We weigh up the contenders for this year's top prize
Who will win? All along we’ve been saying there was only ever one frontrunner for Best Picture. Steve McQueen’s slavery drama 12 Years a Slave is a stunning piece of work, a drama both brutal and uplifting – right in the Academy’s wheelhouse. It won Best Picture (Drama) at the Golden Globes, as well as a slew of critics’ awards. No one could deny that it’s an important film, and a beautifully made one.
But sneaking up on the inside comes precisely the kind of feisty, unchallenging, gorgeously mounted fluff that the Oscars just love to give surprise awards to (remember Chicago?). David O Russell's American Hustle sports terrific performances, stunning costume design and a handful of whip-smart lines, and it's already proven its awards-worthiness by capturing a number of top prizes.
The question is: will the Academy go for substance or style? We have a horrible feeling they’ll take the easy option. It’s hard to imagine the old-timers at the Academy relishing the idea of being lectured on their nation's historical crimes by a foreigner – especially a Brit. And American Hustle is the perfect antidote: it’s fizzy, pretty, and has just enough political undercurrent to make it seem like it almost – almost – has something to say.
Who else is nominated? Current Academy rules allow for a ten film Best Picture shortlist, but this year they’ve only opted to nominate nine. There’s still an outside chance the Academy will finally give it to a sci-fi flick. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity has been a massive commercial hit and has the critics swooning. The performances are great, the special effects even better. If the Academy decides to court the multiplex vote, this is the one they'll pick.
Further down the list, the chances get slimmer than Matthew McConaughey’s waistband. His drama Dallas Buyers Club may sport strong performances and powerful subject matter, but the film itself just isn’t strong enough. Nebraska, Her and British hope Philomena are the kind of spry, indie-ish character pieces that always pick up nominations but rarely grab the big prize (bearing in mind, we said the same thing about The King’s Speech a couple of years back). The Wolf of Wall Street is probably too brash for Oscar tastes – too much excess, not enough lesson-learning. And the lack of a Best Actor nod for Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips means that film is clearly not uppermost in the Academy’s hearts and minds. CLICK FORWARD TO READ OUR REVIEWS OF ALL THE NOMINEES
12 Years a Slave Director: Steve McQueen
With the release of Django Unchained and this more restrained slavery-era biopic, much has been made of America’s post-Obama willingness to ‘face up to its own past’. But, like Quentin Tarantino before him, British artist turned director Steve McQueen knows that this idea offers only false comfort: 12 Years a Slave has absolutely no interest in reconciliation, in forgiveness, in making slavery history. McQueen’s film may be stylistically traditional, but its outlook is as confrontational and uncompromising as any ripped-from-the-headlines drama.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is terse, watchful and remote as Solomon Northup, the free New Yorker torn from his family and sold into slavery in the South. We follow his journey from plantation to plantation, under masters both self-congratulatingly benevolent (Benedict Cumberbatch) and wildly, unremittingly brutal (Michael Fassbender).
As expected from the director of Hunger and Shame, this is not a sprawling Spielbergian tearjerker, but neither is it an aloof, artsy affair. McQueen pitches his tent somewhere between the two camps: whenever Hans Zimmer’s overbearing score threatens to drag the film into three-hankie territory, the clinical photography and hard, unflashy performances bring it right back. It’s a film made for a mass audience, but it doesn’t want them to feel comfortable for a second.
What 12 Years a Slave is really interested in is creating an honest, believable experience: in culture and context, place and people, soil and skin. The result can, at times, be alienating – Solomon may be a tragic, achingly sympathetic figure, but he’s no cathartic hero, no Django. He is, at all times, a victim. Nonetheless, the cumulative emotional effect is devastating: the final scenes here are as angry, as memorable, as overwhelming as anything modern cinema has to offer.
Despite screening at the Dubai International Film Festival, and a press screening in early January, a full UAE release is yet to be confirmed – but must surely be on the card after picking up nine Oscar nods.
Director: David O Russell
In the six-year absence that followed 2004’s delirious I Heart Huckabees, David O Russell seemingly acquired a taste for studio filmmaking – but that’s not quite the same as going mainstream. The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook played as exciting experiments to see just how much of Russell’s clattering, chaotic creative sensibility could survive the Hollywood formulae of the boxing movie and romcom, respectively. A lot, it turns out, and American Hustle, his whirling, wilful take on the con caper, is no different; with much of its sensational ensemble drawn from Russell’s two previous films, it’s a loose trilogy-capper.
‘Loose’ is the operative word throughout. ‘Some of this actually happened,’ quips an introductory title card, as the film launches into a fictionalised, digressive account of the FBI’s notorious Abscam sting of the late 1970s. The plot, in which Christian Bale’s dopey New Jersey dry-cleaner moonlighting as an art forger Irving Rosenfeld is coerced by sleazy federal agent Richie DiMaso (a poodle-permed Bradley Cooper) into a plot to bring down several high-ranking politicians, is certainly knotty enough.
But ultimately story is secondary to Russell’s delicious detailing of character and milieu. A brilliant, wordless opening scene, in which Bale applies a vole-like toupee to his bald pate with heartbreaking care, sets the tone for a film as much about personal disguises as professional ones.
It’s also a love story, oddly affecting in its cold-heartedness, between two falsely confident tricksters: Rosenfeld is alternately wooed and wound up by slippery Sydney (a fierce Amy Adams), as his garish Jersey-girl wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) watches from the sidelines. Wounded but powerfully deranged, belting out ‘Live and Let Die’ in her literally gilded suburban cage, Lawrence is entirely extraordinary here, improving on the performance that won her an Oscar for Russell’s last film. Long may this collaboration continue: in her, he’s found the ideal firestarter for his brand of lively, fraying human comedy.
Director: Paul Greengrass
Captain Phillips is the true story of a cargo ship skipper whose vessel was overrun by pirates off the coast of Somalia in 2009. It gives British director Paul Greengrass, the man at the helm of United 93 and the first two Bourne films, licence to indulge two of his favourite storytelling pastimes: high-stakes tension and real-world politics.
It also sees Tom Hanks playing an unexceptional guy at the heart of an exceptional crisis. Bearded and paunchy, he’s a no-nonsense manager-type whose workplace becomes the focus of a Navy Seals operation. Greengrass doesn’t deny him heroic qualities – Phillips shows resilience and courage – yet there’s nothing superhuman about him. It’s one of Hanks’s most affecting performances in years. Watching one scene, in which he suffers a full-on emotional collapse, you’ll start to wonder if panic attacks are contagious.
Greengrass lands us on the enormous Maersk Alabama with little time for distracting set-ups – although straightaway he portrays the four pirates, led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), as something more than just foreign baddies, as he cuts between their preparations and Phillips setting off abroad. Quickly he establishes a no-frills economy that applies to the rest of the film. He creates claustrophobia when introducing us to the strange, ghostly world of this ship at sea in foreign waters.
It’s then, with an awful inevitability, that he presents the David-and-Goliath like attack on the ship by a pair of diminutive vessels, and finally encloses us with Phillips and his captors in a tiny lifecraft as they try to negotiate a ransom. This last section is a masterclass in containment and fear. It’s at this point that Goliath fights back – and for a few moments Phillips and his enemy appear equally vulnerable in the face of an impending US Navy attack-cum-rescue operation.
Much of Captain Phillips feels like being slapped in the face by rigging and blasted by sea spray. It deftly combines a sense of measured calm with one of creeping hysteria. The emotions of its lead character are like a bottle of champagne whose cork only pops right at the end of the movie – although there’s little to celebrate. Some survive, some don’t. But the world remains as divided at the end of Greengrass’s tale as it was at the beginning, and if there are some telling moments of communication between Phillips and Muse, they always remain a world apart.
Dallas Buyers Club
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Matthew McConaughey makes his most concerted bid yet for Oscar glory with this based-on-reality tale of redneck Ron Woodruff. The subject matter means it’s unlikely to get a UAE release, but Stateside reviews for this wisecracking, hard-hitting drama have been overwhelmingly positive, and if the film as a whole may not prove Best Picture material, most agree that McConaughey’s performance fully deserves the Actor prize.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
‘You gotta admit one thing,’ drawls George Clooney’s hardened astronaut, floating some 600km above the surface of the Earth. ‘You can’t beat the view’.
The same could be said of Alfonso Cuarón’s engaging, exceptional and inimitable masterpiece Gravity. Taking place entirely in the depths of outer space, the cosmic vistas of Earth and the final frontier are rendered in painstaking beauty, while the weightlessness of space – floating objects, a world lacking in up/down orientation – offers perhaps the best use of 3D we’ve seen yet.
But this picture is far more than eye candy. It’s a gripping, emotive and original thriller rendered in a rich and immersive environment. Essentially a disaster movie in space, a routine satellite upgrade mission goes awry when a cloud of debris strikes the craft and crew. Thus begins an incredible half-hour of real time, white-knuckle action, as soul survivors Matt Kowalski (Clooney) and Ryan Stone (an incredible Sandra Bullock) spin off into the great unknown, their hopes of survival as limited as their oxygen tanks. It’s frantic, gripping and immediate, the claustrophobia of space acutely rendered with a balance of silence, shock, heart and technique.
Mexican writer-director Cuarón is best known to cinemagoers for helming 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and to movie geeks for his coming-of-age, Spanish language road movie Y Tu Mamá También (2001). But Cuarón’s only prior work to hint at his talents for this kind of conceptually engrossing affair is dystopian novel adaptation Children of Men (2006). Like that movie, Gravity should be commended for making the implausible feel not just realistic, but viscerally, heart-pounding real.
Don’t let the space put you off; while we’re forced to reluctantly label this a sci-fi, it’s one of those rare, once-in-a-decade moments where a genre flick transcends its label, and simply demands viewing, like Alien or The Shining. A brief detour into Bullock’s backstory might frustrate some viewers, chiming an emotionally manipulative bell, but ultimately this film needs to be commended for not conforming to the Hollywood ending many movie buffs may be expecting (we’ll say no more). An absolute triumph utterly deserving in the ten Oscar nominations it’s attracted.
Director: Spike Jonze
Meet Samantha, the ultimate in chatty, user-friendly operating systems. The gentleman who’s installed her on his computer, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), is won over by her sense of humour and sultry voice (courtesy of Scarlett Johansson). She seems to appreciate his sensitivity and his smarts. Love, naturally, blooms. It’s a tale of lonely souls and literalized online dating, and you assume filmmaker Spike Jonze will characteristically mix high-concept absurdism with heartfelt notions.
Unexpectedly, the latter dominates, thanks in no small part to Phoenix’s nuanced, open-book performance. The middle act may stumble under the weight of too many one-man-romance montages, and those with a low tolerance for utopian future-quirk will be readying their jokes about Her being short for hipster. But the film’s takeaways – about artificial intelligence and genuine emotion; humanity and intimacy – trump minor annoyances. It’s melancholy, moving and unmissable.
This is an outside bet, with no scheduled UAE release at time of writing.
Director: Alexander Payne
Alexander Payne is the compassionate, thinking face of American comedy. With films like Sideways and The Descendants, he tells laidback tales of people facing problems or changes in their lives. Nebraska – which screened at the Dubai International Film Festival, but is yet to enjoy a full UAE release – is shot in black and white and takes the name of his home state as its title. It's an intimate road movie about one family, yet it also lingers on the landscapes and fabric of an old-time, dying vision of the American Midwest.
There's a wistful air of time passed and chances lost as Payne tells of a quiet but irascible elderly man, Woody (Bruce Dern), a retired mechanic, taken on an interstate trip to his small, fading Nebraskan hometown by his patient son, David (Will Forte), who sells stereos in the suburbs. Their journey is part of a wild goose chase to collect some non-existent prize money which Woody insists he's owed after receiving a scam letter. His snappy wife, Kate (June Squibb), has long since stopped listening to – but not loving – him. 'I never knew [he] wanted to be a millionaire,' she barks. The promise of riches sends the heads of some old friends and family into a spin and shows their true colours. But David, and Woody's other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), do their best to humour a dad who hasn't been much of a father to them.
The film's laughs are as low-key as Payne's reflective but straight-shooting style of storytelling, and there's a fair amount of sadness. There's a last-minute dash for warmth, too, but mostly Nebraska is fairly blunt about family relationships and friendships, while preserving the possibility that neither are necessarily bad for you and never getting too tragic or maudlin. It's often funny, too, in a deadpan, gallows-humour sort of way, and more than ever Payne allows the humour to rise up gently from his story rather than burst through it.
Director: Stephen Frears
Odd couples echo throughout Philomena, a film directed by British veteran Stephen Frears (The Queen) and co-written by comedian Steve Coogan – who also stars opposite another much-loved old hand: Judi Dench. Coogan is Martin Sixsmith, a resolutely hard-nosed ex-BBC journalist trying to find his feet in the early 2000s after an unhappy stint in the shadows of politics. Dench is Philomena, chalk to his cheese: she's an ageing, working-class Londoner who grew up in Ireland and whose late-life admission that she had a baby taken away from her in an convent as a young woman finds her travelling to Ireland and the US with Sixsmith, who's intent on turning her life into column inches.
Sixsmith – played with a buttoned-down reserve by Coogan, only occasionally slipping into comic mugging – is slumming it by writing a 'human-interest story' on Philomena for a midmarket tabloid. Philomena – given strength, vulnerability and wit by Dench – is not sure why, or if, she wants to uncover these ghosts in her past. We see scenes of her youth in harrowing flashbacks and the story takes us to places of deep loss and pain. Yet Frears sidesteps easy melodrama in favour of a reserve tempered by mild comedy. Some of the early contrasts between Martin and Philomena are too insistent. But Philomena becomes more interesting when their individual and shared responses to their discoveries and disappointments en route turn out to be more complex than we fear they may be.
It's a terrifically moving film that has a fitting earthbound feel to it as well as a barely suppressed anger at crimes inflicted on the powerless, whether by the Catholic church or an unfeeling modern news media. It also has a sharp wit which stops it being a straight tragedy, with a healthy dose of cheekiness to counter the gloom, and, best of all, has a well-earned ring of complicated truth to it.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Director: Martin Scorsese
The director. The subject matter. The epic running time. All the signs pointed to real-life stock-market story The Wolf of Wall Street being classic, old-school Martin Scorsese: big speeches, bigger performances, a spot of social critique and lashings of classic rock. But while many of these elements are present, something unexpected has snuck in alongside them: huge, unashamedly crowd-pleasing laughs.
This is without doubt the funniest movie of Scorsese’s career – earlier efforts like The King of Comedy and After Hours may have been brilliant, but their chuckles were chillier and more unsettling. The Wolf of Wall Street plays modern tragedy as epic farce, reminding us just how much fun Scorsese can be when he’s in a playful mood.
It also proves – equally unexpectedly – that Leonardo DiCaprio can do comedy, too. He plays Jordan Belfort, an unscrupulous stock-market wizard who, in his early twenties, became a multi-multi-millionaire by fleecing Americans out of their hard-earned investments. Belfort – along with his goofy-toothed sidekick Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) – lived the high life for a decade. That is, until the authorities came a-knocking...
Predictably, The Wolf of Wall Street is more flash than substance. Scorsese never digs too deeply under the skin of these reprehensible charcaters, and there are times where the swooping photography, smash-and-grab editing and toe-tapping soundtrack conspire to almost – almost – make us like them. But when the film’s cylinders are firing, it’s impossible not to be dragged along. The big set-pieces are among the most memorable of Scorsese’s career, rivalling Goodfellas for sheer vitality. The result may not be the most measured take on the ongoing financial crisis, but it is without doubt the most entertaining. Despite this, many UAE cinemagoers have left unhappy, with around 45 minutes cut from the movie to suit regional audiences.