Rob Neyer's Oscar Best Picture nominee extravaganza

BY Rob Neyer • February 28, 2014

You might reasonably wonder why Rob Neyer's writing about movies. You might reasonably wonder, even if this weren't a sports site. Well, here are my "qualifications": I'm a writer, and I see a lot of movies. What's a lot? Including documentaries, I've seen 39 movies that were released in 2013. Just to break those down, the number includes six documentaries, one feature film that I actually disliked, and 32 features I enjoyed (there are still seven 2013 releases that I haven't seen, but would like to).

But I have seen all nine of this year's Best Picture nominees, and with the Oscars this weekend, that's mostly what I'm writing about today. I'm not going to predict anything, mostly because I don't care (much) who wins. Instead, here are my capsule reviews of all nine nominees, moving from my least favorite to my favorite with a few twists along the way . . .

First, I'm sorry to report that yes, I'm one of the prigs who don't "get" The Wolf of Wall Street, which struck me as mostly an exercise in excess. "But that's the point!" the film's supporters will say. "Jordan Belfort's entire life was an exercise in excess!" Sure, but why would anyone want to watch that for three hours?

Actually, a lot of people have wanted to watch that for three hours. It doesn't bother me that many viewers have found an aspirational message in Wolf; as Michael Lewis has written, people found an aspirational message in his book about working on Wall Street, even though he assumed exactly the opposite would happen. When shallow, greedy people see movies about shallow, greedy people, what do you think's going to happen? What bothers me about Wolf is that Jordan Belfort, as written and portrayed here, just isn't interesting enough to carry a three-hour movie. Leaving aside Leonardo DiCaprio's histrionics and Martin Scorsese's style and Jonah Hill's prosthetic chompers, not much is left. The movie crackles for about five minutes near the beginning, thanks to Matthew McConaughey; he could easily have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, for just those five minutes. But we never see McConaughey again, and an hour later I started looking at my watch. With nearly two hours to go.

By the way, I can see the thought balloons now . . . ROB NEYER HATES WOLF OF WALL STREET. No, I don't. I did enjoy the movie. I enjoyed every movie I saw last year, except for the Linda Lovelace biopic (girlfriend pick, by the way). I even enjoyed the new Superman and Star Trek movies; both were only semi-coherent, but contained enough small pleasures to justify my time and my 10 bucks (though I'll probably skip the next sequels).

Philomena is a classic Hollywood "message" picture, except it's not exactly a Hollywood message picture because it's filled with English people. Most notably, stars Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, both of whom are immensely talented. The movie's worth seeing not for the message, but because Dench remains one of the best actors on the planet. Coogan's perfectly fine, but he doesn't have a great deal to do (even though he co-wrote the script; if you want to see Coogan at his best, check out The Trip or its forthcoming sequel). I like Philomena, but it's not one of the 20 best movies that came out last year.

Ten more Rob enjoyed this year
1. Enough Said
2. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (doc)
3. Blue Jasmine
4. 56 Up (doc)
5. 42
6. Side Effects
7. In a World
8. Iron Man 3
9. The Way Way Back
10. Thor: The Dark World

And speaking of message pictures . . .

It's difficult to "review" a movie like 12 Years a Slave, because the subject matter carries so much weight, and freight. On the other hand, I don't find a movie like 12 Years a Slave difficult to watch (as apparently some do) and I don't really understand why it would be. I don't suppose I'm the first to suggest that we've become conditioned to watch (and enjoy!) cartoon-like violence, while turning away from the real thing. Way back in the '70s, it seemed like everybody in America watched Roots, a nine-hour miniseries about slavery. No, it wasn't written or directed or acted with the grace that fills 12 Years. But it was both well-made and horrific, and people watched it. Maybe because there wasn't much else to watch on TV. Maybe because the 1950s and '60s were still fresh in the national consciousness. I don't know. I just know that we all had to see it.

When I walked out of Captain Phillips, my very first reaction was that Tom Hanks had locked up Best Actor. Which just goes to show what I know, because he wasn't even nominated. The movie was nominated, of course. But that's probably because there are nine nominated movies and only five nominated lead actors. I've seen all five nominated performances, though, and still believe that what Hanks does in the last scene of Captain Phillips ranks among the greatest performances that I've ever seen. Before that last scene, the movie was filled with taught action brilliantly shot on a handheld camera, much like Paul Greengrass's other fine efforts. But Hanks' performance at the end, great acting that doesn't seem remotely like acting, turns this one into something else. Something even better.

I read somewhere that Gravity will wind up making more money than the other eight Best Picture nominees combined. I don't really have anything negative to say about it. You can nit-pick some of the physics and George Clooney's got some odd things to say. But this is good old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment at its best, and the ending hits the mark perfectly.

I thought I would love Nebraska. I mean, it's got everything. It's got the Great Plains setting, with attendant vistas. It's shot in black-and-white, a bold and rare choice that usually works out well in the hands of a skilled filmmaker. And it's got Alexander Payne, one of our greatest filmmakers. But while I admire Nebraska, I wasn't quite able to love it. I'm not sure exactly why. Maybe because the small-town folks were just a little too broadly drawn. Maybe because Will Forte seemed just a little out of his depth. Again, don't get me wrong; Nebraska was my fourth-favorite feature of the year.

Next, a bit of trivia: For the first time in the history of the Oscars, a director's movies have garnered nominations in all four acting categories in two straight years: last year it was David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, and this year it was Russell's American Hustle. I'm not sure that all eight nominations were perfectly justified, but I'm not not sure that they weren't, either. And just like Silver Linings, in between all the serious stuff American Hustle is a lot of fun. There's an ongoing bit with Bradley Cooper and Louis C.K. that just keeps on giving. There's a new name for the microwave oven that I haven't been able to get out of my head. More than any director working today, Russell's able to find the dark and the light in real-seeming people.

If you've been paying close attention or have skipped ahead, you already know which of the Best Picture nominees is my favorite. Before we get there, though, I do want to a) express my displeasure that the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis wasn't nominated, and b) mention a few of the documentaries that blew me away.

Five Rob still wants to see
1. All is Lost
2. Saving Mr. Banks
3. Much Ado About Nothing
4. Before Sunset
5. The Spectacular Now

So I was displeased that Inside Llewyn Davis wasn'€™t even nominated. While I can't make any sort of real argument that it was the best movie released last year, I have absolutely no doubt that it was one of the nine best, and will come to be remembered as such. I've seen it only once, but Llewyn Davis is lodged inside my head completely, to the point where I can still picture nearly every scene in detail. There's not a wasted word or gesture or shot. There's an old story about a sculptor of a beautiful horse. Someone asked him how he did it, and he replied, "I just hacked everything away that didn't look like a horse." That's what the Coen Bros. do. They hack everything away that isn't part of a great movie.

Granted, this belongs in a different essay, but I'm going to say it anyway: The Coen Bros. are the greatest American filmmakers who have ever lived. They would be the Lennon/McCartney of pictures, if Lennon/McCartney hadn't so inconsiderately been born in Liverpool. And while I'm not familiar with the work of Fellini or Bergman, I would rank only Kurosawa in a league with the Coens. By my lights, they've made 13 great movies. Roughly the same as Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg. But their batting average! Woody Allen's made more than 35 features, Spielberg around 25. But the Coens have made only 16 movies. They've made one bad movie, two good ones, and 13 great ones. Which is unprecedented. Hitchcock, Scorsese, Soderbergh, Robert Altman, Billy Wilder, John Ford . . . none of them came close to that success rate. Hey, maybe it's an unfair comparison. What might Scorsese and Spielberg have accomplished if they'd teamed up? Woody Allen and Albert Brooks? But a new Coen Bros. movie is just about the surest thing in cinematic history.

Inside Llewyn Davis wasn't my favorite movie last year, though. For one thing, I saw two legitimately great documentaries: The Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing. Both have more to say about the human condition than most of the Best Picture nominees put together.

Which brings me to my favorite Best Picture nominee. In Her, Spike Jonze creates a just slightly speculative future where every citizen lives in a high-rise and carries around a hyper-intelligent supercomputer -- the "cloud" but with consciousness, basically --€“ in their ear. And you believe every minute of it. I did, anyway. Like David O. Russell, Jonze makes serious movies that also make you laugh every so often. This is his finest work yet, and gives me hope for the future.

Feel free to argue about Rob's opinions in the comments, but please give him a break.


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