I am picky about movies—I tend only to see the ones that have gotten critical acclaim, which means I spend the most time watching movies in the latter half of the year. Some years I see everything nominated for Best Picture, but not this time. I don’t want to see Her because the whole premise of it creeps me out. I won’t even talk to Siri, so the idea of falling in love with a computer is just… *shudder*. And despite my abiding love for Leonardo DiCaprio, based on what I’ve heard about The Wolf of Wall Street, I don’t think I’d like it. However, I did see all the other Best Picture nominees.
Out of those nominees, my favorite, surprisingly, was Philomena, which I hadn’t heard a whole lot about before I saw it. Out of the movies I saw that were not nominated for Best Picture, my favorite was Saving Mr. Banks.
Here are my thoughts on last year’s movies, in no particular order.
This was intense. VERY intense. It’s a thriller in which two young girls disappear from a quiet Pennsylvania neighborhood on Thanksgiving. A mentally challenged young man who drove an RV in the neighborhood where the girls were last scene is questioned, but ultimately released. Then the father of one of the girls (Hugh Jackman) takes matters into his own hands, kidnapping the man and torturing him to try to get information out of him. Meanwhile, a detective named Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) searches for the kidnappers in a more conventional way.
I really liked this movie, even though one of the friends I saw it with figured out the ending pretty early. Some things about that ending still confuse me, but the writing is excellent (it’s so literary that I thought it must be based on a book and was surprised to find out that it wasn’t), there’s gorgeous cinematography, and I think Hugh Jackman should have gotten more recognition for this role than he has.
In a lot of movies that are shown in 3-D in the theater, the 3-D can be superfluous, but this is the kind of movie that was made for it. I don’t think watching it on DVD at home, minus the objects floating around in space, would be as interesting. Overall, it’s a good movie, but I’m kind of surprised that it’s gotten as much critical acclaim as it has. It’s a very simple story and the characters are kind of flat—George Clooney is basically playing George Clooney as an astronaut (Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s Golden Globe crack about how the movie’s about “how George Clooney would rather float off into space and die then spend one more second with a woman his own age” was priceless) and Sandra Bullock’s character’s one distinguishing characteristic is that she had a daughter who died.
It’s hard to find good romantic comedies these days, but this is one of those rare gems. Even rarer is that it’s a love story about two people in their fifties about to become empty-nesters. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a divorced masseuse who, at a party, meets a woman (Catherine Keener) who becomes her new client and her friend as well as a man (James Gandolfini) whom she begins dating. Things are going well until she realizes that her new friend is her new boyfriend’s ex-wife. She doesn’t reveal what she knows to either of them and is unable to stop listening to her friend’s complaints about her ex-husband—“She’s like a human TripAdvisor!” she says at one point.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, famous for her work on TV, is great in her first, and hopefully not last, lead role in a film. Sadly, it was one of the last films that James Gandolfini completed before his death last year. It turns out the man famous for playing a brutal mobster was also great at playing a very sweet, regular guy, and it’s a shame we won’t be able to see any more of that.
I adore Tom Hanks, so I’m a bit biased towards anything he’s in, but this movie is another in the win column for him. Since it’s a true story that only happened a few years ago, obviously you know how it ends, but that didn’t prepare me for the last five minutes of the movie, where we see the captain crying in shock and covered in other people’s blood as the medics examine him. On the basis of that alone, Hanks should have gotten an Oscar nomination. Barkhad Abdi, as the leader of the pirates, did get a nomination, well-deserved.
12 Years a Slave
I liked this movie, but actually not as much as I thought I would. The main reason why is something that sounds so insignificant if I say it but really did matter to me—I thought the movie didn’t show us enough of Solomon’s life before he was a slave. There’s been a lot of commentary on the light this movie has shown on the horrors of slavery, but I thought that with the lack of humanizing details about Solomon, it became too much the story of slavery and not enough the story of Solomon Northrup, therefore turning him into more of a symbol than a person.
I don’t know. I haven’t heard this criticism anywhere else, so maybe it’s just me. Even so, it is definitely well-done and worth seeing.
All Is Lost
I was kind of wary about seeing this one. I mean, there’s one character in the whole movie and almost no dialogue and the entire thing is about him trying to survive on a sinking boat. I’d heard that it was best to see on the big screen, and I can see how that would be the case, but it was pretty compelling even when watched at home. Robert Redford plays the guy on the boat. We never get any backstory on him at all—not what he’s doing out there, nothing about his family situation, not even his name. But even so, you’re rooting for him all the way, even as things seem increasingly hopeless.
I finally saw this after hearing about it for months, and it was wonderful. It has all the best elements of the classic Disney movies—great music (“Let It Go” is the best Disney song in many, many years), cute animals and comic relief (a reindeer named Sven and a snowman named Olaf who dreams of summer, in this case), and romance, although it takes a backseat here. With this and Brave, Disney has put a positive spin on the princess craze by writing princesses who are strong and independent, and this movie has two of them, sisters Anna and Elsa. I love that it’s about sisters and the love they have for each other—I can’t remember the last movie, animated or otherwise, I saw that had sisters at the center of the plot. And it cleverly turns the love-at-first-sight fairy tale trope on its head by pointing out how insane it is to think you’re in love with someone you don’t even know.
Saving Mr. Banks
To quote what a friend of mine posted on Facebook when the trailer for this movie came out: “Emma Thompson? Good. Tom Hanks? Good. Mary Poppins? Gooooood.” I love Tom Hanks, as I said, and Mary Poppinswas like the movie of my childhood, so I was prepared to like this movie. However, I ended up loving it even more than I thought I would. I am shocked that Emma Thompson didn’t get an Oscar nomination. As PL Travers, she’s perfect at showing her persnickety, proper side as well as the hurt and vulnerability she carries with her from her painful childhood. Colin Farrell is also great in flashbacks as her loving but unstable, alcoholic father. And I was also surprised to see what other famous faces popped up here—BJ Novak as songwriter Richard Sherman, Paul Giamatti as a chauffeur.
I actually didn’t like this as much as I thought I would. It’s got great acting all around, interesting and hilarious characters, and plenty of ridiculous 1970s hair. Plot-wise, though? It kind of lost me in the middle. I just couldn’t bring myself to care about what these people were doing or who was scamming whom by doing what. I wonder if it would have been better or worse if they’d stuck more closely to the true story it’s loosely based on. Still, it’s fun, and who wouldn’t want to see Jennifer Lawrence accidentally blow up a microwave?
August: Osage County
This is the kind of movie that’s enjoyable while you’re watching it but leaves you uncomfortable when it’s over. Like most movies based on plays, it’s very talky, and the plot is basic dysfunctional-family-comes-together fare. Some characters are better developed than others—Meryl Streep’s painkiller-addicted matriarch and Julia Roberts’ bitter oldest daughter are among the more developed, while Juliette Lewis’s breezy optimist sister comes off more cartoonish. The acting is terrific, but it’s the kind of movie where absolutely nothing is resolved at the end and you’re left wondering what the point of the whole thing was.
Dallas Buyers Club
This was really good. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto are both excellent as, respectively, Ron Woodruff, a homophobic rodeo enthusiast whose HIV diagnosis leads him to find and sell alternative treatments to the harsh AZT he’s prescribed, and Rayon, a transgender woman with AIDS who becomes Ron’s unlikely friend and business partner. From what I’ve read, it takes a lot of liberties with real life events, but it’s still a great story and both McConnaughey and Leto deserved their Oscars.
This was actually really sad, which I wasn’t expecting. I think I thought it would be more of a Woody Allen comedy, but while there are funny moments, it’s more of a tragedy about the downfall of a Wall Street wife named Jasmine French after her husband goes to prison. I’ve never seen A Streetcar Named Desire, but from what I know about it, this story has a lot of parallels to it. Cate Blanchett is fantastic as Jasmine, who, even as she does her best to start life anew, ultimately finds herself longing for the riches she’s lost. You root for Jasmine even as her behavior is cringeworthy and slightly insane, and when you finally learn the entirety of the backstory that landed her in her predicament it’s surprising and heartbreaking.
I loved this movie, and I actually didn’t know a whole lot about it before I saw it. That’s how I recommend going into it, because although I knew the basics—it’s based on the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman searching for the out-of-wedlock son who was taken from her and put up for adoption—I’m glad that I didn’t know anything about how that search unfolded. So I won’t tell you much except that it turns out to be simultaneously sad, heartwarming, and life-affirming. Judi Dench is great as the stubborn, loving, occasionally hilarious Philomena, as is Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who’s helping her.
I feel like I shouldn’t have liked this movie, but for some reason I did. It has all the markings of a pretentious hipster movie—it’s in black and white for no discernable reason, it’s about a not-very-successful twenty-something modern dancer in New York City, the main character is a bit self-absorbed. And yet…it worked for me. Maybe because it’s about a twenty-something’s struggles with friends, career, and figuring out where her life is going, which I can certainly relate to. And also because Greta Gerwig as Frances is pretty damn charming. I didn’t think How I Met Your Dad sounded like a great idea, but I’m more interested in it now that I know that she’ll be starring in it.
The Spectacular Now
It didn’t knock my socks off, but this is an above-average teen movie. It’s very intense—not all about high school social status and the prom, although those are both part of the plot. And the two main characters, played by Miles and Shailene Woodley, actually seem like real people and not teen archetypes. It’s been compared to Say Anything…, and while it’s not quite that good, it is definitely one of the better teen movies I’ve seen recently.
Short Term 12
Wow, this was really good and incredibly underrated. Brie Larson plays Grace, a caring but professional twenty-something supervisor at a foster care facility for teens who’s dating one of her coworkers. Grace comes from a troubled background herself, and the arrival of a new girl at the facility combined with Grace’s recently discovered pregnancy force her to confront her past. Everything about this movie feels very real, and Larson, who reminds me a bit of Jennifer Lawrence, is outstanding. I’m excited to see what else she’ll do in the future.
I have to say that I’m a big fan of the McConaissance. This and True Detective prove that his Oscar wasn’t a fluke, and while this movie has a lot of flaws, McConaughey’s performance is largely what left me with positive feelings about Mud despite those flaws. He plays a mysterious man who two fourteen-year-old boys from Arkansas find living in the woods. It’s a coming-of-age story more than anything else, and sometimes the screenwriter seems to have consulted the coming-of-age and the Southern stereotype pages in the screenwriting bible too much. (One of the boys is named “Neckbone.” Really?) It’s also the worst kind of Bechdel-test failure, where the female characters are mainly damsels in distress and really exist only as romantic objects. And it leans on the predictable side. But McConaughey brings a certain warmth to his character that permeates the movie, and in the end the story is moving without being too sappy.
Not my favorite, but I enjoyed it. Bruce Dern is an old guy who’s convinced he won a million dollars in a sweepstakes and Will Forte is the son humoring him by driving him from Montana to Nebraska where he can supposedly collect his prize. He learns a lot about his dad along the way, through lines that are mostly sweet and subtle but that sometime err on the side of telling and not showing. And what’s up with both this and Frances Ha being in black and white? Schindler’s List is pretty much the only modern movie that can get away with that. But even so, this is worth a watch.
This is the true story of Oscar Grant, who was shot to death by the police in a subway station in Oakland early on New Year’s Day 2009. Unarmed black man being killed—it’s sadly an all-too-familiar story, but this movie shows you one of the humans behind the statistics. Oscar certainly had flaws, which the movie doesn’t gloss over—he spent time in prison and cheated on his girlfriend—but we also see him as a caring son, grandson, friend, boyfriend, and father to his four-year-old daughter. It’s a bit heavy-handed at times, particularly in one fictional scene where he takes care of a dying dog, but still an excellent movie (and the rookie director, Ryan Coogan, is only twenty-seven, which makes me feel like a slacker). I saw it while donating platelets, and despite knowing how it would end (it’s a true story, so it’s not exactly a secret), I got all teary and the nurse was like, “What movie were you watching?”
I may have spoken too soon when I said there weren’t any good romantic comedies anymore, because this is the second great one I’ve seen recently. Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, aka Bill Weasley from the Harry Potter movies) is told by his father (played by Bill Nighy, whom I can never think of as anything but Billy Mack from Love Actually) that the men in their family can time travel—specifically, they can travel to places in the past that they’ve been before. Tim uses this power to help him meet Mary (Rachel McAdams), and surprisingly, the movie doesn’t end with their relationship. Instead, it’s more concerned with the day-to-day of their lives and the ways that it changes when Tim uses his power to redo things.
Yes, it’s on the sappy side and yes, there are some plot holes, but the characters are so kind and likeable that I came away feeling moved. There was a moment in the middle when I thought Tim might do something awful, but it never happened. And it’s actually a love story not just between Tim and Mary, but also between Tim and his dad and, to a lesser extent, Tim and his sister. There are some really lovely scenes where Tim bonds with his father.
I knew that this hadn’t gotten great reviews, but I thought I might like it anyway. Like the main character, I’m about to turn thirty and worked as a lifeguard as a teenager (one summer at a condominium complex much like the one in this movie). Plus, Kristen Bell! But it was actually pretty boring. One cliché that grates on my nerves like no other is teenagers dying to get out of their nice suburban town, which is found in abundance here. I feel like with some changes, the story—Bell’s character leaves her job as a city journalist to move back in with her parents and resume the lifeguarding job she had as a teenager—could have been a lot more compelling. Instead, it all just feels self-indulgent and low-stakes—and considering that there are subplots about statutory rape and teen suicide, that’s saying something.
The Book Thief
I love the book so much, but I wasn’t quite sure what a movie version would be like. And this was…not bad, but I feel like it was just a story that didn’t translate well to the big screen. In the book, for instance, you never forget that the story is narrated by death, but in the movie, death only speaks at the beginning and end. They made some weird choices about what words should be in English and which should be in German, too, and overall I think it was a better story to read than to see.