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Best Pictures? Watching Oscar’s Nominees

By Richard A. White | Dr. Richard A. White is associate professor of theology and chair of the theology department at Benedictine College. He received his master’s degree in Christian thought from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and his doctorate in religious studies from Marquette University. Dr. White was received into the Catholic Church in 1991. He was a contributor to Catholic for a Reason, edited by Scott Hahn and Leo Suprenant.

It’s that time of year again! The 2014 Academy Awards ceremony is upon us complete with nine movies nominated in the “Best Picture” category. I offer the following reflections on the films ranked from highest to lowest merit. I have made a conscious effort to avoid spoilers, so read without fear. This was written before the Academy Award ceremony on March 2.

1) Philomena

On the surface, this might seem like a movie hostile toward Catholicism, for it paints a rather unflattering picture of an Irish Catholic convent. The nuns there took in young women who were pregnant out of wedlock and placed their children up for adoption, sometimes against the wishes, it seems, of the birth mothers. The film, directed by Stephen Frears, is based on true events. Philomena, brilliantly portrayed by Judi Dench, was one of those mothers and years later she teams up with former journalist Martin Sixsmith, played by the always entertaining Steve Coogan, in a quest to find her son. To dismiss Philomena as anti-Catholic because of this plot line would be misguided.

The real dramatic focus of the film is not on the shenanigans of the nuns (these are briefly shown), but on the beautiful friendship that develops between Martin and Philomena, made completely believable due to the fine chemistry between Coogan and Dench, and sustained by a sharply written and intelligent screenplay.

Martin does carry a bias against Catholicism and he sees Philomena’s plight as yet another reason not to believe in God and confirmation of his distrust of the institutional Church. But the big surprise is, Philomena herself is a devout Catholic and bears no hard feelings toward the nuns. Indeed, the very woman Martin would expect to be estranged from the Church turns out to be one of the faithful. It is this paradox, no small source of frustration for Martin, which reveals, not the corruption of the Church but rather the real nature of its holiness.

That holiness doesn’t originate from us — and we can make a long list of sins committed by the institutional Church, by her popes and priests, by monks and nuns, by the rank and file parishioners, by ourselves — but rather finds its source in God. For how else could Philomena offer unconditional forgiveness to the nuns who wronged her save by the gift of charity? This charity lies at the bosom of our faith and the film suggests that the reality of this love is somehow linked, mysteriously, with the Catholic Church and her followers. Through charity, Philomena’s simple words of forgiveness faithfully represent Jesus Christ on earth — his ministry of forgiveness continues through her — and provide the best answer to Martin’s skepticism this side of the second coming. Notwithstanding a few doses of unwelcomed political correctness sprinkled here and there, I found Philomena to be absolutely delightful and it’s my choice for best picture of 2013.

2) Her

Spike Jonze’s Her tells the story of Theodore, a professional “letter writer,” played exquisitely by Joachin Phoenix, who falls in love with the interactive operating system on his computer, the “Her” of the title.

While the premise may sound like a non-starter, the film invites deep reflection on modernity and the meaning of love in a technology saturated, narcissistic culture. Having gone through a painful marriage with Catherine, played by Rooney Mara, why shouldn’t Theodore have a relationship with Samantha (the “chosen” name of the operating system)? In fact, Theodore discovers some advantages of this arrangement: Samantha is there and gone again at a click of the button, “she” offers a degree of intimacy through conversation lacking in his marriage, and “she” always “lives” for him — not for “herself.” It is even possible, Theodore discovers, to simulate a physical relationship over the earphones which, seemingly, never leave his head.

And as Theodore roams the streets of Los Angeles talking to Samantha, we observe countless others similarly transfixed to their earphones. In an age where traditional notions of family and marriage are disappearing (recently, I read that a young British woman married a roller coaster), director Jonze raises the question, who are we to judge?

Indeed, in a culture which no longer believes in the unity of body and soul, a relationship with an operating system makes perfect sense. Gender in such a culture is reduced to a subjective preference, a nonessential, and should not dictate our understanding of relationships and marriage. In the world of Her, the body does not, as John Paul II affirmed, “reveal the person” (gender thus implying man’s vocation to make a gift of self through an exchange of persons) but rather it’s the other way around: the person stands in a relationship of autonomy over the body reducing the “exchange of persons” to just one more life choice. Such is the kind of reflection that Her invites and I commend Spike Jonze for providing such a thought provoking cinematic experience.

3) Dallas Buyer’s Club

Matthew McConaughey should receive the cinematic chameleon award for his portrayal of Ron Woodroof, a hard-edged cowboy like figure, in Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyer’s Club. He lost so much weight for the role that frankly, I did not recognize him. Woodroof is an AIDS patient in the mid-80s who is given only one month to live, but after receiving non-approved drugs in Mexico, is given a new lease on life. He uses his reprieve to begin a “Dallas Buyer’s Club” for other AIDS patients by importing illegal medications from all over the world.

While his venture is a huge success (not withstanding unwanted intervention from the FDA and IRS), the main focus of the film, and the reason for its attraction, is the inner transformation of Woodroof. Through the crucible of suffering, we see him transition from a selfish, first-class bigot to a caring human being capable of great acts of love. His evolving relationship with Rayon, a transvestite character, played by Jared Leto, is particularly touching. Vallee’s depiction of the world of AIDS is brutally realistic. There are several explicit acts of sexuality in the film, but unlike in Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, they are not played for laughs and are not intended to titillate, but rather, they serve to highlight the tragedy of Woodroof’s isolation and loneliness. Among the best picture nominees, this film stands out like one of Woodroof’s unapproved medications on the shelf — I felt hesitant taking it in at first, but it gave healing in the end.

4) Captain Phillips

This film tells the true story of the 2009 hijacking of a US cargo ship by Somali pirates and the kidnapping of its Captain, Richard Phillips. Tom Hanks turns in yet another yeoman performance as Captain Phillips and is surrounded by an outstanding cast, especially the actors portraying the Somalis. This is a gripping tale that director Greengrass takes his time with, skillfully weaving together the story from the perspective of both the Somali pirates and the crew of the US Maersk Alabama.

There are no surprises at the level of plot, as the film winds down to its inevitable and tragic climax. What is intriguing is that Greengrass provides insight into the motivations of the Somalis through a series of conversations between Captain Phillips and their leader, Muse, played with gusto by Somali actor Barkhad Abdi. We learn about the Somalis’ utter destitution and desperation — and with Captain Phillips we even gain some sympathy for them — but we are never led to excuse their actions or to downplay the evil perpetuated. The sequence of events depicted seems completely realistic and we feel like witnesses to the tragedy as it unfolds. This is testament to the skill of Greengrass; he has given us a top notch thriller, and at the same time challenges us to look at the larger context of the story for a fuller understanding of why such hijackings happen.

5) Gravity

This is a movie about a shuttle mission gone terribly wrong. First time astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky, played by George Clooney, fight for their lives after disaster strikes during a spacewalk. The film is appropriately called “Gravity” because we float through outer space with Stone and/or Kowalsky for most of the movie, negotiating various hazards and dodging space debris. Director Cuaron offers a unique cinematic experience and the special effects are impressive, especially when experienced in 3D.

Cuaron makes liberal use of metaphor in the film as Stone’s quest for survival belies a need, and yearning for, new birth, a new embrace of life — and we see metaphors of new birth throughout the movie. Bullock delivers a good performance in Gravity, but it is largely a one dimensional performance, and I do not regard it as “best actress” fodder, even though Bullock was nominated for that award. By the same token, she carries the movie and it’s well worth taking the ride with her.

6) Nebraska

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a bold movie, as it was filmed entirely in black and white and largely in Madison County, Nebraska — not the location of your typical Hollywood blockbuster. It tells the story of Woody Grant, an elderly man played by Bruce Dern, who after receiving a bulk advertising mailing, becomes absolutely convinced that he has won a large cash prize if only he can make it to Lincoln to claim the award. His son David, played by Will Forte, reluctantly agrees to drive him there from their home in Billings, Montana, but they stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne on the way. Here most of the “action” takes places as father, son and mother, played by June Squibb, have a series of encounters with family members, old friends, and miscellaneous townspeople, all of whom want to cash in on Woody’s (imaginary) good fortune.

Payne is a master of capturing the unique aura of a time and place, for example, the California wine culture in his movie Sideways or the Hawaiian milieu in The Descendants. There are some priceless characterizations of small town life throughout the film but the screenplay, while at times intelligent and witty, is often raunchy and degrading. Furthermore, Payne vacillates between lovingly observing small town life with sympathy for the characters (here the film is at its best) and exaggerating the eccentricities of this life to the point where the characters become stereotypes (here the film strays).

Shortly after seeing Nebraska, my sons and I watched David Lynch’s The Straight Story, another film about small town life in the Midwest. The contrast was striking. Lynch gives an unfiltered portrait of his subject matter by resisting the temptation of exploiting stereotypes, and the film comes off as absolutely true. Payne’s movie does not reach this level of truth, but it’s still an entertaining reflection on “life in the fast lane” in Nebraska.

7) 12 Years a Slave

Based on true events, the film tells the nightmare story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-civil war south. Understandably, this is an excruciatingly difficult film to sit through but it’s well worth the effort. Chiwetel Ejiofor carries the film with his skillful portrayal of Northup. And it’s our identification with Northup that prevents the movie from becoming just a generic depiction of the horrors of slavery.

To be sure, these horrors are shown without any sugar coating and we walk away from the movie with a powerful sense of how degrading the sin of slavery is and how it necessarily contradicts human dignity. And yet, this strength, by the end of the film, becomes a kind of weakness. Sometimes less is more. By depicting these atrocities almost non-stop, director McQueen gives the audience little time to breath and to take in the subtleties of character offered by these fine actors and actresses.

But even though the film feels one dimensional at times, the movie expresses more than a negation (slavery is bad), it is also an affirmation of the dignity of the person and the possibilities of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable suffering. The film has an impressive cast although British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (aka Sherlock Holmes) is a minor distraction as a southern plantation master!

8) American Hustle

The film is a fictionalized telling of a real 1970s FBI operation (the “Abscam” scandal) and the mood and atmosphere of the late 70s is skillfully captured. It is also fun to see Adams, Cooper, Renner, Lawrence, and especially Bale undergo dramatic cinematic makeovers to fit into the 70s milieu. Conman Irving Rosenfeld, played by Bale, and his partner Sydney Prosser, played by Adams, are enlisted in a scheme to frame corrupt politicians.

But aside from a few funny moments, the screenplay is not interesting enough to carry the movie, and while the film aspires to be a con picture, details of plot are simply not credible. For example, with millions of dollars at stake, are we really to believe that for a planned meeting between a fake sheik and some mafia bosses, that the FBI would hire a Hispanic man to impersonate the sheik rather than a person of Arabic descent? The resulting scene is almost laughingly bad — we are supposed to think it’s funny that the Sheik cannot speak Arabic while being questioned in Arabic by a mafia kingpin, played by none other than Robert Deniro!

But even Deniro speaking in Arabic could not save this picture. The film lacks the depth of director Russell’s previous effort, Silver Linings Playbook, but unfortunately, also lacks the entertainment value of that movie. Given the money the film has grossed at the box office, and the accolades it has received from critics, perhaps the title “American Hustle” is apropos.

9) The Wolf of Wall Street

The “Wolf” here refers to Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a larger than life New York stockbroker convicted of fraud related to stock market manipulation.

While we observe some of the market schemes which eventually lead to Belfort’s incarceration, director Scorcese spends most of the film’s three hour running time depicting the moral bankruptcy that underlies the “Wolf’s” rise and fall. A nonstop barrage of out of control drug use, unbridled materialism, and in your face lewd behavior, a veritable parade of debauchery, is on display — which made for a long and tedious three hours. But all of this was necessary, Scorcese might rejoin, to show the tragic effects of greed. Is that really so? Must we be subjected to three hours of nihilism in order to see that nihilism is bad?

While the message may be positive, Scorcese’s approach does not make for good film art; there’s nothing subtle about watching an orgy unfold, much less watching one for the third time and many of these scenes are played for laughs by DiCaprio. Less really is more. What is lacking is nuance in Belfort’s character, the sense of tragedy over the course of three hours and not just the last fifteen minutes (compare with Marcello Mastroianni’s sad character in Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece La Dolce Vita). Instead, I walked out of the theatre feeling as used and manipulated as one of Belfort’s Wall Street clients, and with an unmistakable sense that a little piece of my humanity had been chipped away.

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