3.02.2014

Reviewing and Ranking the 2013 Best Picture Oscar Nominees

It's been awhile since I've written a blog about movies, but I used to do it somewhat regularly back in the day. I even had my own movie review blog. The problem is when you decide to be a novel writer for a living, it does two things. It eats up the time I might spend to see movies, and it makes a theater budget nearly impossible to maintain (because novel writing hasn't been the most lucrative profession as of yet). I've considered just writing reviews of new releases as they come out on Blu-Ray or Netflix, but there is a third thing that gets in the way of that: laziness.

This year, I've made a concerted effort to see all of the Best Picture nominees for the Oscars, either on screen or at home. The awards ceremony premiers tonight, so there's no time like the present. Similar to how I'm doing things in the Doctor Who Project, I'm going to provide a capsule review for each film and then rank from my favorite to least favorite. The reviews appear in the order I've watched them.

1. Captain Phillips


Telling the true story of Rich Phillips, the merchant marine captain who was kidnapped by Somali pirates, this film had all the classic trademarks of director Paul Greengrass that worked so well for him in United 93: the gracefully unsteady camerawork and the "live documentary" feel, as if we've been embedded with a crew of journalists and we're watching the action unfold right in front of us. This style of narrative is particularly effective in telling "ripped from the headlines" stories, because when you already enter a story knowing how it's going to end, you have to find another way to build suspense. The film style combined with the powerful performances of Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi made me believe I didn't know what was going to happen. As such, I spent a great deal of this movie with my stomach in knots. I also really loved the real authenticity Greengrass strove for when he picked real Somalians to play the pirates, and when he chose to film most of the film at sea. The only thing that drags the film down for me is its length. At 134 minutes, it feels roughly 15 minutes too long. But overall, a very solid and thrilling movie. I've seen it twice now, and it holds up to my original estimation. Grade: B+

2. Philomena


I knew nothing about this film when I sat down to watch it, apart from what I read in a basic synopsis. I only knew it was likely going to be a small, character-driven piece with plenty of British charm, similar to The King's Speech. In many ways, Philomena surpassed all my expectations, making a story about a young Irish girl in the 1950s who had her baby out of wedlock and was forced to live in a convent until the child was sold to an American family, seem like something brand new. Judi Dench's performance is utter perfection as the present-day Philomena, who after years of living in heartbreak over her lost son finally gets a chance to find him in the United States. It's at this point, the movie takes some unexpected turns that make it far from run-of-the-mill. Steve Coogan does a great job of playing the opinionated and disgraced political journalist assisting her--or perhaps leading her--on this journey. What I liked is how Coogan's pragmatic character was cynically referring to Philomena's plight as a "human interest" story, while the movie itself was a human interest story in the best sort of way. And like the best human interest stories, I myself felt less cynical when the credits rolled. Grade: B+

3. Dallas Buyers Club


I love when movies teach me things about culture I previously didn't know. In this case, it was the underground AIDS movement of the 1980s, where patients were fighting against the FDA to procure treatments for the disease that actually worked, as opposed to the new drug AZT, that was succeeding more in making pharmaceutical companies rich than actually helping people. Patients smuggled in vitamin and protein supplements from Mexico, which other studies had shown to be more effective than AZT, and set up shop in communities where AIDS was running particularly high. Members of the club would pay a monthly fee and get all the meds they needed. Dallas Buyers Club concerns itself with the founder of titular franchise, Ron Woodroof, a homophobic sex fiend who finds himself diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, which in 1985 was still largely associated with homosexual men. The thing about DBC is that this sort of story has been told a million times before. A man with limited perspective becomes a social pariah and eventually finds a home among the people he initially rejected and is properly humbled. But it's the performances here that help it rise above its basic formula. Matthew McConaughey lost around 35 pounds to play Woodroof, and you believe every second of this film that he IS this character. Same with Jared Leto as Rayon, an AIDS-infected transvestite who eventually becomes Woodroof's closest friend and business partner. This movie fired up my activist heart and then proceeded to break it. The only drawback was the film felt like it didn't know how to end, but it didn't detract from my overall regard. Grade: A

4. The Wolf of Wall Street


All the things you might have heard to make sure your seat belts are fastened before seeing Scorsese's biopic of fraudulent Wall Street investor Jordan Belfort are true. This movie is three straight hours of some of the most hedonistic, absurd, and disgusting human(?) behavior I've ever seen depicted on a movie screen. Frankly, I was shocked it only received an R rating, and it might not have if it had been made by anyone other than Scorsese. That is not a negative judgment of it, however, because the excesses were kind of the point, and if you're easily offended, you have no business watching this movie. Still, I didn't love it as a whole. Let me start with what I did like. DiCaprio was spot-on brilliant in the lead role. I also loved the editing and the overall crafting of the film, and there is a particular scene where Belfort and his partner overdose on quaaludes that is one for the Hall of Fame. Also, even though the movie is three hours long, it didn't really feel like it. It sucks you in so that you forget the passage of time, and each scene feels relatively fresh. I may have shaved a couple minutes off a few key scenes, but I couldn't think of actual whole scenes the movie would have been better without. The main problem I had with the film is that it's based on the autobiography of a sociopath who hurt a lot of people on his rise to the top of the investor food chain, and as such, in all those three hours, you see nothing at all of the other side of the coin: Belfort's victims. The only fallout you see of this guy's actions is how they affect him and the people around him. While the over-the-top nature of the movie was almost certainly meant to be indictment rather than glorification, the fact of the matter is Jordan Belfort served 22 months in a white collar resort prison and has gone on to still make a lot of money as a motivational speaker. He still owes over $100 million in restitution to his victims, and even though he's turning over his profits from his books and this movie to them, it isn't enough. And it stings me to see such a scumbag receiving the sort of positive attention that comes from having your life story made into a movie by one of the greatest directors of all time, to walk those red carpets, to bask in the sort of adulation that only feeds the toxic egos that gave rise to this whole sordid mess in the first place. Reality has done enough to show me how little retribution regular people get when the super-rich ruin their lives. This movie was like a branded reminder that the good guys truly don't win in the end. If they did, Belfort would still be in prison, there wouldn't have been a book, and this movie, as it is, never would have been made. I realize this is more a review of the background surrounding the  film rather than the film itself, but it's one reason why I had to stop short of really liking it. I wish more than anything WOWS had been about a fictional person. I would have admired it more. Put yourself in the shows of one of the blue collar workers Belfort ruined, and imagine how you'd feel seeing the man who did it getting so much attention. If it weren't so well made, I would have given it a C. As such it falls into the rare category of well-crafted movie I wish nobody had made. Grade: B-

5. 12 Years a Slave


There is absolutely no way to go into this film prepared for the emotional walloping it gives you. I have compared it to Schindler's List in how it lays bare all the ugliness and shame of humanity (in this case, American slavery) and forces us to observe events as if they're at the bottom of a barrel of water, and the director is holding our heads under the surface until we're sure we're going to drown. Director Steve McQueen does this particularly well, drawing out each take about as long as we can possibly stand them, and then holds them a few seconds beyond that so we're on the verge of panicking, begging for him to stop. It's another great demonstration of how the actual filming technique informs the story. Nearly every frame of this movie screams, "LOOK AT THIS. DON'T YOU DARE FORGET THIS." And I will never forget. It's a reminder I think we will always need, in an age where certain politicians are doing their best to rub the impact of slavery out of our textbooks. This is one of the most painful movies I have ever seen, and of the entire crop of Best Picture nominees, the one that has haunted me the longest and most deserves to win. As much as I loved Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, the acting Oscar should go to Chiwetel Ejiofor. Lupita Nyong'o for Best Supporting Actress for her heartbreaking turn as Patsey would also be wonderful to see. Grade: A+

6. Her


I saw the trailer for this film a good while ago and it intrigued me, but I had my doubts. In fact, I went into seeing it with a lot of reservations. Was it going to be pretentiously weird and aloof like a lot of Spike Jonze films? The thing is, Jonze is typically directing other people's pretentious weirdness. HER marks the first time Jonze has directed his own original screenplay. And original it is. I adored it for so many reasons. First was the unique setting. A near-futuristic LA, where colors pop off the screen and give you something to examine and analyze in the background. Then we have the quirkiness of the plot. If an operating system became sentient enough to seem human, right down to the way it speaks and the way it knows and understands you, how is that any different than being in a long distance or internet-based relationship? Aren't we already sort of heading this way? The science fiction part of this film doesn't really feel all that fictional. In another ten to fifteen years, I can see a lot of people dating a computer generated person. Finally, the performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams (and the voice acting by Scarlet Johannsen) are excellent, and they make you believe all of the oddness this film exudes. I suppose I have a real hankering for weird love stories that have just a touch of sci-fi in them. This one reminded me in some ways of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though Jonze seems to touch on much broader concepts of humanity and love as a whole. I want to watch it again and again. Grade: A+

7. Gravity


You will not find a more viscerally thrilling movie on this list. The floating camera work, the use of sound, and the ambitious setting all set the stage for an experience that will grab you by your short and curlies and tug until you scream. As a pure ride, it is completely worth seeing. When you watch the shuttle and the Hubble, and the International Space Station be rendered into nothing more than shards and shrapnel by space debris, your heart will hurt. At least if you're as much of a space nerd as I am. This speaks to the total realism of the photography. The movie will also tickle your amygdala as it forces you to consider how very dire the circumstances are for the two man characters, as well as what sort of pandemonium might be unfolding on Earth (though you get no real indication of that). The only problem with Gravity is its characters, and sadly for a film that relies so heavily on them, that's a pretty big problem. Alfonso Cuaron realized he had to bring some humanity to this ambitious equation, and he did, but it feels very tacked on, as do the movie's themes of human perseverance and rebirth. There is also a brief twist in the final third of the film that feels so much like a deus ex machina that I was almost positive someone had slapped me over the head with a spiral sliced ham. I have no problem with the god in the machine popping out to save the day, but it had better be seamless, and this wasn't for me. In some ways, Gravity has the trappings of a Stanley Kubrick film. It wows on all technical levels, but it doesn't quite manage to find its way into the heart. And what it's lacking of Kubrick's sensibilities is his use of sheer trippiness to portray a sort of psychological meltdown within the main character, something I would have loved to see exploited here given the rather extreme circmstances. Gravity, of all the movies I'm reviewing today, is the one that actually felt like it needed to be longer, perhaps in order to better build the emotional arc of the characters. It's hard to pull that off in 90 minutes. I can forgive the many science faux-pas in this movie (every genre movie has them), but not the storytelling shortcomings. Grade: B

8. American Hustle


If there is one thing I learned from watching this movie, it's that David O. Russell is much smarter than me. As a writer, I often insert myself into the vehicle of another storyteller to see how I might have told the same story, or even if I can. But getting into Russell's vehicle is like stepping onto a spaceship. There ain't no way I could drive this thing. There are so many moving parts and a huge slate of characters, all with their own problems and motivations. You have the original con "men" played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who are running a loan scheme until they're picked up by an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) whose ambitions soon start to outreach his grasp as he employs the two of them to help catch the bigger fish, namely politicians accepting bribes on land contracts for casinos in Atlantic City. Add in Bale's unpredictable head case of a wife (Jennifer Lawrence), and things really start to get exciting. The "hustle" on which the film centers feels a bit nebulous because the story routinely shifts points of view and even the timelines, so the whole thing looks different depending whose eyes you're looking through. Essentially, I found American Hustle difficult to follow, and after a point I just stopped trying, because I'm not sure if understanding the intricacies of the con was the point. I instead fell into the characters themselves and how they were growing or changing as a result of the things happening to them, and on that level, American Hustle is aces. It's also aces on acting, dialog, and chiefly the hair. Jesus me, I haven't seen such amazing hair on film since Kingpin. While I actually prefer Russell's previous effort, Silver Linings Playbook, the man is without a doubt a brilliant filmmaker and has cemented himself on my "I'll watch anything he makes" list. Grade: A-

9. Nebraska

This is another one, like Philomena, where I wasn't quite sure what to expect going in, but by the time it was over, I felt filled up in a way that a lot of movies just don't accomplish. I was the odd one out on Alexander Payne's previous film, The Descendants, in that I just wasn't all that impressed by it. Yes, it was good, but it stopped well shy of greatness for me. Nebraska, however, achieves something even more superlative in how it captures the place and the people in it with all their rough edges and rustic textures, similar to something the Coen brothers would do, minus the brooding darkness. Payne fills this film with people we all know. They're timeworn and old, they're overweight, they're scarred. Their lives are small and simple. The black and white photography is stark and gorgeous, capturing a landscape that hasn't changed much at all since that particular film format was the standard, and if it weren't for the newer cars, you might think you were watching something from the 1930s. Bruce Dern plays a man hollowed by all the years he's lived, and he's becoming increasingly befuddled with age, such that he believes he's won a million dollars when he receives a bogus sweepstakes letter in the mail, and that's what the plot generally centers around. He's also an alcoholic and he wasn't much of a father, and it isn't like the movie teaches him to be a better one either. Payne isn't after phony sentiment here. But his son, played by Will Forte, is the one who gradually comes to understand his father more as the movie evolves, and the hope for a better future lies in him. Nebraska is a basic and simple film that uses basic and simple tools to illustrate how most people want the same things out of life. They just want to feel like they have something, like they've done something, and that someone sees them. And some people are just takers. The standout performance for me, however, is the wife and mother character played by June Squibb, and the dynamic she and Bruce Dern create together gives you the sense of a hard life lived, where romance is never considered--and forget about pretensions--but the love, even if unacknowledged by either of them, is the bedrock that holds them up. I really loved this one. Grade: A

Overall, this is a most excellent batch of Best Picture nominees this year, with so many great performances that it has to be very hard to pick a winner. Even the films I liked the least on this list were at least quite good. But here is my personal ranking of favorite to least favorite.

1. 12 Years a Slave
2. Her
3. Dallas Buyers Club
4. Nebraska
5. American Hustle
6. Philomena
7. Captain Phillips
8. Gravity
9. Wolf of Wall Street

Kudos to whomever wins this one! Even with the niggling shortcomings factored in, it's a very deserving crop of nominees.