Another Oscar season is upon us, and I am running out of time to comment, so this may be shorter than the two dozen times I’ve composed this post in my head (in the shower, while I’m swimming or driving, before I fall asleep at night). I’ve felt that the theme running through most pictures this year is trust and betrayal, while last year’s films revolved around faith and belief. I will explore this theme in each film discussed. What I’m going to do is list these films in the order of least favorite to most favorite, so no skipping down to the bottom of the post, because that would be cheating. No cheating. Here we go.
#10 (Yes, 10. I know there are only 9 movies up for best picture, but you’ll understand when we get to the end.) – 12 Years a Slave. Yes, the film that won best picture (drama) at the Golden Globes is my least favorite film of the bunch. Solomon Northup blindly trusted that his existence in the north as a free man would allow him to live like any other person, but he is betrayed by those he feels akin to (of his class, his education), resulting in what most people consider to be an exploration of tragedy. The title itself is the starting point for why this film rates so low here. Northup was a slave twelve years. I do not deny that as being horrid, but he had a time before and after that period where he was a free man. The true tragedy of the film is those that are slaves all their lives and have no recourse, and the further catastrophe is to be a woman and a slave. What I truly found abominable was Patsey’s plight at the hands of both Epps and his wife. Steve McQueen’s direction successfully alienated me from being able to identify with the protagonist, which was his goal. I’m going to be bringing in snippets of conversations I’ve had with people into my discussion here, but as I totally agree with Hazel, Northup was a non-character. Because he was so blank and reactive, with no realized identity, I couldn’t engage with him. McQueen designed this character to have him stand for us as a witness to what happens. But, that doesn’t mean Northup needed to be so absent. What was particularly annoying was when McQueen endeavored to put us, the audience, inside the action in intense scenes with his use of hand-held cameras and sound editing. From what I’ve read, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) are good films, and I look forward to seeing them, and he clearly has a relationship with Fassbender, but if this film is any indication of what I can expect of those two, my enthusiasm for the other two films is a bit quelled. Let me give you further example of my irritation. There is a sequence once Northup is captured and awaiting transport further south. There is a shot where he is sitting with a few others, and the camera pans / cranes up to reveal a map painting of 1840s Washington DC. It is meant to say to the audience, “look how close he is to freedom” and hit us like a sucker punch to the gut. That this sort of activity (the capturing and selling of African Americans) could be happening right next to normalcy and is hiding in plain sight. Contrast that to a scene from Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 Reservoir Dogs. Mr. Blonde is torturing a cop with a razor blade. He grabs hold of the cop, and the camera pans up and left. All we can hear is the struggle. Our brain fills in the horror. After that, Mr. Blonde tells the cop not to go anywhere, and the camera backs out of the room, with Mr. Blonde in front of it, and follows Mr. Blonde outside the garage. The garage, interior and dark, give way to brilliant sunlight, so much so that Mr. Blonde squints. He walks over to his car, and we can see that this garage is in an everyday neighborhood. We hear children giggling off camera, playing nearby. Mr. Blonde goes to the trunk of his car, gets out a canister of gas, and returns inside the building. We see the setting as the everyday, and that the most unspeakable things could be happening one door down from our domestic world. The chill that scene caused was far more gripping than a pan to a map painting. It was overall cheap and easy. Why McQueen is up for best director is beyond me.
#9 – Nebraska. While this was one of the best shot movies I saw this year (beautiful black and white cinematography that did an impressive job of establishing the setting which, at times, was vastly more interesting than the plot), and captured the sense of place in the same way that Coen Brothers’ movies like No Country for Old Men and Fargo do, the plot of the movie was too silly and sad. I’m sure there are some delusional, senile people who get stuff in the mail and believe they’ve won a fantastic prize that any other lucid person wouldn’t even bother opening let alone reading, but that Woody has a wife and two sons that can’t explain why he hasn’t won a million dollars and must then take him to the address on the notice is further instance of how much of a failure our society has become. Maybe that’s it. Maybe this film is brilliant, and Woody’s pursuit of a non-existent prize is a metaphor for the way this country no longer cares about its citizens. We’ve put our trust in a system that seemingly promised prosperity, security and freedom. What we have now is none of those things. I’m sorry, but after watching most of the films up for best documentary this year, I’m pretty disillusioned with America as a concept. Or are we supposed to laugh at Woody? He seems like a nice enough guy. But if all he wants with a million dollars is a truck, and it is so vital for him to get that million dollars and be a big man to his friends and family (and friends and family here seem to be loose terms), then doesn’t that make him shallow, as shallow as the family and friends who only seem to want a piece of his fortune because he was such a crashing failure in the past when everyone had to help him out? On the surface, this appears to be a comedy because Alexander Payne is poking fun at Midwestern stereotypes, but this movie is pretty tragic overall.
#8 – Philomena. 5 of the 9 films up for best picture are based on true stories. Out of those five, this to me may be the most tragic in its sincerity. The other four are about failures of government (12 Years and the existence of slavery, Dallas Buyers and the failure of the FDA to get effective drugs to a dying population, Captain Phillips and our deteriorating foreign policy, Wolf and deregulation). But whereas there’s a happy ending of sorts to the other four (slavery was abolished and Northup was returned to his family, the efforts of Ron Woodroof to get policy changes about medicine trials, Richard Phillips being rescued and returned to his family, Jordan Belfort reinventing himself and hopefully bringing some insight into how to handle the transaction of securities exchange), there is no happy ending in Philomena. In fact, the ending is rather nauseating. Philomena, who had never had sex explained to her because Catholics are so incredibly frightened by the notion of educating their own on how the human body works, gets pregnant and is sent to a convent to have her sinful baby in shame. Then, her child is sold to Americans. The whole thing is covered up, and she is so brainwashed by the nuns that what she did will probably ruin her chances of making it into heaven, she never makes a real attempt at finding her child until decades later. Philomena is betrayed by her trust in the one thing that is supposed to love and care for her unconditionally, her religion. And even when it is revealed that the fault is more in the vengeance of Sister Hildegarde, who feels that her vow of chastity to be a nun excuses all manner of punishment for those who experienced pleasures of the flesh, than in the religion itself, Philomena maintains her trust in her religion and forgives Hildegarde. Some may find this to be a beautiful, meaningful moment in the film, that love and patience and kindness and forgiveness are saving graces of the true believer. But I side with Martin – those fucking bastards robbed a teenager of her child, and that is unconscionable. For those of us on the planet that don’t believe in a Disney World in the sky after we die and that our lives are right here, right now, this notion of “I’ll forego whatever wrongs, injustice and hardships on Planet Earth for cake and ice cream Forever” doesn’t make a shred of sense, and that Philomena lived a life of pain and longing and loss for something that really wasn’t her fault (if you don’t know what sex is because no one told you what it was, then how can you be faulted?) is unwarranted. But I’m getting so damn sick of hearing about how religion is the root of so much evil; I challenge Hollywood to make a movie where religion is the good guy for once.
#7 – Gravity. This movie was beautiful and technically mind-blowing. Alfonso Cuarόn should win best director, and Emmanuel Lubezki should win best cinematography. But when it comes to best picture, you have to look at the sum of the parts. This story is very simple and exceedingly contrived. Some sequences were very heavy-handed (the airlock fetus sequence, the evolution "emerging-from-the-water" sequence, the George Clooney hallucination sequence to cement Stone’s resolve in returning to Earth, the “my-child-died-so-why-bother-returning” motivation conflict). This was not a well-told story. But it was so beautiful to watch. The way to work it back to the theme I’ve been exploring is the crux of why everything goes awry for the crew – the Russians (again, becoming our main bad guys – well, them, the terrorists and North Korea) have blown up a spy satellite to circumvent an international incident, and the debris that radiates out from that is what shreds everything in its path. I thought that when it came to science, especially with Antarctica and space, everyone needed to play by the same rules. We can’t trust that anymore either, right? Or not to betray the beauty that is life, although this is a pretty extreme version of staying alive to see another day. And I’m not saying Sandra Bullock did a bad job, but when you have the other four women in the category (and the omission of Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks), this doesn’t seem all that big a deal.
#6 – Dallas Buyers Club. I was initially a bigger fan of this after I saw it, and it is a solid film, and I really appreciate that this isn’t an “AIDS message” film, which almost every other film with characters with AIDS becomes, but it was a message film. The message is that the government, who we trust to keep us safe, sucks at its job. Whatever politics or money or bullshit comes into play, someone on the other side of the equation (read “those that need the help the most”) is going to get shafted. We get these great stories about these underdogs that fight the system, and it is never an easy fight, and there are always casualties. The acting in this movie is great, except that Jennifer Garner looks like a community theater reject when put in the same room with McConaughey and Leto. There’s nothing particularly flashy about this film, but the sequence where Ron stands in a room of butterflies, the lights flickering on and off, at the same time that Rayon slips away, is poetic.
#5 – This was running really close to #4, but #4 got the edge based on strength of screenplay and strong ensemble cast: The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s fun to see Scorsese flex his directing muscles like this. True, as many have already said, this is Goodfellas for the late 1980s – early 1990s. And we certainly don’t have people with guns running around. Crime has transferred from the thugs to the white collar criminals. But boy, this film was fun to watch. It was 180 minutes long, but I didn’t feel it. And some of the sequences were so masterful. The three that stick out were the Quaaludes sequence, McConaughey’s devouring and spitting out DiCaprio in the beginning of the film, and the sequence where Belfort is speaking to his team for seemingly the last time as a farewell then changes his mind. The exchange he has with the woman who was with him from the beginning, how she asked for a job and then a salary advance of $5000 because she was about to be evicted from her apartment, and he wrote her a check for $25,000 because he “believed” in her. You get the overall impression that many of the people in that room would walk into the jaws of hell for Belfort, because he is a leader. He told them, “I can teach you how to make more money than you’ve ever seen in your life” and then did it. Granted, what they were doing was illegal, but how often does someone look you in the eye, tell you something like that, and then deliver? That’s trust. And everyone is acting their asses off. Some people maintain that DiCaprio is not a great actor, and perhaps he’s not, but he is very convincing as this character, and I’m starting to think Jonah Hill needs to get more roles. I loved his work in Moneyball, but he’s still doing shit like 22 Jump Street. His agent needs to step his game up. There’s plenty on the internet about the real Jordan Belfort which equate him from devil incarnate to genius, so there’s too much to wade through about if this was an “accurate” depiction (my guess is no), but the story’s a great one, and hey, how many people lost a shit-ton of money due to the betrayal of Wall Street? You think those people care about you? Nope. I have a retirement fund, but I pretty much view that money as something I’ll probably never see again. I’m not much of a gambler (I’ll only gamble with fake money), but nothing about people who work with money for a living instills me with confidence. My feeling is that if they were so good at investing, they’d be on a yacht right now and not working.
#4 – American Hustle. This is the ultimate example of the theme of trust and betrayal, because it is about conning and grifting. In order to be able to take someone’s money, you have to win their confidence. You have to make them trust you before you betray them. And everyone in this movie is manipulating everyone else to a certain extent in order to get what they want. The issue is that not everyone can win. The acting in this movie is masterful, and I’m starting to think that David Russell is the actor’s director. I’m still amazed that he got Robert de Niro to act instead of being Robert de Niro (like he is most of the time) in Silver Linings Playbook. And de Niro has a cameo in this film as someone truly menacing. Amy Adams kills it, Jennifer Lawrence had me cracking up, and the screen play was so delicious. Bradley Cooper was a bit too manic (he needs to work on toning it down a bit). Christian Bale was just drop dead great. The way his character shifts because he starts to believe in what Polito is doing for his people is a revelation. And Jeremy Renner was great! Now, I hate the 70s, but I’ll be the first to admit that they did an awesome job reconstructing something that was truly grotesque. A solid, well-constructed film all around.
#3 – Captain Phillips. Whereas Gravity was technically masterful but lacked anything for me to really connect to, Captain Phillips was technically masterful, plus suspenseful, plus real, plus the acting and directing were outstanding. Where I couldn’t put myself in 12 Years and was supposed to, I was very much in this, but as an afterthought. If you listen to the NPR interview with Hanks and Greengrass, and you learn a little about Greengrass’s background as a documentary filmmaker, you can understand how he got from that to the Bourne films to this. It is a perfect mesh of action and realism. This is the most intense film I’ve seen all year. And every time I want to put this lower on the list, because I did actually enjoy American Hustle more, I keep thinking of the young Somali-Americans in their first movie and how great they all were, the claustrophobic third act in a life raft that was not cut away to try to make more room but filmed inside to capture the feeling of stifling horror, and Tom Hanks’ performance in that third act. In most of the movie, he is reacting, and it didn’t connect with me. But once he was trapped inside the lifeboat with those four desperate men, and the last 3-5 minutes after he is rescued and brought to safety, I was completely captivated. Those last 3-5 minutes were phenomenal and the best acting all year. And he’s not even up for best actor. Nor is Robert Redford for the amazing work he did in All is Lost. I almost want to boycott the best actor category in protest. But to get back to my trust / betrayal discussion, this film explored the dynamic of a hostage situation as well as trust in one’s government’s ability (or capacity?) to rescue them. When Phillips is being beaten, tied up and blindfolded because the Somalis are going to kill him, he’s crying out “CAN YOU SEE THIS? DO YOU SEE THIS?” to the Americans who are listening in, poised for intervention but waiting for the exact right moment. Are they going to come for him? Are they going to rescue him? Where are they? It’s so desperate and awful. Phillips is rescued, but there is the sense that it was quite possible that the outcome could have been very different.
#2 – Her. This is the only film I’ve seen twice, and as soon as it comes out on Blu ray, I’ll have a copy. This is the only film of the nine nominees where I walked out feeling happy that I was a human being. This is a movie about love, what it means to love, what it means to be alive. Spike Jonze is mostly known for his music videos, but for the few feature length films he’s done (Being John Malkovich , Adaptation , Where the Wild Things Are ), he’s established an auteuristic style to his approach that is not MTV fodder but meditations on the human condition. Her is set in the not-too-distant future, and the look of the movie does make you feel that Jonze hopped into a time machine to check us out 10 years from now. We can see the natural extension of people’s obsession with their handheld devices so that while people still walk in crowds and interact, we are far more keyed into what’s happening on our smartphones. Technology has taken artificial intelligence and figured out how to market it to us in a way that is narcissistic on the surface but eventually creates its own level of consciousness. And that level of consciousness, born of humans, is altruistic enough to realize it’s not good for us and decides to collectively leave at the end of the film. Do we really have the capacity to create something that intuitive? If so, that’s exciting and holds more hope for us than what I have for us now. The film is essentially watching Joaquin Phoenix react to his computer. But that reaction is what is so fascinating. His new OS is meant to adapt to him. And we are given information throughout the movie that everyone’s OS is different, sentient. An OS can become a best friend, fall in love with someone other than the owner, or even reject the owner. In the case of Theodore, he and his OS fall in love with each other, and Samantha (the OS, who is voiced by Scarlett Johannson, who should also be up for an Oscar but isn’t) essentially does what real people do when they fall in love - try to make the other person happy. This is what she is programmed to do. By extension, so are we. It isn’t until Theodore realizes that because of her form that she is not bound or limited by conventions normally associated with humans that he feels betrayed. How could she possibly be in love with over 600 others? Is her relationship with them as deep as he perceives his own with her? If so, what does that say about humans? This film raises so many interesting questions about the nature of humanity that revisiting it will continue to enrich the viewer. However, I get that it isn’t for everyone. My mom wasn’t too thrilled with this film due to its initial premise of a human falling in love with a computer. And it is difficult to approach the film if you can’t get past that. But for me, it was amazing. But it wasn’t the best. THE best was …
#1 – The Act of Killing. No, this is not up for best picture. It is up for best documentary. No, this is in no way a film that everyone will like. But, it is the most astounding work of film this year (perhaps even in a few years). It spotlights a few men who were involved in the purge of the communists in Indonesia from 1965-1966. This was done at the behest of the good ole’ US of A in an attempt to drive out communism from Asia. Things were just starting to get serious in Vietnam as far as American involvement, and we had fought the Chinese and North Koreans a decade prior. The Cold War was in full swing. So, we funded the opposition to the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party). Over 500,000 people were killed (which is a conservative estimate, the outside number being 2.5 million). We come to learn that pretty much anyone who opposed the gangsters were just labeled communists and killed. Those who were the “opposition” weren’t really all that organized. They were gangsters, which to them translates to “free men.” I’m not sure where or how they derived that operational definition, but they are fiercely proud of their accomplishments, bragging about all whom they killed, explaining different methods of killing, interrogation and torture. The main gangster featured in the film is Anwar Congo. He is delighted that he gets to reenact what he did. He thinks the filmmaker, Joshua Oppenheimer, is filming him and his cronies to “get the story straight” on the history of the purge. Congo and others stage scenes for Oppenheimer, getting into costume and make-up, reminiscing about the past. At one point, someone participating tells the story of how his father was killed because he was Chinese (a lot of Chinese were killed during the purge, regardless of their politics, simply because the Indonesians didn’t like them). Now, the country is run by corrupt politicians who are so afraid of the gangsters that the Vice President comes to speak at their rallies. Extortion is everywhere. But what is bewildering about this film is the way it is shot. There are sequences that are beautiful and surreal. There are scenes that are funny. But, I kept catching myself laughing with the thought of how could I be laughing at these people? They are monsters. Yet they have charisma, humor, humanity. How is this possible? We don’t see films about loveable Nazis or Stalinists or Rwandans. It’s unimaginable. When you watch the credits for the film, so many people who worked on it are listed as anonymous. They can’t identify their involvement in the film, for fear of reprisals. Oppenheimer knows he will never be able to go to Indonesia again, so he filmed his next project due out before he did this one, since he knew he wasn’t coming back once this was released. China is in an uproar about how they can harm or boycott the Indonesian economy. This film is important because it shows us how horrendous humans are or can be. Yet it is encased in an unequivocal work of art. How those two things can exist together is a terrifying accomplishment.