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A Look at the Oscar nominees

Wednesday, Feb. 26 | By Constance Lyons
A still from the writers Best Picture pick, Nebraska.
What separates a great (or at least, excellent) movie from the good- to- very good? All are expected to have well-written, articulate (at least, as far as is appropriate to the characters) scripts; to be visually arresting in a way that suits its subjects; to be backed by a sound track that supports and enhances the action. But the best films engage our hearts as well as our minds, and to an equal degree. We should leave the theater significantly exhilarated (or cast down), eager to discuss the experience in conversations lasting more than a couple of minutes.

Before the Academy Awards presentation March 2, here are my thoughts on the “Best Picture” contenders.

Last year two movies met these requirements: first the superb “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which surprised and delighted while storming our hearts simultaneously with grief and wonder. And second, “Lincoln,” a film as grand in scale and eloquence as its eponymous subject.

This year’s nominees don’t reach those heights (I haven’t seen “The Wolf of Wall Street,” so it is outside of this discussion.) Nine good to very good films, but each, with two possible exceptions, falling short of the very best. So here they are, in no particular order. All of them are well worth a look, despite the above reservations.

Philomena: A young Irish girl, illegitimately pregnant, is sheltered by a houseful of nuns, who then take her baby and sell him to a wealthy couple. Late in life she embarks on a journey to find him. Judi Dench is, as always, excellent as the mother, but the film is heavy on sentiment and short on brains.
Her: The opposite side of the coin. Seeing them as I did back to back is a jarring experience. A writer falls in the love with the operating system of his computer (yes, you read that right). The OS has a name (Samantha) and a voice (the wonderful Scarlett Johannson) and they embark on a cyber-affair. Clever, diverting and funny, but it’s hard to be terribly moved by the technical high jinx.
Dallas Buyers’ Club: A rampantly heterosexual homophobic drug addicted electrician is diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live. Put off by the pretensions of conventional medicine, he embarks on a quest for alternative treatments, succeeds and sets up shop as a purveyor of the illicit and/or experimental drugs that have kept him alive. The movie is kept afloat by the intensely energized performance of Matthew McGonnahey, who lost 50 pounds to play his character.

Gravity: Lost in space with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Probably the most visually beautiful movie of the year; it must be seen in 3D to be appreciated. A fledgling astronaut (Bullock) is marooned in space when her mother ship is destroyed: Clooney exits early on, and she has to find her way to another space station and then back to earth on her own. Terrifically suspenseful and exciting; it is not, however, as ponderously meaningful and symbolic as many critics think it is.

American Hustle: A pair of con artists (played bt Amy Adams and Christian Bale) are strong-armed by the FBI into participating in an Abscam sting, in the hope of catching some members of Congress taking bribes. The plot is complicated by Bales’ entanglement with his wife played by the endlessly talented Jennifer Lawrence (might Lawrence be the new Meryl Streep?). Very funny, very fast, with a great script, wonderful clothes and music.

Captain Phillips: A mercantile ship is hijacked by four Somali pirates. Tom Hanks, always solid, likeable and reliable, plays the captain of the ship. Exciting, suspenseful and engrossing but not especially memorable.

12 Years a Slave: Wake up, Miss Scarlett, honey, we’re not at Tara any more. Why has the dreadful reality of slavery been so studiously ignored by movie makers? A free African American, living in Saratoga, N.Y., is tricked and abducted by two men who sell him into slavery. What he then experiences is unrelentingly horrific. The beauty of the Louisiana bayous heightens the horrors of the brutalization of the slaves who inhabit them. In one devastating image, the bodies of lynched slaves hang from the branches of a moss-hung tree, swaying dreamily in the wind like some horrific hellish fruit. Chiwetel Ejiofor is terrific as the main character. With some major stars is supporting roles (Look, there’s Brad Pitt! Isn’t that Paul Giamatti?). The first of my two exceptions to the above strictures.

Nebraska: (The second). An elderly gent gets a notice in the mail: he has won $1 million, and all he has to do is present his winning number (and buy a few magazines). Taken in by the scam, he sets out to walk from Montana to Nebraska since his wife refuses to drive him. One of his sons agrees to take him, and they embark on a journey of discovery, of themselves and each other and their family and former neighbors. But there is more here than meets the eye, symbolically; the film has mythic meanings beyond its surface amusements, which are considerable (see sidebar). Bruce Dern, in a wonderful performance, imbues his character with cantankerous humor and, ultimately, a kind of grandeur.

And the winners are:
Best Picture: “Nebraska”
Best Actor: Bruce Dern
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, of Woody Allen’s un-nominated “Blue Jasmine”
Best supporting actress: Jennifer Lawrence
Best Supporting actor: Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
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