The Oscars
More than half of this years nominees are based on true events, but none were Based on a TRU Story. Max Bell, Matt Shea, Trey Kerby, Harold Stallworth, Doc Zeus, Tosten Burks, Brad Beatson, Abe Beame and Jonah Bromwich weigh in on this years nominees. And we’d love to hear what you think, too.

American Hustle

American HustleDavid O. Russell’s American Hustle is about the American dream of reinvention. This doesn’t take thoughtful analysis to figure out. The characters blatantly reference this long-fabled notion several times. Shit, the first song in the movie is by ’70s folk-band “America.”

Case in point, Irving Rosenfeld’s (played wonderfully by Christian Bale) elaborate comb-over. It might seem like Russell is wringing some cheap comedy out of Rosenfeld’s overwrought vanity, but the hairdo is a synecdoche for Irving’s inherently American reinvention. Just as he’s been dealt a poor hand in life, he’s been dealt a poor hairline to boot. He works with the strands of hair or cards in his hands, shuffling, turning, and combining them over in his favor. Glass replacement, dry cleaning, lone sharking and stolen art dealing are the four aces he’s managed to squeeze out of the deck.

The pacing of Russell’s 138-minute film is quick from the outset. It works well and it needs to, considering the final reveal—no spoilers. The only time the pacing feels rushed and/or sloppy is when Irving takes his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) out to dinner while Sydney Prosser turned Edith Greensly (Amy Adams) takes FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) dancing. The dinner scene is given a fair shake, but the explosion of Prosser’s bubbling anguish as a result of her self-sacrificing seduction of DiMaso is cut short, reduced to a lone scream in a crowded bathroom. Adams, who conveys a near pitch perfect balance of feigned attraction and self-loathing, deserves much more, and so does her character.

With that said, the relationships in the film are well defined, and each has a wonderful parallel. For instance, while Irving must juggle Rosalyn and Sydney, Sydney handles DiMaso and Irving. The relationship painted with the most subtlety, at least until its turbulent end, is that between Irving and Carmine. Apart from Irving’s guilt in deceiving Carmine—brilliantly depicted by Bale—their friendship is among the more poignant bonds in the film (see the scene where Carmine give Irving a “science oven”).

As far as direction is concerned, Russell is fairly conservative throughout. Few stylistic or aesthetic choices call attention away from the actors. Though his choice to shake the camera during Irving’s confession to Carmine is spot on.

All in all, American Hustle is a neat, well-plotted film with above-par acting and the right amount of comedy (see the interactions between Cooper and Louis C.K.) to offset the film’s dramatic elements. In a year of film that was particularly lackluster, it deserves several of the Oscar nods it’s received. Though the film probably won’t become a part of the canon or be considered requisite watching in the future, it will be a movie you’re excited to jump into when it’s on TV. That’s at least part of every American director’s dream, right? — Max Bell

Captain Phillips

Captain PhillipsHow the fuck did Captain Phillips end up on this list? A Best Actor nomination, maybe (which it didn’t get). And Best Supporting Actor, certainly (which it did). But Best Film?

Then again, it kinda makes sense. True(ish) story + Paul Greengrass + Tom Hanks = Prime Oscar-material. And the whole exercise is heightened by being pegged to piracy in the Arabian Sea, one of the issues of our globalized-trade-trimes. Still, all that ‘for your consideration’ horseshit doesn’t change the fact that, as it is, Captain Phillips is a frustrating series of missed opportunities.

The set-up is great. Isolated container ship, edgy crew, wired-as-fuck Somali pirates with nothing to lose. Phillips’s unenthusiastic preparations at home and his arrival on his ship have the tone of a man walking to his own funeral. And the first act showcases arguments among the Maersk Alabama’s crew, over their obligations to work in unsafe waters, that echo Alien and the subtle class tensions that powered that film. In the other corner, the filmmakers are careful to humanize the Somali hijackers. They’re not a nebulous uzi-toting force of evil, but desperate fishermen forced into piracy after the plundering of their traditional waters by first world countries.

This is all good stuff. High stakes should equal satisfying payoffs. And for the first half of its run time, Captain Phillips reads from its own playbook. The initial scenes on the high seas are terrific, as the ship attempts to outrun its dogged pursuers. You have a bunch of seasoned seamen securing their shit and reverting to guile and professionalism in a bid to outrun the pirates.

Likewise, the scenes once the Somalis have landed on the ship. Hidden seaman, frustrated hijackers and a playground of bulkheads, ladders, engine rooms and shipping containers. This should have been the meat of the film, as Hanks’s Phillips attempts to divert and dissuade his captors, while surreptitiously communicating any way he can with his crew. Screenwriter Billy Ray could have spun it out in all sorts of directions—like Under Siege with more brains and less Erika Eleniak—but instead the filmmakers cut it short, saying goodbye to the supporting cast and pushing to Phillips taken captive aboard one of the Alabama’s lifeboats.

It’s a bizarre decision. Hanks is tied up, at the mercy of the pirates, in a vessel with a top speed of, like, five knots. The protagonist of the film has essentially been forced into a passive situation, and the dramatic momentum shifts to faceless navy men and SEAL teams in charge of his rescue. And with that Captain Phillips sits listless in the water, much like the Maersk Alabama herself.

That’s to say nothing of Muse (Barkhad Abdi—Best Supporting Actor nominee), the leader of the pirates, who, desperate to find a peaceful end to the stand-off, is coerced onto a pursuing navy ship, ostensibly to strike a deal. When he ultimately realizes his fate, the filmmakers throw away the audiences investment in the character—he’s simply led off quietly, never to be seen again.

There will be those who say that’s how the real situation played  out, but seriously, fuck fidelity. Just because a film is based on a true event doesn’t mean it has to drill down into the tiniest details of the story (and plenty of pot-shots have been taken at the ways in which the film already departs from the truth, many by the Alabama crew members who went through the ordeal). Captain Phillips had the opportunity to leverage a real modern threat into a sobering two hours of high-seas entertainment. As it is, the film loses its nerve, and no amount of sobbing Tom Hanks can bring it back. — Matt Shea

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers ClubI know it’s a cliché at this point, but my absolute favorite scene in Dallas Buyers Club is when Matthew McConaughey walks in to the titular Buyers Club and declares in his signature Wooderson drawl, “Eeeyyyyyyy, got you all those drugs you wanted smuggled. Let’s turn up, alright alright alright.” It’s then and there that you know that this is no Dora Lange murder case, except that those are both killer Matty McC references. Pun 100 percent intended.

(It really is amazing though, to see a guy like Matthew McConaughey in these two very different things. For instance, he is skinny in one but very skinny in the other. That alone proves his range. back to the review.)

But seriously, Dallas Buyers Club is everything you’ve heard it was. There are so many different kinds of scenes that it’s almost silly to even describe them. Nonetheless, there were scary scenes, tense scenes, gut-bustingly funny scenes — like when McConaughey, in his role as Dallas Byars, explains to everyone at the Club’s first meeting that he finally met his soulmate, only to reveal an admittedly very cute puppy who he named Eliza Cuthbark — and also a surprising amount of scenes featuring explosions. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting a single explosion, let alone the double-digit detonations that we saw multiple times throughout the film.

That’s the beauty of it, though — just when you think you know all there is to know about Dallas Buyers Club (that it stars an emaciated Matthew McConaughey doing something involving drug smuggling)(in Mexico, probably), Dallas Buyers Club throws you another curveball. In this case, a real 12-to-sixer.

And that’s why I love this movie. There’s nothing better than a classic Koufax, not to mention the true delight that is Matthew McConaughey in his prime. He really kills it here, and not just in a “exploding things almost all of the time” kind of way, though he does that too.

It’s a wonder that a movie like this works so well, but it does. Whether it’s the McC charm or the eventual pay-off of the explosions gag (legitimately worth it), Dallas Buyers Club has earned the hype and is THE must-see movie of the year.

Also, I haven’t seen Dallas Buyers Club. — Trey Kerby

Gravity

GravityDespite being up for 10 Oscars, it’s easy to write-off Gravity as alluring IMAX porn. More than 80 percent of the Alfonso Cuarón-direction sci-fi thriller was mapped by British animators. Sandra Bullock, Hollywood’s foremost clueless and reluctant and terrified white woman, contributed the bulk of the live elements. She spent months crammed inside a 9-by-9 foot cube, tethered to a 12-wire rig for the sake of simulating microgravity. But the film has more to offer than artful special effects.

While on a mission to repair the Hubble Telescope, medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), among other members of the STS-157 crew, are pummeled by a cascade of orbiting space debris. They spend the rest of the arc trying to make it back to earth in one piece.

Once you get past the often implausible dialog, the disconcerting ghost of Clooney past, and a multitude of scientific inaccuracies lambasted by the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Jeffrey Kluger, you realize that Gravity is one of the most entertaining and suspenseful films in recent memory. It plays on our innate fear of deafening solitude, even in death. At some point—perhaps at the point of spiraling through the cold, barren universe for an unfathomable length of time—agoraphobia and claustrophobia converge into one and the same. The idea of taking a short spacewalk off a long cliff is truly horrific.

Cuarón claims that his story is a loose metaphor for pregnancy and childbirth. While the symbolism is admittedly kind of cool in retrospect, Gravity captures our imagination for one reason and one reason alone: in a steel cage match, the dark void of interstellar space would kick the ever-living shit out of both William Broyles’ deserted island and Richard Matheson’s post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. Space is, undoubtedly, the illest villain. — Harold Stallworth 

Her

HerForget about the unfortunate high-waisted pants and indie film sad boy affectations for a moment, the beauty of Spike Jonze’s Her is in the film’s implicit gambit. It takes the idea of human being falling in love with a being of artificial intelligence at total face value, allowing the notion of hot and steamy human-on-computer loving to be something not only possible, but logical and ultimately inevitable. It’s a concept that is intrinsically rooted in modern reality. Human beings have been engaging in romance over their computer screens since the halcyon days of AOL chat rooms. People have been essentially falling in love with one and zeros for almost two decades and who is to suggest that the person is on the other end of the spectrum is even “real” in the physical sense. Catfishing was a thing before they even had a name for it.

I found myself fully intrigued by the possibilities of the world presented in the film. I wanted to go online and read bad trend pieces in the New York Times, ponder angry rants on Jezebel and surf gross PUA subreddits about the best way to hit on an OS after the film. Like all great sci-fi films, the universe of Her feels fully realized and a place that actual human beings live and exist in.

Ultimately, the aspect of the film that I found most satisfying was that characters felt real. Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha felt real to me. Despite her ostensible presence as a disembodied voice, Samantha had hopes, dreams, needs and interests that extended beyond her love affair with Joaquin Phoenix’s deeply lonely Theodore. Their romance felt logical. Born not out of Theodore’s sad attempt of falling in love with a manufactured manic pixel dream girl, but with two people that seemed to need each other at that moment in their existence.

You can take the position of Theodore’s ex-wife, suggesting that Theodore was a sad broken man that is too selfish to fall in love with a “real girl,” but that seems to deny the entire premise of the film. Until the idea of artificial consciousness is disproven, I’ll continue to root for Samantha and Theodore. — Doc Zeus

Nebraska

NebraskaI don’t talk to my parents enough, so Alexander Payne’s Nebraska made me cry. Will Forte and Bruce Dern’s road trip to claim a million dollar prize studies many things – the emptiness of old age, the beautiful and brutal simplicity of Middle America, the emotional power of an air compressor – but above all it examines parenthood. A stagnant son and a stagnant father drive all the way to Lincoln to learn how many hundreds of miles away they were from ever really, truly knowing each other.

Nebraska takes its time. Pans are slow and shots are long. Dialogue moves about the same pace as the cows in the fields along the side of the empty highway, and Forte’s character David Grant drives like a snail. The irony is painful. Dern’s character Woody Grant is in a rush to win his money, and his son just wants to make their remaining time last as long as possible.

Colorist Skip Kimball’s black-and-white is dusty and rich, a loving argument that things of the past can still speak for themselves. It’s no gimmick. Old things aren’t not new. A son can still meet his 77-year-old father’s first love. David still learns something when Woody calls his childhood home a “bunch of old wood and some leaves.”

Thankfully, I laughed through my tears. The deadpan dialogue saves this story from sentimentality. Payne makes fun of his characters because if you can’t laugh at idleness, it will kill you. Drive faster. But also take time to stare at Mt. Rushmore. Of course it looks incomplete. All lives do. That shouldn’t stop you from accepting a free hat, or from driving your father hundreds of miles knowing there’s nothing more at the end of the road. — Tosten Burks 

Philomena

PhilomenaPhilomena is pure Oscar bait. When a story is as loaded as this, and its odd couple is played by Judi Dench (Philomena) and Steve Coogan (Martin Sixsmith), The Academy is practically guilted into nominating the picture. And that’s the problem. Philomena’s lasting value is no different whether the story’s read or seen on film. The film raises the stories stature and certainly widens its audience, but does it do enough to be considered one of the years best?

This true story shares a similar venue with the 2003 BAFTA nominated, The Magdalene Sisters. Philomena Lee is placed in an Irish convent by her family after she has a child out of wedlock in 1952. Soon after, she witnesses the nuns sell her child to an American family for 1,000 pounds. She can’t do anything about it because she willfully signed her rights away upon entry, out of shame for her sins. This leads to a mystery adventure alongside Martin Sixsmith, 50 years later, in search of her son. Along the way, the film encounters dramatic revelations in a measured manner. When Philomena discovers her son’s homosexuality, the film chooses to linger on her response, as if to conjure up worry in the audience that Philomena is going to react tumultuously, due to her faith. When she brushes it off matter-of-factly, saying she could tell he was when he a boy, the other characters on screen breathe an instructive sigh of relief.

When Philomena tries to inject some added value, it falls flat. The laughs are steady, but often feel forced. In one scene, when Coogan and Dench pull over on a road trip, Dench vividly recalls her lone sexual experience that led to this eventual journey. Another joke serves as commentary on the predictability of romance novels, while riding on a golf cart through an airport. Both of these work with these characters, but they’re placed fodder. They’re largely inconsequential and meekly used to take a break from the seriousness of the subject matter.

Where the film succeeds is the cherry-on-top message of forgiveness. It lands firmly because of the top-notch acting throughout, and loans considerable weight to an enlightening and enviable quality. But right after this scene and just before the credits roll, they callback to the romance novel joke as Dench and Coogan drive away. The choice to lighten the mood and end on a laugh undercuts the message. It’s decisions like these that suggest the screenplay would have been better suited in more capable hands. Though writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope had tremendous source material to draw from, the final product is simply satisfactory. — Brad Beatson

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

On February 23, 1997, at 12 years old, I had a lot of things. A bedtime, homework, parents that wouldn’t let me watch R-rated movies. But for one night, we set that all aside. This was because NBC had decided to show Steven Spielberg’s definitive holocaust drama, Schindler’s List. It was unedited, without commercials, without precedence. It seemed like the world stopped that night, for what will probably prove to have been one of the very last times America gathered in front of the television to watch something compelling and important, that also spoke to our history. I can’t remember anything remotely comparable happening in my life.

Schindler’s List, a film with profanity, full frontal nudity, and alarmingly casual brutality had been deemed worthy of its uncut, unedited run because it was something more than entertainment. It was an important piece of history. One that showed us both the searing barbarism of humanity as well as the courage and grace we are all capable of. The movie was not without its critics. There were elements of melodrama. It was a classic case of the messianic gentile swooping in to save helpless Jews. But in my mind, and many others, it remains a film that explains its tragedy better than any work of art that preceded it, that should be studied and taught for generations to come.

I can only hope that sometime soon, I can sit in a living room with my as of now, unborn children, and watch the drama of Solomon Norfolk unfold with them.

I will explain the complex despair of the slaves who go about their business as he toes the mud, tethered by a noose between life and death. To console them as the register Patsy’s humble desire for a bar of soap. To try to help them parse through the question of whether Master Ford is good or evil. How societies can blur simple questions like these and how sometimes, people can be both.

12 Years a Slave is a film not without convenience, that leaves some problematic questions unanswered, that leaves the cat room critics and complainers with room to wiggle. But, like Schindler’s List, it’s a document of its tragedy. It has gotten to the root of the crime that lies behind this country’s fortune. Gravity was a great movie, beautiful to look at, well acted and most importantly, an astonishing technical accomplishment. But the lingering devastation the audience member is left with when walking out of Steve McQueen’s masterpiece, is a once in a generation feat. And whether or not it receives the highest honor it richly deserves on Sunday, it will live on as more than entertainment. It belongs to history. — Abe Beame (abebeame74@gmail.com)

The Wolf of Wall Street

WolfI spent three hours at the movies twice in 2013.  The first time was for Blue is the Warmest Color, a gorgeous, deeply thoughtful study of a woman desperately in love. I looked at my watch at about the two-hour mark.  I started to get restless about twenty minutes later.  Blue was a great movie. I was still thinking about it for days after the credits rolled.  But three hours is a long time.

I didn’t look at my watch once during Wolf of Wall Street, an epic that managed an energy, a constant rising action, that even its Best Picture counterpart, the hour and a half Gravity, couldn’t muster.

Wolf of Wall Street also tells the story of a desperate infatuation, though Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is more interested in heightened experience than anything else.  As he confesses to his comrade-in-debauched-arms, Donny Azoff (played perfectly by Jonah Hill), in a kind of mission statement for the film, “Being sober sucks.”  When Belfort is not screwing or snorting, giving or taking it to or from someone, life does not seem worth living.

Belfort’s unfaltering focus on living life as a kind of human exclamation mark dictates the movie’s terms and sends it soaring, for three hours of sex, drugs, and fantastic DiCaprio monologues.  In between the more remarked-upon sections of Wolf, which tend to revolve around whether the kind of economic and moral corruptness that Belfort and co. display throughout is being celebrated or condemned, Martin Scorsese manages to make the best mainstream drug movie since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  The 71-year-old also gets inventive, playing with intercut media: a Benihana’s commercial, a segment from a Popeye cartoon, an infomercial that Belfort himself has made, all interrupt the film’s world, all a part of the film’s universe. The absurdity of the message is clear—business is business, whether its selling trash-stocks to the uninformed, or flipping knives over a hibachi. And if coke allows you to save a man’s life, well how then is it any different from Popeye’s spinach?

Then too, there are the classic Scorsese shots—the camera casting back over the ranks of whooping troglodytes, fired up after a speech from Leo, the final shot of the movie, where the fever of greed is shown to have gone global, the camera panning back over face after multi-culti face to show the desire writ large on all of them.

Depending on the audience in your local theater (I saw mine near the multi-culti bro mecca of NYU Business School), the faces watching the movie may have resembled the faces on-screen. Wolf of Wall Street made a lot of viewers laugh, a lot of viewers envious and a lot of viewers very angry, but most importantly, it made the cost of living a life of instant gratification seem incredibly heavy and, quite possibly, worth it. – Jonah Bromwich