The nine films up for Best Picture

Once again, Julie and I have battled the winter blahs by immersing ourselves in the alternative reality of cinema, squirreled away in top row center for our annual marathon of Best Picture nominees. This year, we were able to see all of the films that received acting and directing nods as well. Below are my reviews of the dozen pictures in contention for these awards, presented in ascending order from least liked to best loved.

12. BEFORE MIDNIGHT

Nominated for:

Best Adapted Screenplay: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke

In a nutshell: Jesse and Celine, the romantic leads of Before Sunrise (1995) and After Sunset (2004), contemplate their middle-age lives and enduring relationship.

The only film of the dozen that we wholly disliked, Before Midnight is nevertheless deserving of an award, if only there existed a category for Movie Most Pleased With Itself. Apparently many others are fond of it as well, as it boasts a 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. My compliments to the few brave souls who stood up against the pretentious hype and gave this turkey the rating it deserves.

If only I could have been half as interested in the characters as they are in themselves, I might feel more charitable. As it is, Jesse and Celine have long conversations with each other and among friends, yet none of the incessant chatter moves the narrative along in any appreciable direction. Perhaps one must go into Before Midnight with predetermined affection for its characters in order to like the film at all. Having missed Before Sunrise and After Sunset, I can confirm only that this latest installment does not stand up on its own.

But that Linklater, Delpy and Hawke should have earned an Adapted Screenplay nomination – that is inexplicable to me. If the trio wrote a single word of this atrocious dialogue before they enacted it, I will eat a copy of the script with a smile on my face. The whole enterprise stinks of dramatic improvisation that would have been better left unobserved beyond the acting classroom.

Bottom line: That howl of indignation you hear on the evening of March 2? That would be me reacting to the travesty of a statue for this mess on Oscar night.

11. GRAVITY

Nominated for:

Best Picture: Alfonso Cuaron, David Heyman

Best Actress: Sandra Bullock

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Best Film Editing: Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger

Best Original Score: Steven Price

Best Production Design: Andy Nicholson, Rosie Goodwin, Joanne Woollard

Best Sound Editing: Glenn Freemantle

Best Sound Mixing: Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, Chris Munro

Best Visual Effects: Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk, Neil Corbould

In a nutshell: Alone and adrift in space, an astronaut struggles to survive.

I actually walked out of the theater a little angry after Gravity, not because I dislike the film but because director Alfonso Cuaron settled for less when he easily could have had it all. Rather than rely on the immature script he co-wrote with his son, Cuaron needed only to hand it over for revision to a better writer, someone who would have eliminated unnecessary ramblings and witticisms that ring about as true to real NASA astronaut chatter as Hogan’s Heroes represents an accurate portrayal of concentration camp life. This weakness aside, Gravity is a wondrous achievement that is great fun to watch. Its masterful camera direction and dizzying assemblage of seemingly infinite CGI elements makes watching the movie in 3D the theatrical equivalent of a theme park thrill ride. It is a beautiful-looking film that could justifiably take multiple awards for its technical nominations.

As for Sandra Bullock, she is absolutely fine in her role, but her nomination recalls last year’s nod to Naomi Watts for her work in The Impossible. I suspect her main challenge was to credibly accommodate  the visual effects, as her character does little more than react to a series of disasters. Bullock’s astronaut has as much depth and subtlety as the mediocre script allows, which unfortunately is not much.

Bottom line: A fine time in the theater but grossly overhyped. It’s alright with me if Gravity cleans up in the areas of cinematography, editing and effects, but better films are more deserving of the major awards.

10. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

Nominated for:

Best Picture: Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca

Best Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi

Best Film Editing: Christopher Rouse

Best Sound Editing: Oliver Tarney

Best Sound Mixing: Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, Chris Munro

Best Adapted Screenplay: Billy Ray

In a nutshell: A dramatization of the real-life ordeal of Captain Richard Phillips, whose cargo vessel was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009.

Julie and I watched this film in the comfortable setting of our home theater, and to our disappointment we had to run an unexpected errand halfway through its running time. We usually reserve expressing any kind of judgment until the final credits, but as we drove along through the dark winter night, we could not help but share our puzzlement with the movie’s accolades. It looked great, we acknowledged, and it sure gave one a sense of what it must be like to be out on the open ocean in command of a container ship. But it seemed otherwise unremarkable. We dutifully returned home for the second half, which only confirmed for us the wisdom of reserving judgment. It is in its second half that Captain Phillips sparkles.

I am no fan of action films as a genre, yet the tight editing of the U.S. Navy’s nail-biting rescue mission makes for riveting cinema, even if you already know the eventual outcome. Barkhad Abdi displays great screen presence as the leader of the pirates, and if Tom Hanks seems a bit wooden in the first hour, he redeems himself with a mesmerizing coda that will stay with me long after the rest of the film fades away.

Bottom line: It would be great to see Barkhad Abdi take home an Oscar for his film debut, but the Supporting Actor category is thick with fantastic performances. Whether or not Captain Phillips wins any awards, it is certainly worth watching.

9. NEBRASKA

Nominated for:

Best Picture: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa

Best Actor: Bruce Dern

Best Supporting Actress: June Squibb

Best Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael

Best Director: Alexander Payne

Best Original Screenplay: Bob Nelson

In a nutshell: A neglected son indulges his confused father’s compulsion to claim a nonexistent sweepstakes prize by driving him across the barren plains of Nebraska.

There are two extremes in the way our popular culture portrays life in a small town. The idyllic route, as epitomized by Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, emphasizes the comfortably slow pace of rural outposts and the charming eccentricities of their good-natured residents. At the other end of the continuum is Nebraska, wherein the empathy of yokels is as miniscule as their census tally. Desperation, dullness and a chillingly selfish sense of self-preservation pervade the small minds which Bruce Dern’s declining retiree must confront on his Quixotic quest. Stacy Keach is notable as a charming yet ruthless good-ol’-boy who has no reservations about fleecing former business partner Dern, while Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll turn in comedically sinister performances as Dern’s smugly imbecilic nephews.

Nebraska may well take the Cinematography Oscar for its bleak portrayal of small towns and their weary denizens. It is darkly comic, yet disturbingly accurate. Anyone who has ever felt a creeping wave of anxiety while stuck in a podunk berg or trapped in an oppressive family gathering (or, horror of horrors, both simultaneously), will find something to laugh at and cringe from.

Bottom line: Dern and Squibb took the acting nominations, but the real standout here is Will Forte as the troubled son who quietly strives to restore his father’s dignity.

8. BLUE JASMINE

Nominated for:

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett

Best Supporting Actress: Sally Hawkins

Best Original Screenplay: Woody Allen

In a nutshell: The privileged wife of a disgraced businessman struggles to maintain her accustomed lifestyle and her sanity.

There is nothing comedic in Woody Allen’s lasting outing, a meditation on the consequences of privilege at the expense of others. Allen introduces Jasmine Francis at the start of her decline, a harried woman who has already succumbed to mental illness and has nowhere to go but down. Flashbacks interspersed throughout the narrative reveal the circumstances that have prompted her to seek shelter in San Francisco with her half sister, who is as unpretentiously genuine as Jasmine is contemptuously sophisticated. Both women must decide the degree to which they are willing to compromise their desires in order to preserve themselves.

As usual, Allen has assembled a talented cast that makes the most of a thought-provoking script. Cate Blanchett paints a harrowing portrait of instability as Jasmine clings desperately to high hopes while sinking further into despair. Sally Hawkins shines as her pragmatic sister, whose mentally healthy acceptance of things as they are allows her to thrive despite her circumstances. With nice turns by Peter Sarsgaard, Louis C.K., Bobby Cannavale and Andrew Dice Clay, Blue Jasmine is as enjoyable for its performances as Before Midnight is not.

Bottom line: Woody Allen continues to churn out interesting films year after year. If Cate Blanchett takes home a statuette, I shall not quibble.

7. AMERICAN HUSTLE

Nominated for:

Best Picture: Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon

Best Actor: Christian Bale

Best Actress: Amy Adams

Best Supporting Actor: Bradley Cooper

Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Costume Design: Michael Wilkinson Russell

Best Film Editing: Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten

Best Production Design: Judy Becker, Heather Loeffler

Best Original Screenplay: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell

In a nutshell: A pair of con artists reluctantly use their skills to help an FBI agent fight political corruption at the end of the 1970s.

Director David O. Russell does it again, earning the full quartet of acting nominations, just as he did with last year’s Silver Linings Playbook. This time, Playbook’s Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence take on supporting roles while Christian Bale and Amy Adams handle the lead duties as a scheming couple forced by the FBI to set up corrupt politicians in a sting operation. All four of the nominations are justifiable, but the greatest performance among them is Bale’s unrepentant grifter, whose inherently deceptive nature is embodied in an elaborately maintained comb-over.

The script is intriguingly complicated without becoming convoluted, a satisfying knot of counter-deceptions that will reward subsequent viewings. The plot could easily devolve into action movie clichés, but Russell keeps the tension cerebral while successfully mining humor from extraordinary situations. American Hustle luxuriates in the bad taste of its setting, giving an endearingly grotesque edge to its characters. Louis C.K., who adds a winning dash of common-man realism to Blue Jasmine, does the same for this film in his role as Cooper’s chronically frustrated supervisor.

Bottom line: Who would have thought the ABSCAM scandal could be so fun? American Hustle is entertaining on all levels.

6. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

Nominated for:

Best Picture: Robbie Brenner

Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto

Best Film Editing: John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa

Best Makeup: Adruitha Lee, Robin Matthews

Best Original Screenplay: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack

In a nutshell: A dramatization of Ron Woodroof’s personal transformation and unconventional fight against AIDS.

It wasn’t until I saw the documentary Silverlake Life: The View From Here (1993) that I gained any substantial understanding of what the AIDS epidemic meant and its toll on our society. Up to that point, it was easy for me to compartmentalize AIDS as a tragic consequence of risky behavior, a horrible disease that happened to other people. If not indifferent to AIDS, I certainly was not particularly concerned about it. Such was the mindset of Ron Woodroof, a Texas electrician who was slow to accept his 1985 diagnosis as the unfortunate consequence of his own risky behavior. When it happened to him, everything changed.

Matthew McConaughey delivers an outstanding performance as Woodroof, who rises to the challenge of his dire prognosis by circumventing the medical establishment and smuggling unapproved medication from Mexico. Not only does Woodroof prolong his life, he finds unexpected allies in the gay community. Jared Leto’s Rayon, who becomes Woodroof’s business partner in an illegal enterprise bringing the meds to whomever can afford them, is an unforgettable character. His integrity transforms Woodroof into a more compassionate human being.

Dallas Buyers Club earns our empathy without exploitation. Woodroof is portrayed as an honorable yet deeply flawed human being. The film neither vindicates the medical authorities nor demonizes them, instead suggesting that our best intentions may sometimes become just as harmful as the evils we seek to eradicate. Deep food for thought, yet – however improbably – compelling and entertaining.

Bottom line: Jared Leto gives the best performance in the Best Supporting Actor category, and given the bountiful excellence among the nominees, that’s really saying something.

5. AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

Nominated for:

Best Actress: Meryl Streep

Best Supporting Actress: Julia Roberts

In a nutshell: A family confronts the death of its patriarch, unresolved conflicts, and long-held secrets.

There is a pivotal scene in August: Osage County when three adult sisters congregate on the grounds of their childhood home and begin to hash out their differences. In a lesser film, the conflict would eventually resolve into tearful hugs and a newfound appreciation for one another. But in August, their candid appraisals of each other merely underline their isolation; they may be sisters, but they are worlds apart. Life can be messy like that, and so it is in this movie.

If American Hustle can earn four acting nominations, surely August could, too. Julia Roberts got a nod for a supporting role, but she is as much a lead as the terrific Meryl Streep. That might have freed up a supporting actress nomination slot for Margo Martindale, who is just as brilliant as Streep’s sister. And then there is an almost unrecognizable Benedict Cumberbatch, who might have taken a supporting actor nomination in any other year. They are the core of an enviable ensemble that breathes life into a complex portrayal of a troubled family. As in Nebraska, the gulf between loved ones can be chilling, indeed.

Bottom line: If Cate Blanchett doesn’t take the Best Actress award, it will be Meryl Streep. However, I would argue that it should be neither of them (see Philomena, below).

4. 12 YEARS A SLAVE

Nominated for:

Best Picture: Brad Pitt, Dede Garner, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen, Anthony Katagas

Best Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor

Best Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o

Best Costume Design: Patricia Norris

Best Director: Steve McQueen

Best Film Editing: Joe Walker

Best Production Design: Adam Stockhausen, Alice Baker

Best Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley

In a nutshell: The true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.

12 Years A Slave is today’s Schindler’s List, an unflinching exploration of a shameful chapter in history that is imperative to understand, yet painful to examine. Like Schindler, it is an exceptional and beautifully made film that you won’t be in a hurry to watch twice, so sobering are its truths. The capacity of human beings for barbaric cruelty is apparently limitless, as these films remind us.

The unsettling brilliance of 12 Years is its refusal to paint with broad strokes. By avoiding the reduction of slavery into a simple battle between readily identifiable good and evil, the film spreads culpability beyond the usual suspects. Not all slave owners are thoroughly contemptible, nor are all slaves heroic. Slavery is a societal scourge, but the deeper horror is the dark nature of humanity and the depths to which people are willing to go in order to attain their desires.

Michael Fassbender scrapes the bottom of that vile barrel with his role as a slave owner who repeatedly rapes one of his slaves then lashes the skin off her back to satisfy his jealous wife. Lupita Nyong’o is mesmerizing as the victimized slave, a simple soul who is resigned to her fate and desires only her own death. Guiding us through the atrocities is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon, the everyman who can afford to turn away from the injustices of his time until he is felled by them. Ejiofor draws the viewer into Solomon’s plight with a gentle and humane portrait of determined survival in the face of torture and indignity.

Bottom line: Lupita Nyong’o deserves to take home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

3. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

Nominated for:

Best Picture: Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joey McFarland, Emma Tillinger Koskoff

Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio

Best Supporting Actor: Jonah Hill

Best Director: Martin Scorsese

Best Adapted Screenplay: Terence Winter

In a nutshell: The spectacular rise and fall of an amoral stockbroker, with much debauchery in between.

I was slightly miffed as the end credits of The Wolf of Wall Street appeared, because prior to that point, I had no idea that main character Jordan Belfort was a real person and that the film was based on his memoir. What annoyed me was the realization that in forking over my theater admission, I was contributing to the continued success of a despicable slimeball. Though I’ve since heard that Belfort has repented and reformed, Wolf pulls no punches in its depiction of him as an almost thoroughly contemptible human being. It is testimony to the considerable charm of Leonardo DiCaprio, then, that we are able to accept Belfort as a dramatic protagonist, so much so that viewers may find themselves rooting for his success.

Martin Scorsese unveils the narrative frenetically and with as loose an adherence to cinematic convention as Belfort abided by trading laws. DiCaprio’s Belfort has no regard for the rules, and so it somehow makes sense to see him turn from a scene and address the audience directly, even stopping in mid-explanation to suggest that he has already lost our interest. Jonah Hill brings his frat-boy enthusiasm to the role of Belfort’s right-hand man, and his every second on screen is a joy to watch. These are reprehensible human beings that Scorsese puts on screen, amoral hedonists with the smallest possible consciences, and yet there are genuine laughs among the pathos. The slow chase along the floor between DiCaprio and Hill, out of their minds on delayed-action Quaaludes and tangled up in an extended telephone cord, is simultaneously pathetic and hilarious.

Bottom line: Previously nominated three times for Best Actor and once for Best Supporting Actor yet never taking Oscar home, this could be DiCaprio’s big year.

2. HER

Nominated for:

Best Picture: Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze, Vincent Landay

Best Original Score: William Butler, Owen Pallett

Best Music, Song: “The Moon Song”: Karen O, Spike Jonze

Best Production Design: K.K. Barrett, Gene Serdena

Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze

In a nutshell: A lonely man falls in love with his personal operating system.

In order to fully appreciate Her, one must accept its farfetched premise: in the near future, the technology of artificial intelligence has evolved to the point where virtual minds can interact meaningfully with humans and pursue unique interests and motives. It’s a big pill to swallow, but there it is, and everything else about the film is a logical extension of that idea. Taken in that spirit, Her rewards viewers with a dry satirization of technology’s dual capacity for connection and alienation. It also offers some deeper thoughts on the fundamental dynamics of relationships, conventional or otherwise.

Joaquin Phoenix is heartbreakingly believable as a man who makes a nice living working for a company that provides personal letters for clients without the skills, time or interest to write their own. He spends hours expressing warm sentiments on behalf of others, his sense of empathy highly tuned, and thus he quickly succumbs to the charms of a customized operating system that seeks to meet his every desire. Could it be the key to lasting love?

As much as I enjoyed Phoenix’s performance, the real hero of Her is its outstanding production design. Every piece of technology has the look and feel of something that might really be just around the corner. Consequently, Her doesn’t so much appear futuristic as it resembles today with subtle twists. The best thing about director Spike Jonze’s alternate world is how natural and organic it seems, as though a room-filling holographic video game is nothing out of the ordinary, just another pathetic way for a lonely guy to pass the hours.

Bottom line: Look beyond the high concept, and you’ll find a devastatingly witty satire of consumer culture and its erosion of society.

1. PHILOMENA

Nominated for:

Best Picture: Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan, Tracey Seaward

Best Actress: Judi Dench

Best Original Score: Alexandre Desplat

Best Adapted Screenplay: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope

In a nutshell: A sophisticated journalist reluctantly takes on the human-interest story of Philomena Lee, a staunch Catholic whose illegitimate son was put up for adoption without her consent by the nuns that took her in over fifty years ago.

“Yes…yes…yes…” I recall myself thinking halfway through Philomena, thoroughly won over by its artistry yet worried that its exceptional quality might not persist to the end. Like watching a flawless figure skating routine, you sit on the edge of your seat, enthralled, affirming every successful jump and hoping desperately that the performance can be brought to a winning conclusion. I needn’t have worried. Philomena is a great movie.

Much of the credit goes to an intelligent script that strikes a remarkable balance between aesthetic extremes. There is unjust tragedy of the magnitude that may provoke outrage from audiences, but somehow there is also lighthearted comedy. Yes, the movie raises an eyebrow at the submissive naiveté of the blindly faithful, yet it also takes a dig at the world-weary cynicism of secularists. A redeeming empathy between its main characters suggests that the opposing philosophies may not be as far apart as they seem.

Steve Coogan’s understated performance is being largely overlooked this awards season, a shame that is nevertheless fully understandable, because Judi Dench is flat-out fantastic. Her Philomena is as fully realized a character as ever graced the screen. In a Best Actress race featuring such diverse roles as astronaut, con woman, shattered socialite and drugged-out matriarch, Judi Dench stands out for her precisely rendered depiction of the ordinary, perhaps the greatest acting challenge of them all.

Bottom line: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay. I don’t expect to see anyone representing Philomena accepting any one of those awards on Oscar night, but I’ll be giving a heartfelt cheer if they do.