The Oscars: Best Picture Contenders Reviewed

'Gold man down' . Courtesy of Fleur-de-Louis (Flickr)
The Dallas Buyer's Club. Courtesy of Ignite News Mohawk (Flickr)
The Dallas Buyer’s Club. Courtesy of Ignite News Mohawk (Flickr)

Dallas Buyers Club

Director: Jean-Marc-Vallee

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto.

Set in the 1980’s, against the backdrop of the aids epidemic, this film tells the story of Ron Woodroof, a small-time hustler and electrician in Texas. We meet Woodroof just before he is diagnosed with HIV and given one month to live. At the time, Woodroof himself, along with many others, believed that only homosexuals could contract aids. Coming to terms with the facts of his situation, Woodroof began to research his condition and fight for better medication and services from a medical system which prioritized profit over purpose. He eventually had to take on the FDA and major pharmaceutical companies in an ongoing battle, simply to try and get the drugs required to maintain his health, whilst also starting a business to provide these same medications to other sufferers.

I, like a lot of people, was initially curious to see McConaughey’s drastic change in appearance. I didn’t have to wait long as he is startlingly skinny right from the film’s outset, getting skinnier still as the movie progresses. The story is moving, sad and at times outrageous. If you thought Michael Moore’s ‘Sicko’ was an indictment of the American Health Service, this won’t make you any happier.

The acting is superb. McConaughey offers more than a serious amount of weight loss, throwing himself into the role of Woodroof with admirable panache. This is no surprise to those of us old enough to remember the Matthew McConaughey who first emerged in intense, well-acted movies like ‘A Time to Kill’ or for anyone who saw ‘Mud’ last year. He may have spent the best part of the last ten years making water from wine but the man has talent.

Perhaps the greater revelation then, is Jared Leto. The 30 Seconds to Mars lead singer spends the whole movie dressed and made up in woman’s clothing playing the role of Rayon, Woodroof’s reluctant business partner and guide to all things homosexual. The bond between the two is fascinating to watch and Leto elicits real sympathy with his portrayal of the brave, headstrong and slightly lost young Rayon.

At times, this is not an easy movie to watch but then I suppose one expects that given the subject matter. There is also a suspicion that this project was made with the Oscars in mind. There are a few of these emotionally manipulative Hollywood productions released every year around this time. Some fall into the trap of becoming no more than a vehicle for their star. ‘Watch as Matthew cries, watch as he laughs, watch as he dances’.

This is not that movie. It takes on a serious subject and it takes it on with the respect it deserves. If nothing else, the role of both homophobia and Big Medicine in exacerbating the aids crisis in the 80’s is touched upon in enough detail to whet one’s curiousity and encourage further research.

It might not be a film many people will want to watch twice but it is a film everyone should see once.

In terms of the Oscars, McConaughey and Leto are both being strongly tipped to bring home a gold man and the movie itself is amongst the favourites for Best Picture.

Update: These predictions proved accurate. McConaughey  and Leto took the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor awards respectively.

Gravity. Courtesy of Thefanboyseo1 (Flickr)
Gravity. Courtesy of Thefanboyseo1 (Flickr)


Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Starring: George Clooney and Sandra Bullock

Gravity tells the story of a space-walk gone horribly wrong. Experienced astronaut Matt Kowalski and Dr Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first space-walk, are left stranded alone in space when an accident destroys their shuttle.

This film is all about the direction and the cinematography and from my perspective is the must-see movie of the year. Forget what you think of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Forget what you think about movies set in space. Gravity is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Ideally, it should have been seen in 3D in the cinema so if you haven’t seen it and you get such an opportunity, take it. Even on a plain old 2D television, it is clear to see that Cuarón has created a technical masterpiece.

For anyone who has ever wondered what it would be like to go into space, this is the film for you. From the moment Bullock’s character is sent spinning helplessly away from the Earth, the tension never lets up. Even if the plot has a hole or two, it doesn’t matter. The dizzying effects and masterfully created physics render Gravity a stunning piece of cinema. It possibly deserves to win Best Picture for that alone.

Update: Gravity missed out on Best Picture but director Alfonso Cuaron did scoop the Best Director award and the film won the Best Visual Effects prize.

Nebraska. Courtesy of machu picchu (Flickr)
Nebraska. Courtesy of machu picchu (Flickr)


Director: Alexander Payne

Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach

 Nebraska begins by showing us an old, exhausted man named Woody stumbling down the highway. We learn that the man (Bruce Dern) has received junk-mail in the post and believes that this mail is his ticket to 1 million dollars. We then meet his wife and his two adult sons, none of whom are keen to assist Woody in collecting his prize as none of them believe it actually exists. On top of that, Woody enjoys a drink, quite possibly more than he enjoys his family. Woody is insistent about claiming his prize, however, and eventually one of his sons agrees to drive him. What follows is perhaps the slowest road movie in the history of slow road movies.

In terms of plot, almost nothing happens. I suppose there’s a big difference between ‘almost nothing’ and nothing in that Nebraska does attempt a nuanced examination of stagnating lives and dreams, set against the flat landscape of the region. The whole thing is shot in black and white and the cinematography contributes to a melancholy, frustrating experience. I’ve no doubt that film students will love the shots of flat Nebraska scenery set against vast uncaring skies. Throughout the film, the landscape seems to roll by as the sky sits unmoving, distant and aloof; which is much the same as the film itself. It has a message. It is vaguely mesmeric and beautiful. It is well acted. But at the end of the day, it’s also insubstantial; a pointless film about pointless lives.

This is why it was nominated no doubt.

Pretentiousness over fun has ever been the academy way.

I don’t recommend against watching Nebraska. It’s an interesting and strangely compelling character piece. It even made me laugh a couple of times, in particular through June’s Squibb’s portrayal of Kate.

To say it’s not for everyone is probably an understatement, however.

It is a smart, reflective examination of small lives and smaller dreams.

But unless you enjoy silence and sadness, it isn’t a great deal of fun.

And it sure as hell isn’t one of the best seen films I’ve seen in the last year.

The Wolf of Wall Street. Courtesy of Ma_Co2013 (Flickr)
The Wolf of Wall Street. Courtesy of Ma_Co2013 (Flickr)

The Wolf of Wall Street

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie

Wolf of Wall Street details a period in the life of Jordan Belfort, who made a fortune illegally ‘pumping and dumping’ stocks during the 1990’s. Belfort was essentially little more than a confidence man. Clearly, he was a good one, however, as he employed almost 1,000 staff at his firm Stratton and Oakmont at the height of his power, many of them qualified or would-be stock brokers.

The true story is horrible. A sleazy, greedy young man who, in conjunction with others of a similar mind-set, took advantage of everyone they could. It was almost a precursor for the international banking collapse; a signal that all wasn’t well in the deregulated world of high finance. But people already blame bankers for their woes and Scorsese and DiCaprio clearly knew as much. Thus, this movie avoids technical details at the expense of theatre at every opportunity.

Some might say that this glamourises the work done by Belfort and his assorted cronies. I would argue that we get enough insight into the darker workings of their world to get the message. Besides, there have already been a whole slew of films exploring the banking collapse and its various causes. It might be intended as a social warning but in fact, the Wolf of Wall Street is something very different.

Simply put, it’s the most fun I’ve had whilst watching a film in a long, long time.

The script is fast paced. The jokes keep coming. The music, the parties, the women….it’s all reminiscent of one of Scorsese’s better known gangster movies, only the humour is more outrageous and the drug use more prevalent. DiCaprio burns up the screen with a charismatic intensity seldom seen since Jack Nicholson was in his pomp. Jonah Hill provides wonderful comedic and dramatic support and others, including Matthew McConaughey and Margot Robbie help to tie the film together.

This may not win the best picture Oscar. Gravity is an astonishing technical feat. Dallas Buyers Club has more momentum. American Hustle is quirkier.

But if you want to see a film which will both intrigue you and leave you smiling for its whole duration, then look no further.

This Wolf knows how to party!

For my money, DiCaprio should party all the way to a Best Actor award, although others seem to have more support.

Update: Amidst all the gifs of ‘Sad Leo’, it was another disappointing Oscar adventure for DiCaprio.

Philomena. Courtesy of Machu Picchu (Flickr)
Philomena. Courtesy of Machu Picchu (Flickr)


Director: Stephen Frears

Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

An Irish woman gets pregnant out of wedlock back in ye olden days before single mothers, condoms and trips to England. She is forced by her family to live in a convent and eventually to give up her baby. Sounds familiar right?

If you’re Irish, it should. The Catholic Church has a lot to answer for given its complicity in so very many scandals over the years. This is no exception and that is revealed in startling clarity as one watches this film.

That said, ‘Philomena’ is not some depressing ‘anti religion’ pulpit piece. Instead, it is a fairly sedentary but well assembled dramatic comedy. I’ll grant you, it errs on the side of drama but there are some funny scenes. Judi Dench revels in the faux innocence of Philomena’s character, infusing her often cutting dialogue with an endearing blend of sweetness and naivety. Coogan ditches his Alan Partridge persona to play a cynical journalist and the two prove effective foils for one another. In much the same vein as the Dallas Buyers Club, this film depicts a betrayal by those in power and does so through a simple script enlivened by some lovely performances.

Philomena is a nice, charming film. It’s also quite slow, however. Much like several of the films nominated for this year’s Best Picture, it’s worthy if a little dull. There are lot of films similar to this. Some are better, some are worse. All told, I found it pleasant but forgettable.

Joquain Phoenix. Courtesy of skittleydoo04 (Flickr)
Joquain Phoenix. Courtesy of skittleydoo04 (Flickr)


Director: Spike Jonze

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson

Her is a product of Spike Jones’ imagination and tells the tale of Theodore, a man struggling and apparently failing to find companionship amongst his own species. This loneliness eventually leads to Theodore beginning a relationship with a self-aware computer operating system, designed to meet his every need.

Her is another film which will divide opinion. The critics loved it. My friends all hated it. I was a reluctant fan.

The cinematography and set design are dazzling. The acting is fantastic, from Scarlett Johansson, who manages to imbue a disembodied voice with real personality to Joaquin Phoenix, who turns in a wonderfully strange, emotionally vulnerable performance. The music is quirky and perhaps that is the best word to describe the movie in general.

Her is consistent with the recent trend of sci fi/romance cross overs and is perhaps the best of this bunch, much as that’s damnation through faint praise. It’s not fast moving yet it’s compelling nonetheless. The slow pace of the first hour had me worried I wouldn’t make it to the end awake, but, as it transpired, when the ending came, I was left wishing for more.

An unusual little dream of a film. It is a strong contender for ‘Best Original Screenplay’.

Update: Won the Best Original Screenplay award as expected.

12 Years a Slave. Courtesy of Museum of Cinema (Flickr)
12 Years a Slave. Courtesy of Museum of Cinema (Flickr)

12 Years a Slave

Director: Steve McQueen

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch.

12 Year a Slave tells the true story  of Solomon Northup, a free man who was kidnapped from his family and abducted into slavery. Northup initially believes he can reason with his captors or even demonstrate his various skills in order to gain preferential treatment. He is met with intolerance, hatred and violence at every turn.

12 Years a Slave is no Django Unchained. It has none of the style, humour or wit of Tarantino’s recent masterpiece. The reality is, however, it doesn’t need any of that. This film has truth on its side.

Truth and some incredible performances.

Ejiofor in the lead role offers an intelligent, compassionate protagonist. Cumberbatch plays the hypocrite to perfection. Giamatti revels in his brief appearance as a cruel and sadistic slaver. Michael Fassbender is brilliant as ever as the cruel, conflicted owner and Paul Dano is memorable as a racist, insecure carpenter threatened by Northup’s superior abilities and knowledge.

Make no mistake, this is an excellent movie. Sure, there are a couple of scenes reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s Jesus film and sure, it’s hard to watch at times. But then slavery wasn’t exactly a good time for all concerned. If you’re making a film about greed, the abuse of power and the scale of human depravity then I suppose it isn’t likely to be a romantic comedy.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this film but I’m a convert. It isn’t great fun but it certainly isn’t boring and I suspect I’ll end up watching it over and over.

Ejiofor is tipped for the Best Actor Award alongside Matthew MConaughey and the film itself is a strong contender for Best Picture.

Update: Won the Best Picture award and also that for the Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o).

American Hustle. Courtesy of g_yulong (Flickr)
American Hustle. Courtesy of g_yulong (Flickr)

American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence.

Let me start by saying I liked David O’Russell’s previous offering, The Silver Linings Playbook. I didn’t love it, however. Not by a long shot. Frankly, I’ve seen the same style of movie a hundred times before only with less famous faces involved.

But then that’s what Hollywood does. David O’Russell is currently a darling and his material will be treated accordingly. Until they tire of him at least.

Much like his previous effort, I liked American Hustle but I didn’t love it. The set design and visual texturing are sumptuous. Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence are all excellent in their roles. I particularly enjoyed Cooper as an out of control FBI agent as well as Lawrence as Bale’s greedy, scheming ex. Bale’s comb-over is also a sight to behold.

In general, the film oozes class, style and humour. In spite of all of this, I was a little disappointed as I made the mistake of believing the comparisons being made between this and Goodfellas.

They’re very different films. Frankly, I far preferred Goodfellas and wouldn’t even begin to compare the two.

That said, I shouldn’t allow my own inflated expectations to take away from the fact that this is a stylish, entertaining piece of cinema.

It may not be as original as it thinks it is but it’s certainly worth a look. Hell, it may even go on to become a favourite of mine after I re-watch it a few times.

Lawrence is being strongly tipped for Best Supporting Actress.

Captain Phillips. Courtesy of machu picchu (Flickr)
Captain Phillips. Courtesy of machu picchu (Flickr)

Captain Phillips

Director: Paul Greengrass

Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman

Detailing the true story of the 2009 hijacking of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, Captain Phillips is an exquisitely crafted thriller. This was the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years and Paul Greengrass demonstrates he still knows how to create tension, even if Jason Bourne is now in his past.

Tom Hanks is excellent in the title role and first time actor Barkhad Abdi is equally powerful as the leader of the pirate boarding party. Abdi brings a real humanity to his role, capturing the fear his character engenders in others whilst at the same time making us feel for him.

The fact that this is based on a true story makes what is happening on screen all the more disturbing. I won’t go into many more details as I don’t want to spoil anything but this is well worth seeing if you enjoy a bit of tension.

After his strange performances and inconsistent accents in Cloud Atlas, it has been good to see Tom Hanks return with two solid performances in Captain Phillips and Saving Mr Banks.

This is unlikely to win any of the main awards but it’s a tightly paced, well-made picture nonetheless.

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