It’s Oscar season again and I am way way behind from shilling my two cents on last year’s Oscars. Busy schedule and lack of a permanent residence contributed to my inactivity in 2014. Even that Oscar week, I simply had no time to view all the Best Picture nominees. I was stuck on vacation in St. Maarten (poor me). So this is my first time compiling the list after an Oscar telecast. I actually chose to watch most of these many months after March. I waited for the fickle awards hype to fade so the films can fairly stand on its own merit.
9 – Nebraska
I’ve always liked Alexander Payne’s movies so it was a bit shocking and disappointing that I felt so displaced in his “Nebraska.” The film admirably paints a nice B&W cinematography, but it makes the Midwest so monochromatic and drab. The only vibrant color in the picture is actress June Squibb, who scores some of the movie’s best unfiltered lines. Alas, she’s only on a supporting role. Meanwhile, the protagonist Woody, played by Bruce Dern, is so uninteresting – mindless and stubborn as a wood. The movie does get fired up on a few humorous scenes. But overall, its Paynesian folk humor didn’t quite stick out for me. And I’m left with a frustrating splintered comedy – where its pieces don’t quite come together to make a solid film.
8 – Dallas Buyers Club
Alright, alright, alright. “Dallas Buyers Club” can be aptly described as Matthew McConaughey’s movie. The Oscar winner, riding on a creative high, showcased his skills with such plucky bravado that the film was reduced as a stage. He simply overpowered the editing, screenplay, and direction. Should the McConaisance have been reined in? Maybe. Maybe not. But then again, I wonder too if the actor effectively concealed or glossed over the movie’s weaknesses. Only Jared Leto, a revelation, managed to escaped McConaughey’s shadows. The Best Supporting actor winner’s graceful demeanor is such a great contrast to McConaughey that he seems to be acting in a different movie. As great as it is witnessing these astounding actors, acting alone does not make a movie. It might’ve gone right for McConaughey, but the film is left askew.
7 – Captain Phillips
“How long can they stretch this out?” It was a question I kept asking myself while I watched “Captain Phillips.” I won’t deny that the film is harrowingly thrilling, thanks to pro Paul Greengrass’ penchant for shaky verisimilitude. And breakout actor Barkhad Abdi as the gutsy Somalian pirate is mesmerizing to watch. But since this is based on a true story, the known ending waters down some of the suspense. And it’s even worse, I guess, if you are surprisingly rooting for the “bad” guy. “Captain Phillips” is a well-made picture and effortlessly transports you on unstable and dangerous waters. But I also found myself sometimes adrift and bored. Stretch the movie longer and I would’ve jumped off board.
6 – Gravity
Of the nine movies, I thought “Gravity” would easily rocket to the top of my list. I am a huge fan of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” and my anticipation for the director’s next venture was high. “Gravity,” as expected, is a tremendous technical achievement. Mostly taking place in space, the film is prime to impress with special effects. The unforgiving stampede of debris, the difficulty of space travel, the meticulous details of space stations, and the chaotic physical forces at work. All superbly demonstrated on the film.
The story, on the other hand, is another story. It’s disappointing, really. It’s manipulative in the way it hurls its heroine from one desired dire situation to another. Sandra Bullock is a good actress, but she’s capsuled on a wimpy role. I would’ve preferred a more compelling lead. Also, the movie should’ve cut loose its heavy drama and hackneyed banter. The movie does not earn them. The encompassing sense of helplessness is enough to propel the movie. And yet despite all this baggage, “Gravity” still muscles through and soars. Of course, not as high as the others on this list.
5 – 12 Years a Slave
“12 Years a Slave” emerged as the Best Picture winner on Oscar night. The movie centers on Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who was kidnapped and forced into slavery. His staggering transition is brutal to watch. The film is potent and whips up violence as bloody graphic as “The Passion of Christ.” It’s masterful in harvesting compelling scenes from its true-to-life source. Its tricky challenge is determining how far will it profit from portraying its black characters as good and their white counterparts as evil.
The film gives it an admirable effort, but I felt so disturbed by its showcase of its Caucasian actors, as if to say – Look at them being so dedicated and gut-wrenchingly brave for being so cruel. I’m sure it was a tough act, but it also took away some focus from Solomon. Ejiofor is remarkable in the lead, but it’s an internal, slow, soul-draining role that competes with rigorous “evil” acting. For the times the movie loses Solomon, “12 Years a Slave” not only misses its emotional center, it also dims the picture.
4 – Philomena
When I was a teen, I selected critically acclaimed movies for family nights. The easy way would have been to pick popular titles. “Boring” can put dad to sleep. Push-the-envelope might be pushing it for mom. And “weird” will weird out my siblings. The ideal movie has to strike a balance among our individual tastes and oddly, “Philomena” would have been a satisfying choice.
Mom would have rooted for its titular protagonist, a mother in search of a son she has lost in adoption. Dad would have dug its instances of comedy (Steve Coogan’s British humor, but it’ll be funny to him). And my siblings would have been involved by the shocking twists and turns. And for me, “Philomena” astounds in its serendipitous collaboration of Dench (acting), Coogan (screenplay) and Frears (direction). It’s an odd mix, but the way they adjust each others’ skill sets was just magical. It’s rarely this successful. Dench loses her authoritative stance and emerges as a believable salt-of-the-earth Irish woman. Coogan seamlessly injects lightness in a film plump with dark and heavy turning points. And Frears expertly balances the film’s tone and still conjures a realistic and heartfelt viewpoint. While “Philomena” does not stray from a biopic format, it’s a sure-footed, flawlessly-told journey. That’s a huge factor that’s missing among some films on this list.
3 – American Hustle
It may be a movie about con artists, but “American Hustle” delivered genuinely on its hype. As advertised, it is a retro, slick, exhilarating, twists-upon-twist of a film with full-on actors game for battle of wits, hearts, and of course, money. It’s an extravagant mess (in a really good way) and it succeeds due to the fiery dedication of its director (David O. Russell) and its Oscar-nominated cast.
I mean, really. The movie keeps raising and raising its stakes that it almost loses its control. It fascinates as it sets up its four key players as so formidable that not one might come out unscathed in the end. And what a cast of four this was! All have been nominated before on previous Russell films. Adams, Bale, Cooper, and Lawrence are once again unleashed, unabashedly performing on edge. They have a raw, dynamic chemistry that seem to be an expected staple of anything from David O. Russell. The playful, constantly moving screenplay dizzy-dazzled. The movie is such a rush that blurs its flaws. But hey, count me as one happy fool. Happy to have been conned by the movie.
2 – Her
“Her” is the best unconventional romance movie since “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Writer-director Spike Jonze more than deserves his Oscar for developing such a gorgeous and profound screenplay. Its intriguing premise places a dorky loner (Joaquin Phoenix) in a relationship with its OS (beautifully voiced by the Scarlett Johansson). I’ve seen this play out comically (“Big Bang Theory” has an inspired episode) but Jonze has the curiosity and audacity to see it evolve honestly. And really, sometimes that’s all you ask of a writer – to milk the story for all its worth truthfully.
I love the way the movie thinks and ponders. It wonderfully opens the third eye as it addresses the concept of humanity, the blurring of fake and real, and the very definition of a full-fledged connection. The story can throw you off sometimes, because it takes place in a such a weird realm. But the immediacy and sincerity of its two characters always pull you right back in. It’s a challenging movie, but its success come in subtle, small details like Phoenix’s facial expressions and Johansson’s sympathetic tone. They convey so much and propel the movie like no other. When it ended, I was overwhelmed. The fictional movie powerfully evoked genuine thoughts and emotions. Sometimes that’s all you ask of a movie.
1 – The Wolf of Wall Street
Of all the nominees, this is the one I did not want to see. Seriously. Why did I need to watch rich people cheat their way to be richer so they can indulge for indulgence’s sake? It makes me mad thinking about it. I was ready to hate it. And yet, here it is, because the movie had such big balls to win me over, “The Wolf of Wall Street” shockingly and gloriously howls on top of my list.
I did not expect director Martin Scorcese to kick this towards haphazard, loony of a comedy. This is one of the funniest movies in years and its unrelenting hilarity totally disarmed my bias. This is also a different kind of Scorcese. His energetic direction is still at its prime, but I also sensed more glee, a more spirited improvisation at work. Comedy directors should take note of what he has done here.
The acting is insane in this one too. I would have given Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar for his lead performance. I have never seen the actor so in-the-zone, so committed to the sheer lunacy of it. It’s an absolutely brave and brilliant performance. And the screenplay bursts with so many memorable moments that range from the pleasantly surreal to the harrowing and disturbing. It’s a whirlwind of a movie and I didn’t expect to have such a blast watching it. I am glad I took the chance to see. To even think I could’ve missed it.
Should have been nominated: