Raja Sen in Mumbai
American Hustle, 12 Years A Slave and Gravity are the strongest contenders to pick up the Best Picture at the Oscars 2014.
It’s that time of the year again, and I’ve already gushed about how great a year 2013 has been for English movies.
We looked at the Best Supporting Actor, the Best Supporting Actress, Best Actor and Best Actress races already, and now comes the biggest prize of them all.
In a year crowded with films worth celebrating, the great ones that didn’t make it were Inside Llewyn Davis, Before Midnight, Frances Ha and Blue Jasmine. Shameful omissions all, but not that this narrows down the field too much.
Here are the nine Best Picture nominees for 2014, and everything you need to know about them so you can sound well-informed at a party:
What it’s about: Based very loosely on real life, David O Russell’s energetic comedy is set around a 1970s scandal wherein the FBI colluded with con-men to pull off sting operations on high-ranking politicians.
How good is it? It’s huge fun, with oodles of style and an ensemble cast that soars throughout this wild, wacky film.
In a year this crowded with cinematic excellence, however, it doesn’t deserve to head the field the way it is. Then again, should we be pleased that the Academy is choosing to reward a comedy instead of those ponderous films usually called Oscar-bait?
What are its chances? Very good indeed. It’s one out of two front-runners to pick up the trophy.
What it’s about: A real-life account of an American ship being captured by Somali pirates.
How good is it? It’s a very grittily made edge-of-the-seat film -- even though some Googling quickly makes it clear that it’s more rah-rah-America propaganda than reality.
Tom Hanks, as the titular Captain, is wonderfully restrained right up to the final few minutes of the film, where he breaks down and exposes us to just how much was at stake in this thriller.
What are its chances? Low. About as low as the pirate’s chances of survival.
Dallas Buyers Club
What it’s about: About an AIDS patient, who takes the Federal Drug Administration lobby head-on and campaigns to get the right medicine for those in need.
How good is it? It’s a surprisingly spry and uplifting film, boosted by a bravura performance from Matthew McConaughey in the lead.
There’s a fair bit of joy to be found here, and every member of the cast -- McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner -- is evocatively good.
What are its chances? Not great. It’s a fine film which has ended up becoming a McConaughey vehicle, and its best chances lie in the acting categories.
What it’s about: A woman lost in space.
How good is it? It’s a jawdroppingly stunning visual achievement, and never has IMAX appeared so transcendent.
It’s more experience than film and well worth gazing at multiple times, even, thanks to director Alfonso Cuaron’s vision.
That said, it’s also badly written, with clunky dialogue, an unnecessarily blockbustery background score and a fair bit of cliché, so it might be easier to trip on the film when its muted.
What are its chances? Pretty solid, actually.
It’s not a front-runner, but it’s a popular and universally acclaimed film.
Gravity has lost momentum over the last few weeks, but it stands right behind American Hustle and 12 Years A Slave; if votes are divided between those two leaders, expect this space epic to scoop up the win.
What it’s about: A man who falls in love with his operating system.
How good is it? It’s sublime. It’s the best and most original film among the nine nominees, a science-fiction romance handled with great elegance by director Spike Jonze.
Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johannson both deliver very special performances, and make this a film well worth falling in love with.
What are its chances? Slim, alas.
Simply speaking, it’s too beautiful for the Academy to wholly appreciate. And that’s fine.
What it’s about: An old man on the verge of senility convinced he’s won the sweepstakes.
How good is it? A touching and lovely rumination on life, hope and age, Alexander Payne’s black and white film rests on the back of flawless performances from veterans Bruce Dern and June Squibb.
It’s a smart film that deserves much applause.
What are its chances? Low. It’s the kind of year where being nominated is as much as a small art-house wonder can hope for.
What it’s about: The true story of an old woman whose baby was given up for adoption half a century ago, and her attempt to trace the child.
How good is it? It’s a very sweet and hard to resist film with Dame Judi Dench at her most loveable.
That said, it’s a tad too basic and predictable to rub shoulders with this bunch of nominees.
What are its chances? Very low. It’s a film many of the Academy’s older voters will like, but to champion this over the likely winners would be a wasted vote.
12 Years A Slave
What it’s about: A faithful adaptation of a memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped into slavery in the antebellum South.
How good is it? It’s an extremely well-crafted and sincere film that relentlessly shows us the brutality of the situation, a situation cinema scarcely confronts.
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender are stunning, but coming as it does from director Steve McQueen, the film appears too simple in its manipulations, too obvious, too unsurprising. (In short, Django Unchained was the better slavery film.)
What are its chances? Great. Steve McQueen’s film has been winning award on award leading up to the Oscars, and it’d be foolish to bet against it now.
The Wolf Of Wall Street
What it’s about: A faithful adaptation of a memoir of the same name by Jordan Belfort, an alarmingly amoral stockbroker, drug-addict and horrible hedonist.
How good is it? Tremendously so.
Martin Scorsese changes a red Ferrari to a white one to suit Leonardo DiCaprio’s swaggering narrative, and the film gallops through mountains of excess, never once shirking from lunacy.
It’s part cautionary tale, part horror story, part comedy, part drug-use documentary… and a film that hits us right between the eyes.
What are its chances? Low, alas. It’s too strong, too radical, too harsh, a 200-proof film for an Academy that likes everything watered down.
Refusal to spoonfeed its intent is being controversially looked at as the ludicrous assumption that Scorsese endorses Belfort’s behaviour.
But grow up, Academy. The bad guys don’t always finish last.