The Academy Awards air this evening, so I’ll try to be brief. Here is a quick look at the final three Oscar hopefuls for Best Picture. Yes, I managed to see them all!

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index12 Years a Slave

Sorry to be a dissenting voice in an otherwise admiring crowd. I was so ready to like this film, based on the true-account book written by kidnapped freeman Solomon Northup. It should have been riveting, but it turned out to be rather a snooze-fest.

images4Despite some excellent performances, some of the casting is actually a bit distracting. Examples include two likable and over-exposed Brits (Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender) as southern plantation owners (really?), walk-ons with a few lines for Brad Pitt and Garret Dillahunt, and a waste of talent in a small role for Paul Giamatti. A stirringly brutal portrayal of an overseer is turned in by Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, Looper), but soon we’re back to sleepwalking through the story. Perhaps the most genuine and heartbreaking performance comes from relative newcomer Lupita Nyong. By contrast, most of the other actors look like they are doing dinner theater in Poughkeepsie.

images2The main problem is similar to the issues of focus and emphasis that I mentioned with the movie Captain Phillips:  there is no sense of the actual time span of Northup’s captivity, and there is little rendition of the severe disorientation of becoming a slave after living as a respected member of society. These aspects, intricate to the story, would have made this movie far more fascinating. As it is, however, it becomes simply another in a long line of films documenting the tragedies and injustices visited on slaves in America.  Other films have already done that, and more eloquently.

imagesAn additional irritation was the use of oddly placed close-ups and scenes with no action or expression in them. I cannot believe this film is up for an editing award, much less Best Director for Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame). These shots—like looking up the nose of a woman who is about to sing, or watching Chiwetel Ejiofor sit and stare for nearly a minute—add nothing and simply interrupt the flow. All in all, this was not one of my favorites.

C+

 

11176448_oriNebraska

I was warned that this film is a downer and boring. Nothing could be farther from the experience I had!

index3A marvelous slice of Americana, this little gem is shot in black and white and viscerally evokes the feel of struggling farms and small towns, their salt-of-the-earth residents, and road trips through the heartland. It’s true that for most of the film, discomfort floats near the top of the emotional brew: discomfort with aging, with unrealized dreams, with the dysfunctionality of families and the large-scale struggles of Middle America. It’s true stuff, this. We sit and watch people be patient, or impatient, with one another, we listen to old men chat as they watch a football game, and most of us can say, “I’ve been here. I’ve heard this conversation.” The discomfort makes the film’s payoff all the sweeter.

images10Veteran actor Bruce Dern is marvelous as Woody Grant, a tired, alcoholic, mildly demented old man who holds on to a delusion because, well, that’s all there is left. Will Forte (of Saturday Night Live comedic fame) lovingly plays the ultimate good son, who learns more about his father in a few days driving from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska than he ever knew before, and then provides the aging man with a perfect gesture of love and respect.

 

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Many of the portrayals seems stiff at first, bringing to mind home movies and low-budget filmmaking.  But the style really works to create a “realistic” portrait of characters that are rather readable at first glance, until it becomes apparent that there is more to all of them than meets the eye. We hear about their dreams and disappointments, we see them deal with what life hands them, and we finally see them as real and individual rather than mere types. Terrific performances are turned in by June Squibb as Woody’s wife, Bob Odenkirk as Woody’s other son, Stacy Keach as Woody’s former business partner, and many other supporting actors.

Granted, Nebraska may not be a movie for everyone. The plight of aging average-Joe and his family may not be of movie-watching interest to many—heck, it isn’t always my cup of tea either—but the story this movie tells is both heartbreaking and heartwarming in the best of ways.

A-

 

Philomena

index2Philomena is a tale of profound misery—well told, amusing at times, fascinating to watch and learn from—but still misery. In this story based on reality, the superb Dame Judi Dench plays an aging Irish woman who as a girl was relegated to an abbey for unwed mothers to give birth, work to pay both debt and penance, and agonizingly watch her son carted away by adoptive parents, never to be seen again. Now, fifty years later, she is still determined to discover where he ended up. Steve Coogan (typically a comic actor known for the likes of Hamlet 2) co-wrote the screenplay and stars as Martin Sixsmith, the dislodged journalist who helps “Phil”—as he comes to call her—to find out what happened to her son.

images7 Like 12 Years a Slave, this movie tells of a shameful past about which not much can be done now, except to remember and honor those who went through it and vow to never let anything like it happen again. And like Nebraska, it tells of family relationships that might be difficult for some to understand; also like Nebraska, it features a comedic actor-turned-serious (both do a splendid job of it). Unlike either of those films, Philomena is truly tragic.

The story and performances are excellent (including Sophie Kennedy Clark as young Philomena), and the movie is well worth watching. Coogan marvelously plays his character as jaded by years of political journalism and then awoken to indignant rage by what he learns through following Phil in her journey.

images6However, I found the Pollyanna-like acceptance of Phil a bit beneath the acting chops of Dench. Perhaps if someone not as well-known had played Phil, this might not have been an issue; but then again, maybe this movie would not be a Best Picture candidate either. It also was a bit bothersome, on a relational level, that Phil’s daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) is involved and helping her in the search for the brother she never even knew about. It’s not addressed how she felt about this; what was the real daughter’s reaction to hearing that her mother thought about the lost son daily, though her daughter is there in front of her all along?

Still, the balance of views about events (Philomena’s acceptance, at least in the film, and Sixsmith’s disgust and anger) make for thought-provoking cinema.

B+

My Winners and Runners-Up

I can’t call these my predictions—one just never knows, especially with the changing face of the Academy. But here is how I would vote for a few of this year’s awards to be distributed:

 

Best Picture: Dallas Buyer’s Club

Runner-Up:  American Hustle

 

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Matthew McConaughey

Runner-Up: Leonardo DiCaprio

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Meryl Streep

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Jared Leto

Runners-Up: close race between Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Jennifer Lawrence

Runner-Up: Julia Roberts

Best Cinematography: Nebraska

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