As of last night, I have seen every movie nominated for this year's Best Picture Oscar. My general impression is that there were a number of good and very good movies this year, but no clear front runner in terms of deserving this award. My thoughts on each, in rough order of how much I liked them.
Best Picture Nominees
1. Nebraska. I have enjoyed all of Alexander Payne's films. This is every bit as good as Citizen Ruth and Sideways. Will Forte and Bruce Dern really carry a movie that manages to be both funny and poignant in the same proportion as most of Payne's films.
2. Her. Spike Jonze has a real knack for making movies with stupid premises that turn out really fun and oddly believable. I think he's a special talent and this movie captivated me throughout.
3. Gravity. This movie was an amazing experience in the theater. I literally ducked out of the way of space debris twice. (It missed.) The story is serviceable and Sandra Bullock is fine. I think the director deserves some specific praise for how he showcased Bullock's body. She is lithe and athletic. Beautiful in a way, but not at all objectified. And while many people have legitimate quibbles with the details of the science faux-pas, I for one am happy that a movie about the space program did so well at the box office. I think it's inspiring and I won't be upset if it wins this category.
4. Dallas Buyers Club. Great story with great acting. (See below.)
5. Philomena. Wonderful story with two great performances. I think it avoided some of the obvious traps related to a story of this kind.
6. American Hustle. Fine but predictable and not all of the acting performances keep up with the pace. My favorite part of this movie was Louis CK, who I thought was way out of place in Blue Jasmine, but who showed some real potential as a comedic character actor here.
7. 12 Years a Slave. It's impossible to talk about this movie without first talking about what it has to say about our history. There is no more important topic in American history than slavery and I think Hollywood has done a dreadful job of portraying the real life of slaves. Last year two of the nominees were about slavery, but neither Lincoln nor Django Unchained really told us much about what the real life of slaves was like. This film attempts to do that, and it's a very difficult job. This film deserves credit for tackling the barbarity of slavery while trying to show how it lasted for so long in this country. The movie has some dramatic flaws, but some of the directing choices I liked, like when he lets the camera linger on a characters face for a few seconds at the open of a scene.
It seems that this movie has become the front runner. I don't think it's quote on that level, but I do think this is a film that people should see. And I am very interested in reading the book on which it is based, a memoir by the title character, Solomon Northup.
8. Captain Phillips. Good, but a bit longer than it needed to be and I found Tom Hank's New England accent unnecessary.
9. The Wolf of Wall Street. One of the most boring, pedantic, obnoxious movies I have ever seen. It is ambitious and attempts to maintain for three hours the kind of pace that makes the last 40 minutes of Goodfellas so great. But this movie is without any redeeming quality. It is best thought of as being stuck in a crappy diner seated next to a table of douche bags who have too much liquor and about 1/100th of the charm they think they have.
About 80% of the time the Best Picture winner also takes home this prize. But last year Argo won the big prize even though Ben Aflleck wasn't even nominated for best director. I think this might be another year with a split in the big prizes. Above I listed Gravity as the 3rd best film, but Alfonso Cuaron should be the favorite in this category for all the technical mastery. This is a film that will be remembered for advancing the art of cinema special effects.
1. Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer's Club). This will be the first half of an Oscars-Emmy year that I never would have predicted even five years ago.
2. Christian Bale (American Hustle) does a pretty good Bronx accent but he was a little dull.
3. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) to call this a challenging role would be an under statement.
4. Bruce Dern (Nebraska) A fine performance, but I think he belonged in the supporting category. Will Forte deserved the nomination in this category.
5. Leonardo DiCaprio (Wolf of Wall Street). He was fine but the part was one note for 3 hours of
complete drivel. It would be a shame if DiCaprio finally won an Oscar for a movie this good.
1. Judi Dench (Philomena). I adore her, and she nailed this performance.
2. Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine). She acts the hell out of this part but it is a bit broad. And I don't think it helps when a woman very publicly calls you out by name for working with the man she says molested her as a child. She also pretty much plays a fictional version of Mia Farrow, directed by the man who hates her. She could win but I think the Academy will politely pass.
3. Sandra Bullock (Gravity). She was good but here character's back story was pretty much a pastiche of cliches.
4. Meryl Streep (Osange County). I didn't see it, but I guarantee she was better than...
5. Amy Adams (American Hustle.) She has one hell of an agent. She's not yet 40 and this is her 5th nomination in less than 10 years. I only thought she was good in one of those roles (The Master). But this year her nomination may set a record of sorts. (Spoiler alerts ahead.) In this film she plays an American who is pretending to be British. This is supposed to be a big reveal in the third act. But her British accent was so terrible that I didn't buy for a minute that anyone would fall for this con. By the time we learn this about her character, I forgot that we were supposed to actually think she was British. Or had been to Britain. Or had seen A Hard' Day's Night. So the record I referred to is this-has anyone ever been nominated for a movie when their performance gave away a major plot point? I know Jaye Davidson's nomination in the best supporting Actor category for the Crying Game gave away a major point but that wasn't because his acting sucked.
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club). Absolutely disappeared into the role. This is close to a cinch. The other performances are all fine, but clearly not as good as Leto.
Best Supporting Actress: This is the toughest category to handicap. Jennifer Lawrence was good in American Hustle but I don't think she's going to win 2 years in a row. Sally Hawkins was excellent in Blue Jasmine but she's got to be hurt by the Woody Allen controversy. I didn't see Augst: Osage County but I doubt that Julia Roberts will win. That leaves June Squibb for Nebraska and Lupita Nyong'o for 12 Years a Slave. I loved Nebraska but I thought Squibb's part was a little too broadly written. And Nyong'o played by far the most challenging part in a movie that's likely to win a lot of trophies. But I don't think it was a truly great performance. My guess is Hawkins, but none of these names would surprise me.
Best Writing-Original Screenplay.
Woody Allen's nomination for Blue Jasmine is the residue of voters' habits. To be blunt, his age is showing. The characters feel like they are from another time. And it say something when the most believable character is played by Andrew Dice Clay. Most of the other nominees are pretty good but it would be something of an injustice for anyone other than Spike Jonze (Her) to win. This is a great story made even better by the plausible execution of an absurd premise.
Best Writing-Adapted Screenplay.
I didn't see Before Midnight, so I'll resist the temptation to make an Ethan Hawke joke. Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope should win this for Philomena, but I think John Ridley is more likely to win, for 12 Years a Slave.
Official Predictions: So here is my office pool (of one) predictions.
Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Director: Steve McQueen (12 years a Slave)
Actor: McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Actress: Dench (Philomena)
Supporting Actor: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers' Club)
Supporting Actress: Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze (Her)
Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)