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 award it with 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.
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can do little but throw her hands up in the air in exasperation at his repeated attempts to walk there (his license was revoked).
The Wolf of Wall Street Directed by: Martin Scorsese Written by: Terrence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book) Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Kyle Chandler
One of the biggest bright spots in this year’s Oscar nominations is the amount of prestige bestowed on a three-hour spectacle of almost non-stop vulgarity. I have a pretty good feeling that Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is nominated simply because of the pedigree of talent involved. It is almost as polarizing (and misunderstood) as Shutter Island, which probably would have been nominated had it been released during awards season.
Scorsese, whether or not he likes it, is an Oscar mainstay now, and would likely have to tank in an almost unfathomable way to not get attention from the voters. The Wolf of Wall Street looks kind of like an Oscar film on the surface, but it’s also everything that they typically dislike:
It’s a comedy. It’s a black comedy. It’s not self-serious. It’s three hours and not about World War II or ancient history.
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.
Lincoln Directed by: Steven Spielberg Written by: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book) Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and David Strathairn
The controversy surrounding Lincoln’s depiction of African Americans has been slightly dwarfed in the wake of Django Unchained. There was still rampant, endlessly insightful discussion of it in all corners of the internet, but its subdued, melancholy pacing doesn’t place that issue front and center, and it is decidedly less confrontational than Tarantino’s bloody Southern.
After watching Spielberg’s political epic a second time, I came away with a renewed appreciation for the skill with which it was crafted. Tony Kushner’s flair for language, the astonishing performances by everyone from Daniel Day-Lewis to Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones, the production design- all of these meld to form a focused political thriller that ranks among Spielberg’s finest films.
Silver Linings Playbook Directed by: David O. Russell Written by: David O. Russell (screenplay), Matthew Quick (novel) Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver
Silver Linings Playbook ends on the thrillingly odd culmination of a dance competition and an NFL football game, the result of a high stakes parlay bet between an obsessive compulsive Philadelphia Eagles fan (Robert De Niro) and a rival gambler who favors the Dallas Cowboys (Paul Herman). It is a fitting conclusion given that the rest of the movie, for all its seeming narrative conformity, is a rampant, lively piece of work that does what it wants, when it wants.
Part of the reason for this is that its two main characters, two damaged, mentally unstable people played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, do that as well and director David O. Russell is just trying to keep up with them. It could also be the other way around, though. Russell has such a lively way with camera movement and atmosphere that the constant sense of motion and organized chaos seems exhausting. For the most part the performers, especially Lawrence, are more than up to the task. She makes Tiffany such a force of nature that the miscasting of Bradley Cooper is barely noticeable.
A Better Life Directed by: Chris Weitz Written by: Eric Eason (screenplay), Roger L. Simon (story) Starring: Demián Bichir,José Julián, Dolores Heredia and Carlos Linares
A Better Life is that movie that seemingly came out of nowhere and snagged a nomination for Best Actor at this year’s Oscars. Its star, Demián Bichir, is a virtually unknown actor whose most prominent role was a lengthy stint on the marijuana dramedy Weeds. His performance in this movie is an understated thing of beauty, much like fellow nominee Gary Oldman’s turn in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Bichir plays Carlos Galindo, an illegal immigrant and single father making a living as a gardener in Los Angeles to support his troubled son Luis (José Julián). Though putting immigration front and center makes the movie unavoidably political, at its heart A Better Life is a father/son legacy story. Carlos plays that instantly recognizable parent character, the one who works his ass off so his child can have… a better life.