WordPress tells me that today is my two-year anniversary as a member of the site. For shame, I honestly wanted there to be a ton of content on this blog by now, but alas, I grew lazy and uninspired for a time. Now I am forcing myself to get back in to it. My posts may frequent the Screening Room more often than not, but at least it’s a starting point. I spent my entire previous weekend binging out on Best Picture nominees. So without further ado, I present my thoughts on the 2014 Academy Award Nominees for Best Picture:
I will simply go in the order in which I viewed them, so first up we have Nebraska. Written by Bob Nelson and directed by Alexander Payne, this little film focuses on Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an aging man with a mission. When Woody receives a letter in the mail declaring that he is a lucky winner of one million dollars, he sets out on foot toward Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize.
The problem is, of course, that he is elderly and shouldn’t be making said trip on foot from Billings, Montana. Nagging wife Kate (June Squibb) and youngest son David (Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte) make several attempts to dissuade Woody but are unsuccessful. Finally David agrees to drive his father to Lincoln to find out what all the fuss is about. Pulling away from the driveway from a screaming, selfish old woman, the two generations of Grants set out.
Now, it must be noted that the entire movie is filmed in black and white. I will never mind a black and white film, as I believe that sometimes it can enhance the overall quality of the picture. With black and white, you get two distinct colors, and you get vivid, sharp imagery and shadows. This no doubt led to the Best Cinematography nomination this film also received. Initially, during the Oscars, I had not seen any of these films yet, but I still like to participate and fill out a bracket to see if I can guess the winners just as well without even seeing them. I fared a little less than half correct this year and one of my incorrect choices was Nebraska for Best Cinematography. I think that this was the only saving grace of this film.
I do not believe that this movie deserved to get a Best Picture nomination, nor do I believe Bruce Dern put up an astounding enough performance to garner a Best Actor nod either. Everyone’s performances were fine sure, but nothing out of the ordinary or over the top that caught my attention. How hard can it be to play a delusional old man when you are in fact, a delusional old man? Similarly, how difficult is it to play a bitter old woman, when you’re already an old woman? I really don’t understand why the Academy chose to give this film so many nominations. It most definitely did not deserve it for Best Original Screenplay. I mean, we’ve seen this type of movie before. Older person attempts to go on a pilgrimage and runs into unexpected delays or shenanigans. It’s nothing new nor is it anything original that we’ve not seen before. I am glad that this film did not take home any Oscars, because it didn’t deserve to be there.
When I had finally choked down the tiring and boring black and white flick, I promptly shoved Dallas Buyers Club into my computer hoping for a better outcome. I was not disappointed.
Here we have a better quality film with better writing by Craig Borton and Melisa Wallack and direction by Jean-Marc Vallee. Based on the story of electrician and rodeo gambler Ron Woodroof’s battle with AIDS, the American healthcare machine and the FDA, Dallas Buyers Club is full of light-hearted moments, throat-tightening moments, and two exceptional performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.
I have a running joke with a fellow film enthusiast and close friend of mine where we feel like we have unlocked the key to winning an Oscar as an actor. If you portray someone who is mentally challenged, handicapped or underdeveloped, you might get an Oscar nomination. Just ask Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe or Sean Penn.
If you portray someone who is dying of some disease, you may get an Oscar nomination. Just ask Tom Hanks and Matthew McConaughey (I can’t think of any other examples now).
If you portray someone who is a homosexual or anyone who would fit in with the GLBT community, you may get an Oscar nomination. Just ask Tom Hanks, Jared Leto, Heath Ledger (er, I guess you can’t ask Heath), Jake Gyllenhaal and Sean Penn.
If you portray someone who is a real historical figure or person, you might get an Oscar nomination. Just ask Jamie Foxx, Daniel Day-Lewis, Joaquin Phoenix, (Reese Witherspoon too, but apparently I’ve only named male performers thus far), Will Smith and a slue of other great performances by actors portraying real people.
Anyway, McConaughey happens to nail two birds with one stone here and portrays a real person with a terminal disease, whilst Jared Leto hits one of the other categories. Now, it maybe come as a surprise to some, but just because an actor fits into any one category or more does not mean that’s why they got nominated. Most likely it is because they did so with a beautiful mind (see what I did there) in place regarding their portrayal of the character at hand. Matthew and Jared downright nailed it in this film. If anyone else had won Best Supporting actor I would have rioted. Leto is near unrecognizable as himself as he plays kind-hearted transgender Rayon who meets Ron while they’re both in the hospital due to their shared illness. Upon their meeting, Ron is still the manly man cowboy who isn’t too keen on Rayon’s way of life, but that’s one of the wonderful things about this movie. Throughout some uncomfortable scenes, some hilarious scenes and some change-of-heart type of scenes, we get to see Ron not only warm up to but befriend and defend Rayon near the end.
There isn’t any spectacular score or cinematography that goes along with this film, but it is a well-written and well-acted piece of work. We get to see Ron struggle through accepting his new condition, to accepting other human beings as being similar to himself, despite differences. We also get to see a side of our wonderful healthcare industry here in the States that a lot of people seem to be nervous to discuss. Ron doesn’t have time to wait around for FDA approval for drugs that will help keep him alive, so he starts up a club for people like himself to obtain proper treatment, and the shenanigans run off from there.
McConaughey doesn’t necessarily deviate from his normal performance style (his accent, his laid back view of the world) but he does use it in a manner that fits the character while at the same time transforming himself into nothing we’ve seen him portray before. Dallas Buyers Club definitely earned its nominations and people should go check out why.
I waited until the next day to throw in Captain Phillips. Oh, speaking of portraying someone who is an actual person, Tom Hanks plays shipping container captain, Richard Phillips. Paul Greengrass’ directing style is known to just throw us into the action as quick as possible (United 93, The Bourne Identity) and he does no differently here. In a story written by Captain Phillips himself and adapted to the screen by Billy Ray (not Cyrus, thank God), we find the captain driving himself and his wife (random Catherine Keener cameo) to the airport where she drops him off and we never see her again. From there, we get the gist of the situation as he arrives in a foreign country and familiarizes himself with the ship and then we’re off to sea.
Instead of just having some random Somali pirates appear out of nowhere and get an early “bad guy” label, we are shown the small village where they reside and the dire situation they are experiencing in their poverty-stricken land. With no time wasted, we are told that this village is under control of what could resemble organized crime as they are ordered off to sea to capture more boats. They are literally employed (likely by force) by some Somalian mob faction for the purpose of piracy.
Here we get introduced to yet another Best Actor (supporting) nominee, Barkhad Abdi in his portrayal as the leader of the pirate gang that boards the ship. I’m not so sure if he deserved his nomination or not, as I don’t think he’s really done any other acting work and who knows whether he had to act much to get said character drawn out of himself. In either event, he did perform well and convincingly enough as did our beloved Mr. Hanks.
Surprisingly enough, most of the stuff in the trailers is over and done with quick, as this is called “Captain Phillips” and not “Hostages at Sea” or some such nonsense. The story quickly, intensely and anxiously throws us right into the meat of the film, where we get to spend most of our time with four pirates and the captain himself aboard a lifeboat. One would think that would make for a rather boring film with nothing going on, but Greengrass delivers.
On a side note, the first time I watched this trailer, I happened to have just purchased the video game Medal of Honor: Warfighter and there is a mission in the game that is this very scenario. You get to be part of the SEAL team that goes in to extract Captain Phillips from the lifeboat. I was shocked because merely minutes before I picked up the controller, I had watched upcoming movie trailers and there it was.
Some would argue that Tom got snubbed in the Best Actor category this year, but I’m not so sure. It was almost as if he was Jim Lovell aboard Apollo 13 again at some points and his acting reflected that, but I think his performance really kicked into high gear near the end of the film. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this film and thought it had the right dose of fast-paced action and another dose of intense drama mixed in with each other.
Once I was done with Captain Phillips I hopped in the car to return them to Redbox and drove straight to the local video store (I know, some of them still exist!) to pick up the remaining Best Picture nominees, or at least those out so far. American Hustle comes out today I believe. Regardless, the next movie I chose was Gravity. I popped this one into my Playstation 3 to utilize the Blu-Ray quality and cranked up my surround sound. Completely worth it.
Performance and story-wise, this movie is simple. We have two main characters and they happen to be pretty much the ONLY characters in the film as well. One is retiring astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), and the other is medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock).
Let me say right off the bat that this film far and away deserved the technical Oscars it won. Best Cinematography, Visual Effects, Sound…all of it. Right off the bat, we are treated with an enormous shot of Earth as she takes up more screen than there is room and some radio chatter filters in as we take in the view. It takes a while for our eyes to focus on the little white spec moving closer to the screen and over the planet, and that is where we begin our journey.
In a mission that features the Space Shuttle Explorer, we find our crew’s primary objective is to update the Hubble Space Telescope with some prototype technology that Dr. Stone had developed on Earth that was supposed to help Hubble see more clearly and far deeper into space than ever before. However, in what seems to be an ongoing relevance, Russia screws things up for our crew. The result causes catastrophic events to occur and we are left alone in space with our two lovable crew members as they fight to survive with virtually no way to get home.
I had heard from people around me and online that there was a lot of disappointment surrounding Gravity, but I disagreed immediately after I was done. One person had said that most of the film is dull and boring, but I felt differently. Maybe it’s my love of space, but I felt like I was one step away from an anxiety attack throughout the film. Sandra Bullock delivers a well deserved Oscar performance and so did the post production team. The Sound and the visuals completely make this movie and to top off the ice cream cone of science fiction, Steven Price’s Oscar-winning Score completes the ensemble.
For a 90 minute jaunt, this movie is well worth it.
Now, I had to take a break after Gravity and let my senses recharge and let my hearing recharge from having my surround sound up so loud. So it wasn’t until I was lone with my computer and the remains of a bottle of Prima Amore white wine that I got the chance to sit down and digest this year’s Best Picture winner itself, 12 Years A Slave. Let me just say, “Wow…”
In another example of a performance based on a real person, Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers, and he delivers hard. It didn’t take me long into this film to start questioning whether I still agreed that Matthew McConaughey deserved to win Best Actor. Even further along, I started to even question whether Michael Fassbender deserved to win over Jared Leto. This movie is ripe with astounding performances that don’t stop with Ejiofor, Fassbender or Nyong’o. We get cameos by Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch, all of whom bring a weighted power to their limited screen time.
The story is based on the accounts of free man, Solomon Northup who was kidnapped and sold into slavery where he suffered for 12 years. We get glimpses of the hell that he went through, and Fassbender’s performance is bone-chilling as the man who ultimately comes to “own” Solomon after Cumberbatch’s character sells him away to save him from Paul Dano’s character.
Along the way we get an extremely uncomfortable performance by Lupita Nyong’o and the things her character has to put up with as a female slave. Jennifer Lawrence, I’m sorry but you never had a chance.
I’m actually quite surprised that this film didn’t win Best Film Editing, or Sound Mixing because there were very precise close-up shots accompanied by very acute sounds that added so much substance and weight to the scenes they were included in. One occasion is just the mere sound of strings against strained wood as Solomon tunes his violin. Another, and my personal favorite shot in the entire film is a close up shot of the water wheel on the back of the river boat that carries Solomon into his despair. Leading up to the shot we are treated with a barrage of intrusive drum beats that are quickly synced up with the churning of the river boat wheel. Additionally the shot includes very sharp sunlight that brightens the red on the water wheel. It was in that moment, that small, short scene that I knew I was in for one hell of a film and I was right. Not even including the extremely touchy subject matter, 12 Years A Slave is a spectacular example of film making at its finest.
If you don’t see any other movie that was a part of the Academy Awards (I’m sure some of you checked out Bad Grandpa and Iron Man 3 though), you must make it a point to at least watch this year’s Best Picture winner.
This is Part I of my Best Picture Nominee Binge reviews. I have not yet seen American Hustle, The Wolf of Wallstreet, Philomena or Her as they are not out on DVD yet and I’m too lazy to go check them out in the theater. When they are out, I will post Part II of this review series and may even add some of the films that were nominated in other categories but not Best Picture. Please stay tuned.