(This is Part 5 of a five-part series looking at the Oscar nominees in the eight major categories. Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, or Part 4.)
Ever since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences allowed for up to ten Best Pictures nominees in 2009, it’s made for especially interesting races. While some nominees that came as a result of the expansion never stood a real chance — Remember The Blind Side? Or The Kids are All Right? Or The Help? No? — it’s also allowed for tougher predictions and dark-horse contenders. This year’s nominees include big-budget epics, small indies, and everything in between — and, unlike in recent years, a good number of the movies stand a chance of walking away with the night’s top prize.
12 YEARS A SLAVE
A difficult but important movie to watch, 12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in the 1800s who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Ejiofor is haunting as Northup, Nyong’o has been deservedly recognized for her performance as a plantation owner’s prize slave, and director Steve McQueen effectively places you right in the midst of the cruelties.
David O. Russell combined the casts of his last two movies, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, added Jeremy Renner and a comprehensive ‘70s feel for American Hustle, and created one of the more interesting con movies of the last decade. The entire cast is excellent and the characters are more fully developed than a movie about flimflam artists and double-crosses warrants.
One of the tensest thrillers of the year came courtesy of the Oscar-winning star of Forrest Gump and the Oscar-nominated director of United 93. Tom Hanks plays the real-life Phillips, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates when his cargo ship was boarded. The tension-building skills Greengrass honed with the second and third Bourne movies propel Captain Phillips through increasingly rough waters on the way to its gripping climax.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
After rebuilding his acting credentials over the last few years, McConaughey knocked it out of the park with his performance as Ron Woodruff, a volatile homophobe who was diagnosed with HIV in the ‘80s and teamed up with a transsexual (played to perfection by Jared Leto) to smuggle AIDS drugs into the United States.
The most riveting experience that came to cinemas in 2013 was Alfonso Cuarón’s meditative, gorgeous, frightening, evocative disaster movie, Gravity. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is left all alone in space after her shuttle is destroyed by space debris and she doggedly works to find some possible way to return to Earth without burning up and before running out of oxygen.
Its premise sounds ridiculous, yet it’s done with such skill and bravado that Her manages to overcome a quite unusual love story. Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a lonely man in the near-future who bonds with an artificially intelligent operating system and eventually ends up falling in love with “her” (and “she” with him). Her had an incredibly precarious tightrope to walk in order to sell its story, but it manages it with mastery and aplomb.
The latest movie from Alexander Payne (the director of Sideways and The Descendants) is a road trip movie, a family reunion movie, and a father-son bonding movie. Woody (Bruce Dern) thinks he’s won a million dollars from a sweepstakes scam and ventures to Nebraska with his indulging son (Will Forte) to claim his winnings. The artful, black-and-white look of the movie suits the small-town feel of the moving comedy aptly.
Judi Dench is utterly charming as a mother searching for the son she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years earlier, as is Steve Coogan as the down-on-his-luck journalist who decides to help her track her son down. Funny without being too serious and moving without being overly saccharine, Philomena is one of the best feel-good movies of 2013.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese proved one of their biggest hits. The based-on-a-true-story rise and fall stockbroker Jordan Belfort was excessive, explicit, and mammoth (much like Belfort himself). DiCaprio gives another fantastic performance — as does Jonah Hill as his partner-in-crime — and Scorsese delivered one of the craziest modern epics in recent years.