By Mieke Trudeau
As I have done over the last three years, I recently attended the AMC Theaters Best Picture Showcase. This annual marathon of the movies nominated for a Best Picture Oscar is held in select AMC movie theaters. Even though a few locations show all nine movies in one sitting, I prefer the screening that divides the list over two consecutive Saturdays. Twelve hours of movie watching is enough for me!
Watching the usually very diverse selections, back to back, provides a very interesting perspective. Usually, when watching a movie, especially in the theater, it is a singular experience, and often quite a visceral one. My emotional response is normally immediate; a movie grips me – or does not – but I do consider myself a critical person and I often find myself analyzing why a movie is able to “take me away”, or why it leaves me in the theater, firmly planted in my seat. A lot of it is, of course, very subjective. Sometimes a subject matter, a character, or even a location or music choice simply strikes a personal emotional chord. Sometimes we get swept up in the fantasy of imagined realities so unlike our own. But throughout all that, at its core, a movie needs to make us believe that what we see exists; that on some level, its universe is real, no matter how fantastical, even if it is just for an hour and a half or so. Sometimes we are taken out of that believable universe because we become too aware that the person on screen is “acting” even if they are doing a fabulous job of it. Sometimes the pace of the movie, the editing, or the story progression jars and takes us off the shared path of the protagonist’s journey. Watching movies as different as Philomena and 12 Years a Slave back to back, adds another dimension to this mix: it allows for an instant comparison. Not only am I analyzing my response to a movie on the spot, I am now also comparing my views on one movie to another that I just finished watching. It probably makes me more critical, rather than less so. If I had seen Dallas Buyers Club by itself, my reaction may have been kinder. Watching it right after Philomena’s simple earnestness made me cry probably didn’t help.
Now that the Oscars have been handed out, here are my thoughts on this year’s nominees, in the order I watched them:
PHILOMENA – Directed by Stephen Frears, screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
Based on the book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by Martin Sixsmith, this quiet yet compelling movie tells the story of Philomena Lee (Dame Judy Dench), who, as an unwed teenager, was forced to give up her young son for adoption by her disgraced family and strictly disapproving Catholic Church. Many years after having signed all her rights away as a young mother, Philomena joins forces with Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who has endured his own share of scandal. Together they go on a journey to discover the truth of what happened to this long lost child.
Judy Dench (Skyfall) is extraordinary as Philomena Lee, a simple, devout and stubborn woman. Her portrayal is so complete, so quiet, that you never doubt whom you are watching. The whole movie is very well built and paced. It managed to make me cry (that doesn’t happen easily) without being maudlin or feeling manipulative. Steve Coogan (Tropic Thunder) plays Sixsmith, an understandably bitter and somewhat jaded journalist in an understated and subtle way that serves the movie very well. A+
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB – Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, screenplay by Craig Borton and Melisa Wallack I
Inspired by true events, this film tells the story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a hard living electrician and sometimes rodeo cowboy. Ron’s life is upended when he is diagnosed with HIV/Aids and given only 30 days to live. He refuses to go down without a fight and ends up contributing to changes in the way the quickly spreading virus is treated. He is aided in his quest to find treatment by doctor Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) and an unlikely business ally; a fellow AIDS patient and transsexual named Rayon (Jared Leto)
Both McConaughey (Magic Mike) and Leto (Requiem for a Dream) were nominated for acting Oscars and as predicted by many, both won in their categories. Jared Leto’s Rayon is as beautiful as she is damaged and his portrayal is mesmerizing. Yet, it doesn’t feel like a performance, Rayon is real as soon as she is on the screen. McConaughey gives an Oscar worthy performance, but it is that, a performance. Oscar loves a drastic physical transformation and McConaughey certainly gives us that. Ron is a hard boozing, drug using, abusive, selfish man. His goal, as I saw it, is to be cured of AIDS, stay in control of his life as long as he can and make lots of money. I found him unsympathetic until the end and don’t get me wrong, I love me some unsympathetic characters, but I felt myself not really care about what happened to him. Part of the problem was the way the movie was structured; the editing and flow felt choppy and unfinished. I kept waiting for some progression in the narrative and it never came. Despite the worthy subject matter, a few beautiful scenes (Ron covered in butterflies comes to mind) and an amazing A+ performance by Jared Leto, I gave this movie a C+
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET – Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by Terence Winter based on the book by Jordan Belfort
This movie, based on the real life exploits of Jordan Belfort, tells the story of a young stockbroker and the orgy of excess he creates for himself and his friends in the “Greed is Good” days of late 1980’s Wall Street.
Leonardo DiCaprio (Inception) gives another Oscar nominated tour-de-force performance as Jordan Belfort. Many times his drug-fueled scenes are so intense and frantic that I am surprised he wasn’t felled on the spot by an aneurism. I cannot imagine how he endured take after take of some of the rousing speeches Jordan gives to his staff, or how he endured filming an excruciatingly long scene in which his body is semi-paralyzed by a massive dose of Quaaludes. The movie is beautifully shot, as one would expect from Martin Scorsese and features some other good performances from the large cast. Yet in the end the nearly three-hour spectacle does not add up to a whole lot. The movie could have benefitted from some serious editing and strangely, its excess almost doesn’t go far enough to allow for the movie to make sense of some of the more disturbing scenes. Its narrative seems to run in ever more exhausting circles until it collapses into itself. Because of DiCaprio’s performance and the extraordinary cinematographic prowess of Martin Scorsese, I gave this movie a B-
12 YEARS A SLAVE – Directed by Steve McQueen, Screenplay by John Ridley, based on the book by Solomon Northrup
This movie tells the true-life story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in pre-Civil War America. The horrific tale is important and even essential to our troubled blood- and tear-stained history, yet this movie is a beautiful work of art. It is quiet even when filled with screams, it is poetic, even when horrific, and it is beautiful even when you want to look away. Steve McQueen has managed to take a fresh new look at a difficult subject and he has created not just an important work, but a very good film. From cinematography, to music design and dialogue, the movie creates an almost theatrical landscape against which the actors are able to give some incredible performances. Standouts are Oscar nominees Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon and Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, the obsessed, sadistic slave owner and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as the subject of his wrath, the young slave Patsey. I did not give this movie a grade, since to me it transcended such score keeping. However, after watching all nine nominees, I can easily say, it was my number one pick of the bunch.
Nyongo’s win was very well deserved and her acceptance speech touching and inspirational. The well-earned Best Picture Oscar for 12 Years, also marked a historic first: Steve McQueen became the first black director to win a that honor.
NEBRASKA – Directed by Alexander Payne, Screenplay by Bob Nelson
Nebraska is an allegory on aging and death, beautifully shot in black and white against a backdrop of small town USA. It is a slice of Americana that brings us family dynamics that many of us will recognize. The story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a cantankerous old man on an end-of-life quest to cash in a million dollar sweepstakes letter, shows us that things are not always what they seem and that redemption may be found in simple things.
Performances in the film all are real-life natural and heartland honest. In another year, Bruce Dern would have won the Best Actor Oscar and June Squibb, who brilliantly portrays Woody’s ever complaining wife Kate, would have won the Best Supporting Actress statue. But a lack of golden statues did not take away from the fact that I considered Nebraska my second place pick of the bunch. A
CAPTAIN PHILIPS – Directed by Paul Greengrass, Screenplay by Billy Ray, based on the book by Richard Philips
A chilling adventure that keeps you on the edge of your seat even though we all know the story and its outcome, Captain Philips truly delivers. Tom Hanks is very believable as Rich Phillips, a merchant captain who finds himself the hostage of a band of Somali pirates after a botched ship-jacking attempt. Hanks managed to move me to tears in the final scene, where the stoic captain finally breaks down in shock after a violent rescue. My one complaint would be that the camera work throughout is of the “natural eye movement” shaky variety to such an extent that it forced me to look away from the screen frequently. I understand the purpose of the technique in creating a claustrophobic, chaotic atmosphere, but I felt that the lack of a visual center caused a lot of nuance to be lost, especially considering the richness in supporting performances, such as the one by Oscar nominated Barkhad Abdi, as the Somali Captain Muse. B
HER – Directed by Spike Jonze, Screenplay by Spike Jonze
Going into this movie with low expectations, I found myself mesmerized by the intimate tale of love between a lonely man named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and his operating system Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). With its futuristic, stylized design, the movie delves into questions of love, life, personhood and even the soul. The subtle lead performances by Phoenix and Johansson are all the more impressive considering that their roles were performed in isolation. Both, in essence, perform long monologues, without physical connection to a co-star. Johansson doesn’t even have her usually expressive physical presence to back her up. Quite fitting for the role she plays; she is able to convey an ever-expanding array of emotions without embodiment. The Oscar for best original screenplay was well deserved by Spike Jonze. A-
AMERICAN HUSTLE – Directed by David O. Russell, Screenplay by David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer
After last year’s Silver Lining Playbook, a movie I disliked intensely, I have to admit that I went into American Hustle with some prejudice. I enjoyed American Hustle more than I thought I would, but as a whole, it met my low expectations. The story of conmen, the FBI and double crosses is lightweight but entertaining enough; however, I find David O. Russell’s style of writing and directing overwrought and even pretentious. His camera work with strange sudden dramatic zoom and oddly placed close-ups of body parts is distracting. I am continually aware that I am watching someone direct, just as I am aware that someone is acting, with most of the performances in the movie. Amy Adams acts the living daylights out of Sydney Prosser/Lady Edith Greensly, and therein lies the problem. I don’t need a close-up and pan across Irving Rosenfeld’s large stomach to be reminded that Christian Bale gained a lot of weight to portray the conman character. Yes, I get it; he changed his body, look at him acting! The standout, in my opinion, is Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld, Irving’s manipulative wife. She is the only one that manages to create a fully developed character out of limited material. Her Oscar nomination was understandable and deserved. Bradley Cooper also has some good moments, even if his frantic scenes are starting to look a little familiar. C
GRAVITY – Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, Screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron
The last movie of a long marathon, Gravity did not fail to deliver. I am very glad that I got to see it in on a big screen with 3D projection and surround sound. Even though the story is not deeply emotionally satisfying and left me a little cold, I actually liked that it is a straightforward tale of survival and life. The commentary by Cuaron that the end of the movie is an ode to evolution backs up this narrative. On all accounts the movie is a technological, if not dramatic, masterpiece, rightfully recognized by the Academy with numerous awards. Arguably, both from a physical and virtual effects standpoint, Gravity is ground breaking and I understand the nod that Alfonso Cuaron received from his peers, in winning the Best Director Oscar. It recognizes, from a movie insider point of view, the magnitude of his accomplishment. Cuaron also made Oscar history by being the first Latino director to win the honor. B+ (changed from the A- I gave it immediately after the movie)
I enjoyed my movie marathon and the Oscar ceremony that followed it again this year (great job by Ellen DeGeneres!). I will be back for more next year, because, even after all those hours in the dark, with a butt numb from all the sitting, I can honestly still say I love movies!