Best Picture Nominees – Ranked and Critiqued

The 86th Annual Academy Awards are this Sunday. From technology to greed to AIDS, there’s a diverse crop of topics and films this year. Which one deserves the Oscar? These are not predictions, they are one critic’s take on which films should win. 

1. Her

Spike Jonze has an amazing track record compared to other directors. From “Being John Malkovich” to “Adaptation” to iconic music videos for the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” and the cleverly choreographed Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” he is cut from the same cloth as classic MTV. And it shows through his exceptional work.

“Her” stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a lonely man who falls in love with a computer operating system (played by the voice of Scarlett Johansson).

The film is effortlessly futuristic. Its sets and costumes look fashionable and modern. And the technology featured in the script just may not be that far away.

“Her” captures the zeitgeist of these technological times. And that’s why it deserves Best Picture.

2. Dallas Buyers Club

“Dallas Buyers Club,” is a magnificent film starring Matthew McConaughey as Ron, a tough-guy homophobic rodeo star who is given a diagnosis of full-blown AIDS and 30 days to live. In an effort to hang on to his life, Ron goes into business with Rayon, a transgendered person played in a knockout performance by Jared Leto. Leto is hands-down sure to win Best Supporting Actor for this role. He doesn’t even look or sound like himself.

Ron and Rayon buck the FDA by smuggling unapproved AIDS drugs from foreign countries and setting up a “Buyers Club” in which AIDS patients pay a monthly fee to get their illegal medication.

While decidedly dreary, this bona fide slam-dunk of a film is a triumph because it artfully highlights the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s, which many have forgotten about.

3. 12 Years a Slave

“12 Years a Slave” won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama and is a sure bet to win at the Oscars. It goes without saying, the movie is extremely difficult to watch. The torture. The beatings. The rapes. The splitting up of families. The verbal abuse. The film is the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man from the North who is captured and sold into slavery in Louisiana.

You almost have to be a masochist to enjoy this slavery drama. However, it is a supreme work of art, with a big payoff in the end.

4. American Hustle

A little film with a superstar cast – Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence – is my other pick for one that might actually win. This tale of conspiring con-artists is jam-packed with stellar acting, which is why it will most likely win Best Picture above all.

5. Nebraska

“Nebraska” is funny in an art-film kind of way. The black-and-white movie follows Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an old man who receives a Publisher’s-Clearing-House-style letter saying he has won a million dollars. Woody is determined to go to Nebraska from Montana to collect his prize and will go to any length to get it.

The film is intimate and engaging. You really get to know the father (Dern), son (Will Forte), and mother (June Squibb) quite well. The acting is superb, and breakout star June Squibb (at age 84!) provides much of the sharp-tongued comic relief. This is comedy, done right.

6. Gravity

The beautifully shot “Gravity” is an outer space adventure with plenty of action. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, an astronaut whose space shuttle becomes endangered. George Clooney costars as her debonair veteran astronaut sidekick. Space takes its toll on Dr. Ryan as she starts to hallucinate and her struggle to get back to earth is a tough one. The closing scene is absolutely gripping.

7. Philomena

Dame Judi Dench stars in this light-hearted dramedy in which the title character embarks on a 50-year-long search for her only son. With the help of a journalist, Philomena attempts to track down her son, believed to be sold into adoption by Catholic nuns. It’s a true story and one that will leave you astounded.

8. The Wolf of Wall Street

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is just plain disgusting. Greed. Sex with prostitutes. Misogyny. Drugs. I feel like I was hate-watching this the entire time. I wished death and bad fortune upon its characters. And not only that – it’s 3 hours. 3 hours of hell.

Martin Scorcese is no doubt an excellent director – one of the best in the business – but this one is an absolute failure. Or maybe I’m being too subjective. One of the two.

9. Captain Phillips

“Captain Phillips” is as pedestrian as it gets. A Hollywood action story about pirates in Somalia taking over an American ship is ripped from the headlines. It’s fine. Just not Oscar caliber. 

What’s your pick for Best Picture? 

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