1) CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
Straight-ahead, no-frills storytelling at its best. No subplots, no wives or significant others. (Even Captain Phillips’ wife is barely given any camera time.) Just one tense scene after another, dramatizing the true-life 2009 hijacking of an American freighter at sea. Tom Hanks is excellent as Phillips, Barkhad Abdi (in what is, remarkably, his first film role) is a real find as the Somalian pirate leader, and director Paul Greengrass builds the suspense to a fever pitch and keeps it there. The result: we all know how this nautical nightmare turned out, yet it doesn’t matter at all.
2) 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in this pre-Civil War potboiler about a free man of color who is sold into slavery, and the indignities and abuses he suffers. Director Steve McQueen’s camera loves Ejiofor’s face almost as much as it loves the southern-fried scenery around him; McQueen never rushes his shots, choosing instead to linger on a cotton field here, a gorgeous mansion there. (The film looks great.) Well-written, beautifully acted, unflinching in its look at the horrors of slavery, “12 Years” may not be for the faint of heart, but it is for the serious filmgoer…and student of American history. Powerful stuff.
The cinematic equivalent of a one-trick pony, but–what a trick! Sandra Bullock’s turn as an astronaut stranded in space is spot-on; the streamlined plot, packed into a drum-tight ninety minutes, is ingenious; and director Alfonso Cuaron’s vision of the majesty of space is like nothing you’ve seen before. A gripping adventure set against the most spectacular of backdrops, featuring the most intrepid and indefatigable of heroes. A masterpiece.
As clever as “Gravity” if not nearly as eye-popping, this remarkable film about an unconventional romance–between a lonely writer and the ultra-high-tech operating system he purchases for his computer at home–stars Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johanssen as the two star- (and technology-) crossed lovers. Occasionally funny but more often profoundly sad, director/screenwriter Spike Jonze has crafted one of the most original–and, in its own quirky way, sensual–movies of the year.
5) THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Funny, boisterous, erotic, obscene–have I mentioned “funny”?–Martin Scorcese’s latest is about real-life Wall Street con man Jordan (“There is no nobility in poverty”) Belfort, who stole from the rich and gave to himself and his friends and paid the price for his greed. Leonardo DiCaprio is brilliant as Belfort, and Jonah Hill–with his horn-rimmed glasses and nerdy overbite–leads a top-flight supporting cast as Belfort’s shlubby, but tougher-than-he-looks VP. A bit tedious after awhile–the drug-fueled, frat-boy lunacy never ends–but I couldn’t stop laughing. Now THAT’S comedy.
6) DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
Courageous performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto–as a straight, homophobic AIDS patient and his pre-op transsexual business partner–highlight this true story about the early days of the AIDS crisis, and the FDA’s stubborn refusal to approve safer meds. The two open a “buyers club” (one of a number of such clubs in existence at the time) in an effort to distribute these meds. By movie’s end, McConaughey has gained not only the respect of the AIDS community, but a measure of humility–and humanity–besides.
7) AMERICAN HUSTLE
Well written, nicely directed, and engagingly acted (even as some of the wigs and 70s-era outifts battle for our attention), David O. Russell’s film about desperate con men and scheming politicos is also, unfortunately, too long, too complicated, and–well–too presumptuous: are we REALLY supposed to root for these sleazoids who would do anything to separate a mark from his money? Purely on an emotional level–if not a cinematic one–far inferior to Russell’s “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook”. It was fun for awhile watching Christian Bale & Co. stray so far from their usual onscreen personas…but only for awhile.
And now for my picks in some of the other categories…
Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”–Sure, he spent half the movie boozed-up or drugged down, but he was a commanding presence throughout, and after a couple of those patented pep talks, I almost felt like reaching for the phone and selling a few worthless stocks, myself.
Runner-up: Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
Runner-up: Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”–A tour de force performance
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:
Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”–Impossible to tell that this was his first role of any kind.
Runner-up: Jonah Hill, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:
Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
Martin Scorcese, “The Wolf of Wall Street”–For making me laugh even at the sleaziest, most cringeworthy scenes, and for eliciting such fine performances from his cast, top to bottom.
Runner-up: Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:
Terence Winter, “The Wolf of Wall Street”–Never has decadence and debauchery looked so hilarious.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY:
Spike Jonze, “Her”–A timely film, and totally original.
That’s it! Look for my review of the telecast itself in a few days.
(Due to time constraints, I was not able to see “Philomena” and “Nebraska”. Capsule reviews of those two movies–and where I would rank them among the Best Picture nominees–will be posted shortly.)
FILM REVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien