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.

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Every Best Picture Nominee Ranked

Which one is your favorite? 


Good movies are provocative. Sublime. Escapist. Edgy. And great movies stick with you for days, weeks, even months. They should be memorable and mind-boggling. Incendiary. And sometimes – difficult to watch. Most of these fit one or more of these criteria.

I’ve seen all nine Best Picture nominees and I’m happy to report a ranking of them all. Here are the best of the best in order of quality as determined by Sonic Cereal.

1. Silver Linings Playbook

In this unconventional love story, two people – Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence – each struggling with their own mental illness, find sanity and serenity in each other.

It’s a moving portrayal of mental illness. And movies about mental illness tend to do well at the Oscars. Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a jittery bipolar man who has just been released from a mental hospital. Tiffany – played by Jennifer Lawrence – is in dire straits too with an undiagnosed illness.

“Silver Linings” received four acting nominations – Cooper for Best Actor. Jennifer Lawrence for Best Actress. Robert De Niro for Best Supporting Actor. And Jacki Weaver for Best Supporting Actress. It’s the first time in 31 years that a movie has received all four acting nominations. 

2. Amour

The most painful movie I have ever watched in my life, this is a French-language foray into the lives of an older gentleman whose wife suffers a stroke. In the ultimate expression of love, he takes care of her at in the couples’ flat, not in a nursing home. Powerful and tear-jerking.

3, Zero Dark Thirty

The hunt for Osama Bin Laden fully realized on film. This comes from director Katherine Bigelow, whose film “The Hurt Locker” won Best Picture in 2009. Bigelow was also the first woman to win Best Director – and she may win for directing again – I doubt it will win Best Picture though.

4. Life of Pi

The enchanting story of a boy whose family owns a zoo in India. When the family decides to move to America with the animals to sell when they get there, the boat sinks and the film’s protagonist Piscine is left on a life boat with a ferocious tiger named Richard Parker. Visually stunning in 3D.

5. Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s second revenge flick isn’t as good as “Inglorious Basterds” but it is fantastic in its own right. As opposed to the Nazis, this one takes a aim at the slave-owners of the South. Bloody and action-packed – as to be expected with a Tarantino Film – this one is music to your anti-racism, anti-slavery ears. And Jamie Foxx’s performance as the titular character is mind-blowing.

6. Lincoln

The Steven Spielberg sheen is all over this one. Everything is perfect – in a good way or a bad way, depending on your perspective. I’ll give the film a mediocre rating. It’s not a biopic, although I wish it was. On the contrary, the story focuses on 1865, the year Abraham Lincoln strived to win a majority in the House  of Representatives to enact the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery.

7. Argo

I’m going out on a limb here and just say it – “Argo “ is forgettable. I know it’s at the top of many critics’ top ten lists and it may very well win Best Picture. But for me, the sign of a good movie is if it has you thinking about it for days or weeks to come. This one didn’t. It’s the story of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Tony Mendez – played by Ben Affleck – and his C.I.A. cohorts devise a scheme to make a fake Hollywood movie in order blend in and gain access to the hostages. Also directed by Affleck – another reason why this film may win some kudos.  

8. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Why oh why was this boring film nominated? Sure it paints a picture of a world we don’t normally see – that of the Louisiana bayou and an area called “The Bathtub,” a town cut off from the rest of the world because of a levee. While 10-year-old Quevenzanhe Wallis’ performance as Hushpuppy is quite stalwart for an actress so young, this film leaves something to be desired.

 9. Les Miserables

I think you have to be a Les Miz superfan to enjoy this film. A musical set in 1815 France, the movie centers around Hugh Jackman’s character and a revolution started by several other characters.

The singing is mediocre at best. While Hugh Jackman does deliver a strong singing performance, it’s not enough to carry the movie. Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway are both phoning it in with regards to singing. Though the sets and costumes are impeccable, the complicated story is hard to follow for the uninitiated. 

The Oscars air this Sunday at 7PM Eastern, 6PM Central.  

What’s your pick for Best Picture?

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