After walking out of the local theater this afternoon, I have now seen all nine nominees for the 2014 Academy Award for Best Picture, and so I thought I’d tell you all about them.
Below, I’ll include a brief review of each, (skipping the synopsis and going straight for impressions), and then finish with which I think will win, and which I would like to win.
But first, some general thoughts. When the nominees were first announced, I was a little hesitant to say that I thought it was a good list. Not because I had seen many of the movies already, (I had only seen Gravity at that point), but because several of the listed films were movies that I didn’t feel very enthusiastic about seeing. From the marketing I had seen, some seemed a bit uninteresting, others too depressing.
That said, now, having seen all of them, there is not a single film on this list that I did not enjoy. I believe all of them this year are both excellent films and worthy of the nomination. I would recommend all of them. So please keep that in mind as you read my reviews below. Although I do have some criticisms here and there, all of them should be taken within the context that I think they are great movies and that any failings they have are small nits in the big picture. It is only when you are comparing great movies to other great movies that sometimes minor flaws can appear magnified as a result.
(in Alphabetical Order)
I love con-artist movies, and this one is very well made. With incredible performances from Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, (all of whom are also nominated for their roles), and a great script, the movie is at turns funny, exciting, sad and darkly touching in the way some of the best stories about deception can be. Writer-director David O. Russell’s previous movie, Silver Linings Playbook, was one of my favorite movies from last year, so I went in with very high expectations and they were met… mostly. There were a few parts that dragged a little for me, and I didn’t feel quite the same level of emotional connection to these characters as I did with Silver Linings. So the movie didn’t quite give me everything I wanted, but to be fair to it, I went in with a very high bar for it to clear.
In the last few years, I have had something of an aversion to movies that are “Based on a True Story”. It’s certainly irrational, and I’m not entirely sure where it comes from. I think it’s because it puts me, against my will, in a mindset of wondering “Did it really happen like that, or is that just the movie?” But several movies this year had that weighing against them for me, and none more so than this one; In particular, I think, because when it came out, they made that such a big part of the marketing campaign. That is why I did not see it in the theater, even though I otherwise might have been interested. That said, I found that it did not bother me much while I was watching it. The director, Paul Greengrass, is a man who knows how to direct suspense, and with Tom Hanks and the excellent newcomer Barkhad Abdi (Who plays the pirate leader), they have made a solid, compelling piece of filmmaking here. After it was all over, I realized that the movie really only had about half an hour of plot, but the tension is drawn out so effectively that I could hardly look away from the screen for a moment. It’s very well done, but with the exception of a scene or two, it hasn’t really lingered in my mind after the credits rolled.
Dallas Buyers Club
Certainly this is one of the movies that I had feared would be depressing. Although it is certainly sad in parts, by and large, it’s a movie about making the best of things, even against opposition. It actually has some overlap with one of last year’s Best Documentary nominees, How to Survive a Plague, which also covered the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Because of that, I was a little frustrated with Dallas Buyers Club‘s anti-big-pharma stance. Big corporations make convenient bad guys, but I wish that the movie had been willing to acknowledge the much more complex and nuanced reality covered in the documentary. However, all of that is really in the background, because the personal stories of the characters is what the film is really about, and those characters are brought to life with truly superb performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.
One of my favorites this year, and the only nominee I had seen before the nominations were announced. It gets a huge leg up from me just based on how much I love space stuff, but that can also result in elevated expectations, as I found with American Hustle. This movie, however, surpassed my expectations. It made me feel, more than any movie previous, like I was really there in space with them. Some creative license was taken, of course, but they made a very powerful effort to keep things realistic, which I really appreciated. The character arc for Sandra Bullock’s character really worked for me on a powerful level, (though I’ve certainly spoken to some people who found her frustrating for the first act or so.) One of my co-workers who saw the movie came out saying: “I’m never going to space.” For me, despite the harrowing situations encountered there, the movie just solidified further for me how much I DO want to go to space. And this movie brought me part way there. Loved it.
Another favorite. Written and Directed by Spike Jonze, best known for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, though he only directed those, and here he wrote the screenplay as well. And what a screenplay! The movie is simultaneously good, thoughtful science fiction, an exploration of the present day’s increasing issues of technological isolation, and a wonderful, heartwarming/heartbreaking love story. Despite never appearing on camera, Scarlet Johansson has effortless chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix, and the relationship they share feels completely real and authentic. At the same time, the movie will not let you forget that she is not human, and that matters. A wonderful film that has really stayed with me in a powerful way, almost like it was made for me.
Alexander Payne has made a number of excellent movies: The Descendants, Sideways, Election; and Nebraska is a fine addition to a distinguished filmography. Like most of his movies, Nebraska tackles emotional issues that strike us to the core: self-identity, family history, mortality. However, along the way, there is joy and humor to be found too. The black-and-white film is a great choice for showcasing the at-times bleak, at-times serene, but always austere Nebraska landscape. It’s unfortunate that this choice probably means a lot of people won’t see it. The movie covers a lot of ground, but never feels like a slog or a chore, and at the end, we are satisfied and glad to have taken the trip. At least I was.
I was not previously familiar with Steve Coogan, though I’ve heard good things about his work as “Alan Partridge”, but he’s a delight to discover in this movie. Funny, relatable, sarcastic, angry, guilty, compassionate. I’ll definitely be looking to watch more of his stuff. Likewise, Dame Judi Dench is as great as always. The plot plays out as much more of a mystery story than I expected and made me realize how few “Investigative Journalism” movies there are anymore. In any case, this is another movie “based on a true story”, though for whatever reason, that didn’t bother me as much here. Once again, this movie is funny, sad, and touching in equal measure, and the investigation the two characters shared was very compelling. I had no particular expectations going in, but I’m very happy to have gone to see it. This movie is the best example this year, of why I love the Oscar Marathons I do every year. This is a movie I would not have otherwise gone to see, and it was wonderful.
12 Years a Slave
Another movie that I had been somewhat avoiding for fear that it would be depressing. I think it avoids ending in that place though because a more-or-less happy ending is right there implied in the title. It is not called “Forever a Slave”. I’ve been a fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor since Serenity and he is more than capable of leading the film here. In a story of horrifying injustice, he is our way in. Although I can’t imagine anyone today approving of slavery, I think it has become largely abstract for many. However, the lead character in this story felt largely the same way. He was a free man in the North, relatively well-off and respected, but the horror of his situation drives home how simply being far away from injustice does not make the injustice any less severe, it only makes you less aware of it. The only sour note for me was a distracting cameo by Brad Pitt, but until then and afterward, the movie is powerful film-making indeed.
The Wolf of Wall Street
The movie is very well made, but as I’ve thought on it in the last couple of weeks, I feel like, as almost the opposite of Her, it was not made for me. The performances are great, both from Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill (who is not merely repeating his character from Moneyball). I think the movie does a good job of illustrating a certain mindset that went into these sorts of Wall Street characters that thrive where money seems to come from nowhere and mean nothing except points on a scoreboard. It’s well-directed too, and I was certainly engaged throughout. After giving it a few weeks to steep in my brain, however, I feel like it didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know, or show me anything I hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t for me. That said, and I say this without judgement, it may be for you. It’s a good, well-made film, to be sure, just not for me.
Who do I think should win?
Personally, I am most-partial to the two science-fiction films on the list: her and Gravity. Both did what I think great movies can do, which is to transport you to another place and show you how it feels to be there; whether that place is physical (like near-earth orbit), or emotional (in love with an Artificial Intelligence). I deeply love both of these movies and would be thrilled if either were to win.
Who do I think WILL win?
I suspect 12 Years a Slave will bring home the trophy, and I’m hard-pressed to think of a reason why it shouldn’t other than the entirely-subjective opinion that it wasn’t my personal favorite. The message is both non-controversial, but still important and meaningful. The performances are stellar, the production values high, and the look of the film is gorgeous. It’s the kind of movie that gets made to win Oscars, and I don’t mean that as any kind of criticism whatsoever. It’s not a crowd-pleaser, but you come out of it feeling like you witnessed something important.
So that wraps it up for this year. I’ll be live-tweeting the actual Oscar Ceremony tonight at http://twitter.com/christianaellis and of course discussing all these films in more detail with my co-host Mike in our Oscar Marathon wrap-up podcast sometime in the next week.