Do the nominees this year really represent the best Hollywood has to offer this year? Maybe not. But at least there isn’t a complete turkey amongst other blue riband nominees. Each film has something to offer, if you know where to look. Neatly stacked in alphabetical order:
12 Years a Slave
12 Years has been called a slave movie that tells us nothing new beyond what we already know about slavery. That bit may be true but it ought not to undermine Steve McQueen’s narrative style. I dare you to not squint when Lupita Nyong’o is at the receiving end of flesh rending lashes. And that is not all, you stay right with Chiwetel Ejiofor and other slaves when they are being brutalised. Their suffering is your suffering. If you have seen and appreciated McQueen’s Hunger, you will know what I mean. His use of ambient sounds is very effective. Oscar or no Oscar, this in one of the best films of the year.
We have seen him go sickeningly gaunt in The Machinist, now watch Christian Bale put on weight and a toupee for his role as a small time hustler who is forced into the big league. Initially as David O. Russell introduces the characters with voice over and tracking shots, I was a little bored. But when the hustle catches on, its great fun. Jennifer Lawrence stands out in a star-studded ensemble cast.
August: Osage County
Like seats meant for senior citizens on a BEST bus, Meryl Streep has one nomination reserved in her name each year. This time it’s a film based on a play where she plays a bitter matriarch suffering from mouth cancer. The family has gathered there following the death of the father and like all good dysfunctional American families, this one too has its share of skeletons in the closet. Sparks will fly, cuss words will be hurled around and we shall be served a smorgasbord of acting talents. The length of Streep’s and Julia Roberts’ roles are the same; I am not sure on what basis have they split the nominations for leading and supporting actress between them.
It has been two decades since when we first met Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) and they still haven’t stopped talking. This has to be a unique trilogy for the characters age along with time and their issues get updated. They now have kids and the first seeds of a separation are being sown. Despite all the interesting banter, there were times when the movie did not hold my attention unlike the previous two installments. In one long take, for a micro-second, I also caught Delpy looking at the camera. I hope they call it a day before it’s too late.
Woody Allen’s films are a hit-or-miss gamble. This one goes straight for the bullseye. Cate Blanchett plays a rich, spoilt wife of a scamster who has fallen on hard times after her husband’s cover has been blown. She takes up accommodation with her half-sister (Sally Hawkins) but cannot quite give up her high life and tantrums. Allen expertly switches back and forth between scenes from her previous life and her current situation. Cate Blanchett makes a hateful character seem lovable. Quite an achievement!
What I liked about Captain Phillips is that Tom Hanks is not shown to be an American superhero who will single-handedly overpower his enemies and lead his ship to safety from pirates. He tries that on two occasions but fails both times. He is as much of an average Joe as you or me. That and the way Paul Greengrass keeps you hooked from the first frame to the last. Action films like these rarely make the Best Film nomination cut. This one is different.
Dallas Buyers Club
In playing a homophobic AIDS sufferer, Matthew McConaughey had to reduce his body by half and still not loose the spunk that his lines contain. Its difficult to summarise the story in a couple of lines, for the film begins as cowboy coming to terms with his ailment, moves on to experimentation of drugs to treat AIDS and ends up with McConaughey becoming an unwitting messiah against the machinations of the FDA. The narrative is straight and non-flashy and its McConaughey’s show all the way. With able support from Jared Leto who plays a cross-dresser also suffering from AIDS.
The trouble with most 3D films is that they end up looking like pop-up books. There isn’t enough space to put between the protruding object and the background to justify the 3D. Gravity completely eliminates this problem by setting the entire spectacle in space. You can’t ask for more room really. This is the best and most imaginative use of 3D I have ever seen. Alfonso Cuaron’s trademark long takes are to be seen to be believed. A space mission with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock goes all wrong when they craft is hit by random debris. Not much in terms of a plot. But then Gravity isn’t a movie…it’s an experience.
Spike Jonze makes movies that challenge conventional stories and urge you to think beyond them. Her is no different. Who could have imagined a love story between a human and a Siri-like operating system? But unlike Being John Malkovich or Adaptation there is no Charlie Kaufman to help him write the screenplay. He has moved on to directing himself. So this one has also been written by Jonze. After the initial surprise of the unusual match dies down, there isn’t much by way of innovation in the story. It ends the way a lot of love stories end. And you left admiring Joaquin Phoenix’ characteristically brilliant performance and superb voice work by Scarlett Johansson.
This has to be the slowest road movie I have ever seen. And I am thankful for that. At the centre of this movie is an ageing Bruce Dern who is given to bouts of dementia. He believes he has won a lottery and has to reach Nebraska to collect it. So the moment he is out of sight of his family members, he gets up and starts hobbling in the general direction of Nebraska. His kindly son Will Forte decides to take him to Nebraska anyways so that he can live out his fantasy. June Squibb as the mother who has a comment on everything has also received a deserving supporting nomination. It’s shot in black and white and has long, meditative takes that let you pause and take in the futility of the entire trip. Yet it ends on a surprising upbeat note that is nothing short of masterstroke of writing. Director Alexander Payne does these “people” movies kind of well.
A woman brought up under strict Catholic values has a revelation to make. 50 years ago she had delivered a son who was the result of an evening of frolic. The son was given away for adoption by the nuns of the church where she was staying. Now she wants him back. She enlists the help of a senior journalist who has just lost his job. Partly a comment on rigid catholic values and partly a procedural, Philomena is not completely satisfying on either count. More than Judi Dench, I was more impressed with Steve Coogan who has the best lines in the movie. Well he’s the co-writer so no surprises there. Perhaps not the best of Stephen Frears but a good watch anyways. Inspired by true events.
The Wolf of Wall Street
While watching TWOWS, I was constantly reminded of Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, a film I would rate higher than The Wolf. Once again we have a flamboyant Leonardo DiCaprio impudently flouting the law, staying just one step ahead of the authorities until it all has to end. There’s no questioning Leonardo’s performance or Scorsese’s direction but the script went a little overboard with the debauchery. Not in terms of raunchiness but by its sheer volume. Scene after scene kept making the same point without adding much to the story. A little bit of editing would have helped.