Oscars 2014 – Best Picture

Michael Prescott

24-year-old Welsh writer on all things film. Background in Philosophy. Accidentally in Sheffield for 6 years and counting. Addicted to Kevin Spacey. Tweetable: @M_S_Prescott

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Here’s your one-stop guide to the Academy Award Best Picture race on Sunday 2nd March. Enjoy!

The history…

I recently looked at some of the most memorable years for the coveted Best Picture award at the Oscars, picking out the best and worst. Though the Academy is assumed to be made up of predominantly white, aging, well-off males (like most powerful organisations then) they have certainly appeared to adopt a more progressive stance in recent years.

Indeed, since the travesty that was Crash overcoming the brilliant Brokeback Mountain – a decision so barmy it can only be assumed that the combined force of the frontrunning themes of racism and homosexuality melted the remaining brain activity of those with voting power – things have improved. Maybe all that exposure to minority issues that year managed to trigger something approaching sensibleness. Maybe…

Since then we’ve seen [in order] The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, The Artist and Argo triumph. It reads a little like David Fincher’s filmmaking history in the sense that they seem to get it very right one year and then quite wrong the next, with the odd debatable exception to this rule. Still far from perfect – especially with the likes of Fincher’s own The Social Network missing out – but closer to the right lines at least.

The casualties…

Despite the increase in nominees rising from five to a maximum of ten in recent years, there will always be those that fall by the wayside. This is often because they’re seen as offbeat or controversial in some way, although sometimes it’s because they’re just not big enough in terms of scale, audience perception or – perhaps most likely – financial backing.

The biggest sighs of surprise this year came with the lack of nominations – particularly in this category – for Inside Llewyn Davis. This was even more disappointing given that it was released in the midst of awards season. The Coen Brothers also don’t exactly operate far outside of the mainstream (if at all) given their nominations for A Serious Man and True Grit (since winning with No Country for Old Men in 2007).

Another that was suggested in more hope than expectation was Richard Linklater’s stunning conclusion (for now) to the Before trilogy, Before Midnight. Neither did Rush, Blue Jasmine or The Place Beyond the Pines make it, although it’s difficult to say just what year the latter film was eligible for (with Blue is the Warmest Colour another victim of these fuzzy rules).

The contenders

Every year the hype and heat allows us to narrow predictions to a couple of certain contenders with perhaps one outside shot. This year that consists of 12 Years a Slave (the favourite) versus American Hustle, with a slim chance for Gravity. You can pretty much write the others off, which is a shame.

However, instead of just focusing on these three films – goodness knows enough has been written about them already anyway – let’s look at each nominee in turn, starting with my least favourite and working our way up…

9. Dallas Buyers Club

This is the one that’s just about clinging on to a spot in this category for me. Some others might cite Philomena or Captain Phillips as the fortunate guests dining at the big table, but they’ve got much more overall than DBC does. I don’t think it’s near the same level as Before Midnight or The Place Beyond the Pines, but their omissions are a different issue altogether (and actually most of the nominated films would struggle to meet such high standards).

Dallas Buyers Club is a film with yet another superb turn from Matthew McConaughey – currently unable to put a foot wrong – supported by another really strong performance from Jared Leto. The film itself has interesting things to say and fascinating topics to cover meaning that it’s bound to be powerful and quite moving, but it doesn’t handle them with any real skill. There are a number of balls in the air which the writer and directors seemingly struggle to juggle, and ultimately it’s the reason which it isn’t on the same level as the others here.

It’s a reasonably good film – certainly worth watching for the performances and evoking the even better documentaries Fire in the Blood and How to Survive a Plague which look at particular aspects of the AIDS crisis in expert detail, but I’m not convinced that it will remain all that memorable in and of itself.

8. American Hustle

American Hustle is a bit of a tricky one. I like David O. Russell’s films and form since his return with the underrated (though admittedly Oscar-nominated) The Fighter. Silver Linings Playbook was also nominated for Best Picture last year, so this is three in a row for him.

Having said that, I only watched American Hustle six weeks ago and yet there’s really not an awful lot that stands out. The acting is good and it’s a fun, stylish film with doses of humour throughout. Fleeting moments come to mind – mainly anything involving Jennifer Lawrence – but not a great deal more substantial.

The narrative doesn’t have a great deal to it; instead it’s a vehicle for a bunch of very accomplished performances from some extraordinary actors, with Bale, Adams, Lawrence, Cooper and Renner all excelling (plus Louis C.K, another familiar gangster favourite and a couple of Boardwalk Empire alumni).

Like a takeaway or chocolate binge, it’s really enjoyable while it lasts but the aftertaste just isn’t anywhere near as sweet. It’ll be interesting to see whether it has the longevity and playfulness that’s so apparent in Silver Linings, or whether it quickly fades away. A good couple of hours but perhaps not too much more.

7. Philomena

This is similarly tricky, but for very different reasons. It’s an awkward one to place because I feel as though I have a duty to place this fairly low, especially compared to the meaty subjects of 12 Years, Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips.

But my initial reaction was to place it even higher than seventh which conveys one thing very clearly: it’s hugely likeable. It’s charming and witty and genuinely laugh-out-loud (consistently so; I had a smile etched on my face throughout) and so I was, and still am, completely on the film’s side.

The thing to note about Philomena is that it’s a straightforward script and a story that’s been done well without missing a beat or trick. It’s well executed and suffers few flaws, but it’s nothing especially complex. The likes of American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street have taken on more difficult narratives in clumsier ways – with varying degrees of success (and opinion very much divided over the level of it) – and so the strength (and ambition) of some of its rivals is why Philomena is a solidly enjoyable film but doesn’t deserve Best Picture.

Coogan and Dench make a fabulous odd-couple and the script is smart and slick throughout. It’s everything you could want from this kind of comedy-drama, and it totally delivers on the premise. I’m sold on Philomena and I’m glad it’s been nominated – hopefully it gets further recognition by winning another writing award in the form of Best Adapted Screenplay.

6. 12 Years a Slave

Yeah, I know; further down the list than you’d expect. But my honest assessment of the film is that it’s really quite good, but nothing more. Though there is an unjust correlation between big films and supposedly good performances, I can understand the clamour for Ejiofor to win. I don’t, however, really understand the assertion that his display was in any way subtle – it’s quite showy and shouty, but it is a good physical demonstration of character deterioration (much like the film itself).

McQueen too is a director who has always used physicality as a major theme of his previous works (Hunger, Shame) – both of which are arguably better films (both also have Fassbender being brilliant). Therefore it’s no surprise to see a couple of particular scenes – ‘hanging’ and ‘lashing’ – done, and done very well.

Nyong’o’s debut is very, very good indeed and she’d be a shoe-in for the Best Supporting Actress award if the whole world and his dog wasn’t head-over-heels for Jennifer Lawrence right now. Fassbender, unsurprisingly, is superb once again. His partnership with McQueen is one of those special actor-director collaborations and I hope it never goes away.

Having said all that, I still have reservations. Not enough to say that it isn’t good, or worthy, or well crafted. But enough to put it lower than a few other films. It feels bizarrely like a film that I’ve seen variations on before, despite (or perhaps because of) its important subject matter. There’s also really something quite straightforward (almost formulaic) about the narrative, when usually you’d expect better from McQueen.

His influence is most certainly there (the music is a clear illustration of this) but there isn’t quite the intrigue and unpredictability that you’d associate with the director, and even the direction and cinematography – as good as both are capable of being – are slightly overhyped here. McQueen’s got brilliant abilities but I find his influence to be inconsistent throughout 12 Years, with the resulting film feeling of various impressive parts rather than the greater sum thereof.

5. Captain Phillips

I think Captain Phillips is a really good film actually. A Hijacking is the Danish film released within a couple of months of it based on a very similar subject, and the comparison is a great demonstration of two equally valid and compelling approaches yet with very resulting different films. I like them both separately.

Captain Phillips sees a likeable Tom Hanks (shocker) attempting to protect his ship and crew after Somali Pirates – led by the superb debutant and BAFTA-winning Barkhad Abdi – jump aboard. Hanks does his job very well, but the groans about his Oscar ‘snub’ are wide of the mark. Additionally, if there’s a more irritating and wide-of-the-mark phrase than “…for the last five minutes alone!” right now then I don’t want to know it.

But these little annoyances are beside the film itself which is in fact superbly directed by Paul Greengrass. A la United 93, he keeps the suspense and tension unbearably high even if you’re aware of how the real-life events played out. My only real concern over the film is with its rewatchability, but given that it works in this context I think it’s likely to be fine.

Greengrass is a fantastic director and it’s very much he who makes the film what it is, but the acting and cinematography don’t hurt it either. Captain Phillips is one of those genuine visceral thrill-rides that’s been done really, really well by a master of his trade. It doesn’t deserve to win, but it knows exactly what it wants to be and gets it just right.

4. Nebraska

The slight problem I have with Nebraska – no fault of the film itself, I should add – is that I struggle to describe just how or why it is that it’s such a great film. Essentially it’s a gentle, reflective, brooding piece from Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election) and it’s up there with his very best work.

After the relatively broad brushstrokes of The Descendants (in its writing, etc.) it’s a relief to see him back on form tackling more subtle, nuanced characters and situations. This isn’t high-concept: it’s all about the characters. Woody (Bruce Dern) is a lost patriarch – placid yet resolute – and he seeks the state of Nebraska like the end of a rainbow.

His pot of gold is what appears to be a marketing scam and although his family (his wife and son in particular) attempt to warn him of such, he’s undeterred. His son then accompanies on him on this road trip (not unfamiliar territory for Payne given his previous of Sideways and About Schmidt) for what appears to be company’s sake.

It’s shot in black-and-white and evokes films like that of the Coen brothers at every turn. It’s implicitly tragic throughout and yet there’s real warmth and human feeling in the characters, with plenty of humorous moments throughout. Like a serious version of Philomena with a little bit more to say, if you will…

3. The Wolf of Wall Street

Honestly, it’s just riotous. There’s a question to be answered as to just how intentional the rough edges are – and the follow-up as to, if so, whether that deliberateness is merited – but overall I found it to be a hoot.

Leo Di Caprio is on fine form as the morally bankrupt but materially wealthy banker – one of very many – in a very timely and relevant telling of his rise and refusal to fall/fail. The comparisons with Goodfellas and Casino have been noted, but it’s still very much worth telling. Even Raging Bull has a similar sort of rise-and-fall feel with certain Scorsese-isms, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a world worth visiting.

Some of the criticisms actively puzzle me: disapproval over supposed misogyny (nope), lack of interest in the main character and his lifestyle (nope) and the editing – or lack thereof – of the film, leading to its spiralling narrative and lengthy nature.

But, whilst this last one is up for debate at least, there is a valid defence over the necessity to display this. After all, it’s a film about excess and lack of control – namely Belfort’s over his own life, and his pride / refusal to be told what to do by the authorities.

Like The Armstrong Lie, it invites you in to laugh and love the lifestyle of the hilarious Belfort before reminding you later on of the vices and horrors of the character(s) and their decisions. The more I think about it, the more impressed and convinced I am that Scorsese’s got another one absolutely on the money.

2. Her

For me entries #5, #4, #3 and #2 are fairly interchangeable with not an awful lot between them. They’re also four very different films and so the various comparisons aren’t easy to make. Her is very fresh in my mind after seeing it just days ago and – though it didn’t blow me away – it did absolutely convince me of its quality.

Spike Jonze directs and also solely penned the script – with no Charlie Kaufman collaboration on this occasion – allowing for an equally layered but more accessible film overall. Her is more about the state of love now than in the future, as well as all of its various forms and the accompanying problems, issues and complexities that it provides.

Jonze creates a completely believable world and shows Theodore beginning to shrink away from living in it, thus making the shots of the cityscape all the more potent. It provides an important allegory for those who use internet dating and those in long-distance or same-sex relationships, reiterating the values of openness and pride in one’s partner.

However – just like love – the film brings [un]healthy doses of tragedy and pain along with the humour and happiness, creating a bittersweet, Catch-22 like scenario where love is desired and undesired simultaneously. It has a great deal to say about isolation and about the impossibility of knowing somebody else truly (almost Woody Allen-like in its thesis), a scary and somewhat depressing thought.

For all of its little nuances and influences, this film is more like Black Mirror than 2001 or similar sci-fi. Its ideas are based upon the now rather than the future, and it’s a film very much grounded in human emotion and character. It’s a fabulous effort from Spike Jonze, and was deservedly recognised with a nomination.

1. Gravity

…however, the absolute #1 stand-out, clear-as-day, no-question-about-it film of the year – and deserving winner of Best Picture – simply has to be Gravity.

Let me contextualise my answer by first saying that I adore dialogue, character, themes, narrative… the influence of literature and theatre, essentially. I love murder-mysteries, one-room setups and character interactions. Films like Before Midnight or Glengarry Glen Ross or Mary and Max are like porn to me. But for all of its triumphs, Gravity is not this type of film. Gravity is an example of a cinematic masterclass.

Gravity is the type of film that reminds me of being a child and being utterly blown away by cinema and its extraordinary power. You were literally overwhelmed as you sat there and the screen – the music, the sound, the action and drama and colour… – it engulfed you and all of your senses. It could stir up emotions that you never thought possible: it was moving, it was hilarious and it made you so admire these people and their talents.

Gravity reminded me of all that. Whilst the overall experience was reminiscent of being utterly dumbfounded and being taken on an experience or a ride, the first 30 minutes in particular was this at its most heightened. I was utterly stunned and could do nothing but stare at the screen in awe, taking it all in and wondering how long this sensation could go on.

There’s not the time or space (!) to go into just how or why the film manages to achieve this, but let me break it down into as brief a summary as I can. I happen to think that Bullock’s performance has been overhyped. I think it’s good – just like Redford’s in All is Lost – and whilst it isn’t easy to carry a film in such a way, it’s not special.

Similarly, I understand the criticism of the dialogue in the film. It isn’t particularly good, and the characters do tend towards the one-dimensional (or the obvious) a little more than they should. But, given the film’s symbolism regarding life and survival, this shouldn’t matter too much.

What does matter is the incredible sound design (which seems to have gone unfairly unmentioned), as well as the brilliant cinematography and visual effects, and the direction itself. This film is all about tone and atmosphere, and it puts you on edge throughout. It’s unbearably tense and, in my view, also very scary.

Put simply, Gravity is one of those rare cinematic experiences that makes full use of the medium’s advantages and demonstrates something so unique and forward-thinking that it has to be recognised for it. I think we’ll see 12 Years a Slave come out on top, but Gravity is not only more important for cinema – looking to the future after rightly recognising the past with the winning The Artist just two years ago – but it’s a better film too.

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