Feb 25, 2014

Quick Reviews: 2014 Best Picture Nominees, Part 1

In what has basically become a self-imposed tradition, it is now time for Tableau Your Mind to review the nine films up for Best Picture. I did this mostly for you  I didn't want to watch half of these movies. When the Academy first opened up the Best Picture race to (up to) 10 nominees, it seemed like a good idea. Movies that would have previously been relegated to other categories or completely forgotten were given a chance to shine. Last year's Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour come to mind, as well as the heartbreaking Toy Story 3 a few years prior. But this year, with a few exceptions, it seems like the Best Picture race is almost completely full of the kinds of movies that are 'supposed' to be in the race, and very few of them feel fresh at all. In a year teeming with innovation and beautifully told movies, a lot of these nominees just feel silly. Why are we even looking at Captain Phillips while Frances Ha and The Kings of Summer are completely out of the race? Still, each of the nine movies nominated do contain moments of quality, and some are legitimately great movies. So, let's take a look at four  of the movies up for Best Picture (Dallas Buyers Club, PhilomenaAmerican Hustle, and Her) with a quick list of Pros, Cons, and my guess as to whether Best Picture is in their grasps (some minor spoilers, but nothing you wouldn't get from the trailer):

Dallas Buyers Club
Story: DBC tells the true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a blatantly-homophobic rodeo cowboy whose AIDS diagnosis leads him to start a lucrative and life-affirming drug business.  Along the way, he meets, rebuffs, and befriends transgender woman Rayon (Jared Leto) and starts an almost-relationship with Sydney Bristow Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). As he starts a prescription service for AIDS and HIV infected people in the Texas area, looks for new and innovative treatments, and deals with the backwoods opinions of his former friends and neighbors.
The resemblance is uncanny.
Pros: Ron is an interesting character, and Matthew McConaughey really sells the physical and emotional journey. Especially the physical journey  his body is completely transformed, which helps to sell the rest of the movie.  There are three main relationships in the story, and two of them really work: Rayon/Eve and Rayon/Ron. For reals, even though Jared Leto has starved himself into looking like an eyebrow-less Judith Light, he's still the best thing in this movie. He's asked to carry a lot of the larger emotional moments of the film, and he's great. He's also pretty wonderful in the smaller moments, especially in his scenes with Jennifer Garner.
Cons: Okay, now for the relationship that doesn't work  about 2/3 of the way into the movie, there is a lot of attention paid to the quasi-romance between Dr. Saks and Ron. It's unnecessary, it feels tacked on and inorganic, and neither Garner nor McConaughey sell it. It's a situation of a film trying (and failing) to have it all. Also, I get that this is just one man's story, but it's a little annoying that the protagonist in this movie can't be ANY of the other characters. Ron's journey so obvious  I kept wondering how much more interesting the movie would be if any other character was at the center. Without Ron at the center, the film might almost seem revelatory  Eve's examination of the medical practices of her hospital, Rayon's moments of drug addiction and sassy humanity. I don't mean to discount McConaughey's performance, which is occasionally great, but this shouldn't have been his story.
Best Picture Winner: It's a solid movie, but it doesn't take as many risks as it should have. We're decades past films like Philadelphia and ten years past Angels in America. We're moving backwards.
Film Grade: B

Story: Another based-on-a-true-story adventure tackling corruption, Philomena follows one woman's journey to find her son 50 years after he was taken away from her by evil Irish nuns. She even has to travel to America to find out more about her son, so there's some sweet, cross-continental appeal. The titular Philomena is played by the incomparable Dame Judi Dench, portraying depth in a character that initially, purposefully reads as a blank slate. The journalist is Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote and produced the movie.
Pros: For the first half of this movie, I was sure where the film was going to end, and then it went exactly where I had predicted...with an hour left to go. After the climax that I thought would finish the film, the movie just keeps going, exploring new paths and relationships in surprisingly heartfelt ways. Judi Dench is incredible, obviously  she rarely gets the chance to play frail, as she is more often than not relegated to roles defined by that steely strength thing that elderly British women do so well.
Cons: Steve Coogan is great at awkward comedy, but that awkwardness isn't really presented well here. The comedic moments often read as false, tonally speaking.
Best Picture Winner: This is probably the most classic film up for Best Picture. Like, this is a movie that would have been nominated for Best Picture in 1980. So it probably won't win, but it is commendable.
Film Grade: A

"We gotta get over on all these guys"
American Hustle
Story: I swear, not all of these movies are based on a true story, but this one is. Kind of. David O. Russell loosely directs this tale of the people behind the ABSCAM scandal, which I am not sure I completely understand. Really, it's immaterial, because the movie is all about sexy clothes, big hair, and yelling. And there's some mob stuff and Jennifer Lawrence trying to microwave metal and dancing to that super-catchy James Bond ditty. It's Ocean's 11 set in the 70s, and it's nominated for multiple Oscars. It may actually win a few.
Pros: Despite what I just wrote, this is still a very good movie. It's slick, full of great character moments, and Amy Adams actually seems like she's having a good time. And Jennifer Lawrence, despite being terribly miscast, is a lot of fun as Christian Bale's disaster of a wife. The real winner in the movie is Louis C.K., who grounds the movie each time it's about to go off the rails. Also, Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale's haircuts are, once again, in a Russell joint, and this time they are permed and combed over, respectively.
Cons: This movie is a good time, but so was Thor 2, and that movie isn't getting nominated for Best Picture. It's a fun romp, but the actors are given too much free reign to do whatever they want, and Russell forgets that the best thing about heist movies is the tight structure. When everything is loosey-goosey, a lot is lost.
Best Picture Winner: Ugh, I hope not. It's such a mediocre movie that's so chock full of pretty faces that people forget that it's mediocre. It's not a good sign when the most memorable moments in the film are the costuming (a certain white-knit swimsuit comes to mind) and microwave humor. Still, it would be cool for a movie starring Elisabeth Röhm to win Best Picture.
Film Grade: B-

"Was it good for you?"
Story: Let's end this first jaunt down Best Picture lane with a beautifully told story, simple and glorious. Spike Jonze's Her, which is not based on a true story but may as well be based on my love of my laptop, tells the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a man dealing with a failed relationship and starting a new one with his computer's operating system, Samantha, voiced by the raspy Scarlett Johansson. (In case you think this movie is only populated with actors whose names are difficult to spell, Amy Adams and Chris Pratt are also along for the ride) As Theodore and Samantha grow closer, their love is tested as much by the physical limitations of their romance as by Samantha's growing knowledge and curiosity. It's a relationship story, a comedy, a drama, and a neo-futuristic dystopian cautionary tale all rolled up into one.
Pros: I was really expecting to hate this movie, with its twee sensibility, earnest ukulele montages, and, lest we forget, a main story that focuses on a man falling in love with a computer. Yet, it totally won me over, it's sweetness getting close (but never quite reaching) cloying levels and its story embracing the sweetness in a very organic way. The film is a really beautiful, slightly-one-sided look at a relationship that's complicated and honest and desperately trying to be real. In addition to a wonderful story, Phoenix, Adams, and Pratt are so natural in their roles, which is key in selling this concept. Also, the whole feel of the movie is incredible the color palate is warm (and blue-less), which gives the whole movie a nice autumnal feel. I could do without the high-waisted pants. I don't care what my tiny waisted, long-legged friends tell me it's not a look that many people can pull off.
Cons: It's not Scarlett Johansson's fault, but her voice is so instantly recognizable that she's never quite believable as a disembodied voice. We all have a clear idea of what Scar-Jo's body looks like, and that hurts the movie. Also, as the film unspools, Johansson has a hard time keeping up with the material. Outside of Johansson, Jonze also seems to have some problems with female characters in general. They're all narrative hurdles more than they are people, especially Theodore's ex Rooney Mara (cough *Sofia Coppola* cough) and blind date Olivia Wilde. Adams gets a few nice moments, and she's great selling somewhat subpar material, but she's also not much more than a plot point.
Best Picture Winner: It's not going to win, but it's fantastic. Like, transportingly fantastic. And a little depressing, which is how I like my sweetness tempered.
Film Grade: A+

So, that's Part 1. Man, I need to review five more of these!
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