2014 Best Picture: The good, the blah, and the utterly undeserving

This March, there can be only one. Photo from SF Station.

This March, there can be only one. Photo from SF Station.

Like it or not, it’s Oscar time again, which means it’s time for us to start our annual bout of anger over snubs, hopeful wishes for our favorites, and bewilderment over some of the stranger (read: not very deserving) candidates this year. Unlike last year’s surprisingly diverse crop, this year is much more homogenous and prestige picture-y. That also means it’ll be a close race, though, so we’ll have to keep our eyes peeled for any future developments with the Academy. For now, let us begin our journey through the best and worst of this year’s Oscar crop.

“12 Years a Slave” | Steve McQueen

What’s it about? Arguably the most talked-about film of the year, for good and for ill, this adaptation of Solomon Northup’s (played in the film by Chiwetel Ejiofor) memoir of the same name explores 12 harrowing years of Northup’s life as he is captured from his life as a free man in Washington, D.C. and sold into slavery in Louisiana. 

Is it good? While some aspects of the film are problematic, such as the perpetuation of the “white savior” archetype, the fact that this is yet another slave story when many other black stories demand to be told and the “hero problem” overshadowing what should be an overall tragic story, this is an impeccably made film. Ejiofor’s lead performance is a master class in acting without being showy, and he receives more than capable support from Michael Fassbender and especially Lupita Nyong’o, a stunning new talent who is absolutely heartbreaking in every single scene. McQueen knows his craft very well, and conveys stunning emotion and deep understanding of the vicious cycle of slavery through careful selection of symbolism and framing without being didactic. 

Will it win? It’s certainly a frontrunner, given its recent win for Best Drama at the Golden Globes and Best Picture wins in numerous other award ceremonies. However, the other categories are a tad sticky. Ejiofor might (sadly) get shut out of Best Actor by Leonardo DiCaprio or Matthew McConaughey, given their success at the Globes and SAG, but Nyong’o’s SAG win makes her the one to beat for Supporting Actress. McQueen winning Best Director is an even dicier proposition, with showy work from Alfonso Cuarón (Golden Globe winner) and Martin Scorsese to compete against, but the film’s overall respect might carry McQueen through to a win. An Adapted Screenplay win is probable, since it doesn’t have “American Hustle” to compete against, and a win for Costume Design is also likely, with the Academy’s love of period pieces.

“American Hustle” | David O. Russell

What’s it about? In this splashy, flashy, trashy crime epic, con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are strong-armed into doing police work for Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) so that four additional arrests can be made. But amidst of all the various crosses, double-crosses, and triple-crosses, Irving’s brazen wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) could be the one who brings the entire operation to its knees.

Maybe the original title, "American Bullshit," would have been more apt thematically. Photo from Business Insider.

Maybe the original title, “American Bullshit,” would have been more apt thematically. Photo from Business Insider.

Is it good? “American Hustle” continues in the recent David O. Russell tradition of being impressive upon first viewing, but not holding up well to scrutiny later. The tone is unbalanced, never quite sure if it wants to be comedic or dramatic (neither excelling nor failing at either one), and the structure is simply mush when it attempts to convey chaos. The acting is mostly loud and over-the-top (appropriate, given the cartoonish story) but some of it is very well done, especially Adams, who delivers some of her most nuanced work yet. Thematically, there’s a lot of half-formed ideas about survival that occasionally hit home, but usually sputter and die before they have real impact. That leaves us with a movie that’s a very good period piece, a half-good, half-not-so good character study, and a muddle of an overall story.

Will it win? With 10 nominations, a TON of critical love and a Golden Globe win for Best Comedy behind it, the odds are good. Adams has a very good shot at a Best Actress win, but Cate Blanchett’s SAG win might mean she’s out. Bale and Cooper have far too much fussed-over competition in their respective categories to make much of a difference, but Lawrence’s Golden Globe win means she might give Lupita Nyong’o a run for her money. Original Screenplay is an unlikely candidate, given the love for “Her” in that regard, but Production Design and Costuming are good shots.


“Captain Phillips” | Paul Greengrass

What’s it about? Based on true events, Paul Greengrass’s latest politically charged actioner dramatizes the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, where Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), a merchant, is taken hostage by Somali pirates, led by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi).

Is it good? This is extremely thorny political and racial territory that Greengrass is mining here, but he does it with a deft hand and a surprisingly humanist eye. Hanks and Abdi are electrifying here, and lend their characters (who could have been mere cardboard cutouts) surprising depth, particularly in the emotionally overwhelming climax. Greengrass’s signature handheld camera aesthetic has never been more appropriate, managing to convey horror and chaos far more effectively than any other film that uses this admittedly gimmicky setup.

Will it win? Not likely. It’s been unfairly shut out of most major wins, and doesn’t show signs of picking up the slack anytime soon. Abdi’s impressive work will probably go un-acknowledged in favor of Jared Leto’s showier performance (more on that in a moment), but there’s still a small chance for the Editing and Sound categories.

“Dallas Buyers Club” | Jean-Marc Vallée

What’s it about? This year’s obligatory person-dying-of-debilitating-disease movie focuses on the life of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a bigoted cowboy who learns he has full-blown AIDS and about 30 days to live. Together with Rayon (Jared Leto), an AIDS-positive transwoman, he starts the Dallas Buyers Club, an organization dedicated to getting medication to HIV-positive patients.

Yes, sit down. All that Oscarbation sure is exhausting. Photo from Slate.

Yes, sit down. All that Oscarbation sure is exhausting. Photo from Slate.

Is it good? WARNING: UNPOPULAR OPINION INCOMING. This movie is, quite frankly, a pile of pandering garbage that we thought even the Academy wouldn’t be dumb enough to take. It’s deeply troubling that the only major Hollywood film in years to tackle the topic of AIDS is about a virulent homophobe who can scream “f—-t” all he wants, so long as he gets a halo over his head by the end because of his Magical Transgender Friend, who’s little more than a pile of eye-rolling stereotypes. The writing is cheap and manipulative, the performances are the typical gimme-an-Oscar wankery we’ve come to expect from films like this (especially the preening Leto, who’s been ridiculously overpraised for his “bravery”), and the flat, insensitive direction makes it come across as “The Help” for AIDS victims. Ugh. No more.

Will it win? Oh please God no Not likely, given the more thematically daring competition. Leto is (unfortunately) a lock for Supporting Actor, given the endless fellating he’s received from every friggin’ critic’s circle ever. McConaughey is a strong contender for Actor, with Golden Globe and SAG wins behind him. Everything else except for Makeup is a no. Or at least we hope so.

“Gravity” | Alfonso Cuarón

What’s it about? During a spacewalk to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are suddenly beset by a cloud of space debris that threatens to leave them to die in the middle of space, even detaching Stone from the shuttle. They must work together to make it back to the International Space Station and escape before their oxygen runs out.

Is it good? Very much so. While there’s some occasional awkward dialogue and symbolism, and the presence of well-known stars is distracting, Bullock and Clooney are never less than believable as determined people in an extraordinary and life-threatening situation. The film is a technical marvel, convincing within mere seconds that what you’re seeing is the vast and horrifying void of space and not an elaborate series of green screens and rigs. Cuarón’s camera is heart-stopping in its unflinching in-your-face treatment of the characters’ perils. It’s easily the best blockbuster of the year.

Will it win? Possibly. This is one of the most hyped films of the year, and it equals “American Hustle” in terms of nominations. Bullock faces very stiff competition from Adams and Blanchett in the Actress category, making her somewhat of a long shot there, but a sweep in the technical categories (particularly Cinematography, Score, Editing and Visual Effects) is all but certain. Cuarón is also a frontrunner for Director, but Scorsese and McQueen might give him a run for his money.

“Her” | Spike Jonze

What’s it about? Easily the weirdest movie on the list, this quirky sci-fi romance explores the bizarre relationship between an emotionally unstable man (Joaquin Phoenix) who’s going through a divorce and an OS (voice of Scarlett Johansson) who’s been programmed to perfectly replicate human intelligence.

Is it good? It’s the best film of 2013. Phoenix (who was unfairly snubbed) gives a career-best performance here, making his character not only plausible but even a little sympathetic, even with his more unsavory traits. Johansson impresses as well, even with only her voice. You often forget that Samantha isn’t really a human being because of the warmth and intelligence she projects, which helps the movie to an even greater degree by tapping into the massive reservoir of potential at its center. You see, “Her” isn’t just the older generation bemoaning all the time people spend on their phones like the premise might suggest, nor is it another Manic Pixie Dream Girl story. It’s about human existence and how we make the most of it, what constitutes life and love and the impact of the Singularity on daily life, but these heavy themes are explored through a script that’s at times painfully realistic in its dialogue choices and never succumbs to contrivance. It’s fascinating in every aspect, but doesn’t forget to give viewers an emotional grounding in its meaty concepts. Bring tissues to this one. 

"Her" is not as whimsical as this still from it is. Do we need to mention the sex scene? Photo from Filmmaker Magazine.

“Her” is not as whimsical as this still from it is. Do we need to mention the sex scene? Photo from Filmmaker Magazine.

Will it win? Since the film came late in the year and surprised everyone, it’s mostly a dark horse candidate for now, but should probably be put on the back burner due to “American Hustle” and “12 Years a Slave” running the show. The numerous richly deserved positive notices and award wins lavished upon its screenplay makes that a much more likely candidate in the Original Screenplay category, though.

“Nebraska” | Alexander Payne

What’s it about? When septuagenarian Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) receives a scam letter that leads him to believe he’s won a large amount of money in a magazine sweepstakes, he becomes obsessed and badgers his son David (Will Forte) into driving him to Nebraska to collect the money, becoming a hometown celebrity in the process and attracting greedy family members like flies. 

Is it good? While it initially scans as a bland prestige picture as desperate for validation as its protagonist, “Nebraska” thrives on its ambiguity and refusal to pander to expectations. Dern’s performance is deft and insightful enough that we’re never quite sure if Woody isn’t quite all there or fully cognizant, and turns him into someone of surprising depth in a way that the writing fully supports. In fact, all of the characters defy their initial roles in wonderful ways: June Squibb as Woody’s wife is particularly amazing in her transformation from foulmouthed skeptic to someone who really does care for her family. “Nebraska” is a wonderful character drama in just about every way, really. Catch it if you can.

Will it win? Sadly, we feel pretty confident in saying there’s not much chance of a win for “Nebraska” in any category (except maybe Dern as a dark horse for Actor). While the nominees are all deserving, there’s simply too much competition from other sources to bet on anything offered here. Sorry. 

“Philomena” | Stephen Frears

What’s it about? Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) was taken into custody of a convent as a “fallen woman” in the 1950s after getting pregnant as a teenager, and lost custody of her son. After 50 fruitless years of searching for her son, she meets Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a political journalist, who takes an interest in her story, and they set off to America to find more information.

Is it good? This one’s a tearjerker, but for the right reasons. Philomena’s story is one of internalized misogyny and horrific Church practices (the scenes of young Philomena in the convent are extraordinarily difficult to watch), but Philomena herself holds no ill will towards the Church for what they did to her, and this added to Martin’s outrage makes for an interesting take on what could be (and, to be honest, sometimes is here) very soppy, contrived subject matter. Dench and Coogan are both brilliant in their roles, and Frears is wonderful at finding levity in such heavy material, but never quite manages to avoid excess. It’s a featherweight compared to some of the other nominees, but it’s no slouch, either.

Will it win? While Dench is extraordinary and certainly helps make the Best Actress race even closer this year, there’s not much hope for this one to hit the big time. Put it in the same camp with “Nebraska”.


“The Wolf of Wall Street” | Martin Scorsese 

What’s it about? Martin Scorsese, making a movie about awful people doing awful things? Who’d have thunk it? His latest excursion into the lives of the scum of the earth focuses on the exploits of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the securities fraud that his firm engaged in on Wall Street in the 90’s.

"I'm king of the wooooorld! Shit, wait, wrong movie." Photo from Huffington Post.

“I’m king of the wooooorld! Shit, wait, wrong movie.” Photo from Huffington Post.

Is it good? While it certainly benefits from a host of very good performances (particularly Dicaprio, who’s never been more captivating in a lead role) and strong direction from Scorsese, the movie is bogged down by its flabby running time and repetitious script. While the story Scorsese has to tell is an important one, just watching people be horrible for nearly three hours isn’t interesting in and of itself, and the fact that Belfort technically profits directly from this film (he makes a cameo) makes it icky to consume. We’re not saying “torrent it”, but…torrent it if you must.

Will it win? While DiCaprio’s win at the Globes makes him a good contender for Actor, and Scorsese’s bravura direction pushes him to the lead of his bracket along with Cuarón and McQueen, practically nothing else has really tickled other award ceremony’s fancies. So, probably no.

2 thoughts on “2014 Best Picture: The good, the blah, and the utterly undeserving

  1. Great article! I couldn’t agree more (except on Dallas Buyers Club). I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I disliked American Hustle but you summed it up very well, especially when I think back to Silver Linings.

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