My annual Oscar quest concludes at last! David O. Russell’s layered, fascinating American Hustle was the ninth and final film on my playlist, saved for last because I correctly guessed that all the other nominees would exit our local theaters first. A healthy U.S. box office gross of $144 million (and counting) ensured that Hustle would stick around exactly as long as I’d hoped. This week has arrived just in time — after this month-long marathon, my local theater and I could really use a break from each other for a while.
For the first few weeks after this year’s Oscar nominations were announced, Captain Phillips was the only nominee within reach of movie buffs who prefer home video to theaters. You’d think this would give it an advantage with the voters; instead it seems to have been handicapped by its October release, quote-unquote “early” compared to most of the other contenders, and hasn’t factored into most of the Oscar-guessing convos I’ve seen. I watched it a month ago and procrastinated writing about it because I figured everything that could be said has already been said, so why bother?
The short answer: Oscarmania completism. I watch every Best picture nominee every year whether they look appealing to me or not. I normally don’t write about everything I watch on home video (though I’m thinking about changing that soon), but it seems silly to devote entries to eight of the nine nominees while arbitrarily skipping this one. Onward, then.
Martin fluffernutterin’ Scorsese, man. Just when you thought fluffernutterin’ Hugo was a sign that he taking his game in a whole ‘nother fluffernutterin’ sellout direction, dude says “Fluffernutter all that,” comes back around to the filthiest fluffernutterin’ script in Hollywood, and presto! He’s back on super-heavy-duty R-rated turf with The Wolf of Wall Street, a flick that makes Goodfellas look like the fluffernutterin’ Apple Dumpling Gang. Dunno why the fluffernutter he changed his mind, but, y’know, what the fluffernutter. It’s his career, am I right?
I love that the phrase “Academy Award Nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor” is now a reality. Whether in his first U.S. film role as the Serenity crew’s most formidable villain, or even as the heroic scientist who delivers the requisite do-the-right-thing speech in Roland Emmerich’s 2012, Ejiofor has been one of those electrifying talents who improves every script he’s handed. I had hoped he would move on to bigger and better things in the years ahead. With 12 Years a Slave my wish was granted.
The Academy Awards aren’t complete without at least one token high-caliber British nominee on the Best Picture shortlist. Leave it to director Stephen Frears (whose past nominees include The Queen and Dangerous Liaisons) to fit the bill this year with a transatlantic odd-couple quest for reconnection or closure, for truth or justice, and for fury or forgiveness.
Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska perfectly replicates that forlorn Midwest sensation of being trapped in rooms with hordes of impressionable, elderly relatives all living on the same slow-motion wavelength, visiting and reminiscing and comparing their amnesia levels and enjoying life’s remaining minutes at the speed of molasses, except when they’re jumping to conclusions at hyperspeed. When that happens to me, I put on a brave front while suppressing the desperate urge to crawl out of my skin. With SNL’s Will Forte acting as my proxy and reenacting my childhood family vacations so vividly, I’m surprised I didn’t convulse in my seat with flashbacks.
Older fans of Matthew McConaughey’s spate of ’90s romantic comedies may be in for a shock when they walk into Dallas Buyers Club and see him playing Christian Bale’s character from The Machinist. He and costar Jared Leto (both radically transformed and up for Oscars this year) underwent severe weight loss for their roles in this based-on-a-true-story underdog drama that’s one part can’t-we-all-just-get-along and four parts sticking-it-to-The-MAN.
As mentioned previously, I’ve seen every Academy Award winner for Best Picture from Wings to The Artist, retaining varying degrees of recollection. I’ve also seen every Best Picture nominee from 1997 to the present, and have embarked on a slow, low-priority, extra-long-term quest to see how far backwards in time I can extend that date. Right now I’m stalled on 1996 because the DVD version of Secrets & Lies is out of print, secondhand copies are priced much higher than I’d prefer, and I’ve never caught it airing on a cable network. Someday I’ll overcome that obstacle and continue down the line in reverse order.
I watched a lot of those winners and nominees on cruddy VHS copies, many recorded from Turner Classic Movies at EP speed for maximum storage conservation, and therefore suffered subpar A/V quality and the dreaded pan-‘n’-scan method that ruined countless widescreen films for the sake of home video as it existed back then. I wouldn’t mind revisiting some past winners and nominees in upgraded formats as time and funding allow. (Tonight, for example, I watched The Sound of Music on Blu-ray, my first time seeing the original widescreen presentation with the composition and gorgeous Alpine scenery intact. Massive difference.)
The following list is a sampling of Best Picture nominees that not only lost the Oscar, but also lost me when I did my best to stomach them, and won’t entice me to an encore presentation, not even as a thrifty Blu-ray with myriad extras.
The loser nominees are:
* Chocolat. The citizens of an all-Catholic town who’ve apparently never studied the Bible find themselves easily tempted away from their convictions during Lent when a dismissive heathen outsider opens a chocolate shop and mocks their fasting. I can see the groundwork laid here for a meaty Stephen King novel, if we modify Act Two so that the lady turns out to be an underworld minion whose Satanic powers manifest in the form of evil bonbons. Call it Needful Things 2: Day of the Truffles. Alas, no, the lady is typical and the self-righteous moral of the story is snacks are better than God. Though the town has other underlying problems that sugar somehow cures, my diagnosis would be that the town merely needed a more competent minister to guide and edify that particular flock.
* The Reader. My wife doesn’t share my quixotic quest and is consequently under no obligation to see films against her will. If I think a film has merit, I’ll regale her with a précis of the better parts, spoilers and all. Some films, I really don’t want to summarize. No loyal husband wants to confront the innocent question of “How was the movie?” with an answer like “It was basically Kate Winslet having lots of wild sex with a teenager.” In the theater I tried to stay focused on her character’s role as a gruff German guard who may or may not have been a Nazi war criminal. I lost that focus completely when her deep, dark secret — which I predicted several minutes in advance — reminded me of the “Oscar Clip” scene from Wayne’s World. After my little flashback, I couldn’t stop laughing all through her deadly serious court trial. So that ended poorly.
Everyone who watches the Academy Awards has their disagreements with the Academy. Not one living person would look at the complete list of Best Picture nominees and argue that the right movie has won every single year since Wings. We all have our own ideas about what makes one movie better than other movies. The idea of separate, distinct works of art being forced to compete against each other in an expensive dog-and-pony show may seem crass, especially considering the plethora of talents, genres, budgets, studio systems, sweetheart agent deals, and marketing departments that are fundamentally incomparable in any reasonable aesthetic discussion. Big-budget award-grubbing machines and high-minded shoestring-budget indie flicks shouldn’t be fighting each other; they should be working side-by-side, providing viewers with a vast assortment of reasons for film lovers to remain invested in the medium, and maybe even teaming up for the occasional crossover.
Just the same, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences insists on the annual flickfights. Sometimes Academy voters pick the right winner. Sometimes they struggle with hard choices. Sometimes they get it wrong. Sometimes they do it on purpose to upset the rest of the world, or at least me specifically.
The following Best Picture nominees from decades past represent a few differences of opinion between my biases and the questionable preferences of the Hollywood voting majority. While I have the advantage of limited, selfish hindsight peering back from outside their contemporary context, they have the advantage of being famous artists and filmmakers whose personal valets make more in a month than I do in a year. Thus do they have the privilege of deciding whose names are engraved on the statues and which ones have to settle for “I coulda been a contendah” jokes.
Some of those nominees are:
* The Thin Man (1934). Not that I have anything against the fun romance of It Happened One Night, but Nick and Nora Charles are five times the fun, not to mention one of the most solid husband/wife couples in anything ever, fellow detectives or otherwise. Living in a bygone era where “politically incorrect” wasn’t a thing yet, their methodology was questionable (gather all the suspects and hope someone tips their hand? Foolish but genius); Nick’s alcohol dependence was played for a few laughs but not taken entirely for granted (he grudgingly quit drinking in later films); and their relationship was 100% unflappably rock-solid (in one hectic scene, Nick saves Nora from a bullet by punching her in the face, somehow without destroying their marriage — good luck pulling off that trick outside a tasteless R-rated comedy today). “They don’t make ’em like they used to” doesn’t begin to describe the series’ legacy. The happy couple regrettably didn’t stand a chance against a shirtless Clark Gable.