Tuesday, February 25, 2014

From Space to the Ocean to Nebraska: Ranking the Oscar-nominated Films

The Academy Awards are this weekend, and the Big One is up for grabs. 

For the last few years, I have praised the new and improved Oscar system for nominating strong films beyond the traditional “five films” in the Best Picture category. However, I think the Academy regressed this year, as there are some real clunkers among the nominees. I think they could have cited fewer films than they did. Still there are two or three strong contenders slugging it out for the top prize, and I would be happy if any of them won. 

So here is my annual ranking of the nominated films — nine this year — in ascending order. For those who are new to my annual exercise in arrogance, here are the rules: 

  • These are not my predictions, just my choices. 
  • This list does not necessarily comprise my personal picks for the best films of the year. I am simply ranking the Academy’s nominees. There are films I thought merited consideration as "best film" that are not on this list. 
  • I rank these according to my perception of their entertainment value, the attention to craft, and most important, innovation and uniquely cinematic quality, challenging my long-held notions of cinema.. Or as the great Roger Ebert used to put it, a film that made him look at film a new way.

This year, I think there is such a disparity in quality among the nominees that I have grouped the nine into three broad categories: How was this thing ever considered a ‘best film;” the worthy- efforts-that-are-not-great-in-the-end; and the films that are probably already classics and will be appreciated for years to come.


9. Nebraska — I saw this film as a sneak preview at a local art house, long before the award seasons began. I thought, “Boy, director Alexander Payne really sleep-walked through this one. Bruce Dern’s initials could stand for ‘brain dead,’ as he is practically inert in this performance. This woman playing Dern’s wife (June Squibb) is a rank amateur; this must be her first film. But Will Forte does an admirable job playing Dern’s son. A nice turn by an actor we don’t know. I hope he is recognized for his efforts.”
Now imagine my reaction when the nominations came out and everyone BUT Forte received nods. This thing was a bewildering disappointment to me — a thin story brought to life in a plodding production. I think the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce should sue for defamation of character.

8. Philomena — Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irish woman searching for her long-lost son. The boy was taken from Philomena by the nuns who boarded her after she became pregnant. In this movie, the sisters perpetrated innumerable sins against poor Philomena, but none as heinous as those committed by the screenwriters. There is no dramatic arc to this story, which hits its peak early with heartbreaking scenes in which Philomena’s son is taken by a rich family to America. Afterward, the film is populated by scenes in which Dench plays… well, basically, she plays the same precious, twittery Judi Dench we have seen in countless other movies over the last 15 years. I believe a Best Picture should show cinematic freshness. If not that, at least it should show exceptional craft. This film was created the originality of a paint-by-numbers work.

7. Her — This movie is an overlong, somnambulant musing on a simple premise (and to my mind, one not so profound or original): What would happen if we made a computer operating system that was so smart that we could engage with it? And what if some imminent nebbish took the bait and fell in love with said software, in this case, his smart phone? I once saw a Twilight Zone episode in which a computer fell in love with Wally Cox, and that show had more to say about human/computer love in its allotted 30 minutes than Her did in 126.
And when will this unspecified future time be? It was so similar to our current time, that I thought this vague “future” would occur in the next nine days. Woody Allen did a better job conjuring the world-to-come in his hilarious Sleeper. Her was a major disappointment for me, given the possibilities the theme presented. Additionally, it wastes a thoughtful and elegiac performance by Joaquin Phoenix

(For my money, here are three films that would have deserved a Best Picture nomination more than the three above: Fruitvale Station, Blue Jasmine and Mud.) 


6. Captain Phillips — Oh, Tom Hanks, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways. Just when you think that this guy has played out his string, and there are no more decent all-Americans/ AIDS-afflicted noblemen/lucky idiot savants that he can play, and maybe, just maybe, we can't even accept him any longer as Woody in Toy Story X… well, then he plays Captain Richard Phillips, who must protect his crew of a commercial ship from modern day pirates. And once again, Mr. Hanks pulls more tricks out of his hat to give us insight into this ordinary man who overcomes an extraordinary situation.
The entire production is guided by the wonderful Paul Greengrass, the director who was able to give an urgent realism to United 93, the story of the hijacked plane that would be doomed on 9/11. Unfortunately, Captain Phillips’s script runs out of gas about three-quarters of the way through the film, and Greengrass pads the film unnecessarily. While this movie had much potential, I rank it as a a near-miss. 

5. Dallas Buyers Club — Ron Woodroof is a most unlikely hero. He is a part-time rodeo rider and homophobe with poor personal habits, who also practices indiscriminate, unprotected (heterosexual) sex. The last point catches up with him when he is unexpectedly diagnosed with AIDS. In fact the disease is so advanced at the time of diagnosis that his doctor gives him 30 days to “get your affairs in order.” Ron turns out to be smarter and tougher than we think, and so begins his remarkable journey to get medicine for himself and, over time, others suffering from this modern-day plague.
Matthew McConaughey gives a career-defining (or is it career-reviving?) performance as the real-life Woodroof. Even more stirring is Jared Leto, who plays the transgender, HIV-infected woman named Rayon in a performance that has won him nearly every award except the Lombardi Trophy. He is as close to a shoo-in for an Oscar this year as I have ever seen, and I am cheering for him myself. Unfortunately, this hard-core movie has a mushy center, when Woodroof’s business dealings become too tedious to watch. Still, this is a worthwhile film about a shameful period in our recent history, a time when AIDS was running rampant in this country and few people cared because "they" were getting it.

4. The Wolf of Wall Street — I think I liked this movie when I saw it before, except it was named Goodfellas back then. Still, Martin Scorsese proves that he has the juice at age 71 with this biopic about Jordan Belfort, a financial investor scumbag who lines his pockets with the money of sucker investors he has essentially victimized. 
This movie wants to rock and roll all night with scenes about cocaine, hookers, various levels of infidelity, and many more examples of wretched excess. The problem is that The Wolf of Wall Street is too long by half, and that blunts the power of Scorsese’s mastery. Still, the movie is distinctive for its energetic performances, particularly those by Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio. Hill builds upon his breakthrough performance in Moneyball , portraying  Donnie Azoff, a wiseguy cipher who comes apart when ill-gotten money flows into his life. Hill can kiss his teenage "everyboy" roles goodbye, as this movie vaults him into the front ranks of modern day character actors. DiCaprio’s performance is absolutely revelatory as he brings an unforeseen energy and comic timing to his role as Belfort. Watch in particular the scene when he tries to go down a flight of stairs and drive home under the influence of Quaaludes. It was probably the best physical comedy I have seen from an actor since Steve Martin was inhabited by Lily Tomlin’s spirit in All of Me.


I am finding it difficult to pick the one film from these last three nominees that should be named "Best Picture." They are all superb. Let it suffice to say that I will be pleased if any one of them (or even any TWO of them) picks up the top Oscar on March 2.

3. 12 Years a Slave — That this horrific story is true makes 12 Years a Slave  even more powerful than a depiction of slavery may have been. Imagine that you are a free man; being sold as a slave would be just about the last thing you would imagine. That is the story of Solomon Northrup, a professional musician and middle-class citizen of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who is drugged and awakes to being bound in a dank cell. So begins an ordeal that happened to him only because of his skin color. 
While the graphic physical abuse in the film was profoundly disturbing, it was actually the ongoing indignities that affected me more, because many of us take decent treatment for granted. So imagine being slapped merely for responding to a white, low-level functionary. Or watching a slave boy who is up for sale show off his physical abilities as though he were a prize horse. There was the subtly demeaning confrontation Northrup had with his owner (a manic, irrational Michael Fassbender in another fine performance) when the possibility that Solomon could read and write is uncovered. All of these add up to a Bedlam that would have destroyed a lesser man. 
Solomon’s character is made more vivid by the brilliance of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I believe has actually been underrated for his finely nuanced performance. Consider all the changes to Solomon’s character, going from content family man, to frightened and bewildered prisoner, to a survivor. For me, Ejiofor earned my fictional vote during a scene when he is forced to whip another slave. The look on his face and his body language portrayed a man who had lost his soul along the way just so he could live another day. Ejiofor is my personal choice for Best Actor. Perhaps he would have had a better chance at the top prize if he had lost 41 pounds for his role. 

2. Gravity — It is a wonder that this riveting spectacle never turned into an audio-visual cartoon. Credit for that goes to director Alfonso Cuarón. This man is not a newcomer, as he showed us his prodigious talent in the underseen masterpiece, Children of Men. In that film, Cuarón portrayed a dystopian future (one more clearly illustrated than Her, I might add) in which there is no hope because no children are being conceived. Gravity  also gives us a hopeless situation when astronauts George Clooney (ever handsome, charming and commanding) and Sandra Bullock (the accessible everywoman, once again in a wonderful performance) face their destinies as a result of a space accident. 
No time is wasted on exposition here. We viewers are thrust into the story at the get-go as though on booster rockets, and we hang on, white knuckles and all, until the triumphant end. As Ang Lee did last year with Life of Pi, Cuarón takes control from the beginning and never lets us go, exhibiting mastery both of his technical cinematic craft and the art of storytelling. He is sure to win a well-deserved Oscar for his direction. I also believe that this is the film that will take home Best Picture, also deserved.  
1. American Hustle — This film ended up at the top of my heap after a lot of consideration for one simple reason, one I state every year in this blog: American Hustle expanded my view of the possibilities of cinema. Yes, 12 Years a Slave tackled the sensitive topic of slavery, but anyone who says a film like this has never been done before hasn't seen the classic mini-series, Roots. Gravity is an exciting space adventure, but let’s be honest. Stanley Kubrick laid down the template for this film with 2001: A Space Odyssey. And he did it in 1968 — 45 years ago — with more vision and much less technology available to him. American Hustle used the Abscam debacle of the 1970s to show the foolishness of government and the banality that lurks in the hearts of our elected officials as well as our criminals. Underneath all that snarky, sarcastic tomfoolery was some very sad truths about human behavior.
David O. Russell is not my darling as he is to so many reviewers. For example, I found The Fighter obvious and tedious, filled with overwrought acting. But as Russell showed us in Silver Linings Playbook, he is a damned good director of actors. He proves it again here, coaxing four Oscar-nominated performances from his cast (the always amazing Christian Bale; Amy Adams, who seems incapable of a bad performance; Bradley Cooper, who seems to be growing in stature before our eyes; and the luminous Jennifer Lawrence, who imbues her floozy character in American Hustle with a delightfully comic approach.) There were also countless supporting players, and I make special note of Louis C.K., who was terrific as a hapless government agent who was Cooper's character's nemesis. 
American Hustle is a modern-day comedy of manners, and it does not speak well of the manner in which we conduct ourselves. The film is full of laughs, but many of them are at our own expense.

Okay, I take off my reviewer’s hat for another year. This should be another fun year. I am predicting that, other than Gravity picking up many technical awards, the honors will be spread around a bit this year. And why did I suggest above that TWO films may take home the Best Picture award? Because the voting promises to be that close. (For the record, the Producers Guild Award went to Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. Perhaps the Academy will call it a draw, too.)

I look forward to this ceremony as I almost always do. So don’t call me the night of March 2. I will be transfixed by the pomp and splendor once again, and reviving my love for the movies. I hope you will enjoy the ceremony, too.