BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Dallas Buyers Club

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Dallas Buyers Club
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by: Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner and Denis O’Hare

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto play polar opposites brought together by the horrors of AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club, an unsettling message movie that doesn’t want to admit it’s a message movie.

As the unsparing homophobe Ron Woodroof, McConaughey takes his natural on-screen charm to a demented new register here.  First seen at the center of a sweaty threesome at a rodeo, it’s not long before he’s slinging the word “faggot” in a locker room with his pals.  It’s also only a matter of minutes before he’s sitting in a hospital, being told that his T-cell count is so low he has 30 days to live.  When his doctor asks him if he’s had gay sex, he goes into a fit of rage.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Captain Phillips

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Captain Phillips
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray (screenplay), Richard Phillips (book)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman and Faysal Ahmed

The final scenes in Captain Phillips are some of the most disturbing and haunting of the year.  They also somewhat erase the good guy/bad guy mentality and replace it with raw humanity. (Spoiler ahead) They involve Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) screaming his head off while covered in the blood of recently-killed Somali pirates who were holding him hostage.  It is a raw portrayal of trauma, and it resonates more than anything else in this taut if mostly unsubstantial movie.

Like Gravity, Paul Greengrass’ latest film operates on the built-in history audiences have with its Hollywood star.  Hanks doesn’t disappear into the title character as much as he uses his image to enhance the terror of the situation.  It’s the actor we are meant to see struggle with a pirate raid on his cargo ship while traveling off the African coast.  Those last scenes in particular are crucial reminders of that.

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REVIEW: American Hustle

Christian Bale;Jeremy Renner;Bradley Cooper

American Hustle
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Singer & David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence

Two cartoonishly ’70s-looking men stand in an art gallery gazing at a Rembrandt painting, or at least what one of them thinks is a Rembrandt painting.  The other guy, a con man played by Christian Bale, explains with his thick Brooklyn accent that it’s a fake.

“The guy who made this was so good, that it’s real to everybody.  Now, who’s the master: the painter or the forger?” he asks.

It’s as if director David O. Russell is speaking through Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) at this moment, pondering the question a little too sincerely.  American Hustle, his sleek and contagiously energetic latest endeavor, is also somewhat of a forgery. It’s being released nationwide the week before The Wolf of Wall Street, and I’m curious to see which one is more widely praised, the original Scorsese or this loving knockoff.

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REVIEW: Nebraska

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Nebraska
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb and Bob Odenkirk

The most endearing image of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is of an old man stubbornly trudging along the highways and sidewalks of rural America.  The camera is placed a patient distance in front of him, not sighing at his pace but simply waiting for him to catch up.  That distance is indicative of the relationship that that man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), has with the rest of the world.  He’s quietly stubborn, wearing a look of defeat as his default expression.  His son David (Will Forte) sees that and pities him.

Pity is the main engine that drives Nebraska’s sparse story, which Payne makes incidental to character and landscape.  Woody is walking from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in a $1 million slip he got from a sham marketing company.  His wife Kate (June Squibb) can do little but throw her hands up in the air in exasperation at his repeated attempts to walk there (his license was revoked).

“I didn’t know the son of a bitch wanted to be a millionaire.  He should have thought of that years ago and worked for it,” she says in one of the movie’s best lines.

What makes Woody’s painful-looking shuffle resonate is not that he is aimless but that his goal is unattainable.  David eventually indulges him, embarking on a road trip that lands them, almost too conveniently, in Woody’s hometown. Hawthorne is a small Nebraskan village that seems forgotten by time.   Payne’s decision to shoot the movie in black and white only enhances this, adding a tinge of melancholy to the wide open plains and quaint, vacant streets.

Word spreads quickly about Woody’s million-dollar jackpot.  Despite David’s attempts to quell any celebration of it his father soon becomes the talk of the town, for better and worse.  He is envied and celebrated for a while, until family and old friends start to subtly bring up past debts.  Woody is oblivious to almost all of this, and Dern gives the impression that his character’s journey is so single-minded because it’s all he has the energy to focus on.

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Nebraska’s weakest link is in the way the story forces itself together.  There is no real reason why Kate and her and Woody’s oldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) need to join them in Hawthorne.  After Woody hits his head after a fall, Bob Nelson’s script seems determined to pin him and his family in that town for much longer than Woody would ever actually stay there.

Payne balances the somewhat sloppy story with the most emotionally delicate direction he’s done so far.  The Descendants, his previous feature, also had a contrived story, and it felt like it did.  Nebraska doesn’t.  It unfolds more spontaneously, never a slave to its central plot and much better off for it.  It’s an elegiac, bitterly funny examination of the Grants rather than a father/son bonding narrative.

The best scene happens in Hawthorne’s cemetery right after Kate arrives from Montana.  She, David and Woody are surrounded by the stumps of countless modest graves.  Kate talks blatantly about the people buried beneath them, her crass observations offset by her son’s discomfort and her husband’s weary obliviousness.

Kate’s brazen manner thankfully softens as the movie goes on, creating more than a castrating caricature.  Squibb slowly reveals the kindness inside her without failing to skillfully execute many of the script’s best comedic moments.  Her and Dern show us a couple hardened by a less-than-ideal life, but still trying to make a go at it.

Nebraska is just as funny and humane as Payne’s best movies.  He offers a view of rural America that the Coen brothers might have made if they were (just a little) less condescending.  Working with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, he has also created his most visually accomplished work to date.  In films like Sideways and About Schmidt, I remembered the terrific dialogue and the richly conceived characters, and the way Payne found a way to understand them when they seemed unreachable.  There weren’t images as memorable as what he has here, though.  It is a fairly big leap for him as a filmmaker, with all the imperfection that often comes with such risks.

Grade: B-

REVIEW: Blue Is the Warmest Color

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Blue Is the Warmest Color
Directed by: Abdellatif Kechiche
Written by: Abdellatif Kechiche & Ghalia Lacroix (screenplay), Julie Maroh (graphic novel)
Starring: Adèle Exachopoulos, Léa Seydoux, Salim Kechiouche and Benjamin Siksou

A three-hour epic of writhing limbs and ferocious love, Blue Is the Warmest Color is without a doubt one of the most unforgettable and complicated movie-going experiences of year.  The performances are so raw, the young actresses so vulnerable in their portrayal of this intense relationship, that it nearly transcends some of its director’s problematic depictions of them.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s film deeply impressed this year’s Steven Spielberg-led Cannes jury, taking home the Palme d’Or but also sparking intense debate.  Julie Maroh, the writer of the graphic novel, said that while watching the sex scenes it became clear to her that there were no lesbians on the set.  She connected the way Kechiche shot those scenes to a later conversation in the film, where a man at a dinner party discusses how sacred and mystical the female orgasm is.

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REVIEW: 12 Years a Slave

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12 Years a Slave
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (memoir)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofer, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Sarah Paulson

Connecting 12 Years a Slave immediately to its Oscar buzz because of when a studio chose to release it would be a disservice to it.  To put it simply, this is the most powerful film about American slavery that I’ve ever seen, and diminishing that accomplishment by asking if the white male establishment of the Academy can handle it enough to nominate it for anything is at the bottom of my list.

Steve McQueen’s previous two features, Hunger and Shame, were visually brilliant, but at times lacking a crucial human element.  This was especially true of Shame, whose miserabalism was supposed to be its own profound reward but ultimately registered as empty.  There is obviously a great deal of suffering in 12 Years a Slave, but also an intense humanity.

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REVIEW: After Tiller

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After Tiller  
Directed by: Martha Shane and Lana Wilson
Written by: Greg O’Toole, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson

After Dr. George Tiller was assassinated in a Kansas church in 2009, only four doctors in America remained who would perform late-term abortions.  After Tiller is a somewhat illuminating profile of those people and the women who seek the controversial procedure.

Directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, After Tiller is a compassionate, often clear-headed look at an issue that often prompts shouts of fire and brimstone.  Some of that fire and brimstone makes it into the finished product, as protesters stand outside the various clinics with signs and rosaries, urging the women not to go through with the procedure or damning the doctors who perform it.  For the most part, though, the documentary stays inside the clinics and homes where those doctors work and live.

Those clinics are fascinating places to be, even if many of the employees seemed to put on some sort of facade for the camera at times.  In fact, After Tiller was most effective when that facade clashed with the heart-wrenching testimony of a patient.  They are not only grappling with the unimaginable hardships of their everyday; they are trying to show the world what they do, and why.

In that sense, Shane and Wilson are clearly on their side.  However level-headed their documentary seems, simply looking at these doctors as people instead of lightning rods is taking a stand on this issue.  In an interview on Democracy Now! following the film’s premiere at Sundance, Shane calls the doctors “incredible individuals.”

In that same interview, Wilson talks about her frustration at the human element being left out of the discussion on local media following Dr. Tiller’s murder. She also said that she was motivated by why exactly women would need a third-trimester abortion, which was also my biggest question going in to see After Tiller.

Those abortions account for less than 1 percent of all procedures.  They involve euthanizing the fetus and allowing the woman to give birth, and they’re usually performed in instances where the child will have no quality of life or the mother will be killed in labor.  Dr. Shelley Sella, who works in Albuquerque, New Mexico, talks about the bleakness of this operation, and how it’s impossible not to see those fetuses as babies.

This is how she explains it:

“I think about what I do all the time, and I recognize what I do, and at times I struggle, and at times I don’t.  But I always come back to the woman, and what she’s going through; and, often, what life will this baby have?  What will it mean to be alive with horrific fetal abnormalities?  It’s not just about being alive, it’s about life and what does it mean?”

It’s an astonishing admission, followed by one of several heart-wrenching interviews with patients, their quivering, nervous hands substituting for their faces and protecting their identities.  It’s impossible for me to fathom their situation, and the undeniable weight it has on them and the doctors.

When Shane and Wilson steer away from scenes like that toward the protests, the biggest problems with After Tiller surface.  It’s not that the filmmakers express a distinct point of view in advocating for legal abortion.  As A.O. Scott noted in his review, “a documentary should be assessed as a representation of the world as it is, from a perspective that is itself part of that world.”

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I completely agree with that sentiment, but at times it felt as if the issue was being presented with the exact absence of humanity that Wilson said she sought to restore. This is especially true of Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who moves from Nebraska to Maryland during the course of the documentary because late-term abortions are outlawed.  Shane and Wilson follow him as he scouts out various locations, one of them a standard-looking house in a suburban neighborhood.

There are a couple of eerily placed shots during this sequence, though.  One is of a playground from the other side of a fence.  The other is of a daycare sign, with Carhart and his wife waiting at a traffic light near it.  These shots immediately stuck out to meFor such a formally straightforward documentary, the inclusion of these shots at the moment when a late-term abortionist is looking for a building to rent seemed extremely wrong-headed.  They don’t highlight the moral toll the job has on Carhart as much as they add a queasy, and inappropriate, audacity.

After he finds a building and reopens in Maryland, anti-abortion protestors target his landlord by protesting outside his daughter’s middle school with photos of late-term aborted fetuses.  This entire segment with Carhart, from when he left Nebraska to when he resettled, weakened the movie’s effect on me.  I’ve seen this side of the abortion debate, with its seemingly endless protests and polarized narratives.

What I hadn’t seen before was Dr. Susan Robinson, who also works in Albuquerque, talk with heavy reluctance about how she decides when to perform the procedure. There was also the moment where Dr. Warren Hern, based in Colorado, tells a rape victim looking for guidance to seek out the police, and then hugs her.  Those are the scenes that make After Tiller a worthwhile and necessary contribution to this issue.  With their unprecedented access, Shane and Wilson capture enough of them to overshadow those other flaws.

Grade: B-