“Five Favorites” – Review of 2014 Best Picture Nominees

Donna: Welcome to this month’s edition of “Five Favorites” with Mike Siegel! This month we’re abandoning our formula of fives to bring you a review of the nine Best Picture nominees from the 2014 Academy Awards. Now that all nine nominees are available for rental we’ve both seen them all and will be ranking them in order of how much we liked them, starting with the ones we liked least and moving up to our favorite of the nominees. Before we get going, I’d like to tip my hat to a few films that I feel deserved a place on this list, in particular “Blue Jasmine”, “August: Osage County”, “Rush”, “Kill Your Darlings” and, for my daring outsider pick, “Upstream Color”, which should have at least gotten nominations for Best Director and Best Cinematography. I’ll know Hollywood has finally caught up to the burgeoning indie scene when films like “Upstream Color” gets the award nods they really should.

Mike: So, in going over the list, I first wanted to mention a few films that got snubbed. “Rush”, “Before Midnight” and “Fruitvale Station” were all among the best films of 2013 but were not nominated. And I have yet to see “The Wind Rises” and “Blue is the Warmest Color”, which I suspect might end up on my top films of 2013 list. Still, the overall Oscar selection was not horrible. While some of the films were not my cup of tea, I can see why each was nominated and none was a horrible selection.

Onto the nominees! We both rank them in reverse order of our opinion.

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Donna’s #9: “Nebraska” – I’m just going to start by saying I have no idea how this film made in onto the Best Picture list. Sure, it’s a good film, well acted and well scripted. But there’s nothing extraordinary about it that makes it jump out at me. I have a hard time remembering details about it, and that alone knocks it out of Best Picture contention in my mind. It’s good, but not great, and just not strong or compelling enough to be on this list.

Mike’s #9: “The Wolf of Wall Street” – I feel this film was massively over-rated, as Scorsese films tend to be when he returns to his oeuvre of awful people doing awful things. Dicaprio is great and the film certainly has a lot of energy. Matthew McConaughey has a wonderful five minutes as a guest star. But it way way too long, spending far too much time reveling in the supposed excesses of its main character. And as I wrote in my long-form review, I am uncomfortable with glorifying a narcissistic convicted financial criminal.

Donna’s #8: “Captain Phillips” – I seem to be in the minority of people who weren’t incredibly moved by “Captain Phillips”, but I believe I know why. You see, before I saw “Phillips” I watched “A Hijacking”, a Swedish film about a strikingly similar true story of pirate capture. I was incredibly moved by “A Hijacking” – I found it poetic, heart breaking, well acted and edited to a devastating conclusion. So when I saw “Phillips” I couldn’t help but compare it to “A Hijacking”, and I found it lacking in every single aspect. Perhaps if I had seen “Phillips” before “Hijacking” I would feel differently, but as such, knowing a very similar and superior film is out there, I just can’t rank “Phillips” any higher than this.

Mike’s #8: “Nebraska” – I enjoyed it this film, mainly because of the acting. It’s a solid film with good characters and some humor (although a bit of it feels forced, especially with Kate). But while I like almost everything by Alexander Payne, I didn’t see why people *loved* it. It seems like the critics read a lot more into his films than I see.

Donna’s #7: “Dallas Buyers Club” – Let me be clear – as a film, “Dallas Buyers Club” wasn’t strong enough to be nominated for Best Picture. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid film, but for me the plot wasn’t compelling or drawn well enough to deserve a nod for the best film of the year. The reason “Dallas Buyers Club” is here is because of the incredible acting of Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey. Both men were absolutely marvelous in their roles, with Leto putting in one of the best performances of the year as Rayon. Both men deserved their Oscar nods for acting, but as far as best picture goes, it wasn’t enough for me. Good, but not extraordinary, and thus the low placement on my list.

Mike’s #7: “Dallas Buyers Club” – The main reason to watch this was McConaughey, who thoroughly dominated the film. It also has an appealing anti-establishment story about the buyer’s clubs and provides very strong insight into the early days of the AIDS crisis without being heavy-handed. Definitely a cut above the first two and worth the investment of time.

Donna’s #6: “Philomena” – The impact of this film didn’t quite hit me for a few days after I saw it. My initial reaction to “Philomena” was that it was good, but not good enough to make the Best Picture list. But, like all good films, this one sat with me for a long time, and I feel now upon reflection that it really was worthy of this nod. I’m a huge Coogan fan so it was lovely to see him in such fine form, and Dench is always magnificent. Frears really did himself proud with this film – a powerful story indeed.

Mike’s #6: “Philomena” – The brutal and cruel history of Ireland’s mother-child homes (and the Magdalene Laundries) cannot get enough attention. The tacked-on confrontation with the nun, which did not happen in real life, was the only real false note. I was reminded of the equally false and equally flawed scene in Schindler’s List where he breaks down. That having been said, the film builds itself around two very well-developed characters played perfectly, incorporates its low key humor well and builds its sense of outrage slowly and convincingly. This may stick with me for a while.

Donna’s #5: “Her” – Spike Jonze created something intensely beautiful with this lovely little film. It’s another simple story told well, and it’s the nuances of the script that make it such a powerful statement on love, lust, and power in relationships. I’m an enormous fan of Phoenix and it was gratifying to see him shine in this film. I was honestly quite shocked he didn’t get an Oscar nod for Best Actor for this performance. The only major flaw to this film was its length – it could have easily been about twenty minutes shorter. The story raises so many great questions about the dynamics of love – I feel this film will be talked about for quite some time.

Mike’s #5: “American Hustle” – I think the 70’s palette and styles caused this film to be a bit over-rated. I am not a huge fan of David O. Russell and don’t think Bradley Cooper is that great. That having been said, the film is very good, with solid dialogue, energy, style and some great performances, particularly the female leads. Frankly, I would watch a film about Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence reading the newspaper.

Donna’s #4: “The Wolf of Wall Street” – I actually debated for a while whether this film would wind up above or below “Her” as I liked them both rather equally, but “The Wolf of Wall Street” was compelling enough of a film for it to take the #4 spot. As much as I love McConaughey, I think DiCaprio should have taken the Oscar for his portrayal of the seedy Jordan Belfort, as he was quite amazing in this. I loved the direction of the film as well, although it certainly suffered from about thirty minutes of bloat. A strong film by Scorcese and a worthy contender for Best Picture.

Mike’s #4: “Her” – This is a bit long, but is quite a lovely film. The idea is intriguing even if the plot kind of fumbles around with it a bit. It takes a much more mature and realistic approach to its ideas than most sci-fi, making the world feel very real and very likely (example: almost all sci-fi films avoid the subject of sex; this one doesn’t). The two leads are excellent. Phoenix got all the attention but Johannson’s voice work anchored the emotional threads. As I’ve said before, if you look beyond the banner franchises, we are getting some very good sci-fi these days and “Her” is a perfect example.

Donna’s #3: “American Hustle” – This was easily one of my favorite films of the year for a whole host of reasons. I loved all of the acting in it – Bale, Cooper, Adams and Laurence were all exceptional. The direction and pacing of the film was stylish and flamboyant in all the right ways. The script was quite compelling and kept my attention throughout. Even the music was note-perfect. I truly enjoyed everything about this – it’s honestly only a tick below my #2 choice on my list.

Mike’s #3: “Captain Phillips” – This had me on the edge of my seat for two hours. It features another great “everyman” performance from Hanks but also excellent performances by the Somali cast. It was so enthralling, I didn’t mind Greengrass’s ridiculous shaky-cam style.

Donna’s #2: “Gravity” – To me, there’s nothing like a simple story told well, and that’s exactly what “Gravity” is – a straightforward tale told with incredible finesse. Cuaron allowed Bullock and Clooney to simply do their jobs, and both acted quite well throughout. But it was the astonishing directing that stole the show here, with the exquisite long opening shot setting the tone for the film (a Cuaron trademark, perhaps, as he did the same in “Children of Men”, one of my favorite films of all time). To top it off, given how much bloat most films seem to carry these days, the ninety minute length of it was just perfect. A beautiful film in every way.

Mike’s #2: “Gravity” – You know the best thing about “Gravity”? It’s only an hour and a half long. That sounds like faint praise or even damnation. But in an era where seemingly every Oscar nominee could easily be trimmed by 15 minutes to an hour, this is the only major film in recent years that had no fat. It is tense from beginning to end, the performances are great (Bullock has matured into a first-rate actress) and the filming is simply gorgeous. The opening unbroken shot is one of the most spectacular sequences in recent memory and I desperately wish I had seen this on the big screen. The science is bit questionable (orbital dynamics doesn’t work like that) but the film was so good that I didn’t care.

Donna’s #1: “12 Years a Slave” – Honestly, this wasn’t even a contest for me. In my opinion, “12 Years a Slave” was far and away the best picture of the year for a number of reasons. All of the acting was incredibly solid – not just the leads but all of the supporting actors as well. Fassbender, Dano, Giamatti and Cumberbatch were especially strong, and Chiwetel Ejiofor was a revelation in the lead. The direction by McQueen was unflinching and riveting with good editing that moved the story along. The script was very solid, believable and so gut-wrenching it was impossible not to cry. Outside of Brad Pitt’s appearance, which to me felt hammy and overwrought, I can’t think of a real flaw in this film. It utterly deserved to win Best Picture and I’m glad it took the top prize this year.

Mike’s #1: “12 Years a Slave” – When I look over an Oscar list, I like to think about which films people will be watching ten, twenty, fifty years from now. This and maybe “Gravity” are the only ones I think will really last the test of time. “12 Years a Slave” is transcendent. Many films have taken on the issue of slavery; few with as much resonance and power as this one. The performances are excellent all around — Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o especially (Fassbender is establishing an incredibly broad range; comparing this to his performance in “Prometheus”, you wouldn’t think it was the same actor). Even the supporting cast are outstanding. McQueen’s directing shows the brutality of slavery without wallowing in it or being exploitative. And it keeps the focus on the characters and the situation. I need to watch this again to confirm my initial thoughts that it might become a classic. But it was definitely my top film among the Oscar nominees.

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Thanks for joining us for another edition of “Five Favorites” and we’ll see you again next month!

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