Academy Awards: Reviewing the Oscars’ Best Picture and Acting Nominees

The Academy Awards®

Rishi Sethi reviews the nine films up for Best Picture at the 2014 Academy Awards, and shares his thoughts on the acting categories.

The ranking of art and entertainment is an inherently ridiculous task, there will always be arbitrariness and subjectivity involved. It often takes years of reflection to properly assess the achievements of a film and see how well it holds up. Many wonderful and enjoyable movies were released in 2013, and most of the best ones (according to me) weren’t even nominated for the big Academy Awards. Yet here we are, as always, ready to crown a select few with Oscars. Nine films are nominated for Best Picture this year, and I’m here to share my thoughts with a few paragraphs on each (some briefer than others). I welcome discussion and feedback. Some of the movies top my personal list of favorites while others would be ranked outside my Top 25, but fortunately I don’t think any of them are exceptionally bad.

My personal choice for best film goes to 12 Years a Slave. Of the nine nominees it is the best overall accomplishment. Gravity, Her, The Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips, and American Hustle are also strong, while Nebraska, Philomena, and Dallas Buyer Club have their respective merits but would not be Best Picture Nominees if I was Oscar czar. Or at least a voter. Someone, get me a ballot next year.

Films such as Inside Llewyn Davis, Fruitvale Station, Before Midnight, Frances Ha, The Worlds’s End, All is Lost, Short Term 12, and many others, along with stars such as The Rock and James Franco, would get more shine at The Philosophical Bear Oscar ceremony. But onto the real thing.

Best Picture

Best Picture Nominees- The Academy Awards®

12 Years a Slave

This is a beautifully shot, expertly told, and wonderfully acted story about uncomfortably brutal acts. 12 Years a Salve is not an all-encompassing movie about slavery, but an incredible story of one man and the horrors that befall him and those around him, a microcosm of the tragedy of slavery. Director Steve McQueen finds beautiful aesthetic frames in the most base of human actions; you almost feel the humidity of the swamps and the literal blood, sweat, and tears of slaves encompassing the theater. It would be impractical to properly assess the complete breadth of American slavery in the length of one film; the movie works by focusing on an intimate yet epic story that still raises a broad range of questions. The movie is unflinching in its portrayal of disgusting actions that were taken for granted as everyday. It is uncomfortable, it is terrifying, it is ugly, and yet is brilliant.

Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a defining and dignified performance as Solomon Northrop. Throughout the story, his face echoes the emotions of a scarred nation and audience in his personal portrayal of fear, defiance, guilt, self-loathing, relief, and everything in between. Many supporting actors deepen the texture and world of the film. Particularly Lupita Nyong’o as the long suffering Patsey and a diabolically brilliant Michael Fassbender as hard driving slave owner Edwin Epps.

McQueen and writer John Ridley have not produced a simple morality play, but rather a complex film that straightforwardly and unromantically portrays everyday horrors of the time, while touching on a range of nuanced and complicated themes. The story showcases varying types of racial, gender, master-slave, intra-slave, and slave-freeman relationships and hierarchies.

Solomon’s experiences as a free man are juxtaposed with the lives of so many still in bondage. We are forced to consider whether Solomon should have any guilt and responsibility to those he leaves behind. Especially chilling are the moral implications when Patsey asks him to kill her to end her suffering.  Fassbender’s internal demons and extremely harsh treatment of his slaves are contrasted with the more humane and conflicted feelings of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, Master Ford. As much as Master Ford is portrayed as a good man, he still owns slaves and is only willing to help Solomon to a certain extent, as to do more would risk his own life. All these thought-provoking contrasts remain relevant today, as it requires one to assess personal levels of culpability and implication in any injustice great or small.

Other subjects depicted include the use of religion and rhetoric to justify any actions, the dangers of clinging to tradition, and most evocatively we are never allowed to forget the varying lengths people had to go to survive. At this point I’m just listing intriguing points raised by the film, and that’s part of its excellence. But it’s also a cinematic accomplishment that brings to life a world of incredible darkness with a stirring musical score, beautiful photography, great script, and wonderful actors, leaving the viewer with plenty of food for thought and discussion.

Gravity

Gravity is a tense, immersive, technological marvel, filled with overt but heartfelt soulfulness. It is a visceral experience, one meant to take place in a theater with the best audio-visual systems one can find. It is the rare film to utilize special effects and especially 3D in an enriching manner. Director Alfonso Cuarón made a wondrous technical achievement that is also an enjoyable movie going experience. His famous long unbroken tracking shots are pulled off to great effect here, and you truly feel like you’re floating in space. For once 3D actually works by pulling you in and surrounding you with the film rather than just pushing things out of it. The movie has a soaring and adrenaline pumping musical score (though at times I wish they’d focused even more on the terrifying silence of space as they do in some scenes).

The story may be simple, the dialogue not the deftest, and the symbolism may be overt, yet the initial experience is so immersive it matters not, as it takes you a 90-minute thrill ride. My only concern with Gravity is how it will hold up on subsequent viewings; it is not exceptionally deep or thoughtful and relies a lot on technical wizardry. However, Sandra Bullock is excellent in one of the year’s strongest emotional and physical performances and George Clooney is at his movie-star best, providing some welcome lightness to the vast scariness of floating in an infinite and mostly empty space. Cuarón paints themes of spirituality, rebirth, redemption, reasons to live, and the struggle for survival. Many of the visual and thematic elements may be unsubtle (at least to me), but that’s the kind of movie this is and he pulls it off by making a thrilling adventure film that is also truly beautiful. The deadliness and lifelessness of space is contrasted with the hope and cosmic unlikeness of the vibrant planet Earth. We never see the surface of that planet until the very end, spending the majority of the running time with Bullock and Clooney, and the terrifying isolation of floating just out of reach of her home world.

Some of the most striking images are overt metaphors for the struggle, beauty, and sheer miracle of life/existence: from Bullock floating peacefully in the fetal position (one of many direct echoes of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a spiritual and technological ancestor to this film for sure) to the concluding reference of our evolutionary origins emerging from the oceans onto terra-firma. Out of technology, Cuarón has created something beautiful and human, not of intellect, but of physical thrills and emotional soulfulness that resonates with the existential fears of a lifeless infinity beyond our minute existences.

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street is a brash, obscene, raunchy, crass, and hilarious look at a life and a world full of brashness, obscenity, crassness, douchebaggery, and excess. The excess is of money, drugs, booze, greed, sex, women, ambition, corruption, addiction, and bad behavior: all presented in an excessive, absolutely farcical, laugh out loud, enthralling manner by Martin Scorsese. The movie’s energy seemed to be fueled by the same drugs the characters use, except without the crash, and it keeps up enough so you only barely notice the three-hour running time. Leonardo DiCaprio is fantastic as schemer Jordan Belfort, he holds your attention for the duration, and he completely lets himself go into the madness of the character, taking the next step from the zany pathos he started to tap in Django Unchained. All of the supporting players are strong, especially Jonah Hill as Belfort’s partner, and Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife. Kyle Chandler brings his welcome presence in the role of a government agent, the authority figure part he seems to always be playing in Hollywood movies. Matthew McConaughey is great in his brief and tone-setting appearance early in the film. The music and editing is top notch, unless you felt that it goes on too long.

I don’t really think the movie has much to say specifically about politics or economics in regards to Wall Street. Other movies have tackled those subjects well. I also understand that some viewers are turned off by the despicableness of the behavior depicted onscreen, especially towards women, and feel the movie is cheering its characters on. Undoubtedly there will have been some in the audience that were. But I felt that the movie was laced with a farcical anger at its own proceedings, even while being fascinated by them. It is about human, perhaps even specifically American, psychology, not just in finance but also in the entire artifice of buying and selling people on things and ideas. The film’s final shot drives home the idea of widespread societal inclination to be scammed while also striving to be the scammers. The previous three hours focused on the obsession with the basest desires behind the American dream and none of its higher ideals, the id and ego without the superego.

The movie may not quite reach the cinematic heights or psychological depths of Scorsese’s great landmarks, but it comes close. The Wolf of Wall Street is a riveting look at unhinged success that is presented, perhaps perversely, in an extremely fun and entertaining way that takes us along for a great ride and maybe also makes us guilty-by association.

American Hustle

The story of American Hustle is a bit of mess and rambling at times. I usually love caper films or political corruption stories but the movie never really gets its focus down. But the drawbacks are overcome by the greatly entertaining performances from all the actors starting with Amy Adams firecracker energy balancing Christian Bales dourness as the con artists at the center of the film. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are hilarious playing varying degrees of unstable people. There are entertaining characters and actors galore in this movie including parts played by Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Pena, plus the surprise appearance of DeNiro, and host of other faces in small roles. These performances and the costumes, music, and funny scenes add up to a disjointed but enjoyable film.

I’ve seen Hustle described both as Scorsese-light, and as outdoing Scorsese at his own game. I fleetingly considered the former, but I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say either. It does echo Goodfellas and others Scorsese movies at times, and was competing with The Wolf of Wall Street at the box office and the awards circuit, but American Hustle is a unique creation of its own, and doesn’t have the darkness of many Scorsese films. Writer-director David O. Russell gives it a loopy, off-balance feel as cons pile upon cons and multiple unreliable narrators share their perspective. 

The main issue is that there are lots of stories they could’ve focused on and they stayed pretty broad and scattered. Focusing on a specific thread, such as the relationship between Bale’s conman and Renner’s politician could have produced an excellent film about politics and trying to rebuild your community. But that would have been an entirely different undertaking and not what O. Russell aims for. The scattered nature gave the film advantages over something like Wolf, as it has a broader and less suffocating view, and showcased the diverse talents of a larger group of actors. They are playing ridiculous, bordering on cartoonish, characters in ridiculous costumes and wigs but it is intentional, evocative of the time period, and highly entertaining. I enjoyed Cooper’s perm, Lawrence dancing to “Live and let die”, Louis C.K. moping and Cooper’s impression of it, and Amy Adams full on Sex Panther™ persona. Ultimately the movie may not be saying much and won’t necessarily resonate over time, but it was entertaining and likely to be immensely re-watchable.

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips epitomizes solid moviemaking from all involved. It has superb direction and technical mastery from Paul Greengrass, as he continues to exemplify this docudrama style. From Greengrass on down to the camera operator, editors, sound people, and set designers, the film nears the craftsmanship of Gravity, even if it doesn’t include the same levels of technological innovation or awe inducing visuals.

Tom Hanks gives the movie and title role the necessary ballast, and Barkhad Abdi provides the story’s propulsion as his opposing number. All the supporting and background players (the cargo ship’s crew, the Somali pirates, the Navy officers, and the SEAL Team) enhance the realistic atmosphere and energy of the movie. The pacing is not perfectly taut throughout, but for the most part it is full of tension and action. The bulk of the story takes place in two excellently depicted settings; the massive, maze-like cargo freighter and the claustrophobic lifeboat. There’s not much to say, but that’s no fault of the movie. It is one that you just watch and enjoy, as Hanks and Abdi portray two compelling characters in a situation that feels blockbuster-scale and intimately human all at once. Everything about the production exudes a competence that somehow produces a more than competent, and in fact very good film.

Her

Her was one of my most anticipated films of the year and while it didn’t blow me away as much as I hoped, it is still a very good film that perhaps could’ve used a bit more Charlie Kaufman or David Lynch-esque darkness and surrealism. Writer-director Spike Jonze may claim that Her is entirely about a love story and that the technological aspects and near future setting is just background aesthetic. But that aesthetic is undoubtedly a singular and vivid creation, and the most thought provoking of aspect of the film.

The story raises many fascinating questions about technology, transactions, relationships, empathy, loneliness, artificial intelligence, and self-awareness of both humans and machines. Expanding on these topics could fill an entire post themselves, and the film leaves much of it up to audience to decide how they feel. It focuses on the relationship between Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly and his Operating System (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and his inability to have much happiness or relationship with others such as his ex-wife and friends (played by an excellent if underutilized cast of Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, and Olivia Wilde among others).

The movie does a good job raising these topics and is at times melancholic and at others joyful, while setting it in the brightest and most carefully curated color, costume, and set-design imaginable. Skyscrapers shot in Shanghai augment the near future version of Los Angeles in the movie, which also has an excellent public transit system, and is filled with bright shirts, high-waisted pants, and no denim. Every aspect of this future setting feels entirely unique and deliberate from Twombly’s job to his apartment, and the amazing holographic video game he plays. Like much of the best science fiction, this future setting is filled with amazing design and effects, but the issues it ponders are already relevant.

Nebraska

Nebraska is shot entirely in black and white, as Alexander Payne explores the landscapes and faces of the Midwest by making it feel like something already of the past or just slipping away. For a while, I felt this movie was being grossly overrated, but as it went on I came to enjoy its story and rhythms. It is a nice if not groundbreaking tale of changing generational norms, of family and aging, of husbands and wives, and especially of fathers and sons. It also is about what is remembered of the past and what actually happened, and at least somewhat about a certain way to “be a man” that may be dying out.

Bruce Dern is asked to give a very understated and taciturn performance, and he delivers as tough old Woody Grant slowly losing his faculties, but not yet completely gone. Will Forte gives an extremely credible dramatic debut as his son, and June Squibb and Bob Odenkirk make up the rest of the family, with Squibb especially funny as Dern’s wife.  The rest of the cast of characters they meet along the way for the most part feel nicely authentic or at least are entertaining encounters. The main antagonist played by Stacy Keach may come off as a bit of a cartoonish to some, and yet I can’t help but feel that some people really act that way.

Some feel this a nice exploration and positive portrayal of Payne’s native Midwest, its people, and its lifestyle, and others have felt it is patronizing and critical of it. I haven’t been able to generate strong feelings either way, even as time has passed. I feel Nebraska is a bit overpraised to be nominated for best picture, directing, and screenplay, but it’s a nice film that is also quietly funny and touching at times.

Philomena

Philomena is a story about tragic injustice that befell unwed mothers whose babies were taken away and sold to Americans by Catholic Church nuns in Ireland. I expected an unspectacular Oscar-bait account of the real life story, but the film exceeded my expectations. Perhaps it is the British and Irish tone of archness that pervade the deft script by writer-producer and co-star Steve Coogan. He brings a bit of an edge to the story and also shares on-screen chemistry with the one and only Dame Judi Dench as the titular character. The representation and contrast of the elite, atheist, cynical former journalist played by Coogan, and the simplistic, working class, religious, and forgiving even in the face of great wrongs, Philomena may not be perfectly drawn but it comes close.

The movie is just about the right balance of sad and angry, crowd pleasing, and funny without betraying the serious of the real life events it is based on, or subduing the audience’s justifiable anger. It is unexpectedly complex in the depictions of their journey, discoveries about her long-lost son, and her reactions to those discoveries. Philomena is surprisingly nuanced and concise, in less than an hour and forty minutes it gives the audience a story that is heart wrenching and still enjoyable to watch.

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club disappointed me the most of the all the films nominated. It is another true story of tragic injustice that generates righteous anger, but for the most part is a fairly pedestrian movie. However, it is saved by a couple factors, most importantly the greatness of Matthew McConaughey as AIDS stricken Ron Woodruff. He truly is a fantastic as he physically and emotionally delivers one of the best performances of his career and of the year. The performance and the script don’t shy away from portraying him as a boozing, largely unlikeable, and homophobic person. It is truly shocking to witness the gauntness, rashes, and other aspects of the illness take hold of McConaughey and Jared Leto (as his business partner Rayon). The work done by the makeup people is simply astounding, and even more so if the tale of it being done on a $250 budget is true.

The story itself is compelling as it takes you through Woodruffs journey of establishing a business getting drugs from overseas and selling them to people suffering in America. You are definitely angry at the real life facts, as he rails against the corporate, government, and medical systems that were not adequately addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the eighties. However, it could have been better executed and more tapped into the outlaw/outcast energy and personas of its protagonists. There are a few attempts at interesting visual shots (such as some bull-riding shots and the scene where he stands with the moths) but they seem too incongruent and not properly integrated with the story. Dallas Buyers Club is an uneven film filled with simplistic storytelling and characters that mostly serve as plot tools, but it is buoyed by the formidable performance of McConaughey and the sickeningly realistic portrayal of the devastating illness.

Best Actor

Best Actor nominees- The Academy Awards®

This is an insanely loaded category this year. I’m still completely unsure how I would vote on this category if I was an actual Oscar voter, it’s a 1, 1A, 1B scenario for me. I’d be happy if any of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew McConaughey, or Leonardo DiCaprio win. They were all fantastic and delivered career best performances.

Bruce Dern is good and though I think Christian Bale did bring something to the least flashy part in American Hustle, I would have taken Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station)Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Oscar Isaacs (Inside Llewyn Davis), Joaquin Phoenix (Her), and Robert Redford (All is Lost) over Bale, and probably some of them over Dern. That would have been a ridiculously good starting 5 in any year.

Best Actress

Best Actress nominees- The Academy Awards®

The only award I really think American Hustle should get (aside from costumes) is for Amy Adams, but this will to go to Cate Blanchett (probably deservedly, but I unfortunately haven’t seen Blue Jasmine yet). Sandra Bullock and Judi Dench are right behind them, and I’d love to add Greta Gerwig from Frances Ha and Julie Delpy from Before Midnight to this category. I haven’t seen August: Osage County but based on everything I’ve seen and heard from others, it’s not the legendary Meryl Streep’s best performance, so it’s not high on my priority list. So I’d rank them Adams, Bullock, and Dench; if I was an actual voter I’d see Blue Jasmine in time and then might vote Blanchett like everyone else.

Best Supporting Actress

Best Supporting Actress nominees- The Academy Awards®

My choice is easily Lupita Nyong’o. Jennifer Lawrence was a fun presence in her small American Hustle part, and June Squibb was strong and funny in Nebraska, but it’s nothing compared to the performance by Nyong’o. Again, I haven’t yet seen Blue Jasmine or August, but the performances would have to be otherworldly to make me choose either Sally Hawkins (who I hear was great) or Julia Roberts (who I hear was the opposite of that).

Best Supporting Actor

Best Supporting Actor nominees- The Academy Awards®

My choice would be either Michael Fassbender or Barkhad Abdi. One can safely say 12 Years a Slave doesn’t give you a chance to crack a smile, and yet at times I wanted to laugh out loud at Fassbender’s performance as Epps. Not because it was remotely funny, it was often quite terrifying, but because my stupefied brain couldn’t think of any other reaction to his total commitment to the malevolence and craziness. I swear in one scene he was just playing a drunkenly swaggering puffy shirted pirate. Meanwhile, Abdhi is not even a trained actor, this is is first film, and I don’t know if that should count for or against him. But in Captain Phillips he more than holds his own against Tom Hanks, and the movie would not work nearly as well, if at all, without the nuance and depth of his performance.

Very closely behind them, I’d rank Bradley Cooper. By itself, his scene impersonating Louis CK  is almost enough for me to move him to the top of the list. Jared Leto is going to win, but while he gave a good performance I don’t think it was anything transcendent. And personally, I’d have voted someone like Will Forte (Nebraska) or even James Franco (hilarious in Spring Breakers, if they wanted to go the comedic route) over Jonah Hill. Hill is a good actor and highly entertaining in Wolf, so this isn’t unearned, but he’s still a bit fortunate to be here and somehow be a two time academy award nominated person. He was nominated over the recently passed James Gandolfini (Enough Said). He has more acting nominations than Robert Redford. Always remember that awards are silly and sometimes a complete joke.

Rishi Sethi is a Philosophical Bear editor, you can read more of his thoughts on cinema at Letterboxd.

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