Movies – Handicapping The Best Picture Oscars 2014

Amy Adams and Christian Bale in 'American Hustle.'   credit: domainehome.com

Amy Adams and Christian Bale in ‘American Hustle.’ credit: domainehome.com

I don’t get the opportunity to see a lot of American films – the foreign new releases, revivals and festival screenings eat up most of the valuable time I have to commit to film at all. But I make a point to see the Best Picture nominees every year, and, this year especially, there’s a real breadth of socio-cultural, global and historical concerns being surveyed by American filmmakers. The filmmakers, of course, are to be complimented, but I think the real story is the flood of producers who have cut their teeth on indies, and are now graduating to the big leagues. Superheroes, sequels, animations and overgrown-adolescent comedies will still rake in the big money, but there’s not much of that represented in this year’s Academy nominees, and, as an incorrigible snob, I think that’s a good thing.

12 Years A Slave – the provocateur film critic Armond White (God bless ‘im) has likened 12 Years A Slave to “torture porn.” And, while that’s pretty strong medicine, I think what he’s really lamenting is that society has become so inured to everyday injustice, and so resigned to the can’t-beat-city-hall status quo, that it really does seem to take extraordinary amounts of visceral brutality and psychological cruelty to distract us from our own choice to not dwell on the true history because it’s unpleasant and disruptive. There are ways to address these issues and conditions, argues White, but this isn’t one of them. I don’t think this view should invalidate the entire enterprise, but it’s fair to criticize director Steve McQueen, and writer John Ridley, for some of their excesses. (Although I can’t honestly say they’re unfaithful to Solomon Northrup’s own characterizations – I haven’t read his book.)  Northrup’s indentured tenure under William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) reveals far more profound, and relatable, issues of humanity-as-commodity than the subsequent horrorshow of the Epps plantation. “You are an exceptional nigger, Platt, but I fear no good will come of it” is, in many ways, the cruelest stroke wielded in the entire film. Many feel differently – and I thought the film was very good, don’t get me wrong – but the indulgent Scottish-play dynamic of Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his imperious wife (Sarah Paulson), the psychotic tone of Epps’ miscegenation, especially towards Patsey (a very good Lupita Nyong’o, but in a much smaller role than you’d think) and the Mel Gibson-ish levels of flesh-rending came pretty close to taking me right out of the disturbing-but-quite-wonderful film McQueen had fashioned up to that point. Despite those specific misgivings, however, I think the film overall is excellent, and it’s definitely a top-tier contender.

American Hustle – as they say in horse racing, this is the chalk. This is the favorite. And it should be. The fact is that David O. Russell, despite his past reputation for pissing off actors, has never made an even remotely bad film, and this is not only his best, but it may stand up as one of the best of a still young decade. Actors work their asses off for him now. Christian Bale and Amy Adams are worth every single cent of your box office dollar; for Bale, it’s another remarkable transformation into a character you might otherwise imagine he has no business even attempting. And Adams is, in short order, becoming the new young Faye Dunaway, the new young Kathleen Turner, the actress you can’t imagine not looking at for whatever major role you might happen to have. Russell and Eric Warren Singer flat-out own the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, but Cuarón, McQueen and Scorsese will squeeze out Russell for Best Director, even though his film involves far more narrative, and psychological, complexity than Gravity or Wolf. 12 Years A Slave is very good, and may be a more important film to reward for its intentions these days, but take my word for it; American Hustle is the best film of these nine.

Captain Phillips – look, this is a powerful film in many respects; film editor Christopher Rouse richly deserves his nomination for Best Editing, and I hope he wins. I continue to have big problems with director Paul Greengrass’ constant, bludgeoning, almost nauseating use of Steadicam – I hope to God someone bought him a tripod for Christmas. The film puts a lot on Tom Hanks’ plate, and Hanks delivers, but if it has any redeeming narrative cohesion, it’s because of Rouse’s work. Unlike Tobias Lindholm’s superior A Hijacking, this film is extraordinarily condescending towards the four Somali pirates who board, and bring to a standstill, the immense MV Maersk Alabama, and take its Captain hostage. They seem to function purely on unlimited adrenaline and misplaced greed (“You got 6 million dollars? Then what are you doing here?”). There’s no real strategy or criminal expertise here; hijacking ships is their version of the Powerball lottery. Like 12 Years A Slave, this is based on a book I, and countless other moviegoers, haven’t read, so I’ll stipulate to a lot of this, but I smelled a lot of clumsy narrative expediency, regardless of the film’s length. I’m not surprised at Tom Hanks’ Best Actor snub; the five that are standing are all fearsome actors, and this film isn’t the overt Acting Showcase that the Academy is a perennial sucker for; oddly, that’s all the more to Hanks’ credit. Hanks did the heavy lifting, but Rouse brought it home.

Dallas Buyers’ Club – of all of these films, this one may have been the nicest surprise. It’s not in American Hustle’s league, but the quality of the performances, the script by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack, and Jean-Marc Vallée’s aggressively inspired direction level out the lurid-novelty aspects of the story and dig into some real moral and ethical red meat. Matthew McConaughey’s been on a pro’s roll for around three years now, contributing unselfishly to very good movies and picking up and carrying the not-so-good ones on his back. As Ron Woodroof, he flat-out refuses to engage in earnest sentiment or anti-hero pandering; you never forget that this is a guy who’s ultimately in this for his own survival, and the opportunistic political and corporate quagmire, against which he fashions his own smarter shadow market, really was, and is, worth getting ornery over. Vallée’s film is flashy, angular and colorful; he deals out frames of film like a card player, but everything he does and shows directly serves the story. That Best Film Editing nomination is no fluke – Vallée gave John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa a lot to sort through, and they’ve shaped it admirably. Leto has the showcase supporting role, but I found Jennifer Garner and Griffin Dunne (giving a master class in underplaying) to be just as impressive here. I rate it my third favorite, but it’s probably mid-pack Academy-wise. Make a point to catch up with this one if you haven’t already.

Gravity – Watching this technically brilliant film in a big dark theater, on a giant screen, in 3D, was absolutely one of the highlights of my filmgoing year. But as soon as the dead daughter came up, I slumped in my chair a little; “They don’t need this,” I thought. Sandra Bullock’s laser-focused underplaying softened some of the short-cut pathos that director Alfonso Cuarón unfortunately resorted to here, but for me, the damage was done. That’s not to diminish Bullock’s own work – she’s excellent here, and, remember, the shooting process for her was over an intermittent three or four year period (six months of physical training, and time accommodation for the elaborate optical and computer effects). However, I think DVD watchers are going to wonder what the big deal here is, and find Ryan Stone, ultimately, a little maudlin. Although Gravity did great in-theater business upon its release, one needs to consider that many Academy voters watched this film on a DVD screener, and, even in their custom home theaters with the 85” Samsungs, may also wonder what the big deal here is. I put this at fourth for Best Picture, and as a shoo-in for the technical awards, but, I caution you, don’t underestimate Bullock’s Best Actress chances.

Her – As Philip K. Dick explained to us, in so many words, “Technology will never have to conquer humanity. We’ll happily, and willingly, surrender.” Boy, I had a lot of problems with this film. It wants to gently inform us of the Faustian pact we make with ourselves when we try to find substitutes for the hard work of relating with the heads, hearts and bodies of our fellow human creatures. But all I came away with was the operating system’s failure at fulfilling the human need for our own narrow 21st century narcissism. It’s refreshing to have a male protagonist function within the story on almost exclusively emotional motivations (and Joaquin Phoenix does brilliant work here), and for Jonze to present a benignly optimistic vision of the future that isn’t post-apocalyptic. But as soon as Samantha said “I think it would be good for us. I want this. This is really important to me,” I knew the rest of the film wouldn’t be able to backpedal fast enough. Spike Jonze is a filmmaker, and, as such, automatically used film to tell the story he wanted to tell, but so much of the story felt so un-cinematic to me that the visual landmarks he peppered his vaguely conceived fast-food-restaurant-design environment with stuck out like pretentious sore thumbs (OMG! THE PORTENTOUS OWL!). Many people have a much higher opinion of the film, and God bless them all. I found it to be, easily, the most overrated of the nine.

Nebraska – I liked Nebraska very much. Director Alexander Payne, with old pro Bruce Dern, and comedy veterans Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk, have gone for a throwback Bob & Ray / Bob Newhart deadpan comedy that, seemingly, only the likes of Bill Murray can pull off anymore without condescension. Most of the time it feels like a ruefully resigned episode of the Andy Griffith show (Phedon Papamichael’s black-and-white photography is superb). There are, unfortunately, a few scenes where they just couldn’t leave it alone to let it work by itself (Kate’s ha-ha sexual frankness, the wrong farm…); there’s a thin line between honest humanism and ridicule – the Coen brothers are still working on finding it – but the supporting cast is almost uniformly good at drawing it here. June Squibb is excellent, but my favorites were the local newspaper editor (Angela McEwan) and the sweepstakes receptionist (Melinda Simonsen). Well worth seeing on the big screen, and you’ll wish more films were like it, but the Best Picture of the Year? Desolé

Philomena – a solidly professional piece of serious-minded entertainment. Again, not having read the book, the balancing of Philomena Lee’s (Judi Dench) bedrock sense of charity while searching for her estranged son, weighed against journalist Martin Sixsmith’s (Steve Coogan) secular disgust with the Catholic Church’s harvesting of shame while covering their bottom-line, is deftly presented in Coogan’s (and Jeff Pope’s) adaptation of Sixsmith’s true-life chronicle. There’s some urbane intellectual snob vs. provincial old coot stuff early on (“She told four different people they’re one-in-a-million; what are the chances of that?”), but the script and performers are smarter than to lean on that too long. What unfurls is a genuinely fascinating series of incidents and mysteries, and the integrity of the two very different main characters doubly illuminates the issues behind them. Nicely adapted, convincingly performed, and directed by Stephen Frears, as cagey a pro as there is these days (just follow the camera movements while Lee and Sixsmith are riding on the back of the airport cart – or don’t, if you’re not geeky like me), the film is a showcase of the thousands of small choices that create a subtle yet informative narrative. It’s another admirable film that isn’t coming anywhere near winning anything it’s been nominated for.

The Wolf Of Wall Street – a despicable story brilliantly told. Most of the film is an exhilarating and exhausting Wall Street chronicle that falls somewhere between Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and A Clockwork Orange with a touch of Caligula, but Scorsese orchestrates its comic and serious tones and movements like Maurice Ravel. The template is familiar – the structures of Goodfellas and Casino shape the dynamics of this film as well; relentlessly chronological with an illuminating voiceover narrative throughout. But Scorsese isn’t giving us a cautionary tale or a moral lesson; there’s no ‘end of an era’ or ‘end of the road’ – he’s telling us, in the plainest, yet most entertaining, way he can find that This Is The Way It Is Now. Ethics and morals, hell, even good manners, are anti-capitalist mannerisms to be jettisoned. No one will ever make rich man’s money in the financial world doing the right thing anymore. No one, because there’s little, if any, reward for the right thing, and there’s little, if any, downside to ignoring its existence. I was reminded of Jonathan Pryce’s performance in Glengarry Glen Ross, a browbeaten regular-guy client on the extraction end of Al Pacino’s money-harvesting Machiavelli. People like Pryce’s James Lingk are nowhere to be found here; you don’t even here their voices on the other end of a phone, save for one brief training session near the beginning of the film. Jordan Belfort and his army of vampire squids carved a sizable economic swath out of the lives of thousands of James Lingks and their families, and, when caught, he got three years in a country club jail and a fresh start. Ultimately, the film, while very good, is a little too dark, too glib, for Best Picture, but Scorsese’s a very good longshot to play for Best Director.

Best Picture – should win: American Hustle

will win: 12 Years A Slave or Gravity

Best Actor – should win: Christian Bale or Matthew McConaughey (a monster category, all deserving)

will win: Chiwetel Ejiofor

Best Actress – should win: Amy Adams or Cate Blanchett

will win: Cate Blanchett or Sandra Bullock (I would have rather seen Emma Thompson

and Adèle Exarchopoulos over Dench and Streep, but all were really good)

Best Supporting Actor – should and will win: Jared Leto (but it’s a shame Chris Cooper’s not here)

Best Supporting Actress – should win: Jennifer Lawrence

will win: Lupita Nyong’o (conspicuous in her absence here is Léa Seydoux)

Best Director – should win: Russell or Scorsese (a shame they couldn’t squeeze in Jean-Marc Vallée)

will win: Alfonso Cuarón

Best Editing – should win: Christopher Rouse or John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa

will win: Christopher Rouse

Best Foreign Film – should win: The Hunt or The Broken Circle Breakdown

will win: The Hunt or The Great Beauty

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