My top 10 Best Picture Oscar winners

With the 89th Academy Awards ceremony right around the corner, it’s a great time to reflect upon the storied history of this prestigious ceremony. Thankfully, I’m in a great position to do that, having recently finished watching every winner of the Academy’s top prize, the coveted Best Picture.

The history behind this award alone is enough to fill volumes, and it certainly doesn’t come without controversy. For every Godfather, there’s a baffling winner like Tom Jones or The Broadway Melody, films that may have had something to say in their time, but by today’s standards seem woefully inadequate. Then there’s the good films that nonetheless remain divisive choices. How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane? Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction? Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas? The King’s Speech over The Social Network?

Despite some headscratchers, it should come as no surprise that the Best Picture statue counts among its members some of the finest films ever made. I’m here to share what I think are the very best of the best. These are not necessarily the most iconic winners, or the “best” by snooty critic standards (although I think most of them are). They’re simply my favorite. So please, enjoy and for heaven’s sake, disagree. Otherwise, this wouldn’t be any fun.

10. On the Waterfront (1954)

There are few performances more iconic that Marlon Brando’s blistering portrayal of Terry Malloy, a down-on-his luck former boxer turned longshoreman who risks his job and safety to protest his corrupt union bosses. Even the casual moviegoer can probably recite the famous “I coulda been a contender” speech, whether they’ve seen the film or not. Thankfully, the film surrounding Brando is equally top notch, filled with typically sensational direction from Elia Kazan and a potent and powerful message of perseverance in the face of persecution.  The film has certainly stood the test of time, and it doesn’t seem set to go out of style anytime soon. It is currently ranked 19th on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films of all time.


9. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The conclusion to Peter Jackson’s fantasy epic broke the mold in more ways than one. It was the first fantasy film to take home the top prize. And, like Lawrence of Arabia before it, it redefined the default when people think of the quintessential Hollywood epic. Some would say that the Academy’s overwhelmingly lavish praise of the film (it took home a whopping 11 statues) was a way to honor the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and, if that’s the case, at least they saved the accolades for one of the finest franchises ever put to screen. What’s not to love about Tolkien’s timeless tale? Jackson, along with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, crafted a near-perfect adaptation, with pitch-perfect casting choices and some of the finest battles sequences ever put to film. Even better, ROTK never lost the emotional core of the story, the friendship between hobbits Sam and Frodo. Both tragic and stirring, heartbreaking yet hopeful, gigantic and yet, at times, painfully intimate, this was truly an epic for the ages.

8. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

One of the finest war films ever made doesn’t contain a single battle sequence.  William Wyler’s timely drama deals instead with the aftermath of soldiers returning home from war. The film follows three soldiers as they return from the war and attempt to re-adjust to civilian life. But each faces their own particular struggles, from Homer’s (Harold Russel, in an Oscar-winning role) insecurity over his battlefield deformity to Fred’s (Dana Andrews) difficulty in holding down a job. This is an intimate, often painful yet ultimately hopeful tale. Bring the tissues, because it’s a weepie in the best sense of the word. Even in its more melodramatic moments, it earns every emotion. The Best Years of our Lives is pretty much perfect, and a fine example of Hollywood message making done right.

7. Unforgiven (1992)

Who would have thought that Clint Eastwood’s deconstruction of the western genre that made him famous would end up being his finest? Unforgiven earns major accolades as we see in retired gunslinger Bill Munny (played by Eastwood) what kind of man the actor’s earlier roles may have turned out to be. Rarely has the audience felt more guilty watching a western—the violence is brutal, the emotions pained, and the ramifications of revenge given their full weight. Not since The Searchers has a western so painfully pulled the audience into its world of greed, corruption and men who think they’re above the law. Throw in a fantastic villain (played by Gene Hackman) and a sensitive companion (Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan) and you have a classic that manages to be a gripping genre piece while throwing away so much of what made the classical western what it was. It’s truly unforgettable.

6. Schindler’s List (1993)

No top Best Picture list would be complete without Steven Spielberg’s tour-de-force, an iconic film about one of the worst things to ever happen in the history of humanity. Making a holocaust film is no easy task, and the normally fanciful Spielberg faced much skepticism as to whether he could pull off a story with so much weight. But pull it off he did, to uniformly spectacular results. The black-and-white cinematography is striking, as is the haunting and brutal imagery. This is a tough film to watch, but one that dares you to look away. It’s also one of the most “important” films to ever win Best Picture, but don’t let that turn you off from just how good it is. At the center is Oskar Schindler, and Liam Neeson plays him with an enviable amount of heart and depth. Schindler’s transformation from willing Nazi accomplice to active resistor and eventual saver of thousands of Jews is the emotional crux of the film, and Neeson doesn’t miss a beat. Schindler’s List is a great tragedy about a great tragedy, but it restores hope in the resiliency of the human spirit and the capacity for goodness in the midst of history’s great evil. An absolutely essential film.

5. The Deer Hunter (1978)

For a time, I considered Michael Cimino’s brilliant examination of soldiers coming home from Vietnam to be my favorite war film. It’s still up there. In terms of films that deal directly with the Vietnam conflict, The Deer Hunter was the first and, in my mind, the best (with all respect to Apocalypse Now, which somehow lost the top prize to Kramer vs. Kramer one year later).  Like The Best Years of Our Lives before it, the film deals painfully and intimately with the ramifications of the war on those returning home, as well as the loved ones waiting for them. This is a much darker film, dealing explicitly with the terrifying depths man can sink to when he no longer knows anything but violence. Christopher Walken represents this theme in one of the great tragic roles, but the film is filled with a who’s-who of acting greats in their early days, including Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep and John Cazale. The film is probably best known for it’s “Russian roulette” sequence, but even in its quieter moments, it remains gripping and essential.

4. Gone with the Wind (1939)

One of the most lavish and iconic films in Hollywood history, Gone with the Wind took home the top prize in what is often considered Hollywood’s greatest year. It beat out legendary films like The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights. Watching the film today, it doesn’t take too long to realize why it rose above such advanced pedigree. It’s the absolute crowning jewel of the Hollywood studio system, one that pushed the boundaries of what we though was possible in film, from its gorgeous color cinematography to its epic Civil War setting and four-hour run time, not to mention its (for the time) gasp-worthy swear.

Equally iconic are the performances, from Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh’s portrayal as on-again off-again lovers to Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal as Mammy the house servant. McDaniel won an Oscar for the role, being the first black woman to win best supporting actress and showing an early sign of the Academy’s occasional clear-headedness in pushing the boundaries of diversity in film. Gone with the Wind set the standard for the grand Hollywood epic, and, almost 70 years later, it still hasn’t been beaten.

3. The Godfather (1972)/The Godfather Part II (1974)

Normally, it would be easy to pick The Godfather for this list, but, surprisingly, its sequel also took home the top prize two years later. Because this is my list and I can do what I want, they’re both getting the mention here. Not since Gone with the Wind had a film so enraptured audiences and critics, and, since its release, The Godfather has arguably surpassed even that legendary film (it ranks 2nd on AFI’s top 100, just behind Citizen Kane; Part II ranks 32nd). It’s so easy to see why Francis Ford Coppola’s sweeping crime epic pulled a two-fer—both films share the same panache for grand scope, perfect structure, iconic moments and some of the finest performances ever put to film. From Marlon Brando’s legendary role as Don Corleone to Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall (not to mention Robert DeNiro in part II), every performances is flawless.

There’s not much to say about these films that hasn’t already been said. They’re perfect, and no film has quite matched their pure craftsmanship since. Every mob film since lives in their long shadows.

2. Casablanca (1942)

The greatest romance ever put to screen, Casablanca has arguably the most memorable dialogue in movie history (even if people still misquote the “Play it Again, Sam” line). The Morocco-circa-WWII-set classic is also a profoundly successful genre mashup, mixing classic Hollywood romance with war and mystery/thriller trappings. Certainly, the stark black-and-white cinematography and unforgettable performances from Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Berman help to solidify this as an undisputed classic. But what truly cements it for me is the screenplay, perhaps the finest ever written (with the possible exception of my number one choice). Despite the fame of its many classic lines, the dialogue never exactly calls attention to itself. It’s memorable simply by being really damn good. This is essential viewing for anyone with a pulse.

1. Amadeus (1984)

Anyone who knows me well would expect this film to occupy my top slot. Not only my favorite Best Picture, it is perhaps my favorite film of all time (certainly a solid top 5). Peter Shaffer’s adaptation of his stage play about the artistic rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) has been the envy of screenwriters everywhere for more than 30 years. How can one script pack in so much depth, so much emotion, so many thought-provoking themes about the nature of artistic expression? It’s beyond comprehension, and to watch the film is to be in pure awe of its sheer brilliance.

Sure, Amadeus plays fast and loose with the facts of history, but it was never meant to be a historical biopic. Instead, Shaffer and director Milos Forman use historical figures as a jumping-off point for a far more fascinating exploration of the nature of the relationship between God and man. Salieri is the traditional good boy, one who prays with devotion and follows all of the rules in hopes that God may touch him with artistic genius. He’s the classic legalist, expecting and (eventually) demanding that God reward his good behavior with earthly success.

As Salieri’s foil, Mozart is the man gifted, seemingly from birth, with brilliance, touched by the hand of God. Mozart’s genius is surely unmerited—he’s a hedonistic blaggard, a foul-mouthed, immature and petulant child, which of course enrages Salieri all the more. Why would God grant such a gift to one so undeserving? These questions and themes are given more thoughtful consideration here than in any other film I’ve seen, and the result is breathtaking.

The script’s brilliance is bolstered by the potent performances, including Abraham’s Oscar-winning turn as Salieri. It’s a savage and tragic character study, as a devout man slowly but quite deliberately turns into a vengeful monster. And Hulce’s work as Mozart is much more nuanced than it initially appears. Perhaps, for a good chunk of the film, the audience actually sides with Salieri. But, as Mozart begins to reveal shades to his character, we actually see that he perhaps doesn’t quite deserve Salieri’s vengeful wrath.

Naturally, the music only elevates the film even further. It’s some of the best ever written, and seeing it performed on screen is nothing short of a revelation. Amadeus is a gift to the world of cinema, and one I will never tire of watching. It is, in my opinion, the best Best Picture.

Runners-up: It was a tough job narrowing my list down to 10. These are the next 10, in no particular order, which would get my vote:

The Sound of Music

My Fair Lady

West Side Story

Lawrence of Arabia

All About Eve

12 Years a Slave

It Happened One Night

Ben Hur

In the Heat of the Night

Gentleman’s Agreement

Oscars: Why Mad Max: Fury Road should win Best Picture (and why it won’t)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is facing a bit of an identity crisis these days. Many people see the membership organization that votes upon who takes home Oscar trophies as out-of-touch and lacking in diversity, as evidenced by the recent #oscarssowhite campaign that was all over social media. This led to a recent decision by Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs to announce that the Academy would be dramatically overhauling its membership to include more (younger) persons of color.

But the Academy’s lack of diversity extends far beyond race. It also shows itself in the movies that often take home the top prize. The term “Oscar bait” has been used for years to describe the bland, safe, “important” movies (often biopics) that the Academy seems to go nuts over, usually to the detriment of a more worthy Best Picture nominee. Recent examples include the inexplicable victory of Crash over Brokeback Mountain, or The King’s Speech instead of The Social Network.

Then there’s the issue that the winner each year is often a movie few people have seen. The Academy attempted to address this popularity issue in 2009 when it allowed up to 10 movies to be considered in the running for the top prize (up from the previous cutoff at 5). The goal, people seemed to think, was for excellent, overlooked genre fair like The Dark Knight to at least be considered for the major award. Then, people could tune in to see their favorite popular movie lose, but at least with the knowledge that it wasn’t relegated entirely to the technical categories.

This hope proved short-lived. The obvious recent example of why this system has already broken down is The Avengers. Marvel’s smash comic-based hit could have easily snagged the 10th spot for consideration in the 2012 ceremony. And yet, nine films ended up nominated. Why bother with 10 spots if you’re not going to fill them with the very movies that they were created for?

With this troubled history comes the electrifying tale of Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller’s ferocious action masterpiece reinvigorated a franchise we didn’t even know we still wanted, and did it with incredible technical panache. The Academy took notice: Fury Road has a total of 10 nominations, blasting its way out of the technical categories to consideration for awards like Best picture, directing and editing.

Mad Max: Fury Road is richly deserving of Best Picture status, but is probably still a bit too wild for the Academy.

Mad Max: Fury Road is richly deserving of Best Picture status, but is probably still a bit too wild for the Academy.

It’s great that, like everyone else, the Academy has taken notice of the finest action film of this decade. But, while Mad Max has many reasons to take home the top prize, I’m still not convinced it will. Here are three reasons why it should, followed by three reasons why it won’t.

  1. It’s a prestige picture

Fury Road is known first and foremost as a balls-to-the-wall action epic, and it fits that bill nicely. But it’s also the rare action film that was a smash hit with both audiences and critics. It has won numerous best-of-year awards from critics groups, and the consensus is pretty overwhelming. This catapults the film far beyond ever your typically excellent action fare. For both its pedigree and popularity, the Academy would be wise to award it the top prize.

  1. It would be historic

The Academy seems to take its sweet time catching up with history. In 87 years, a straight-up action film has never taken home the top prize (historical epics like Braveheart, war films or genre mashups like The French Connection are the closest we’ve gotten). No science-fiction film has won. Fantasy films got their due when Return of the King won in 2003, but little has been heard from them since. Audiences tend to speak with their wallets, and money talks. Many of the highest grossing movies of all-time are action films. Now, popularity does not always equal quality (a statement that describes the career of Michael Bay perfectly), but that clearly does not apply in this case.

  1. The Academy is getting weird

Fury Road is an undeniably bizarre film. Legendary Aussie auteur George Miller brought his trademark eye for original designs and odd humor (hello, Mr. Doof) to the table, proving that you can make a movie everyone loves without actually caring about what they think. Fury Road is the ultimate middle-finger to the market-researched summer blockbuster. It was made by a passionate group of people committed to a unique vision. How often do $100 million-plus action movies follow that description? In many ways, it seems like the textbook definition of what might turn the Academy off.

But that all changed last year, when the Academy awarded Best Picture to Birdman. That insane, inspired masterwork proved that, perhaps, the Academy was ready to embrace the weird. That same year, beloved indie auteurs like Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater shared space with more traditional Oscar fare like The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. What better way to continue that embrace of diverse voices than to award a gonzo action picture?

And now, why it still won’t win:

  1. It’s an action movie

Yep. Despite the Academy’s embrace of less traditional fare in more recent years, Fury Road is still an action movie. I fear the genre has too much stigma attached to it—it’s generally seen as not “important” enough. The Academy doesn’t often like to award movies without clear “messages.” While Fury Road has a rich and meaningful subtext beneath its non-stop violence, that’s still probably too subtle for the Academy at this point. Will they ever award Best Picture to an action movie? Yes, but I fear it might still be a while.

  1. It’s not the only action movie on the playground

You might have heard of a little flick called The Revenant. Alejandro Inarritu’s grueling survival tale swept the Golden Globes and seems to have some strong momentum going into the Oscars. Admittedly, Fury Road does as well. But The Revenant has the advantage of a prestige director (Inarritu took home the directing trophy last year) and imgrescinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki, gunning for his third straight prize). It’s certainly a non-stop action movie, but it doesn’t advertise itself as such in the same way as Fury Road. It’s artsy, and it very much attempts to say something meaningful. This means the Academy will love it, and it might feel like it can fulfill their obligation to finally award an action movie by giving the gold to The Revenant instead.

  1. It’s not actually the Best Picture

I’m ready and willing to admit that Fury Road is not actually the Best Picture in the running. That would be Spotlight or Room, two films I would be overjoyed to see win. This is less of a complaint and more of a reality check. Perhaps the Academy will award a talky, witty film like The Big Short, also a genre buster for being a comedy. Or perhaps The Martian, a film that, much like Fury Road, expertly balanced the line between critical darling and commercial smash.

Rarely has the Best Picture race felt so wide-open. This is a good thing. The field of contenders is quite strong, which speaks well to the strengths of Fury Road but also probably hurts its chances. Still, I’ll be cheering on Miller and company. Cinema this bold, exhilarating and uncompromising deserves to be celebrated.

Academy Awards: The good, the bad, the ugly

This year’s Academy Awards ceremony was a strange beast. Equal parts funny, annoying and brilliant, it defined both the great and the not-so-hot of live television. As Oscar telecasts go, it was quite good.


Ellen DeGeneres was a major highlight of this year’s sometimes stuffy, sometimes spontaneous ceremony.

What worked in this year’s ceremony? For better or worse, host Ellen DeGeneres was a big reason why the show worked. Several bits should go down as some of the best in history, including the pizza delivery and the selfie seen around the world. Ellen was relaxed and jovial, working the audience and having some great fun with the stars. She’s a pro at making hilarious moments out of painfully awkward situations (as opposed to being just painfully awkward, like another recent hosting duo I could name). I thought Seth McFarlane was an edgy breath of fresh air, but Ellen is perfectly delicious Oscar comfort food. As Cinema Blend put it, she was “the Oscar host we needed AND the one we deserved.

It was also a banner year for Oscar winners and their speeches. Jared Leto thanked his mother, Matthew McConaughey thanked God AND his mother (and his drunken angel father—seriously, that was weird), and the stunning Lupita Nyong’o paid tribute to the dreamer in all of us. They were three of my all-time favorite Oscar speeches.

I also thought it was a good year for the actual awards. Almost every winner was deserving, though some categories were so stacked that it was impossible for people not to be disappointed. Gravity took home a whopping seven awards, sweeping the technical categories and garnering a win for director Alfonso Cuaron (the first Latin American to win that award; though it’s crazy to think Pedro Almodovar has never gotten one). But, in a neck-and-neck Oscar race, the top prize went to the richly deserving 12 Years a Slave, which has got to be the best movie to win that award since…let’s just say it’s been a long time.

The not-so-good? What about this year’s Oscar “theme?” It was supposed to be a salute to movie “heroes,” but the presentation was so disjointed, it ended up feeling like no more than a padded, unnecessary afterthought. And, speaking of padding, this ceremony was long; it clocked in around 3 ½ hours. It seems ABC doesn’t mind going over running time; there were surprisingly few infamous musical “playoffs” for overlong speeches, even one’s like Jared Leto’s that went on for minutes. But, other than those “heroes” sections, the show really didn’t seem to drag. Even the “In Memoriam” segment was streamlined (causing some criticism), and the Best Picture centerpiece presentations were clustered in groups of three. And the musical numbers from this year’s Best Original Song candidates were particularly good.

The night’s biggest downer was its predictability. The major awards went to the intended suspects, and there were really no left-field wins (although some surprises in the documentary and animated short races shook things up). Remember the crazy insanity that was the Golden Globes? I mean, those speeches were bonkers (Jacqueline Bisset, anyone?) At the Oscars, everyone seemed cordial and no one seemed drunk. That made the ceremony feel classy and a little dull.

“Safe” is probably a better word. The Academy was concerned over the backlash from last year’s show; so they decided to do what was expected of them. And it worked really well (those ratings don’t lie) and not much more. That’s fine with me. It’s hard to complain about this year’s Academy show; it was classy, breezy fun. More importantly, there were some potentially historic Oscar moments to round out the package.

I leave you with pizza. Hope you’re hungry!

Oscar Watch: 12 Years a Slave

In this series, I look at the major Oscar nominated films and their chances of taking home gold. It is more an analysis of the Awards than it is the film’s quality, though some commentary on that is also included. Enjoy! 

 The term “instant classic,” is one that should almost never be used in the world of film. After all, doesn’t the very definition of “classic” imply that something must stand the test of time? Nonetheless, it’s fun to forecast the future and see whether any particular Oscar-winning meet that standard. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is probably a classic. Chicago? Not so much.

If one movie will be remembered as a great film in 20 years from this year’s race, my vote goes to 12 Years a Slave (along with documentary The Act of Killing, but that’s for another post). It is difficult to imagine a film about American slavery that feels less like a history lesson, but more like actual lived experience. I’m not sure how director Steve McQueen and company did it, but the results are to be celebrated.


12 Years a Slave will very likely take home Oscar’s top prize.

There’s been a strange backlash against the film in the movie going community; people say it’s flawed and overrated. No movie is perfect, but I can’t find any glaring flaws in the movie the way some have. It has some boring stretches and needed better editing? So did Citizen Kane.

People also say that 12 Years is the kind of movie that should win Best Picture, which is somehow different from the movie that deserves it. I think the argument is that the film’s subject matter trumps any arguments about its quality. As an Academy voter told Entertainment Weekly, “It was by far not my favorite picture, but choosing 12 Years validates the idea that the film should exist.” Wait…what?

The movie should win Best Picture not because it’s a movie about slavery, but because it is the movie about slavery. It’s also the best movie of the year. Why does it need to be anything else?

12 Years seems to be in a dead heat with Gravity, but, as I’ve said before, the populist choice always loses to the prestige picture. I think 12 Years will squeak by with the night’s big prize.

Of course, the film is nominated for 8 other Oscars, and should take home several of them. Not the least is Lupita Nyong’o’s stunning supporting performance as tortured slave Patsy.She gave a performance every bit as brutally physically and emotionally wrenching as Sandra Bullock did in Gravity; under the banner of “supporting,” she really carried a good chunk of the movie.

I’ve said so much about Chiwetel Ejiofor’s lead performance as Solomon Northrup, all I can really add is that he should win, but won’t. That Oscar has Matthew McConaughey’s name on it.

Same goes for Michael Fassbender’s searing supporting performance as the cruel slave owner Edwin Epps. He’s richly deserving, but will lose to Jared Leto, which some say is because of the fact that Leto played a transgender woman, rather than the performance itself. It’s a stacked category, and I loved Leto, but Fassbender’s is my favorite performance of the bunch.

12 Years will likely lose the directing and editing prizes to Gravity, making it one of those strange years when the Best Picture winner does not actually win that many awards. The costume and production design are good but not good enough.

The only seeming certainty in 12 Years’ crystal ball is the award for adapted screenplay. As rottentomatoes points out, Best Picture winners also win the Best Screenplay award. Of course, given that Gravity’s screenplay isn’t even nominated, even that is not a sure thing this year. Nonetheless, John Ridley’s script tells a harrowing life story without preaching or speechifying, and is in every way a triumphant adaptation of Northup’s own letters.

Despite its fate on Oscar Sunday, I truly believe 12 Years will stand the test of time as a masterpiece. Then again, I think the same thing about Lincoln, and that only won two awards despite 12 nominations during the 2013 show.

Oscar Watch: American Hustle

American Hustle seems to be in an odd position in this year’s Oscar race. While it has been seen as a dark horse candidate for some big awards (including Best Picture), passions for the movie seem to have cooled a bit.

It is, by all accounts, a very good movie. It was one of my favorites of 2013, and a much better “fun” awards contender than Wolf of Wall Street. David O. Russell doing a Scorsese-an crime caper that actually outdid Scorsese himself is something we all wanted to see. And O. Russell pulled it off flawlessly.


American Hustle, nominated for 10 Oscars, will pick up a few, but go home empty-handed in most major categories.

But it’s far from perfect, and I’m not even sure it’s as good as the director’s brilliant romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook. But Hustle has too many strong elements to be ignored. And, nominated for 10 Oscars, the Academy sure seems to have taken a shine to it.

Just look at the actors in the film. You’ve got Christian Bale (Best Actor), Amy Adams (Best Actress), Jennifer Lawrence (Best Supporting Actress) and Bradley Cooper (Best Supporting Actor). How often is a film nominated in all four acting categories? The last time it happened, appropriately, was last year’s Silver Linings Playbook. But before that, it was Warren Beatty’s Reds in 1981.

All the actors here are brilliant, but they’re up against some tough competition. The general consensus is that Christian Bale is out, and Lawrence is up against frontrunner Lupita Nyong’o, but some Academy voters have expressed that they are voting for both. There is no contest for Amy Adams; she will lose to Cate Blanchett, and the consideration for Bradley Cooper seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

That leaves room for Hustle to sweep up in its other categories, though I believe it will lose out to Gravity in most of those, that film will take home the largest number of total statues. Michael Wilkinson’s costume design seems like a given; the film is a glorious gallery of sequins, plunging necklines and standout toupees. The costumes add significantly to the film’s unique character.

O.Russell’s editing team did a brilliant job with Playbook, and Hustle is even more breathtakingly cut than that. But its tough to imagine it beating out Gravity; the way that film ties its cutting directly into its thematic episodes is too impressive to ignore.

Hustle’s other big enemy is actually The Great Gatsby. There’s no way Catherine Martin’s lavish production design, which made an okay movie significantly better, is losing even to a movie as snazzy as Hustle.

I’d love to see David O. Russell win a Best Director award someday, but this is not his year. That award easily goes to Alfonso Cuaron. I’m really rooting for O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer’s original screenplay, which was funny and twisty and all-around brilliant. But Spike Jonze’s Her is the very definition of “original;” funny, insightful, and very, very quirky. That seems to be the frontrunner here.

Hustle was a dark horse Best Picture contender, but that seems less likely now. It’s seems a distant third to Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. Could a lavishly nominated period piece go home empty-handed on Sunday? It certainly has happened before. But I’m willing to be this infectious crime caper will pick up at least a few Oscars.

Oscar Watch: Captain Phillips

In this series, I look at the major Oscar nominated films and their chances of taking home gold. It is more an analysis of the Awards than it is the film’s quality, though some commentary on that is also included. Enjoy! 

More than other major Oscar nominees, Captain Phillips is a film that reveals both the pleasant surprises and the follies of a typical awards season. With six nominations, it is, by all accounts, a great movie.


Despite Tom Hanks’ snub, Captain Phillips is still a richly deserving Oscar nominee in other categories.

Which is why the film’s nomination for Best Picture is a pleasant surprise. Director Paul Greengrass has been a box office draw thanks to the Jason Bourne films (he directed parts two and three of the trilogy), but I don’t think he gets enough credit for the way he has changed the way Hollywood approaches the Blockbuster action film. Coming from the world of documentaries, his cinema verite, handheld shaky-cam style both inspired and enraged a new generation of filmmakers and audiences. Shaky-cam is now one of the most overused tropes in action filmmaking. When it’s down poorly, it’s unwatchable. But, when it’s done well, it’s nothing less than exhilarating.

Enter Captain Phillips, which capitalizes on Greengrass’ strengths as an artist while ironing out most of his occasionally rough edges. There’s still a lot of shaky-cam, but here it actually helps to convey the nauseous rocking of a ship on the ocean. Combine that with claustrophobic ship hallways and bunkers, and you’ve got a potentially queasy experience. Shaky-cam may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s done well enough here to justify why it put Greengrass on the map in the first place.

Some might say Greengrass was snubbed for a Best Director nomination, but the real snub goes obviously to Tom Hanks. Despite an already tight acting race, his non-nomination still came as a bit of a shock to many. His role as Rich Phillips, the captain of a freight ship overtaken by Somali pirates is nothing short of revelatory. It’s telling that such a veteran actor can still surprise us by playing a very ordinary real-life person. Hanks hardly looks like a movie star here, and that’s why he’s so good. Most people say the true powerhouse acting comes in the film’s later third, but that doesn’t disqualify what comes before as truly brilliant.

Speaking of brilliant, can we talk about Barkhad Abdi, nominated for Best Supporting Actor? The native Somalian non-actor came out of nowhere to stun as the cunning Pirate captain Muse. I’d love to see him win, not only because he’s brilliant, but because it’s so refreshing to see a truly humble man taking in sudden fame and glamor from the perspective of a wide-eyed outsider. He may be considered and underdog, but his performance, as well as his real-life humility, speak volumes.

How often is editing that makes a film harder to watch a good thing? Christopher Rouse, a frequent Greengrass collaborator nominated in past years for The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93 pulls it off with aplomb. The queasy claustrophobia of his can’t-look-away quick cutting provides Captain Phillips with much of its energy and personality. It’s hard to argue against the other nominees (particularly American Hustle), but I’m happy to see Rouse recognized once again.

Billy Ray’s adapted screenplay will lose to John Ridley’s 12 Years a Slave, but, again, I’m glad to see it nominated, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for such a visually focused production to seem alive on the page.

Captain Phillips was one of the best films of the year, and it is getting more Oscar recognition that I thought it would. Most people might be focusing on Hanks’ snub, but I’d rather celebrate the strengths the film was deservedly recognized for rather than dwell on what it missed out on. In the end, as always, the work speaks for itself.


Oscar Watch: Nebraska



Nebraska is probably too smart to win many Oscars, but I hope its original screenplay is at least recognized.

In this series, I look at the major Oscar nominated films and their chances of taking home gold. It is more an analysis of the Awards than it is the film’s quality, though some commentary on that is also included. Enjoy! 

Nebraska is the little engine that could of this year’s awards race. And it’s a brilliant film to boot. Soulfully nostalgic and achingly sad all at once, it’s the best Oscar-nominated movie you haven’t seen. That needs to be rectified.

Director Alexander Payne is no stranger to Oscar. His unique slice-of-American life outlook has resulted in Oscar gold for films Sideways (Best Original Screenplay) and The Descendants (Best Adapted Screenplay) as well as nominations for the likes of George Clooney and Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt).

For Nebraska, Payne returns to his home state for the story of an elderly man (Bruce Dern) who thinks he’s won $1 million and, whether its true or not, decides to travel from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize, at any cost. Eventually he ropes his two adult sons (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk) into the adventure, as well as his saucy wife (June Squibb) and, eventually, his whole extended family.

There’s nothing not to like about Nebraska—from its sensuous black and white cinematography to its witty script and pitch-perfect acting. It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t seem to expect accolades, but is glad to get them when they come. It’s not an “Oscar bait” movie in any way, and that is so very refreshing.

Much of the credit goes to Bob Nelson’s original screenplay, which deserves to win in its category (close second goes to American Hustle). His balance between humor and tragedy is so fine it’s almost infuriating. Phedon Pamamichael’s cinematography is also wisely recognized (though it will lose to Gravity). The B&W photography gives the empty Midwestern landscapes more character, and is not in any way distracting or preening.

Dern is brilliant, but it’s June Squibb who’s the true revelation here. Seeing such good actors getting their time in the spotlight after so long is a treat. She’s far from a frontrunner, but, at 84, she would be the oldest to win the Best Supporting Actress prize, and the Academy does love to break barriers when they’re deserved. This one is.

Payne’s sensitive and very personal direction netted him a well-deserved directing nod, but it’s tough to vote against the richly deserving Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity. Still, I wouldn’t be disappointed if Payne pulled an upset. Same goes for Nebraska’s Best Picture nod.

Whatever its Oscar fate, Nebraska is, at the very least, destined to become a cult classic of some sort. It’s a potent, lasting reminder that our family is not the one we choose, but simply the one we’re given. We must make due; for better or worse. 

Oscar Watch: Dallas Buyers Club

In this series, I look at the major Oscar nominated films and their chances of taking home gold. It is more an analysis of the Awards than it is the film’s quality, though some commentary on that is also included. Enjoy! 

Dallas Buyers Club is one of those films whose Oscar buzz seems to be focused in one specific place. In this case, acting. And that’s where the focus should be. The film, while historically important in its treatment of the birth of the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s, is also a bit messy.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. The film has a strange, pulsating energy, which is an odd thing to say about a story involving a man dying of AIDS. The real-life journey of Texas electrician Ron Woodruff to first cure himself and, later on, others, of the deadly disease while fighting with the medical establishment to procure funding for an FDA-approved cure is an often bleak one, but there’s an almost irrational strain of hope that runs through these characters and their mission.


The awards conversation for Dallas is where it should be: the acting.

The movie is tonally inconsistent, and often prefers grit over polish, which makes its Best Picture nomination curious over more accomplished works such as Saving Mr. Banks, Before Midnight and the overlooked Prisoners. The film probably got a boost from its subject matter, neither a first nor last for the Academy.

All complaints about the overall film dissipate when we witness two of the most astonishing performances in recent film history. As Woodruff, Matthew McConaughey reaches that terrifying critical mass of method acting; I was concerned for Woodruff and his gaunt physical deterioration, but I was also afraid for McConaughey.  He just doesn’t look good. It recalls Christian Bale’s performances in The Fighter and The Machinist, where actor and character blend so perfectly you fear for the actor’s safety. I’ve been a fan of McConaughey for years, but this feels like the first time he’s truly transformed himself. All we see is Woodruff, exuding confidence one minute but sobbing in his car the next.

Equally jaw-dropping is Jared Leto’s supporting performance as Rayon, an AIDS-infected, drug-addicted man in the process of becoming a woman who breaks down the homophobic Woodruff’s defenses and helps him run his unauthorized drug business. A scene where a desperate Rayon dresses in a suit, puts his hair up and walks into his disapproving father’s office asking for money is one of the more heartbreaking acting moments in recent memory.

Leto and McConaughey are the front-runners to win Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor and, while those categories are stacked, it’s hard to bet against them.

The film’s makeup and hair styling is destined for Oscar gold, adding weight to Leto’s and McConaughey’s often startling physical transformations. The film is up for Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s Best Original Screenplay, but it’s hard to see the sometimes-sterile dialogue competing against the crackling intensity of Her, Nebraska, Blue Jasmine or American Hustle.

But, the shortcomings of Dallas Buyers Club do nothing to diminish the two beyond brilliant performances at its center, performances that should be celebrated.

Oscar Watch: The Wolf of Wall Street

In this series, I look at the major Oscar nominated films and their chances of taking home gold. It is more an analysis of the Awards than it is the film’s quality, though some commentary on that is also included. Enjoy!

And now for something completely different. The Wolf of Wall Street is essentially director Martin Scorsese’s version of a frat-boy comedy. That should tell you whether you’d enjoy the film, or whether it should win Oscars.

It’s a solid accomplishment, but easily the most polarizing movie among the bunch. I think audiences (and critics) are only willing to go so far with a patently unlikable protagonist. And, clocking in at three hours, Wolf tests the limits of good taste and patience.

I’ve heard multiple tales of walk-outs after about the first hour or so, not necessarily due to the movie’s excessive vulgarity (though that is likely a factor) but because of the fact that paying audience thought they had seen all the movie had to offer.


Wolf’s comedic elements likely make it a breath of fresh air for Academy voters, but that alone does not deem it worthy of taking home gold.

That assertion is mostly correct. Which is why it’s strange to see the movie nominated in prestigious categories such as Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Terrence Winter’s script is certainly one of the most vulgar, over-the-top pieces to ever be nominated in a writing category. It’s so lowbrow, it’s actually shocking to see it competing against screenplays such as Before Midnight and 12 Years a Slave.

And yet, maybe that’s the point. After all, maybe Oscar voters can only take so much dour, earnest drama. Wolf’s nominations are like an adrenaline shot to the competition. And the film can be quite funny. Or maybe it’s Scorsese’s name that brought the film higher in the minds of voters, which made it seem much more important than it actually is.

Not that a movie has to be “important” to win Oscars, but I can’t help but feel the Academy is slumming it. There is an obvious exception, and that is Leonardo DiCaprio’s nomination for Best Actor. It’s the very definition of a stacked category, one where multiple “favorites” will be vying for the prize. But I’m throwing my chips in for the long-suffering DiCaprio, who has never won despite multiple nominations. I don’t think he’ll ever do better than his livewire, completely off-the-wall performance as Jordan Belfort in Wolf, so why not just give it to him now?

Jonah Hill’s Supporting Actor nomination seems a bit of a joke compared to the competition, but, given the film’s length, he probably gets more screen time than the other nominees (and is thus more “supporting,” technically speaking). Still, shouldn’t the fact that we get to see his (prosthetic) penis earn some sort of disqualification?

My intention is not to simply complain about the film, which I did not hate, but to simply wonder at the Academy’s standards. When considering Best Picture nominees, I’d have a hard time believing that The Wolf of Wall Street is better than the magnificent Before Midnight, or even an overlooked gem like Mud. Yet, grossing more than $100 million, Wolf is one of the more popular Oscar contenders. Sadly, “popularity contest” is a term we hear combined with “Oscar” much too often.

Oscar Watch: Gravity

In this series, I look at the major Oscar nominated films and their chances of taking home gold. It is more an analysis of the Awards than it is the film’s quality, though some commentary on that is also included. Enjoy!

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity soared higher than most expected, and is now widely considered the greatest blockbuster-style entertainment in a decade. As such, expect the film, which is nominated for 10 Academy Awards, to see plenty of gold come Oscar night.


Gravity is destined to sweep Oscar’s technical categories, but could sneak in and take home Oscar’s top prize.

The last truly great crowd-pleasing blockbuster, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, took home a whopping 11 Oscars in 2003, including Best Picture, a first for a fantasy film. Gravity certainly could sweep this year’s awards ceremony, but I’m predicting a performance similar to last year’s Life of Pi.

Pi had some early Best Picture buzz, but ended up losing out to Argo, 2012’s prestigious historical drama. Thus continued the trend of the technically audacious crowd-pleaser losing out to the prestige picture (see: The Artist vs. Hugo, The Hurt Locker vs. Avatar, etc.). Still, Pi took home 4 awards, including Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Score and Best Director for Ang Lee.

That Best Director win is particularly important, as Gravity looks poised to repeat not only a technical sweep, but also a Best Director win. Cuaron won at the Golden Globes, and has been seen as the frontrunner ever since. Not only is he richly deserving, but he would also be the first Latino filmmaker to win the award, and the Academy likes breaking historical barriers such as race.

The film is a shoo-in for the sound and visual effects categories, but the other big question is Sandra Bullock lead performance. As Ryan Stone, a woman whose lost-in-space adventure reveals some deeper anxieties about loss of faith and the ability to go on in a world that seems cold and indifferent to our existence, she provided an expertly emotional and physical performance that she’s never come close to before. Bullock did win an Oscar for her role in The Blind Side, and this role is much better. But, the acting categories are particularly stacked this year, and she has to go up against frontrunner Cate Blanchett and hot star Amy Adams. Many other years, I think Bullock’s award will be a given.

But Gravity will likely lose the night’s big prize to this year’s prestige picture, 12 Years a Slave, and Ann Thompson at Indie wire explains why.

“I argue that the reason that 12 Years a Slave will prevail over all countervailing trends is that the Academy thinks about how they want to be represented to the world. It’s not just what movie they like best. It’s what movie they want to like best.”

Nonetheless, Gravity remains a richly rewarding experience that deserves any and every award it scoops up.