This marks the one-year anniversary of this column, and I would like to thank you for reading, commenting and contacting me. I hope you enjoy reading the column as much as I like writing it! For the anniversary column, I once again review all of the films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. Most of these films are still playing at area theaters—including the Sie Film Center and the Landmark theaters. The Oscar ceremony is on Sunday, March 2.
This is a well-made and well-acted film with tons of style and panache. Director David O. Russell is at the top of his game, the acting is brilliant, and the plotting entices you. It all adds up to a fun and enjoyable film-watching experience. The problem is that is where it all ends: the film seems empty and depthless and it was entirely forgettable moments after I left the theater. (Note: the fact that I see the film this way virtually ensures it will win the Oscar for Best Picture.)
12 Years a Slave
Moments of brutal realism and sheer poetry show up in films all the time; rarely do they come together. This heartbreaking and stunning true story from director Steve McQueen cements him as one of the best directors and best storytellers of our time. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a powerful performance as Massachusetts free man Solomon Northup; Northup was kidnapped, sold into southern slavery in 1853, and spent 12 years there. This is a film that doesn’t sugarcoat the world and our disgusting past.
Film is a visual medium. The best films find their footing not through endless dialogue or pretty faces, but through stunning visuals that move us viscerally. Gravity does just that: part experiment, part cutting-edge technology, the film was several years in the making before technology finally caught up with filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s imagination. The result is a beautiful, breathless film that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The one drawback may be a thin storyline, but I think there is just enough to keep the film interesting and engaging.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese is perhaps our greatest living American director, and he does not disappoint here. The film is a wild Bacchanalia of greed, partying, and debauchery—and visual flourishes to match the story. Scorsese’s immense talent is on display here, and he throws everything into a film that is essentially about excess and grandiosity; style and content mesh nicely. The performances are perfectly over-the-top, and Leonardo DiCaprio in particular captures the moment. Vulgar and fun, this film will entertain.
This is a small, wonderful film that is superbly written and exquisitely acted. Judi Dench is nothing short of brilliant as Philomena Lee, an elderly nurse who 50 years ago had to give up her son while at a convent for homeless girls. She enlists the help of former journalist and semi-disgraced British government advisor Martin Sixsmith to help her find her son, and the journey is on. The film is very much about that journey: it covers the pair’s travel from England to the U.S., and the journey from lack of understanding to enlightenment.
I have never been a big fan of Alexander Payne’s films; other than Election, I found most lacking in emotional impact. But in Nebraska, I see a mature and sure-handed filmmaker who has found the balance between poetic images and character development. The story of an elderly man (Bruce Dern) on a fruitless quest, the film pulses with poetry, comedy, and insights into the American Midwestern psyche. There are moments of sheer beauty juxtaposed with heartbreak and comedy. Expertly written, exquisitely acted, beautifully shot and tightly directed, Nebraska is a revelation.
This is a good old-fashioned Hollywood thriller, replete with heart-pounding action, tensely paced editing and a blood-quickening score. But what holds the film together and allows it to rise above simple genre constraints is the acting of Tom Hanks as the eponymous captain whose ship is hijacked by Somali pirates. Based on a true story, the film is great entertainment and certainly worth a trip to the Redbox.
Dallas Buyers Club
If you like stunning performances and a story that is as touching as it is frustrating, this is your film. There are few visual flourishes or the stylized aesthetic that you will find in some of the other nominees; rather, you get great acting and solid story. Matthew McConaughey is brilliant as the AIDS-stricken protagonist; Jared Leto is touching as a sickeningly emaciated transvestite drug addict; and Jennifer Garner is quietly effective as a mousy doctor. The story is an implicit indictment of the Reagan administration, and unlike some of the other films in this category, it will haunt you long after leaving the theater.
If you can only see one nominee this year, Her should be your choice: it is emotional, intense, intimate, and affecting—everything a film should be. Director Spike Jonze creates a near-future world where people can fall in love with their computer operating systems. Lonely writer Theodore Twambly (Joaquin Phoenix), in the midst of a divorce, is one such person. A meditation on loneliness, the difficulties of relationships, and our obsession with technology, Her allows us to peer deep inside and ask what it means to be human. We leave pondering our own tendencies and how we can get along in this post-human world. And please, remember to turn your phone off while in the theater.
Vincent Piturro, PhD, teaches Cinema Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.