Breaking Down the Oscars 2014

2 Feb
12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

Last year I finally accomplished my longstanding goal of watching and reviewing all nine Best Picture nominees before the Academy Awards aired [review here]. It was a last-minute effort that ended up being an invaluable lesson in great filmmaking. Thus, I decided to repeat the effort this year.

To recap, these were the nine films nominated for Best Picture at the 2014 Academy Awards:

12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
The Wolf of Wall Street

Do I agree that these were the nine best films of 2013? Absolutely not. Blue Jasmine deserved a nod, Rush should have received more recognition, and the inclusion of Philomena and Wolf of Wall Street is questionable. Regardless, we have a solid list of nominees that should make for a closer race than last year. The competition will most likely — as it usually does — come down to the visual masterpiece (Gravity) and the classic historical biopic (12 Years a Slave), with the latter edging out the former.

Like last year, there were some common themes that ran through this year’s films:

1. Losing everything: The idea of someone at the top of their game hitting rock bottom and having to claw their way back up is prevalent in several of the BP nominees this year. 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, and Wolf of Wall Street (as well as Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine) all feature lead characters who lose everything in one unexpected tragedy and must face a great deal of adversity in order to return to the life they led. Some succeed, some don’t, and that struggle to adapt is what defines their character arcs. Perhaps the recent cultural shift in favour of the 99 percent has caused filmgoers to gravitate towards movies that undermine the wealthy and powerful.

2. Biopics: Adapted stories have become more and more popular in Hollywood as the industry struggles to find original material. This year, movies based on true stories are front and center. 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, and Wolf of Wall Street all tell tales of real life people faced with unique challenges. One interesting debate that has arisen as a result of the exposure these films have received is whether historical accuracy should count towards the critical evaluation of a motion picture. Each one takes liberties for the sake of telling a cohesive story — for instance, Captain Phillips leaves out the fact that the real life Phillips actually chose to steer closer to the Somali coast than he was advised to, thus sparking the pirate attack that unfolds in the film. Many have argued that it’s unfair to skew real life events in favour of one side or another, making some of the best films of the year the most controversial as well.

And now, for my rankings:

1. 12 Years a Slave – This isn’t so much my favourite film of the year as it is the most obvious choice for Best Picture. The Academy adores American history films, and 12 Years has all the fixings of an Oscar winner — well-written, well-directed, and brimming with relatively undiscovered talent. Based on a memoir written by Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free negro who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1800s, the film accomplishes what Lincoln failed to do last year: it tells a slavery tale without censorship, the way it should be told. What’s particularly great about this film is that its composition is as brutally unforgiving as the story being told. The editors are conservative with their use of cuts and music, trusting instead in the actors’ raw talent to convey the magnitude of the tragedy unfolding — and for good reason. Lupita Nyong’o has been getting critical acclaim for her exceptional performance as Patsey, but Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender were just as good if not better in their parts. 12 Years is by no means an easy movie to watch, but it’s an indelible example of classic filmmaking and the nobility in creating a piece of art that is willing to alienate viewers at times for the sake of telling its story.

2. Dallas Buyers Club – A gritty, gut-wrenching drama set amidst the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. I came into Buyers Club not expecting to enjoy it and walked away utterly amazed. This film is all about the acting. Matthew McConaughey is phenomenal as Ron Woodroof, a foul-mouthed, homophobic aspiring bull rider whose life in the fast track comes to a screeching halt when he finds out he’s HIV positive. Although he struggles at first to come to terms with the disease and the social stigma it carries, he eventually teams up with Rayon, a sassy, transgender HIV-positive patient played to perfection by Jared Leto, to start the Dallas Buyers Club, an organization dedicated to getting AIDS patients the medication hospitals refuse to provide. It’s hard to say whether McConaughey’s or Woodroof’s transformation is more astonishing, but I’d say the edge goes to McConaughey, who shed 40 lbs for the role and is nearly unrecognizable, both physically and in demeanor. One interesting thing to note is the lack of a score in the film, which made the tone just as raw as the subject — one of many smart stylistic decisions made by director Jean-Marc Vallee. Vallee’s unfashioned directorial approach, combined with McConaughey’s captivating performance, elevates Buyers Club from a solid biopic to one of the best films of the year.

3. Gravity – The token special effects behemoth of this year’s awards films, Gravity is a visual spectacle that’s worth watching for the groundbreaking CGI alone. Experiencing the film in 3D IMAX was nothing short of awe-inspiring; technically, it’s near-perfect and unlike anything else I’ve ever seen (with the exception of maybe Avatar), and Alfonso Cuaron should be commended for pushing every possible cinematic boundary as a director and a visionary. And yet while Cuaron’s space epic is a wonder to behold, it suffers from uninspired characters. The film stars Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, an introverted, no-nonsense medical engineer on her first space mission with experienced astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). When unexpected debris destroys their shuttle mid-orbit, they’re thrust into a life-or-death race against time to find their way back to Earth. It’s a classic survival tale that’s missing two things: a compelling story and stakes. There are no unexpected twists to keep the audience on its toes and no characters worth rooting for. We barely get to know Kowalski before he’s axed, and it’s hard to care whether Stone survives or not, because she’s an unlikeable, underdeveloped protagonist. Gravity is just short of being a masterpiece, so it’s unlikely it’ll take the prize over 12 Years, but we should see one of those rare Best Picture/Director splits this year, with Cuaron taking the latter prize home.

4. American Hustle – David O. Russell’s latest film is a tough one to rank. On one hand, it’s stylistically ambitious and massively entertaining, but on the other, it doesn’t leave behind a lasting impression like his last few projects did. Hustle is best described as a kooky piece of political satire. It’s pure fun and doesn’t pretend to be anything deeper, which respectable in its own right. The dynamic ensemble cast, which features a number of Academy darlings — Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner — is tantalising as a whole, but the only truly memorable cast member is Lawrence, who steals every single scene she’s in as Rosalyn, the delightfully unhinged wife of Bale’s character (is anyone surprised at this point?). Adams and Cooper are both solid as usual, but Bale’s performance, which came with a physical transformation almost as impressive as McConaughey’s in Buyers Club, is missing its usual spark. Still, Hustle is an exhilarating, gleeful joy ride of a film, which may be all Russell set out to accomplish in the first place.

5. Captain Phillips – This was clearly a last minute filler choice by the Academy when they started running out of films to include. As silly as it sounds, Captain Phillips is too mainstream and accessible to win BP. Regardless, I have to give it a moderately high ranking for two reasons: 1) it’s one of the most intense films I’ve ever watched, and 2) the acting is exceptional. Tom Hanks is at the top of his game as Captain Richard Phillips, the commanding officer of a cargo ship that gets taken hostage by Somali pirates, and newcomer Barkhad Abdi delivers a shockingly dark — yet sympathetic — performance as Muse, the ruthless leader of the pirates. The complex dynamic between these two “captains” who are both willing to defend their ships to the death creates an undercurrent of nail-biting tension that relentlessly escalates until it erupts in a magnificent, gut-wrenching final showdown. Director Paul Greengrass does his part by smartly employing the shaky handheld camera technique to keep audience members on edge throughout the second act. Captain Phillips isn’t without flaws — there are some pacing issues in the third act that cause it to fall short of perfection — but it’s chockfull of moments that will linger long after the credits roll.

6. Her – Spike Jonze’s indie romantic comedy is the public’s darling this year — similar to the Kids are All Right or Midnight in Paris, if one is to compare to recent BP nominees, although I’d say the film is stylistically most reminiscent of 500 Days of Summer. This is another difficult movie to judge. It’s a cute, charming little piece of social commentary, but despite capturing the hearts of moviegoers and critics, Her isn’t particularly remarkable. I’ve never really understood the whimsical, lovey-dovey fluff that prevails in the indie rom-com film genre, and Her almost caricaturizes those traits (although to be fair, it has a lot of substance to back it up). The premise — a romantic but introverted letter writer (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with a quirky operating system in the near future — is certainly relevant, but people might want to believe the story more than they actually do. That said, the fact that Jonze was able to make such a high-concept idea so relatable is quite impressive. The writing is smart, thoughtful, and surprisingly human, and a lovely, nuanced performance by Phoenix ties everything together. Overall, Her is probably the most accessible film of the BP nominees, but definitely not the most substantial or meaningful.

7. Nebraska – Many will insist that Her is the most poignant BP nominee this year, but it’s hard to argue Alexander Payne’s Nebraska doesn’t have the biggest heart of the bunch. It’s the Amour of this year’s awards. Set against a dreary, black and white backdrop, the film stars Bruce Dern and Will Forte as Woody and David Grant, a surly old man and his exasperated son trekking across America’s heartland to collect a million dollar sweepstakes prize Woody believes he won. The film is an effortless blend of comedy and drama, painting a bittersweet portrait of a down-on-its-luck family with a quiet dignity that’s lacking in some of the flashier films this year. The story is honest and elegant, and Dern and June Squibb, who plays Woody’s wife Kate, both give Oscar-worthy performances. That said, Nebraska is also relatively unremarkable. The simplicity that elevates it simultaneously buries it beneath its attention-grabbing competitors, and the film — Bruce Dern’s performance aside — will likely be forgotten in years to come.

8. PhilomenaPhilomena stands about a snowball’s chance in hell of winning BP. That’s not to undervalue the film, because it’s actually quite good. It’s simply too safe of a choice for best film of the year. Judi Dench stars as the title character, an elderly woman who partners up with matter-of-fact journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to track down the out-of-wedlock son she gave up to nuns when she was a teenager. The two characters could not be more opposite in their views on life, love, and religion, and compelling questions about faith and forgiveness arise as they butt heads over the course of their trip to America to find Philomena’s son. Philomena is at once light-hearted and powerful, a delicate balance achieved by a combination of director Stephen Frears’ knack for reining in sentimental scenes before they become cliche and Dench’s and Coogan’s well-rounded performances. Still, the heavy-handed morals imparted upon the audience at times overwhelm the human element of the film, and the script is ultimately formulaic in its approach. As enjoyable as Philomena is, it doesn’t accomplish anything worthy of being named the best film of 2013.

9. The Wolf of Wall Street – A wildly entertaining film, but one that probably only found its way onto the BP nominees list because Martin Scorsese fathered it. Wolf is a portrait of hedonism, the cinematic equivalent of jerking oneself off. Based on the life of real New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort, the film is essentially three hours (yes — three hours) of porn masquerading as an insightful, envelope-pushing biopic. It’s true that Leonardo DiCaprio, playing Belfort, gives one of the most energetic, unbridled performances of his lifetime; that in and of itself deserves to be called out, since we all know how long he’s struggled to score an Oscar-worthy role. However, the rest of the film is nothing more than pure self-indulgence. There’s no clear arc or point to the story, which makes the film increasingly exhausting to watch as the hours drag on. Unlike Blue Jasmine, which actually delivered a meaningful lesson on the pitfalls of money and greed, Wolf is ultimately repetitive, aimless, and shallow. I left the movie wondering what exactly I’d just watched and whether I was actually worse off for having watched it.

And my predictions for the winner of each category:

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

Best Original Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave

Best Adapted Screenplay: Her

Best Animated Feature: Frozen

Best Cinematography: Gravity

Best Editing: Gravity

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