wedlock and later gave birth to her son Michael. Like many other young girls in her situation, Philomena was taken in by the Catholic Church and performed a sort of indentured servitude in exchange for living there and raising her son. Eventually the Church adopted off Michael to a “more suitable” family from America without Philomena’s consent; she had no idea where he was after that. Journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) decides to tell her story and track down her son. The remainder of the film deals with the finding out what happened to Michael and what kind of life he led without Philomena. The film could be summed up as another attack on The Catholic Church, but I believe that it is aware of that danger and even addresses it. Philomena has suffered a terrible loss, and it seems that the Church even tried to keep Philomena and her son from finding each other. But if Judi Dench’s characterization of Philomena Lee is to be taken at face value, then it’s not a story about injustice, but one of resolve and forgiveness. After all is said and done, Philomena still believes in the Church – her will has not been broken. She’s an admirable character who doesn’t let herself become jaded by her poor circumstances. She forgives the people who wronged her.
Like Nebraska, Her is the wacky odd man out – but that’s not a bad thing. Her is the story of a man who falls in love with his smart phone/computer. On the surface that seems like a harsh critique on our society’s reliance on technology – and maybe it is – but overall Her is an exploration of love through the odd storytelling device that director Spike Jonze provides us with. Granted it may be a little jarring for an audience to accept this fantastic notion (which it was for me, if for no other reason than my imaginings of the corporate responsibility involved in an artificial intelligence-based romance), but if you can move past it, it sheds a little light on the crazies that love provides us. There is of course, that overused sound bite from the trailers that Amy Adams’ character says that love is a “form of socially acceptable insanity,” but I think even more pertinent is this quote: “None of us are the same we were a moment ago and we shouldn’t try to be; it’s just too painful.” We are always changing as people, and if your significant other doesn’t change with you then your relationship may very well be doomed. Her didn’t blow my mind like I thought it would but it did give my brain something to chew on for a while after viewing it.
2. Dallas Buyers Club
Dallas Buyers Club is when I started to take notice of the next phase of Matthew McConaughey’s career (see also HBO’s True Detective.) This film is fascinating on its real world premise alone. A homophobe Texan named Ron Woodruff discovers that he has AIDS and does everything he can to survive – traveling the globe to get drugs and vitamins unapproved by the FDA to treat his sickness. Since it’s illegal to sell these drugs without proper authority, he starts a club that gives free supplements to its members as part of their membership fee. While Jared Leto certainly deserves the attention he is receiving for his role as the transgender Rayon, McConaughey commands the screen with his role, especially as the disease physically wears him away. Jennifer Garner is also in the film, as she seems to be making a career transition as a supporting character actor rather than a 13 Going on 30 lead. To call the film an advertisement for AIDS awareness would be devaluing it, but McConaughey’s Woodruff is actually a perfect lens to examine AIDS for those unfamiliar or ignorant with the struggles it brings. A homophobe who becomes sympathetic to the gay community? McConaughey is tugging on your heartstrings, close-minded America, let that smooth bastard in!
1. 12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave is by far one of the most intense Best Picture nominees this year, which is probably why it is getting so much attention – Oscars LOVE the pain. Solomon Northup is an educated free man who gets tricked, drugged and sold into slavery. He is renamed Platt and for the remainder of the film he travels from master to master, and we get a taste of differing types of slavers. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives the audience a man with remarkable patience in Solomon. Though he initially tries to contest the serious mistake that the slavers have made, he learns that the best way to save himself torment and torture is to keep his mouth shut. “I will survive! I will not fall into despair. I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune!” Solomon says at a rare breaking point, for the otherwise steadfast character. Through Solomon’s eyes, director Steve McQueen shows us the effect that slavery has on the slaves and their owners alike. The relationship between slave owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his wife (Sarah Paulson) is such an unhealthy one, only increased by the presence of slavery in their lives. Slavery existed to make their masters’ lives easier, but from the story of the Epps alone, it’s clear that it made things more complicated for everyone involved – almost infecting everyone with its evil. Of course that isn’t to say that having problems with your wife is at all comparable to the pains of living as a slave. Every move that Solomon makes to escape, even if it is something as small as asking a man to mail a letter for him, is a threat to his life. One slave even begs Solomon to take her life, as a sweet release from her terrible circumstances. 12 Years a Slave definitely packs the emotional wallop. Like Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, Chiwetel Ejiofor takes an emotional journey in this film, and it is too hard not to break down at the film’s conclusion as he does.