Yes, it’s Oscar time once again. I’ve written my Oscar summation for five years in a row on another Web site, though this is only the second year I’ve written it up in my blog. I’m listing the films below in ascending order of preference (i.e., from weakest to strongest). These opinions are very much my own and I doubt that they reflect anyone else’s, not the critics’ and probably not the Oscar voters’ either. Needless to say, the numbered paragraphs that follow are full of **SPOILERS**.
First, though, I have to say that the quality of the movies this year was extraordinarily high. There wasn’t a bad movie nominated, just very good ones and stunning ones. For each of the nine films I could check the following off on my mental checklist: terrific performances? (check) intelligent script? (check) beautifully filmed? (check?) emotional impact? (check) Thus, I’ve been left fretting for several weeks over what order I was going to put them in, especially in the upper ranks. Since they all met the above criteria, I had to come up with yet another criterion to judge them by and the one I’ve come up with is one I call grippingness, by which I mean that the movie needed to have held me in an iron grip while I was watching it. I find that this is a surprisingly rare quality in a movie. At some point during a film, I usually find myself glancing at my watch or wondering whether I can gracefully slip out to the men’s room. But there were three movies this year where neither of those things ever happened and I’ve given those movies the top three spots. Others are free to judge using other criteria. That one’s mine (though you can borrow it if you like).
9. Dallas Buyers Club
Although the story was fairly routine, this film deserves its nomination because of impressive performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, either of whom could have pushed their roles over the top but neither ever did. They both found an amazing balance between overplaying and underplaying. Otherwise the movie was the weakest of the lot, but those performances kept it from being truly weak.
Alexander Payne continues to be quirky and inventive. He never comes close to making the same movie twice or anywhere in the vicinity of making a movie that looks like anybody else’s. I was touched by the way Payne used Nebraska as a symbol for finding a reason to go on living and by the way he resolves the seemingly unresolvable dilemma the movie sets up. I also liked the relentless honesty with which he portrayed ordinary people, but felt that sometimes it was almost too relentless and too honest. I can only watch people THIS ordinary for so long before I lose interest, which probably explains why I nodded off briefly in the middle of the film.
7. American Hustle
Great cast, clever plot, and probably the most thoroughly honest performance I’ve ever seen from Christian Bale, by which I mean that I never once felt that he was acting. (I almost always feel like Bale is acting. He tries too hard. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t, but this performance felt beautifully effortless and I applaud him for it.) Otherwise, the movie didn’t quite click for me, but it had some great moments and wasn’t boring, even if it was never gripping either.
As improbable as its plot is, I found this movie quite charming in the way that it examined how male-female (and probably male-male/female-female) relationships often fall apart because one partner grows and the other doesn’t. That it examined this through the prism of artificial intelligence didn’t bother me at all. In fact, it gave the audience exactly the distance it needed to see human relationships the way they really are — almost always imperfect. And I loved the way Amy Adams left her vanity behind and let herself look like a normal human being for a change instead of the adorable goddess she usually plays. I think I preferred her this way. And both Amy (my Amy) and I loved the film’s depiction of future Los Angeles (where Disney Hall seems to have become Disney Mall).
5. 12 Years a Slave
Slavery is such an important subject that every generation needs to be reminded what an atrocity it was. Roots did that for my generation. 12 Years a Slave does that quite powerfully for another generation. In fact, its depiction of slavery is so powerful that it becomes grueling, which I think may give some of the audience members an excuse to distance themselves from the subject matter. Still, I applaud it for the unflinching way it depicts a shameful era that still leaves its mark on American society and also for bringing back one of my favorite actors, Chiwetel Ejiofor, after several years where I never seemed to see him in anything. Michael Fassbender was appropriately hateful as the slave owner.
I had no idea what this movie was about when it began or even where it was headed as the plot unfolded, but by the end I was startled by the emotional effect it had on me. Even though I’m not a Catholic, this movie’s indictment of the church and what it did to people through much of the 20th Century has the ring of truth to it. When it ended I was actually angry. I think I still am. I’d also mention that Judi Dench gives an amazing performance, but that pretty much goes without saying. She gives amazing performances in James Bond movies, for God’s sake!
3. Captain Phillips
This is where the gripping films start. Within minutes of its opening scenes this movie had its hooks into me. Critics were effusive over Paul Greengrass’s direction of The Bourne Ultimatum a few years ago, but I found that movie not so much gripping as frenetic and disorienting. Here, though, Greengrass gets it precisely right and once this movie is into the action and suspense it doesn’t let up for nearly two thrilling hours. The final hour in particular took my breath away. Tom Hanks’ understated performance, which finally burst into well-earned histrionics at the end, was the perfect complement to the movie’s intensity and I finished watching it wrung almost dry of emotion. But perhaps the movie’s greatest strength was [**SERIOUS SPOILER**] that I wasn’t quite sure who Hanks was sobbing for in his final scene: himself, his family or the men who had taken him hostage, men who were every bit as much victims as he was and whose blood, splattered across his chest during the Navy SEAL assault, was mistaken by the Naval doctor for his own. Honestly, I think it was all of those, and that’s what gave the ending its extreme emotional power.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street
I’ve seen complaints that this movie ran too long. Really? It felt like about 90 minutes to me, not three hours. This was Scorsese at his finest and most rivetingly watchable, something I’d given up hope that I’d ever see him be again. (Sorry, folks, because I know a lot of people love it, but I thought that The Departed was meh by Scorsese standards.) This movie was a whirlwind ride through a world of fascinatingly despicable (and excellently cast) characters who were such a freak show of greed-driven amorality and excess that I couldn’t take my eyes off them. The storytelling crackled and not one shot was wasted or one scene on screen for too long, for which kudos definitely go not only to Scorsese but to his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker. This film could have run an additional three hours and it still wouldn’t have been too long. Honestly, I wish it had. Watching Scorsese work at this level is like watching a master musician at work. The craftsmanship is so seamless that it doesn’t even show; it just is. I’d love to see this win the Oscar.
I’ve debated for weeks over whether I’d put this at the top of the list and I’m finally giving in, if only because Alfonso Cuarón’s movie was so innovative, such a purely cinematic experience, and so startling to watch that he had to invent new methods of moving the camera just to pull it off, which I don’t think can be said of any other movie this year. At heart I’m a science geek and watching the way this movie’s characters were sucked in by the unforgiving inflexibility of Newtonian physics was one of the finest experiences I’ve ever had in a theater, because I felt like I was sucked right in with them (and that wasn’t just because of the 3D and the IMAX). Gripping doesn’t even begin to describe this story. Cuarón made an attempt to give the movie a human element, involving Sandra Bullock’s character’s inability to decide whether life was worth living after the death of her daughter, but in the end that story was lost in the terrifying magnificence of the events she was caught up in. I have to wonder if that wasn’t, perhaps unconsciously, Cuarón’s point: that we are so small and weak compared to the power and immensity of the stars, the earth and, well, gravity that we go on living despite the fact that the universe doesn’t really care if we live or die. In the end, we can only stand in awe of the laws of physics and find the meaning of life inside these tiny specks of matter we call “ourselves” and this tiny lump of rock called Earth.
FOOTNOTE: I think the Best Picture award will go to 12 Years a Slave, because of the importance of the subject matter. And I wouldn’t mind that either. But I think both American Hustle and Gravity have a chance. The first I wouldn’t be so thrilled with; the second I’d be ecstatic over.