If I Were an Academy Member...
By Kim Hollis
March 1, 2014

No, we're not going to win an award. Or any money, either.

“If only I were voting…”

I think it almost every year as I hear the winners read during the Academy Awards ceremony. Last year, my pick would have been Silver Linings Playbook (though I at least don’t object to Argo). The prior year, I would have chosen Moneyball. I seem to be one of the few people who think The King’s Speech was a deserving winner, while I also believe that Gladiator is one of the worst Best Picture winners over the last couple of decades. Well, that and Crash. But everyone feels that way about Crash.

With the big show just a few days away, I’m taking this opportunity to talk through my own rankings of the Best Picture nominees. The good news is that I don’t really feel like there’s a bad winner among this set of movies. No matter who wins (and let’s face it; it’s going to be one of Gravity, 12 Years a Slave or American Hustle), I won’t have a reason to complain. Still, in my world, some movies are nonetheless more deserving than others, so…

1) Gravity – This brilliant film is one we’ll be talking about for years to come. While one could argue that it’s nothing other than an effects spectacle, I think it’s also a masterpiece of storytelling. Not only is the movie gripping and terrifying, there is subtle symbolism in the progression of the plot as well. With Sandra Bullock serving as the audience surrogate, her performance is critical to ensuring that we’re never lost, irritated or confused. Indeed, the audience sympathizes with her plight to the point that our hearts pound as her life is imperiled. Every element of the film is perfectly constructed, from the visuals to the sound to the cinematography to the score. It is exactly the type of film I always feel Oscar should reward (Titanic would be another such example) because it is both groundbreaking and significant.

2) Nebraska – And…I take a complete 180 from the grandiose Gravity to the quiet Nebraska. I’m a mark for Alexander Payne. The Descendants and Sideways would have been perfectly acceptable Best Pictures for me in the years when they were nominated (I *think* I might even choose Sideways for 2004, although I think The Aviator is probably the better selection overall). This is a beautifully acted film with a relatable story (son dealing with aging parent), with distinct cinematography and direction. Outside of Gravity, I think it has the best construction top to bottom.

3) Her – These days, I’m a lot more impressed with a movie that takes a chance and tries to do something different than I am with a pedestrian story told well. I truly loved the future world that Spike Jonze’s film created. It was just different enough on the weird side without being too over-the-top. Joaquin Phoenix is amazing, particularly when you consider that the bulk of the film has him interacting with nothing more than a voice. And as that voice, Scarlett Johansson makes us understand why Theodore develops feelings for her. I do think that the third act comes undone just a bit, which is just enough to push Her below Nebraska.

4) Philomena – I’m generally inclined to admire culturally interesting films and in particular, culturally interesting films set in Great Britain. Thus, even though I don’t know that Philomena is weighty enough for true consideration, for me it becomes elevated. I had already been interested in the plight of the Magdalene laundry girls in the past, and seeing the story of one such woman’s experience was impacting. The screenplay is tight and plays out like a mystery as well as social commentary. Judi Dench is tremendous, playing the type of role you don’t typically see her in, and Steve Coogan was quite possibly just playing Steve Coogan but still was impressive. If it had just a bit more heft, I’d have ranked it higher.

5) Captain Phillips – Paul Greengrass is a terrific director when it comes to helming taut, edge-of-your-seat thrillers, and Captain Phillips is no exception. Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi are every bit as excellent as advertised, and the editing in the film is fluid. I enjoyed every bit of the film and yet, because I knew that Captain Phillips would be okay in the end, I couldn’t really get emotionally invested. I think this might have been more interesting as a documentary. Still, it’s technically sound and extremely well put together.

6) Dallas Buyers Club – I’m not as dazzled by Jared Leto’s performance as most people are (he does get all the best lines to be sure), but Matthew McConaughey deserves every bit of praise he has received here. And I say that as someone who viscerally dislikes him as an actor. The film rides on his scrawny shoulders, and while it might be perceived as a film that deals with some weighty issues, I actually consider it to be pretty light. Yes, there is death and tragedy, but it’s whitewashed somewhat by being a David vs. Goliath type story. I actually waffled between ranking this higher but eventually decided that it’s just not substantial enough to deserve it.

7) American Hustle – Most of my compatriots dislike this film, but I quite enjoyed it. David O. Russell simply makes movies that I love (with the exception of The Fighter, which I liked well enough but was nothing special). American Hustle is an outrageous, over-the-top film with cartoonish, over-exaggerated characters, and almost every actor in the film (particularly Jennifer Lawrence) is doing outstanding work. Its biggest problem is how much it drags. For a movie that is mostly fun and involves a caper of sorts, it should be a lot more brisk than it is. I do think Oscar nominated films frequently suffer from a lack of good editing, and I find it pretty silly that this film is included amongst the nominees for the editing category. I do love that everyone was clearly having a lot of fun here, though.

8) The Wolf of Wall Street – I totally appreciate what Scorsese was going for here. I really do. But that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it. In fact, I found the film mostly oppressive. It is really hard to watch terrible people behaving badly for three hours with no reprieve. I believe that Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is one of his finest in his career, but once again, I think we have a movie here that was far too sprawling and unforgiving. I do think it’s a fascinating bookend with Goodfellas (a film I love), but I’d be happy to see Marty do something more in the vein of Hugo sometime soon.

9) 12 Years a Slave – I’m sure that readers have been wondering where the heck this film is on my list. I would hazard a guess that I’m among the very, very few people who have placed it at #9. I don’t really have a problem with the film itself. It’s a good historical story of extreme cultural significance. The acting is fine (Michael Fassbender is remarkable; the rest… okay). The set pieces are impressive. And while I understand that director Steve McQueen is using the brutality and violence in the film to prove a point that slavery was horrific, I already knew this to be true. This film was oppressive in a different sort of way than The Wolf of Wall Street, and in a lot of ways I find it very pedestrian as well. I’m frankly surprised at the accolades it has received.