2014 Best Picture Nominees Reflect Strong Year in Cinema

The 86th Academy Awards will air on Sunday, March 2 at 7pm.

The 86th Academy Awards will air on Sunday, March 2 at 7pm.

Jamie Ferguson

The 2014 Oscars will be awarded on Sunday, March 2
The 86th Academy Awards air on Sunday, March 2 at 8:30pm.

Although the Golden Globes and SAG awards are some of the highest forms of acclaim in the film industry, no award is as prestigious as the Oscar. Every year, the Best Picture nominees are a mixed bag, but more often than not, a handful of films stand out as clear winners for the distinguished award. However, when the nominations were released in January, the nominees for Best Picture demonstrated the strength of the past year’s films, with a large number of genres and stories covered across the board. The lineup includes comedies, a biopic, a historical drama, a black-and-white film, and a landmark in visual effects, and there were few snubs or surprises in the list of nominations. Although Best Picture is a notoriously difficult category to win, even the acting categories are stuffed with heavyweights, with particularly strong contenders in Best Actor and Best Actress. The 86th Academy Awards indicates the strength in recent cinematic history, and almost every single Best Picture nominee has a good shot at taking home the Oscar.

American Hustle is one part Silver Linings Playbook, one part The Fighter, and one part 70’s glam, and leads the Oscar nominations (along with Gravity) with 10 nods. Director David O’Russel combined the award winning leads of his last two films for a vibrant but flawed  story about the Abscam scandal of the 70’s. Best Actor nominee Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld is a conman who, along with his partner Sydney Prosser (Best Actress nominee Amy Adams), is forced to work with FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Best Supporting nominee Bradley Cooper) on an operation to take down corrupt politicians.  They get wrapped up in a world of corruption and scandal, not to mention drama in their personal lives, and as the opening titles note, only “some of this actually happened.” It is vital the rest of the film needs to be viewed through this lens, because as a representation of the Abscam scandal, the facts do not always add up. The story lines are often illogical, but the performances are great across the board, and the film is driven by its interesting and eclectic cast of characters. Jennifer Lawrence’s Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role as Rosenfeld’s unhinged wife rounded off a sweep in all four acting categories, which emphasized the performance heavy nature of the film. So as long as it is not viewed as a history lesson, American Hustle is an entertaining addition to an often glum Oscar lineup.

Out of all of the popular actors around today, none are quite as good as portraying an everyman as Tom Hanks in. Although Captain Phillips is a biopic, he uses his effortless comfortable and relatable presence to make the thrilling true story of 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama feel like the tale of an everyday hero, an ordinary man who is thrown into an extraordinary situation. The crew of Somali pirates that hijack the boat is led by Muse (first time actor and Best Supporting Actor nominee Barkhad Abdi), and of all of the pirates, he is the only one with a distinct personality of his own; however, the focus of the film is on the depiction of the story, not the character development. The drama is done so well, the lack of three dimensional characters is forgettable, because as soon as the action starts, it rarely lets up throughout the rest of the movie. The crew and the pirates make their way from the huge ship to the claustrophobic lifeboat throughout the progression of the film, which only heightens the suspense that flows through the majority of the movie. Although it is certainly more of a good guy/bad guy story than the true story must have been, Captain Phillips is a frantic, tense, and exciting example of a biopic done right.

Based on a true story, Dallas Buyers Club follows Best Actor nominee Matthew McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof, a homophobic man who tests positive for HIV (and later, AIDS). Unsatisfied with the treatments the hospitals can offer, he tracks down unapproved medications in Mexico to save his life. He decides to buy the drugs in bulk to sell back in America to other AIDS patients in the form of the Dallas Buyers Club, and what starts off as a way to make money turns into a story of compassion and acceptance. Woodroof is a deeply unlikable man—not only is he extremely homophobic, he is also racist, selfish, rude, and sexist. But as time goes on, he begins to accept his fellow patients (who are largely gay or transgender); in particular, he forms an unlikely friendship in his transgender business partner Rayon (a brilliant and unrecognizable performance by Jared Leto). She is a touching and unforgettable character that is never once portrayed as comic relief, and Leto steals every scene Rayon is in. In addition to overcoming his own prejudices, Woodroof battles the FDA in pursuit of continuing the group to save both himself and its members. His story of perseverance, kindness, and strength makes it a timeless tale that transcends the 1980s time period that it is set in.

Despite its short length, Gravity certainly packs a punch—not only is it a brilliant film, but it is also an incredible experience. When disaster strikes, medical engineer Ryan Stone (Best Actress nominee Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Mattt Kowalsky (George Clooney) are left untethered and alone. The visual effects are some of the best arguments to keep making 3D movies, as the beautiful shots of Earth from space and the vast emptiness of the galaxy around it never once look like they were made on a computer. Though many criticize the film for its scientific accuracy (of course, details most did not notice until they read them on the Internet), the film is not about space; instead, it is about human emotion and perseverance, a theme that goes far beyond the vicinity of those who have been lost in space. Sandra Bullock is the film’s brilliant heroine and is well deserving of her Best Actress nomination because even at her weakest moments, she is a palpable force. Though  Clooney appears in a supporting role, most of the film’s weight falls on to her shoulders, and her ability to carry that weight is the reason why Gravity is not only her best performance of her career, but one of the best films of 2013.

Spike Jonze’s Her takes place in the near future, and follows Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly, a lonely man who spends his life writing deeply personal letters for other people who do not have the time to write their own. Following the end of his previous marriage, the heartbroken man turns to the companionship of Samantha– not a woman, but a high-tech computer operating system that acts as a responsive individual. Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is sweet, sensitive, and funny, and their relationship blossoms from friendship to love. Though the story is an obvious representation of society’s growing obsession with technology, it also comments on the loss of real relationships in modern society, as well as how people are affected by loneliness and heartbreak. It is romantic but also creepy, beautiful yet sad. In a world where everyone is plugged in, people are remarkably disconnected, and Her both comments on what our world is like today and what it will quite possibly become.

Nebraska is a bittersweet story about the elderly, alcoholic Woody Grant (Best Actor nominee Bruce Dern) who believes that he won a million dollars after receiving a sweepstakes letter in the mail that most people recognize as  a scam. He takes his reluctant but well-meaning son David (Will Forte) as well as his wife (Best Supporting Actress nominee June Squibb) on a journey to collect his winnings, and the story that follows is equal parts funny and heartbreaking. They eventually return to Woody’s hometown in Nebraska, and while David does not want the word to get out about his father, the rest of the family enjoys the spotlight; however, the rest of Woody’s extended family as well as the town start to hover around him like vultures, driven by greed and waiting to strike on the old man. Nebraska is shot completely in black-and-white, and the cinematography heightens not only the timeless feel of the story, but the cold and ruthless world around a defeated man. Director Alexander Payne does not portray Woody or his family as particularly good or bad; instead, they are messy and complicated, and build a simple but poignant story about family in one of the most bittersweet films of the year.

Based on a true story, Philomena chronicles one woman’s search for her son that spans over half a century. After getting pregnant as a teenager, Philomena Lee (Best Actress Nominee Judi Dench) is sent to a convent in Ireland where she is forced to give up the parental rights to her son, and she is allowed to see him for one hour a week until he is adopted at the age of three (the most heartbreaking scene in the film). Years later, she meets journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) and shares her story, and the two set off to find what happened to her son. Philomena is touching but also funny, and the balance between Martin’s professional skepticism and Philomena’s optimistic faith provides an unlikely dynamic that carries the entirety of the film. For a woman who had reason to be heartless and cruel after her son was taken away from her, she remained humane and forgiving, which is more than can be said about most. Though the film often tiptoes into dangerous territory in its attack on the Catholic church, it is above all a powerful and resonating story of morality and faith.

Over the last decade, Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese have formed a partnership beginning with 2002’s Gangs of New York. Since then, the two have collaborated on five movies, the fifth (and arguably the best) being 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. The film is a lavish portrayal of excess gone very wrong, and it pushes the envelope throughout its lengthy three hour duration with its over-the-top use of drugs, sex, and language. Although his often gloomy filmography suggests otherwise, Best Actor Nominee DiCaprio shines in one of his only comedies as Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who makes millions through fraud and corruption on Wall Street.  The extravagance of the film is not for the faint of heart, as it is a continuous loop of nudity and drug use (there are also over 500 uses of the f-word throughout the film). But for those willing to take the risk, The Wolf of Wall Street is a funny and entertaining thrill ride that warns viewers how greed can take over one’s life.

Although historical dramas have dominated the Oscar ballots since the beginning of cinema, slavery still remains a scarce part of the entertainment industry due to its uncomfortable position in American history. However, 12 Years a Slave provides a brutal, unforgiving, and true story that is often absent from dramatizations of slavery.  Its star is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man who is abducted and sold back into slavery. Throughout his twelve years of slavehood, he meets extreme, brutal cruelty in some of the most bitterly realistic scenes portraying slavery in American cinema. 12 Years a Slave’s honest representation of slavery is one of the strongest social commentaries in years, and the content of its potent subject  is extremely difficult to watch; however, it is also one of the most necessary films in a long time. Best Supporting Actress nominee Lupita Nyong’o shines in her first ever movie role as Patsey, a female slave who her slave owner (Best Supporting Actor nominee Michael Fassbender) gives unwanted physical attention, much to the dismay of his jealous wife.  The brutal nature of the film has intimidated audiences and critics alike, but its powerful, moving story is a special achievement that is missing from most modern representations of slavery.

As the name suggests, the best picture nominees are a representation of the year’s best films; however, it is not uncommon for great films to be snubbed or mediocre films to be nominated. But the nominations for the 86th Academy Awards are composed of a surprisingly powerful group of contenders, each with its own strengths that set it apart from the rest of the list. The strong nominees reflect an equally strong year for the film industry, as every single one of the nominations has a shot at winning. The race for Best Picture will certainly be one to remember.

Hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, the 86th Academy Awards air on March 2 at 8:30pm on ABC.