Every year when the Academy releases its list of nominees, movie lovers across the country scramble to make up for what they’ve missed. After all, who wants to be that person at the Oscar watch party who can’t weigh in on the Best Actress race because they haven’t seen Blue Jasmine (full disclosure: I have not and likely will never see Blue Jasmine)?
The day after the nominations were out, I was in the theaters to make up for my deficiencies with some essential viewing. My weekend was full of great acting, great writing and incredible films. Here’s my take on the five movies I somehow worked into my weekend.
I started on Friday afternoon with the widespread Best Picture favorite, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. The saga of a free black man kidnapped and sold off in the pre-Civil War South, “12 Years” has been a critical darling ever since its screening at the New York Film Festival. I’m always a little wary of movies that carry such expectation; I prefer to be surprised rather than underwhelmed. Fortunately, there was no danger of that happening here. “12 Years” is not only the best and most important movie about slavery ever made, but boasts near-perfect cinematography, an all-star cast, and a riveting Hans Zimmer score as well. Chiwetel Ejiofor should merit serious consideration for the Best Actor award, but director McQueen is the true star here.
It’s tough to follow an act like that, but Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity impressed in its own way. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to see this movie in 3D while you still can; “Gravity” is an experience you can only have at the movies, and Cuaron deserves credit for exploiting the medium to its full potential. Following in the proud tradition of films like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Gravity” explores the crisis-in-space motif and the resilience of humanity. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are pretty much the only actors in the whole film, and boy do they make it work. “Gravity” should earn Cuaron a Best Director award, hands down.
I knew the film adaptation of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County wouldn’t be quite as good, but even here I was surprised. As one of its few viewers who has actually seen the stage play, I was able to concentrate more on the performances than the intricacies of the plot, which gets more and more convoluted as time goes on. “August” boasts a star-studded cast that elevated the movie far beyond what John Wells’s straightforward direction ever could have. Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep; this film is far from perfect, and it’s hardly the comedy its trailers would have you believe, but it never fails to entertain. It’s also kind of fun to see Julia Roberts in an Oklahoma Sooners shirt.
From the plains of Oklahoma, I ventured into the seas of Africa for Best Picture nominee Captain Phillips. Tom Hanks plays the ultra-competent, very brave Phillips whose vessel is seized by a small crew of Somali pirates. Phillips’s smarts and his crew’s quick action are able to get the pirates off the boat, but not before they manage to take Phillips with them, holding him hostage for ransom money. “Captain Phillips,” after its exposition, is basically 100 minutes of intense, high-stakes, in-your-faceness that brings to life the unbelievable real-world situation its protagonist found himself in four years ago. Hanks was left off this year’s list of Best Actor nominees, and for most of the movie I considered that understandable if unfortunate. But after the film’s climax and conclusion, I can only categorize Hanks as a hard snub. He was certainly deserving of a spot on that list.
Finally, last night, I made it to Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this one; it hadn’t received much Oscar love, but then again that wasn’t really the point. “Lone Survivor” is based on Marcus Luttrell’s book of the same name describing the failed Navy SEALs mission that led to the death of his fellow soldiers. It’s a thought-provoking movie that raises a lot of questions. The viewer is forced to contemplate an ethical dilemma when three unarmed goat herders compromise the SEAL mission. Part of the blame for the soldiers’ deaths is placed on inadequate resources and faulty communications tools. Honestly, after hearing about the omniscience of the NSA and America’s technological prowess, it’s shocking to see the military depicted as so helpless and, at times, incompetent. But mainly the film reminded me that, for all our best efforts, the real losers here are the Afghani civilians, caught between the insurgent Taliban that they hate and the American occupants they don’t understand. It’s a challenging, well-done film, and it was a good way to wrap up my weekend full of them.