I’ve now seen all nine Best Picture nominees and a few other highly-rated films, and so here are a few thoughts on the best films of 2014:
All Is Lost: I loved this movie exactly as much as I thought I would when I saw the trailer. I watched it on a crappy airplane screen and I was enthralled the whole time. Part of it is that Redford is easy on the eyes, but I don’t have a thing for boats or sailing (the ocean, though, yeah), so I wasn’t sure why this film appealed to me so much. Upon some reflection, I think it’s a couple things. First of all, I love the theme of the individual fighting the world to survive, getting beaten down, and not giving up. That’s clearly what the filmmakers were going for, and it works really well. But second, I think I loved this film because it is so quiet and meditative, because apart from a short soliloquy to start, everything we know about the main character is revealed through action and expression. You see Redford decide to turn the boat around and go back to the object that punched a hole in his side and you have to think, Why is he doing that? What does that tell us about him? We learn that he’s a loner, probably trying to sail around the world (he’s hit off the coast of Madagascar, a long way for a boat called the Virginia). We see in big and little ways throughout the movie the relationship he has with the rest of the world, and the film tells us his story with nearly no words. Simply because of this achievement of filmmaking, I think it’s a crime that this film was left off the Best Picture slate.
August: Osage County: And you thought your family was bad. A:OC suffers slightly from being a stagey adaptation of a play, but the acting infuses the film with so much energy that after the first half of the first scene, you don’t care. Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep go toe to toe, with a stellar supporting cast, and if you want to see the best actresses of our generation, you could do a double feature of this movie with American Hustle and get four of the top ten. This is a movie I want to watch again because there’s so much going on, I’m sure I missed something the first time, and I just want to watch Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts and Chris Cooper and all the others again because the performances are so wonderful.
Nebraska: A sweet, quirky movie that I did not at first want to see. But Alexander Payne has, with this movie, put himself into the category of “directors I will go see based on name alone.” Bruce Dern and June Squibb earned their acting nominations with terrific complex performances, and it was fun to see Bob Odenkirk nail his role as well. I’m not sure I would have nominated this film over the two above–I feel like this is the “light movie that has no chance”–but I have no quarrel with the acting noms.
Philomena: Possibly the most underrated of the nominees in that I haven’t seen anyone talking about it as much as they should. Judi Dench is fabulous–I cannot for the life of me tell you which of the Best Actress nominees I would pick this year–and the story is surprising, affecting, and thoughtful. I think it stumbles slightly in the very last scene, but it navigates the tricky waters of true story versus good movie better than Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyer’s Club, on a par with Captain Philips, not quite as well as 12 Years a Slave or American Hustle (wow, there were a lot of movies based on true stories in the nominees this year). Of all the nominees, I think this is my pick for “the one most people probably haven’t seen and should.”
The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyer’s Club: Lumping these together because I want to say the same thing about both: Stunning acting performances from Leo, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, and Jared Leto. This was a great year for movies, in which great acting performances came in great movies, which I think shows in how the acting nominations have come from these nine nominees plus August: Osage County and Blue Jasmine. But in both of these cases, the true story aspect of the movie sort of overwhelmed the good movie aspect. They were both entertaining, but I was left at the end feeling that both of them lacked a decent ending.
The Solid Picks:
Captain Philips: I did not want to see this movie based on the trailer. It turns out that the trailer is possibly one of the worst trailers of the last decade. From the second scene of the movie, I understood that it was going to be much more than the action thriller the trailers were promoting, and I was on board. Tom Hanks does a great job, though he really shines most in the final scenes of the film, but it’s Barkhad Abdi who makes the movie more than just a well-written retelling of the famous hijacking. He plays off Tom Hanks with all the confidence of a much more experienced actor, and lends the Somali pirates a humanity that gives the film complexity and depth worthy of a Best Picture nominee.
Her: Maybe my favorite of the nominees–it’s hard to pick between this and Gravity and American Hustle and Philomena, which are all very different movies–because it’s such a sweet and personal movie and yet it addresses huge questions about humanity and our interaction with our technology. The future depicted in Her is lovingly detailed, with touches that are visible but not called out, and Joaquin Phoenix has a great argument for increasing the Best Actor slate to six this year. His performance against a disembodied voice is magical.
Gravity: It is amusing that a film so steeped in space is not actually science fiction. The direction and cinematography are stunning; I heard a story that a critic, upon tweeting that he was going to watch Gravity on an airplane, was bombarded with replies telling him that he should not under any circumstances do that. This movie needs to be experienced as a movie, with the vastness of space and the frantic storm of debris and the disorientation of spinning and the views of the Earth all as big as you can get them. George Clooney is equal to the backdrop (and should have scored a Supporting nomination), and while Sandra Bullock almost gets lost in it, she recovers enough to carry the movie through the second act to the third. Ultimately her story is the weakest part of this amazing movie (her story, not her performance, which is excellent), but it’s a part that is more than solid enough to hold up the rest.
12 Years A Slave: Touted as the Best Picture favorite months ago when it came out, this film has not lost much momentum. It’s a harsh portrait of a terrible part of our history, and every bit of it works: the acting (three well-deserved nominations; only American Hustle has more), the writing, the cinematography, the storytelling that is getting adjectives like “unflinching” and “brutal” and “honest” (“unflinching” refers to the story, not the audience). It’s one of those amazing movies that I am glad I saw and I don’t want to ever see it again (seriously, who are the people who will buy the DVD? who thinks “yeah, I dunno, it’s a slow Saturday night, let’s watch a portrait of man’s inhumanity to man”?). It deserves the Oscar for being one of the best two movies released this year, when you look at all the things that go into a movie.
American Hustle: Maybe my favorite movie, maybe not (see above), and upon reflection, the storytelling is rather tangled, but I will say that this was probably my favorite moviegoing experience of the year. It kept startling laughs out of me, surprising me with honest personal moments and plot complications, and it wrapped everything up with a satisfying ending. Four acting nominations speak to the stellar cast; the writing is probably the second-best in terms of story (to Her) and the best in terms of dialogue; the movie nails the seventies, from the clothes to the music to the attitudes of the people involved (the idea that the American Dream is within reach but you have to bend a few rules to get at it but that’s okay because everyone is doing it is pervasive throughout); and it’s got the pedigree of an Oscar winner (two returning actors and the director from last year’s Silver Linings Playbook). If this one takes the Best Picture trophy, I won’t be upset.