It’s nearly over. The extended farrago over who’s better than who and the flood of yet more pointless platitudes from the supposedly great and good of Hollywood comes to an end for another year in the early hours of Monday morning UK time, with the 497th Academy Awards (probably). It’s not been a bad year for films, and the awards voters in Hollywood have got a lot more right than wrong this year. Gradually, the large field of contenders has been whittled down to just nine, through a process of expensive advertising and devious marketing, and the times when The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, The Monuments Men, Saving Mr. Banks or The Counselor were being considered seriously for awards greatness – in other words, before people actually saw them – have long since passed, and we’re now firmly at the business end. In just over two days, Hollywood will allow a select band of people to upgrade to “Academy Award Winner” when they’re mentioned in trailers for serious films, while a host of others will have to remain content with “Academy Award Nominee” or, somewhat inexplicably the best he can yet do, “BAFTA Award Nominee / SAG Award Nominee / Independent Spirit Award Winner Paul Dano”.
For the third time in the four years that the blog has been running, I’ve managed to see all of the nominees in all of the big eight categories (picture, director, acting, writing) by the time the awards happen, compared to the two occasions I could claim that before I started blogging. However, this has led me occasionally to be sat in front of a film simply so I could claim a full house on my Oscar bingo card – mainly because I like to feel informed when I criticise the Academy for its poor decision making – but this year my only real regret was seeing The Butler about two days before it seemed to lose all of its awards momentum. At least I got to claim a full house at BAFTA as well, and I could answer the question as to whether Oprah Winfrey deserved a nod ahead of June Squibb. (Answer: no. I’m sure Oprah will be crying herself to sleep on a giant bed made of money and success at my decision.)
The process has, inevitably, thrown up a few films that should have got more love, but were inhibited either by their very nature or by the resistance of their distributors to spend flipping great wodges of cash taking out ten page ads in Variety asking voters to please, please, pretty please remember their film when casting their vote for Best Art Direction or Sound Editing. In a different year, with a slightly different sensibility, or if the Academy actually understood what people in general mean by “Best”, we might have seen Short Term 12 (too indie), Frozen (too animated), Prisoners (it looked too generic from the trailer – it wasn’t), The Great Beauty and The Hunt (too subtitled, even when one stars an actual person famous to Americans in Mads Mikkelsen), Iron Man 3 (too mainstream), The Act Of Killing (documentaries should know their place, apparently), Inside Llewyn Davis (too miserable without being melodromatic) or Before Midnight (too sequel-y). All of them are better than the first three on this list, Before Midnight better than most, but we should at least be grateful the list we do have doesn’t have any real stinkers in it.
So, for the third time in four years, here’s my ordering of the nominees for Best Picture, from least best to most best.
The Least Best Picture is Dallas Buyers Club
We should all be duly relieved when something of the quality of Dallas Buyers Club is the least of the nominees in a given year. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to enjoy about Dallas Buyers Club: the performances of both Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey are excellent and I wouldn’t begrudge either the awards they’re nominated for (although they’re not necessarily the best). Details of Ron Woodroff’s real life may have been somewhat sketchy, leading to this being a little more myth-making than accurate reporting, but it’s the kind of story that needs a little myth-making when all’s said and done.
There are three main problems with Dallas Buyers Club. First is the lack of other characters: Jennifer Garner – who, apropos of nothing, looks amazing for 41 and being married to Ben Affleck – only develops into a living, breathing character around the halfway mark, and no-one else gets a look in; the lack of character development for Ron’s fellow club worker Denise, for example, is almost breathtaking. Secondly, it’s a story in need of a better ending, saddled with a feeling of anticlimax. And thirdly, although it has no bearing on the quality of the finished product, there really should be an apostrophe in that title.
Which is not as good as American Hustle
American Hustle is the movie equivalent of a decent Chinese takeaway: satisfying and enjoyable while you’re consuming it, but for some reason leaves you unfulfilled not long after. Much of what there is to enjoy is down to the performances, from Bradley Cooper’s tightly wound FBI agent to Christian Bale’s sleazy conman. While Jennifer Lawrence might be a little miscast, it would take a genuine curmudgeon to take too much offence with her stroppy headbanging, but the real highlight is Amy Adams once again twisting any man in a five mile radius round her little finger.
But beyond the quality of the acting, the rest feels as threadbare as Christian Bale’s wig / comb-over combo. There feels little new about the story or its handful of twists, and David O. Russell’s direction lacks the narrative drive or visual flair of many of his contemporaries. It’s undoubtedly in awards contention thanks to the quality of the performances and the large voting bloc that the actors make up in the Academy, but whether or not that support will carry Hustle to the big prize remains to be seen. It won’t quite be a Crash-level shock if it does, but it will be almost as unjustified.
Which is not as good as Philomena
I have to confess that I was checking my watch around an hour into Philomena. It wasn’t for any lack of enjoyment, as Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s script was doing an efficient job of pitching up the cultural differences between Coogan’s journalist Martin Sixsmith and Judi Dench as the titular Catholic mother looking for the son taken from her decades earlier, but it had never quite caught fire. Treading a tricky line between serious issue drama and gentle Brit comedy, it wasn’t so much that it couldn’t decide which to settle on, more that it was content to be a reasonable example of both.
But the power of Philomena comes in the last third, when the true nature of events has unfolded and the gentle events of the first two acts actually work to blind side you to what’s coming. Dench is, unsurprisingly, outstanding but Coogan also proves his dramatic chops and shown that he can be more than just Alan Partridge. It was a good year for Coogan, with Partridge’s big screen foray also being well received, and stranger things have happened than Philomena picking up a screenplay award in the big shakedown.
Which is not as good as Nebraska
Alexander Payne is becoming a reassuring brand of quality, but after the slight dip of The Descendants – hamstrung by too much repetition of scenes of explaining that someone had died – Payne has once again found his groove with a slice of family life in the American Midwest. Pulling in a wide variety of family members, it’s a slightly skewed road trip led by Bruce Dern’s befuddled father insisting that he’s come up trumps in the lottery. While Dern has drawn the lion’s share of the acting plaudits, June Squibb also has an Oscar nomination for her efforts and Will Forte has redeemed himself for a fair chunk of over-the-top comedy performances with his restrained showing.
But it’s not just the director that’s pulled his weight. Bob Nelson’s script feels so in tune with Payne’s sympathies I did a double take when seeing Payne didn’t write it as the end credits scrolled. Phedon Papamichael’s black and white cinematography also avoids cliché and justifies the decision for monochrome shooting, and Nebraska is beautifully paced and allows you to fall in love with its characters despite their flaws. It looks as if nominations are the best that Nebraska can hope for, but against the quality of the opposition, there’s no shame in that.
Which is not as good as Captain Phillips
It wouldn’t be the Oscars if there wasn’t a huge and unfair omission from the list, and probably the person most justifiably allowed to bear a grudge – even though he already has two shiny gold man-shaped bookends at home – would be Tom Hanks. Stoic and restrained for the majority, his performance in the denouement is gripping and fearlessly honest, and to not even take a nomination is a shame. Paul Greengrass also does his usual bang-up job with the direction, and if that award wasn’t filled with so many strong contenders he would have also been worth a nomination.
Captain Phillips is taut and compelling in all the ways that Greengrass’s earlier features, from United 93 to the Bourne films, were and that his previous film Green Zone wasn’t, so if nothing else it’s just a relief to see Greengrass back on top form. He’s also pulled some great performances from his Somali novices, and Barkhad Abdi is a standard bearer for that part of the cast. Captain Phillips avoids any feelings of exploitation and gives a balanced view of the story, as is so often the case with Paul Greengrass, but it’s not quite at the level of those earlier classics.
Which is not as good as Her
Observation 1: Joaquim Phoenix and Amy Adams should always make films together, if The Master and Her are the benchmark of the quality of their collaborations. They get a lot more screen time together, and while Scarlett Johansson’s OS is the object of Phoenix’s affections, it’s Adams that gives him a warm, balanced human interaction. Observation 2: Spike Jonze, we’ve missed you. Only one film since Adaptation in 2002, let’s hope that Jonze can find more stories that inspire him, especially as Her shows that the quality of his writing is easily the equal of his directing and feels in tune with his earlier work from other writers.
Observation 3: Even five years ago, it’s difficult to imagine a film like this working as well as it does, but Jonze’s timing is impeccable, our acceptance of technology now enabling us to accept such a concept so readily. Despite being saddled with the most unlikely name in the history of movies and facial hair that verges on comedic, Theodore Twimbly draws in your sympathies and you find yourself rooting for his and Samantha’s relationship to work. Observation 4: What keeps this from true greatness is the slightly fudged ending, which while being brave enough doesn’t quite feel as fully formed as the rest of the film.
Observation 5: Any film that can actually make me start to like Arcade Fire is doing something clearly right.
Which is not as good as The Wolf Of Wall Street
It’s three hours, Matthew McConaughey is relegated to an extended cameo and it’s been accused of not being sympathetic enough to the victims while its misogyny poorly serves the female characters. Does that stop it being one of Martin Scorcese’s top tier films? Not in my view. The length works in its favour, giving true scope to the true excess that defined Jordan Belfort’s era of ultimate debauchery. It would have been lovely to have more of McConaughey, but there’s enough in the other characters, from DiCaprio’s physical comedy to Johan Hill’s cheesy grin and a whole array of entertaining supporting turns.
The sympathy for the victims is trickier, as we only see one person being sucked into the scheme, but whereas the comparisons to Goodfellas are well founded, that was an indictment of a lifestyle on the fringes of society. The Wolf Of Wall Street is more of a condemnation of the culture that arose, and where the desperate needs of so many allowed them to be so easily exploited by Belfort and his cronies. As for the treatment of female characters, this is a realisation of Belfort’s view, and to attempt to give a politically correct balance to the characters would have undermined the callousness of Belfort’s world. It isn’t quite Goodfellas, but frankly, what is? When Scorcese’s legacy comes to be written, this should deserve a decent paragraph.
Which is not as good as Gravity
Watching the making of videos for Gravity serves to underline quite what a technical achievement Alfonso Cuaron’s film is. The sheer level of new techniques, melded with established practices pushed to their very limits, creates a cinematic experience unlike any which have gone before and despite the success of space-based epics such as Avatar and 3D improvements like Life Of Pi, Gravity is immersive and impressive in ways that truly haven’t been seen before, and as much as I’m about to rave about 12 Years A Slave in the next section, I can’t help but feel for his breadth of vision and the clarity of his purpose, Cuaron deserves the best director award this year.
The story is painted with broad strokes but deals in metaphor and has slightly alienated some; there are no shortage of character moments, and Sandra Bullock has overcome the technical challenges imposed by the role to deliver a sympathetic study in loneliness. It will be remembered for what’s seen – and to a certain extent, what’s heard, as the music and sound design complement the visuals perfectly – but the quality of the other departments, in both writing and acting, doesn’t in any way let the side down. Gravity is one of a number of films touring cinemas as part of awards season, so if you haven’t seen it on the big screen yet, don’t let the chance pass you by, and make sure to see it in 3D.
The Best Picture Of 2013 is 12 Years A Slave
I’ve been a fan of Steve McQueen’s cinematic work since his first film, Hunger, and I rated Shame as my film of the year in 2012. You can understand that I then approached 12 Years A Slave with a little trepidation: as McQueen edges ever closer to the mainstream, would his vision be compromised? Could his third film possibly live up to the hype? Such questions seem almost trivial once you’ve seen the film, and McQueen has once again delivered a near perfect blend of his own direction, coupled with an acting masterclass and a script that judges just the right moments to deliver a searing portrayal of life in the slave trade.
I’ve been known to cry in the cinema before, from the heartbreak of the final meal in Of Gods And Men to the tragedy of a life told in montage in Up. It is fair to say that I am in touch with all of my emotions once I’m in the darkened environs of a cinema. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that 12 Years A Slave completely destroyed me. Rather than sobbing, tears just streamed down my face at regular intervals, I had to sit in the car for best part of half an hour while I composed myself afterwards and required a beer at the hotel I was staying at for work afterwards to enable me to sleep.
McQueen’s shot composition is from the man of a mind that grew out of art galleries but is now equally comfortable in cinemas. Here he proves beyond any doubt that he’s equally invested in his characters, portrayed as they are so devastatingly by the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. John Ridley’s script has a wonderful ear for the dialogue of the era, and 12 Years A Slave is supremely dramatic and heartbreaking without ever feeling overwrought. The only misstep might be the inclusion of producer Brad Pitt in a small role, but that’s easily forgivable given the offscreen influence he’s likely to have been able to bring to getting this made. If 12 Years A Slave wins big, then McQueen shouldn’t have any difficulty attracting whoever he wants for his next project.
12 Years A Slave is an aspect of slavery rather than a complete picture, as last year’s Django Unchained and Lincoln also explored different facets. But it exceeds either of those films in its insight into both human suffering and ultimately compassion, tinged with hope as much as it is burdened by suffering and anger. In my view, Steve McQueen has now made the two most compelling films I’ve seen this decade, and I can only hope that Hollywood shares this feeling and duly rewards it tonight.