Here’s the conclusion of my ranking of the nine Best Picture nominees for Sunday’s Academy Awards. Part One, with films #9-5, is HERE.
I had lots of trouble ranking these top four films. Any of them would be a worthy Best Picture Winner . . .
4. Dallas Buyers Club
“Dallas Buyers Club” certainly wins the Jenny Craig award. Matthew McGonaughey and Jared Leto both lost significant weight to play their AIDS-afflicted characters. In his Golden Globes acceptance speech, Leto revealed that he’d also waxed his entire body – including his eyebrows – to play transgender Rayon. The resulting performances were well worth the sacrifice; McConaughey and Leto should both take home Oscars Sunday night. Although he is in the supporting role, Leto steals this film, playing with subtlety and depth a character that could have been a “look at me I’m acting here!” role.
The best scene in the film – so good I rewound and rewatched it twice when I saw it on pay per view – is when Rayon confronts her father at the bank. It is a masterpiece of understated but powerful emotion. When the father reacts to Rayon’s lifestyle by saying, “God help me,” and she responds, “He already has, I’ve got AIDS,” I thought about all the “Christians” who identify AIDS as a punishment from God and what that attitude must do to those who suffer.
Dallas Buyers Club is difficult to watch because of its basis in the AIDS crisis but at the same time is a hoot because McConaghey’s Ron Woodroof is such an outrageous personality. My only quibble with the film is Jennifer Garner’s stock “woman doctor dedicated to her work who only needs the right man to loosen her up” character and her formulaic relationship with Woodroof.
3. American Hustle
Like “Dallas Buyers Club,” “American Hustle” is a film where it’s a blast to just sit back and watch the amazing acting. Except there’s more of it in “American Hustle.” After David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” last year became the first film since 1981 to be nominated in all four acting categories, he did it again this year, directing the cast of “American Hustle” to the same feat. As Phil Jackson was to the NBA, David O. Russell is to film.
“American Hustle” is a lot of fun. The plot is convoluted, but the 80’s fashions and hairstyles and music carried me along for the wild ride of cons and counter-cons. It’s like “The Sting” updated from Ragtime to Disco. “American Hustle” is not higher on this list because while I enjoyed the ride and the characters, I never had any real emotional investment in them or in what happened.
Or didn’t happen. The brilliant disclaimer at the beginning of “American Hustle”says, “Some of this actually happened.”
Of the nine films nominated for Best Picture, “Philomena” is my favorite. Like a Best Picture should, it affected me on many levels. I left the theater angrier than I had been after a movie in quite a while, but at the same time I was inspired by Philomena’s story and resilience.
“Philomena” deals with vital spiritual themes without preaching or sanctimony. It acknowledges that evil can sometimes be rooted in religious institutions, but finally “Philomena” the film and the character demonstrate the far greater power of unexpected – and undeserved – forgiveness (i.e. grace).
But “Philomena” also made me laugh, especially at the odd couple relationship between Judy Dench’s always hopeful Philomena Lee and Steve Coogan’s jaded journalist. Dench is delightful in the lead role. If not for Cate Blanchett’s astounding performance in “Blue Jasmine,” Dench would be my choice for the Best Actress prize.
For more about “Philomena” and its themes, you can read the post I wrote after seeing it, “‘Philomena:’ A Film Review and a Reflection on What it Means to Be a Christian.”
1. 12 Years a Slave
To say I was not excited about seeing “12 Years a Slave” is an understatement. Slavery is bad, I get that. I watched every episode of “Roots.” I was appropriately outraged at “Django Unchained.” I snickered knowingly at Amy Pohler’s Golden Globes joke about “12 Years,” “I can honestly say after seeing that film I will never look at slavery the same way again.”
I knew “12 Years a Slave” would be difficult to watch. I knew that as a white man with southern roots, I would feel not just anger but guilt. Did I really need to subject myself to that?
It was indeed difficult to watch. I experienced not just anger and guilt but a multiplicity of other inconvenient emotions, just as I had expected. But what I didn’t expect was the sheer beauty of the film. It wasn’t just the light-filled images of sunlight streaming through Spanish moss or gorgeous close-ups of insects alighting on blades of grass. Virtually every frame of the film, even those depicting the most hideous outbursts of violence, was shot with an aesthetic sensibility that made “12 Years a Slave” not just an “important” movie but a transcendent experience.
Like “Philomena,” “12 Years a Slave” demonstrates evil’s perversion of what is good. As a Christian and pastor, I seethed at the scenes where slave-masters subjected their “property” to Scripture readings. How, I wondered, did any of those living in such bondage at the hands of “Christians” end up believing in Jesus Christ as their savior? This is certainly a mystery, and a testimony to the power of the Gospel – the Gospel of freedom and hope.
In fact it is hope that somehow pervades the entirety of “12 Years a Slave,” the Best Picture of the last year.
Bonus: My Favorite Film of the Last Year
It’s not nominated for anything and it probably shouldn’t be because “favorite” is different than “best,” but “The Way Way Back” was by far my favorite movie last year. Do yourself a favor and watch this woefully under-known movie. The last scene is absolutely the best closing of any movie since “The Graduate.” You can thank me later.
As always, I hope you’ll share your picks – especially your disagreements with mine – in the comments!