Oscars: Best Picture

By way of an introduction I decided this year that I would, for the first time in my life, attempt to watch all the films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars before the ceremony took place.  I managed it with a few weeks left to spare so I thought I’d type up a quick review of each film.  I’ve never written any film reviews before and Mark Kermode I am definitely not.  Still, that’s what this internet thing’s for, isn’t it?  Sticking your tuppence worth in when you’ve no expertise in the topic, no one asked you to contribute and nobody cares even when you do?  Hooray for the information revolution and the stage it’s given to blubbering imbeciles like me.  Now READ MY OPINION-WORDS!!

Wolf of Wall Street

This is a fantastic film with a strangely compelling story.  It’s difficult to say exactly what it is that pushes this movie past “alright” and into the kind of territory where you’re remembering scenes a week later and excitedly enthusing about watching it to friends and co-workers.  On the face of it, it should be a three hour slog through a fairly predictable tale of a not particularly likeable protagonist getting rich and getting greedy with the obvious consequences.  It should be the kind of film you absorb, shrug at the end and fail to think about ever again but it’s not – it’s much more than that.

Perhaps it’s Scorsese’s muse, DiCaprio, giving the best performance of his career since the Basketball Diaries (and that performance was pretty much made by the script he had to work with).  There is one scene about two thirds of the way through in which DiCaprio has to drag his drug addled and out of control character along the floor towards his car while his motor skills abandon him completely.  It is at once hilarious, gripping and demonstrative of DiCaprio’s talent.

Perhaps the reason this film resonates so much is simply due to a perverse voyeurism of its subject matter.  The filthy rich, especially the self made and arrogantly filthy rich have a unique capacity to disgust and captivate us at the same time.  Did he just throw a stack of fifty dollar bills at an FBI agent in disdain?  Are they snorting cocaine from the bodies of hookers they don’t even know the names of?  You can’t do that.  Well the point is you can, you can do anything you want if you have enough money and this film gives us a glance at that world and allows us to condemn it at the same time as casting an envious glance towards it.

At 3 hours long (and with a 4 hour director’s cut apparently still to come) it would have been easy for Wolf of Wall Street to feel stretched and padded out but it never does.  Instead the final credits roll before you’ve even noticed the three hours pass.  Bold, offensively self centred and willing to take risks, this film seems to have been made with the same qualities displayed by the financiers it depicts.

(8 out of 10)

 

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips tells the true story of an American ship attacked by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa.  It’s another film that grips you more than the straightforward storyline ought to, especially considering the vast majority of its audience must have gone into it as I did; aware of the ending in advance of the opening scene.

What carries this film, and indeed spurs it to greatness, are two main things; Tom Hanks’ acting ability and a script that allows him to demonstrate it fully.  Throughout the entire film it feels as if Hanks is treating us to a feature length display of just how talented he is and, in one particularly emotional scene towards the end, it almost seems as if he’s showing off with it.

The plot is enthralling and tense enough to keep the attention of, and offer a significant payoff to, anyone who just came to see the advertised, run of the mill, nervy, maritime crime-thriller.  The baddies are greedy, ruthless and unafraid to turn to violence.  The goodies are heroic and noble and the crescendo ending has all the skin-of-their-teeth victory you’d expect from Hollywood.  All of which would lead a more politically minded reviewer to note that, despite some casual effort to portray the Somali pirates as varied and complex characters, they unfortunately get relegated to somewhat two dimensional, stock bad guys.  This is hardly unusual for a big budget American flick but if there is any criticism of this film it’s that the writer was too lazy in the depiction of their antagonists.

But, considering this lack of depth was neither offensive nor anywhere near as bad as it could have been perhaps this criticism hums a little of nitpicking.  The truth remains that Captain Phillips is a very well made film which is memorable for a magnificent performance by its lead actor.  Best Picture at the Oscars might be a stretch considering the wealth of other great films this year but Captain Phillips is well worth a watch.

(7 out of 10)

Gravity

Have you ever met someone so attractive you think everything about them must be perfect?  But when you finally drag yourself away, for just a second, from the trance their beauty has trapped you in you notice that they’re actually not what you imagined.  Their physical aesthetics remain as heart-stoppingly stunning as ever but you notice you’re not much interested in what they have to say.  Their words are actually boring, at best, and borderline idiotic at worst.  And you know you should stop talking right then because despite your attraction you realise you have very little in common with this person but you just can’t bring yourself to withdraw from the presence of such obscene, all consuming gorgeousness.  Gravity is the film version of that person and I know it’ll never last but I’m down on one knee with a ring in my hand nonetheless.

Gravity’s plot concerns a pair of fictional astronauts in the present or not too distant future who are left in something of a pickle by a storm of space debris which hits the satellite they are working on.  What follows is a tense action-thriller by numbers with the normal themes of determination, sacrifice and redemption.  The side stories, Clooney’s character trying to set a new spacewalk record and Bullock dealing with some emotional issues from her past, are almost embarrassingly formulaic and dull.

But throughout the brief ninety minutes through which it runs it seems almost unfair to focus on something as irrelevant as the story.  What Gravity does is take you out of your seat and send you into space, or at least as close as those of us without any great talent or wealth are likely to get.  Visually, it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen.  It is said that the birth of the environmental movement can be traced back to the famous “Earthrise” photograph taken from the surface of the moon in the late 1960s.  If this is true then Gravity might come to be seen as the cinematic equivalent of that shot.  The detailed, glorious depiction of the earth against an incomprehensible sea of seemingly infinite darkness feeds your eyes like visual heroin throughout the picture and the way the camera follows the weightless movements of the cast is spellbinding.  It’s almost a good job that there isn’t much more to concentrate on than that because I’m not sure I would have wanted to concern myself with anything more than the majestic beauty being served up in nearly every scene.

As a film, Gravity ticks a lot of boxes but excels at few of them.  As a spectacle, it’s unbeatable.

(7.5 out of 10)

Her

I’ve been told Her gets better with a second watch.  I’m a little tempted to take the advice but it seems a bit like someone telling you that getting punched the second time doesn’t hurt as much which makes me reluctant to hit play again.

I actually enjoyed parts of the film, which is basically an average romance story set in a sci fi world of artificial intelligence.  A love story between a human and his Operating System.  It sounds bad, but that’s what it wants you to think.  It’s as if the writer expected the audience to come in expecting nothing only to be greeted with a complex, overlapping series of philosophical questions.  The trouble is, with plot holes so wide they could fit the egos of the hipsters pretending to “get” this film, questions left unanswered due to laziness rather than to create a sense of mystery and philosophical questions apparently dreamed up in some GCSE essay on human nature this whole movie is just so much less than it wants to be.

It doesn’t help that the male lead character is so ridiculous it’s hard to identify with him at almost any point.  There’s a great deal to be said for writing flawed characters into romantic situation but when you take it beyond flawed to the point of selfish idiocy it’s very hard to empathise or form any bond with the moron on the screen in front of you.  The ostensibly female but obviously genderless OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson is everything Hollywood demands of a female love interest (short of a pulse, that is, but as this film badly attempts to get us to question the nature of love we’ll let that one pass)  -engaging, intelligent and vulnerable, the personal and emotional growth of the system is at once both ridiculous and watchable.

I’m surprised Her has been nominated for an Oscar, every other film on the nominations list seems to stand out for one reason or another while this self congratulatory piece of nonsense strikes me as something that probably shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

(5 out of 10)

12 Years a Slave

I almost stopped watching this list of films when I finished 12 Years a Slave, so obvious was it that this was going to deservedly win the award for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards.  I eventually decided against stopping, purely in the name of science, so that I could eventually say just how much better this film is than the others.

What 12 Years a Slave does so well is avoid the series of traps and pitfalls it would have been so easy to stumble into.  A movie, based upon a true story, about the life of a free black man in the United States who is kidnapped and sold into slavery – the clichés are lining up and waiting to be grabbed, displaying themselves eagerly and begging director Steve McQueen to take the easy option, snatch them away and shove them into his film.  Fortunately, McQueen chooses to mostly ignore them in favour of creating a more honest and original cinematic experience.

Every character produces an emotional reaction.  From the heartbreaking emotional collapse of fellow slave Patsey to the cold assuaging of personal guilt shown by Benerdict Cumberbatch’s slave owning Ford.  From beginning to end this is a story told believably, told honestly and told well.  It doesn’t allow itself to get preachy except for one or two brief moments, it simply attempts to depict a horror for the sake of depicting a horror.

12 Years a Slave will win the Oscar and rightly so.  I’m not certain it will go down as one of the all time best films ever made but it certainly registered with me as the best flick I’ve seen in a long time.

(9.5 out of 10)

American Hustle

Before I watched American Hustle I had heard a number of people compliment it and so was expecting a much fuller and richer film than the one I saw.  Which isn’t to say it’s a bad film at all.  In fact, I enjoyed watching it and will probably do so again.  It’s just not doing anything that hasn’t already been done very well a hundred times before.

Jennifer Lawrence, in a supporting role, is the film’s main plus point as she plays the manic young wife of a conman trying to dig his way out of a hole.  Bradley Cooper is brilliant in developing the character of a cop who is never quite sure whether he’s on top or not and Christian Bale shows a brilliant flexibility to become Irving – a fraudster with a lot more to him than your typical, Ocean’s whatever type heist films.

Not one of the standouts in the list of nominees, American Hustle is at least a fun film and definitely worth a casual watch.

(7 out of 10)

Philomena

Philomena is a beautiful film that tells the story of an Irish woman’s long search to find the son that was taken away from her decades before.  It’s funny, in that quaint British way that isn’t really that funny but which Americans seem to like (although one suspects they’re laughing at us rather than with us but who knows, they’re American, they may well be giggling absent-mindedly at a joke they heard last week or an article from the latest edition of “Guns, God and Freedom”).  The film is split across two continents with the story taking us away from Britain to DC.

The real magic in this film, I thought, was the relationship between Judi Dench, playing the title character and Steve Coogan who plays Martin Sixsmith, a jaded reporter seeking to help her in order to write a human interest piece about her search for her son.  In fact without the interactions of the two oustanding leads the film would quickly become very ordinary.  Their mismatch is a little bit textbook but stays far enough from cliché to remain engaging and produces some genuinely touching moments.

At just over an hour and a half Philomena know what it’s doing.  “Get in, sit down, have your heart strings tugged a bit and fuck off” seems to be the implied note to the audience and it should be congratulated for such a lack of pretension.  A different filmmaker would have stretched this out for another 45 minutes with flashback scenes and long periods of decision making and any number of other things the film just doesn’t need.

I’m not sure it’ll win anything in terms of awards because I can’t personally think of anything it does better than any other film this year and it’s certainly not really in the running for Best Picture but it doesn’t stop it being a great movie.

(7.5 out of 10)

 

Nebraska

If I made a decent film but shot it in black and white could I get an Oscar nomination, too?  I’m sure such criticism is unwarranted but I couldn’t understand what on earth this film gained from not being in colour.  A little research tells me director Alexander Payne fought long and hard with the studio to make it this way because he believed the monochromatic shots would serve to highlight the dramatic scenery of the American Midwest where the film is set.  I’m not sure the open, empty backdrop of those plains wouldn’t have been even better served in glorious, colourful HD but it doesn’t take away from the whole experience so perhaps I should let it slide.

Bruce Dern puts in a hugely memorable performance as Woody Grant, a confused older man convinced that the million dollar “prize” he has been selected for is genuine.  Through two hours of attempts to dissuade him, family feuds and a visit to his hometown it is the complexity of this character that maintains the audience’s interest.  His son, David, is by his side throughout the journey but comes across as a little two dimensional and obvious.  With Woody, though, we are compelled to at once feel angry with him, pity him, empathise with him and admire him.  A pretty impressive simultaneous experience.  A flawed but decent human facing the tail end of a life that hasn’t exactly gone to plan, Woody Grant is one of the most interesting cinematic characters I’ve been presented with for a long time.

I’m not sure this is any reflection of the quality of the movie (it’s worth bearing in mind that the same compliment could be paid to most awful animated Disney films) but this is the only one on the Oscar nominations list that finished with me smiling.  That’s worth something, right?

(8 out of 10)

 

Dallas Buyers Club

What a brilliant film.  Dallas Buyer’s Club is a fantastically well told tale of an HIV positive rodeo cowboy and his attempts to provide effective healthcare to fellow sufferers.  It is told strongly, honestly and with great style.

Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodruf, a hard drinking, drug taking, hedonistic Texan whose hobbies basically revolve around rodeo shows and hookers.  As the film develops so does our understanding of him as an intelligent, determined and compassionate man in juxtaposition to the stereotype we see at the beginning.  His unlikely partnership with Jared Leto’s Rayon provide some of the most touching scenes but this isn’t a movie that satisfies itself with producing just the obvious emotional response.

Dallas Buyers Club isn’t just a story of sadness and death, it’s one that inspires rage and vitriol as it repeatedly makes the point that during the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in America those charged with the responsibility of helping people were demonstrably failing to do just that.  It is a true story that tells of a colossal failure to deal with the disaster in anything like a humane fashion and it is that taste that you’re left with at the end of the piece.

For telling a tough story well, for being unafraid to shine a lens of honesty on an injustice and for being so freaking engaging it was tough to look away, I think Dallas Buyers Club deserves the runner up spot in this year’s race.

(8.5/10)

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Published by: chubbywordsmith

32 year old nerd. Areas of nerdery: Global Development, International Relations (especially MENA, South and South east Asia), Political Economy/Macroeconomics. Lived/Worked in Palestine, Libya amongst other places. Works for an INGO focussing on peacebuilding and conflict issues. Loves Manchester United more than is healthy. @anarchasm

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One thought on “Oscars: Best Picture”

  1. Very good digest of this year’s Oscar nominations. I’m sad to say I have only seem one of them so far, the breath-taking (in all senses of the word) Gravity – I agree with your take on it, although I think you are being a bit harsh on the anthropomorphised beauty. Great beauty often co-exists with simplicity. It’s not fair to make it their fault that they fail your unrealistic expectations 😉

    I’ll have to get back to you about the others. They all sound worth a watch though, which is not something I often say about The Oscars. Nebraska, especially. That sounds like my kind of film.

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