Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Picture

Finally, we come to the big one. In recent years, this category has gone through a lot of changes. Starting in 2009, the category was expanded from five nominees to ten, marking the first time since 1943 that there were more than five nominees. Then, after keeping that format for two years, the rules were yet again changed, placing greater emphasis on the percentage of first-place votes so that there could be anywhere from five to ten nominees in a given year. So far, this has resulted in three consecutive years of nine nominees. Surely we'll get a variation one of these days, right?

This year's crop of nominees aren't all that unusual: these are nine films that have dominated the conversation for much of the year, especially after other would-be contenders didn't quite have the strength to compete (August: Osage County, for example). If there's any truly surprising exclusion, it's Inside Llewyn Davis: the Coen Brothers' latest had a lot of critical support, but Academy members didn't feel the same way, with the film only nabbing nominations for cinematography and sound mixing.

Here are the nominees:

BEST PICTURE


American Hustle

American Hustle is an example of the most fun type of heist movie: the ones about con men that aren't just conning the other characters, but also the audience. Loosely based on ABSCAM, a FBI operation in the 1970s that took down several high-ranking politicians, director David O. Russell introduces a group of characters with varying degrees of sanity and turns them loose on each other. When the film hits its highs, it's a dizzying whirlwind of deceptions that spiraling out-of-control, and all of the actors bring their A-game to playing these parts, particularly Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Christian Bale. This is, however, sugar-high cinema: as is common with Russell's films, it's unbalanced, and in-between those highs there isn't much that works as well, often feeling like a group of actors playing dress-up than characters in a movie. But part of the fun of this film is watching these actors in curls, va-va-voom dresses, and schlubby suits constantly trying to get the upper-hand on one another, with a few spot-on cameos as a bonus. It's not a terribly deep film, and it doesn't completely hold up once the lights come on. But it's fun, and that definitely counts for something.

More after the jump.



Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips could've been a completely different movie. Based on the real pirate hijacking of the Maersk Alabama near Somalia in 2009, it could've been a exploitative action film rooted in rah-rah patriotism and the evils of dark-skinned foreigners. Of course, in the hands of director Paul Greengrass, there was never any real risk of that happening, especially considering his sensitive treatment of 9/11 in United 93 nearly eight years ago. Instead, we get a thriller that's equally interested in it's characters on both sides of the conflict, giving us a glimpse into who Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is while also shedding light on the world that drove the pirates, led by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), into this situation. Anchored by Hanks' and Abdi's phenomenal performances, the film consistently turns up the tension throughout, until it finally reaches a breathtaking, dynamite breaking point. This film proved how thrillers based on real events should be done.

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club is not a great film, but it is an important one. That's not to say that it isn't very good: director Jean-Marc Vallee's film features a stunning twofer of performances in Matthew McConaughey, as newly HIV-positive Texas roughneck Ron Woodroof, and Jared Leto, as Woodroof's trans* business partner Rayon. If the film falters, its in that it doesn't stock this world with any other characters, despite the best efforts of Jennifer Garner and Denis O'Hare as a pair of doctors on opposite sides of the fence concerning treatment for AIDS patients. Since its release, the film has come under fire for telling a "gay" story through the lens of a straight protagonist (though Woodroof may have been bisexual, according to some), making Woodroof a much worse homophobe than he actually was, and failing to acknowledge the achievements of the gay community during this time. These are all valid criticisms, but I assert that the film is important because, despite its flaws, it brings forth a part of this history that many Americans are unaware of. Buyers clubs played a major role in creating an alternative for AIDS patients to receive medications that had been proven effective but hadn't been approved by the FDA, which was dragging its heels in developing anything beyond AZT. Why does this matter? Do a quick Google search and most of what you'll find on this subject is about the movie itself, with little information about the history behind it. This is a film that failed to achieve greatness, but hopefully it will inspire more films from a variety of voices that examine this crucial, unfortunate period of American history.

Gravity

If we sit back and honestly look back at film history, the films that represent technological advances in cinema are hardly built with innovative stories. Avatar was a pretty by-the-numbers anti-military-industrial-complex story about saving the native population, while Star Wars followed the pattern of a number of sci-fi radio serials before it. Hell, The Jazz Singer - the first "talkie" - is a standard "star is born" narrative with a heaping dose of unfortunate racism. So it doesn't come as much of a surprise that Gravity is a survival story that often plays like a video game, with a little bit of an overcoming-grief theme thrown in for good measure. There's nothing wrong with that, especially considering the excellence with which Curaon and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki choreograph their long, tense action sequences, making the stakes even higher with each one. Then, of course, there are the incredible special effects, which never feel cheap or distract from the film's cinematic intentions (though it should be noted they are a major part of this film's grand project). It's a stunning piece of science-fiction, and a terrific thrill-ride.

Her

It's bizarre that Her is nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The film is a thoughtful (if male-perspective-oriented) examination of connection, romantic and otherwise, in a society that is increasingly connected electronically but distant socially. The film looks beautiful, with writer/director Spike Jonze and director of photography Hoyt van Hoytema shooting this futuristic metropolis (actual locations: Shanghai and Los Angeles) through a hazy filter, with inventive decor and costumes inspired by real retro-thinking trends. Joaquin Phoenix is a revelation as the sensitive, socially-awkward Theodore, while Amy Adams is terrific as his best friend and Scarlett Johansson lends breathtaking humanity to her OS "Samantha." But that's the thing: this is still, at it's core, a film where a man falls in love with an inanimate program. That's not the sort of thing you generally see in this category. But it's all the more testament to how truly wonderful this film is, taking it's unusual premise and making something that speaks to the universal desire to connect to someone else. It's the most beautiful of the nominees.

Nebraska

With Nebraska, director Alexander Payne crafted a film that looks back at the independent cinema of the past while telling a story that's not unusual to the independent cinema of the present. The film centers around David Grant (Will Forte) and his father Woody (Bruce Dern), the latter of whom believes he's won a sweepstakes and insists on traveling from Montana to Omaha, Nebraska to claim his reward. However, when they stop in their home town along the way, everyone celebrates Woody as a millionaire, and old animosities arise while David learns more about his stoic father. It's a film that plays to Payne's best instincts, with a focus on character and actors who are cast in unexpected ways (surely few of us thought Forte would make a fine dramatic actor). He also films in black-and-white, evocative of an earlier era when filmmakers cast their cameras on the vast openness of the American Plains. At it's heart, though, and what makes this film great, is the character-based humor, which only occasionally tips into the ridiculous. It's a film that believes in and cares about its characters, and those characters are brought to vivid life through ace performances. It's old-fashioned, but that's to its benefit.

Philomena

Don't be fooled by the milquetoast exterior of Philomena. This isn't a run-of-the-mill British comedy-drama that's polite and gently funny, but ultimately lacks anything new or interesting, as it's advertising may imply. Instead, the film, based on the true story of an Irish woman who looks for the son she was forced to give up for adoption decades earlier, hits in a way that is wholly unexpected. Of course, it's no surprise that Judi Dench is remarkable in the title role, or that Steve Coogan would provide great comedic and dramatic work as the journalist who assists her, Martin Sexsmith (Coogan also co-wrote the script, based on a book by Sexsmith). But the film has a devastating reveal about halfway through, and suddenly the gentle road-trip narrative turns into an examination of the nature of faith and the awful acts that people and institutions commit in the name of religion. The conclusions it arrives at are equally surprising, much more nuanced than most people are capable of when discussing faith. It's a quietly beautiful film, one that proves it's capable of more than just a few light laughs and great performances. There's a terrific brain in here to match it's heart.

12 Years a Slave

Despite it's large, starry cast, 12 Years a Slave is an anti-Hollywood historical film. It's based on the memoir of the same name by Solomon Northrup, who endured over a decade in slavery in the American South despite being born a free man in New York. Directed by Steve McQueen and written by John Ridley, the film establishes it's tone early when Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), already in captivity, declares, "I don't want to survive. I want to live." In the hands of a major Hollywood studio, we'd witness Northrup remain hopeful and vigilant, until he finally found justice in freedom and his ability to live once again. This isn't the road McQueen takes. The film's been described as "brutal," "difficult," and "harrowing." These are all accurate descriptors, as the film pulls no punches in it's depiction of the horrifying abuse and oppression , both physical and mental, that existed on these plantations. What makes this film so singular, so impressive, and so important is that it doesn't provide catharsis. We don't get to feel good at the end, nor should we after being reminded of a shameful period of our nation's history. This isn't a film about living. It's about surviving.

 The Wolf of Wall Street

In what is one of the few ways that the two films are similar, The Wolf of Wall Street, like 12 Years a Slave, refuses to provide catharsis after a grueling odyssey through the worst of human behavior. Chronicling the rise and "fall" of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), director Martin Scorsese and writer Terence Winter have less interest in the inner workings of financial investments and trading and more interest in the bacchanals of sex, drugs, and money that are their lives. The film's drawn criticism for not delivering any sort of real comeuppance for Belfort, who in real life served a minimal prison sentence and paid a few fines (the equivalent of a slap on the wrist), then became a successful motivational speaker. First and foremost, this film is a satire, and though it walks a very thin line, it does so mostly successfully. The awful truth that this film acknowledges - and that many turn a blind eye to - is that the rules are different for the wealthy, and men like Belfort can get away with a litany of awful deeds and behavior simply because of their net worth. Some people walked out of this film finding it hilarious. I walked out angry that the Jordan Belforts of the world continue to go unpunished. It's a gut-punch of a film disguised as dark comedy.

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." When the nominees were announced back in the seemingly-ancient days of mid-January, three films seemed like top contenders for this prize: American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, and Gravity. Since then, the heat around American Hustle has considerably cooled to the point where it would be a stunning upset if it actually took home this prize. I highly doubt that upset is coming; in fact, I'll even go ahead and make the bold (foolish) prediction that the film will go home completely empty-handed on Sunday night. 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, on the other hand, have been neck-and-neck ever since, often splitting prizes wherever possible. Gravity has increasingly been considered the one to beat, since it's the "safer" choice by not dealing with difficult subject matter and being technically impressive. 12 Years a Slave, on the other hand, has been described as "too brutal" for some voters to watch, but it does carry the "important" label, having already sparked discussions about the representation of slavery in American cinema and landing Solomon Northrup's memoir in public school curriculums. Chances are whoever wins will do so by a very slim margin. I want to believe that 12 Years a Slave will rightfully win, but I think the Academy will ultimately anoint Gravity as the first science-fiction Best Picture winner.

My ballot: 

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

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