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What our staff thinks of the Best Picture Oscar nominees

From left, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in "Twelve Years a Slave." All three are nominated for acting awards, and "Twelve Years" is a best picture nominee for an Academy Award.

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By STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 23, 2014

This year, the best picture nominees for the Academy Awards are really about the characters.

The nine films nominated for best picture are full of great and memorable characters who endure long after the movie has ended. The nominees feature men suffering and persevering – “Captain Phillips,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Her.” They feature grieving mothers – “Gravity” and “Philomena.” They feature cons – those perpetuating them and those falling for them – “American Hustle,” “Nebraska” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

And many of the films feature supporting characters just as memorable as their protagonist – such as the voice of the OS in “Her,” the wife in “Nebraska,” and a young slave woman in “12 Years a Slave.” No wonder it felt like the actor and actress categories needed to be expanded to 10 nominees each.
Stripes staffers share their takes on the nine best picture nominees, including why they will win — or why they won’t.

The Academy Awards will air on AFN on March 3.

“12 Years a Slave”

“12 Years a Slave” is the favorite to win going into this year’s Academy Awards – and deservedly so. It is a masterfully made epic tale featuring a well-told story, beautiful directing and incredible performances.

The film is adapted from the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York. The father, husband and talented musician is lured to Washington, D.C., drugged and sold into slavery. He endures and witnesses horror after horror while enslaved – brutality, abuse and degradation. It would be easy to say that this is a film about the horrors of slavery and those trapped in it. But it’s not. The film is really about Northup’s battle to sustain his identity, his humanity and his hope in the face of very long odds that he would ultimately be free again and with his family.

The movie’s cinematography is stunning – terrible events are juxtaposed against the beauty of northern Louisiana, where the movie was set and shot. But the performances elevate this film. Michael Fassbender disappears into his role as a sadistic slave owner. Sarah Paulson’s lovely face is her character’s cover for a frightened, angry and jealous wife who delights in abusing a female slave favored by her husband. Lupita Nyong’o gives her role as slave woman Patsey incredible depth and feeling. Patsey is alternately childlike and sweet and desperate and hopeless in the face of a seemingly never-ending situation. Her final moments in the film are unforgettable. And Chiwetel Ejiofor shines as Northup. He manages to make you understand his character’s struggles while he hides his true self from those determined to strip him forever of his identity. (The lone exception to the outstanding cast: Brad Pitt. It totally took me out of the scene to see him suddenly appear near the end of the movie.)

The cast said making the movie was like “dancing with ghosts.” I was haunted by the film’s characters long after the lights went up and I made my way back out into the streets of Washington, D.C. – not far from where Northup himself was held after he was kidnapped and sold. I couldn’t let go of the sight of Patsey’s face after she was once again abused by her masters, or Northup’s expression when he is once again denied a chance at freedom. This was not an easy film to watch, but a worthy one. And it will take home the Oscar for best picture.

“12 Years a Slave” is nominated for nine Oscars including best picture, best director for Steve McQueen, best actor for Ejiofor, best supporting actor for Fassbender and best supporting actress for Nyong’o.

— Danielle L. Kiracofe, entertainment/features editor, Washington, D.C., kiracofe.danielle@stripes.com, @dorogaya26
 

“American Hustle”

The story of this best picture nominee is complex yet simple: Everyone in this story is conning someone, and a few are also conning themselves. It’s “The Sting,” only with bad hair and lots of cleavage. This crazy caper, based on the late 1970s/early ’80s Abscam scandal, is a true ensemble piece. That makes it great to watch, but hard to predict for Oscars. The Academy doesn’t have a “performance by a cast” category – for which “Hustle” earned a SAG award – and the competition for best picture is stiff.

While I loved the movie – pay attention or you might miss a twist or two – and I loved tripping through the disco era, its value is the sum of its performances, so I don’t see it as best picture winner.
Bradley Cooper stands out as Richie DiMas, a rogue FBI agent with visions of grandeur despite living with his degrading mother and putting off his long-suffering fiancée. It’s almost sad when the stars in his eyes – powered by dreams of the FBI sting – fade. Cooper would win best supporting actor if I were voting. And I’ll go with beautiful chameleon Amy Adams to win as best actress for her role as the interesting character Sydney – and for the best use of double-stick tape.

Christian Bale is oddly charismatic as Irving, with his bald-man swirlie and huge glasses, but he’s too easily manipulated by Sydney (Adams) and his controlling wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). It’s easy to see why he was nominated for best actor; I hope that’s enough for him. As for Lawrence, she’s eye-candy with her faux vulnerability, and the critics loved her. Me, not so much. In a film full of small fish treading water in a big pond, she’s too koi for me.

There’s another amazing ensemble in this film: the soundtrack. From Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues” (when Irving meets Sydney) to Santana’s “Evil Ways” (when Rosalyn saunters over to mobster bad boys), the music fits the characters and the moments. And yes, there’s the requisite disco-era touch: The Bee Gees pine about broken hearts when Rosalyn kisses Sydney, and Donna Summer heats it up when Irving and Sydney dance.

But perhaps I’ve said too much for the folks who haven’t seen “American Hustle” – if there are any left. The movie is worth the hype and its 10 nominations, but I’m betting against a clean sweep.

– Tina Croley, enterprise editor, Washington, D.C.

“Captain Phillips”

The film “Captain Phillips,” which was nominated for Academy Award for best picture, is a story about the real-life hijacking of the U.S.-flagged MV Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009.

During the incident, Richard Phillips, played by Tom Hanks, was taken hostage by the Somalis after they disembarked from his vessel.

The seizure of the Maersk Alabama marked the first time in 200 years that an American cargo ship had been hijacked on the high seas. The shocking attack mobilized U.S. Navy warships, and the subsequent standoff with the pirates ultimately drew in President Barack Obama, the commander-in-chief who had only been in office a few months. It was one of the first national security crises of his presidency.

The film was well-acted. Tom Hanks did a solid job as the main character. Although it was not the finest performance of his amazing career, his acting in the final scene demonstrated why he is one of the best in the business. But Hanks was outshined by Barkhad Abdi, who played the leader of the pirate gang. Abdi, a Somali native who was starring in his first film, delivered an outstanding performance that earned him a well-deserved best supporting actor nomination. Although the other nominees did a fine job in their respective films, the Oscar should clearly go to Abdi.

Overall, “Captain Phillips” is an intense adventure story that appeals to a wide audience. It is entertaining and well worth seeing. But given the caliber of the competition this year, it is not worthy of winning best picture.

–  Jon Harper, Pentagon reporter, harper.jon@stripes.com, @JHarperStripes

“Dallas Buyers Club”

It’s difficult to judge Matthew McConaughey’s star turn in “Dallas Buyers Club” without considering it in the context of the past two years. During that time, he’s made film fans and critics take notice with his performances in “Mud,” “Magic Mike,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the HBO series “True Detective.” This stretch of incredible work makes one wonder how he got lost in the land of lame rom-coms for so many years.

The crowning jewel in this career renaissance is McConaughey’s performance as Ron Woodroof in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Based on real events, the film tells Woodroof’s story from his 1985 HIV diagnosis to the end of his life. The hard-charging electrician and rodeo aficionado reacts to the news with angry denial. The homophobic Texan couldn’t have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, because he’s not a homosexual. To suggest otherwise would be a request for a faceful of fist. Woodroof sneers at the doctor’s prognosis: 30 days to live.

Woodroof does some research, and quickly discovers that, given his history of unprotected sex, the diagnosis is real. Still, he’s determined to die with his boots on. He finds a sympathetic ear in Dr. Saks, played by Jennifer Garner, but she can’t give him what he really wants -- the drug AZT. Instead, he gets it illegally through a hospital employee. When that well runs dry, Woodroof heads south of the border.

A Mexican doctor tells him that AZT (along with continued booze and coke binges) has compromised his immune system, and Woodroof has developed AIDS. The doctor prescribes unapproved pharmaceuticals and vitamins. Woodroof sees results, and sees the opportunity to make money by selling the drugs to other patients. During a subsequent hospital stay, Woodroof is placed in a room with Rayon, best supporting actor nominee Jared Leto, a transgender woman enrolled in an AZT trial. Woodroof and Rayon become unlikely business partners. Ron is repulsed by Rayon’s lifestyle, but attracted to his new associate’s network of potential clients.

After run-ins with the law and the FDA, Woodroof decides to stop selling drugs and start selling memberships. Hence the formation of the titular club. For $400 a month, clients get all the drugs they want. The wiry Woodroof is a scrapper, battling for his life on one front and fighting tooth and nail with The Man on the other.

Capturing the fighting side of Woodroof is the heart of McConaughey’s performance. He is a man possessed. He lost more than 40 pounds for the role (Leto, deservedly nominated for best supporting actor, lost more than 30), making it at times uncomfortable to look at this doomed man. The way he channels Woodroof’s rage, first into looking for a lifeline and then into compassionately helping others, makes it impossible to look away. McConaughey transformed himself physically, and Woodroof, who lost his friends after his diagnosis, evolved through tolerance. Although he was forced to shut down the club, Woodroof won the right to treat himself with Peptide T. He died in 1992, seven years after his HIV diagnosis.

Oscar voters love transformation, and McConaughey has got it to spare. Physical change, change of character and the reawakening of a promising career. This is the actor who inspired comparisons to a young Paul Newman way back in 1996’s “Lone Star” and “A Time to Kill.” The plot of “Dallas Buyers Club” feels a little too contrived at times (even for a movie script), and that’s why it’s unlikely to win best picture. McConaughey, though, is likely to continue his career resurgence with the Oscar for best actor.

–  Sean Moores, Assistant Managing Editor/Sports, Features & Graphics, Washington, D.C.

“Gravity”

Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” is a visual marvel. One gets the sensation at times that you’re an additional member of the crew, floating above a beautiful Earth, weightless and feeling poetic, as the vast majority of what we experience glides by beneath you.

So why did I come away feeling so empty?

Maybe it’s the improbability of having human drama – even one as gripping as the events portrayed would be – match up to the technical achievement. Maybe the dialogue feels flat because what can be said? How do you even process the notion of being stranded in space, and having to climb in and out of disabled spacecraft in the hopes of finding the lifeboat that will get you home?

Cinema purists might take issue with a cinematography award for something artificial, but that feels like the realm in which this movie should be competing for awards; the sheer magic of being in a theater and feeling like you’re somewhere few people have been.

I am OK with suspending my disbelief. I won’t feel the need to pick nits, as a colleague did:

“All the space stations and space telescopes don’t hang around in an area the size of the greater Washington [D.C.,] metro area,” he said. “The Hubble and ISS are at different altitudes and on different orbits, each going like 17,000 miles an hour. If you managed to leave one and contact the other you would disintegrate and it would be damaged.”

True. Still, the movie’s great shortcoming, in my view, is that it didn’t make me believe the human drama.

I like visually appealing, technologically-savvy popcorn fare as much as the next guy. I wish I’d gone into the movie knowing that’s all it was. Why on Earth is this movie a best-picture nominee?

“Gravity” earned 10 Academy Award nominations, including best director and best actress for Sandra Bullock.

– Patrick Dickson, Washington Bureau Chief, @StripesDCchief

“Her”

In the not-too-distant future, people live practically virtual lives. Or so we’re led to believe from observing our protagonist, Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix in one of his more “normal” roles. Theodore is a writer-for-hire -- his company’s employees write letters for strangers. He writes love letters for other couples with great passion, and surprising intimacy, as his computer takes dictation.

But he goes home alone to an empty apartment, aside from his immersive video game. (Are there no pets in the future?) His estranged wife, played by Rooney Mara, has been asking him to sign final divorce papers for a year. He just can’t bring himself to do it.

Theodore sees an advertisement for a sentient computer operating system, and decides – why not? After just a few less than thorough personal questions, his tailor-made OS is ready. And she sounds just like Scarlett Johansson. Thus begins an unlikely relationship – first a friendship, then something more intimate – and a dip into the familiar “sentient computer wants to learn what it’s like to be truly human” trope. But, to writer/director Spike Jonze’s credit, he doesn’t stop there. The OS, who names herself Samantha, and the other sentient operating systems learn all they can from the humans, then start conversing among themselves, and come to conclusions their human creators most likely never intended them to reach.

And Theodore’s not the only one – we’re told that others are falling in love or becoming BFFs with operating systems, too. A (human) friend passes along a rumor that a woman she knows is having a relationship with someone else’s OS. A lot trickier than the standard affair, to be sure.

Johansson acquits herself well as her voice-only character. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it Oscar-worthy (she’s not nominated, but some have said she should have been), but the role continues to push the envelope that the likes of Andy Serkis (Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” movies) began – the idea that an acting role is more than a physical body being filmed. I suspect it doesn’t hurt that Johansson’s body is well-known to movie fans in genres far and wide, and it’s pretty easy to picture who’s talking, even if she can’t be seen.

The movie touches many themes that have been done before -- lonely characters in need meet each other, get to know one another in unlikely ways and become more fulfilled and better from the acquaintance. But by the end, the story has also taken us somewhere refreshingly new. This isn’t a “machines come to life and take over” dystopia, nor is it a “humans are the highest pinnacle of achievement the universe has to offer” ideal. Through the humans vs. OS element, the movie encourages us to ponder what it means to be alive, and in love, and what a relationship really requires.

The movie isn’t likely to take the night’s biggest Oscar prize -- it’s a bit too quiet for that -- but it has earned its spot in the running through its insightful script, its gorgeous camera work and Phoenix’s powerful acting.

Touching, amusing and possibly alarming smaller roles by Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde and Kristen Wiig help to bring a sense of fun, and occasionally, unexpectedly crude moments.

Other notes from the future: Stock up on flattering clothing now, because men’s pants are about to get high-waisted and downright Amish, while women opt for modest, collared blouses that button up to the neck.

By the end of the movie, Theodore is in a better place through knowing Samantha. One of the critical moments occurs, interestingly enough, when his thinking about relationships is more binary than hers. Perhaps the machines have something to teach us after all.

“Her” is also nominated for original song (“The Moon Song”) and original screenplay.

–  Kate Maisel, features editor, Washington, D.C.

“Nebraska”

Watching “Nebraska,” a line in Baz Luhrmann’s song, “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen)” came to mind: “Get to know your parents / You never know when they might be gone for good.”

Believing he has won a million dollars in a direct-mail sweepstakes, cantankerous, shambling drunk Woody Grant, portrayed brilliantly by Bruce Dern, tries to walk from his home in Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., to claim his prize. Following another failed attempt to do so and after the insistence of his wife Kate (nominee June Squibb) and two sons that this is a scam, Woody’s son David (Will Forte) finally agrees to take his father on an 850-mile journey, as a way to bond with his father, give the elder a break from his nagging wife and allow him a possible final adventure.

Along the way, the pair get detoured to the fictional town of Hawthorne, Neb., where Woody grew up and where his older brother still resides. An impromptu family reunion takes place, and soon Woody’s wife, never one to bite her tongue, and their slightly more successful son Ross join in. The story proceeds like an episode of “This Is Your Life,” and we learn more about Woody’s difficult past.

Beneath the surprising humor of “Nebraska” is a story of disappointment, regret and despair. The backdrop of Hawthorne, its wide-open spaces where little life is seen, plays an important role in the film and helps us understand how Woody came to be so despondent and uninterested in the people around him.

“Nebraska” is deserving of the Oscar for best picture this year quite simply because it feels so real. There’s no feeling of overacting or underacting. The characters are convincing and you feel connected to them. You pity them. You root for them. By the end, you care for them. A drama, a comedy and a character study all in one, it’s a thought-provoking story. It takes you to an uncomfortable but necessary place, where you must face your own mortality and the mortality of your parents.

Squibb’s brazen portrayal of a feisty, forever suffering wife (“You know what I’d do with a million dollars? I’d put him in a home.”) is genius, and Forte is highly effective as the underachieving but well-meaning son in one of his first dramatic film roles. However, Dern, who won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal of Woody, steals the show and delivers the performance of a lifetime.

While Woody does not leave Lincoln a millionaire, he definitely won me over in “Nebraska,” one of the most touching and important movies of the year.

– Laura Evans, copy editor, Washington, D.C.

“Philomena”

I expected “Philomena” to be another excellent example of the stately and critically acclaimed British actress Dame Judi Dench being ... well, the stately and critically acclaimed British actress. And it was.

What I didn’t expect is that I would also see Dench in this Oscar-nominated role taking on such complex issues as love, faith and forgiveness.

“Philomena” is the story of a woman’s quest to find her son, taken from her 50 years earlier. In 1952, the title character, inspired by the real-life Philomena Lee, is 18 years old and pregnant when she is banished to a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Roscrea, Ireland. After giving birth, Philomena does hard duty in the convent’s laundry. She lives for the one hour a day that the convent allows the mothers to see their children. Without warning, the convent gives the boy to an American couple when he is 3 years old, leaving the young Philomena to scream and cry as she sees the last glimpse of his small face looking out from the car driven away by his adoptive parents.

Philomena lives with her pain secretly until she finally tells her grown daughter, and the daughter enlists the help of former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, to write her mother’s story.

Thus begins a journey that takes the cynical but kind journalist and a woman in her dotage to the U.S. to search for the long-lost son.

Philomena is a sweet but at times exasperating old woman. She tells Sixsmith the entire plot of the romance novels she reads. Once in Washington, D.C., where Sixsmith scours birth records, she assumes that a dark-skinned server is Mexican and tells him that she believes Mexico must be lovely “aside from the kidnappings.” She marvels at America and the gigantic food portions.

For a movie fraught with emotion, “Philomena” also offers wonderfully funny moments as the main character speculates about the fate of her son in America. He could be homeless! He could be a drug addict! He could be obese!

“What makes you think he would be obese?” Sixsmith asks, puzzled.

Philomena answers: “Because of the size of the portions!”

As the pair piece together details of her son’s life, Philomena practices her faith, and Sixsmith practices his atheism. He becomes enraged about the secrecy that shrouds the convent’s baby trade, and the lies it tells to keep the mothers and children from finding each other. But Philomena is without guile. She forgives. Is she just a naive old woman guilty of accepting the easy answers offered by the church? Or is Sixsmith the hardened journalist who is guilty of asking the easy, anti-God questions? Did God cause the pain inflicted on the girls at the convent, or was it human beings who presumed to speak for Him?

It’s a gut-wrenching but beautifully told story. Still, the best picture nominee is not without clichés. The worst is the cartoonish portrayal of the business of journalism, as Sixsmith’s superficial editor only wants to hear Philomena’s story told as good guys versus bad guys and happy versus sad endings. The ending was a bit of both. When I left the theater, I felt as if Philomena’s story had happened to me. I’m pretty sure that’s a sign of an Oscar-worthy performance.

– Jolene Carpenter, features travel editor, Washington, D.C.
carpenter.jolene@stripes.com

“The Wolf of Wall Street”

Have you ever wondered just how excessive your life might become if you ever had an unlimited amount of money at your disposal?

Sure you have. So have I.

No one’s better at presenting the trappings and travails of excess quite like Martin Scorsese, who once again goes down that road in his latest movie, “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Viewers will notice a certain similarity among two of Scorsese’s earlier films, “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” All three films let the protagonist tell the story as it unfolds, explaining to the audience what he was thinking and just how his actions came back to haunt him.

In this case, it’s Leonardo DiCaprio telling the point of view of Jordan Belfort, the once wealthy stockbroker who eventually went to prison on fraud and market manipulation charges.

But the fun is in the journey, and how he reached that point.

DiCaprio and his cronies start out pitching penny stocks to wealthy investors before eventually becoming involved in “pump and dump” schemes in which they purchase most of the stock for themselves, sell the remaining stock to investors to drive up the value of the stock, then sell their own stock for astounding profits.

Along with the money comes overindulgence in drugs, sex and alcohol, as well as spending sprees that allow him to live a life that royalty in many other countries might only dream of living. From palatial estates to yachts and helicopters, DiCaprio prods his charges to come along for the ride and enjoy the life that had always eluded them until they went to work for him.

The scenes are true to Belfort’s story, and if you didn’t know better you’d think Scorsese had dreamed them up. More than once, I found myself saying, surely they didn’t do that. From shaving a female co-worker’s head for $10,000 to shopping for various levels of prostitutes, DiCaprio seems to relish the role.

Of course, it eventually all comes crashing down and Belfort is forced to incriminate his underlings to avoid a lengthy jail sentence. Just as in “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” we get to see where all the excess eventually leads the main character.

But what a ride. Oh, what a ride.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is also nominated for four other Academy Awards, including best director for Scorsese and best actor for DiCaprio and Jonah Hill for best supporting actor.

– Rich Killmon, sports copy editor, Washington, D.C.

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